Monday, June 23, 2014

Being a Witness

Sermon delivered at Chestnut St Presbyterian Church - Wilmington, NC

June 1, 2014

I wonder how many people here would be willing to witness for Christ. If I put out a sign-up sheet for people to make a commitment to spend 2 hours a month being a witness for Christ, going out and visiting people to witness to them about the faith we share would you sign up? Would you actually show up at the first meeting for orientation and training? How many would show up the first day we were scheduled to go out visiting? My guess is that only a very few members would actually sign up, and not everyone who signed up would show up. Presbyterians aren't really big on witnessing. The annoying Jehovah's witnesses and the evangelical protestants who are big on witnessing, especially those who ask if you are sure where you would go if you died tonight, these people have given the word and the idea of witnessing a bad name. It doesn't seem like the Presbyterian thing to do. 

The problem with the typical Presbyterian attitude is that Jesus clearly commands his followers to be his witnesses. You heard it in the Gospel lesson, Jesus met with the 11 and their companions and said to them “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.” In the book of Acts before Jesus was taken up into heaven he said to his disciples “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

When we joined the church we affirmed that we want to be disciples of Christ, so why are we unwilling to be witnesses?

I want to suggest that we may have a misunderstanding about what it actually means to be a witness. The image we have of witnessing for Christ is that we should go out and tell strangers what the scriptures say about Jesus, how he died for our sins and was raised on the third day, and if they believe in him they can be saved and go to heaven. This was pretty much what I once believed and I spent a year working part time for our Presbytery as a staff consultant in evangelism, working part time training people to do this kind of evangelism. I learned and taught others how to do this kind of evangelism. We trained people to use a marked up New Testament to explain God's plan of salvation and to urge the people we visited to pray the prayer of faith and be assured that they would go to heaven if they died today. People in our congregation did go and had many memorable adventures, but in truth the most successful and fulfilling visits never used the scripts that we had taught them and involved loving and authentic conversations.

I would not do this today, I think at this point in my life I had a total misunderstanding of what it means to be a witness.

The setting for the word witness comes from the courtroom. I would guess that there are at least a few people who are here this morning who have actually been called to be a witness in court but most of us have not had this experience, but we have some idea of what it is like from books or movies or television. There may even be a lawyer or two here who spent years in school learning about such things. When you are called as be a witness to testify in a criminal case or have been called to give testimony in a civil case, either in a court trial or by deposition the rules about being a witness are pretty much the same, the witness must promise or swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A witness cannot testify to something he or she did not personally see or hear. A witness may have heard many stories and versions of what happened, but with a very few exceptions a witness cannot give testimony about what someone else has told him or her, only what the witness personally saw and experienced. 

So how can we be a witness to something that we have not personally seen. We cannot be a witness to Jesus being raised from the dead because we weren't there. We may have read about the empty tomb, but we didn't personally see or experience this.

We may have read about Jesus meeting with his disciples by the lakeside, when they ate fish with the resurrected Christ but we were not there, so we cannot witness to that meeting. What we can witness to is what happened in our life, about the times when we have met with Jesus. I can't tell you what exactly happened in that sea side meeting, but I can tell you about a Sunday morning when we were vacationing with friends at Seabrook, how we fought the mosquitoes to get to the beach and there just after the sun had risen we shared the fish that was left over from dinner, and finished the last of a nearly empty bottle of wine and remembered Jesus and each of experienced the certainty that the risen Jesus was with us in that place – in the fish and the in the wine and in fulfillment of his promise that where two or three are gathered in my name there will I be in the midst of them. I am a witness to that. 

I don't personally know what all happened on the Emmaus road and at the inn at the end of their walk; but I know that a few months ago we went to a gourmet dinner and were assigned to have dinner with the people who will be our neighbors when our house is completed. We had already drunk wine with the appetizers, and there was wine and bread on the table as well as beef ribs, and potatoes and vegetables and as every one sat down the hostess said let us pray and everyone joined hands and with simple words the food was blessed and my eyes were opened and I knew that more than neighbors had gathered at table but Jesus was there also. There have been those times – I admit not every time I have partaken of the Lord's supper, but there have been times when my eyes were opened and my heart burned within me and I knew without a doubt that the Lord was in that place, that Jesus was more than a character in a book, but he was alive and in our midst. It might be that some of you will have the same experience and can bear witness to others that you have experienced the a burning within your heart, that your eyes were opened to see that the risen Christ is a very present reality in the midst of our lives. 

I cannot be a witness to what happened on that third day morning when the women went to the cemetery and according to various reports found an empty tomb. One of the gospels says they saw an angel who told them that Jesus was raised and they were scared to death and were afraid to tell anyone what they had seen. Another said that the women saw the stone rolled away and an angel told them to go and tell the men that Jesus had risen from the dead. John tells the touching story about Mary who did not believe that he had risen, she thought someone had stolen his body away from the tomb until the man she thought to be the gardener called her by name, saying Mary, and her eyes were opened and she recognized that this was her dearest friend and teacher who was crucified, hung until he was dead and buried in a borrowed tomb, and here he was alive and talking to her. So we have four different stories about what happened that third day morning all sort-of the same, yet each one is different, and we cannot question the witnesses since they have died about 2000 years ago. We cannot be a witness to what happened on the first Easter morning because we were not there, we did not experience it for our selves.

I have never seen Jesus' empty tomb but I am a witness that at one very low point in my life I was buried in a grave of discouragement and depression. I can say for my self that I been buked and I've been scorned, I've been talked about sure as your born. I've had lies told about me and my family, lies so outrageous that people believed them because they couldn't imagine someone deliberately making them up. I've had friends who were silent when they could have spoken up for me. I've had days when I went to the office and sat down at my desk and just sat there almost catatonic with no energy to do anything. I didn't want to call anyone, I didn't want to answer the phone, I didn't want to go and visit anyone because I didn't know if I'd be welcomed or be sent away. I was down mentally, I was down spiritually, and eventually I was down physically to the point that I ended up in the emergency room with the flu and an asthma attack so severe I thought I was going to die.

Thee was almost no one except Kathleen who seemed to care about me, the presbytery committee that was supposed to help mediate the situation came to believe the lies that were being told. In the midst of all the discouragement there was one spot of hope and that was one member, Elaine Williamson, who recognized the depth of my depression and Elaine told me that she was making me a promise. She was going to pray for me twice every day, and she kept her promise. She would call me nearly every day and say I prayed for you today – or another time she would say I prayed for you this morning and I am getting ready to pray again – I just wanted you to know. Elaine's prayers and her faithfulness touched the depths of my soul. When last year one of the members of the MLK choir got up and sang somebody prayed for me, had me on their mind I broke down in tears because I am a witness to the truth of her song. I don't know if it is true or not that payer changes things, but I am a witness that prayer changes people who are prayed for, and I am a witness that prayer changes the people who pray. 

I am a witness to the power of resurrection because the Lord lifted me out of the muck and out of the miry clay and set my feet on solid rock. The Lord made a way when there seemed no way. The Lord opened a door of opportunity and led me to a Church whose commitments to inclusiveness matched my commitments to inclusiveness, whose passion for justice and meeting the needs of the poor and oppressed matched my own. The Lord lifted me up out of my depression and enabled me to walk through the door of opportunity, to interview and to persist and to secure a call to this position. I am a witness that the Lord is good and his mercies endure forever. I am witness to the power of resurrection and new life because it happened to me.

That is my testimony and my witness. What about you. Has there been a time in your life when your eyes have been opened and you experienced the presence and power of the living God. Some are called to be preachers and teachers, but we are all called to be witnesses to those we meet about what the Lord has done in our lives. Have you personally experienced the power of God in your life? Have you experienced the power of prayer. Have you ever been discouraged and down and found that the Lord has lifted you up. That is what you have to witness about. Have you ever been sick and experienced the healing power of God and the healing power of prayer. If you have experienced it in your own life than you can give testimony to what your eyes have seen, what your ears have heard, what your heart and soul have experienced.

Jesus said you shall be my witnesses in Judea, that is where you are now, but also in Samaria, in the land of your enemies, and even to the ends of the earth. Luke says that he said you shall receive power when that the Hold Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses. Next Sunday is Pentecost when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. Can you witness to the power that comes from the Holy Spirit?

Scriptures for this sermon
Luke 24:44-53
44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Acts 1:1-11
1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Here I Am; Send Me

Sermon delivered at Lake Waccamaw Presbyterian Church

June 22, 2014

(Scripture follows the sermon)

Our text this morning is a strange passage, Isaiah has this vision of seeing God in the temple high and lifted up – seated on a heavenly throne and the hem of his robes filled the temple and some kind of strange creatures were flying around him. Isaiah called the creatures Seraphs and said that they each had six wings two covered their eyes so they did not look directly at the purity of God, they flew with two wings and this translation it says that the last two covered their feet. Now in the Bible feet are often used as a euphemism for a person's private parts. When Ruth went to Boaz to seduce him as he slept on the threshing floor the book of Ruth says she uncovered his feet – well this was a discrete way of saying that she uncovered more than his feet. So these strange creatures were flying around covering their privates with one set of wings, covering their eyes with another set and using the third pair to fly with and all the time singing to one another, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.

Now lets be honest – what kind of reaction do you think you would get if you told your neighbor that you saw something like this? Most folks would want to know what you had been drinking, what kind of medication are you taking, what kind of drugs have you been smoking or shooting. Go and tell your doctor you saw something like that and the doctor would probably send you for a blood draw to see what is going on, what is off balance in your body, and for good measure he would probably give you a referral to a psychiatrist of psychologist.

We live in a society that no longer believes in dreams or visions. I am not saying that people do not have dreams and visions, in 45 years of ministry I have had many people confide in me and tell me about their dreams and visions, and even more often had people tell me about hearing voices that they were certain came from God. What I am saying is that the prevalent social attitude in our secular culture regards any spiritual experiences with skepticism at best, or at worst as signs of mental illness.

I am sure that the majority of his contemporaries who heard about Isaiah's vision did not think it either strange or sick. In their society people believed in dreams and visions. What Isaiah is describing is a vision, an inner spiritual event. If I had been with Isaiah when he saw these strange things I probably would have seen nothing out of the ordinary except that Isaiah might seemed to be asleep, or in some sort of a trance. God was getting something over to Isaiah, he was calling Isaiah to accept his vocation to be a prophet – to speak God's word to the people and to the king, to call the nation to repentance and to show them that the consequences of their rebellion against God would be the the destruction of the nation.

Our culture has changed, but God has not changed. When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost he quoted the prophet Joel who said that God will pour out his spirit on all flesh and young people shall have dreams and old people will have visions. God did not stop communicating with people after the New Testament was written, God continues to reveal God's self in a variety of ways, and one way is through dreams and visions. People today continue to have dreams and visions, and some of them come from God. The problem is that in our society most people don't pay attention to their dreams and those that do read books that supposedly tell them what their dreams mean without considering that God may be speaking to them through their dreams. And visions – well we don't talk about them because we are concerned about what people might think about us.

But Isaiah paid attention to his vision and He wasn't ashamed to write about what he saw. In the vision God was calling him to do the work of a prophet. But something was standing in the way of his responding to God's call. It seems very common for those who God calls to find all sorts of reasons not to respond to their call. Moses said who is going to pay attention to me. I am a murderer and I am hesitant of speech. I am no kind of leader of people – I'm better at leading sheep than people. Jeremiah told the Lord that he was too young to be a prophet.

Isaiah's problem was the problem of guilt. Standing in the presence of God, the almighty, the Holy the perfect one he was sure he was going to be stuck dead because no one could look at the face of God and live. He said “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

So God dealt with Isaiah's problem and sent one of the seraphs to touch Isaiah's lips with a red hot coal from the fire on the altar and the seraph said “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then the Lord spoke and said “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

There are many of us who are like Isaiah. We know that God has a job for us, God has work for us to do, but we are hesitant to answer God's call because we feel we are not up to the task, we feel unworthy, we feel sinful. I will never forget one man in my first Church, Archie Cross. Archie was an old man, must have been well into his 70's is not over 80. Archie started out coming to Church occasionally, then gradually he became one of the regulars. Now Archie knew everyone in the Church, his wife was one of the regular Church ushers, but when he came he always sat in the back pew. He wanted to stay as far away from the preacher and the choir as he could be and still be there. But he came every Sunday. He had never been a member of anyone's Church. Archie had never even been Baptized. Of course once he became a regular attender people begin to ask him when he was going to join the Church. I visited with him more than once and ask him why he didn't come down the aisle and join the Church. We opened the doors of the Church and had an altar call every Sunday, invited people to come forward and join the congregation. But Archie clung on to his back seat Sunday after Sunday. He told me, Terry I have been a very bad man. Well I didn't know what all he might have done, he was probably once a gambler, probably had been a womanizer. Might even have committed violence when he was younger, but Archie wasn't that way anymore. Annabell Riley told me that one of the times she was in the hospital Archie came to visit with her and before he left she said that Archie said the most moving prayer with her. But Archie said I have been a very bad man, and sat in his back pew. I knew there were dozens of people praying for Archie every time I gave an altar call, but Archie held on tight to that back seat in the Church. We kidded about wiring up that back seat so he got a shock when I opened the Church doors and would rise up and think it was the Holy Ghost pushing him down that aisle. But one Sunday the Holy Spirit did touch him somewhere in the depth of his being and he did walk down that aisle, he met with the session, told us he decided he better not wait too late, and the next Sunday I took him down into the Baptizing pool and he was baptized under the water.

Well so much about Isaiah and so much about Archie; the really important part of today's message is about you. Yes you in the front seat and those of you in the back seats and those in the middle. What is God calling you to do? What is the work that God is calling you to do? Is God calling you to teach Sunday school, is God calling you to sing in the choir. Is God calling you to visit the sick and shut in members of this congregation? Is God calling you to feed the hungry and help provide housing for the homeless? Is God calling you to be reconciled with that person who you have had a falling out with? Is there some member of your family you are not speaking to? Is God calling you to be reconciled with that person who has offended you, or with the one you have offended?

I am convinced that God is calling each one of us to do something. Perhaps you know what God wants you to do, but you are resisting saying yes to God's call. Is it guilt or a feeling of unworthiness that is keeping you from responding? Or do you not know what God's call to you is. Perhaps you need to pay attention to your dreams. Maybe that thing that you have been dreaming about is exactly what God wants you to be doing. Perhaps you need to pay attention to see a vision of what you could be doing for Jesus and for this Church. God speaks in dreams and visions, but God also speaks in a still small voice, a voice we need to listen carefully to hear and understand.

If you know what it is that God is calling you to do, let this be the day when you say yes to God. If you truly do not know what your calling is then let this be the day you begin to listen carefully and deeply to hear the voice of God. Let this be the day when you say I am yours Lord, I will follow you where ever you lead me. I'll do what you want me to do, I'll go where you want me to go. Our Hymn is Jesus calls us o'er the tumult of our lives' wild restless sea, day by day his sweet voice soundest, saying Christian, follow me.

Scripture text for the sermon

Isaiah 6:1-8

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Wednesday, January 29, 2014



for the dough
2 Tablespoons active dry yeast
1 ½ Cups lukewarm water
1 Tablespoon honey
4 Cups bread flour (You may need a little more or less to make a dough that is stiff and elastic)
2 teaspoons salt
1 egg yoke *

for the boiling
2 ½ quarts water in a large pot
1 Tablespoon honey

for the topping
1 egg white mixed with one Tablespoon of water
couple of Tablespoons of either (or all) sesame seeds, poppy seeds, coarse salt, minced onions, or caraway seeds (optional)

To make the dough
Combine the first three ingredients and let set for 5 or 10 minutes until yeast works
Add the salt and egg yoke
Mix and knead in the flour to make a dough that is stiff and elastic
(I use a stand mixer with a dough hook. Anyone who is a serious bread maker should have one. I recommend Kitchen Aid. I burned up a couple of other brands before Kathleen bought me the Kitchen Aid. My first lasted 20 to 25 years.)
Turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface a, knead it a few times by hand adding flour if necessary so it is not sticky. Shape into a ball, put it in an oiled bowl, turn once so the surface is coated lightly with oil. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 1 ½ hours.
(If you have a warming oven it probably has a proofing setting. I don't now so I turn the oven on the the lowest setting for only 3 minutes and turn off.)

To shape and boil the bagels (Time these steps carefully)
Combine the water and honey and bring to a gentle boil
Punch down the dough and knead a little on a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 8 balls. Cover these with plastic wrap and let them rise five minutes.
Turn the oven to 425 and preheat. One shelf in the middle of the oven and the other in the top third.
After the five minute rise flatten the balls a little, stick your thumbs through the middle and stretch to make a hole larger than you want the bagel to have. The hole will shrink as the bagels rise and bake.
Let the bagels rise for 12 minutes. You want them to look puffy but not so much so that they fall again when you put them in the water.
Using a wide spatula or skimmer gently drop the bagels into the simmering water. You will probably need to turn the fire up to keep the water boiling gently. After 30 seconds turn them over and boil the other side for 30 seconds. Let them dry on a smooth dishtowel for a few minutes and transfer them to two baking sheets sprinkled lightly with cornmeal. (or use a parchment paper covered baking sheet.)
Brush them with the egg white glaze and sprinkle them with the toppings of your choice.

Bake them 25 or 30 minutes until dark brown and crispy.


* In any recipe that calls for an egg white glaze I add the yoke to the bead dough.

This recipe is based on one in GREAT BREADS by Martha Rose Shulman but this is the way I make them.

If you are a fan of whole wheat you can use up to 2 ½ cups of whole wheat flour in place of an equal amount of white.

I usually make a half a recipe because there are only two of us in the house.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Christmas Story

The Dog in the Manger
What Norman Saw

Merry Christmas Hannah and Abby

A story by Pop Pop – your Grandfather
Terry Davis Christmas 2013

This is a story about a wee little dog who lived long ago and far away in a town named Bethlehem. I don't know what the dog's name was but I am going to call him Norman because you remember Norman before he got sick and died. This Norman was a very tiny dog, nothing like Zee, more the size of Norman or our Dylan. He was the runt of the litter and the rest of his brothers and sisters were much bigger than he was and always pushed him around. The innkeeper and his wife often complained that Norman was useless, more trouble than he was worth, it was just a good thing he didn't eat very much or they would have gotten rid of him in a minute.

The bigger dogs all had work to do, some of them guarded the inn and the stables, most of them helped the shepherds take care of the sheep, kept them from straying. When the shepherds needed to move them to greener pastures the dogs would run around them and nip at the heels of the sheep that were lagging behind or going in the wrong direction. Norman tried helping but when he yapped at a sheep and bit its leg the sheep kicked him back about three feet. He was sore for days. He decided that herding sheep was not something he was good at. The only thing he was good for was chasing the rats out of the stable, and to tell the truth the cats were bigger and faster and killed and ate many more rats than Norman did.

But this night the inn was full. A mean king far away in Rome ordered everyone to travel home to the place where their family lived to be counted and enrolled for the census. The king said he wanted to know how many people he ruled. He probably did want to brag that no other king had a bigger empire than he did, but every one knew the real purpose of the census was to make sure that no one was missed by the the tax collectors.

It was fun having the inn full, there was a big meal on the table and lots of people to drop food on the floor that a little dog could eat. Norman would bark at the guests and chase their children around the courtyard and up and down the halls. Some of the children thought he was a lot of fun, but others were afraid of little yappy dogs and cried to their mothers who complained to the innkeeper, and the innkeeper's wife grabbed little Norman and tossed him out the back door and told him to be useful for once in his life and chase the rats in the stable. That's what he did for a while, even caught one and shook it to death. He tried eating it like the cats did, but the hairy rat tasted nasty to him so he left it for the cats. He got tired of chasing rats and dodging the feet of the big horses and donkeys that travelers had put in the stable so he found the one stall that had no animal tied up in it, lay down in the straw and fell asleep, and this is the story of what Norman saw in his own words.

When I woke up it was dark outside and the animals were all peaceful and some of them had already fallen asleep when there was some commotion in the stable and in comes a donkey, a man and a woman who looked very pregnant. The woman was very upset; it had been a long journey to get here from wherever they lived and they were all very tired, the donkey was exhausted from carrying the woman all that way, she was heavy with the baby she was going to have. The man had walked all the way and he was tired and the woman, well pregnant women are always tired and sometimes cross. She was fussing at her husband:

Joe, you said we were going to stay with your cousin, but we get here and the house was full of other relatives and they said they couldn't make room for us. I noticed they made room for your rich aunt Tilly, thinking they might inherit something from her. So they send us to the inn and the innkeeper says there is no room in the inn. I bet if you had more money they would have found a place for us. Why didn't you accept the last job the Romans offered you? Do you think you are too good to work for the Romans.”

The man says “Mary, do you know what they wanted me to build? A cross, that is what they wanted to pay me to build, a cross on which they would nail up a criminal and leave him to die a painful death. I would never do that no matter how much money they paid me. Suppose it was your son did something wrong and they crucified him. Whoever they wanted to execute was some mother's son. I would have no part of it.” Mary got all teary eyed and said, “Joe – you are a good man, I'm sorry.”

Then Mary saw me and said, “After all this there is a dog in the manger – I was going to use that as a bed for the baby.” Joseph shooed me out of the manger and filled it with nice clean straw and I went into the far corner and went to sleep. Before long the noise woke me up again. First Mary was moaning and telling Joe that the baby was coming, and before long she began to scream. I didn't know what that was all about, I had never seen a person be born, but I have seen momma dogs have puppies and they never made this much fuss, and they might pop out four or five or some times 8 of us without ever being as loud as Mary was being, but when finally she pushed the baby out I saw what she was hollering about. The baby was huge, bigger than me and I'm five winters old. Mary she nursed her baby for a while and talked to him, told him his name was Jesus. That means God will save his people, she said.

I could tell that Mary was absolutely worn out, but every time she put the baby down in the manger he started to cry. I think he was cold. Mary had wrapped him up in a thin little blanket, but the stable was getting awful cold in the middle of the night with the wind blowing out side. Joseph said where is that little dog that was here earlier, so I ran over to where he was, he scooped me up and put me down right next to the Jesus child and said you keep the baby warm and don't let any rats climb up here and nibble at his fingers and nose. He knew I was good at chasing rats, and he knew that dogs were nice and warm because of our body heat and our fur. So I wasn't useless at all, I was good at keeping the baby warm and safe. The little baby stuck his little hands in my fur and I snuggled up close to him and we kept warm and soon he was asleep in the hay. I kept awake to guard him from any of the nasty rats in the stable and Mary and Joseph they went to sleep too.

I thought the rest of the night would be peaceful, but just when everyone had gotten to sleep there was another commotion in the stable and in come a bunch of rough looking men into the stable. They brought a different smell into the stable, they didn't smell like horses and donkeys. Then I remembered trying to herd sheep and how the sheep smelled and I knew they were shepherds 'cause they smelled like their sheep. Dogs have very good noses you know.

The shepherds had a strange and wonderful story to tell. They said they had been out on the hillside with the sheep and suddenly the sky lit up and they heard sweet singing and saw a whole bunch of God's angels and one of the angels said “Do not be afraid for I bring you good news of great joy, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord. This is how you will know who he is, he will be wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Then all of the angels began to sing sweetly “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will for all people whom God loves.” Well there was Mary's baby lying in a manger swaddled in his blanket. (I'd gone back to my corner when the crowd came in). So the shepherds had found things just like the angel had said. They knelt down and prayed and thanked God that God had visited and redeemed his people (what ever that meant). They went back to their sheep singing as they went the song that the angels sang. I jumped back into the manger to do my job keeping the baby warm, but now I knew he was a very special child.

Mary and Joe held each other and cried and talked to each other about the angels. Mary said remember I told you about the angel Gabriel visiting me before I got pregnant and you didn't believe me until an angel appeared to you in a dream and told you to marry me. Well now the angels have come again and we know this is a very special child. I felt so very proud of myself that I was not useless any more, at least for a few days I had a job to do, to guard and keep this special child warm.

A few days later they left the stable and said that they were going to stay with Joseph's cousin now the census was completed and the other family had gone home. I didn't see them again until Joseph came back to the stable to get his little donkey and he patted my head and rubbed my fur and told me what a special dog I was and wished I could go with them but they had a long and hard journey ahead of them as they went to Egypt to be safe from mean old king Herod.

I never saw the family again and I often wondered what kind of a boy and what kind of a man this baby Jesus would turn out to be.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Sermon at Martin Luther King Presbyterian Church, July 7, 2013

Simple Instructions
Scripture reading: 2 Kings 5:1–14

Naaman was insulted. He had leprosy, a dreaded skin disease, and he had come from Syria to Israel - a long distance to get cured,. He had received the blessing of his king to make the journey, he had brought gifts with him that were worth a huge fortune: thirty thousand pieces of silver, six thousand pieces of gold, and ten changes of fine clothes. He had gone to the King of Israel to be cured, the king of Israel sent him to the prophet Elisha, and when at last he had come to the home of the prophet Elisha, Elisha didn't invite him in to the house, Elisha didn't even come out of his house to greet him or to examine his skin or to treat him for his terrible illness. Elisha simply sent out a servant to deliver instruction. The instructions were simple, he told Naaman to “Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River, and you will be completely cured of your disease.”

That was an insult to think that such simple instructions could be the cure for his disease. He was an important person, willing to pay vast sums of money for his cure. He deserved better treatment than such simple instructions. Elisha should at least see him in person, pray to the Lord his God, wave his hand over the diseased spot, and cure me! It is too simple, “go wash in a river” and not just any river, in the nasty dirty Jordan river. If I could be cured by dipping in a river I could have stayed home and dipped myself in the Abana and Pharpar rivers. They are much prettier and much cleaner than the Jordan river, or any river in Israel.

Now Naaman's servant had better sense than Naaman did. Isn't it the truth than often the servant his more sense than the master, the employee often has more sense than the employer, the poor and disenfranchised people have better sense than the rich and the powerful. It was a slave, a little Israelite girl, a captive of war who knew that there was a prohet in Israel who could cure all manner of diseases. If it hadn't been for this slave girl Naaman would have never come to Israel. Now Naaman's servant tries to talk some sense into his master who was being too proud and stuborn to follow Elisha's simple instructions. Look, the servant said, if the prophet told you to do some dangerous or difficult thing to achieve your cure you would do it wouldn't you? Why then can't you just do the simple thing the prophet told you to do, and be cured of your leprosy. Thankfully Naaman listened to his servant and did go and dip himself seven times in the Jordan and he was cured of his leprosy.

Medicine has advanced a long way since the days of Elisha, but it remains the case that sometimes the best path to health and healing is to follow some simple instructions. When we moved to Florida we stayed in the Manse while we were looking for a house to purchase. We noted that our neighbor, Betty Williams was a walker. Early in the morning before the sun got too hot to be outside comfortably and again in the evening when it began to cool down just before sunset she came out of her house and took off walking at a fast pace. No dog to walk, just Betty taking off down the street. Now I would never guess a woman's age, but let us say that Betty had retired several years before we met her. She told us why she walked regularly, it was a matter of following her doctor's simple instructions. She had been having some sort of heart problems and was under the care of a cardiologist, and he gave her simple instructions for better health, he told her to walk a mile twice a day and eat less. As far as I know that might have been the only treatment he gave her, and it worked. She had taken her car and measured exactly how far a mile was and she walked the same course twice a day, every day.

Now some people would reject such simple instructions. I mean modern medicine has so many tools to diagnose and treat illness; most people expect their doctor to use them all. Don't I need a cat scan or a MRI? Do you think I need angioplasty or a stent in my heart? What about open heart surgery? Aren't you even going to prescribe any medication? Not Betty, she was a person with a lot of good sense, she figured the doctor has spent all those years in school and knew what he was doing, so she did exactly what he told her to do. She walked exactly one mile twice a day and ate less food than she had been eating, and before you know it she lost weight and was in excellent health. Like Naaman the key to her health lay in following simple instructions. She didn't argue with the doctor, and she didn't follow instructions for a few months and then decide she didn't need any more exercise, she went out her door and walked her measured mile twice a day and ate enough less to loose the extra pounds.

A lot of people think that following Jesus is a complicated matter. Through out the ages the Christian faith has split into various factions over the most trivial things. The Catholics and Orthodox Churches split over whether the spirit proceeds from the father or if the spirit proceeds from the father and the son. There are two divisions of the Church of God, one believes in instrumental music for worship and the other division says that the New Testament doesn't mention organs or guitars or pianos, or tamborines people who follow Jesus should sing without accompanyment. The Presbyterian Church has split apart again and again, and is still fracturing into various denominations over whether ministers must be seminary educated, over whether women can preach in the pulpit, and now over whether homosexuals can be ordained as ministers, elders and deacons. We divide over how to interpret the Bible, whether the Church should be involved in social change, whether the Church should be involved in politics, whether Christians can drink or smoke or play cards, or work on Sunday.

The Jewish faith, the faith of Jesus and his people was no different. Jews delighted to argue and debate over which of the hundred's of commandments and ordinances in their scriptures were the most important. Is it ever permissable to eat unclean food? How strictly do we need to keep the Sabbath? Were there ever circumstances when you can work on the Sabbath? You remember many people condemned Jesus because he healed people on the Sabbath.

The leaders of the Jewish faith came to Jesus and tried to involve him in these arguments, hoping to diminish his popular support by making him answer questions that would alienate one or another faction however he answered. They asked him which was the first and greatest commandment and he answered by giving them simple instructions for right living. He said (Matthew 22:37-39) ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Now there are pretty simple instructions for Christian living, or for Jewish living, or for right living. Love God and love your neighbor. What could be simpler than this? On this hangs all the law and the prophets. If you follow these simple instructions you will be able to figure our what is really important in all the whole of the scriptures. It all depends on these two simple directions. But of course this was two simple for the religious leaders. They couldn't argue about the loving God part of it, but they asked. But who is really my neighbor? Your certainly don't mean I have to love someone simply because he lives in my neighborhood. I have enemies who live in my neighborhood, you certainly don't mean I should love them. I mean I do love my family (at least most members of my family) and I love the people who are my close friends, but there are other people in my village who aren't even Jews. I certainly don't love the Romans who Lord it over us. The bum down the street who is always wanting to borrow my things, who doesn't work hard for a living like I do, I certainly don't love him. It's not so simple as you say, to love your neighbor as myself.

So Jesus told him a story. He said that there was a certain man who was making a journey and on a lonely stretch of road he was set upon by theives, who beat him up and robbed him and left him all messed up and bloody on the side of the road with no wallet or money or anything. It happened that there were two religious leaders who came down the same stretch of road and each of them saw the man, but neither one of them wanted to get involved. They would get bloody themselves if they did anything to help the poor man, and then they would be ritually unclean and couldn't lead worship or whatever. Maybe they thought they better hurry on down the road before they got set on by the same band of thieves. What ever their reasons they passed by on the other side of the road and left him lying on the side of the road, bleeding and dying, helpless and needing help. Maybe they thought I don't know him, he is not a part of my congregation, he doesn't live in my neighborhood, he is not my responsibility.

But there was a third man who came down the road and had compassion on the poor fellow who had been beaten and robbed. Do you know what compassion means, it means you feel with the other person. Maybe he felt with the poor man on the roadside because he too had been mistreated at some time, or maybe many times in his life. We don't really know much about the man who had compassion, except that he got of his donkey and helped the man, cleaned out his wounds, bandaged them up to stop the bleeding, and took him to the nearest village and found an Inn. He paid for the man's stay, since the poor fellow had been robbed and had nothing, and asked the Innkeeper to take care of him during his recovery, see that he got fed and promised to pay the rest of the bill if what he had already given was not enough.

We do know more thing about the man who had compassion, Jesus tell us that he was a Samaritan. If you have done any Bible study you may remember that the Samaritans and the Jews were enemies of one another. The Jews regarded the Samaritans as unclean, as pretend Jews. The Jews said the Samaritans' religion was not pure. They were people who had intermarried with the heathens when the so called pure Jews were taken into exile.

Since we don't have any Samaritans in our community I think Jesus would tell the story differently if he were to come to Mason Square. When Clarance Jordan told this story to his white congregation in rural Georgia some 40 years ago he said that the third man, the man who had compassion and helped the poor man who had been beaten and robbed, the third man to come down the road was a Negro. I guess if Jesus came here this morning to tell the same story he might say that this third man was a homosexual, or maybe a transsexual. Maybe Jesus would say the third man was a homeless drug addict. Maybe he would say that the man who had compassion was an undoccumented immigrant. The point is that the compassionate person was the kind of person who none of Jesus listeners would have thought of as a neighbor. The Samaritan, the undoccumented immigrant, was one of those people that we would want to exclude from the category of neighbor when we hear Jesus say to love your neighbor as yourself. When Jesus finished telling his story he asked his hearers. Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

When you understand the meaning of Jesus story then we can re-write Jesus simple instructions and hear him say that the first commandment is to love God with everything you are and all that you have, and love everybody.

Jesus would surely give his approval to this little poem by Edwin Markham

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !

That is all I have to say this morning. Life may be difficult and complicated, but there are some simple instructions that we can follow to greatly benefit our lives and the lives of everyone we meet.

1. Love God

2. Love Everybody

3. Take a walk every day.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Do You Want To Be Healed?

May 5, 2013 Sermon at  Martin Luther King Presbyterian Church

Early in my ministry at my first Church I asked one of our younger members how his mother was; Sonny was in Church pretty much every Sunday but I had only seen his mother once or twice. He told me, “Well Terry, my mother enjoys poor health.” I wasn't sure whether he meant this literately or if the word “enjoy” was just a figure of speech, but as I came to know Miss Hattie better I understood that she did seem to enjoy her poor health. It did have certain advantages for her. She enjoyed sitting by the window in the front room and seeing what was going on out on the street, and there was often quite a bit going on. She knew who was hanging out on the corner and who came to visit her neighbor after her husband went to work. She could see the comings and goings at the tavern down the street. It was an interesting life, and it didn't demand much from her. For example: since she was in poor health no one expected her to cook the meals, Sonny and his father both were pretty good cooks, and after Sonny's girlfriend moved in with them she did a lot of the cooking. I did notice that Miss Hattie's poor health didn't prevent her from eating her share of the meals.

Having knowing Miss Hattie I have some insight into what might be going on with this man who had spent much of his life hanging out by the sheep pool. For 38 years he had been there hanging out at the sheep pool along with scores of other people, the blind, the lame and paralyzed, all hoping to be healed. We don't know how he supported himself, he must have had friends or family who provided for him, saw that he had something to eat, someplace to stay at night. Some one must have carried him, or at least helped him get to the pool day after day. The story was that every once in a while an angel came down and roiled up the waters. People believed that the first person to get in the pool when the water was disturbed would be healed of what ever disease that was crippling their lives. But this man had been coming to the pool for 38 years, that had to be most of his life, considering the average life span in those days. Some how he had never been the first one into the pool. He keeps coming to this place of healing, but he has never been healed. I wonder if he enjoyed poor health. Jesus seemed to have the same assessment. He asked the man “Do you want to be healed.” In other words, do you want to get well, do you want to be made whole, or do you just want to continue to be sick? The man didn't exactly answer that question, but began to make excuses, well I don't have anyone with me to put me in the pool, and someone always gets there before me. Thirty eight years and someone always gets into the pool before me.

Jesus said to him, if you really want to be healed get up off your mat, pick it up and stand up and walk. It's up to you, not someone else, its up to you to take your life in your own hands, and get up and walk. It's up to you to get off your mat, get up off your A double S and do something with your life.

John tells us “ Immediately the man got well; he picked up his mat and started walking.”

This is truly an amazing story, but what really happened? Was the man able to walk all the time, or is this a story about Jesus miraculous power to heal. None of us know for sure what happened here, but the whole situation does make me think about a friend from my past who also was having a problem walking.

Wilt was a big man, maybe six feet four, at least as tall as Pastor Sylver and in pretty good shape. He was not only the tallest member of the young adult choir, but also the oldest. No one complained that he had kids almost as old as the youngest members of that choir because his deep voice provided just the sound the choir needed. He worked at a meat packing company, Oscar Mayer, the bacon and wiener people, a job that required him to stand on his feet for 8 hours a day. He played pick up basketball and was a motorcycle enthusiast. It was this last characteristic that got him into a world of trouble, because one night he and his son were out riding and a drunken driver ran both of them off the road. His son was not badly hurt, but Wilt's left leg was so mangled that it had to be amputated. He spent weeks in the hospital, then more time recovering at home. He was fitted for a prosthetic, but mostly he got around on crutches. It was the pain that kept him from using his artificial leg. If you know something about amputees you know that they typically have two kinds of pain: there is what is called phantom pain where the amputee continues to feel pain in the limb that was been amputated. This is not imaginary pain, the severed nerve ends are still alive and sending signals to the brain, so the foot, the ankle, the calf, the knee that all are gone are in pain. Then there is of course the pain in the stump. In a case like Wilt's with the whole leg mangled it was not a clean amputation, they tried to leave as much of the leg as possible so he would be able to use an artificial limb, but the stump took a long time to heal. Unlike Hattie, Wilt did not enjoy being sick. The pain made him miserable. He wanted to get out and around, but walking on crutches was not at all easy or pleasant, and it was painful to put on his artificial limb, there was always a sore spot on the stump when he wore it for any period of time, and he felt unsteady on his feet, it takes lots of practice to use a prosthesis, especially with an above the knee amputation. He couldn't work, the family was living mostly on his wife's income, I think he got some little disability, but nothing like the money he had been making when he was working. The end result was that he became depressed, severely depressed. He sat around in his house with the shades pulled on the windows. If you have ever been clinically depressed you know how miserable that is. Every one

was sympathetic and supportive, his family prayed for him, his church family prayed for him, but he couldn't get better. Not until he got assigned to a different doctor at the rehabilitation center. The new doctor made him tell his whole story, how his leg hurt, how he couldn't use the prosthesis for an extended period of time, how hard it was to get around on crutches, how he was depressed. Then his doctor rolled up his pants leg and showed Wilt his own artificial limb. We all thought were being supportive giving Wilt all our sympathy, but the doctor with the artificial leg had no sympathy at all, told him that he was on his feet all day seeing patients, performing surgery and what ever else. Like Jesus, he asked him if he wanted to be made well. He told him if he wanted to be well, if he did not want to be a cripple for the rest of his life he had to get up off his mat, put on his leg every morning and walk on it every day until he got used to it, until the stump got toughened up. It wasn't as sudden as the man at the pool getting up and being made well in an instant, but that was the turning point, and it was less than a year later that he was off disability and back at work every day. It wasn't long after that when he got back on a motorcycle, and not that many years later a preacher who was doing a revival for us went out riding with Wilt. Gary claimed to be an experienced and fearless rider but he couldn't out do Wilt who he described as a riding fool.

What am I trying to say to you this morning? What I want you to know is that each of us must take responsibility for our own lives. No matter how messed up your life is, no matter how sick you are in your body, no matter how sick you are spiritually of mentally, God's healing power is available to make things better, but you have to take charge of your life and accept the healing power of God that is available to you. The question is do you want to be healed?

A lot of us are addicted to one thing or another, some of us are addicted to gossip, can't go day without passing on information or misinformation about someone else. Did you hear what they are saying about the preacher? Do you know what he did, do you know where he was seen the other day. Other people are addicted to complaining and being depressed, some are addicted to gambling, some to other kinds of bad behavior. Other people, including some members of this congregation, are addicted to various substances: cigarettes, alcohol, prescription medicine, or various kinds of illegal drugs. Addictions are hard to overcome. We would not call them addictions if they were easy to overcome. Most substance abuse addictions require some kind of help to overcome them, therapy, detox, rehabilitation, 12 step groups or the like. But none of these so called cures will do a person a bit of good if the person does not want to be healed. The first thing an addict needs to do is answer Jesus' question, do you want to be healed.

I know what I am talking about when I talk about addiction, I was a smoker for about 35 years. I have read that nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs that people use. Certainly it is more addictive than marijuana, for many people it is more addictive than alcohol. Now none of us who smoke think it is good for our health. It makes you cough, it makes you short of breath, it raises your blood pressure, and has many other bad effects on us, and yet once you get started it is hard to stop. You miss the mini-high you get, you feel you just need one cigarette to calm your nerves. I don't know how many times I tried to quit. I remember I had quit for several weeks when one of our members had a heart attack. I went to the hospital to be with her husband, I was there when they told him that they had to open up her chest and massage her heart, they didn't know if she was going to make it. Hours and hours went by before at last they told us that she was going to make it and her husband could see her in a couple of hours, but she wouldn't be able to have any other visitors for several more days. Jelly and his sister stayed there in the waiting room, but the rest of the family and I left the hospital. I was totally wrung out, I needed a cigarette, and when another family member lit up I bummed a cigarette and had one, then another, then went home and bummed another from Kathleen, and then I had a pack in my pocket and that didn't last a day. When we got to Florida there were even more reasons to quit: most of the Church members were non smokers and disapproved of anyone, much less their pastor smoking, plus they said it was a bad influence on the teenagers. I tried to quit, I got nicotine gum. It tasted awful, and was certainly not doing anything for my nicotine addiction, I was just getting it from the gum instead of the cigarettes. Well the truth was I was getting my nicotine both from the gum and the cigarettes. I told myself I wanted to quit, but the truth was I didn't want to quit as much as I wanted to have another cigarette. It all ended one Sunday evening. I had the flu, but I kept going, I needed to preach on Sunday, then there was a wake for the mother in law of one of our most powerful and wealthy members. Finally I got home and went to bed. By that time I was wheezing, I couldn't clear my lungs, I couldn't stop coughing, but the more I coughed the worse my breathing got. If you have ever had an asthma attack you know what I was experiencing. I didn't know what was going on, but I knew I couldn't breathe. My pulse was racing and was feeling worse and worse by the hour. After several hours of gasping for breath I told Kathleen she needed to take me to the hospital. In the emergency room they gave me repeated neutralizer treatments, an intravenous infusion of magnesium to slow down my racing heart beat, them I nearly passed out because my pulse dropped so far so fast. Finally I began to feel human again. The doctors wanted me to stay overnight, but I was too stubborn for that, and promised to see my doctor in the morning.

I had said I wanted to quit for years, but when I thought I was going to die things changed and I really did want to quit, I really did want to be well, I really did want to be healed, and I have not had a single cigarette since December 22, 1996.

What is your addiction, what substance or behavior is ruling your life? Do you want to be made well, do you want to be made whole?

God has the power to heal all your illness and all your diseases. There is help for all manner of afflictions and addictions, but a person needs to take advantage of the help that is available, a person must want to be healed. Do you, do you really want to be healed, do you want to be made well, do you want to be saved?

Scripture Reading for the sermon

John 5:1-9

Good News Translation
5 After this, Jesus went to Jerusalem for a religious festival. 2 Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool with five porches; in Hebrew it is called Bethzatha. 3 A large crowd of sick people were lying on the porches—the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. They were waiting for the water to move, because every now and then an angel of the Lord went down into the pool and stirred up the water. The first sick person to go into the pool after the water was stirred up was healed from whatever disease he had. 5 A man was there who had been sick for thirty-eight years. 6 Jesus saw him lying there, and he knew that the man had been sick for such a long time; so he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
7 The sick man answered, “Sir, I don't have anyone here to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am trying to get in, somebody else gets there first.”
8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your mat, and walk.” 9 Immediately the man got well; he picked up his mat and started walking.
The day this happened was a Sabbath,

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sermon preached April 21, 2013 at Valley Presbyterian Church, Brookfield, CT


I don't think I need to tell you that we live in a frightening world, not this week, not since December fourteenth. After the bombings at the Boston Rick Green wrote in the Hartford Courant: “And yet, once again, there was that sickening feeling that something might have changed forever in America.” You notice he said yet once AGAIN.

For me something changed forever when the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed injuring almost 700 and taking the lives of 168, including 19 children under the age of 6. I no longer could feel the same feeling of safety that Americans once enjoyed. Terrorism was not something that happened in far away countries, it had happened in our nation.

If that did not convince Americans that something had changed forever in this country then I think none of us could feel the same after September 11. Even more recently we have seen mass shootings at Fort Hood, at Virginia Tech; we have seen the shootings that injured Gabby Gifford, the shootings at Aurora, Colorado and of course the killings at Newtown, only minutes away from where we are this morning. Indeed something has changed forever in America. Once upon a time many Americans felt relatively safe compared with the rest of the world. Bombings and mass shootings were something that happened in Israel, or in Iraq or in Afghanistan, but we felt that our children were safe when we sent them off to school. School invasions were something that happened in Russia or some far off part of the world.

Unfortunately those who live in the inner city areas of major cities, even people in Hartford's North end, and in portions of Bridgeport and New Haven who hear gunfire in their neighborhood on a daily or weekly basis know a different reality than those of us who live in more affluent suburban neighborhoods. I remember clearly my apprehension in going to make a pastoral call on the mother of one of our members, getting out of my car realizing that I was in an area where there had been a half a dozen shootings in the previous few months. Even though these seem isolated incidents they mount up to a frightening toll, it is estimated that at least 3,531 people have been killed by guns since Newtown. That includes 179 teens and 63 children.

Today there is not a one of us who could rationally deny that we live in a world full of danger. Of course there are more dangers than shootings and bombings. We are beset by many fears and anxieties, “Am I going to loose my job?” “Are my teen age children or grandchildren in danger of getting involved with drugs or alcohol?” I know people who are frightened to death to get in an airplane. I think most of us have a certain apprehension about our health, most of us know people no older than ourselves who have have a heart attack, a stroke, or have been diagnosed with cancer. Our fears and anxieties are without end.

Does the faith that we hold offer us any comfort in the face of our fears and anxieties?

Our scriptures this morning are filled with images of God's care for us: In a few minutes we will affirm our faith with familiar words:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; ...
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I fear no evil; for thou art with me;
    thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. ...
Thou preparest a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever.
The Hebrew scriptures in many other places affirm similarly that we belong to God, for example in Psalm 95 we read
O come, let us worship and bow down,
    let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
7 For he is our God,
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.

Jesus repeatedly uses the same image of God or of himself as the Shepard and we the sheep. You remember how he told about a good shepherd who left 99 sheep safe in the fold and went out into the darkness to seek for one lost sheep, and continued to seek until he found the one lost, and then came back rejoicing.

In the passage from John that we read this morning Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

No one will snatch them out of my hand. If we belong to God, if we belong to Jesus, then no matter what the danger, no matter how frightening our world is, no matter how anxious we may be, we know that we belong to God, and no one, no power, no danger can snatch us out of the hands of God. Even in the case of death we still belong to God we are safe in his hands. The opening words of the Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith make this same affirmation : “In life and in death, we belong to God.”

In Revelation we read:

“The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

People who believe these affirmations, those who believe that God will wipe away all tears from their eyes, those who believe that they belong to God, in life and in death we belong to God are people who can face their fears and anxieties and live as people of courage. People who are confident in God's love and care, that no one can snatch them out of God's hands are people who are able to confront the evils of this world. Confidence in God's care gives us courage to confront the culture of violence that infects the life of our nation and the life of the world. Confidence in God gives us courage to stand up for reasonable controls on automatic weapons, people who can stand up for background checks for gun owners, people who can stand up for every victim of violence.

We have seen many people of courage in the past week and past months. It has taken great courage for parents, friends and neighbors of those killed at Sandy Hook to march and run and even travel with the president to Washington to lobby congressmen in favor of reasonable gun controls. Our Senators and our governor and our legislators have shown courage in standing and voting for gun controls, while others in the U.S. Senate have shown spectacular cowardice in refusing to do what they know is right, which is the will of the American people.

It took tremendous courage for first responders to run toward the bomb blasts on Monday to aid the victims. It has taken great courage on the part of law enforcement to pursue and even engage in firefights with the brothers accused of the bombings and to kill one and capture the other.

Many others among us have shown equal but less spectacular courage to stand with the poor and oppressed, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the discouraged, visit the sick and imprisoned, and to stand up for justice for the downtrodden.

We do not know the source of every one's courage, but I am certain that many people of courage are inspired to live victorious lives because they know that in death and in life we belong to God. People of courage are those who know that the Lord is our shepherd, and that no one can snatch us out of the hands of the good shepherd.

Another Psalm says God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear. Martin Luther based his great Hymn, A Mighty Fortress on this psalm, and we will now stand and sing that hymn.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A hot cross bun is a spiced sweet bun made with currants or raisins and marked with a cross on the top, traditionally eaten on Good Friday.

Here are some I made.

A popular nursery rhyme about them goes

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One a penny,
Two a penny,
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons.
One a penny,
Two a penny,
Hot cross buns!
Poor Robin’s Almanack for 1733, the earliest reference to these doughy delights for a meatless fast-day, connects Good Friday and the “one or two a penny hot cross buns”, adding that their “virtue is, if you believe what’s said, / They’ll not grow mouldy like common bread”.
The biblical scholar would say this relates to Peter's Pentecost sermon when he quotes the 16th Psalm as referring to Jesus resurrection: (Acts 2:27)  “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.”
The scientist would say it is the cinnamon that inhibits mold growth.
The cook might observe that of course they are so tasty they don't last long enough to mold.