Sermons

 

June 18, 2017, 2nd Sunday After Pentecost

 

  

Dr. Chuck Borum

 

Report and Reflections on Haiti Medical Mission Trip

 

  

Old Testament: Psalm 96 - New Testament: Matthew 25:31-46

 

 

 

Report on our medical mission to Haiti .

 

  

Mission dates: June 4- 11

 

  

Team members:

 

  

Dr. Chuck Borum, Dr. Lee England, Jonathan Borum as pharmacist, Judy Moody R.N., Michelle Mayfield, EMT, Tony Haines from Madison, MS, Vince Saia and his 18 yr. old daughter Annabelle from Memphis, TN, Matt Goddard from Boston, Massachusetts. (Joyce Borum had planned to go but developed appendicitis the week before departure). Our team also included Haitian translators and other workers and a nurse on the God’s Promise staff named Betty Joseph.

 

 

Main objective: Provide general medical care to patients in Cite Soleil, Haiti clinic sponsored by Haiti Outreach Ministries. Also provide care in the very first week of clinic in a new facility in the community of Germaine, Haiti sponsored by a new nonprofit called God’s Promise in Haiti (organized by Tony Haines).

 

  

We treated 50-70 patients each morning in Cite Soleil and 30-40 patients each afternoon in Germaine. Total of 521 patients in 5 days. Based on typical visit to a physician and pharmacy in USA a value of about $200 per patient or $100,000 total. That’s what your efforts and donations helped to provide to the very poor people that we served. We saw children and adults. Conditions ranged from minor to life threatening. Coughs, joint pains, intestinal and skin parasites and infections, hypertension and diabetes to name a few common conditions.

 

  

Also each morning at the God's Promise compound in Germaine, VBS was provided for over 100 children and over 1500 meals were served.

 

  

We were housed and fed at the Eucalyptus Guest House. Expenses for that were raised and donated by Tony Haines in his annual round trip bike ride from Madison, MS to Natchez by way of the Natchez Trace.

 

  

We did enjoy some evenings out to enjoy some Haitian meals in Port au Prince and of course a Saturday at Wahoo Bay Beach. Team members paid their own way for those treats as well as most of the cost of their own airplane fare.

 

  

As a medical team we don’t directly preach the Gospel. But we consider that we are showing and living the Gospel as we provide care. The medical care is provided in the context of the churches supported by the organization Haiti Outreach Ministries and the Vacation Bible School supported by the organization God's Promise in Haiti.

 

  

We stayed safe and healthy for the most part. We did have one mentionable incident: Dr. England was greeted one morning by one of the brown guard dogs they let out to patrol the grounds at night. He was bitten on the leg. He was fortunately able to force the dog to back off by using his hard bound golfing book as a makeshift weapon. No broken skin.

 

  

We all had good adventures in Haiti and all made it home tired but safe.

 

  

So that’s the report of what was done.

 

  

Reflections and observations:

 

  

Ernso Jean-Louis is the owner of the guest house where we stayed. He is a businessman as well as a pastor. One morning at breakfast I overheard a conversation that he was having with Tony Haines. Tony was describing a situation he had had buying several large tents for the God’s Promise compound. He had gotten shorted a number of tent poles and the manager of the business where the tent was sold was reluctant to quickly supply the missing poles or to refund the money. Tony had had to have a very serious talk with him and threaten to go to the owner. The problem was finally resolved after tense negotiations. Ernso confirmed that doing business in Haiti was often like that and even as a pastor he had had to use rough tactics to take care of business exchanges in the past. He explained that many businessmen in Haiti were only concerned with the profit margin. In other words they had no “kingdom vision”.  That’s not just in Haiti.

 

  

“Kingdom vision”

 

  

That term really struck me that morning.

 

  

Jesus preached a lot about “the Kingdom of God”. I googled that term and found a list of 63 verses.

 

  

N.T. Wright says in his book “Surprised by Hope”   “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

 

  

Tim Keller: “Only if you are part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness.”

 

  

Matthew 26: 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?.......... 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.’

 

  

As reformed believers, we understand that we are “Sanctified by God’s grace through faith alone. But it is a faith that is not alone.”

 

  

James 2: 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

 

  

All of this refers to “building the Kingdom of God”. In other words “having Kingdom vision”.

 

  

Charles Spurgeon , the great Baptist preacher from England said: “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.”

 

 

Our mission field is not just places like Haiti. Our mission field starts right here where we worship together. We are part of the priesthood of believers. We minister first to each other. Then our next mission field starts as soon as we exit these doors. With our family, in our work, in our pastimes and hobbies. In the community of Natchez. We “follow Christ and serve everyone.” This can only happen when we are reading and studying the Word. This happens when we are in community with each other.

 

  

Please continue to take part in this church’s activities, bible studies and worship services.  Our Mission unit has plans to engage all members in Mission activities. Find something that you are called to do. Develop your Kingdom Vision.

 

  

Amen

 



 




May 28, 2017, 7th Sunday of Easter

 

Rev. Noelle Read


Following Christ. Serving Everyone.


Gospel Lesson: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


Who wants to be a millionaire?  Remember that game show from a few years back where  each knowledge question takes the contestant to the next level. The more certain you are of all categories of information, the farther you progress toward the prize-one million dollars; that final treasure that says that you have made it. The crowd goes wild, cheering you on and your mind races to think of all the things you can buy with that cool million! You have achieved the mission impossible! You have proven yet again….as great game show winners before you…knowledge is power.


And we do quest for knowledge, don’t we?


We surround ourselves with books; list our educational accomplishments on our resumes, and marvel at the amount of pure, raw information that the web provides at our fingertips. Anyone who has surfed the web looking for a specific piece of information has undoubtedly spent uncountable hours of their life clicking and scrolling through list after list of hits through blurred eyes; Many of my web-surfing adventures have left me frustrated, but more often, they have left me overwhelmed in pure, amazed bewilderment at the amount of knowledge there is out there in cyberspace. You know the old adage, “The more we learn, the more we learn how little we know.”


Perhaps you, too, have encountered the feeling evoked by this old adage hitting home; the overwhelming sense of smallness when confronted with the truth that there is just too much knowledge to comprehend. ..the paralysis of frustration.


Today’s gospel lesson pulls us out of a world where knowledge and certainty guarantee a treasure and reward and into the lurking shades of gray. It is as if the thought to be solid rock crumbles beneath our feet with each step. Just when we think we have it figured out, wham, someone with all the knowledge changes it; someone other than you, holds all the cards.


This morning, Jesus—through the pages of scripture—invites us to step through to the world where things are hidden from the wise only to be revealed to infants and children; those who are supposedly the least knowledgeable.


In the world of Jesus, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the lepers are cleansed, the poor get something…good news and the undeserving get promises, people like you and me. Human logic just doesn’t get it. Let’s reach back into our childhoods; remember The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, where by walking through an ordinary coat closet, the children find themselves in a strange new world? Or maybe you remember The Wizard of Oz where through a tornado, Dorothy of Kansas is transported to a place over the rainbow called Oz where trees talk and monkeys fly.  Though made in different years, these movies all play with a common theme. Call it relativism, post-modernity or individualism…it means the same thing. What seems certain is up for grabs. You know, what we really long for, what we really thirst for, what we really seek, is truth.


The Pharisees in today’s passage were looking for the same thing we do. They just sought it in the use of and strict adherence to the law. They wanted solid ground. They wanted certainty. They wanted to claim truth for themselves. They were trying, like we do, to make sense of the world. They made assumptions which Jesus condemns, “because John eats nothing. The Pharisees say, “He has a demon.” And, because Jesus eats and drinks, they say he is a glutton and a drunkard.”  Bad assumptions. No room for faith.


Into the calm pool of empty legalistic law and easy answers, Jesus lets loose a drop of disruptive truth.


What is truth? Are you listening?


“No one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal himself.”


Theologian Karl Barth puts it this way: “Knowledge of God takes place where divine revelation takes place, illumination of man by God.” Revelation is the unveiling of something that was once hidden.. We may call them on an ordinary basis—aha moments—when things suddenly seem clear when just moments ago, we were struggling to see our hand through the fog. Think about your own aha moments for a second. Was it at Montreat during a youth conference? Standing over a loved one who was dying in the hospital? Maybe you were on a real mountain top soaking in the view of God’s creation. Or maybe you were just sitting on a couch listening to a conversation go on around you. Wherever you were, it was not by your own doing, but rather from the Divine. Revelation is God’s choice, God’s gift, God’s decision and God’s divine initiative. God’s revelation transcends what we can pin down, capture, or control.


Well, we know we humans do seek to know God. We have gathered here today to not only worship God, but because we also seek even a glimmer of God. We learn that God made sure humans could not find God through our own brilliance for it is God who finds us; IQ gives us no foot up on knowing God. 1 Corinthians 1:15-30 says that God chose deliberately to use ideas the world considered foolish, a plan despised by the world, to make those considered great by the world, to be nothing.


The truth is that if we want to know God, we look to Jesus Christ. It is in and through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit that God lifts the veil of mystery to show us not only God’s nature, but God’s will and purpose. Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God; final, not meaning that God will never again act in the world for from scripture we learn that God continues to move and act. Rather final meaning, Jesus is the end all, beat all. Jesus is the decisive, fulfilling and unsurpassable witness of God. It is through the revelation of Jesus Christ that all other revelations of God are seen.


So in the conversation of what is truth over and against relativism and individualism—Jesus is the world view. Jesus is the rose-colored glasses. Jesus if our radio station though which we get our news and Jesus is the solid ground upon which we step when the ground crumbles beneath us.


I invite you to trust in this promise. I’ve seen it, have you? Maybe you have missed it, as I have many times. It is like expecting someone to come in the front door and they really come in the back door and catch us by surprise.  God, much to my dismay, seldom invests in billboards, especially the neon blinking ones. Jesus was the closest thing to such a billboard, and even those in his day didn’t get it.


So…Who wants to be a millionaire? Who cares? We, as the church, have more to offer the world than a million dollars. We are witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ which engages us in a new vision of life: a life where we can grow through the uncertainties. And last of all, there are more important things that God is waiting to reveal to us.


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


 

 




May 14, 2017, 5th Sunday of Easter

Rev. Noelle Read


Following Christ. Serving Everyone.


Old Testament: Psalm 148

 

New Testament: Galatians 5:16-26


What was going on in the church in Galatia?  Believe it or not, factions had formed with the newly formed church.  They were especially miffed with each other because some wanted to keep hold of the old ways of doing things and others wanted to let go and move forward.  One of the significant issues plaguing this church was that of circumcision:  which males had been and which one's had not?  Traditionalists were competing against the Progressives over the question “Must one first be circumcised to be a Christian?”  Could Gentiles who were outside the boundaries of Jewish culture now be included without having been circumcised?  To this, Paul knows what sword to fall on and writes a resounding YES!  Legalistic adherence to rules does not make us Christians; faith in Jesus Christ and his redeeming death and resurrection does---period.  It was a hard pill to swallow for many but Paul lays out the summation of the law earlier in the letter, “love your neighbor as yourself”.  It is the foundation of the Church.  We are, in the words of one author, “A Fellowship of Differents.”   We come from all different walks of life, political persuasions, and backgrounds. We are all different! Paul changed lives for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ and broadened the understanding of the Gospel of Jesus dying for our sins.

 

How does Paul broaden it?  He lays out that our response to the gospel is important.  We can’t just sit as forgiven people in Christ...we have to do something!  Not to earn our salvation but  in good reformed thought...we are to live in joyful response to what God  has done for us in Jesus Christ!  Our lives are to be a living, breathing testimony to the power of God, a living sacrifice and we are to be walking beacons of light or as the great reformer Martin Luther said, we are to be little Christs running around.

 

Rather than trying thinking about the easiest ways to determine how we are different and how we are going to fight about it, there is one action that serves the church more than another: “Love one another as yourself.”  Knowing why you love yourself will determine why you love others.  When we reflect on how messy our own lives and thoughts are, we are more sympathetic to the messiness of others' lives.  And others who know how imperfect they are, can sympathize with us and love us.  That's what the Church is; broken people searching for grace from their God and his people.  Beggars on the doorstep of God asking each other where to get bread; the bread of life in Christ.

 

Paul lays out that we are to live by the spirit of God rather than be ruled by our flesh and points out a list of ways we each fall short!  The NIV version of the Bible says “fornication, impurity (those things that make us unable to go before God) wantonness, enmity, strife, jealousy, uncontrolled temper, self -seeking, dissension, heretical division, envy, witchcraft, drunkenness and carousing.  All these separate us from being faithful to God as all are human focused.  Instead Paul lays out ways to to live by the spirit which are God focused and then flow to others....love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control.  Now which person or group would you rather be around?  Which way would you rather live in community?

 

Today is Mother's Day; a day we celebrate our mothers and are celebrated by our children.  This day is both joyful and yet painful for many.  Being aware of this I want to focus on certain aspects of motherhood, being a mother myself and of course having a mother as all of us here do.

 

My mother's love language is service.  She showers her children and grandchildren with gifts, meals, cuddles, going the extra mile every time.  She was and is a great teacher of those hard to learn life lessons like making church a priority, make friends that are uplifting rather than harsh or demanding, of course she taught me to respect others, how to drive, how to handle money and most of all how to love.  Over the past 5 months of my father's illness and death she has yet again taught me the importance of faith which has gotten all of our family through our loss.  She is a rock.

 

You see God puts people, not just mothers, in our lives to love us and to teach us.  To be signposts if you will for that which is good and pleasing to God.  The Bible is full of such people of faith of course.

 

Our Wonderful Wednesday Bible Study class has been studying Paul's letter to the new church in Galatia found in Asia Minor.  Paul is one such person called by God to be like a parent...to love, teach and guide.  In his letter to the Galatians Paul is trying to address their problems yet uplift them and teach them the real Gospel of Christ and what it means to live as a Christian community.

Paul continues to try to show us the way, to retell the gospel of Jesus and to challenge us to live out our calling as God's chosen people for His sake and glory.  Amen.


 




April 23, 2017,  2nd Sunday of Easter


Rev. Noelle Read


Following Christ. Serving Everyone.


Scriptures:


Old Testament: Haggai 1:7-11; 2:20-23; Psalm 100

New Testament: John 20:24-25


The prophet Haggai knew this truth, too. Haggai, people are both good and bad. Haggai had seen the best and worst of his people.  He was part of the collective memory. He had seen his people and had himself, experienced the brutal humiliation of exile. His people had been viciously conquered, their cities and towns leveled and most who survived were taken away to live in foreign lands. The people doubted like Thomas if God was real.  Worst of all for Haggai’s people, their temple, the habitat of their God, was destroyed. Was God dead? I dare say, that some of those Israelites thought so. The temple in Jerusalem was the center not only of their worshipping life, but it was the steadfast mark of their very identity as God’s chosen people. The temple was everything.

Today’s text reveals a great ill in our human condition. Those who returned from exile did flit and flutter to put things back in order upon their homecoming, turning their attention towards the rebuilding of the temple; their priorities seemed right on target. But after a while, their minds wandered, they lost interest, perhaps they just couldn’t find enough volunteers—but the just sorta, hmmmm—forgot about that temple and let it continue to lay in ruins. Their attentions were diverted to their own houses and lives and not the house of God and their life together; which was to be their priority from the very beginning of the covenant God made with them.

Denny and I have a running joke about the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and even the minor prophets like Haggai: You forgot about God.  It caused you to misbehave. Stop it.”  And so it continues!

Recently the session and we as a congregation have reflected on our values, our priorities, and our  goals.   It is healthy to take stock of our lives and our life together every so often.  Our memories shape who we are and our faith shapes who will become.   they are what mold us and bond us as family, friends, and as a  congregation. Life is best lived in loving, supportive relationships.

It is to this kind of malaise that the prophet, God’s prophet, Haggai speaks up. He proclaims a drought, exposes the warped priorities and calls God’s people back to covenantal faithfulness. You could say, “He lit a fire under them. He put their feet to the fire.” Whatever cliché you want to use, Haggai exposed it all, told all and then called all back to God. Their blessing of being returned home soon became a curse. Their common priority should have been that temple. In scripture, we learn that we are blessed to be a blessing.  In short, our mission is to Follow Christ by serving others. And if Haggai’s prophecy reminds us not to allow apathy to distract us from God’s call, then the story about Thomas is a reminder that doubt can be equally distracting.  Faith has to be our top priority and it has to be practiced together.  The temptation to wander is as natural as our doubt.  But, with faith—believing that an invisible God is active—we live as if.

If we were asked to list our top 3 priorities, what would they be? I confess that an ongoing struggle for me is my lack of ability to prioritize. Everything takes on the same priority—urgent—especially if it is urgent for someone else. Well, this isn’t a way to spend a day, always putting out fires because it leaves no room for creativity, inspiration, reflection, planning, that elusive life goal of balance. I dearly believe that God desires balanced lives for us; God gives us an outline of what our priorities should be in scriptures—in my own words, they are:

  1. Worship God in all we do.

  2. Seek relationship with God everyday.

  3. Follow God through the teachings of Jesus Christ.

  4. Serve others as we have been served.

By now, your wheels may be turning, trying to figure out your own priorities. I hope so. I also hope that the leadership of this congregation will question the priorities of this church as Denny and I prepare to depart.  What can help us figure out what our real priorities are rather than the ones we hope are ours? We can look at how we spend our money and our time. We can look at the depth of our relationship with God and with others. We can step back and survey the landscape of our lives and ask 2 questions:

  1. What in my life would Christ be proud of?

  2. What in my life would Christ be embarrassed of?

Take heart—the people did hear Haggai and the temple was finished and Thomas finally believed.  May we all do the same.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.



 

 

March 26, 2017, 4th Sunday in Lent

 

Rev. Noelle Read

 

Hat Rack

 

Old Testament:   Deuteronomy 5:1-21

 

New Testament: Matthew 19:16-26

 

      

 

This is the power of God’s voice: to create light and darkness, to order the world with days and nights; to pepper the once formless void of the earth with life; to begin a covenant with a Jewish motley crew and to order life in such a way that obedience to God’s laws enriches human relationships and community. Then God speaks the Ten Commandments which we have recited and heard throughout our lives since childhood, serve as parameters of His intention for all of us as we attempt to live with God and one another in holy ways: you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not use the Lord’s name in vain. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not kill. You shall not lie. You shall not covet.


In the passage from Matthew, we witness the convergence of many different selfish interests: the religious authorities who are upset that Jesus’ teaching upset the status quo; the political authorities who want to appease the mass of people; the silent women who watch from a distance as the gears of injustice crush another human being; the disciples who perhaps felt justified in being absent because they were too afraid to take Jesus up on the offer to take up their crosses to follow him. With our concern for our own safety and comfort, we have pushed Jesus into the hostile world to be crucified so that we may live to see another day. This is the story of Lent and is part of our salvation story as hard as it may seem.

 

The Ten Commandments are the entry into this vicious cycle of violence with which we are familiar. A man of God speaks out against the powers that be and is crucified for his convictions. I want to suggest this morning that we are called to follow these footsteps of faith. The Ten Commandments have been the centerpiece of faithfulness in history, with little appreciation for why they are the centerpiece for appreciation.

 

There is no question that every interpretation of Scripture is self-interested. We want to hear what we want to hear. Every interpretation is in some way, meant to preserve the status quo. But here we are with the first four commandments referring to faithfulness to God and the latter six referring to faithfulness to each other as covenant people. The Ten Commandments are meant to put parameters on our ability to take by force what is necessary for divine living as well as the life of our neighbors. You see? They are places to hang our hats, so to speak, for our relationships—all relationships.

 

The minister who was doing our premarital counseling introduced us to the idea of marriage by saying, “When you get married, you become one family…it’s just a question of which one: his or hers…mine or Denny’s. He was pointing out that each person in the partnership wants life and a household arranged a particular way. The reason why I want things arranged in a particular way is because that is typically how I did it in my family. Denny, too. I’ll never forget the post-honeymoon shock of realizing that Denny and I were making our families bigger. We had come back to our Indianapolis apartment after a week-long honeymoon. We got our bags unpacked and went to bed. The shock would arrive somewhere around 7 the next morning. I put on a bathrobe and was making a b-line for the bathroom when I find myself robbed because that new family member was in the bathroom. 

 

As Christians, we are bonded together in a marriage of sorts. We are called to love, honor and cherish each other, as our wedding vows say. What a difficult task it is at times to do that with people with whom we chose to be in a relationship. But for the Christian, we are bound to each other not by our choosing but by the Baptism embracing us into the cause of one faith imported to us by One Lord, Jesus Christ.

 

Now, don’t make a mad dash for the door because you figured out that you were in the wrong place after all and you aren’t to serve the other people here. You are in the right place. God has called you here to talk about who we are not only in our personal relationship with Christ but also about who we are in relationship with each other. The Christian family makes family big…really big. The root of this family tree is Jesus Christ.

 

Christian community establishes ways and guidelines for ordering life together, like the Ten Commandments. Jesus Christ guides how we act as a collective whole. They are agreed upon standard operating procedures, if you will. They are expectations of what appropriate behavior is and what it is not. Life together is meant to be lived as followers of Christ: together, faithful, relentless and joy-filled. That’s what it is to be a Christian and a community. Amen.

 



 



February 19, 2017 - 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Rev. Noelle Read

Work at Reconciliation

Colossians 1:15-23


Jesus is the all in all according to our scripture reading from Colossians today. This morning's passage is a Christ Hymn to our Lord showering us with heavenly attributes of who Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  And what he came to do, to reconcile us totally to God through the blood of the cross.  This is good news!


But with such good news why do so many Christians make lousy human beings? Why are so many of us judgmental, unaware and defensive? Part of the answer lies in a failure to Biblically reconcile who we are as the fallen created creatures and who God has called us to be in the Kingdom of light to echo verse 12 of Colossians 1.


The Church in Colossae is not too different from our church today here and now.  It struggled without side influences like idol worship and other religions that were part of the city of Colossae.  Paul is urging the church to stand firm in its faith in Christ alone and in verse 23 makes the move that since we know the truth of the gospel of Christ.....that we have been redeemed, we are accountable to it. Wow...talk about marching orders.  Yet Paul is pastoral and encourages the early struggling Christians to be mature in their faith and to grow spiritually as well as exhibit the fruits of the spirit found in Galatians 5 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

  

I read an article this week on Belief.net about what a mature Christian is supposed to exhibit.  I want to share it with you.


  1. We anchor our lives in the love and work of Jesus.  We don’t divide our lives into “secular” and “sacred” compartments. Instead, we rather enjoy communion with Him in all areas of life—work, recreation, church and parenting. We position ourselves to practice His presence all throughout the day.

  2. We break the power of the past.  We can identify how issues from our family of origin like character flaws, ways of coping with pain and stress impact our current relationships and decisions. As a result, we are more reflective and open to minimize the negative impact of our past and live freely in the new family of Jesus.

  1. We listen to our anger, sadness and fear. We take the necessary time to experience and process these “difficult”, human emotions. Thus, we are able to express anger, hurt and sadness in ways that lead to growth and are helpful, not hurtful.

  1. We slow down for Sabbath. We regularly set aside a 24-hour period in which we stop work and practice Sabbath—setting a healthy limit around your paid and unpaid work. This rhythm of stopping, resting, delighting and contemplating God informs the structure of our week.

  2. We recognize our brokenness and vulnerability. People experience us as approachable, gentle, open and transparent. This is evidenced by the way we receive criticism without becoming defensive. We easily admit when we are wrong and freely talk about our weaknesses, failures and mistakes.

  1. We live out of our marriage or singleness.  One of our highest priorities is to invest time and energy to build a healthy marriage or singleness that reveals Christ’s love to the church and the world. Why?  It is a sign and wonder that points people to Christ.

  2. We receive limits as a gift. We have a realistic sense of our emotional, relational, physical and spiritual capacities. As a result, we can say no to requests/opportunities rather than risk overextending ourselves. We are profoundly aware that our limits are a key factor in faithfully fulfilling our God-given call.

  3. We engage in conflict maturely. We don’t avoid difficult conversations and are able to repair relationships (as much as it is possible) when they have been ruptured. Moreover, we can state our own beliefs and values without becoming adversarial.

  1. We refuse to judge the spiritual journeys of others. We are careful to take the “log” out of our own eye first—knowing we have huge blind spots—before removing the speck in another person’s eye.

  1. We make loving others well a high priority. We take the time to master learning new ways of relating as a Christ-follower. For example, we learn to speak clearly, honestly and respectfully, and how to enter other people’s world by listening deeply—without having to fix or change them.

  1. We embrace endings and losses as a fundamental way God works. We refuse to interpret endings as signs of failure. Instead, we rest in God’s goodness and sovereignty when disoriented by and confused by loss. We know that waiting attentively on God in the midst of disorienting change is foundational to our spiritual growth.


All of these are part of coming to terms with who we are and whose we are as Children of God.  They also are part of reconciling ourselves to ourselves as broken people and to other people in the name of Jesus Christ.  God wants us to grow and mature as Christians.  This is the difference of saying we are Christians and being a Christian in the entirety of our lives.  Amen.



 

 

January 29, 2017 - 4th Sunday After Epiphany

Rev. Noelle Read

Full Partners in Grace

Old Testament: Ruth 1:1-5, 15-22;  New Testament: Galatians 2:11-21


The word steward is a combination of two Old English words: style meaning enclosure or space and weord meaning trustworthy keeper or protector of another’s property. To be a faithful steward of God’s creation is to be entrusted with faithfully caring for God’s creation. As we go through the Scriptures this morning, keep in mind that the care of creation is not an abstraction; it is a specific commitment to changing lives because God has changed ours.


In the book of Ruth, we experience great tragedy which are comparable to many in this congregation. Consistent with many tragedies, there is the lingering question, “Where was God?” Where is God when a four year old child is stricken with an incurable illness? Where is God? Where is God after losing the love of your life? If one family within the book of Ruth wants to survive, they have to make the difficult decision to move, asking, “Where is God?”


In their town, which faces fewer and fewer economic prospects, decreasing family support and a lack of food, a family relocates. Accompanied by their sons and daughters-in-law, Elimelech and his wife Naomi move toward prosperity (or so they think). Those dreams of prosperity and joy are destroyed when tragedy strikes. The patriarch of the family dies. Soon thereafter, the deceased man’s sons die. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, are widows.


Naomi, once a mother and a wife, is only a shadow of her former self. She has suffered three losses. A fourth loss is her security. In the ancient Jewish culture, a woman’s security came from the male to whom she was married and the males that she had birthed. In one fell swoop, she lost her loves and she lost her social security in a manner of speaking.


In the ancient Jewish culture, a woman’s worth diminished as she aged beyond childbearing years. Additionally, without her husband, she has nothing to support her. Naomi has lost the ability to take care of her needs which extend well beyond basics like food and shelter. Where will she find her food and water? How will she fare in life with nothing? The term used frequently throughout the Old and New Testaments for someone facing her situation is “resident alien”. She resides in a place that she cannot call home.


Geographically and spiritually, she experiences the horror of being a foreigner without support and without hope. She tells her daughters-in-law to move on with their own lives. “God on!” she says, “I am of no value to you. I am old, a third wheel, a burden.” Orpah understands the cold reality that Naomi describes. Ruth, on the other hand, understands the cold reality and chooses a risky, altruistic, self-giving path. Her commitment mirrors God. In fact, through Ruth, we understand that God is moving through her to be a partner in grace. She chooses to partner with Naomi in the struggles of life: Ruth has made the commitment to ensure that Naomi’s life would be protected and fulfilling.


The book of Galatians is easily an appropriate addition because if we are not partners in grace, then we may opt to be factional or judgmental. Peter, who has historically eaten with Gentiles, a practice that was traditionally prohibited, is encouraged by the reign of Christ. But when a group of Gentiles come to eat at Antioch, Peter withdraws. Paul asks him, “Why do you eat with Gentiles in other places but not here? Why are you being a hypocrite?” We discover that the issue is not about eating; it is about Peter’s fear of the circumcision group. Factions have obviously developed.


In Ruth’s situation, we might say committing our lives is simply too impractical to give it any real attention. In the letter to the Galatians, we might let fear of other factions in the church direct our ways. Don’t let either one do so.


Christian Educator Rodger Nishioka shared this story in 2005. He had gone to a church in Des Moines, Iowa and met a couple who had recently married. They had both found very good jobs. As he spoke with the couple, he learned about their relationship with the church. One day the wife discovers a lump in her breast. She knew her family had no history of breast cancer, but she found it unsettling enough to call her doctor.


Her doctor examines the lump and is equally unsettled. He says, “I’m referring you to an oncologist.” The oncologist is suspicious and has a biopsy taken. It is breast cancer. This young woman in her late twenties has stage 4 cancer that has metastasized in her lymph nodes. She has a double mastectomy and begins chemotherapy.


One morning, after having undergone treatment, she got into bed. No sooner had she climbed into bed that she heard a knock on the door. “Hi, I’m a member of the Presbyterian Church you and your husband visited a couple of months ago. We heard what you are going through and have brought you a meal.” The young woman invited the 72 year old woman into her home. They share in conversation, prayer, you know: the things that make life meaningful. The older woman left. The next day, an older man came to the door and said, “I’m from that Presbyterian Church…um…and I’m supposed to drop off the meal for you and your husband. It’s easy to prepare. I wrote the directions. You can’t mess it up. But is you do, I’ll be in a lot of trouble with my wife.”


Day after day, for six months, older church members of a 65-member church made up primarily of older adults, brought meals and offered prayers. Rodger Nishioka said that at that moment the young woman professed, “Now I understand why people who get sick move home to be with family. But,” she said, “whether I live another 6 months or another year, I am going to die in this Church.”


We are called to be trustworthy keepers of creation. One way to do so is by taking care of the sick, the grieving and the hurting. Between Ruth’s commitment to her mother-in-law and Paul’s warning against hypocrisy and factionalism, the best way is Ruth’s way. There is no place for factions when the church is partnering with grace to be the light in people’s lives.


There is no such thing as a lone Christian. God calls us to partner together. We are not alone in this walk of faith. Thanks be to God!



 

December 18, 2016, 4th Sunday of Advent


Rev. Noelle Read

Old Testament: Exodus 25:1-9; 28:1-3; New Testament: Hebrews 5:1-10 and Matthew 26:26-28


I unashamedly have an agenda this morning. Now how many preachers are actually willing to admit that?! No, my agenda is not about taxes, globalization or even healthcare. Though it can lay the foundation for a perspective on them. No, mine is more fundamental. My agenda is for us to walk out of this worship service knowing that Christ is the high priest of God Most High and what that means for your life and the life of this community of faith. Whether you are a First Presbyterian Church member or a visitor, you are here this morning, to quote the Old Testament Book of Esther, “for such a time as this.”


Claiming the truth that Jesus Christ is the High Priest of God Most High is as basic to Christian Education as knowing what year Christopher Columbus discovered America, which was? Or what year the Declaration of Independence was signed. Or what year this congregation was organized. These are important to American history. There are certain things we just need to know to be Americans, but most importantly members of the Household of God.


Please take out your Bibles and look again with me at Hebrews 5:1-10.


First, what is the job of a high priest?


Verse 1 tells us that the priest is to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin. A Priest’s function belongs to the realm of worship and thus grace and salvation; just as a doctor’s function is for healing and a lawyer’s function is for mediation. In essence, a priest faces humanity on behalf of God; and on behalf of humanity, the priest faces God. The priesthood springs out of the deepest need of the human soul—to be loved, to be known, to be claimed, to be forgiven and to be home. Somewhere in our humble human condition, we know we have offended the Power to whom we are responsible and from whom we are created. Our hearts crave intervention and intercession. The priest is the mediator who is to meet and satisfy the claims of God and secure the pardon and the favor which we must have if we are to enjoy true relationship and fellowship with God.


Second, who is qualified to be a high priest?


Face it. In today’s job market, the focus is on being the best qualified for whatever job is open; competition is fierce. It is especially so for recent college graduates who are hitting the job market for the first time and those middle career people who were downsized and who are now over qualified for the positions available.


There are hundreds of articles on writing the best resume and the overall validity of a written resume. There are postings of the hardest interview questions and even articles on what job would best suit Harry Potter. Would he be better as a paramedic or a spy? Any employer will tell you that getting the perfect person for the job is essential to the whole organization. I doubt God would argue with this wisdom; for the perfect man for the job as High Priest was planned from the very beginning. Peter’s first letter in the Bible puts it this way, “He (Jesus) was destined before the foundation of the world but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” It goes on to tell us shy, “through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.” Hear that last part again, “so that your faith and hope are set on God.”


Verses 1-4 give us the essential job qualities of a high priest:


  1. The Priest must possess compassion and know human condition


  2. The Priest must be called by God.


Let’s look again at Hebrews 5. Who fits the above criteria?


Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is affirmed and reaffirmed as the obvious, perfect, unequivocal choice as the one and only High Priest of God Most High. No government, civic group or self-help book can fit the bill, for only Jesus is the fulfillment of the High Priest. He was of God, yet of human flesh. He was from the beginning, yet born in human time. He was obedient, yet also judge. He was the sacrifice on our behalf yet is the source of eternal, abundant life. This truth is what joins us as the body of Christ and with all the saints past, present and future. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!


In the letters of Paul in the New Testament, we read that we are indeed saved from our sins through Jesus Christ. But there is a catch; saving grace is not cheap. Yes, we are saved from, but always saved for, something else. Christ always sends believers out.


We love Christ because he offered his life for ours. Therefore, we can do no less than offer ours back to him. True offering is not about obligation or self-satisfaction but rather about relationship. In the case of faith, it is about Christ’s relationship with us and ours with Christ. We see this in our gospel reading from Matthew. Jesus is modeling offering, his own on the disciples’ behalf; all that he had worth giving, his very body and his very blood. Jesus offers not because he has to, but because he has loved the disciples and the world since its beginning.


How are we to respond to such an offering? The Bible speaks of works, deeds and repentance and to this resounding yes! Not for our own sake or to earn our salvation, but as an offering to him who offered all for us. The Christian’s motivations are humility, remorse, but most of all, gratitude and love. This gratitude and love should grip our very being and permeate the very fabric of our lives—not just here in worship—for worship is where we celebrate Christ’s offering for us and we, in turn, respond by our practice of offering it back to him. This gratitude and love should permeate every second of every day.


Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;

Praise Him, all creatures here below;

Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host;

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.


May these words be on our lips and may gratitude brim from our hearts. Amen.

 


 

 

October 30, 2016, 24th Sunday after Pentecost

Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans

 

Rev. Noelle Read

 

 Old Testament: Numbers 1:1-4, 32-34;   New Testament: Hebrews 9:11-15

 

Sermon: The Tribal Church

 

 

 

In June, Denny and I will celebrate our 17 year anniversary. The minister who did our premarital counseling told us point blank that, “When you get married, you become one family…it’s just a question of which one.” In so many words, he told the hard truth that each person in the family wants life and household arranged a particular way; probably the way their mother did it. This cold, hard fact hit us both the day after we got back from our honeymoon. I stumbled out of bed and began my usual morning routine. Went to make coffee, turn on the computer and then get in the shower. Well, lo and behold, someone else was in my bathroom: My world fell apart; at least for a few minutes. All joking aside, the passages for this morning, faith unites us as a body of faith—or for our purposes—a tribal Church.

 

As Christians, we are bound together by our faith in Jesus Christ. Like tribes or clans of people, we share in lives, practices, and a way of life which are specific to the group, in our case, the Church. We are called to love, honor and cherish each other. Baptism places us squarely within the tribal Church: it is our entrance; it inspires us to work toward being faithful and to be grateful for what God has done for us. Now don’t make a mad dash for the door because you feel as though you are in the wrong place! You are in the right place. God has called you here to be with other people who are like you: broken, but striving; fractures, but forgiven. The Kirkin’ and the wearing of tartans symbolize our unity and our common heritage. For those of us who do not share in a Scottish Heritage, please know that doesn’t matter to the Church of Jesus Christ. With plaid or without, we are one. That’s what the Kirkin’ of the Tartan symbolizes.

 

The passage from the book of Numbers is enormously detailed in describing the different groups of people who are responsible for specific duties as they march forward as several tribes, but one body. Similarly, the book of Hebrews proclaims that what binds us together more than what we wear or what we look like or where we are from, is our Savior Jesus Christ, our High Priest. God’s family tree just gets bigger and bigger. The Bible tells us in Luke 13:29 that people will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Now that is the promise of the tribal Church.

 

This morning, we are participating in the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans and you find so many clans. In preparation for this event, Beverly Aldridge shot us an email asking about our clan name. Denny and I have done some gumshoe detective work on our family trees to get a flavor for whom our people were. And what a tree it is for me! How connected I feel when I can see little snippets of the lives of the people swinging on the limbs of my family tree. But in keeping with this morning’s Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans, I started to see that Scottish clans seem to share my same interest in the history of who they were. Each clan has its own tartan, skirts, sashes, ties, or some other adornment used as a badge of membership and belonging; these are things that bind them together and shape them as family.

 

Our Christian faith is concerned with three things: loving God, loving each other, and having a deep love for the community who lives for Jesus Christ binds us together. And did you know that these words are in you—now our—church’s mission statement? No, you are not in the wrong place, for we are family in the names of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

 

Here these words of our church mission statement—what we want to be and commit our lives to:

 

Believing ourselves to be a family of Christ’s people; called to a ministry in our particular time and place; charged with proclaiming God’s Kingdom as it comes among us; and aware that together we will live into the future the Lord has made, we, the members of the First Presbyterian Church of Natchez, commit ourselves:

 

To be a mutually supporting, loving and caring fellowship

 

To continued growth in the knowledge of God, God’s Word and God’s will

 

To a ministry that reflects our growing understanding of what Christ directs us to do and to be

 

To place people and their needs above the importance of policy and program, recognizing that human need knows no agenda

 

To thinking about tomorrow and its possibilities as God presents them

 

To evangelistic outreach that welcomes others into the family of faith

 

To a ministry that meets needs and addresses concerns in our church, our community and our world.

Yes, we are a tribe, a clan, one body, the Church with our differences bound by the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Amen.


 



October 9, 2016, 21st Sunday after Pentecost


Rev. Noelle Read


Old Testament: Isaiah 43:1-7   New Testament: 1 Corinthians 7:17-24



As we continue with our series on the letters of the New Testament, commonly referred to Epistles, we continue with the first of two sermons on Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.  For the sake of our guests as well as our members,  it is important to recall where we began.   First we began with the letter by James who is considered the brother of Jesus.  Composed in 50 BCE, the letter is considered the earliest Christian writing within the New Testament.  We focused on how the tongue, or words actually, can tear down rather than build up.  Gossip, talking about what other people have done or are doing, can drive a wedge between the relationships Christ desires for us to have with each other.  If we are afraid of sharing honestly because our lives may become the subject of tomorrow’s gossip, why share at all?  James exhorts us to stop gossiping that we may share deeply so that we may be faithful and godly. In the letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is worried that the people are losing faith and hope in Christ’s return.  He beckons them to pay attention to the fact that God’s time is not our time, that the faithful will be raised at the Coming of Christ.  Finally, in last week’s sermon on Galatians, the apostle Paul pointed out how “the works of the Law” can be used to keep Gentiles out.  Paul reprimands—perhaps, even chastises—the church in Galatia not to adhere to the works of the Law.  They are social practices that retain the chosen few at the expense of including outsiders.  As connect the dots from the first letter to the fourth, we have heard how we are not to gossip, live in hope, and include outsiders.


Our passage from 1 Corinthians is another piece of the sermon series.  It is specific to the community of faith.  And I think it falls at the right time for us as a church.  As a congregation of people who are called by God to be a part of God’s work in the world, this letter is not chastising so much as encouraging.  Make no mistake, it was not a floundering congregation nor was it the epitome of what the kingdom of God looks like.  Like all churches, the church struggled with membership which had both feet firmly planted in the culture which was, in many cases, opposed to the good news of Jesus Christ.


In our passage from 7:17-24, the apostle addresses the matter of having been chosen by God to do great things.  As the apostle Paul notes repeatedly, life is a walk.  It is a journey.  A journey, according to the apostle Paul, is consistent with the prophet Isaiah who saw the people exiled from the comforts of home.  Yet, their exile was not permanent.  In between losing what we once had and moving into what God has in store is this little emotion called FEAR.  Even as I wrote the word for this sermon, it is intimidating.  To hear the word “fear” is equally intimidating.  Many know the words that John F. Kennedy penned: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”


Fear is compelling, however.  Fear is the great red beacon in the torrents of life which tell us instinctively to fight or flee.  Maybe, there is an alternative if we take the words of Isaiah seriously.  Neither should we fear nor should we be anxious because we know that God is in the driver’s seat.


Unlike the churches in Galatia, the Corinthian church understands that circumcision does not determine whether we are among God’s chosen people.  Being a chosen people, Paul argues, can only be reflected by our obedience to God.  To the modern mind, the question might be, “Well isn’t that different for each person?”  And the answer is no and yes.


To all of God’s people, obedience to God is living by grace.  Grace means that forgiveness is extended to others even while they are sinners.  Obedience to God also means not using “the way we have always done things” to keep the people we don’t like out of Christ’s Church. Paul recognized that the Galatian Church was using Jewish custom to keep Gentiles out.  We might be tempted to instinctively behave the same way.  But Paul focuses not on what divides us, but what strengthens us.  He chooses to define the body of Christ as a holy community rather than an unholy, fractious congregation.


The Apostle Paul instructs every member in the Corinthian congregation: each and every believer has been bought by a new Lord.  Certainly, his affirmation arises out of the cultural reality of slavery.  The Church is made up of slaves and masters, the rich and the poor, the socialites and the rejects.  Regardless of your station in life, the life of Christ can be lived.  So with hope, we live.  With love, we engage our neighbors and enemies.  Regardless of where we are in life, we can be faithful.  Whether or not we are burdened with the hardships, we are called to be faithful.  As my mother used to say “Dear, I think God calls us to grow where we are planted.”  


Paul’s message is an encounter of that parental counsel. He encourages the members in Corinth to “remain in the situation where called” (7:24), which may sound like a call to passivity.  But it isn’t.  Instead, the members of the church  are called to celebrate who we are, transformed by Christ, so that we can be messengers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Let us not be enslaved, deterred or depressed by the circumstances of our lives.  May we be girded up by hope.  May we live according to the calling to which we have been called.  May we live in such a way that we support each other. True life is not gossip.  False life is.  True life is not enhanced with cynicism.  False life is.  True life is not defined by solitude in suffering.  False life is.  True life is defined by the willingness to keep all things confidential, to share authentically with each other in life’s struggles, and to strive to be faithful in all things.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.




 

September 25, 2016, 19th Sunday after Pentecost


 

Rev. Noelle Read

 

Old Testament: Psalm 37:1-9      New Testament: 1 Thessalonians 3:1-13

 

“Hope Floats”



The two letters to the churches in Thessalonica are perhaps the most overlooked in Presbyterian circles for two reasons. The first is that culturally we are much more interested in the stories of Jesus than we are in explanations. The Pauline explanations for why the Church exists can begin to sound like the same old song of a theology we, as church goers understand: God saves us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and calls us together as a community. However, ancient church matters are nothing to scoff at. After all, what the church struggles with then is what the church struggles with now.

 

Today, in our passage from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian Church, addresses concerns in the church of which many of us might not have been aware. The letter is a fascinating look into real people’s lives with struggles as real as the ones we have had or have now.  As we delve into the passage, understand that this letter to a church under Paul’s care is co-authored. It is called a Pauline epistle, but in the introduction, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy are included in the greeting.  It may suggest that all three share in the concern over the spiritual desperation and disappointment that the love of their life has not come back as promised.

 

Consider what love is and what it feels like. Love is more than an emotional attachment; it is a spiritual reality connection. Consider the people whom you love. At first, we don’t see the flaws, but eventually as the infatuation simmers down and there is where we can see the fork in the path we shall take. Some of us decide that love as Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians “bears all things.” When that decision is made, loving someone else is about accepting another person, flaws and all and our hearts grow. Is that not what God does to us? Is God unaware of our faults and frailty? As the apostle writes to the church in Rome, “While we were sinners, Christ died for us.”  He knows who we are—all of who we are. A Thessalonian congregation has fallen in love with the Christ who loved them. The persecution to which the Trinity of authors refer is spiritual but no less real.

 

The congregation has been promised that the Christ they love will return. They have been told that before they die, Christ will return. And yet their loved ones have died and Jesus, the love of their life, the source of their inspiration, and the center of their belief has not returned as promised. The passage of time and the death of loved ones are fertile ground for faithlessness and hopelessness.

 

In a congregation I served previously, I discovered a profoundly sad situation, a real life example of the persecutions that unhinged the soul from faith. John and his wife, Naomi, were lifelong church members. Helping others more than they helped themselves is how they lived life. Their daughter Trish was a thriving, smart young woman who discovered that her lack of coordination was more than amusing: it was the beginning of Lou Gehrig’s disease. A father and a mother who—up to this point in life—believed in God’s tireless love and faithfulness, watched their daughter slowly become crippled.

 

Their love for their daughter never wavered, but their love for God did. What do we say when God does not seem to come back? We have no choice but to cope. The husband and his wife never stepped through the church doors again.

 

These life situations persecute the spirit. Such are the spiritual persecutions the Thessalonians experience. Such are the persecutions that we know. They leave a void and we wonder whether Shakespeare was correct in saying, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Christ has encouraged all of us to love one another as he loved us. The question, then, if Christ is leading us into painful persecution and disappointment. On the other hand, when Christ said he would return, was he lying? Scripture answers with a resounding no.

 

Christ does not lead us into love in order for us to experience persecution. Love is simply God’s way and love, with the threat of painful loss looming, is the risk and the joy of this life. A people who loved and trusted their Lord were understandably experiencing persecution as we all do. God’s timetable cannot be fit into our Daytimers or calendars. And, more importantly, from the Gospel of John, comes the words that ease our persecutions, “Behold, I am with you always.” The Second Coming of Christ may come like a thief in the night: unexpectedly and without warning. The Christ who loves returns and returns and returns to the heart in faith and hope.

 

As the Thessalonian Church needed encouragement in the midst of persecution, may we be encouraged that Christ has not left us behind. He returns to our hearts when we are desperate. He returns to His body, the Church, when suffering occurs. We are his loves and he is ours. We are to live out our days with relentless hope that keeps us afloat even when we are at our wits end and at our weakest. Let us continue to live out Christ’s call to love, to live and to hope. Amen.

 



 


 

September 18, 2016, 18th Sunday after Pentecost


Rev. Denny Read


Old Testament: Proverbs 16:21-33   New Testament: James 3:1-12


“If Gossip Made Us Better Christians”

 

Today we begin a series of sermons treating the books on the New Testament in chronological order. We begin with James because it considered the oldest, probably written in 53 A.D.


James was likely the brother of Jesus and a prominent figure in early church history. According to First Corinthians 15:7, he was the first person Jesus appeared to after the resurrection.


Unlike many of the New Testament books, this letter is not a standard Greek epistle. Instead, it is “wisdom literature”, akin to the style of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. It is specifically addressed to the Diaspora.


Diaspora is the Greek word for dispersion. Normally, it refers to exile of Jewish Christians from Israel and their dispersion to other countries. In James, however, it refers to the exile of the 12 tribes exiled to Babylon in 587 B. C. James is drawing a parallel between that exile of 600 years previously to the current dispersion of Jewish Christians outside of Palestine.


For James, the Dispersion is now a central defining theme of the life of faith. And that is true for any population that has been marginalized. This congregation, for example, is living through exile. As Christians, we have seen the erosion of our place in the world. As Christians, we are disconnected from a world that once embraced us. We are, in other words, dispersed. Separated from our accustomed place in American culture, we must now put more effort into staying connected with each other.


One theme dominates the book of James: patience and perseverance. Under the umbrellas of these two virtues, we find a number of moral exhortations meant to lift a community of believers by distinctly Christian relationships. One way to cement Christian community relationships is to avoid gossip.


James’ comparison of gossip to fire is accurate on several levels. Both are destructive. Both usually start small. A tiny spark from a campfire can start a forest fire. As the fire spreads, it grows bigger and bigger, moving faster and faster until it consumes thousands of acres, destroys homes, and very often lives.


Likewise, a casual remark can spark a destructive rumor. For example, suppose a woman starts going to the gym, gets a new hair style, and new clothes. One person says idly, “She looks so good that I wonder if she’s having an affair.” The next person says, “I heard she was having an affair.” The next person says, “She’s having an affair.” The rumor runs around the community; and from a casual remark, a woman’s reputation is destroyed.


Or let’s take a broader example, one that begins with a few actual facts. For instance, it is true that Natchez High School has started a program called “Early College”. Some students from grades 11 and 12 are taking classes at Co-Lin. These students are “dual enrollment”, which means that they get college credit for high school courses. Eventually, students from grades 9 and 10 will also be able to participate.


Coincidentally, it is also true that the local School Board of Trustees made a verbal commitment to build a new high school if funding can be found. Let’s suppose someone puts those facts together and concludes that Natchez High is so bad that students can’t get high school credits any longer. Now the fire starts. It is rumored that Natchez High has lost its accreditation. The school is being shut down. They it’s being torn down. Then all students will be forced into private schools they can’t afford. The rumor grows bigger and bigger, moving faster and faster. Panic ensues. And…well, you get the idea.


As we know, forest fires could be contained by clearing fire lanes. That is, trees can be removed to leave wide stretches of bare ground. Once the conflagration gets to a fire lane, it can move no further and so it dies. Today, I am suggesting that as individuals, we act like fire lanes. If we don’t repeat gossip, it cannot move further and so it dies.


This is our choice. Fuel the fire and make it grow. Or become a fire lane and stop the destruction before it spreads.




September 11, 2016, 17th Sunday after Pentecost


Rev. Noelle Read


Old Testament: Deuteronomy 26:16-19    New Testament: Luke 2:41-52


“My Father’s House



It is a hard proposition for many to accept.  The belief that God will eventually save his people from hardship, famine, distortion, or corruption, is nothing more than a coincidence, say some.  But, we are not some of those people.  When we are lost, God is not just a compass;  God is the always present Creator.  Not only does God create opportunity, but God makes things happens. Where there does not seem to be a way for us to be found, God erases our doubt by finding us.  Out of that great truth that God is involved comes a story of thanksgiving that is the model for how we are to live life.  The truth that God is deeply involved in human life is embodied in Jesus’s childhood narrative.


The story may, at first, sound rather arbitrary.  Duty bound parents making the annual monotonous journey to Jerusalem to mark a time when God intervened decisively and faithfully in the Passover. The tone of the passage is striking because there is no pomp and circumstance, no excitement, and no fascination about God’s past relationship with our forebears.  This journey is meant to be a celebration for which God’s people yearn to participate but cultural apathy and Roman Imperial rule have put a damper on the celebratory part.  Perhaps, God’s people are apathetic under the tyranny of Roman rule.  For whatever reason, the spirit of hope which stemmed from the Passover has dwindled.


Imagine the account from the book of Exodus. After sending seven plagues to force Pharaoh to break his grasp on the Israelites’ lives, he sends an angel to kill every first born human being in Pharaoh’s land. For the Israelites, however, a special instruction is given: cover your doors with the blood of an unblemished lamb and you will be protected from the devastation God will bring.


When the promised death is delivered to the oppressors, there is a horrific, desperate Egyptian wails penetrate the air.  But God’s people, who have covered their doors with the blood of an unblemished lamb as God instructed, do not grieve. Their homes, their first born animals and children, are passed over by the messenger of death.  God’s people have been freed. God will never forsake his people.  The question thus becomes: what is the relationship between the Passover and the fretful event of a lost child named Jesus?


The relationship between the Passover and Jesus’ present in the temple is simple:  Remembrance of what God has done shapes our current priorities.   As Jesus’ parents depart from the annual visit to Jerusalem to memorialize the Exodus—something described in much the same way we would describe filing our taxes—they forget about the 12 year old Jesus.  For two days they are oblivious to Jesus’ absence.  They return to Jerusalem and ask where he has been.  “Why,” he says, “Where else would I be? I have been in my Father’s House?”  A feeling of relief precedes the recognition that a child has the correct priorities.  Isn’t that the way it is with children—acknowledging the simple wisdom of life?


The simple wisdom is that Jesus the child is exactly where he needs to be.  And I would say that the corollary for adults is that since we are all children of God, we need to be where we are meant to be.  I am overjoyed to be a part of ministry in which all people take this call seriously at First Presbyterian Church.  The priority is on being in Our Father’s house.  The priority is being where Jesus was.  Our priority is doing as Jesus has done: being in His Father’s house where a way of life and living is learning and nurtured. What many do not know is just how many ministries mirror the boy’s experience of living in His Father’s House.



 


 

 

August 28, 2016, 15th Sunday after Pentecost

 

Rev. Noelle Read

 

Old Testament, Genesis 12:1-9         New Testament, 2 Timothy 2:8-10

 

“Blessings”


Abram, who later became Abraham, is given only one word to leave his familiar surroundings for unfamiliar ones. God says, “Go!” so he gets up and goes. A couple of things to keep in mind at this point in the biblical narrative are that Abram is not a Jew! He is not among the chosen people as they will be known in the book of Exodus.

 

Second, he is given a promise without historical background. Abram and God share no history together. The relationship is as short as it is intense. Out of nowhere comes a voice telling Abram to “Go”. It is not a voice calling us to come over. It is a voice telling us to move away from where we are to where we have not been. That’s not only a big deal, but it is a scary one. Most of us would bristle at being told to do something that we do not want to do. As a matter of fact, most of us would question anyone who has the audacity to tell us to go anywhere! We are adults, after all!

 

Despite the promises of a great name and a flourishing people, we are likely to smell a con job. We have all heard the saying that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. An ethereal voice is promising a greatness if Abram takes the step of going. What a laughing stock! Hearing a voice which says go and moving ahead despite your family’s protests. That takes, as the Jews say, chutzpah! What is spiritually compelling is not reasonable, which is why Abram is such an enigma to us. A man who has no relationship with the God of history is compelled to do what God is asking him to do: GO.

 

The story of Abram begs the question, “Are there not betters things to do with our lives?” With a twelve pack in the fridge on a Saturday afternoon, would it not be a better idea to watch football players fighting like gladiators? Or would it be better to find ways to serve our neighbor? The Sabbath has been replaced with other things. What was once considered a holy day upon which we are not supposed to work, the Sabbath is now a pop cultural day of holiness: meaning do what you want. Now some of you may be already tuned out because the idea of giving up a Saturday or Sunday is preposterous. And as preposterous as it may seem it is no less evident in our Scriptures that we need to leave comfort behind so that we may pursue matters of faith.

 

It is a paradigm shift. Instead of thinking about what we are losing, think instead about what is to be gained. Blessings, promises fulfilled, the certainty that our legacies will live on for God’s glory…these are the things upon which we should count. These are the things that give us humble, godly pride.

 

But we can only be proud if we have followed in God’s command to go. Go beyond your homes which you have not been able to leave, either figuratively or realistically. Go beyond your pew. Go beyond what is every day. How? Call a neighbor or a church member. Go beyond the screen time you spend on the computer. How? Schedule times to serve the Church. Like so many of you have done by giving of time and supplies to the flood relief that Donna Ball has organized.  God knows the church needs your help. Go out of your comfort zones to greet others in the name of Jesus Christ. How? Serve on a mission trip to Baton Rouge just as our youth did yesterday. Without knowing what God holds in store for you, GO when God tells you to go.

 

In one church I served, I spent many nights in a homeless shelter in Atlanta, which could accommodate 60 men with a meal and a place to sleep. It is an uncomfortable memory in many ways, watching so many in need. But it is an observation that feeds me spiritually. Before we bemoan the fact that so many are the recipients of government handouts, I want to point out that nearly 80% of the homeless are mentally ill with such diseases as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Some are veterans who have fallen through the cracks of the system designed to care for them. As I served them, one thing became clear to me: all—without exception—cling to God’s promises to provide through the hands of other people—Christ’s hands most often.

 

At the shelter, it was the custom for one of the homeless gentlemen to offer the blessing before everyone ate dinner. One night, one man thanked God for the blessing of daily bread he was about to receive since he could not be certain what tomorrow would bring. He thanked God for volunteers who provided him with a place to stay; he thanked me! A person who felt earlier that she had too much to do that day to be at the shelter. Yet he thanked God for the blessing of me, who never went away from the shelter without feeling blessed at having been there and for being thankful for my own blessings of a warm place to live and food daily on my table.

 

Through many experiences in my life, I have had to come to the realization that I am blessed with so much and that God calls me over and over to go and be a blessing to others, because of what I have. Humbling to be sure. But remember scripture tells us that Abram was to be blessed to be a blessing to other for God’s sake.

 

God has given us each different blessings. Like I talked about in the children’s time that each thing was made for a purpose, so too are we each made for a specific purpose for all for the sake and glory of Jesus Christ. We all have different gifts and blessings.

 

At this point, you may feel like you are in deep waters, over your heads and maybe a bit paralyzed by your—by our—command to go and be a blessing. I encourage you to step back for a moment and survey your blessings…even if you don’t feel blessed at this particular time. Think about what God has given you and then pray about how you can use it to bless others…your time, your talents and even your money…as we say every week before the offering.

 

If I might, I will call out a church member Rusty Jenkins to share with you some of the conversations we have had over the past few months. He came to me asking me to pray for ways he can give back in his life, for he feels his life is a blessing of God. What he has been working on is ways to minister to the nursing facilities in town…with a possible worship, reading to them, his Little Theater Group doing acts of plays for the residents and just being present with them and engaging the church to come along side. Rusty is thinking outside the box to take his blessings and go out into the world to bless others in Christ’s name.

 

It is just that easy and all that hard. But I encourage you as I encouraged Rusty to be in prayer how you can go and be a blessing to others for God has richly blessed us in Christ and with his love. I tell you, “Go”! Amen.

 



 



August 14, 2016, 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Noelle Read

Old Testament - Genesis 11:1-9; New Testament - 1 Peter 2:6-10

“Borders That Do Not Bind”


“Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee,

From thy Southern shores where growth,

By the sea thy orange tree.

Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee!”


Do you recognize this song? It is the first verse of the state song of Alabama, written by Julia Tutwiler.  There are 6 more verses—but don’t worry, I won’t sing them for you, for that privilege is reserved for my husband Denny. You see, I sing this song every time we cross the state line of Alabama.  Every time! Cell phones are great for this-even if we are in separate cars or I am traveling alone-I can just ring up Denny and sing away! He hasn’t hung up on me yet! Maybe you have your own rituals for when you cross state lines or borders. Maybe you take photos of every state line sign you cross as you make your way on vacation, or stop at the Georgia Welcome center to get your free Dixie cup of Coke or orange juice as the case may be in Florida.


Most of us cross some sort of border each day—maybe not state lines, but county lines, city lines, or neighborhood gates. Borders are part of our lives, they mark ownership, territory,responsibility and judicial oversight. Borders are physical-like state lines and national borders, but they are also emotional, ideological and theological. They are social, economic, racial,ethnic and gender based. At best, they provide guidelines and structure; at worst, they provide means for exclusion and stereotyping and thus become barriers. The building of barriers is just what this morning’s Old Testament lesson, the Tower of Babel, is about.  It is after the great flood of Noah’s time. God’s promise to never again destroy the earth with water is fresh in the ears of humanity as the remnant is sent out to populate the earth and rebuild.


Imagine with me the scene—you can hear the purposeful sounds of construction—not too different from any other work site in Natchez. The sound of bricks being laid upon bricks—clink, clink. Bricks baked out of ingenuity.  A tower that would be the pride of all was being built; a tower that would be tall enough to endure even the deepest flood waters should they come again; and all of it made possible because of the unity of vision and the hard work of the people. Sounds like the perfect scene—very much like what we call our American dream—like-minded people, common language, unity, universal vision. I dare say we would not add or subtract much if we were to articulate what we see as the Church’s mission and society’s aim for justice for all people to be under the reign of Christ.


Indeed, it would sound like utopia if we were not privy to the revelation that this endeavor was not of God. But we are privy to the ironic tension that God awakens the builders of the greattower of Babel from their utopian dream with condemnation in the form of confusion and chaos. The people’s dream is our God’s nightmare. For the dream of the people is a dream born out of fear. Fear which gives birth to false pride and empty unity; unity based on what can be gotten from each other rather than on the promise of God. This story exposes humanity’s tendency to fall into a fortress mentality and our folly of uniting in the individual hope to gain one’s own security and one’s own immortality rather than trusting God in faith and hope for his workings; we build barriers. No doubt as our mission groups throughout the years, traveling to such places as Haiti, Mexico, and Brazil,  each brought with them some sort of barriers but God had other plans.  For God’s mission was to open eyes, exhume spirits, carry across borders and barriers and to reveal to them glimmers of the Kingdom of God. Hear these words from the Gospel of Luke 13:18-21: Jesus said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”


Too—


The Kingdom of God is like staffing a medical clinic in Haiti and seeing over 600 patients in a week; not out of pity but out of the love of Christ.


The Kingdom of God is like teamwork needed to build a clean drinking system with  Living Waters of the World in Mexico for the sake of health and wholeness with the heart of Christ at the head.


It is like entering a prison to play softball and share the good news of the Gospel with the inmates.  It is like packing Walmart bags of food for FUEL for children to eat over the weekend.


The Kingdom of God is like crossing a barrier and letting go of stereotypes and feelings of superiority over other nations and cultures and seeing people as valued children of God and working alongside them in Christ’s love. It is like hearing morning devotions read in a language you don’t speak and being given the ability to hear and praise God anyway. It is like making friends with no conventional means of communication, for you don’t speak the same language. It is remembering that God has no one language other love, justice mercy and grace. The Kingdom of God is like the leveling of power between those who have and those who have not. It is the delivery of hot meals to elderly and people in need through the Stewpot.  It is like building a house with Habitat for Humanity.  Today we celebrate the  missions of this congregation with our friend and brother Pastor Fernando Ramirez.  He reminds us that we are not all alike and that there are borders and barriers to cross to unify in the name of Jesus Christ.  But unlike our human nature that constructs borders, Christ breaks down every single one to show his glory, his ways, his love and his kingdom.  For Christ, borders do not bind.  Amen



 

 

July 17, 2016 - 9th Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Noelle Read

Old Testament: Ps. 1; New Testament: Colossians 1:1-14

“Grandma’s Recipe”


Like the Christians of today, the Church of the past struggled with its identity.  We notice that in the first couple of verses the addressees are those in “Colossae” and “in Christ.” It suggests that the letter is concerned with issues in the culture and, more specifically, those who struggle with Christian identity. How do social and political realities impact Christian identity?  The Apostle Paul addresses: the gospel is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.”  


Although the introduction of the letter seems like little more than a pleasant greeting which precedes real theology, this introduction describes Christian Identity.  The Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ which is doing something beyond the Church.  Notice that the responsibility for growing and bearing fruit is not solely based on your actions.  It does not allow us to abdicate responsibility for sharing good news.  It is simply an acknowledgment that the gospel is threading its way into the a ruptured, broken world.  Not only has it born fruit in the world, it is moving within the Church.  Outside the Church and within it, the Gospel is weaving together a patchwork of grace. The Gospel is weaving Christ into creation and the Church.  


The Church in Colossae was faced with a critical situation, the congregation was immersed in controversy and struggling to define themselves. The congregation that had been evangelized by a faithful follower of Paul and his teachings about Christ, was now under the influence of Jewish mystical Christians who believed that Christ’s redemptive action did not completely negate the need for mediators between them and God. It was a question of Christ’s total divinity and the simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Christ came into the world that we may be saved.


This was the context in which the letter to the Colossians was written. The Colossian Church was having an identity crisis. The words from the letter to the Colossian Church are ripe for harvesting in the contemporary world.  Where do we draw the line between the world and the ways of Christ?  When do we say enough is enough when apathy is synonymous with grace?  When will we take a stand in a world that punishes difference?

 

As Denny said during the announcements, the session (the governing body of 12 ruling elders) investigated having an Imam pray before a plenary session of the General Assembly.  The action has drawn much ire from church members.  It could be easily dismissive of Christians who are once again being exclusive with faith instead of inclusive with faith.  But let me offer my personal perspective.  The Church is called to be exclusive in its claim that Jesus Christ is Lord.  It is also called to be inclusive of those to whom it ministers.  It is called to be exclusive in its pursuit to serve others as Christ served.  It is called to be inclusive of all people regardless of gender or race.  It is called to exclusive in calling membership to be leaders or elders.  And it is called to be inclusive by allowing all to freely serve as the Holy Spirit leads.


Who are we and how are we to be about Christ’s business in this world of darkness and violence.  Yes we are called to remember the mighty acts of God in Christ and yes we are called to seek wisdom but what does this mean for a church in Natchez MS which has lost 6 people this summer to death, has cut its budget by thousands dollars and whose denomination seems to be out of sinc with the values of most of its congregations?  If that is not a recipe for an identity crisis, I don’t know what is!  We cannot just live on our laurels and memories of the past if we want to have a future.  Where is the grace?


Recent connotations of grace seem to cheapen its meaning for the Christian disciple.  Grace in the conventional sense is behaving as if no wrongdoing has occurred. No harm has been done and, therefore, no responsibility has to be claimed.  But, let us be honest.  Extending grace is impossible if no one acknowledges wrongdoing.  Christian grace, as you can already guess, is unconventional and comes from God.  Unconventional grace is the admission of wrongdoing; it is the acceptance of failure in the sight of Christ.  And when the burden of our guilt seems unbearable, God is on the move.  I think at times that we would rather live with the guilt of our sins than be freed by God’s grace.  Doing so, only denies that God is greater than the sum of our brokenness.  That promise of freedom is what Paul says is the Gospel promise.  The good news is that “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of His Beloved Son.”  His words are not a post-mortem promise.  They are a present certainty about where we stand with God.  The gospel of grace is to be remembered as central to our identity and a guiding light.  We will not change our identity as harbingers of God’s grace; nor will we stay silent about matters that jeopardize that identity.  We are a people of grace.  We are the prophets of old.  We are the body of Jesus Christ.


As we approach our 200th year of ministry and mission in the name of Christ we have to ask ourselves who are we and what do we want to be about.  I hope we would all say with out hesitation – the gospel of Christ!  Our church is not perfect, but it has a great deal to offer in faithful response to the Gospel and so much potential to be a vital part of this community for the sake of Christ.  Yes we need remember where we have been but we must also remember the faithful mighty acts of God who calls us to relationships.  The catch phrase in the news lately has been ‘one relationship at a time’ in regards to race relations.  Maybe we need to take this on as our own as well and follow the recipe of Colossians 1.  Be filled with the knowledge of God with all his spirit and understanding, lead lives worthy of the Lord, bear fruit, grow in the knowledge of God, endure, be patient, give thanks and know that we have been rescued from darkness into light.  These attributes are foundational for a relationship with Christ and one another and will guide us with God’s blessing into the future.  Amen.




 

 

June 19, 2016 - 5th Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Noelle Read

 New Testament: John 14:1-7; Old Testament: 1 Kings 17:1-16

“The Widow”


As abruptly as late breaking news or a presidential announcement, the prophet Elijah truly out of nowhere, parachutes right into the middle of the distressingly disappointing litany of Israel’s kings. So the litany goes, “in the blank year of blank kin, son of blank, began to reign; blank did evil in the sight of the lord”. It is short and to the point, but not sweet. The kings were judged not for the tax cuts or loopholes put into place, the unemployment rate or their take on global warming; the rulers of Israel were judged solely on their obedience or disobedience to God’s covenant with them. Kings were to be the visible reminder of the holy to use the U.S. Air Force’s catch phrase for the chaplain core. King Ahab did not fare well in this regard. Chapter 16, verse 30, sums up Ahab’s kingly rule. “Ahab, son of Omri, did evil in the sight of the Lord more that all who were before him.” Ouch.

 

What did Ahab do? Well, for starters, by marrying Jezebel to form a political alliance with Phoenicia, he welcomed pagan worship into Israel and further solidified its validity by building a temple to Baal. Ahab rode a fence and eventually fell off on the wrong side.

 

1 Kings 17:1-16—Please open your pew bibles to page 401 and follow along:

 

17Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, who had just in the prior chapter married the Phoenician princess Jezebel of Sidon (in modern day Lebanon) to form a political alliance; sort of like a trade agreement; Jezebel worshipped the pagan god Baal and to be a loving husband, Ahab, like king Solomon, builds Jezebel her own temple to Baal in the new capital city of Samaria.

 

Elijah continues,   ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’ Right away it is established that it is Israel’s God and not the pagan nature god Baal that controls the weather and therefore life and death. Remember our God is a jealous God and doesn’t like the competitions or disobedience; especially from the king of God’s chosen covenant people.

 

The passage continues, 2The word of the Lord came to him (Elijah), saying, 3‘Go from here and turn eastwards, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. (It is not known for sure where this Wadi is, but going east would have taken Elijah safely out of Ahab’s territory; a wilderness type experience in preparation for him ministry) 4You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.’ (the theme of being fed in the wilderness by animals was common for the time period to express God’s continued care especially for the prophets). 5So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 6The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. (not as good as Niki’s or Fat mammas, but he had a good life!) 7But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land. (even the faithful suffer; Jesus delivers us from sin but not bad things that happen in life.)  8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 9‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, (and just so happens to be Jezebel’s territory!) and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’


I want to abruptly really pause here to focus on the extraordinary gravity of what the Lord is telling the prophet sent to speak on God’s behalf. First, God tells Elijah to live there, not just visit. To live somewhere has a different feel to it than just visiting. If we live somewhere, we are more likely to adapt to the values and habits of that place. When we visit a place, we are more likely to stick to our own ways and isolate ourselves. But God does reassure Elijah to make this change, for in the next line, God says that the deal is already secure and the welcome wagon is in place. God has taken care of everything for his chosen mouthpiece to enter a hostile area; God has already had a word with someone and a widow is lined up. Who is this widow? To put it bluntly, she is a pagan outsider who has nothing! She is for sure one of “the least of these.”  This one “without” is the chosen vehicle for God’s message of providence of salvation. Like Elijah, she too exhibits trust, courage and submissive obedience.


Let us continue our reading. 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ (Remember the whole region is in a severe draught! A bit bold, don’t you think?) 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ 12But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, (“your”, Elijah’s God, not hers), I have nothing baked, (not she speaks in meager language-a handful, a little, a couple)  only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’ (This woman thinks she has no hope or possibility of future). 13Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. (ah, the first fruits go to Elijah; it sounds selfish to instruct her to fed him first and then herself and her son, especially knowing that she was just a few minutes ago, making plans to prepare a last supper; to our knowledge, Elijah has never had to choose between a stranger and his son. But remember the underlying message is obedience to God’s word). 14For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ (Indeed, the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, life will not end, in God there will be life in the midst of death.) 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah. (Did we ever doubt? Maybe deep down.)


Death from life and life from death. This is the paradox of the Christian life. The prophet Ezekiel uses the metaphor of the valley of dry bones to express this very truth.  Can these dry bones live, he asks. Only with the breath and power of God! Does your world view deny the unexplainable, the miraculous, the serendipitous, the impossible? Do you see no hope for those dry bones in your life?


In each of us lies a bit of the widow of Zarephath. Each of us has a dark, broken, vulnerable place in our lives; each of us is at the mercy of something out of our control and each of us may at some point feel like we are on that perpetual suspended bridge, wobbling through our days.  Like the widow, we live in hostile territory, so to speak. The ways of Jesus are not the prevailing ways around us.


A fellow Air Force Chaplain once told me that she never ceases to pray for the miracle; whether it be for physical healing of a body ravaged by cancer or the blind child to be given sight. She says, “My God might not, but He can?” Those bones can live; that jug of oil and that jar of meal can last. This is what we want to hear, don’t we? Hearing is the one thing; listening is another. To listen is to really imbibe the words, make room for them in our hearts, without conditions and what if’s.  Someone who really listens doesn’t already have their response planned out before you have finished your story. Again, ouch. To listen is to have our response, our very actions, affected by the words. God’s word has the power to change our perspective, our world view and our lives. The stumbling block is the threat of change built upon our fear of being wrong. That “what if” looms like the angry clouds of a summer storm. But the very essence of the Christian Gospel is that this magnificent, jealous God of grace, mercy, forgiveness and love, knew this about his created people and came again and again in the ravens, in the trust of the widow, in the jug of oil and the jar of meal and in his chosen prophets to say but one thing: “I love you.”  Most importantly, God said this in the life, ministry and death of Jesus Christ, a person, our savior.  Amen.

 



 



May 29, 2016—2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Noelle Read

Old Testament – Psalms 47; New Testament – Acts 1:1-11

Up, Up and Away



 My name is Noelle Henry Read. But before I met and married Denny Read, who is sitting over there, I was Noelle Lynn Henry. As a Henry, I was taught at an early age what heresy was. No, it was not back talking to my mom—though I always said one word too many even when warned. No, heresy in the Henry household was to say I am not hungry! You see, the crux of being a Henry is to think about what a glorious meal you will eat next, while you are eating the current one.


 What is heresy? The word comes from the Greek word “hairesis” which means “that which is chosen by and for oneself”. In Corinthians and Galations, the Apostle Paul employs it concerning false teachers who bring division. In regard to Christian Doctrine, which is our topic for today, Scholar Michael Horton says, “it is any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance.”


 We are speaking here of theology – humanity’s quest to talk about and understand God – in both nature and work – who is God and what does God do. What ties 2000 years of believers together is a faith-seeking understand – we, as believers in Christ – and those seeking – want to know and grasp the amazing work of God through history and specifically in Jesus Christ.


 In the comic strip The Wizard of Id – a priest is standing in front of his church where a sign reads, “Good Friday”.  The Wizard says, “Lemme get this straight…God comes to earth as one and us and we kill him?” “That’s right,” replies the Priest. Wizard continues, “Your Lord is dead…there’s a big earthquake, and the curtain in the temple is torn from top to bottom!”  “Right again,” replies the Priest. “What the heck is so god about that?” The priest answers, “His curtain call!”


 The work of Christ. Church history is no stranger to heresy, especially in the area of who Christ is. Church forefathers and mothers struggled to make sense of the crux of the Christian faith. They have struggled through such heresies as Arianism – the denial of Christ’s eternal deity. Then there was adoptionism – the belief that Jesus the man was adopted by God and thus given divine attributes. And my favorite – Docetism- coming from the Greek word to seem. Docetism said that Jesus just seemed like man but was really God, for God would not be vulgar enough to take on the form of a mere human.


 Influenced by philosopher Plato’s thinking, docetists rejected physical matter and focused only on freedom of spirit. The physical world was evil and true goodness was to be found only in the spiritual realm. You ask why my favorite heresy is docetism? Because it continues to creep into our lives in 2016.


 We are still struggling with an idea that totally evades all human faculties of reason – how can Jesus be both human and divine? A broader form of Docetism in our contemporary times is the emphasis on spiritual matters at the expense or denial of bodily or physical matters. In other words, this world doesn’t matter so we can conveniently ignore the physical pain and suffering of those around us = those in need. We can abuse our bodies by working too much as long as our spirits are in check.


 So who is this Jesus the Christ and why does he matter today? Ironically, the answer for today is the same answer that was decided upon in 451 by our early church fathers at the council of Chalcedon –Jesus is truly man, truly God. Human and divine, it is so important in seeking to grasp the fullness of meaning of these 2 natures in regard to Jesus Christ. As one theologian remarked regarding the docetic heresy, “If Jesus the Christ only seemed to be a man and his purpose was to save us, then we are just seemingly saved.”


  To understand the work of Christ, we must hold these 2 natures in tension.


 The name Jesus tells us that there was a man in history. He was born of a woman, walked the earth in time. He had a particular culture and way of life – he was a jew in a particular time and place. Being human, he felt what we feel as humans and endured suffering as we do. Martin Luther said, “Christ became a mortal like any other human being of flesh and blood. He did not flutter about like a spirit, but dwelt among human beings. He had eyes, ears, mouth, nose, chest, stomach, hands and feet, just as you and I do. His mother nursed him as any other child is nursed.” He was human.


 But as the Christ, Jesus was appointed for a particular task. The Christ means the anointed. In Christ, God did what we could not do ourselves. God poured himself out as never before for our redemption and the reconciliation of creation. A sacrifice of love as only God could do.


 This morning’s reading from Acts describes this holy mystery. It is the account of the ascension of Jesus. Some have said that the ascension is the Great Bon Voyage – an end to the earthly ministry of Jesus; while some, including John Calvin, have named it the Great Coronation – the inauguration of the Kingly reign of Christ at the right hand of God. It is both/and rather than either/or. It is a unique, almost surreal, account illuminating the humanity and divinity of Jesus.


 Despite what the disciples have seen and heard over the past 40 days, their minds return to the same question – the million dollar question: When will he restore the kingdom of Israel? They are still waiting for them perceived work of the Messiah to happen. Come on now!


 Just when they thought the fulfillment of his work was to be done – restoration of Israel - Jesus their lord evades their question of when and leaves them again. They are again left behind. As they see their Lord to up, up and away, they see their hopes and dreams go, too. As Jesus had tried to prepare them for his departure many times, at this moment, he makes a promise that they will be taken care of – his Holy Spirit will come and they will receive power.  This is what we celebrated a few weeks ago on Pentecost…the coming of the Holy Spirit.


The focus shifts from the work of Jesus to their work at hand. Christ was the kingdom proclaimed by God and now it is the Disciples role to carry that divine torch of compassion, justice, mercy, salvation and love. To both the gathered disciples then and us today, the ascension proclaims that Jesus the Christ ascends out of the boxes of our imagination and illusions of control because he is both human and divine.



 

 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Rev. Denny Read

Matthew 4:18-22 and 28:1-10

Fourth sermon in What it Means to be Presbyterian: “A personal faith, a public life”


Have you ever been asked if you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? In the context of our individualistic culture, the question suggests a relationship which is exclusive and private. I believe that faith is “private” because it can be contentious; that, or it can be uncomfortable to talk about with people of little or no faith. But a private faith is not good enough in today’s Church. All who have come through the doors of the Church hope for a real faith a real God who is actually responsive to human affairs. A privatized faith cannot provide that.

 

Without Scriptural backing, is it responsible for Presbyterians to claim the language of a personal relationship which has no bearing on our public behavior? It would reflect a non-Biblical faith.  The Presbyterian tradition is filled with taking Scripture seriously.  We may have a personal experience of faith, but we discover that faith is meant to go public.


Prior to this morning’s Scripture readings (both from the New Testament), Jesus goes into the wilderness.  While there, Jesus is tempted by Satan to put his faith in power and possessions.  Jesus Christ is called upon to put his faith in the status quo, the world as it is. Obviously, after Jesus declines the tempting offers to bow to the status quo, Jesus shifts his attention to a small group of people.  After his struggle with temptation, Jesus moves like an unwearied combatant.

 

The passages transition from “struggling Christ” to “delegating Christ” opens our eyes to the importance of discipleship.  Discipleship is clearly important.  Of equal importance is the nature of discipleship.  Jesus calls the first disciples with the words, “Follow me.”  Scripture describes two young men who leave their father in order to fish for humanity.  The passage illustrates the importance of discipleship as well as the necessity of leaving other things behind. The young men leave their father.  In the Old Testament world, the young men would have been leaving behind their inheritance which they deserved in a patriarchal world. Instead of focusing on their gains, they are called to focus on the call of being fishers of men/humanity.  They give up their privilege so that people can be gathered. Relationships with people are more important than personal gain.  The disciples left their relationship with their business to focus on their relationships with people.


The Church is the benefactor, the inheritor, the recipient of this mission of healing, wholeness and grace.  When faith goes public, we are changed and the world is changed according to God’s purposes.  What would happen if we all did that? If we simply followed Jesus, where would we end up?  Where might we be led? What might we give up?  What will we gain?


Our second passage tells us where we will be led.

 

We will be led to the crucified Christ, seemingly separated from God in light of his torture and cruel death. But God says, in effect, that the life that is crushed by the typical politics is the life that He values.  It is the life of discipleship that follows Jesus without argument.  It is the life that goes into the company of others regardless of our personal discomfort.  The life of discipleship is resistance to the status quo.  The devil tempts Jesus to go along with cultural expectations.  He tempts him to play along with the status quo.  He status quo is not sustainable nor is the life of discipleship that requires little of us.


God wants life for the world.  The question is not only “are we following Jesus when we are called?  The question really is whether we are going to follow to the cross?”


The invariable reaction to this question varies in form but not in substance: “If I follow, I won’t be able to do (blank). “  Sure, I don’t think it is easy to follow God’s ways in a world that does not follow.  Following Christ will mean giving up our dependence on family members; following Christ means that we no longer believe that the power of the State is greater than the power of our God; following Christ is to move beyond our business, our personal commitment, and our political interests.  Imagine.  Following Christ without worrying about patriarchal traditions and the family business.  Imagine following Jesus without worrying about the close circle of friends that encourage to compromise your faith for practicality.  The reward is that you are feed from the yolk of this world.  And not only are you freed, you are prepared for acting out of faithful conviction than political expediency.  Our purpose is to act as God wants us to act.


Answering God’s call can be detrimental to our worldly notions of success.  But faithfulness liberated spirit to do what is right in God’s eyes for the sake of those who have been wronged.  Instead of talking about a my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, what if I talked about Christ’s relationship with me?  After all, he initiated the conversation with two words, “Follow me.”



 

 

Sunday, April 24, 2016


Rev. Noelle Read

Psalm 148; Acts 11:1-18

Second sermon in What it Means to be Presbyterian:“Reformed and always being reformed


Everyone deserves good news because everyone is a child of God.  Our existence is not the result of chance.  We exist because God willed it.  And we are broken because we are obstinate and rebellious.  Having to deal with the consequences of bad behavior, we are likely to be much more receptive to what God has to offer: grace.  Grace is extraordinary only if we are honest with how far astray from God’s ways we have gone.  We cannot see the beauty of the light without having the darkness with which to compare it.  Grace not only transforms us; it propels us into doing what is right.  The inspiration and encouragement to do what is right, what is faithful, is the work of the Holy Spirit who changes the way things are into what they should be.


As we continue on an exploration of the Presbyterian faith, we were reminded that the Christian faith is exercised by our spirits, or our sense of call, as well as our intellects, or reason.  The combination of faith and reason is, by no means, meant to exclude the prevalence of the Holy Spirit.  As a matter of fact, one of the key phrases to come out of the Reformation was this: “Reformed, always being reformed.”  Reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther—two of many—declared that many parts of the Church needed to be reformed.  But the process of reshaping or reforming the Church is perpetual.  Without returning to Scripture and discerning how the Holy Spirit is moving, it would be easy for any of us to remain pleasantly content.  But where the Holy Spirit moves, contentment is not an option.


Interested in restoring the authentic faith of the Church, John Calvin and Martin Luther yearned for change.  Understand, however, that they were not interested in change for the sake of change.  They were not innovators that had finally discovered the proven formula for attracting new members.  The church reformed, always being reformed was a call to mindfulness and intentionality.


These characteristics are obvious in this morning’s passage from Acts.  Peter has been teaching the good news of Jesus Christ.  He teaches to Gentiles and Jews, to slaves and outsiders.  The news is too wonderful to be kept within his tribe or his nation.  He isn’t worried if there are more Gentiles than Jews in the church.  He is not worried about different ethnicities  or perspectives being in the Church.  He is merely being faithful to God’s vision.


Compare Peter’s mission to country clubs, night-time hangouts, and social gatherings.  And I am reminded of what a friend said, “What’s the purpose of a club if you can’t be exclusive?”  To that point, Peter declares, “What’s the point of proclaiming the kingdom of God if you can’t include everyone?”  For all need to hear the news of Jesus!


Peter's dream was that of a sheet full of animals, forbidden for Jews to eat, being lowered down from heaven and God speaking.  What is God saying?  What was once forbidden is now allowed.  Restricted food can now be eaten.  It is the revelation that the new life in Christ trumps the old.  God intends for the gospel message to spread even further and to all no matter jew or gentile!  At this point the early church is being reformed by the very hand of God.  Reformed and always being reformed.


What does this mean for us?  First, nothing is impossible for God, nor will God's will be thwarted.  God's own agenda will prevail and not the agenda of humankind.  Secondly, God is doing something new topush the envelope of proclamation of the gospel for the sake of the gospel.  Thirdly, God is showing the church to be a place of convicting hospitality.


This church, as it approaches its 200th year of ministry—truly by the power of the Holy Spirit--our congregation is being reformed.  In a changing community of different ethnicities and perspectives, this congregation is Peter.  We are convicted that the new life in Christ is not restrictive; it is freeing.  In freedom, we reach out.  We have opened up our social circles to more involvement.   In six years, this congregation has changed immensely but not for change’s sake.  It has changed to meet the needs of ministry through this city and the world. We have moved from thinking of the church being a social gathering to being the staging ground for worship and making contact with other broken people.


God told Peter to move out in his outreach.  Welcome the strangers, the outsiders as God welcomed strangers and outsiders.  I think God wants us out of the pews and into our neighborhoods to tell others about First Presbyterian and its authentic faith and honest hospitality…our convicting hospitality.


During this election season I have had more than 5 people knock on my door to introduce themselves to me, tell me a bit about who they are and to ask for my vote.  Very simple, not very intrusive but very effective.  What if we, you, us, did something like this.  Pretty radical for First Presbyterian huh? But hear me out!  What if we did go door to door and tell people the Good news that can be found at First Presbyterian?  Just a thought but maybe a path where God is leading us.  Author Brennen Manning says in his book “The Ragamuffin Gospel” that we are all just beggars on the doorstep of God telling each other where to find bread.  May we all be in prayer about how and where God is leading; we may be surprised.  Reformed and always being reformed.


I ask that you think about what compels you about the Gospel and about First Presbyterian and share that!  The book of Acts says we are witnesses for we are the very message of the Gospel by how we live our lives.  There may be some pressure here but all so our call.  We are to be a sent out people but we are not by ourselves but always with God.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


 

 




Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter

Rev. Noelle Read

New Testament: Colossians 1:15-20; Matthew 28:1-10


If you had walked into our house last week, you would have been hit with a horrific smell. There was an odor even more offensive than the odor of our diaper pail. It permeated the entire house. It was inescapable. Denny thought he was going to be sick. The source of the smell was a dead cat under the house. A 20-pound dead cat. There is no way around it, death stinks.


Imagine, then, how pungent Jesus’s tomb would have been. On the women's journey to Jesus’ bruised and battered body, they would have anticipate death’s stink. So they approach the tomb with the expectation of that odor.  But something different is in the air. What greets them there instead is the fragrance of hope.  For the tomb was empty!  The stone had been rolled away!  Something had happened.


I have an old friend who never goes to church on Easter Sunday. Every year we used to do the same joke. I would ask him why, and he would say because the story never changes. Well, I sort of understand that. Everybody knows what the sermon will say. He is risen, risen indeed. God lives. New life is here. God triumphs over death.  There are only so many ways you can say that.

 

So yes, the words are cliches. But the idea — ah, the idea –- that is NOT a cliche. The idea that we can, in fact, triumph over death is astounding. We have had a lot of funerals in this church lately. We have had a lot of grief. But because Jesus was not in that tomb as expected, we can also have a lot of rejoicing. Jesus said he would triumph over death. And He did. Because he did, we know that God is trustworthy. God is reliable.  God is reliable to hear us, to comfort us, to offer us abundant life, to dwell with us and to offer us hope where there seems none. 


On the third day, when Jesus rose from the dead, new life began. He got up! He began to live a new life Because Christ died, death is not the end for us. Because He died, we will have a new life as well.


Theologian Martin Niemoller said “Easter is not a part of the old accustomed divine order, of the ordered world in which we live, but it is an absolutely new, unexpected act of the living God, which interrupts and runs counter to the uniform rise and fall of the world's rhythm.  In Easter, we have the beginning of something new.”


Jesus made some fantastic claims during his life — not the least of which was the promise of eternal life. Now, it seems, that claim was not fantastic after all. It was not an idle boast. It was true.  Through Christ's death and resurrection we now have eternal life with him through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed glory alleluia!  Death does not have the last word but rather life does and not just life but abundant life in Christ .  And as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans, through Christ we are free to live as forgiven sinners; freed from something for something else.


Our Colossians reading for today says a lot about Christ.  Here the words of scripture again:


15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 


16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 


17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 


18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 


19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 


20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. 


Now all power and glory belong to Christ and not to the world.  The world has no hold on us for we have a savior that was promised from days of old.  


I said earlier that we are now freed from sin for something else.  What is that something else?


My five year old triplets have a new skill.  They can write their names.  In fact they write their names everywhere!  On the table, the cutting board, our books, the floor – anywhere is fair game for them it seems.  Well like my children, we as believers in Christ – as Easter people – have a new skill and that skill is hope.  We are now free to live lives of hope in the face of a world that seems to be swirling out of control.  Like the victims from the terrorist attacks in Brussels this past week who kept on living life, going to work and school and carrying on with what needed to be done, we too can keep on living with hope in the face of death and darkness.  We can take hope into our work places, in our relationships, in our schools and in our homes because Christ diedto give us eternal life.  Do not be afraid!  The tomb was empty and the stone was rolled away.  Amen.


 




Sunday, March 6, 2016

4th Sunday in Lent

Re. Noelle Read

Old Testament: Psalms 32; New Testament: II Corinthians 5:16-21


Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church precede the Gospels by at least one generation.  Before the written narratives about Jesus’ life and ministry were circulated in the 1st century, the Apostle Paul was communicating orally and by letters with the early Church about who Jesus was and why they should do what Jesus did as the revelation of God.  The early church, and indeed us too, had to understand the theology which answered the question of why Jesus. Throughout Paul's letters to churches he gives eloquent and timely reasons of “why Jesus” is the savior of world but also why follow Him as Lord of their lives.   Then the early church began asking  the question of How do we follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?  How are we to live like Jesus who was the law incarnate, the word of God incarnate?  The early church knew as we know that doing what Jesus did is demanding and the challenge for us to take our theology seriously and to be diligent in our pursuit of being a holy people who walk in the footsteps of a Holy Savior.  Simply put  holiness is living a life reconciled to God.  As Christians we declare that God reconciled us to Himself through His Son Jesus Christ.  God’s action in Christ is decisive and it has enormous implication for how we live and love  with each other.  


In the Jewish tradition, a human being was reconciled to God when he brought one of his own livestock, typically a lamb, and offered it as a sin offering.  The ancient Jewish understanding was that humanity was indebted to God for being unfaithful and, therefore, unholy.   However, Jesus determines that sin cannot be a debt to be paid.  For example, in Matthew 5:21, Jesus declares, “You have that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders shall be subject to judgement.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister is subject to judgment.”  For even having the emotion of being angry, we are subject to judgment.  At one time in history sin was confined to the action of wrong-doing.  Jesus defines it more radically.    Sin is having the emotion.  And recognizing that we have the emotion, he gives us a prescription for being reconciled to our neighbor with whom we are angry.  Before worship, ”go and be reconciled to them.”   The early disciples began to understand through Jesus  that sin was more than an action to be rectified by satisfying a debt owed to God.  Because we cannot control our emotions, God determined that he would pay the debt we owed and simultaneously reveal a better and holier way to live.


Some other gospels  recount Jesus’ commandments to “Love one another as I love you.”  It does not matter if we don’t feel like doing it.  Jesus said do it; therefore, it must be part of the kingdom of God; of kingdom values..of living like Christ.  As a matter of fact, it is an expression of holy, selfless, and unconditional love.  In the Lord’s prayer, Christ taught us to pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In Paul’s letter to the Roman Church, he boldly claimed, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died” that our sin was more than an action that could be washed away by sacrificing an animal; sin was a condition of the soul.  What a profound thought.  


From a biblical standpoint, we cannot look at each other as debtors and love each other unconditionally.  We cannot love without forgiving.  This is not the anemic displays of love we are accustomed to in our culture.  Holy love does not ignore wrongdoing.  It acknowledges it.  Holy Love also forgives the wrong doing, the sin. This brings about reconciliation and healing and wholeness.


We are not accustomed to thinking in these ways.  We are human beings and what comes most naturally is selfish not selfless.  But if we think of ourselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and are not practicing what Christ teaches then we are falling short of God’s glory and what he intends for us. It is a pity for us because we have yet to understand how the good news of Christ transforms us totally.  It is like the ultimate makeover! It is a pity for the world because it will not know Christ through our transformed behaviors.


In the middle Ages, Galileo discovered that the earth was both not flat and that the earth was not the center of the universe.  We can only imagine how disheartening it must have been for many that their planet was not the center of the universe.  By extension, individual people are not the center of the universe.  Though none of us would ever say that we would believe that we are the center of the universe, we may act like it.  Have we not felt entitled to have church affairs bend to our wills?  Have we not felt discarded or neglected and behaved self-righteously?  Have we let the sun go down on our anger?  Are we not inclined to say ‘you owe me’ but God in His wisdom say that wasn’t working.  So God did the heavy lifting, the hard work of the heart and sacrificed his son.  Jesus Christ came into the world not to condemn the world but that the world would be saved through him.  Often Denny and I uses these words for the assurance of pardon, “anyone who is in Christ is a new creation; the old life is gone and the new life has begun.  Did you hear that?  A new life reconciled to God the creator and redeemer of the universe.  This is awesome!  God wants us to live a new life with new ways to show each other and the world his glory and that we are living a reconciled life with Him.    Like the Corinthian Church to which Paul writes, we are not to assume that we are perfect; we are reconciled to God with Jesus Christ.

 


 

 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

 

2nd Sunday of Lent

 

Rev. Noelle Read

 

 Old Testament: Psalm 27   -  New Testament: Luke 13:31-35         

 

 

 

Several encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees are important for putting our passage from the Gospel of Luke in context. In the preceding chapter, Jesus unflinchingly criticizes them: “Now you Pharisees,” he says, “clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”  Then in Luke’s ninth chapter, Jesus contrasts the   behavior of the Pharisee and His true followers saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake, will save it.”  His words are critical of the Pharisees who are the entrenched religious, social, and political leadership of ancient Israel. As such, they control the populace and line their own pockets.

 

Jesus is an upstart who make wild claims about God’s desire for His creation. By claiming divine awareness of right and wrong, Jesus is threatening their positions. Pharisees invested much to protect their piece of the pie. In the process, they have neglected what is holy and just. They are comfortable. They want to keep the benefits that come with appearing to be holy without actually striving to be holy. In their effort to avoid overt conflict with Jesus, the Pharisees approach him with a ruse: “Get out of town,” they say. “Herod will kill you.”  They appear to be looking out for Jesus’ best interests when they are protecting their own. They appear to be compassionate; yet within, they are filled with greed and wickedness.

 

This morning’s passage from Luke, traditionally used in the Lenten season, invites us to reflect seriously on whether we are like the Pharisees, who desire prestige and wealth and sit comfortably in our faith; or like the Christ, who, who desires God’s will that is always pushing our human envelop.

 

Are we truly engaged in our faith instead of merely pretending to be? The account contrasts the misguided Pharisees with the purposeful Christ. Christ experienced cultural and social pressures to conform and would not. Similarly, we are being summoned to be faithful non-conformists in a culture of conformity. Attempts to erase evidence of the Christian faith’s presence and impact include taking Christ out of Christmas, the Resurrection out of Easter, prayer out of schools, and speech about faith out of the public square, to name but a few.

 

The emergence of secularism has put social and political pressures on the Church to conform to a culture at odds with Christian faith and values. Such pressures are evident when the Christ is taken out of Christmas and replaced with commercialism. In 2000, an affiliate of Intervarsity on the Tufts University campus, was de-recognized by the administration for not allowing an atheist to be part of Faith-based leadership. In an effort to avoid political fallout, however, the University claimed officially that the Fellowship was a threat to campus safety. Its message of sin and redemption could drive students to commit suicide or cause depression. The idea that a University has found the message of sin and redemption may propel another to commit suicide is as nonsensical as Pharisees pretending to help Jesus. The Pharisees, like the University administration, are being disingenuous. Neither wants conflict. And they want to protect the bottom line.

 

Jesus could easily have walked away from the conversation. And, yet, he takes a moment to explain how His mission will not be deterred by the likes of a tyrant like Herod or the ruses of Pharisees. Likewise, we should not be deterred in making known that we don’t have time for such nonsense. As followers of Christ, we speak the truth and are accountable to it. There are too many people in need of the Church’s healing and wholeness for us to be deterred by nonsense.

 

If we are active, we shake off the shackles of culture, and embrace the certainty of dying. So if we are not faithful, we die. If we are faithful, we die to self. Dying because we are faithful is noble and faithful indeed. But dying slowly in order to preserve our social standing and privilege is neither noble nor faithful.

 

Perhaps you can hear the voices already: The better part of valor is discretion. Although that may sound profound, we should remember that the remark comes from the lips of Falstaff, a cowardly buffoon in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Falstaff is protecting himself in battle by pretending to be dead. It is not discretion if we are being persuaded to conform by social and political pressures. It is, instead, cowardice.

 

Following Jesus is a commitment to put our lives in God’s loving hands, especially when living in a culture that is as superficial as the Pharisees, as brutal as Herod, and ushering Jesus out of hearts, minds, and souls.

 

How many times have we all strayed into the nonsense instead of engaging the really important matters of faith? How many times have we been tempted to place ministry last on the list of things to do? Jesus has put it first even if his life is in danger. The world needed his life and ministry, and still does. Now the world needs your ministry and my ministry, too. Together, we stand firm in our convictions, come what may. Jesus is Lord; confess and repent; 10 commandments; love one another as we have been loved; our treasure is in heaven; forgive.

 

At times, we can let the nonsense of the culture take up our energy and time. Being caught up in nonsense is how the Church is weakened. Worrying about the fallout politically and socially is natural; but it is not faithful. This Lenten season begins the journey to live Christ’s way and to remember who we are and whose we are: beloved children of God.

 



 



Sunday, February 7, 2016

 

Transfiguration Sunday

 

Rev. Noelle Read

 

Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36


We have heard the rather insulting rhetorical question, “Are you Blind?!” The question assumes that we are missing what should be obvious.  But that creates a problem in so many other ways, particularly when it comes to matters of faith.  “Shouldn’t it be obvious,” asks the atheist, “that there is no God?”   After all if an experience cannot be universally observed, then it is a trick of the mind.  Given some time, people of faith will come around.  We will see the error of our ways and, perhaps, be converts to the faith of atheism.  Yet in the face of atheistic accusations of being blind to reason, we are given every reason to have faith.

 

Without a doubt, the gap between what we know and what we don’t know is getting larger. In the gap is the reality of faith.  When people ask us if we are blind, we are being asked to take off our blinders or to restore sight. But what if God is restoring our sight?     Nobody can choose to see nor can anyone choose to be blind, physiologically and spiritually.  The inability to choose is what makes Revelation so special.  God reveals something to us in that we did not understand before – the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ as our savior.

 

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray with three disciples named Peter, James, and John.  They had seen their teacher pray many times, but this time they witness an extraterrestrial event.  Jesus’ transfiguration—his change in appearance to dazzling white and glowing face—leaves the disciples baffled.  This vision just does not fit into their world view or experience.  We can perhaps imagine there stuttering words as they try to explain their experience to others later.  They might say, “It was like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly…but then he became normal again…kinda.  Does that make any sense?”   Some two thousand years later, we are still baffled by this revelation and at times faith in Jesus Christ.   Rather than being mindful of the mystery, we are tempted to chalk it up to a psychological anomaly.  

 

As the disciples finish their prayers, they see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah but cannot hear what the conversation is about.  Hastily, the three disciples ask Jesus if they should erect three dwellings: one for Elijah, a second for Moses, and a third for Jesus. The disciples are trying to preserve a moment in time – to make it stand still. On this mountain God reveals that Jesus follows in the tradition of Moses who liberated God’s people and the prophet Elijah who uttered uncomfortable truths to the wayward. Through Moses and Elijah, ‘the way things are’, is not the way things really are.  Behind the scenes, God moves to show Pharaoh who is in control.  Behind the scenes, Elijah prophesies that desolation will be replaced with life.  And on this mountain, a cloud then descends upon them and a voice is heard “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”   Jesus is revealed in the moment of His transfiguration as the new liberator, the new prophet, the long awaited one and the promise for the future.

 

The disciples needed a boost, some perspective, some truth.  You know how it is, even under the best of circumstances fatigue has a way of making you want to give up on whatever you are doing, even if you believe in it; fatigue seems to give way easily to apathy.  And we have become a culture of apathy.

 

Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to the moment of the transfiguration as acknowledging that Jesus Christ is Lord as the moment when we tally up what the cost of what discipleship is going to be.  Discipleship is serious business.  The litany of excuses for not following Jesus’ parallel much of what must have been going through Peter’s, James and John’s ears.  Do we really know it’s true that Jesus is the Son of God?  Or maybe our belief is not the hold up.  It’s the commitment; too much will be demanded of me or I’m just too tired.  I’ve got other things I would like to be doing like golfing or hunting.  I’d rather be at the lake.  I’d rather be shopping.   We can fill in the blank for everything we would rather be doing rather than the hard work of discipleship but that’s the point.  Discipleship is costly.  We could find a number of reasons for not following the mystery of Jesus Christ’s existence like on that mountain and never walk in his footsteps until it’s convenient.  The bad news about the good news is that you will never find discipleship convenient; the good news is that God in Jesus Christ has revealed something special to you.  It is life and life is discipleship and discipleship demands time.  Together let us make our own discipleship of Christ a priority.  Let us stop making excuses.  Simplify your life to make room for Christ our savior who loves us and longs for us.  Amen.

 


 



 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

 

4th Sunday After Epiphany


Rev. Denny Read

 

Psalms 71:1-6; Luke 4: 16-30



Coming home is, for the most part, a comforting image.  Singer Paul Simon waited at the railway station for a ticket for his destination home in the song “Homeward Bound.” Emphasizing the comforts of home, the lyrics draw us toward the pleasant memories of home: the familiar relationships, the flood of comical happenings, and the rush of love we experience with more maturity.  Jesus returns to this in Nazareth.  After being tempted by the Devil for 40 days, he returns to Nazareth and enters the synagogue for worship.  Upon his return, he goes to the synagogue where he participates in the tradition of reading and interpreting Scripture.  But Jesus uses the Scripture to announce who he is: “Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


A joyous homecoming is followed an authoritative, powerful, and hope-filled rendering about the future:  the Spirit of the Lord rests upon the One who delivers good news to the poor, give sight to the blind, and frees the captives. The situation changes, however, when Jesus says what is on Everyone's mind:  Do hear what you did in Capernaum, a notoriously non-Jewish town.  As Jesus does frequently, he upends the comfort of the status quo, which literally means “the state of something” or in the more modern sense “the way things are.”  And he does it by utilizing Scriptures of the synagogue.  There should be nothing surprising about his summary of two accounts.   First Jesus recounts a story from 1 Kings 17.   During a significant famine in Israel, God did not send rain or food.  God sent the prophet Elijah a widow in Zarephath, a town in Phoenicia.  Second, Jesus recounts how God sent the prophet Elisha to heal Naaman the Syrian military commander.  A Syrian, a known enemy of Israel is healed.  In Capernaum Jesus heals non-Jews.  In Syria, an enemy is healed.  In Zarephath, a widow is healed.  All of them are outsiders.  They're not one of us!  And that's the problem for Jesus.  He unapologetically tells the truth about the past.  


He tells “insiders” about a time when God unabashedly preferred healing “outsiders.”  The Christ has declared that He is the One upon whom the Spirit rests.  But He is also the One who is about to tell the truth about the past.   True to form, the people become enraged by Jesus’ speech.  Jesus has no business bringing up the past.  Besides, Jesus ought to know better.  He’s from here. He’s Joseph’s son. Besides, he should not be telling us who can be insiders and who can be outsiders?  Only we can.  Right?  


It's true of every town in the world.  If you aren’t from there, it is hard to be accepted.  If you are from that town, then it you have no business trying to change the way things are.  Jesus knew when he entered his hometown that he would not be accepted.  And he said very little about the Scriptures.  He reads one passage and summarizes two.


Listeners understand that if God has His way, then they are not the “insiders” anymore.  As frightening as Scripture may be, Christ uses Scripture to upend the way things have always been.  

 

Though many of us are not averse to knowing the truth, it can be a painful reminder of past failures.  Who wants the pain of the past to be brought out in public?  Now, we could try to run Jesus out of town or off a cliff or out of our minds as the crowd did.  Or we can consider the implications for our ministry as a congregation. Jesus’ summary about Elijah and Elisha reminds “insiders” that, if they do not remember their history, they are more likely to forget about the “other” insiders.


Imagine for a moment what that is like.  Does it feel very good?  I read this passage and I was profoundly disturbed by the message that I might not be an insider.  I imagine most of us do.  However, we can be filled with rage and try to chase Jesus off a cliff.  Or we can look at his announcement as a heads up that God is going beyond the community of insiders and into the lives of the outsiders.  


Perhaps this is Jesus' way of reminding all disciples that we are not meant to be in cliques. The Scriptures call us into thinking in new ways about people who were once insiders but are now outsiders.  I am thinking about people one our prayer list.  People who were once pillars of the community are now homebound.  They have become “outsiders” because of physical limitations, difficult circumstances, financial hardship, or disease.  These are the people to whom God is going to brings healing.  Healing for the outsider can only happen if we change our perspective as insiders.  We are called to look beyond ourselves.  We are called to look beyond our front door.  


God heals the outsider through people like you and me.  We are called to bring healing to our “outsiders” on the prayer list.  Understanding that we are not welcome in our hometown, we are freed to speak the truth that there are no outsiders.  


For the sake of our discipleship, let us ask “Who was once an insider and is now an outsider?” and “How can I be an instrument for God to heal others?”


In the name of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 




 




Sunday, January 24, 2016


Rev. Noelle H. Read

Sermon: More Than Mingling

Genesis 18:1-8; I Corinthians 12:12-26



In a moment of blunt honesty and wisdom, a father pointed out to his daughter: “When you get to thinking you’re important, just go up the road to Vicksburg and nobody will know who you are.”  The intent was clear: don’t think more highly of yourself than you should.   Being in Christian fellowship assumes that all are equal.  The Apostle Paul tells the Church that we are all members of Christ’s body, but we all have different roles to play.  It is impossible for an individual to be all things to all people.  But is possible—even divine—to use fellowship as the means of staying connected with our humility as we support each other’s specific call.


Fellowship is such a nebulous term that, out of curiosity, I looked it up in the American Heritage Dictionary. Fellowship is “the companionship of individuals in a congenial atmosphere and on equal terms.”  To my surprise, the definition could very well have been found in a Dictionary of Christian Terminology.  The apostle Paul advocates for Christian fellowship which opposes exclusivity based on gender, economic status or social position.


Paul alludes to a Christian does not lord power over the weak; the weak are given a place of honor.  Feelings of helplessness are not appropriately expressed through wrath; support for the struggles of all is supremely divine. The summary of Christian faith is this:  We need each other to do what we have been called to do by God himself. That is Christian fellowship.  We are all equal; the playing field is level.  But as people with different calls, we need to support each other through fellowship. The poor need to be in a relationship with the wealthy; the wealthy need to be in a relationship with the poor and the downtrodden need to be in a relationship with the well off.  The contemporary struggle of Christian fellowship is not against economic status or social position in our time or place, I believe it is against a culture of entertainment.    


Paul’s intention is to remind us that we are One Body with many members. Having made his point quickly, he begins to talk about the nature of Christian fellowship.  The shift is so abrupt that it seems to disrupt his point. The abrupt shift is intentional.  Paul is telling us that before we can fulfill God’s call upon our lives, we have to understand the nature of true Christian fellowship.  Certainly God’s call upon our lives is meant to be fulfilled. Together, a diverse group of people are working out their divine and deeply personal calls in a variety of ways.  Yet that calling cannot be fulfilled outside of Christian fellowship.  


Our struggle it seems is not with accepting people who differ from the majority.  Our struggles is with what draws us away from each other.  Entertainment is what does it.  Entertainment can numb the mind and soul.  The concern is not that we are fragmented but that spiritual apathy is normalized as we feast on the various forms of entertainment of our day.  Entertainment can numb the mind, the soul, and the heart.  The result is that we are less compelled to consider how God wants to make a difference through our lives.  Or even to seek God.  The result is that we do less of what God wants and more of what is personally satisfying.  


The Church, then, has a very special calling in this era.   The Church is meant to pull others out of the foggy haze of entertainment and into a life that is abundantly joyful about being in relationships that are diligently faithful, authentically loving, and sincere in its desire to be together.

 

As we refuse to be seduced into loving our entertainment culture, we simultaneously realize that entertainment is unimportant in God's eyes.  News programs are bracketed with editorials and opinions ultimately meant to ensure that we keep watching.  Weekly sitcoms employ the same kind of humor in hopes that familiarity will breed loyalty. We are not the people who are so easily duped.


Entertainment may stir the moral sensibilities occasionally.  But they do not originate solely in the imagination; they originate in real life.  So why not back away from the machines—our televisions, our phones, and our tablets--that create more distance between people?  What if we became more involved in each other’s lives? In becoming a community of faith, fellowship precedes our roles in the Church.  Fellowship is the way in which our calls are discovered, enriched, and encouraged – in conversations and in prayers for one another. Where there is a place to fellowship, there is a place to nurture each other’s calls.  In his letter to the Corinthians, fellowship precedes the role we play in creation.

 

By contrast is a story I heard from a church member.  The dental hygienist stood over her patient making small talk.  She assumed that talking about television was a fairly innocuous means of creating common ground.  The hygienist asked what the patient thought.

 

The patient said, “I'm sorry. I don't watch TV.”  Apparently surprised, the hygienist inquired, “Well do you rent movies?”


“No,” the patient said.


“Well, what do you do?”, with a tone suggesting that no one could possibly be doing anything else than being entertained.


In this brief exchange, one hygienist uses entertainment to relate with her patient. Unsuccessful in this attempt, she is at a loss for how to proceed. Entertainment is so deeply ingrained in our culture that many assume that most of us spend their lives being entertained.  


Talking about entertainment is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we are herded away from the important questions of discipleship and faith.  Let us not be herded.  Let us stand firm. Let us gather together because—regardless of where we come from, what our family names are, what prominent positions we hold, or how entertained we are—we are called to fellowship because that is how Christ is made known to us.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.



 

 

Sunday, January 17, 2016


Rev. Denny Read

Sermon: If Miracles Could be Common

John 2:1-11


Last week we were blessed with the leadership of Rev. Dr. Larry Michael who led a seminar on grief and preached a sermon in Sunday’s worship.  In the church calendar, last Sunday marked the Baptism of the Lord.  Baptism was deeply entrenched in the Jewish life.  It was a ritualistic cleansing of sin.  The question, then, is why Jesus would undergo the ritual of baptism if he was sinless.  Without the need for cleansing, why would he undergo this ritualistic cleansing?  His baptism marks the beginning of his ministry and the act is validated by God who says with a booming voice, “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.”  Jesus' baptism is not for His benefit; it is for ours.  As baptism marked the beginning of ministry for Jesus, it also marks the beginning of ours. As we take time to carefully read the Scriptures, we notice that Jesus' ministry did not take place in the Temple.  He ministered on the road and in other people's homes.


For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, as the sun sets, Jesus withdraws from the crowds presumably to rest.  But the crowds follow because their needs are great.  At first, He takes a moment to heal the sick. Then, the disciples point out that the crowd, having traveled many miles, is hungry as well. The pragmatic disciples say there is not enough to feed such a large crowd with only two fish and five loaves of bread. Jesus asks for God's blessing upon the meager amount of food and feeds the crowd of 5,000. Food scarcity is transformed into abundance.  In this act, He undermined the religious establishment which excluded the poor and the diseased who were seemingly the recipients of God's judgment.  Instead of excluding them, he healed them and welcomed them into the fullness of God's grace. Such grace is both spiritual and practical.  It nourishes the soul with hope and it satisfies the body with food.


Another account from the Gospel of Luke moves the miraculous from the road into the home.  Two disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus lamenting Jesus’ death.  They are interrupted by a stranger who asks why they are so glum.  Their disappointment is no doubt based on the failure of Jesus to overcome the dark side of politics.  His death is the death of their hopes for new life. As they travel, the two disciples extend Christ-like hospitality to the stranger.  They invite him into their lodging and eat with him.  There may be nothing particular noteworthy, much less miraculous, if the Scriptures did not conclude, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.”  The miracle occurs in an ordinary place without any fanfare.  The miracle is that in an act of eating with others, which we may take for granted, the presence of Christ is recognized.  If miracles could be common, then miracles would not be miracles. Miracles are not common, but they happen in common places.


The Wedding at Cana is an event that combines ministry, crowds, and miracles in an ordinary home.  The event has tremendous implications for how we practice ministry as a congregation.  Today we live in a mess of social media that ironically has created more social fragmentation.  It creates the illusion of intimacy and closeness.  The more involved we are in social media, the more possible it is to ignore the people who really need company, meaningful relationships, and the warm embrace of fellowship. The fragmentation social media creates has also limited our time to be actively social.  I have witnessed a 25-year- old man breaking up with a 26-year-old woman with a text message.  A 50-year-old man told me that he goes to work, closes his door to eat breakfast in five minutes before answering 80 emails and responding to a never-ending flow of texts.  And youth all over the country are learning that social media is the main means of getting connected and recognized by others.  This is a sad state of affairs.  So, as baptized members of the Body of Christ, how can we do ministry? One response is to become more involved in social media with other people but in meaningful ways.  The better response is to do as Christ did.

 

We are called to go into each other's homes. When we share a meal together in each other's homes, we are acknowledging God's abundance.  We participate in Jesus' theology of abundance.  We notice that Mary is at the wedding.  As the wine disappears, she is concerned that there will not be enough for everyone.  When Jesus turns water into wine, he is unveiling the reality God's reign.  In faith, we trust that there will always be enough.  When we eat together in each other's homes, our eyes are opened to reality of God's abundance.  There is always enough.  There is always enough grace.  There is always a place that breaks down social barriers.  There is always enough food and drink.  And, in our homes, we have the opportunity to witness these miracles.  So may we get beyond the Church.  Let us spend more than four hours a month in the sanctuary and prepare our homes to welcome others.  By doing so, we build holy relationships, reinforce the joy of discipleship, and wait expectantly for a miracle to happen.  Miracles cannot be ordinary events.  But opening our homes gives God the opportunity to do something miraculous.  Remember:  miracles can happen in ordinary places.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


 

 



Sunday, January 3, 2016


Rev. Noelle Read

Sermon: Never Sell Yourself Short

Scriptures: Old Testament: Jeremiah 37:7-14; New Testament: Ephesians 1:3-14


Perhaps many of you are like me and occasionally wonder if you are tending to God's purpose, or purposes, for your life.  I think many outside of these walls wonder the same thing.  Not knowing can be unnerving.  The expansive sections of self-help books on store shelves and websites are but one indicator of what people are asking about.  Without knowing who we are, we cannot know what to do.  And knowing neither can be a source of great anxiety.  But, there is no need for self-help books; the Bible is sufficient.  The difference between the self-help books (which are focused naturally one one's self) and the books of the Bible (which assume Someone else is focusing on our lives) is that we do not get to choose who we are; God does.  Neither do we get to choose what we do; God does.  The prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul offer two different approaches to being faithful.  As we unpack these passages, consider who God has called you to be and whether who you are is consistent with what you are doing.


Jeremiah's call is to speak truth to power, but let's not forget that his identity is the foundation for his work.  In the first chapter, God speaks to both: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” After some resistance, characteristic of most who are called to be prophets, God elaborates on the call, “See today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”  At the time that Jeremiah is merely a thought in his parents' minds, God is putting him together.  Sometime before he is born, he has been set aside for a purpose. His special role among God's is to speak about the ways in which they have strayed from the covenant God made with them. God had said, “I will be your God and you shall be my people,” with the understanding that His people will be faithful to Him as He is to them.  


The background for this morning's passage clarifies why the encounter between Jeremiah and the king's servants impacts us.  The prophet has been advocating for Judah to surrender to the Babylonians whose invasion is imminent.  The prophet's words calling for Judah to surrender rather than fight go unheeded.  What patriot surrenders!  But Jeremiah is assuring them that regardless of whether they resist or surrender, the people will go into exile.  God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah,advocates surrender because His people will suffer less.  But such words are only heard as treason and spinelessness, not faithfulness.  The Word of the Lord is treasonous to the powerful politicians.  Jeremiah is, therefore, arrested.  For a brief period, he was silenced.  It may seem that this is a typical narrative.  As we've heard from Jesus a prophet is never welcome in his home town.  Jeremiah is no exception.  He talks but no one listens.  And we may find ourselves in similar situations in which we speak the truth to powerful people.  We work but our work is unappreciated.  And that reality may get us thinking that our work is unimportant.   The emphasis on Jeremiah's call is not on his success, but the work that God is doing through him.  


As we have examined the Great Ends of the Church, we have preached that the good news should be proclaimed that others may receive salvation.  But, what if nobody is listening?  Do it anyway.  We are called to shelter and nurture the children of God, but what if we cannot get volunteers.  Then, you have to rethink your approach through pray.  But you find a way to do it anyway.  What if I have to be honest in saying that we have not maintained the divinity of worship?  Talk about it anyway by speaking the truth in love.  Who you are is a child of God formed in the womb and set aside for a particular purpose.  The greatest hindrance to living according to God's purpose for each of our lives is that we sell ourselves short.  We may unconsciously believe that we have nothing to offer.  We have nothing to say which people will listen to.  Our work has little impact.  


God did not redeem us so that we could blame ourselves for how we do not measure up.  Grace takes care of that.  Luther said sin boldly, meaning don’t be paralyzed by a fear of doing something wrong; be encouraged by the belief that the Spirit who has redeemed us will guide us toward what is right.  Our identity is not defined by what we fail to do; it defined by our belief that God has created us and shaped our purpose as people of faith.  So who are you and what are you going to do?  The success of your call is not based on how people respond; it is based on whether you responded faithfully to God.  Whatever God has called you to do, keep in mind:  It's hard work, but it's good work.  But never sell yourself short. Amen.



 




Sunday, December 27, 2015

 

Rev. Denny Read

Sermon: From New Year to New Creation

Scriptures: Old Testament:  1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; New Testament: Colossians 2:12-17


Who are we as disciples of Jesus Christ?  Are we a non-profit organization that gives our money to the needy?  And do we give away our possessions under the guise of “believing” in Someone who is meddling in the world's affairs?  These are important questions to consider in a culture which assumes that faith is a convenient excuse for doing good works.  One professed atheist wrote that individuals do not need God in order to do good.  The perspective distills the Christian faith to doing nice things without acknowledging that a spiritual change has happened. Are we not more than do-gooders?  Are we not a people who have been changed by God's grace?  


The scriptures today may be remarkably familiar. The first passage is about a mother who nurtures a son who is called.  The other describes what happens when these individuals become a community.  Together, these two passages explore how the human spirit is connected to God and how that connection inspires us to do good things.


Our first passage from I Samuel requires us to explore how the past has led up to an important moment in Samuel’s life.  Israel was a loosely formed collection of 12 tribes which merged into a centralized state under Samuel’s eventual leadership.  Prior to this centralized state, human beings had become accustomed to doing what is right in their own eyes.  If a society only allows for each person to do what is right in his own eyes, it cultivates moral barrenness.  


Out of a morally barren culture, the cries of a physiologically barren woman are eventually heard by God.  To say that her expectations for life have not been met would be an understatement.  To the ears of the modern listener, we can be sympathetic to her plight. We know what it is like to have our deepest desires unaddressed in the way we want.  Hannah's deepest desire was to give birth to a child.  But her plight is more than a personal concern.   Her concern for wanting new life mimics, or even reflects, the desires of Israel.  Israel has come to a moment of reckoning.  Israel's life is Hannah's life.  Israel has no hope for new life nor does Hannah.  Israel’s grief about what the loss of life that they desire mirrors her grief about what could have been.


It is common to believe that the future will be like the past.  The passages for this morning are more about God's movement in spite of our despair or resignation.  When Hannah has hit an all-time low, she unexpectedly conceives and gives birth to Samuel.  In her joy, rightly directed to God, she vows to give her son to God's purposes.  


A woman who has wanted a child for so long, gives him over to a priest named Eli to be trained as a religious leader.  A host of questions crop up. Why would anyone who has yearned for a child for so long give him up to God's purposes?  Would she not be a helicopter parent, guarding against every fall, every hurt, and every inconvenience?  She gets the child she wants and takes him to the priest Eli who takes Samuel under his wings. This is her way of being faithful but also nurturing him. During Eli's tutelage, Samuel (a mere boy) experiences the call of God. The occasion is reminiscent of the sacrament of baptism when we acknowledge that before we could ever make a choice for God, God chose us. Hannah continues to nurture him by bringing him robes to the temple while he ministers.  In very practical ways, she is nurturing her son’s call; and, by doing so, she is also nurturing her own.


Culturally the “call” has been overly sentimentalized and watered down in many ways.  A call, in this sense, is a sense of well-being about doing good things.  Biblically, call should is never so generic.  Moses, a shepherd, is called to go head to head with the most powerful and deceitful man in Egypt, the Pharaoh.  David, the boy, who would become king fights for what is right not because he knew the odds were in his favor.  He fights for his people, his integrity, and his faith.  Let us also not forget Jesus Christ, whose final rejection is foreshadowed by the circumstances of his birth: an innkeeper rejects giving his family a place to give birth.  


As He did in the life of Samuel and in the life of Christ, so God has meddled in the affairs of human affairs and changed the course of human history.  We are a part of what God is doing, which means that we are called by God to be involved.  


We gather in worship and study to nurture other individuals in every respect, especially our respective calls.  As a collection of individuals, we get together to be a new creation.  We are kind, loving, gentle, and wise in how we interact with one another as Paul says in his letter to the Colossians.


As we approach this New Year, let us be sincere in our discernment of where God is calling to stand firm in the convictions of our faith.  And in our considerations, let us connect our Sunday morning worship and study with our workday behavior.  The call is not synonymous with comfort; well-being is.


The call of Samuel—like the call of Moses and the call of Jesus—is to do what God wants.Let us nurture what we value as Hannah did.  Let us nurture hope for the future that God is shaping. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


 



Sunday, December 20, 2015

 

Rev. Noelle Read

 Sermon: The Kingdom of Heaven on Display

Scriptures:  Old Testament: Daniel 7:13-14;   New Testament: Matthew 19:13-15


 

Are you ready for Christmas?  Have you bought all your gifts?  Have you bought all the groceries for the splurge of family dinners and household parties?  Have you clipped your lights to the roof and dragged the blow-up snowmen to decorate your lawn? Are there enough presents under the tree? If these questions are causing you stress, then--in the words of the first astronauts--“Houston, we have a problem.”  

 

Maybe coming to church can help. During the Advent season, church attendance has a dual purpose.  The first is to reflect on our own spiritual lives as we remember that Christ's arrival is a big deal.  The second may be to escape the typical secularized stressors of leading up to the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ.  

 

We have been indoctrinated into believing that secular displays are more important than theological ones.  The central question for all disciples ensnared by concerns about secular displays of holiday cheer is this: have we focused our attention on the fifth of the 6 Great Ends of the Church, which is Exhibiting the Kingdom of Heaven?  Another way to ask it is, “Have we put the Kingdom of Heaven on display for all to see?”  

 

The challenge for any preacher during the holy seasons of Christmas and Easter is to tell the story of how God moves in the world.  After a number of holy seasons, the repetition of familiar biblical narratives begin to lose their power to shape our imaginations as well as our lives.  So let’s try another approach this morning.

 

This morning we have two passages which are seemingly unrelated.  In the Old Testament passage from the book of Daniel we have a pronouncement of One who will establish dominion over the world.  In the New Testament passage is a moment in which Jesus, after discussing such sensitive subjects as divorce, finance, and morals, abruptly changes directions.  Children, the noisemakers for every solemn occasion, interrupt a sacred event.  As Jesus is teaching about how to live by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven, children rush toward him.  Although the disciples attempt to stop what will surely be the ensuing chaos, Jesus reminds them that it is to such as these, that the kingdom of Heaven belongs.  How are the Old and New Testament passages connected?

 

The book of Daniel is considered an apocalyptic book. That is to say, it contains the divine disclosure of secrets about the future.  These disclosures are made through visions.  The power of apocalyptic literature is rooted in the fact that they do not make references to historical events.  Such literature can, therefore, easily be applied to contemporary situations ranging from world events to personal ones.

 

Daniel is considered a hero.  He is a Jew in the Babylonian exile and skilled in the interpretation of dreams or visions (the means through which God speaks in much of the Bible).  Divine revelation is meant to evoke a human response.  And Daniel responds. He acknowledges through God's revelation that what is on display in the world is not what God wants on display.  Not explicitly stated but certainly implied is that God's reign is meant to prevail.  Indeed, as Daniel proclaims that a messenger is coming to establish God's dominion, the word “dominion” suggests that human beings will the subjects.

 

As subjects living under the reign of God, it is not a hard shift to look at the New Testament passage as a condition for living under His reign.  The disciples (and presumably many onlookers) have gathered to listen to his sermon about a new way of life.  He covers subjects of divorce, poverty, finances, moral character, and the power of love to change the world.  Suddenly, a group of children do what children are prone to do.  They disrupt the neatly ordered flow of what Jesus is revealing.  The disciples act like any good usher in the Church.  They try to keep everything smooth.  They restrain the children from being disruptive (which is what we have requested of anyone worshipping with our own children on Sunday mornings).  But Jesus uses the occasion as a teachable moment.

 

Jesus intervenes between the disciples and the children and says, “It is too such as these that the kingdom of Heaven belongs.”  He is not saying that children should be allowed to interrupt and run rampant.  In the ancient world, as well as the relatively recent American past, children were meant to be seen, not heard.  They were not to stray from the authority of parents.  

 

So why would Jesus say that the kingdom of Heaven belongs to children who lack authority over their own behavior?  Jesus is changing our mindsets: to be child-like is to recognize that we are voiceless and powerless.  That is humbling and, therefore, creates humility.  In our powerlessness, we recognize that we live as subjects of One who is more powerful than we, more tolerant of disruption, and more gracious than the pain or shame we carry.

 

The children’s interruption is the occasion for us to recognize that the Kingdom of Heaven is on display. Rather than shushing the children, Jesus embraces them.  Rather than chastising the disciples for trying to keep the peace, he gave them an example of discipleship.  Discipleship is striving to display the Kingdom of Heaven in our thoughts, our words, and our actions.

 

As we consider the pressures that we are under to decorate our houses, cook enough food, and buy enough gifts to be put under our trees, may we remember that these pressures are not central to the experience of Christmas.   The experience of Christmas is meant to be a time of childlike anticipation and excitement.  Like children looking forward to the arrival of Santa Claus.  Like children who look to the arrival of Santa Claus, may we look ahead with excited anticipation at what God has done and is doing.  

 

Changing our perspective isn't only exorcising stress from our lives; it is understanding that the God who rules our lives expects us to give to others in the same way He has given to us: freely and graciously.  Just as Christ displayed the Kingdom of Heaven by giving grace to the children, we are called upon to display the Kingdom of Heaven by giving grace to others.

 

Let us change our tradition this year.  Let us not ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?”  Let us ask instead, “Have we displayed the Kingdom of Heaven as Christ has displayed it?”  Rather than thinking about how our tree looks and whether there are enough gifts beneath it, let us imagine that Christ has left many gifts of grace under the tree.  With that in mind, let us leave gifts for Christ. Let Christ, then, be as pleased to receive our gifts as we are to receive His.  Then let us also be as excited to give away the grace He has given us.  Then, the Kingdom of Heaven is on display.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and theHoly Spirit.  Amen.

 



 



Sunday, December 13, 2015

Rev. Denny Read

Scriptures: Old Testament:  Isaiah 7:10-16; New Testament:  Romans 1:1-7

Sermon: “Does your Love for Christ Matter?”


Click for Video


You may have pondered the question of who you are as you search for your purpose in life. For example, if you are a teenager you may be struggling with decisions about your future.  If you are middle aged, you may be juggling retirement concerns.  Or if your body has become less dependable, perhaps you have asked whether there is any purpose remaining.  Regardless of what stage of life we are in, we wonder who we are. Are we bodies with souls or are we souls with bodies?  The distinction is huge for the Christian who strives to be faithful, particularly those who struggle in a culture of consumerism.  Around Christmas, we begin as parents and grandparents to find presents for children that will express the love we have for these little or large organic extensions of ourselves.  As we give our gifts, however, we may be perpetuating a culture of consumerism in which personal identity is fused with what we consume.  It is not uncommon to find friends and family bragging about the latest gadgets, toys, or brands of clothing they have either purchased or received.  Additionally, it is all too common to discover teenagers wearing expensive plain colored tee-shirts with nothing more than the name of a company on them.  A few years ago, it was Abercrombie and Fitch.  Tomorrow, the t-shirts might have Wal-Mart inscribed on them.  Do the labels on our possessions define us?

 

This is not who we are. Having the right clothing from the acceptable designers may get us noticed, but it gets us no closer to our true identity.  We are a people of faith and faith does not get; it gives.  We give our faith to God who cannot be seen and whose actions are evident primarily in our pasts.  For those of us who struggle to be socially acceptable, to be a part of the “in crowd”, and have found it as vacuous as a black hole, then perhaps it is God’s urging to think differently about who we are.


Consider this:  Maybe we are not bodies with souls; we are souls with bodies. Consumerism convinces us that as long as we satisfy the needs of the body, our souls will be satisfied.  Paul’s question to the church in Rome is, “Who are you?”  Perhaps if Paul were writing to our church today, he would ask: Do you want to be more than a brand name?  Do you have any inclination to be more than a pawn advertising the virtues of popular cultural trends?   Do you want to be more than a brand name devoid of God’s blessing?


From the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, the pronouncement of Christ is made.  After a succession of incompetent leadership, one appointed by God will tend to the people’s history of suffering.  Nothing short of the coming of Christ will tend to the needs of God’s people.  But the question has always been, “Preacher, year after year, we hear the same promises that deliverance will happen and nothing happens.”  I’m not preaching that deliverance happens on a whim. Nor am I here to guarantee that your rescue from adversity will be as instantaneous as text messaging.  


What I am here to tell you is this: our faith is a sign of God’s promise.  Our recognition that someone bigger than you and me and even the universe is at work.  The apostle Paul writes to the Roman Church to encourage the “obedience of faith.”  The apostle Paul is clearly aware of what Jesus proclaimed in the gospel of Matthew: even faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.


So during this Advent season will we submit to a culture of consumerism or yield to Jesus Christ?  Will we submit to the emptiness of consumerism or yield to the fullness of Christ?  Granted, the choice is not an easy one.  


The social pressure to be like everyone else can be overwhelming.  But those pressures, when looked back upon, are nothing when we can look forward to the fullness of Christ.


May the obedience of faith rule our lives.   Let us disregard the world’s attempt to make us submissive.  In faith, let us embrace the Christ who brings us to a manger to set our priorities straight.  In our journey toward the manger, let us give up our pursuit of grandeur, worldly significance, and power. Our purpose is not to act as billboards for corporations.  Our true purpose is to provide light in darkness of uncertainty, love in the face of animosity, and safety in the time of fear.  That is who we are.  


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 



Sunday, November 22, 2015

Rev. Noelle Read

Scriptures: Old Testament: Psalm 95; New Testament:  1 Corinthians 14:23-33

Sermon:  “A Royal Waste of Time”


The Great Ends of the Church, developed by the United Presbyterian Church between 1904 and 1910, shape all ministries of the Church.  They also have the capacity to help each of us understand more clearly what God’s call is for our lives.  As we have gone through the first sermon series on the Six Great Ends of the Church, the Scriptures have unearthed a simple truth.  Each one of us has a calling.  Every last one of us has a purpose.  Those purposes are varied, for as St. Paul says, “We are one Body with many members.”   And though we may have many members and many purposes, there is one purpose for which God did not create us: complacency.  The Six Great Ends describe how the Church does ministry.


Those Six Great Ends are:


  • The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind


  • The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual fellowship of the Children of God


  • The Maintenance of Divine Worship.


  • The Preservation of the Truth


  • The Promotion of Social Righteousness


  • And finally the Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven.


Notice that each Great End of the Church is concerned with doing something:  proclaiming, sheltering, maintaining, worshipping, preserving, promoting, and exhibiting.  All this activity is reminiscent of Jesus’ ministry in which he moved to make a difference.  He was faithful to the six Great Ends before the Six Great Ends had even been a human thought.  Our purpose is to follow in His footsteps.


This morning, we are exploring another perspective on the Maintenance of Divine Worship.  It may sound awfully technical and sterile—or Presbyterian.  But the task is immense.  The task is made much more difficult because we live in a culture that is largely inhospitable to Christian faith.


Today, Christian faith is largely marginalized, scoffed at, or dismissed by a culture of narcissism.  Narcissism—the inordinate focus on yourself at the expense of others’ well-being—began to take root in the 60’s.  The rugged individualism of early American pioneers morphed into an obsession with the Self.   A narcissistic culture is hungry for more adherents.  A narcissistic culture stresses being committed to being consumers of entertainment. Television, video games, and social media provide an intensely personal—but isolating—experience for the viewer.   It is as if our primary relationships are devices not other people.  Such experiences are among many reasons a selfie is so popular. Take a picture of yourself with your smartphone, put it on a social media outlet, and you have gained fleeting significance. Significance such as this is short-lived and it is without a greater purpose.   


In 1999, a study concluded that children will spend more time watching T.V. than they will in school.  Even more disconcerting is that the time children spent with parents could only be tabulated in minutes and seconds.   Social media has added gasoline to the fire.   


Focusing on ourselves doesn’t require us to think of anyone else. However, the belief that we exist for ourselves is contrary to the message of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.  We believe in a God who exists beyond us.  We believe that we exist to serve others in the same way that Christ does.  Worship is where Narcissism and Christian faith do battle.


Of all the practices of the Church, worship is the only indispensable activity of the Church.  It is where we remember that we are not an audience to be entertained; God is the audience to be glorified.  In Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth, he implores the congregation to examine its own practices in worship.  In effect, he says that Christian worship should function not only to be a gift to God, but an experience of grace for the disciple of Jesus Christ.  Worship is to be ordered instead of chaotic so that the clarity of our purpose is obvious.  We intentionally glorify God in worship; we re-commit our lives to God.  By doing so, we can look beyond ourselves to the God who guides our steps, and we can be exhibit the truth of God’s goodness.  It simply is not true that worship is a royal waste of time.  In fact, there is no better way to spend our time.


Perhaps the real royal waste of time is our pursuit of recognition and significance.  If we are committed to watching television and playing video games, then we do not have the time to devote to God.

 

We are called to move away from the un-Christian practice of self-worship.  Keeping worship divine is the Great End of the Church reminding us that we do not live for ourselves. We live for God, and God lives for us.

 

Although orthodoxy is commonly understood to be a rigid adherence to dogma, its meaning is much richer.  Two Greek words make up this misunderstood word.  Orthos means true and doxa means praise.  Orthodoxy is true—or even better—faithful praise and faithful worship.  May we be faithful in how we spend our time.  Let us worship God.  And let us also be supportive of one another for as the Apostle Paul says, “Let all things be done for building up.”  Amen.

 



Sunday, November 15, 2015

 

Rev. Denny Read

Scriptures: Old Testament:  Ruth 2:8-13; New Testament: Eph. 2:11-22 

Sermon: “Reconciled, Reconciling”


This week we are exploring another aspect of the second of the Six Great Ends of the Church:  The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God.  Last week, we discussed the part two of The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind.  To this end, The Church determines through prayer how it will shelter and nurture the faith and well-being of everyone inside and outside of the Church.   Old and New Testament passages significantly broaden how we are called to Shelter and Nurture the Children of God.


As we will discover in both Scripture passages, The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God begins with our relationship with Christ and is expressed in our relationships with others.  In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul claims that Gentile converts “are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”  The word stranger comes from the Latin word meaning “to make a stranger.” As Gentiles—that is, non-Jews—God has included us into His family.  He takes strangers and makes them family.  He takes the estranged and gathers them up in His arms.  God, like anyone in any kind of relationship, has acknowledged that our faults are not so great as to make reconciliation impossible.  We are God’s.  We are His through Jesus Christ.  Notice that we are reconciled to God not by our efforts; we are reconciled through God’s.


The relief is immense for, as has been well-documented in the life of Reformer Martin Luther, it was not always apparent that God’s efforts were sufficient to save us from the torments of this life or the pain of the hereafter.  But after closely reading Scripture, Martin Luther came to the conclusion that we all share: God is gracious even when we have been sinful, unpleasant, and unrighteous.  Having been reconciled to God through Jesus’ Christ’s death and resurrection, we are thus called to the work of reconciliation.  The work of reconciliation begins with Stewardship.  But Noelle and I want for us all to think of stewardship differently from the way we have thought about it.  It would be a failure on the Church’s part to persuade you that stewardship is only about trying to extract more money from you.  On the other hand, it would be a failure to persuade you that money is unimportant to the needs of the Church in a community such as ours.

 

The word steward is a combination of two Old English words: the first is stiye, meaning enclosure or space.  The other is weord, meaning trustworthy keeper or protector of another’s property.   To be a faithful steward of God’s creation is to be entrusted with faithfully caring for God’s creation.  As we go through the Scriptures this morning, keep in mind that the care of creation is not an abstraction; it is the practice of faithfulness that affect real people.


In the book of Ruth, we experience great tragedy.  It is not unlike the tragedies of some in this congregation.  It is largely a portrayal of significant loss and the question behind all tragedies is whether God was present.  In the book of Ruth, a down economy and a lack of food cause a family to relocate to a place with more promise of food and general well-being.  Elimelech and his wife Naomi relocate with their sons and daughters-in- law to a land where they can prosper. Those dreams of prosperity and joy are destroyed when tragedy strikes. The patriarch of the family dies.  Soon thereafter, the deceased man’s sons die. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, are widows.   Naomi, once a mother and a wife, is only a shadow of her former self.  She has suffered three losses obviously; but she has lost her security as well.


In the ancient Jewish culture, a woman’s worth diminished as she aged beyond childbearing years.  Without a husband, a son, and the ability to bear children, Naomi cannot get even the basic necessities of life.   The term used frequently throughout the Old and New Testaments for someone facing her situation is “resident alien.”   These are the people who do not belong.  Resident aliens are the non-native people.  They are the people who live without the benefit of supportive family members.  Naomi is in a bind and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.


Most peculiar to the book Ruth is that God is not mentioned.  Aside from Ruth saying to Naomi that she will adopt the God she worships, God has no active role.  God is remarkably and eerily silent.  That’s because behind the scenes of every hardship and tragedy, God is working through human beings.  God provides Ruth to Naomi and Boaz to Ruth, which is our Scripture reading for this morning.


Ruth, whose main concern is the welfare of her mother-in-law, apparently discovers through chance a kind-hearted, loving man named Boaz.  He gives her work and after seeing that she has helpful skills, he makes her a supervisor of all the young women working in the field.  And she asks the question many of us asked when we are given a lifeline, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner (stranger)?”  But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been full told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.”  A possible paraphrase is “Ruth, you committed your life to helping someone you were not obligated to help.  And you stepped outside of your comfort zone.”


God is calling all of us to step out of our comfort zone, to reach out to the stranger, to dig into our pockets and to step into each others’ lives with the love of Christ and the commitment of Ruth. Just as we are called to love our reconciling God with our heart, mind, and soul, let us also make the commitment to give with our time and even our money.  God has been abundantly gracious; let us do likewise.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen




 



Sunday, November 8, 2015

 

Rev. Noelle Read

 Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:1-6; Luke 3:2-6

Sermon: Proclaim What Is True


 

Though stores have Christmas items out already, I know it is not Christmas!  But please bear with me as I walk through the beginning of the Christmas story as told to us in the Gospel of Luke.

 

We are greeted at the beginning of Luke’s account of Jesus of situations that would cause many of us to have less faith, not more.  But apparently Luke, who is considered to be a highly educated man, believes that an accounting of Jesus’ life is important for his friend Theophilus. We might find it strange then, that at the beginning he talks about Zecharaiah and his wife Elizabeth.  This older couple, clearly beyond child bearing age, is told by the angel Gabriel that they will give birth to a son despite their barrenness.  Perhaps it is as strange to you as it is to me that this barren couple is resigned to the way things are.  They are too old to bring forth new life. Zecharaiah says that without question “my wife is getting on in years.”   They are too old to be vessels for God’s purposes—or so they would like to believe.

 

Then Gabriel is sent to the town of Nazareth, which in ancient times might have been considered “Nowheresville.”  In this town, he tells a virgin that she will bear a son who will reign over the House of David.  His kingdom will have no end.  We can imagine how incredulous Mary is when she hears this claim.  In today’s society, we are more likely to hear a cliché such as “My body, my choice”; yet, she is more inquisitive than guarded.  She wants Gabriel to tell her how this could happen to one who has not shared her bed with any man.  Surely God cannot act outside of the rules that govern the world I inhabit—or so she would like to believe.

 

The doubting Elizabeth and Zechariah along with the befuddled Virgin Mary will be connected by God’s purposes.  The couple will give birth to John the Baptizer and Mary will give birth to his cousin, Jesus.  The doubts of the doubting are laid to rest.  It proves the point that, “Through God all things are possible.”  

 

Then it should come as no surprise to us that John is the one to proclaim the coming of Christ.  John’s claim is audacious because it is a proclamation that undermines the religious authorities and the status quo.  John’s claims about life with Jesus undermine life as we know it; despite what anyone tells us though, keep in mind, that life as we know it is never as good as the life that God gives.

 

God intervenes in history—specifically the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius—to have John the Baptizer (who was not Baptist, by the way).  He goes into the region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.    

 

Baptism was a common practice for the Jews.  It was a ritualized cleansing which absolved each Jew for being unclean.  Such uncleanliness may have included anything from touching a dead body, to theft, to acting dishonorably toward a father or mother.  But John proclaims a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.  John’s assertion that baptism was connected to our personal repentance and an acknowledgement of having sinned was taboo.  Being cleansed should be enough shouldn’t it? Not if we take the gospel seriously.

 

Baptism is inseparable from our behavior.  In the first sermon on the Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind, the first great end of the Church, the Scriptures underscored that salvation comes when God graciously intervenes in our lives.  Our lives are saved from the darkness that plagues a fallen world.  But salvation is not limited to whether God has made a bed for us in Heaven; it is also inextricably tied to our behavior in the present.

 

Baptism is a visible sign of that invisible grace of salvation.  But that does not mean that we can rest on our laurels while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket.  In fact, John tells us that if we are baptized and don’t change our ways, then repentance means nothings.  The Apostle Paul inquires in his letter to the Church in Rome: “What then are we to say?  Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? By no means.”  

 

The Proclamation of Salvation of Humankind is realized when our youth, baptized as infants, confirm that they share the faith of The Church, the Body of Christ.  Baptism yields fruitful actions, not destructive ones nor non-action.

 

The people who have gathered to hear John’s curious connection of Salvation with Baptism ask, “What then should we do?”  And he tells them pointedly about the life he is proclaiming.  If one of us has two coats, share one with the person who does not have one.  And if you have plenty of food, help fill the bellies of the hungry. In effect, don’t hoard what others desperately need.  Then, the tax collectors ask him curiously about the part they play in living Baptized Life.  He tells them to quit stealing money.  Quit extorting it from people.  In all things for all who follow, be filled with joy.

 

The joy of being saved is reflected in being selfless in our giving.  May we give to those in need.  May we give out of our abundance of time.  May our Baptisms show the world that we are committed to behaving like Christ.  May we be honest with each other.  And by being selfless, honest and fair, may our salvation be others’ saving grace.  Because, once baptized, we live to serve.

 

Remember your own Baptism and the vows made by you or on your behalf:

 

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?

 

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?

 

And Finally,

 

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?

 

The answer to these are “I will, with God’s help”


Amen.

 



 



Sunday, November 1, 2015


Rev. Denny Read


Old Testament: Leviticus 25:13-17, 39-46;  New Testament: Matthew 5:1-13, 17-20


Sermon: “Exhibition of the Kingdom: Maybe We are Chasing Dreams that are Too Big?” 


Last week, we discussed the Fifth of the Six Great Ends of the Church:  The Promotion of Social Righteousness.  As we continue the sermon series on The Six Great Ends of the Church, we are exploring the Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven.   Our Scriptures for this morning outline how spirituality under-girds faithful practices.  


Leviticus combines faith and action in very specific acts during the Year of Jubilee. Between 200 B.C. and 500 A.D., a collection of writings, known as the Talmud, emphasized a Jew’s legal and moral responsibilities set forth in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Talmud, the sacred law of the Jubilee was a rare introduction of morals into economics.  The Jubilee, which occurred every seventh year on the Jewish calendar, safeguarded against slavery and poverty. Property taken as a payment of debt was returned.  Additionally, all land was to lie fallow for the year. The numeric pattern follows the numeric pattern of God’s creation of the world.  God created the world in six days; on the seventh he rested. Human beings are meant to work in the same manner.  We work six days; on the seventh, we rest.  The Jubilee reflects the same numeric pattern but occurs in years instead of days.  Being faithful to God’s commands, however, requires discipline.  


The deep memory of what God has done clearly directs how we are to behave toward each other. We witness God’s requirement for His people to forgive each other’s debts. God had the option of ignoring the cries of His people.  God also had the option of giving up on His people when they complained about how He was not caring adequately for His people in the wilderness journey.  Instead, He handles His people with grace.  It should come as no surprise that God commands His people to behave similarly.

 

After each command to act with grace, the reason is, “Because I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.”  The care God has given us is the care we are to give others.  Our passages from Leviticus and the Gospel of Matthew are calls for God’s people to remember who they are and what they are called to do.  Who they were called to be is who we are called to be.


In Matthew, we hear from his Sermon on the Mount, declarations that subvert the reality of the world.  In the present tense, Christ says that the poor in spirit own the kingdom of Heaven.  Of the first 9 verses of the Beatitudes, that is the only declaration made in the present tense.  All other declarations tell us about the characteristics of God’s kingdom in the future.  We may conclude then that what is of utmost importance is humility—that is, being poor in spirit.  Having humility, we can then start to Exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven, that we will know fully when God redeems Creation.


Humility is essential for Exhibiting the Kingdom of Heaven.  We comfort the grieving because in God’s Kingdom there is comfort.  We help those who are thirst for fairness because God’s kingdom is just.  We are merciful because God is merciful to us.  We will strive to make peace with others because we want to be God’s children.  


Exhibiting the Kingdom of Heaven is difficult in a current culture in which there is a general acceptance of dishonesty and a disregard for others.   The dearth of remorseful expressions is one way to gauge this reality.  It suggests that as a society, we are losing our sense of guilt, the feeling that comes with having done something wrong.  Healthy guilt compels us, in many ways, to admit wrong and to rectify the wrong we have done. What has replaced guilt is the fear of getting caught. Rather than living as moral people who do what is right regardless of who is watching, many say what they’re doing is wrong only if they are caught.


One psychologist tells the story of trying to garner his kids’ affection by taking them out for ice cream (despite agreeing with his wife to cut back on spending). When he got home, he buried the ice cream cups in the outside garbage.  He was afraid of getting caught.  He not only tried to hide his indiscretion but he set a bad example for his children.


How then shall we live?  Our Scriptures tell us. Let us live in the season of Jubilee in which we care for others by forgiving debts, trespasses, and past mistakes.  Let us be freed to be like the Lord, our God, who brings us out of bondage, saves us from the wilderness, and leads us beside still waters.  With humility, we exhibit the kingdom of Heaven together.  Amen



 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Rev. Noelle H. Read

Old Testament:  Isaiah 58:6-11; New Testament:  1 John 3:11-24

Sermon: “In Us God Trusts”--Promotion of Social Righteousness


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Have you ever thought about how freeing it would be not to have to follow what God expects of us?  Not only is following the Ten Commandments a chore, but Jesus follows those basic commandments with a divine expectation that our thoughts will not cause us to stray.  The recognition that we cannot at all times be faithful is why humanity’s fall from Paradise is significant.  The Fall is a biblical moment when humanity makes decisions independently of God’s will. You know the story. Adam and Eve are created in the image of God.  They are given dominion over all that God has created.  But there is one catch! They are commanded not to eat of the tree of knowledge.  For when they eat it, “they will become like gods.”  The serpent, the craftiest animal in the Garden, tempts Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of that one forbidden tree.  Temptation, obviously, gets the best of them. They eat.  Indeed, their eyes are opened and they believe: they are like the gods.


Life prior to this event is distinctly different from life after it.  Freedom and abundance preceded the Fall; hardship and toil succeeded it. After falling away of God’s command, life has become much harder. Men toil the earth for their needs. Women’s childbirth is painful. Never again shall we know the completeness that God intended.  For our purposes this morning, we will explore how we strive to return to Eden by adhering to the Fifth Great End of the Church: The Promotion of Social Righteousness.  Social Righteousness, however, should not be heard as the pursuit of fairness (although that can be one aspect of it.) Rather the promotion of social righteousness is best defined as loving and caring for others as God loves and care for each of us. The disobedience of the first human beings did not cut off God’s love, by any means.  It only revealed that humanity has a hard time living as God would have us live.  Despite being disobedient, God cares for us and expects us to care for His creation.


That care is best expressed through the word Stewardship.  The word steward is a combination of two Old English words: the first is stiye, meaning enclosure or space.  The other is weord, meaning trustworthy keeper or protector of another’s property.   To be a faithful steward of God’s creation is to be entrusted with faithfully caring for God’s creation.  Righteousness, on the other hand, comes from two words Richt and Wis, mean right or correct manner.  Staying true to God’s call is a matter of Stewardship and one aspect of Stewardship is the promotion of social righteousness.   


Adam and Eve, prior to the fall and after it, are charged with having dominion over creation.  They are to care for it in the right way. Likewise, we are entrusted with caring for God’s creation: In Us God Trusts. We know that on our money is the phrase, “In God we Trust” but thought is seldom given to the fact that in Holy Scripture, we can see that God trusts us to live as faithful stewards.


In his first letter to John, the apostle Paul has a Bear Bryant approach to living faithfully.  Paul wants to focus on the basics of the Christian faith, which is why he reminds this missionary named John of the message from the beginning.  The message is to love one another.  After hearing the phrase so many times, we may be inclined to disregard it at the peril of our spiritual growth.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus makes it clear that it is easier to do what is natural than what is unnatural.  It is natural to want revenge.  It is natural to keep what is yours than to share it.  It natural to look out for your own needs regardless of the needs of our neighbors, let alone our enemies.  But the Apostle Paul is no stranger to this line of thought.  For he says in verse 18 and 19, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth…”


The basis of discipleship is loving one another.  By learning to love one another, we can discover what it is like to be God.  Adam and Eve discovered—perhaps as we all have—that godliness is not found by being disobedient to God’s commands.  Godliness is discovered when we are obedient.  


The message which Christians knew from the beginning is that loving one another is divine.  It has always been interesting that the apostle Paul does not qualify who is to be loved.  I am convinced that Paul does not qualify the kind of person we are to love because we are meant to love all people.   Although it is easy to love our friends, we should love our enemies as well.  Although we can easily love our neighbors, we are also expected to love the people who inhabit different continents.  Although we can easily love family members who have not disappointed us, we are called to love the family members who continue to disappoint.  Our love is to be greater than our hatred for enemies, more expansive than our delight with friends, and broader than our familial disappointments.  Only when we love one another can we begin to promote social righteousness.  To promote social righteousness is to care not just about God’s creation but His people too.  Let us be good stewards and start with loving one another.  Once we love, then we are freed to give.  


In the name of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.




Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rev. Denny Read

Old Testament: Psalm 25:1-10; New Testament: John 18:28-40

Sermon Title: “How to Know the Truth” Preservation of the Truth 1


(No Video Available This Week)


 

An enormous elephant is standing in the middle of the jungle.  As a matter of fact, a monkey looked at this enormous creature and had a brilliant idea. He thought, “I need a rest after foraging for food all day. If I owned that elephant, life would be so much easier.”  Monkey swings onto the top of the elephant and stakes his claim.  The ants see this and also want to stake their claim.  They are tired too and can see that the elephant is going in their direction.  They line up on the elephant’s foot and stake their claim. Likewise one of the birds of the jungle, tired from a day long flight lands on the elephants back.  Every creature claimed to possess the elephant.  Every animal riding the elephant believed that they possessed the elephant.    

 

This story has been, and still is, a popular illustration that no one creature—e.g. no human being—can lay claim to Truth. Each of us, like animals riding the elephant, can only claim to have a piece of truth.  The philosophy makes room for other truth claims to exist and keep the peace.  This approach makes, however, tells us that Truth can only be discovered relative to experience. If truth is only filtered through personal experience, then it follows that there are many truths or no truths at all.  If experience determines truth then truth is highly personal and morals are relative.  The trouble with the truth is not that it is elusive; the trouble with truth is that it is as evident as the nose on our faces.

 

We cannot believe in relative truth and act with moral conviction. As Christians, we claim what is written in Scripture that Jesus Christ is "the way, THE TRUTH, and the life" (John 14:6). In other words, knowing the Truth has a huge impact on how we behave.  And there’s the rub in a pluralistic culture.  Isn’t the Church being judgmental?  Isn’t it claiming superiority over other beliefs?

 

Let us first consider this: making a judgment is not being judgmental.  In our judgment, God has revealed Truth.  For in the early part of the Gospel of John, Jesus says in 14:6, “I am the way, the Truth, and the Life.”  Well, then, how do you know it’s true.  

 

We rely on three aspects of the Christian experience.  They are Scripture, tradition, and experience.  As we consider how these three parts dance together to enrich our lives of faith, we are called upon to make a judgment—or maybe when we make a judgment based on Scripture, tradition, and experience, we are doing the hard work of theology.  It is our duty to do theology, to know how to talk about what we believe, and then, to live it out.

 

One definition of theology is a course of specialized religious study.  This possible definition underscores that theology is now, largely, in the hands of the professionals instead of the laity.  This was not always the situation historically.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, theology was the work of all Protestants. God was discussed.  The Scriptures were studied.  People sought to know the truth and live it.  That's hard work.  But understanding God's work in life was important.  

 

However, as the pressures of work increased and the demands of family increased, the hard work of theology was delegated to the pastor.  As you can imagine, doing the work of theology on top of tending to the needs of the congregation, became unsustainable.  Consequentially, the clergy passed the buck to professors in the academy.  The gradual progression from the laity doing the work of theology became the full-time vocation of academics who could devote their lives to the task. Theology became a specialty thrice (three times) removed from the hands of the laity. Leaving theology exclusively in the hands of the professionals can be disastrous, however.  

 

Keith Meyer, author of Whole Life Transformation, explores the Truth of God's work in the world—especially through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is that life is transformed.  He explores the alternative to a life transformed by The Truth.  "Imagine", the author says, “a bunch of ducks going to the First Church of the Glories of Flying once a week."  They waddle to Church to hear about the wonders of flying yet they do not fly.  They have gone to Church for so long and heard the stories told that they actually believe that they know how to fly.  This is a painful truth for many Churches.  But it is not ours.  The truth is that in Christ our lives have been transformed.  It is now our duty and our discipline to practice what is preached.

 

The Preservation of Truth, the fourth Great End of the Church, happens when laity practice living the Truth.  Through worship, bible studies, and considering God’s call as a community, the Truth of God is preserved.  And that Truth is that Jesus wants us to live our lives trusting Him, living as He would, and serving others.  In the name of the father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

 



 



Sunday, October 11, 2015

Rev. Cody Watson

(Assistant Director of the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship)

Old Testament: Genesis 12:1-3; New Testament: Matthew 9:35-38

Sermon Title: "Shepherdless Sheep"


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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Rev. Denny Read

Old Testament: Exodus 7:14-19; New Testament Revelation 4:1-8

Sermon Title: “What's It Worth to You?” (#3 of The Great Ends of The Church – The Maintenance of Divine Worship)


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Last week,wediscussed the second of the Six Great Ends of the Church: The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God. To this end, The Church determines through prayer how it will shelter and nurture not only the faith of its members but the physical needs as well. The third Great End of the Church is The Maintenance of Divine Worship- a title that sounds more like the job description for a celestial custodian than a call for believers to work at keeping worship divine.

 

Consistently from the Old Testament to the New Testament, worship is the only indispensable activity for Jews who frequented The Temple and the Christians who attended Church. The purpose of attendance was primarily to worship. But how important is worship for us today? Do we worship because the sermons engage our minds? Do we worship because the music lifts our hearts? Or do we worship because we want God to solve our problems? Addressing the quality of worship is important. But, if our desires for worship are born exclusively from personal preferences or tastes, then we have strayed from the Scriptural basis for why we worship.

 

From the Old Testament comes the seminal event of the Exodus, through which God’s frees His people. One instance early in Exodus provokes God to listen and look at the pain of His people. After hearing the Israelites complain about the conditions of their slavery, Pharaoh concludes that increasing the work will stop the perceived whining. He, therefore, demands more productivity. Moreover, he gives them less materials to work with. The work Pharaoh requires cannot be accomplished in the allotted time, and so the people are persecuted. God assigns Moses the role of leader to set his people free. As God's patience is tested by Pharaoh’s resistance, he begins to test Pharaoh’s patience with the plagues of Egypt. God’s love is expressed through liberation—indeed, the salvation—of a people with virtually no other recourse.

 

God emphasizes, however, that although he pities His people, pity is not His motive. Nor is it a cosmic exhibition of God trying to prove His power. In the narrative about Pharaoh, God tells him eight times to let His people go that they may worship Him. God visits 10 plagues upon the Egyptians so that His people may be set free to worship. God is very serious about worship. God is not kidding.

 

Then, in the book of Revelation are rather cryptic descriptions of St. John’s vision on the island of Patmos. The New testament passage describes 24 elders around the throne of Christ. The twelve tribes of Israel plus Christ’s 12 disciples equal 24. These 24 elders represent the total number of God’s people who worship. These 24, and other creatures as well, are involved in worship, day and night for eternity.

 

Now consider that while we are on this earth, we generally devote one hour a week to worship. Surely that full hour—maybe even a few minutes longer—is more important than getting to the Carriage House before the crowds, making your tee time, or seeing the kickoff.

 

The Maintenance of Divine Worship is not a voluntary job description; it is a duty. We are called upon to maintain the divinity of worship, not to suit our personal tastes. We maintain worship's divinity not by asking if worship is pleasing to us, but rather if it is pleasing to God. We make worship more secular if our main concern is if we will be lifted up by the music or the sermons.

 

We have been lifted up out of our oppression by God's intervention through the Exodus. We have already been freed by Christ from the hardships described in Revelation. These interventions make us less worthy and God more worthy of praise.

 

The question is not whether you enjoyed the music, although we hope you do. The question is not whether you were enriched by the Scriptures, although we hope you are. The real question is whether God’s divinity has been upheld—whether His power has been proclaimed. In worship, we are not the audience to be entertained or uplifted. We are instead the performers, seeking to praise God and to please Him. In all of this work, we are acknowledging that the price of God’s loves is the Maintenance of Divine Worship. It is both our duty and our pleasure. In the name of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.





 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

 

Rev. Noelle Read

Old Testament: Genesis 7:11-24; New Testament; Mark 1:1-3

 Sermon: “The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God, part One”


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 Last Sunday we addressed the First Great End of the Church: The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind. Today, we address the second Great End: The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God.


In last week’s sermon, we discussed the shift that occurred in the 60s and 70s. Criticized for being too rigid and traditional, losing membership rapidly, the Church sought secular approval. By incorporating entertainment into worship and study, churches sought to attract young people. Clergy began dressing and speaking more informally. Popular music became a regular feature of worship. Local churches began to calculate success by the size of their congregations. Christianity became a numbers games, and entertainment its drawing card.

 

When the church’s faith is distilled to the number of the people on the membership rolls, we can be tempted to use any means necessary to increase those numbers. But this is not the purpose of the Church. Certainly, large numbers of congregants indicate that many desire the promises of the Gospel and the comfort of the Spirit. Our purpose is to establish a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to live by His teachings, and to follow him as model and mentor. Thereby, we shelter and nurture the spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God. Thereby, we achieve this second Great End of the Church.

 

Have we not all experienced anger and mercy as Jesus did? Have we not all lived in the wilderness, needing shelter from the unfamiliar and even the hostile? Do we not all need nurturing from our fellow Christians?

 

There is no question that The Church—including our congregation—exists in the wilderness. Nor is there any question that believers are oppressed by the tyranny of a culture with which they are at odds. As we struggle in this wilderness, we would be well served to recognize some of the culprits that prevent us from walking with Christ.

 

Entertainment is one of them. Television and social media have trained our society to expect constant entertainment. For example, children learn their ABC’s from the Sesame Street Muppets; every doctor’s office has music or TV playing; telephones offer video games and Internet sites; schools seek to make education more entertaining. And the list goes on and on and on. The purpose of entertainment is escape into unreality, into a world of fabrication. But that world is not real. Real suffering occurs daily and incessantly in the lives of real people.

 

What would have happened if Moses were more fascinated with the Burning Bush than with the Call of God? What if Moses were more entertained by the unconsumed Bush than concerned with the God who performed the Miracle? Perhaps the Jews would not have been liberated from their oppressive cultural tyranny.

 

What might have happened in today’s culture if Jesus’ first disciples (James and John, Simon and Andrew) had heard Jesus say, “Follow Me” and had answered “Just let me finish this one television show”? The first disciples were not struggling with entertainment. They were struggling with a harsh reality, and they answered the call. They dropped what they were doing and they followed. Their response and experience, conveyed to us in Scripture, had a remarkable impact on their lives. Their experiences are our experiences. Their stories are our stories.

 

Noah’s story is also our story. The ark is the refuge for a remnant of creation. God cleanses the world. And with the remnant, Life will continue. The ark is symbolically the refuge for humankind, the shelter that preserves and protects. The Church serves the same purpose. In Psalm 12, God sees and hears how life has been disordered. God says, “because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up. I will place them in safety for which they long.” That is one of the Great Purposes of the Church: to place the needy in safety, to shelter them, to nurture them.

 

Where are these people needing shelter and nurture? They are in our congregation, in our community, living among us, longing for safety. It is our duty to meet their need. That is the Second Great End of The Church. Amen.


 



Sunday, September 20, 2015

 

Rev. Denny Read

Old Testament: Isaiah 55: 1-3; New Testament: Romans 10: 1-15

Sermon: “What Will They Hear?”

 

Over the next 24 weeks, we will examine & explore “The Six Great Ends of The Church”. Established at the beginning of the 20th century, they guided the Church’s purpose. The Six Great Ends are:


1) The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind;

2) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;

3) the maintenance of divine worship;

4) the preservation of the truth;

5) the promotion of social righteousness; and

6) the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.


As we explore these six great ends, it is important also to look at them in the context of the current cultural climate of intolerance and marginalization of The Church.


The Christian Church is currently under siege by cultural and political forces that accuse it of bigotry and intolerance. The accusations are themselves bigoted and intolerant. In fact, it was Christianity that spawned—in Matthew Franck’s words—“the classical sense of devotion of human liberty, with a private sphere protected by natural rights, the equal moral dignity of individuals, freedom of conscience, and a limited state.” The Church which birthed these ideals is now the subject of ridicule and derision. The Church which was once the center of public and private life is now the object of scorn. In this tremendous cultural shift, the Church—especially First Presbyterian Church-- is being called to reclaim Her purpose in the world.


The shift began nearly 75 years ago. In the mid 1940’s when WWII vets came home from war, they were settling back into normal American lives. They-- like all other people-- bought cheaper land outside of the cities which became the suburbs. The Church’s ministry was clear. The Church had a purposeful ministry helping veterans, their families, and burgeoning new community. In the 60’s and 70’s, however, the purpose of the Church became less clear due to significant social changes. Many young people—contrary to the views of their parents--advocated for free love and a drug induced experimentation. Simultaneously, the Civil Rights Movement made changes that were meant to ensure that equality spanned all races in America. Enormous cultural upheaval was a challenge for The Church.


Some churches circled the wagons to prevent change. Others, looking to another kind of institutional survival, tried to become more hospitable to the culture. The Church struggled—as it does today--with how to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ without being too exclusive or too inclusive. We, as the members of The Church, are discovering the truth: “If you try to please everyone, you will end up pleasing no one.” Of the Six Great Ends of The Church, the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind is difficult for many Presbyterians.


Proclamation involves speaking to others about our faith. But the question for many of us is why don’t we share our faith very much? Is it because we are embarrassed by the Christian wingnuts who get the most air time?


Sharing the good news of our faith may be uncomfortable in an era of intolerance but the good news, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is life to those dying slowly in the valley of the shadow of death.


Knowing that our sins and misdeed are not held against us, knowing that we are loved as children, understanding that God plots our course in this life and the next, what is this called? This is salvation wrought by the proclamation, the sharing, of good news.


Who does not need good news? When negativity is granted the largest headlines and tragedy is given the most air time, why are we hesitant to share good news? Good news gives hope and purpose and moral agency to the saved. Shouldn’t we be excited by good news for a change?


Meanness, revenge, bullying, and neglect have become acceptable unfortunately. Lives inundated with this kind of negativity can hear of a new way if we are willing to talk about it. The Church’s message does not need to change in order to be accepted or culturally relevant. Historically, the Church (following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ) has spent more time being out of sync with the culture than it has been in sync with it. The good news is not synchronized with our culture. God has not left you alone and that is a message all need to hear. We are given the task of sharing the good news that you are not deserving of meanness, you are not the subject of God’s wrath, your life is valuable to God and His Church. You are blessed by the God who gives feely the gifts of love, kindness, mercy, comfort, and peace. That is a message worth sharing.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 



Sunday, August 30, 2015

 

 Rev. Noelle Read

Old Testament: Psalm 1; Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 

Sermon: "Matters of the Heart"


Taking you back to the book of Acts….Before the Greek Council of the Areopagus, the Apostle Paul has the opportunity either to embarrass himself and the church or to prove that the claims of the church are more compelling than the claims of other beliefs. The apostle Paul is navigating through a pluralistic culture not unlike our own. Many gods in a culture of many faiths was common in Asia Minor. The Areopagus served as the city center in which arguments were made. In the 17th Chapter of Acts, the Apostle Paul is having a debate with philosophers. They are debating whether God exists and if God exists, how? Gatherers were eager to hear something new and invited Paul to speak at the Areopagus.


It is all too common to see flashed across our screens, reports and videos of so called evangelists protesting at soldiers’ funerals and spouting hateful words. As it is a common experience to hear someone shouting through a bullhorn at a rock concert how sinners need to turn or burn. Both situations bears the marks of Christian outreach to the unchurched or the faith seekers. Unlike these styles of contemporary evangelism, the apostle Paul reaches out in a way that is not condemning, but inclusive and faithful.


The apostle spoke these words to them: “Men of Athens! I see that you are very religious.” Notice that Paul does not condemn their religiosity. He affirms their religiosity. He celebrates it! And the evidence is in what Paul observes: “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: “To an Unknown God.”


It is as if Paul is speaking directly to our own culture with many unknown gods that we celebrate. Theologian Paul Tillich describes the situation best, writing “Our ultimate concern is our God.” So let us today ask as the observers at the Areopagus were asked: What is your ultimate concern? In other words, who is your God? Known or unknown?


If you have found your heart wandering for satisfaction, it is searching for God. If you have found yourself in need of comfort but only found it in what temporarily gratifies you, then you are on the prowl for a god. If you are desperate for purpose because life has left you empty-handed, then you are desperately looking for God’s whereabouts.


But isn’t it easier to simply fill our hearts with substitutes. Liquor, sex, money, and prosperity are but a few. These fleeting pleasures only alleviate the existential angst that comes with being human. It means that we all feel anxious. We all feel pain. We all feel desperate. And like most people, we may try doing whatever we can to alleviate the anxiety, pain, and desperation regardless of the consequences.


Recently, computer hackers hacked into the Ashley Madison website. Their motto was “Life is short. Have an affair.” The excuse for doing anything nowadays is that life is short; do what you want; do what feels good.


But what if life is not designed to be lived for ourselves. However short or long our lives are, we are not built exclusively for self-gratification.


Within this kind of culture, the Apostle Paul says that God is more personal than a casual sexual encounter or the fleeting calm of a couple of drinks. Our God is more personally involved in our lives. God desires for us to have an ongoing relationship that is mutually satisfying. Are you ultimately concerned with the God named Gratification or are you concerned with the God who knit you together in the womb? Are you ultimately concerned with the God named Liquor who gives you the feeling of freedom from slavery? Or might you be curious God, who can free you from what binds you? Are you interested in being saved from what enslaves?


The observers at the Areopagus must have been. The intellectuals as well as the laypeople gathered there to listen. Perhaps you are as eager as they were to listen to a new way of life.


In today’s Gospel Mark is talking to some religious leaders about a problem. The disciples are eating without the ritual cleansing prescribed for good Jewish people in Leviticus. To the ruling religious leaders of the day Jesus says, “It is not what goes into the body that defiles but what comes out”. What comes out? We live out loud. Our lives are lived in the public square of our circumstances and we are called to be strong and faithful. What comes out?


Jesus is saying that what comes out must be faithful, undefiled and holy. Think about your speech, your words. What comes out of your mouth at the worst moments of your day? The merging onto 61 or the slow moving carpool line? Jesus says it is what comes out that defiles. That sin comes from within. The adage goes that ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words will never hurt me’. This is not true. Words do hurt and they define who we are.


Therefore may our words in all their plentitude be gracious, life-giving and full of God. May they come from a heart formed and redeemed by God and by a people striving to live the faith, the life and the truth of Jesus Christ. Let us think about our words, our actions, our books, movies and even our motives. Do they defile or point to life in Jesus Christ?



 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

 

 Rev. Denny Read

Old Testament: Genesis 18: 1-2, 9-15; New Testament: Luke 6:21 

Sermon: "Good to Be a Clown"


None of us know what the future holds for our lives, a reality can create great worry. A flurry of “What ifs?” might plague our spirits to varying degrees. Though Jesus commands us not to worry about the future, sometimes we can’t help ourselves. No knowledge of the future places us squarely in the middle of Abram’s dilemma. The story of Abraham and Sarah is a familiar one. Many of us know how it will play out. But I want for you to do me a favor. Do not move to the resolution and the promise that conclude this part of our history. Because we are familiar with how this narrative plays out, we are likely to miss the depth of the couple’s utter desperation.


As we enter into the Scriptures today, we may feel the grief of a woman who cannot seem to conceive a child. Lest we forget, her situation is common in the larger picture of human life. Her situation is much like our own situations of barrenness. We feel the grief of a man and a woman who have no hope for the future. Like Sarah and Abraham, we want a life-giving future to replace the desperate present.


Both have given up on the future. They are resigned to not having children. Sarah firmly believes that the future will equally as barren as the present. She laughs derisively at God for promising that He will ensure the birth of a child. Throughout the Bible, laughter is derisive and mocking; rarely is it a joyful response.


God laughs at nations who believe that they are more powerful than Him. Nations laugh at God who believe that they are more powerful than Him. Sarah likewise laughs derisively at God who tells her that she will conceive a child even though she is only a couple of generations from being as old as dirt. There is no future there. It appears that to Sarah (perhaps to Abraham as well) that God is more fool than God.


The fool—from which the role of the clown is derived-- was popular in the Middle Ages. One source says, "the fool's madness or imbecility, real or pretended. . . gave him license to abuse or poke fun at even the most exalted of his patrons."  The fool gets to tell the truth, the hard truths that might cause trouble if anyone else tells them. The complex role of the fool is to provide truth, balance, destruction, creation, and change......The fool is the destroyer of our well-ordered world and the creator of the new........Jesus was a Trickster. At the command of God, He came to change the world. He sought to destroy the old structures and bring God's kingdom, a change of great magnitude.  His methods were subversive to the society in which he lived and so he was viewed as a dangerous fool. God the fool—the clown, if you will—has destroyed barreness and created new life. The clown has changed grief into joy.


He speaks about a seemingly unrealistic truth to circumstances which are clearly beyond human control. “Your descendants (you barren people) will be numerous,” God says. “Sarah will bear a child,” God says. “The future will be filled to the brim with life beyond your wildest dreams,” says God. There is an apparent tension between the reality we experience and what God has planned.


The people of God will not die out. They will not lose. They will be the winners. It will begin with Sarah giving birth to a child. She laughs derisively at God’s declaration. And He recognizes that derisive laughter. Despite her denial of having laughed, God wags his finger and says with certainty, “I heard it.” The clown has spoken the truth. He has the license to speak the truth and He tells her that the present despair will be wonderfully transformed.


We are the patrons who get it. God is the clown in the classical sense; perhaps we are the fools in the contemporary one. God is no dufus. His words are signals for our lives: God can say and do things that all of humanity cannot.


Through messengers of the Old Testament and specifically Jesus in the New Testament, he speaks the truth in all circumstances and to all people whether wealthy or poor, whether happy or sad, whether powerful or powerless. Contrary to our life-denying circumstances, God says that there is a way. Not only does God say there is a way; He makes a way where none seemed possible.


Our laughter at God's declarations, therefore, should come out of delight not derision. As Christ says, “Our sorrow will be transformed into laughter.” This is our delight. This is your future. Believe.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.



 



Sunday, August 16, 2015

 

Rev. Noelle Read

Old Testament: Psalm 111; New Testament: Ephesians 5:15-20

Sermon: "What a God We Serve!"

 

Many years ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick--then at the height of his influence as minister of the Riverside Church, New York City--was making a tour of Palestine and other countries of the Near and Middle East.He was invited to give an address at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, where the student body was comprised of citizens of many countries and representatives from sixteen different religions. What could one say that would be relevant to such mixed and varied group? This is how Fosdick began: "I do not ask anyone here to change his religion; but I do ask all of you to face up to this question: What is your religion doing to your character?"  


In other words, how does your faith form the way you live your life?  Is there even a connection?  Belief impacts how we behave.  The word belief itself is derived from the Old English word Belifan, which originally meant "to remain."  If you lost everything, what would remain? If you were like that famous and often referenced Job of the Old Testament who lost all of his fortunes as well as his children, what would remain?  When life appears to have nothing of value remaining, then what remains? I am convinced both by my people with lives which parallel Job's and by Scriptural hope that when everything seems to have disappeared, belief remains.  


We can certainly tell by Jesus' actions that he believed.  Jesus enacted his message in the way he taught his disciples and the crowds.  What remained in Jesus is what is meant to remain in us: Belief.  Belief gives us purpose.  It gives us the will to thrive.  It enables us to struggle above Chaos and reclaim God's purpose for our lives.  Although we say that in Jesus we see the fullness of God, we don't really ask practically what the implications are.  Well, Jesus believed in His purpose.  Whether he was crucified or ignored, whether he kept all of his belongings or had them taken from him, his actions showed what he believed.  His actions show us that above the clatter of politicians, the disdain of the unreligious, and the skepticism of the cynics, he lived according to what remained. He adhered to his beliefs with such fervor that he could not give up on them. Repent, love one another, forgive, believe in God who sent him.  And we hear about the God who revealed the fullness of His holiness in his only son to be our Savior in today's Psalm "great are the works of the Lord….full of honor and majesty is his work and his righteousness endures forever…..the works of his hands are faithful and just…all his precepts are trustworthy.”  This is indeed a God worthy to believe in and to trust.  He won't let you down, leave you stranded, or forsake you.  This God is rock solid. 


I was once in a cab with a Jewish gentleman who asked if I was a Christian and I, of course, said yes.  He went on, “How can you believe in such a God of wrath and punishment?”  I let him finish and then said, "Tell me more about the God you believe in."  I wonder if he was itching to fight or really wondering about the nature of belief.  What I found is that the more he talked, the more he told me about a God who was not gracious but hard, overbearing, and punitive.  This God he told me about was not my God.  After hearing him speak, I told him what I believed.  At the end of each day, whether my life has been a struggle or a breeze, I place my faith in Jesus Christ.  


God is not punitive, but gracious.  God is not conditionally loving but extends the grace we are unworthy to receive.  As we say to many couples seeking to be married, "You must not enter into this covenant with selfish ambition."  We are not simply recipients of grace; we are adherents of a way of life.  That way of life is one in which we are called to repent, recognizing that we cannot be perfect.  Christ's way of life is to be loving by becoming involved in the life of the Church, his body.  Your actions speak volumes more than whether or not you have been seen in Church. 


Things like debauchery and drunkenness as mentioned in our Ephesians reading today are easy to avoid. It must be noted that the context of these are in the larger context of Ephesians 5 which is talking about a multitude of ways we fall short in our humanness. But what if the life of Christ is the life in which what we know to be true in our hearts is evident in our actions.  What if we talked gently and kindly about one another?  What If we talked about each other's gifts instead of each other's weaknesses? What if our lives embodied glorifying God in all we do…to sing songs and hymns and spirituals in our hearts? I think this community would be stronger and healthier.  More importantly, I think others would know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is serious business and that we, more than anyone else, take it seriously.  Amen   

 

 

April 23, 2017,  2nd Sunday of Easter


Rev. Noelle Read


Following Christ. Serving Everyone.

Scriptures:


Old Testament: Haggai 1:7-11; 2:20-23; Psalm 100

New Testament: John 20:24-25


The prophet Haggai knew this truth, too. Haggai, people are both good and bad.  Haggai had seen the best and worst of his people.  He was part of the collective memory. He had seen his people and had himself, experienced the brutal humiliation of exile. His people had been viciously conquered, their cities and towns leveled and most who survived were taken away to live in foreign lands.  The people doubted like Thomas if God was real.  Worst of all for Haggai’s people, their temple, the habitat of their God, was destroyed. Was God dead? I dare say, that some of those Israelites thought so. The temple in Jerusalem was the center not only of their worshipping life, but it was the steadfast mark of their very identity as God’s chosen people. The temple was everything.

Today’s text reveals a great ill in our human condition. Those who returned from exile did flit and flutter to put things back in order upon their homecoming, turning their attention towards the rebuilding of the temple; their priorities seemed right on target. But after a while, their minds wandered, they lost interest, perhaps they just couldn’t find enough volunteers—but the just sorta, hmmmm—forgot about that temple and let it continue to lay in ruins. Their attentions were diverted to their own houses and lives and not the house of God and their life together; which was to be their priority from the very beginning of the covenant God made with them.

Denny and I have a running joke about the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and even the minor prophets like Haggai: You forgot about God.  It caused you to misbehave. Stop it.”  And so it continues!

Recently the session and we as a congregation have reflected on our values, our priorities, and our  goals.   It is healthy to take stock of our lives and our life together every so often.  Our memories shape who we are and our faith shapes who will become.   they are what mold us and bond us as family, friends, and as a  congregation. Life is best lived in loving, supportive relationships.

It is to this kind of malaise that the prophet, God’s prophet, Haggai speaks up. He proclaims a drought, exposes the warped priorities and calls God’s people back to covenantal faithfulness. You could say, “He lit a fire under them. He put their feet to the fire.” Whatever cliché you want to use, Haggai exposed it all, told all and then called all back to God. Their blessing of being returned home soon became a curse. Their common priority should have been that temple. In scripture, we learn that we are blessed to be a blessing.  In short, our mission is to Follow Christ by serving others. And if Haggai’s prophecy reminds us not to allow apathy to distract us from God’s call, then the story about Thomas is a reminder that doubt can be equally distracting.  Faith has to be our top priority and it has to be practiced together.  The temptation to wander is as natural as our doubt.  But, with faith—believing that an invisible God is active—we live as if.

If we were asked to list our top 3 priorities, what would they be? I confess that an ongoing struggle for me is my lack of ability to prioritize. Everything takes on the same priority—urgent—especially if it is urgent for someone else. Well, this isn’t a way to spend a day, always putting out fires because it leaves no room for creativity, inspiration, reflection, planning, that elusive life goal of balance. I dearly believe that God desires balanced lives for us; God gives us an outline of what our priorities should be in scriptures—in my own words, they are:

  1. Worship God in all we do.

  2. Seek relationship with God everyday.

  3. Follow God through the teachings of Jesus Christ.

  4. Serve others as we have been served.

By now, your wheels may be turning, trying to figure out your own priorities. I hope so. I also hope that the leadership of this congregation will question the priorities of this church as Denny and I prepare to depart.  What can help us figure out what our real priorities are rather than the ones we hope are ours? We can look at how we spend our money and our time. We can look at the depth of our relationship with God and with others. We can step back and survey the landscape of our lives and ask 2 questions:

  1. What in my life would Christ be proud of?

  2. What in my life would Christ be embarrassed of?

Take heart—the people did hear Haggai and the temple was finished and Thomas finally believed.  May we all do the same.

Thanks be to God. Amen.