"God IS in Charge"
One text we will read in February is Matthew 6:24-34. This is one text that firmly reminds us that God is in charge. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” The God who loves us – enough to come to earth, live, die, and give us the gift of the resurrection – is in charge. This God has a plan, one that we cannot understand with our human minds, even with our human minds augmented by the most powerful computer that ever will exist. And for me, I find this thought very comforting.
I don’t know about you, but I lose this assurance every now and then. The world around me starts to move too quickly, I try to keep up, and I lose my secure foundation. I seem to sense myself tipping over a cliff, and my arms flail. But if I really do fall, I am caught in God’s strong arms. At least that is what has happened in the past.
Will it happen this way again tomorrow? Will God see me well enough to catch me tomorrow? I sometimes find myself worrying about tomorrow. Is this God how so loves me, who has touched me still there to reach out and calm my heart? Our text speaks of tomorrow. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” I can touch God’s presence in my life now, this moment, and that is enough.
We do not earn this care; we need not be believers for God’s love to enfold us. But it is not until we reach back in return that we can experience the assurance given to us through faith. God’s love is unconditional, but there is a conditional aspect. We do not experience the peace of Christ, we do not experience the assurance of faith, we do not experience the joy that comes from sharing faith with others unless we reach back towards our God.
The God who is in charge has so ordained the makeup of the world that our life is different as we listen and open our lives to God’s presence. Our text also states: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” When your life fills with worry, reach out for the presence of Christ’s peace; when you lose your foundation, do that which strengthens your faith; when your life becomes dark, remember that light that you lit from the Christ candle that IS still lit within your heart.
Our focus should not be on worry, but rather on service. Where we place our focus determines much of the content of our lives. When we focus in peace, faith and joy, our life is transformed. When life moves to fast and furiously, remember that the Lord your God IS IN CHARGE.
Had Jesus accepted any of the three temptations in the wilderness, humanity would have lost the freedom to say yes or no to God’s love and grace. The proof of Christ’s divinity would have been indisputable.
In Matthew 4:1-11, the Gospel sends Jesus out into the wilderness for forty days, to prepare for the beginning of his ministry. The devil says “feed the people and they will all worship you.” Jesus replies that the people need God’s word – “people do not live by bread alone.” “Worship me, and I will give you the world.” “No way.” “Prove that you are God by throwing yourself off the cliff – God’s angels will come and lift you up.” “Do NOT tempt the Lord, your God.”
God’s dedication to giving us a choice is the reason why all logical proofs of the existence of God fall short. It is only our own experience of the power of God’s love and grace that “proves” the existence of God.
As an undergraduate English major , I did my senior seminar on Russian literature, specifically Tolstoy and Dosoyevsky. The one piece that has stuck in my mind for these over 30 years is a section from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamzov called the Grand Inquisitor. In it, the Grand Inquisitor berates Jesus for NOT accepting the temptations laid before him by the devil. He knows that Jesus is the Christ, as Jesus had spent the last few days healing those in need.
In the Grand Inquisitor’s world, the people are seen as sheep, fed and fat, ruled and not allowed to think (those who do are burnt at the stake). Jesus is told to go away, the people are much better without freedom, they are in less pain; they have no reason to doubt. The love that the Grand Inquisitor has for the people demands this – he wants Jesus to leave everyone in peace. Christ responds by kissing the Grand Inquisitor and going on his way. Even the Grand Inquisitor is free to choose – the love that Christ has for HIM demands this.
As a result of our freedom, we are left with the problem of doubt.At times, our sense of God grows dim. The bright experience of God’s love and grace fades into the past, along with the sense of whatever darkness preceded that experience. Doubt is proof that we have faith – for if we had no expectation of God, we would never be disappointed. We have all been reminded more than once that God’s ways are not our ways.
Lent is the time that God asks us to travel into our own wilderness, to accept that we doubt, to examine how we have also chosen NOT to follow God’s way. To love as Christ loves is much harder than to love as did that Grand Inquisitor. What parent has not stood by and watched their child make the wrong choice?But that is how the child learns, and grows, and matures.
God, our parent, so watches us. Lent is the time we examine where we have gone in the past year and choose what path we follow for the coming year. We can never follow God’s path exactly, but with effort we DO get to our destination. Lent is the time in the church year when we are asked for focus on that effort.
As you travel through the wilderness of Lent, remember Christ died so that you could CHOOSE to experience the joy of the resurrection.
"Fear Always Loses"
What is it that they were afraid of? WE know that the young man in the tomb dressed in white was an angel. WE understand what he meant when he told the women “he has risen!. . . He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” But the women at this point in the story were so scared they couldn’t even think. Their Messiah had been crucified and they didn’t even have a body to anoint. They had not understood what they had been told by Jesus. Their world was on shaky foundations and they were terrified.
From our point of view, their terror was unfounded. It was preventing them from experiencing the joy of the resurrected Christ. Fear clouded their eyes and the truth that was in front of them remained unseen. They were unable to share the Good News of the resurrection with Peter and the disciples as the angels asked them to do. Their fear controlled their actions.
We know the meaning of those words spoken by the angel, “He has risen!” And every Easter we proclaim with joy, “He IS RISEN”; acknowledging that the risen Christ is with us even to this day and hour. But when the foundation of our world is shaken, fear clouds our eyes as well. What we take for granted about our faith begins to dissolve. Our sense of Easter becomes but a momentary thing and that joy that is the taste of the resurrection becomes a dim memory that we begin to think that we imagined.
We, too, are unable to share the Good News of God’s love when fear overcomes faith in our hearts. But, Christ truly IS RISEN. Not rose one day two thousand years ago, momentarily passing through time and space on the way elsewhere. Christ truly IS RISEN, and is with us this day and every day.
It was too uncomfortable for the scribes who copied this Gospel to leave it as it was, they NEEDED to speak of the resurrection, they needed to state it and underline it. Verses 9-19 state that Christ really did rise and really did appear to Mary Magdalene and to others, until finally the fact of the resurrection was believed. Leaving people trembling in fear when the foundation of their world crumbled about them was much too difficult for the scribes to do—much better to berate these people for lack of faith.
And so we have verse 14b: “he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.”
But we, too, often have a lack of faith that leaves us trembling in fear. Sometimes we need to put ourselves in the place of the women who are too afraid to speak, too afraid to believe that the resurrection really had happened—until they experienced the living God, Jesus Christ, in front of them. Only then can we remember what comes next, that living presence that transforms fear into faith. This text, as originally written, was meant to be cathartic, to chase away our doubt as we place ourselves in the story, experience the fear—while at the same time knowing what comes next. We don’t get to Easter without traveling through Good Friday, not in the church year, nor in our lives. This text reminds us of the power of fear and the overwhelming power of faith that drives out all fear.
May the presence of the Living God be with you this Easter season and drive out what fear you might have within your heart.
Grace and peace,
"The Way of Jesus Christ"
In 2010, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. approved the Confession of Belhar and recommended it to the presbyteries for their vote. The Albany Presbytery approved it unanimously at their April 12 meeting. For this Confession to be adopted by the PCUSA, two thirds of the presbyteries have to approve it. So what is it that the presbytery has gotten us into? (NOTE: this was not adopted by the PCUSA; it was felt the denomination needed to write its own version of such a confession.)
(for a wikipedia summary of this confession.)
You may remember the horrendous conflict that existed with apartheid in South Africa and the its Truth and Reconciliation Committee with its subsequent confessions of sin and violence and forgiveness extended to those who perpetrated, and confessed the violence in which they had engaged. We no longer witness the violent act of necklacing, throwing a tire over someone and then lighting the rubber. Even though it was many years ago, I still remember the violence of the picture of someone burning to death in this manner.
And I also remember the sermon examples of forgiveness this committee provided to me, especially the story of a grieving woman “adopting” as her “son” the man who had murdered her biological son. This was one of the results of that committee. While South Africa is NOT perfect and there is still a degree of injustice and violence, it is not violent enough to end up on our network news. Other wars occupy our attention. Many other wars occupy our attention.
The churches of South Africa had a strong role in this process of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. The PCUSA study materials for this confession state:
The Confession of Belhar describes the active and practical ways in which unity must be expressed in loving service to one another.It thus reminds us that the confession emerged in the 1980s <1986> from a South African Reformed community whose leaders and members had been oppressed because of their race and imprisoned for their resistance to their nation’s legally mandated system of apartheid, a strict segregation of people of difference racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Perhaps they took seriously the Way of Jesus Christ, that Way that calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We, too, are called to follow that way.
This Confession is fairly extensive for a Confession; copies of it have been placed out for you to take should you desire. To commit to this Confession is to commit to following the Way, to welcome to the Lord’s table those with which we disagree. Rather than following a set of rules, it becomes how you live your life. Do you love? Or do you hate? Or, perhaps you accept your sinfulness, and ask God to help you to become that follower of the Way.The third one is the one I have chosen. I do my best, while admitting I could do better – with the help of God.
This Confession states, among other things, that, ”we believe that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ,” as well as “we believe that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ.”
The study guide adds, “the gift of unity and the obligation to pursue the unity of the church were both accepted by those who wrote the Confession of Belhar with the full knowledge that they would pay a heavy price in suffering. . . the authors lived out this reconciliation in the crafting of this confession.” Are we Christian enough to consider paying the price of forgiveness necessay to achieve reconciliation with those we consider to be our enemies?And if not, are we willing to pay the price of resulting violence? Either way, a price will be paid.
The Rev. Harold Delhagen of the Reformed Church in America spoke to the Albany Presbytery of the struggle, discussion and commitment of his denomination as they adopted this Confession as their own. He said that he has been changed for the better in his own struggle to adopt this confession. Imagine the effort to admit that your “enemy” is one with whom you should experience Christian unity. Yet that is what this gift given to us by the churches of South America challenges us to do. Again, from our study guide:
We remember that the church of mixed-race people acted on their conviction by merging with that of black Africans. Then, in an astonishing gesture of forgiveness, they invited the white and Asian churches to join then nin one Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa. That unification has not yet reached completion, but unity is still being pursued.
If the PCUSA adopts this Confession, it will change who we are as well, IF we take it seriously.
Those with whom we disagree are going to hell, and we aren’t. But isn’t this type of thinking just a symptom of the darkness in which we find ourselves? Isn’t this type of thinking just a symptom of the darkness that the resurrection of Christ defeats?
What is it that the presbytery has gotten us into?
Decisions are hard to make, especially when they affect people other than ourselves. We worry about deciding the right thing. We wonder if we are wise enough. Most of the time we aren’t. That is where prayer and discernment come in to play.
I’ve been working with both the Deacons and the Session with the book Unbinding the Gospel. This book’s major thesis is that almost everything revolves around prayer, that when we improve our relationship with God by improving our prayer life, we improve, not only our relationships within the church, but also with the community in which we live.
But what is prayer? Is it only when we directly address God and ask for something, or are thankful for something? We hear stories about people who pray when they work, who connect with God throughout their daily routine.What is this about?
Essentially, prayer is the practice of being in the presence of God. This can be accomplished through rituals (going to church on Sunday, lighting candles); set prayers (the Lord’s Prayer); asking God for help and thanking God for help received; meditation; connecting with God through nature (I do this when I garden); our work; a baby’s laugh; connecting with that which is beyond our finite self with reverence and respect; experiencing Christ through helping another person, or being helped by that person. There are as many ways to pray as there are people on the planet. Prayer lifts us out of our finite, limited self and connects us to the infinite, to God.Often times, the most important effect of prayer is that which it has on the person who prays. When we pray, we become a better person than we were a moment before.
Discernment is discovering God’s will for our lives, how God wants us to proceed in a given context. This is impossible to discover without partaking in prayer. If we do not invite God into conversation, we will never discover what God wants of us. If we strive to be as prayerful in our daily life as we can, this process of discernment becomes easier.
On June 12, we will come together as a congregation to work together to discern God’s will for this congregation. In previous meetings, we have raised the issues involved, worked to heal some of our wounds that keep us from living as fully as we are able, and looked at the options available to us. At this meeting, we will be discerning the paths that Session will be investigating in the future, those paths that will determine the future of this congregation.
Does God want us to find some way to continue as a congregation farther into the future, or does God want us to “dance to closing”? I don’t know the answer, only God does. The session needs your help in the discernment process at this meeting. The plan is to know the general direction that this congregation will be heading after Session evaluates the discussions from this meeting.
“If the way be clear.”
That’s a Presbyterian phrase that I have learned while serving as pastor of this church. We may decide things, but the absolute decision as to what happens lies in God’s hands, not our own. We can create our own agendas, but if God disagrees, as followers of Jesus Christ we need to change our minds.
Sometimes I think that life would be easier if I got to decide what I should do, and everyone else agreed. But then, I wouldn’t be challenged to grow. In fact, my spiritual life would diminish and I would become less each day that I do not experience a challenge. Our faith muscles grow each time we experience a crisis or challenge of some kind. We all know what happens to muscles that are not used. And, God really does want us to be all we can be. This involves challenging us.
We may disagree on June 12. And we will pray together. We will work hard to discern what is God’s will for this congregation. And we will grow, together.
If you can attend, please do so. We need your thinking in order to help us discern what God wants us to do.
If you cannot attend, please pray. In fact, if you can attend, please pray. “If the way be clear,” we WILL discern God’s will.
My dog Spirit wrote the July Letter.
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