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“Touching God Begins With Jesus” Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Third Sunday in Easter, April 10, 2016

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Ave. Christian Church

There’s a story of a man who went to his doctor complaining about terrible neck pains, throbbing headaches, and recurring dizzy spells. The doctor examined him carefully and pronounced, “I’m sorry but I have bad news for you. The diagnosis is not good. But from what I can tell, you must have an unspecified brain tumor causing the problem. Unfortunately there is nothing we can do for you. It seems that you have only six months to live.”

The doomed man left the doctor’s office shaken and crushed, but he vowed that he would live his life to the fullest in the six months that he had left. Subsequently he went out and quit his job, cashed in his savings, and bought a new sports car, a closet full of new suits and expensive shoes. Then he went to an exclusive men’s shop to buy a supply of the best quality tailored shirts available. He entered the shop and had the tailor measure him. As the tailor took the man’s neck size, the dying man noticed him write down “neck size 16.”

“Wait a minute,” the man said. “I don’t wear a 16. I’ve always worn a size 14 shirt, and that’s what I want now.” “But if you wear a size 14,” the tailor said, “you’re apt to experience terrible neck pains, throbbing headaches, and recurring dizzy spells.”

Without knowing it the tailor had unmasked the man’s real problem. This morning I would like for us to look at the gospel lesson and see if we can find some “Real Solutions To Real Problems.”

In some ways, this last chapter of John’s gospel presents us with a problem. As we read it, it strikes us as strange. It’s almost as if the evangelist John has concluded his gospel before writing the last chapter. At the end of chapter 20, he writes that his gospel has shown by the signs and wonders that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing (we) may have life in his name.” As we read those words, it is clear that here, in effect, John lays aside his pen and closes the book. But suddenly he remembers more. He realizes that the story is not yet finished. And so once again he takes up his pen and writes the final chapter. It’s as if he remembers some final details, some loose ends that need tying up, some problems without clear solutions.

So he picks up his pen to write an epilogue — Chapter 21. He begins that epilogue with Peter and six of the other disciples. Remember — John has already told the story of Jesus’ resurrection. He has already shared with his readers the appearance of Jesus to Mary and the disciples and to Thomas. But to tell the story of those resurrection appearances is not enough. There is more!

And so in today’s Gospel reading, John tells another story — this time the story of Jesus’ appearance to Peter and some other disciples, this time not in Jerusalem, not in Bethany, not some place where Jesus has been — but home, back home with the disciples. Back home fishing. And in doing so, it is almost as if John wants to remind us of something we might overlook elsewhere.

It is an interesting story, isn’t it? It is a story we can well identify with, especially this third Sunday after Easter. It is a “back to usual” story. It is a “fellow’s got to make a living” kind of story. Look at Peter and those disciples. They might as well have been twenty first century Christians by the way they acted, by their response to Easter, as quickly as things returned to normal in their lives. Having walked with Jesus, having heard his words and witnessed his miracles, having experienced the grief of the cross and the exhilaration of the resurrection, what do the disciples do? They go back to their boats. It is almost as if the past three years had not happened, as if it had all been a dream.

I told you a moment ago that I wanted to look at the gospel and find some “Real Solutions To Real Problems,” and that is what this story is about. However, as we look at the way the disciples acted after the resurrection, you may be wondering. For the disciples it appeared as if the resurrection had made no difference in their lives. It’s back to normal. Fishing can be good therapy, but it can also be lousy! Catching fish is one thing, but when the fish are not biting, there is plenty of time to think. And try as we might, it is often impossible to set our minds off of troubling events. It’s like trying to keep your tongue from finding its way to the empty space left where you’ve lost a tooth.

It’s not hard to imagine Peter’s thoughts, is it? They must have gone back to the upper room and Jesus’ words of warning that Peter would deny him; back to the Garden and the disciples’ weariness and failure to watch with Jesus; back to the fire in the courtyard and his own unforgivable moments of denial. Why wouldn’t Peter want to start over? Why wouldn’t he want to get back to the boats and forget what had happened?

And that’s why this morning’s Gospel story is so important — for Peter and for each one of us. This morning’s story is for all who have ever wished they could go back and start again, for everyone who has wondered what life would be like without God’s forgiveness, without Easter and God’s love. The story shows us what life would be like with only its idleness and self-directed busyness, its vanity and vulgarity, its failures and successes. The disciples show us that life without Easter adds up to futility.

Someone once said that half the mental health admissions each year would be unnecessary if the persons could only believe in the reality of Easter, if they could experience and believe in God’s forgiveness and trust in the words of the resurrected Christ when he says, “I am with you always.” These are words of promise not only for the troubled and guilt ridden, but also for the successful and self-consumed. Words for everyone who has ever experienced the truth and meaning of the words, “That night, they caught nothing.” In the end when all was said and done, it added up to nothing.

Real solutions to real problems — that’s the message this morning. Real solutions for real people — people like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, his life consumed with hatred and directed at persecuting the new Christian church until he met Christ and his life was changed. People like Peter in the boat, his heart filled with hurt and weighed down by his own failure until he met Christ on the shore and experienced forgiveness.

The story this morning reminds us that after the resurrection nothing can ever be the same. Peter and the disciples may try to return to their boats, but they cannot for they have become fishers of men. They may go back to the same place. But they are not the same people. For the resurrection has changed them. Three years with the Master has changed their lives. Too many cripples walked. Too many graves were made open. Too many hours were spent listening to his Word and witnessing his power. Oh, this may be the same lake, the same boats, the same failure to catch fish, but these are not the same people. The resurrection has changed them. Nothing can ever be the same.

And perhaps that’s what John wanted to tell us when he wrote the last chapter of his gospel. After the resurrection nothing can ever be the same. That’s why Jesus appears to Peter and the disciples again — to remind them of that. It is God’s grace for sinners, God’s forgiveness for the fallen, and God’s love for you and me. There on the shore of the Lake of Galilee we see how God treats us — with love and respect, with kindness and forgiveness. For just as Jesus stood on the shore and called to Peter, so he stands near us and calls to us as well. For his promise to us is the same. “Lo, I am with you always.”

Did you ever wonder about these resurrection appearances of Jesus — how he keeps popping in and out of the disciples’ lives? Here one moment and gone the next. It began the first evening of Easter and continues in the story today. What is the message he wants us to know? Could this be Jesus’ way of underlining the words of his promise — “Lo, I am with you always”? There each moment they needed him most. There with the disciples in the grief and sadness as they gathered in the upper room. There with Thomas in his time of doubt. And now here today with Peter when his heart was filled with regret. It’s almost as if Jesus is trying to demonstrate to the disciples the truth of his Word that he is near them always. Always ready to come in time of need. Moving in and out of their lives so naturally that soon they would come to expect him with them always.

An old man became gravely ill, and when the pastor came to visit, the pastor noticed a chair beside the man’s bed. “Oh, goodness,” the pastor said, “you’ve already had a visitor today.” “Oh, no,” the man replied, “let me tell you about that chair. Years ago, I told a friend that when I prayed at night, I frequently fell asleep right in the middle of my prayers. And my friend suggested that I put a chair beside my bed and imagine that Jesus is sitting there with me, because after all, he really is. So I started doing that, and you know what? It really helped. Sometimes I can even sense him sitting there beside me.”

After talking with the man a while longer, the pastor went home and later that night he got a call from the man’s daughter. She said, “Pastor, my dad just died. Can you come over?” So the pastor went to see her. The daughter said, “You know I was in the room and everything was fine. He wasn’t struggling or anything. He was just lying there peacefully. So I left the room for a moment. When I came back, he had passed away. But what’s strange is that when I came back in the room, I noticed that the chair was pulled back up beside his bed. Somehow he had managed to roll over on his side and stretch out his arm to the chair beside him.”

Real solutions to real problems — that’s what the resurrection of Jesus can mean to us. God’s power and love flowing into our lives. The forgiveness and newness that can be ours in Jesus. The assurance of his presence with us always. Jesus calls to us today to drop down our nets and receive his blessing, to trust in his Word for us and to live in his presence. The same peace and contentment, the same joy and dedication that filled the disciples’ lives can be ours. For the same Christ stands near us and speaks the same promise, “Lo, I am with you always.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.

“Who Do We Feed?” Matthew 14:13-21

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost, Cycle A, August 3, 2014

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

“Three mice died and went to heaven. After a few days, St. Peter asked them how they were enjoying heaven. The mice said they were doing OK, but because heaven was so big, and their legs so short, it was hard for them to get around. So St. Peter outfitted the mice with roller skates, and in no time the mice were scooting all over heaven, seeing the sites. Not long after that a cat died and went to heaven. After a few days, St. Peter asked the cat how he was doing. The cat said, ‘I’m having a great time! This place is great, especially those meals on wheels.'”

Now I know you’re going to say I’ve heard that one before; but I thought it would be a sneaky way of getting into food, which is what we have in the readings as we see Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes in the gospel. In the gospel Jesus has gathered with his disciples, who have just come in from their first mission assignment. Jesus is looking for a little private time with his disciples to see how they did on their first task. Also, Jesus has just heard that his close friend, John the Baptist, has been killed by Herod. All the more does Jesus want some private time to mourn his friend.

But what happens? Well, as often with celebrities, the crowds have followed Jesus and now they want his attention. Jesus does so willingly. In fact elsewhere in the telling of this scene, the evangelist says Jesus looked on the people who seemed confused like scattered sheep and he was mightily moved with compassion for them.
So here is a Jesus who puts others first, as he always did. The day wanes and it is obvious that the crowd must be hungry. The disciples point this out to Jesus. The disciples’ solution is to send the people into nearby towns to get something to eat. Jesus’ solution is simpler. He says to his disciples: “You feed them.”

Jesus is like a good Jewish mother here … or Italian mother, or Irish mother – or any mother. All problems can be solved by food. If you’re an Everybody Loves Raymond fan like me, you recall that every time Ray walks into his mother’s house by the back kitchen door, her first question to him is, “Are you hungry.” God bless moms, they know how to take care of you. (Grandkid: when are we going to eat next).
Instead of sending out for food, Jesus simply said “you feed them!” And then we discover a young man who is present with a little food. Our story from scripture for today involves a young man who didn’t have much. But what he did have, he offered to Christ. What a powerful statement. “You feed them!”

Let’s apply it to today’s world. I don’t want to spend a lot of time with the dismal statistics. We know that more than a billion people in the world live on less than one dollar per day. Every six seconds a child dies because of hunger. We can go on and on describing how terrible it is for many. And we, like Jesus’ disciples may find ourselves wringing our hands in despair and crying out, “What can we do? What can we do. It’s hopeless. There are so many in need and our resources are so few.” We can’t tell the Master to send them away, but at least we can look away. We can ignore them. But then the voice of the Master comes to us with confidence and power: “You feed them!”

We live in a rich world. It is an amazing world of abundance. But we need to recognize that there are limits to the world’s resources. What if the people of China used the world’s resources on a per capita basis like we do in the West. The strain on the world’s resources would be enormous.

Still, this is our Father’s world. God has provided all that we need to survive. If you ever have any doubt about the existence of God, simply consider the wonder of our created world. Yet there are many who need to experience the provision and love of God through us. Jesus challenges us, “You feed them!” And we can. We live in a rich world. And we are rich people.

We may not feel very rich, but really we are. Granted, we may not be as rich as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or the descendants of Sam Walton, the Wal-Mart founder.
Billionaire H.L. Hunt, in an interview with Mike Wallace, once said, “I would starve to death with an income of a million dollars a week.” (2) Well, most of us aren’t rich like that.

Somebody has made a list of “ways to know that you’re broke”:
1. American Express calls and says: “Leave home without it!”
2. Your idea of a 7-course meal is taking a deep breath outside a restaurant.
3. You’re formulating a plan to rob the food bank.
4. You rob Peter . . . and then rob Paul.
5. You finally clean your house, hoping to find change.
6. You give blood every day . . . just for the orange juice.
7. At communion you go back for seconds.
No, we may not feel very rich. But we have more resources than we would like to admit.

Tony Campolo is a professor of sociology and a popular speaker. He was once invited to a women’s conference where he was to give a major address. These women were being challenged to raise several thousand dollars for a mission project goal. While Campolo was sitting on the dais, the chairperson turned to him and asked him if he would pray for God’s blessing as they considered their individual responses to the goal. Campolo stood and–to the utter amazement of everyone present–graciously said “no.” He approached the microphone and said, “You already have all the resources necessary to complete this mission project right here within this room. It would be inappropriate to ask for God’s blessing, when in fact God has already blessed you with the abundance and the means to achieve this goal. The necessary gifts are in your hands. As soon as we take the offering and underwrite this mission project, we will thank God for freeing us to be the generous, responsible and accountable stewards that we’re called to be as Christian disciples.” And they did. (3)
Wow! Leave it to Tony Campolo to hit the nail right on the thumb! Jesus says, “You feed them!” And we can! This is a rich world and we are rich people!

Most importantly, we serve a rich God. There are ways to explain the feeding of the 5,000. Some say that this young fellow’s example encouraged other people to share food they had brought with them for the journey. And like a covered dish supper the food multiplied. Who knows how Christ did it. The point is that when Jesus is present, miracles happen. They happen in operating rooms. They happen in marriages. They happen in all kinds of settings. When Jesus is present, great things happen! All Jesus needs is a little to work with, but when he is given something to work with, amazing things happen. But here is a spiritual principle we cannot overlook-Jesus does need something to work with.

He took water and turned it to wine. And he took this young man’s fishes and loaves and fed the multitude. But, it seems to be an important spiritual principle that Christ needs something to work with.

Jesus made it clear that he regarded the feeding task to be their responsibility as it is ours today. He assumed that they could do what he had asked them to do. God doesn’t lay a responsibility on us that we’re not capable of fulfilling. But, they came back at him: “We have nothing …” Of course this statement was qualified by the “five loaves and two fish” that they did have.

Like so many others, when God calls we either do not answer, or we beg off.
“I have nothing.” “I’m too old for this sort of thing.” “I’m sorry, but I have issues.” “I’m too busy.” “I’ve already given and done my bit.” “We should let the younger folk do it.” “I’m not ordained.” “I don’t know too much about the Bible.” “This is not my gift.”

“I’ve got too much on my own plate right now.” By the way, how are we doing with our outreach projects and special offerings? There is more than one way to feed people!
Jesus’ point is clear: He said hou give what you have and I will take care of the distribution issues. The miracle, then, was not only one of feeding, but of opening the imagination and faith of those doing the feeding.

God works through people who are responsive to God’s leading. There is nothing in this world that cannot be accomplished. Jesus said, “You feed them!” And we can. But, first of all, there needs to be some young man or some young woman or some adult, some grandparent, perhaps, who steps up and say, “Here are my fishes and loaves, take it and use it as you would.”

A man was packing a shipment of food for the poor people of Appalachia. He was separating beans from powdered milk, and canned vegetables from canned meats. Reaching into a box filled with various cans, he pulled out a little brown paper sack. Apparently one of the pupils had brought something different from the items on the suggested list. Out of the paper bag fell a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and a cookie. Crayoned in large letters was a little girl’s name, ‘Christy — Room 104.’ She had given up her lunch for some hungry person. (4)

Jesus says to us, “You feed them!” This is an incredibly rich world. We are rich people and we serve a rich God. “You feed them!” Who will start us off by offering your gift for the Master to bless and multiply?

“The Spirit’s Whisper” John 14:15-21

Sixth Sunday after Easter, Cycle A, May 25, 2014

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Many of you probably have stashed away in a drawer somewhere around your home the old 45 rpm records. And some of you are saying “What’s that!?” If you have some 45s from the 50s and early 60s you will have Elvis’ grinding out “Hound Dog,” Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ hiccupping “Peggy Sue,” Chuck Berry’s joyful hot licks in “Maybellene,” the Coasters’ slapstick version of “Charlie Brown,” the mournful “Tears On My Pillow” by Little Anthony and the Imperials, the memorable and probably scandalous “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen, and the teenaged gropings of the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me.”

Here and there in these dusty stacks, one can find an occasional recording by the great blues master Jimmy Reed. A share-cropper’s son, Reed brought the throbbing harmonica-and-guitar-driven black rhythm-and-blues of the Mississippi Delta into the popular rock-and-roll mainstream. Reed’s pain-soaked mahogany voice was unique and could not be imitated.

There’s an interesting story behind the Jimmy Reed records. In placing the phonograph needle again and again in the grooves of Jimmy Reed’s records, you began to notice something curious. If one listened very carefully, there could sometimes be heard, ever so faintly in the background, a soft woman’s voice murmuring in advance the next verse of the song. The story that grew up around this — and perhaps it is true — was that Jimmy Reed was so absorbed in the bluesy beat and the throbbing guitar riffs of his music that he simply could not remember the words of his own songs. He needed help with the lyrics, and the woman’s voice was none other than that of his wife, devotedly coaching her husband through the recording session by whispering the upcoming stanzas into his ear as he sang.

Whether or not this story is accurate, Christians will surely recognize a parallel experience. Jesus tells his followers that the role of the Holy Spirit is, in effect, to whisper the lyrics of the gospel song in the ears of the faithful. When Jesus was present, he was the one who instilled in them the right words, coached them through the proper verses, taught them the joyful commandments. But now that Jesus approaches his death, now that he draws near to his time of departure, now that the disciples will be on their own without him, that task is to be handed over to the Holy Spirit: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth …” (John 14:15-17).

The primary task, then, of the Holy Spirit is reminding the faithful of the truth, jogging the memories of the followers of Jesus about all of his commandments so that they can keep them in love, whispering the lyrics of the never-ending hymn of faithful obedience in their ears. It may surprise us to think of the Holy Spirit in this way, as a quiet, whispering teacher of the commandments of Jesus. Often the Spirit is advertised in flashier terms: The Spirit gives ecstasy; the Spirit evokes speaking in unknown tongues; the Spirit prompts dramatic and miraculous healings. Indeed, the Holy Spirit of God does perform such deeds, but these are all derivative of the one, primary activity of the Spirit — reminding the children of God about everything that Jesus taught and commanded (John 14:26), whispering the gospel lyrics into the ears of the forgetful faithful.

When Jimmy Carter was running for President of the United States, one of the more vivid moments in the campaign passed by almost unnoticed. One Sunday morning, candidate Carter had been worshipping at a Church in Plains, Georgia. When the service was over, he exited the church into the swarm of press encamped on the church’s front lawn. Cameras whirring, video lights glaring, microphones thrust forward, the media moved in for interviews, pushing themselves to think of clever questions to ask a presidential candidate on the way out of a Southern Church — “Did you like the sermon?” “Did you enjoy the choir this morning?” “Do you plan to remain a Baptist in Washington?” — on and on the banal questions spewed.

Suddenly, a reporter, probably in a stroke of luck, shouted out a question that genuinely mattered: “Mr. Carter, suppose when you are President, you get into a situation where the laws of the United States are in conflict with what you understand to be the will of God. Which will you follow, the laws of the state or the commandments of God?”

Carter stopped, looked up, and blinked into the bright Georgia sun, obviously turning the question over in his mind. Then, perhaps still “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day,” perhaps with the Spirit gently whispering the lyrics of the gospel into his ears, he turned toward the reporter and replied, “I would obey the commandments of God.” Alert aides, alarmed by this candor, unnerved by their candidate’s near-treasonous remark, hurriedly whisked him away from the press and into a waiting car. Carter the politician should have avoided the question, or hewed closely to the law of the land, but Carter the Christian had the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ whispering in his ear, “Do you love me? The world cannot see or know me, but do you love me? Do you keep my commandments?”

The reason we need the Holy Spirit murmuring the gospel in our ears, of course, is that we are notoriously forgetful. As one commentator has pointed out, “an early Christian definition for being lost … was ‘to have amnesia.’ “1 We are amnesiacs who cannot keep our calling clearly in mind. Like the great Jimmy Reed, we are caught up in the rhythms, but we forget the lyrics. We know that we are created to serve and love one another, but the pressure builds and the temptation to seek revenge is strong and we simply forget who we are and what we are purposed to do and be in life.

Part of our sin is to lose our memory about the things that God teaches us in his Word and through his Son. Having lost our memory, we now choose forgetfulness again and again, preferring the oblivion of amnesia to the sharp accountability of remembering the commandments.

One way to describe sin is willful forgetfulness when it comes to the things of God. Are you following me? It is like we choose amnesia; we decide as an act of the will not to remember that we are God’s very own child.

God’s mercy is, in part, the grace of memory. It is more than that, of course; but it is the gift of remembering what God has done in our lives. God’s Spirit whispers in our ear, telling us what we cannot — or will not — remember, refreshing our memory about who we are and to whom we belong. When, in situations of challenge and stress, we remember the comfort and demand of the gospel, it is because the voice of the Holy Spirit whispers the lyrics in our ear.

A minister reported her experience in taking communion to a woman in a nursing home who had Alzheimer’s disease. When she arrived in the woman’s room, she attempted to carry on a conversation with her. Even though she was a member of this minister’s church and the minister had known her for years, meaningful communication was nearly impossible. The woman was confused and disoriented. She simply could not remember anything, including who she was or who the minister was.

When the minister set up the communion elements, the woman’s confusion increased. Seeing the bread and the cup on her hospital table, she furrowed her brow and tried to sweep them off with her hand, “What’s this? What …?”2

But when the minister began the familiar communion liturgy, the woman grew calm. The Holy Spirit irrigated furrows in her memory deeper than any disease, more profound than any confusion. “On the night that our Lord was betrayed …,” the minister said, and the woman began to repeat the words silently with her lips. “This is my body, for you,” the woman was now quietly speaking the words along with the minister, the Spirit whispering the lyrics in her ear. When the bread and the wine were offered, the woman eagerly, hungrily, took them in her hands — the gifts of God for this daughter of God.

This woman, in her own way, is like all of us. In the final analysis. We must all be given a story that draws us to God and to our Lord Jesus, to those things that are larger than ourselves. Where we have no faithful memory, God remembers, and by the grace of God, the Spirit whispers the lyrics of the saving gospel in our ears.

That is the beauty and meaning of taking communion together, as the scripture says to us….as often as you gather, do this in remembrance.

It is also the beauty of this weekend when we emphasize Memorials to those who have given the untimate sacrifice to secure our freedoms.

When I was at Heritage Christian Church in Silver Spring we had a member that had severe althimers. She was in a special home a half mile from the church. She had no memory and could not communicate. Her daughter lovingly drove from Northern Virginia each weekend to spend time with her and take her to church. When the car drove into the church parking lot she would point to the church and say “That is my church!” She had a permenant place reserved for her on the back row. During the singing she would mouth the words of the hymns. During reading of scripture her lips would for the words. I believe the Holy Spirit would whisper to her in a beautiful way.

May the Spirit move our memories now as we come to the Lord’s Table and as we remember the importance of this weekend, and in the days to come. Amen.

1. Fred B. Craddock, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 113.

2. This story comes from Rev. Joanna Adams of Atlanta, Georgia, shared on internet.

“Children of the Divine” John 1:1-18

Second Sunday after Christmas, Cycle A, January 5, 2014

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Welcome on this first Sunday in a new year. The holidays are over for a while. And the New Year is upon us. We have made our resolutions and many of them have been broken already.  Resolutions are good, especially if there are changes we need to make in our lives. I heard about one poor guy who dialed his girlfriend and got the following recording: “I am not available right now, but thank you for caring enough to call. I am making some changes in my life. Please leave a message after the beep. If I do not return your call, you are one of the changes.”

It’s good to make changes, for the most part. As we are often reminded by our critics, our spouses or our children, none of us is perfect. In fact, some of us might have some deep regrets about the way we’ve lived our lives.

Dr. Les Parrott tells about a guy in Fredericksburg, Virginia named Cliff Satterthwaite who helps people get rid of their regrets. Each New Year’s Eve Mr. Satterthwaite sets up a booth there in Fredericksburg where those celebrating New Year’s Eve can come for a moment of sober reflection. Put the emphasis on “sober” reflection. Those who come write their regrets on a scrap of paper, then they set a match to them and turn them to ashes in an adjacent canister. Literally, their regrets go up in smoke. At least, that’s the general idea.

We could do that. We could write our regrets on a piece of paper and bring them to the altar and watch them go up in smoke. That might be very therapeutic for some of us as we begin a new year. But our text for the day from the prologue to the Gospel of John puts the emphasis not on our past, but on our future. Not on our regrets, but on our possibilities. Let me read just a few selected verses from this magnificent passage:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made . . . He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

What a positive theme for this New Year! The prologue to John is focused not on what we have been, or even what we are now. Rather it focuses on what we can yet be: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God . . .”

Isn’t what you really want as you begin this New Year?  To know deep in your heart that you can be more than you are today that you have a right to become a child of God? Isn’t that what you really want to know that you can live the next 365 days confidently aware that your life matters.  To know that God is with you and that you can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens you? “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

All of us have unrealized potential. That’s the first thing these words say to me. We are children of the dust who have the potential to be children of the Divine. When each of us came into this world, we brought with us an amazing amount of potential.

Tony Buzan in his book The Power of Verbal Intelligence gives us a wonderful example of the potential each of us brought into the world. He tells the story of the origins of the Suzuki method that has helped millions of children learn to play the violin. It begins with a Japanese teacher, musician and instrument maker named, of course, Suzuki. Suzuki had two moments in his life when he gained life-changing insights.

Suzuki’s first revelation came when he was visiting a building that served as a giant incubator for thousands of Japanese songbirds known as larks. The breeders of these larks take literally thousands of eggs and incubate them in giant, warm, silent halls that act as a gigantic nest. There is only one sound that the tiny songbirds hear as they break through the shells of their eggs. It is the sound of another lark, a very special adult lark that is chosen because of its singing ability. Suzuki noticed to his amazement that every little chick that hatched automatically began to copy the master singer lark. Even more remarkable, after a few days he observed that each chick, having started out by purely copying songs, began to develop its own variations on the original Master Song. The breeders wait until the chick musicians have developed their own styles, and then select from them the next Master Singer, and so the process continues.

“Astounding!” thought Suzuki. “If a bird’s tiny, tiny brain can learn so perfectly, then surely the human brain, with its vastly superior abilities, should be able to do the same and better!” This line of reasoning led Suzuki to his next revelation. Every Japanese child learns to speak Japanese! When Suzuki pointed this out to his friends they laughed and assured him they already knew that. “But No! No!” declared Suzuki, “they really do, and it’s amazing!”

“Suzuki was correct,” says Tony Buzan. “Like Newton before him, he had discovered something that was so obvious no one could see it that any baby, born in any country, automatically learns, within two years, the language of that country. This means that every normal baby’s brain is capable of learning millions of potential languages.”

Think about that a few moments and you will realize what an amazing thing that is. Given the proper environment, the human creature is capable of acquiring an amazing amount of information and skills in a short time. It is truly sad that so much of this potential is neglected. By the way, parents should not give up on a child who seems lacking in potential. Albert Einstein couldn’t speak fluently even when he was nine years old. His parents actually thought he might be mentally challenged. Children develop differently and children are gifted in different ways. You and I came into this world having enormous mental and physical potential, much of which is never realized.

There is something more our text is saying to us, however. We also have enormous untapped spiritual potential. Now this is a concept that many of us will not quite grasp, but it is so vitally important. Notice, the text doesn’t say that Christ came into the world so that we can improve our I.Q. or that we will be able to run the 440 in record time. It says that whoever receives Christ and believes on his name has the potential to become a child of God. What does that mean? It means that you and I have the potential to be like Christ. We have a potential within our hearts and souls for peace, a potential for joy, a potential for hope, a potential for love, a potential for forgiveness that is greater than we can possibly imagine.

Try to grasp the significance of that truth. We no longer have to live lives filled with inner conflict, anger, resentment, fear, hatred, guilt or rejection. By the power of God’s Holy Spirit we can become new people, God’s people. Sometimes this happens to people in a dramatic way.

Sometimes one’s spiritual conversion is dramatic! Someone is converted and immediately they begin to follow Christ. For others it happens very slowly over time. Regardless of how it happens, you and I can be more than we are. And it doesn’t depend on our background; it doesn’t depend on our physical or mental limitations. It doesn’t depend on our age. Many older people may find themselves slowing down physically, and sometimes even mentally. But there need be no slowdown in our ability to be children of God. This is a gift that never fades nor ever fails.

And it is a gift. The right to be children of God is not something we earn. It is a gift from a loving, merciful God. Note again John’s words: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he GAVE the right to become children of God.” It’s not a matter of how often we come to God’s house, it’s not how often we read our Bibles, and it is not how often we pray. We don’t earn the right to be children of God. It is a gift.

The well-known psychologist Dr Gordon Allport of Harvard University used to stress the importance of understanding that we are in the process of “becoming.” He made massive surveys of people who had changed over the years, some for good and some for bad. He concluded that all of us have the ability to be more than we are.

We’re glad he discovered that, but the writer of the Gospel of John told us that two thousand years ago. “To all who received him, who believed in his name, [Christ] gave the right to become children of God.”

After Nathaniel Hawthorne’s death, it was discovered that he had left some notebooks that contained random ideas he had jotted down as they occurred to him. One of the short entries reads as follows: “Suggestion for a short story in which the principal character simply never appears.” Someone once had this to say about Hawthorne’s story: “Unhappily, this is the story of too many lives. The principal character simply never appears. The person we might grow into, the human being we might become, doesn’t show up. Our potential greatness lies unrealized, the splendor remains imprisoned, the promise unfulfilled. Our lives develop a static character.”

I hope that doesn’t happen to you, or to me. God has placed within each of us enormous potential, mental potential, physical potential, but the greatest of all is spiritual potential, the potential to become children of God.

I hope you begin this New Year with the realization that you are an heir to the throne, not because of anything you have done, but because of what Christ has done in your behalf. You have enormous potential physically and mentally. You have even greater potential spiritually. You have the right to become a child of God, and, indeed, by your baptism, you are a child of God. That’s something powerful to live up to. The right to live like Christ, the right to have God as our Father, our Counselor, our Guide. Go forth into this New Year aware of who you are, and to whom you belong.

“Overcoming National Whiner’s Day” Isaiah 63:7-9

First Sunday after Christmas, Cycle A, December 29, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas. I hope Santa brought you just what you wanted. Now we can put an end to the rumor that Christmas was being canceled this year. Oh, you hadn’t heard that one? What I heard was that Christmas had been canceled and it was all my fault because when I told Santa I had been good this year, he died laughing! But I’m glad the rumor was false.

It would be awful if we couldn’t laugh.

Here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know: According to Chase’s Calendar of Events, the day after Christmas, December 29th, has been officially recognized as National Whiner’s Day. So for anyone who didn’t get what they wanted, for all those who are worn out and frazzled, for all those who absolutely hate holiday cheer, give yourselves permission today to rant and rave and vent and whine all you want. This is your special day.(1)

It’s amazing how little whining there is in the Bible. The people of the Bible lived much more difficult lives than we do. Would you want to live in a world without modern medicines, for example, including anesthetics?  Neither would I. Life was short, it was cruel. Rulers held absolute sway. With only a flick of a quill, all the baby boys  under two years-of-age, could be slaughtered. And yet listen to the words of the prophet:

“In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.”

What an interesting passage. Did God make life easy for His people? Not according to Isaiah. But He was with them–and that was enough.

Have you ever known someone who went through a horrendous experience and was still able to thank God for His loving kindness? There are people like that, and it is an amazing and thrilling thing to see. That’s why the faith has survived these 2,000 years–it is built on that kind of trust in God.

In 1984, political commentator George Stephanopoulos traveled to the Sudan to work in the refugee camps with an organization called Save the Children. Refugee camps are seed beds of tragedy–so much poverty and disease and helplessness. And that’s why Stephanopoulos was so touched by the refugees’ courage. That Christmas, some of the Ethiopian refugees built a small church out of cardboard and sticks. On Christmas day, the people filled this tiny, makeshift structure to sing joyful hymns and pray to God. In the midst of suffering and deprivation they wanted a place in which they could gather to meet God and to affirm their faith. (2)

In the early ‘50s my father was stationed at Camp Atterberry, Indiana and in the late 60’s I returned there when I was wearing the uniform. It is no longer an active Army post. I remember walking through a wooded training area and came upon a small structure that was built by WWII German prisoners of war when they were housed there. It was about 15 feet square, had three walls and a roof. It was obviously a small prisoner-built chapel. It had a stone altar at one end and you could still see some fading religious murals that were painted on the walls. I am reminded of how those who are prisoners in a far away land find comfort and strength in the presence of the Christ. Again, in the midst of suffering and deprivation they wanted a place in which they could gather to meet God and to affirm their faith.

I once preached in a most unusual chapel on a military installation outside of Chambersburg PA.  It had a beautiful domed ceiling over the altar, stained glass windows and reminded me of a miniature renaissance cathedral.  Since I was in charge of logistics for the Army Chaplaincy at that time and knew how chapels were built I asked about this unusual structure. It turns out that during the early 40’s Italian prisons of war were held at this Army post. One of the prisoners became suicidal. He was very religious but had given up hope of ever returning to his home. When the commander talked to him he discovered that he was a master craftsman who designed and built beautiful buildings before being conscripted into the Italian Army. The commander gave him the task to build the chapel. As he tapped into the skills of his fellow prisoners who were carpenters, masons, electricians and the like this once suicidal prisoner’s mood changed to hope as he build a place of worship to his Lord. The mood of the entire prisoner population became transformed. Again, in the midst of suffering and deprivation they both wanted and created a place in which they could gather to meet God and to affirm their faith. If you can get onto the Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, PA you can still worship in that beautiful chapel.

The prophet writes, “[So] he was their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.”

On this last Sunday of the year, as we contemplate this sacred day we have just celebrated, we remember that the celebration of Christmas is the celebration of the entire Christ event–his birth, his life, his teachings, his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. “[He] was their Saviour. In all their affliction he was afflicted . . .”

I suspect this is why people are more charitable at this time of the year than any other. Our Lord was born among the insignificant masses–which is to say no one is insignificant to God. Christ had nowhere to lay his head, which is why the homeless should be in our thoughts and hearts during this season of the year. All year long for that matter. Christ suffered on our behalf, which reminds us of people we know who are suffering physically and emotionally. This is that season of the year when we find it easier to be empathic, accepting, caring–the way we should be all year long.

Do you remember in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Scrooge had the spirits of Christmas reveal to him some realities about his life. He cried out, asking if these things were real or if it was too late to change them. He prayed to have his fate reversed. When he woke up on Christmas morning sobbing, he cried aloud, “The shadows of the things that would have been may be dispelled. They will be, I know they will.” And then he confessed, “I don’t know how long I have been among the spirits, and I don’t care. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby.”  (3)  Scrooge felt like a baby with his new insights. Perhaps Dickens was saying that Scrooge was experiencing a new birth, something like the new birth Jesus told Nicodemus that he must experience.

It’s quite a remarkable thought that God became a baby. No other religion makes such an astounding claim. God became flesh. He experienced what we experience. “[So] he was their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted . . .”

Listen to the rest of this verse: “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.”

The Christ event is about redemption. It is about God coming to us in our need and helping us live triumphant lives regardless of our circumstances. A woman in the last stage of pregnancy rides a donkey as her husband searches in vain for a room. Later they will flee as refugees into Egypt, yet they were not defeated because God was with them. And God is with you, my friends, whatever your need might be this day. God is with you. The prophet has already named him–Immanuel, God is with us. Christmas Day is past, but the God of Christmas is present all year round in the hearts of those who love Christ. Does that mean that God will remove the challenges from our lives? Not at all. Instead it means God will be with us in all the challenges of life and help us conquer them.

Fred Craddock once wrote something that challenges our thinking. I want you to listen carefully to his words.  First, let me say: in ancient times, the people of Israel had one grand dream, one fabulous vision of what life would be like when the Messiah finally came. There would be no more war, no more poverty, no more exploitation, no more injustice. All of Creation would be redeemed and set aright.

But here is what Fred Craddock writes, “When the Messiah comes, when the Messiah comes–every beautiful story started that way. Like we would start one, ‘Once upon a time. . . ‘ they started them, ‘When the Messiah comes. . . ‘

“Beggar on the street, tin cup fastened to the neck of his guitar. ‘Brother, I’m sorry, I don’t have any money, but when the Messiah comes, there will be no poverty.’ See the cripple, useless limbs folded beneath the trunk of his body. ‘Brother, I wish I could help you, but when the Messiah comes, there will be no cripples.’ The young girl assaulted by a Roman soldier. The father pats her on the back, ‘Honey, I know, I know, but when the Messiah comes, no violence.’ . . .

“And then Jesus came, and they said, ‘He’s the Messiah. ‘And look what happened. There was misery and there was misery and there was misery. And those 12 disciples had to make a majestic flip-flop. They had been told…Wherever the Messiah is there is no misery, and now they have to believe that wherever there is misery, there’s the Messiah. That’s called conversion. That’s called coming to faith in Jesus Christ.” (4) Did you catch that? The people of Israel believed that where there is the Messiah, there is no misery. But Christian faith says this, “Wherever there is misery, there’s the Messiah.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in misery. I do know that sometime in our lives, all of us will spend a season there. But I know also, that where there is misery, there is the Messiah. We will not be alone. Mary and Joseph did not have easy lives. None of the disciples had easy lives. But they had Immanuel, God with us. And if you have Immanuel, you can handle everything else that comes your way.

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1. (Contemporary Books/ McGraw-Hill). Cited in Reader’s Digest, December 2003, p. 169.

2. George Stephanopoulos, “Unforgettable Holiday Memories,” Reader’s Digest, December 2003, pp. 57-58.

3. Ernest Edward Hunt, Iii, Sermon Struggles (New York: The Seabury Press, 1982).

4. Fred Craddock in Ten Great Preachers, edited by Bill Turpie (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), p. 50.

“God With Us” Isaiah 7:10-16

Advent 4, Cycle A, December 22, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Since it is so close to Christmas, could you forgive a really bad joke?

Snow White took photos of the Seven Dwarfs and their surroundings. She took the film to be developed. After a week or so she went to get the finished photos. The clerk said the photos were not back from the processor. Needless to say, she was disappointed and started to cry. The clerk, trying to console her, said, “Don’t worry, Snow White. Someday your prints will come.”

We’ve already noted that the people of Israel were awaiting their prince, their Messiah, who would come to save them. Today we celebrate one of the most famous and best loved of the messianic prophecies from the book of Isaiah. “Therefore,” writes Isaiah, “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”

Eight hundred years later an angel spoke to a carpenter named Joseph. The angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Emmanuel–God is with us. If ever the world needed to know “God is with us,” it is today.

Isaiah first made this declaration on God’s behalf during a time of international tension. King Ahaz feared an invasion from the north. His response was to ally himself with Assyria, one of Judea’s most powerful enemies. But Isaiah advised Ahaz not to put his trust in international alliances. He should trust in God instead. And Isaiah offered a sign that God would be with him: A young woman would bear a child and would name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

We, too, live in a time of great international tension. The entire first decade of this century, beginning with 9/11 ushered in an era more difficult than any in all of history. We know how to deal with hostile nations, but how do we contain hostile terrorist cells? And we worry about suitcase-sized nuclear and biological weapons. The future is scary. But Isaiah speaks to us as surely as he spoke to King Ahaz. This, too, is our sign: A young woman has conceived and borne a son. That son is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

During World War II, after Hitler blitzkrieged his way across France, demanding unconditional surrender from Allied forces in Europe, thousands of British and French troops dug in along the coast of northern France in a last-ditch effort to hold off the German forces. They knew they were trapped and would soon be obliterated by the Nazis.

As they waited, British soldiers reportedly broadcast a three-word message across the English Channel. The three words were, “And if not.”

That is a bizarre message, don’t you think? “And if not.”  Was it a secret code? Not at all. It was a reference to the time Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced King Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. “Our God is able to save us, and He will save us,” they said, “AND IF NOT, we will remain faithful to Him anyway.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

Writer Chuck Colson points out that, because in general people back then knew their Bibles better than we do today, the message was immediately understood. “Our God is able to save us, and He will save us,” they said, “and if not, we will remain faithful to Him anyway.”

In the following days, a rag-tag flotilla of boats set out from the shores of England and rescued 338,000 Allied troops. (1) “Our God is able to save us, and He will save us, and if not, we will remain faithful to Him anyway.”

The most important message I can give you in the face of an uncertain future is this one:  “Our God is able to save us, and He will save us.” Immanuel, “God is with us.”

God is with us as a people, just as God was with the people of Israel. And I am not talking about nationalism here but using people in the broadest possible sense. Many of us need to know more than ever in our personal lives that God is with us. Life is not easy.

Life is not easy. Some of you are facing difficult challenges. Aging. Sickness. Personal heartaches. Some of you have loved ones for whom you are praying.

One of the most heart-rending books in our Bible is the little book of Lamentations. In the midst of plaintive cries there is section that begins like this: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness . . . .” (3:22) If ever there was a need for many of us to know that “God is with us,” it is today.

God is with us. That’s the good news for the day. God entered our world in the babe of Bethlehem. That babe grew into a man who was rejected by his own people and was crucified. But God raised him from the dead. Before he left his disciples he promised them that his Spirit would come upon them and would be with them. And on the day of Pentecost that promise was fulfilled. God is with us.

The amazing thing is how many people ignore God’s free gift. The greatest gift that the world has ever received lay in a manger in Bethlehem. This is a gift from God’s heart, freely given. All we have to do to have that gift as our own is to open our heart. There are absolutely no strings attached.

A young woman moved away from home and settled in an apartment in a large city. Her parents came out to visit her, and they took pleasure in buying things for her new apartment. Before they left, they stopped in to see her landlord and paid him three months rent in advance. This was all done out of love for their daughter, but they wouldn’t let the girl hear the end of it. Whenever a disagreement arose, they reminded her of all they had done for her. Finally, in desperation, the young woman sent them a check for the rent and for the items her parents had purchased for her. She included a note saying, “Please don’t misunderstand, but I want you to take this back. A gift is no good with strings attached to it.” (2)

I suspect this is the reason many people do not open themselves to God’s presence. They think there are strings attached. They think there is some fine print. Conditions.

It’s like the pastor who stood in front of his congregation one Sunday morning and said, “Whoever wants this beautiful Christmas poinsettia may have it. All you have to do is take it. “ They stared at him. He waited. And waited.

Finally a mother timidly raised her hand and said, “I’ll take it. “

“Great! It’s yours,” said the pastor. That’s what he wanted; quick and easy, and on with the application of his sermon, but to his astonishment, she nudged her son and said, “Go get it for me.“

“No,” said the pastor. “Whoever wants this gift must come and get it personally. You can’t send a substitute.“

She shook her head, not willing to risk embarrassment. He waited again. It was a gorgeous flower, unusually large, wrapped in red cellophane with a gold satin ribbon. It was set in front of the pulpit to brighten the small sanctuary during the holiday season. Several people had commented on how beautiful the plant was. Now it was free for the taking.  Someone snickered, “What’s the catch?”

“No catch,” he replied. “It’s free!”  No one moved. A college student asked, “Is it glued to the altar?” Everyone laughed.

“It is not glued to the altar,” said the pastor. “Nor are there any strings attached. It’s yours for the taking. “

“Well,” asked a pretty teenager, “can I take it after the service?”  The pastor  shook his head, though he was tempted to give in. “You must come and get it now.”

Finally a woman he’d never seen before stood up in the back. Quickly, as if she were afraid she’d change her mind, she strode to the altar and picked up the plant. “I’ll take it,” she said, as she returned to her seat carrying the free gift.

The pastor launched with enthusiasm into his text, Romans 6:23: “The gift of God is eternal life. Believe. Receive. It’s free!”

When the service ended and most of the people had gone home, the woman who claimed the poinsettia came to the platform, where the pastor was picking up his Bible to leave. “Here!” She held out her hand. “This flower is too pretty to just take home for free. I couldn’t do that with a clear conscience.”  The pastor looked down at the crumpled paper she stuffed into his hand. It was a ten-dollar bill. (3)

We are uncomfortable receiving anything for free. But that’s the way God’s great love revealed in the babe of Bethlehem comes–free. God is with us. You don’t have to carry your burden alone. There is a resource that is available to you greater than any resource the world has to offer. All you have to do is open your heart. Emmanuel.

I wish I could tell you how many people in this world over the centuries have had their lives changed by this one thought, “God is with us.”

In the book A Foxfire Christmas, 78-year-old Lyndall “Granny” Toothman recalls a particularly special Christmas from her childhood in rural West Virginia. Way back in the mountains about six miles from the Toothman family home lived a moonshiner who kept to himself. He married a 15-year-old girl from the community, and she bore him four sons. Few people ever saw the wife or the children. The moonshiner kept them isolated from the rest of the world. One day, the mother packed up a few things and left town. Not long afterwards, the moonshiner also left town. The four children were left to fend for themselves. When the neighbors learned of the children’s plight, they took them in.

It was near Christmastime, and the people of the community decided that these four boys deserved to have a special Christmas. In fact, it would be very special, because these boys had never heard of Christmas before. They’d never been out in the community before, so imagine their surprise when the townspeople took them to the local church for the Christmas service. They gave the boys new clothes, and fruits and nuts and candy. One of the boys was so overwhelmed that he jumped up in the middle of the service and exclaimed, “My God, I didn’t know that there was this many people in the whole world!” (4)

This young man was overwhelmed by the outpouring of Christmas love. And why shouldn’t he be?  Why shouldn’t all of us be overwhelmed? As you celebrate this special day with your family and friends this week, don’t forget what makes it so special. Immanuel. God’s with us. We’re not alone. God has visited our planet. God offers His own Spirit to live in our hearts. And it is free, absolutely free to anyone who will open his or her heart today.

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1. Charles Colson, Ch. 14 lesson, Moving Beyond Belief (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993).

2. Unknown devotional

3. Author unknown. The Funnies,http://groups. yahoo. com/group/andychaps_the-funnies.  WITandWISDOM(tm), Jan. 9, 2004.

4. Lyndall “Granny” Toothman in  A Foxfire Christmas, edited by Eliot Wigginton and his students (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), pp. 78-79.

“The Unexpected Jesus” Matthew 11:2-11

Advent 3, Cycle A, December 15, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church 

The writer Walter Percy once described the following scene.  A successful white-collar professional is commuting home.  She has achieved all of her goals–a good job, a reasonable marriage, beautiful children, good friends, two cars—the American Dream. “So why,” asks Percy, “does she look out the window and feel a terrible sadness?”

Has she still not found what she is looking for? Have you? The Christmas season has a way of forcing us to look, and long for something we haven’t gotten yet, even if we cannot say what it is.

Perhaps that’s a result of our growing up as children at Christmas time, making our Christmas lists, sitting on Santa’s lap and trying to answer the question “What do you want for Christmas?”

Maybe the reason Christmas sends everybody into overdrive is because if we all stopped to sit and think, we would have to admit we don’t know exactly what it is we are looking for. Billions are being invested in our economy on the assumption that human beings know what they want. But do they? Since I turned 50, and I wont tell you when that was, but it was at a time when the technological age for children’s toys began.  That is, they now get all the neat stuff compared to when I was a kid.  It’s tempting to have more kids just so this father can buy some of those things and seripticiously play with them.  Well, I guess grandkids will have to do. And I’m looking forward to one this month.  But the question still is: “what do we really want?”

Think of what will probably happen sometime before Christmas. You’ll go to the mall and wander around, looking for a gift for that difficult person on your list, but not exactly sure what it is you’re shopping for. But you’ll know it when you see it. Right?  How much of the rest of life is that way.

The Christmas season has a way of getting us longing for something we haven’t gotten yet, even if we aren’t willing to make room for it. On the shelf of my obsessions there may be no room for the right stuff.  I remember as a kid whenever we would go home to Texas for the summer; one of my aunts invited us to visit while we were in town.  But she never could enjoy our company because of her new, white carpet. She was afraid us kids would spill on it.

But, the truth is, if we get the drift of the gospel, we’re all looking for the same thing; we’re all looking for meaning. We’re all looking to be saved.  “When a man knocks on a brothel door,” G.K. Chesterton wrote, “he is looking for God.” And on all the doors we knock on, so are we.

So was John the Baptist. In Matthew’s gospel he’s the first one who says, “I found it!” In Jesus, John finds what he’s looking for–he thought–and then spends every last cent of his energy spreading the news. “I’ve found what we’re all looking for. Look!” he shouts to the crowd one day, pointing to Jesus. “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

John has the crowd in the palm of his hand most days, and can easily take the spotlight and run away with it. Instead, John orders the lights turned down on him, and the spotlight turned up on Jesus. “He’s the one, not me.”

So why is John so terribly sad? Why has his declaration, “He’s the one,” turned into a question: “Are you the one?”  Is it because he is now in prison?

Or is it because John still hasn’t found what he’s looking for either? John’s great expectations of Jesus have turned into disappointment, something that can happen when we meet up with Jesus. Jesus has a way of bringing us face to face with what we’re looking for, and in John’s case–ours too, sometimes–what we’re looking for isn’t Jesus after all! What we want done isn’t what Jesus does, or what we want said isn’t what he says. We are like the Scottish churchgoer who didn’t go to church to hear the gospel preached. He went to hear if the gospel had been preached or not. He regularly went home disappointed.

In Jesus, John had hoped for a warrior; Jesus came preaching peace instead. John had hoped for judgment; Jesus brought mercy instead. He had hoped for a revolutionary, but Jesus mastered in healing. Not only had Jesus stepped into the spotlight; he’d erased all of John’s predictions about him too. It’s a new world order. Jesus has come; the kingdom has come, and some things have to go.

Even in John, the advance man, some things have to go. Even John must sing “Just as I am, without one plea…O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”  John comes to Jesus with raw material–doubt and discouragement–and out of it Jesus must make faith. John comes searching, and Jesus must satisfy him. John is a true blue believer with the blues. But he comes; John comes to Jesus; despite the prison that holds him, John still comes. And Jesus accepts him, just as he is.

Jesus accepts us when we come to him, even when we are looking for someone else, for something else. Jesus accepts us when we wonder in his hearing if it’s all true–we’ve believed it and proclaimed it and staked our lives on it–that Jesus is the one. But is it all true?

In one of his novels Kurt Vonnegut shows an office Christmas celebration at an atomic bomb laboratory. The staff is standing around the manger scene singing “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  Do the carolers really believe the words they sing, when someone could push the wrong button and the world vanish in a moment? Do the hopes and fears of all the years rest on faith in a Bethlehem newborn who lived and died two centuries ago?

Jesus doesn’t pass over the question. He says, though, “see for yourself.” Look around you for the “signs of the times,” the signs of a kingdom are already here. If you seek them, you will find them. If you knock, the door will be opened. And so, on this third Sunday in Advent we come seeking Jesus in the both in our present need and in the preparation for the celebration of his birth.  May we discover that this indeed is what we are really looking for and God meets our deepest need in his Son our Savior Jesus Christ.  Today God’s word announces a Savior who touches us where we rejoice and also where we hurt.  Let us come to him.

“Grumpy old John” Matthew 3:1-12

Advent 2, Cycle A, December 8, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

John the Baptist was a bit of a grump! He wasn’t the type you’d invite to parties. Those who did discovered that he’d spend the evening scowling in the corner, hogging the locusts-on-a-stick and honey dipping sauce. It wasn’t quite as bad when you invited him to a fancy dress party . he already looked like he was coming dressed as a camel! But let’s face it, who could put up with his calling the other quests “a bunch of lying snakes”? And whenever somebody came around to his way of thinking, he’d through a whole bowl-full of punch over them! No, John was not the type who got too many party invitations. I dare say we wouldn’t want him at any of our Christmas parties, either. He was much too serious and stern. He had too many rough edges . and . well . he was grumpy!

How many of us would have picked John the Baptist to smooth the way for Christ’s coming? Wouldn’t we probably choose someone who was smooth, refined and articulate themselves? Wouldn’t we look for someone who could win people over without giving offence? Someone who could win friends and influence people, appealing to their better natures far more diplomatically than John did? Well, God chose grumpy old J.B. to prepare people to receive Christ’s coming – rough edges and all. And God chooses us, too, along with our rough edges, to help prepare people to experience God’s love today.

December is one of those rare times in the year when the church’s focus ties in closely with what is happening in our wider community. All around us we see the indications that people are getting ready for Christmas. Its a time of planning and preparation for family celebrations and get-togethers. At the same time, the church recognizes these four weeks of Advent as a period to prepare ourselves spiritually for celebrating the coming of God among us in the human flesh of Christ. What a tremendous opportunity we have to link together our secular and sacred preparations – introducing our experience of Christ into our community. This lead up time to Christmas is one where people can be more receptive to Christian values and teachings. They may not take them seriously, but they’re present – even if at a subconscious level. The themes of Christ and God’s love are there in the carols playing in the background of everyday life. Visual images of the nativity, of Mary and Joseph, of angels, are on cards, wrapping paper and advertising. Christmas brings us closer, too, with people of other faiths.

Of course, for a lot of people, all of this imagery of Christmas is like annoying static on the radio. They see it as no more than commercialism gone mad. At best it irritates them. But it can also wear people down, leading them into stress as they feel Christmas preparations are becoming too much to handle. There’s even an internet website devoted to negative feelings about Christmas. Called “Jinglebell schlock”, it says this: “It’s an undeniable, repeatedly proven … fact: hype annihilates enthusiasm. And yet, year after year, the tinsel and faux gifts and tackily clad elves are rolled out and dusted off and assembled unattractively, much to the chagrin of hundreds of thousands of hapless shoppers nationwide. And year after year, with each faux-snow-sprayed storefront, with each stale candy cane, with each clanging Salvation Army bell, we’re overcome with the same slow, sinking feeling that we had the year before. And we’re faced again and again with the recognition that by the time the joyous day arrives, we’ll be so soiled and besotted by the endless stream of Christmas dreck that we’ll have nary an ounce of appreciation left for that damnable holiday. And after a full month of burgeoning dread, finally Christmas will arrive with its tell-tale taste of vague dissatisfaction. Then mere hours later, we’ll be overcome with post-holiday let down, all the same.” — http://www.suck.com/daily/98/12/18/

Rather than providing a smooth entryway for people to hear the good news of Jesus, the commercial use of Christmas symbols can create a rocky path – even a barrier – to meeting the Christ of Bethlehem. Its going to take someone to smooth out the rough places, to prepare our community to hear and experience the message of God’s love in the Christ child. And guess who that someone is . or should I say, those some ones!

“Prepare the way of the Lord — make his paths straight”, preached John. There are two different Greek words used here that explain something of how we do that. The first — the way – is hodos – the road – a very straightforward word. But the second explains what sort of road this is — and how it gets prepared. The word for paths is tribos — and it means a beaten track. It comes from the word that means to rub, or to wear away. It’s the type of path that has been worn away because countless people have walked it. There may not be any official signposts, but you can see the imprint of walkers who have traveled that way before. This way that is prepared for God is not some superhighway — not some feat of engineering, driven through virgin land by machines, topped with tarmac or stone. It isn’t some once and for all construction exercise — like building an Interstate. It can’t be subcontracted out to professionals. It can’t be done with one journey, in one fell swoop. God’s way is like a path made by the traffic of people’s feet. It is made by being walked. We prepare the way of the Lord by walking the way of the Lord ourselves! The path that God uses to come into our world is worn into existence when people like you and I are walking his way … and offering his love to the world.

A young person reflected this in a poem she wrote about how they were looking to the Christian church to help them find God. It comes from the book “Inside the Soul of a New Generation”.

Do you know, do you understand that you represent Jesus to me? Do you know, do you understand that when you treat me with gentleness, it raises the question in my mind that maybe he is gentle, too? Maybe he isn’t someone who laughs when I am hurt. Do you know, do you understand that when you listen to my questions and you don’t laugh, I think, “What if Jesus is interested in me, too?” Do you know, do you understand that when I hear you talk about arguments and conflict and scars from your past that I think, “Maybe I am just a regular person instead of a bad, no-good, little girl who deserves abuse?” If you care, I think maybe he cares — and then there’s this flame of hope that burns inside of me, and for a while, I am afraid to breathe because it might go out.

Do you know, do you understand that your words are his words? Your face, his face to someone like me? Please be who you say you are. Please, God, don’t let this be another trick.

Please let this be real. Please. Do you know, do you understand that you represent Jesus to me? Tim Celek and Dieter Zander, Inside the Soul of a New Generation [Grand Rapids,: Zondervan, 1996], 106-107).

There is no other way for people to see Jesus except through those of us who will walk his way, and invite others to walk with us. If so many people are turned off by the artificiality of so much of today’s corporate Christmas, surely a witness from a genuine experience of God’s love can make a difference for them … as that young girl’s poem suggested. When everything around us seems so false, we can offer people something that is real.

Notice I said ‘we’. This is not a path that can be subcontracted out to professional evangelists. We are all the ‘someones’ who can smooth out the way. Let me suggest some practical ways. The “Contagious Church” model describes six different styles of outreach, and notes that people will be more comfortable in one or two styles than the others, and should maximise their potential in those way. The six styles are: confrontational, intellectual, testimonial, interpersonal, serving, and one which I think is ideal for Martinsburg in December — the invitational style of outreach. There are three special opportunities that we are providing over Christmas to help our community connect with God. You can help prepare your friends and family to experience God this Christmas by inviting them along. You can invite them in person, and you can also invite them by sending them a personal letter, or writing out an invitation on a card. During the rest of Advent and Christmas Eve we’ll be offering a celebration of Christmas that will be relaxed and meaningful in style. If you have a friend or family member who has grown cynical about Christmas, they need you to invite them to our services, so that they can see Christ’s message is real and life-changing.

This doesn’t mean that by inviting people to special opportunity events we are excused from witnessing with our own personal example and words. People are more likely to accept our invitations if they see there is something real in us, and in what we believe, something that stands out from the artificial Christmas that can be so disillusioning.

I began by talking about “grumpy” John the Baptist. There are a lot of people in our community who not only become grumpy about Christmas, they become cynical, dispirited, stressed and even bitter, because the unreal expectations that are built up by the media let them down. Christmas and New Year are the times of greatest loneliness, depression and even suicide in our nation. We are all called to prepare the way for people to experience the reality of God’s love. We may feel that we’re not the perfect people to do this. Well, don’t worry: if God can use a grump like John the Baptist, with all of his rough edges, God can also use us, rough edges and all, to invite people to the reality of Christmas. We just need to be real. We just need to be real.

“Champion of Hope” Matthew 24:36-44

Advent 1, Cycle A, December 1, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Sometimes it’s hard to stay awake, isn’t it?  I don’t have to tell you, do I?  Those of you who are Sunday after Sunday, you know what I mean. Our Gospel lesson this morning is about staying awake when it’s important.

Fred Craddock, my favorite preacher, described a time when he was traveling on an airplane.  He was seated on a side with three seats; he was on the aisle; there was a woman next to him; and a man at the window seat. The three of them introduced themselves; they made small talk; and then settled into the business of handling travel through reading, writing, thinking, sleeping, whatever.  Craddock was reading and looking forward to preparing for the sermon he was going to preach once he arrived.  It wasn’t long in their travels when the woman next to him punched him and said, “Look over here!”

Craddock looked over at the man on the window side.  He saw that he was a business man, probably about 60 years of age. He didn’t notice anything unusual, so he said, “What’s the matter?”

“Look at him! He’s perfectly still! I think he’s dead!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Craddock, even though he did see that the man’s eyes were unnaturally wide open and he was perfectly still.  A little concerned, Craddock started staring at his face to see if he could see any movement, any blinking, twitching, anything.  But there was nothing there.  He turned to the woman and said, “Why don’t you punch him?”

“I’m not going to punch him, because he might fall on me, so I’m going to move to another seat.  Why don’t YOU punch him?”

“Well, wait a minute,” Craddock said….and he reached across her, tugged at his sleeve, and the man jerked around and said, “Yes?”

“We were concerned about you; we thought something was wrong,” Craddock said calmly.

But the woman piped up and said, “We didn’t think something was wrong.  We thought you were dead!”

Craddock explained, “Well, your eyes were wide open, but you seemed asleep.”

The man then explained that this was a method he had developed for total relaxation. The woman was still gasping and she said to Craddock, “Have you ever seen anything like that?  Have you?  Eyes wide open and sound asleep?”

Craddock answered, “Well, yes, I have….every Sunday morning!”

“Keep awake therefore,” says Jesus, “for you do not know on what day your

Lord is coming.”

Why do you think Matthew’s Gospel is teaching people the importance of staying awake?  Surely that isn’t meant to be taken literally.  I mean, certainly Matthew wasn’t advising sleep deprivation.  “Keep awake” is figurative language.  It’s telling me to keep my eyes peeled and my ears open because just when I am thinking that God is nowhere around and I have hit bottom is about when it’s going to happen.  It’s when I least expect it that God will pop up and say, “I told you to stay awake and I caught you napping.  Now wake up and get busy.  We’ve got a world out there that’s crying for some help, hungering for some Good News, thirsting for a tall cool drink of hope.”

We often read this part of Matthew as doom and gloom. “…two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”  That sounds pretty frightening to me.  So Matthew says, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

But, I read this now as a message of hope.  I read this as a powerful reminder that when I think that I have hit bottom, struck out for the last time, come to the end of the road, reached a dead end, and am at the end of my rope – I shouldn’t be surprised that hope finds me.  I shouldn’t be surprised when hope floats me to the surface.  I shouldn’t be surprised because as one who has chosen to follow Jesus, I join him in being a “champion of hope.”

It’s a tragedy when you see people whose hope has nearly evaporated. There’s no sparkle in their eyes, their shoulders sag, and they speak in a monotone. It’s painful to see people simply give up.

You can talk with children in the third grade who are bright, energetic and positive. Ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and they will say “a teacher, a fire fighter, a singer, a doctor, a coach.” At that young age, anything seems possible.  But talk to those same children a few years later, and many of them have changed their tune. They are sullen, passive and angry. Ask them the same question, and they look down and say “I dunno.” Their hopes are leaking away; they are being worn down by violence and racism and poverty; and their expectations are rapidly shrinking. By the time they reach high school, they become a serious drop out threat. Not out of some great rebellion against the system, but through the loss of hope. Their refrain becomes, “What difference does it make?”

You may recall moments in your own life when you had nearly lost all hope. You may be experiencing such a time right now. Perhaps your health is gradually slipping away. Perhaps you are out of work and unable to find a job. Perhaps your relationship with one you love is more difficult than it has ever been. Perhaps you look at the war in Afghanistan and you remember Vietnam.

Or perhaps you feel a gnawing emptiness within yourself. Something vital is missing. You have not given into despair, but it is becoming more and more of a struggle to push ahead each day.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that if you just put a smile on your face and hope for the best, everything will turn out as you wish or that you will have a nice home and a couple of cars and a beautiful lawn. I’m not saying that if you just keep thinking positive thoughts that you will have a meaningful job devoid of stress and never face financial difficulties or that your children will never break your heart and your parents won’t disappoint you. I’m not saying that if you just keep looking on the bright side of life that your church will be problem free and I or other preachers will never say anything to disturb you or that your health will be fine and you’ll never encounter problems that cannot be resolved within an hour as they are on television.

The reality is that life can be unfair. It rarely turns out as we expect. Life can be tough, much tougher than anyone prepared us for. Problems can shake our confidence, people can betray us, and we can disappoint ourselves. But if we deepen our faith in God, we can discover the hope we need to forge ahead when bad news comes and life sours and obstacles mount. It is hope that made Jesus brave enough to ride directly into the face of danger.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells a little parable about a light bulb that shined so brightly and proudly, it eventually became convinced that it’s impressive achievement was due to its own merit and skill. One day the light bulb was taken out of the socket and placed on a table. Try as hard as it could, when it was disconnected from the source of its power, it could do nothing.”

Christ’s connection with God – the true source of power – made him a champion of hope. And it was that hope that produced the strength and courage he needed to confront his opponents. Despair weakens us. A pessimistic outlook makes life more difficult. Hope can motivate us to overcome incredible obstacles.

Haven’t we all encountered people and situations that appeared to have “the end of the road,” written all over them, but later we found out that it was not the end after all. You have probably known someone like I have, whose life was spiraling out of control and he overcame an addiction and turned his life around. Or like a woman I knew who was totally self-centered, but one day she turned the focus outward and became deeply concerned about the welfare of others.

If you deepen your faith and become a champion of hope, you become convinced that you cannot give up when times are tough. You become convinced that God will not give up on us, and so there is always the hope that something new might appear, that is yet unforeseen. Our faith teaches us that the end of the road is never the ultimate end, because with God there is always the possibility that a new road may appear.

Let us pray…

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore. Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim. Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask You to push back the horizons of our hopes; and to push into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love. (Attributed to Sir Francis Drake -1577)

“Christ, Power and Empathy” Luke 23:33-43, Colossians 1:11-20

Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, November 24, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

In a kingdom where the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer, the rich king liked it that way. When he died, a new king came to the throne. He did things in a different way. He always sat upside down with his feet in the air. He ate dessert first, and had cake for breakfast. Before long, people called him “the upside down king”. Strange things began to happen. The king learned to bend in places that usually do not bend upon the throne. He became less rigid and more flexible in all his ways. The king learned to look up to everyone who came to see him. He watched the sun, the children, and little people of the realm.

Best of all, he had his ear to the ground in a way no king before him could have imagined. He became a good listener to the needs of the earth and the longings of the people. Soon the kingdom became a place where rich people lost their power and ground their teeth. They plotted how to get rid of this upside down ruler. But the poor people, blessed throughout the realm, understood that they had seen a glimpse of a new kind of living. They did not all live happily ever after, but they did see a new way.

Today is the last Sunday before Advent. Advent is the four-week period that helps us prepare us to celebrate Christmas. Today is known as Christ the King Sunday.

Compared to other special days in the church, it is relatively new, having been instituted in December 1925. At the time, it was a powerful symbolic action. Europe was facing an uncertain future. Mussolini had been the leader of Italy for three years; and a rabble-rouser named Hitler had been out of jail for a year. The Nazi party was growing in popularity, and the world lay in a great Depression. Christian leadership of that era asserted that, despite all of these dictators and false values in the world, Christ was King of the universe.

Christians knew where their ultimate loyalties lay – not with dictators or power manipulators, but with Christ! He was our true leader, our true King – and he was unlike any of these earthly leaders, who would one day pass away.

You could say, Christ was like an “upside down king”. Christ the King Sunday continues to ask us questions, such as: Who or what rules our lives? And how do we exercise power ourselves?

The thing that made Christ’s kingship so different from the kingship of human rulers, and their exercise of power, was that he related to humanity from a position of EMPATHY rather than dominance. Let’s make sure, though, that we don’t confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling for someone, while empathy is feeling with someone.

Sympathy, feeling for someone, can be exercised at a distance, and is relatively risk free. For instance, we may feel sorry for the poor, so we send a donation to the local mission that takes care of the poor. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a sympathetic response from a genuine feeling of wanting to help.

Empathy, though, goes several steps further. It is feeling with someone, and can only be exercised through our personal involvement with another. Empathy means entering into another person’s pain, and walking in their shoes – feeling their feelings, even though they are not our own. It is understanding another person’s private world as if it were our own – always recognizing that its not our own – and communicating that understanding clearly to the other person. If we feel empathy for the poor, we might begin by volunteering to work in our Clothes Closet, or volunteering to work at a Soup Kitchen, and take the time to get to know some of the people who come in for help, listening to them as real people, and forming friendships.

The New Testament presents Jesus as an ‘upside down’ king, who rejects the traditional exercise of power and authority, and instead demonstrates leadership through empathy. He didn’t “lord it over others”, but instead became a servant. The early church writer, Irenaeus, identified Jesus’ empathy in this way: “He became as we are in order that we might become as He is.” Jesus, though God, walked in our shoes so that we could discover ourselves as God’s son’s and daughters. Or as Paul put it in today’s reading from Colossians: through the cross, we were taken out of the kingdom of darkness, and brought into Christ’s kingdom of light.

The New Testament presents Jesus actively empathizing with human life. He didn’t just appear to be human, as an early, Gnostic heresy declared – he was human, fully human. He demonstrated that empathy in his consistent willingness to be with social and racial and cultural rejects of that time, like women, Samaritans, prostitutes and sinners. He demonstrated it in his willingness to be with lepers, with sick and dying people and his willingness to accept the consequences of healing them – namely the resentment and anger of the Religious leaders. Jesus so fully identified with the human experience that he positioned himself directly in the face of the same enemies that all people face – squarely opposite sin, disease and death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we see how he knew what it meant for a human being to wish to avoid the inevitability of death. And in his death, we see how costly that empathy became for him.

Actor Kevin Bacon had a conversation with his six-year-old son after the boy had seen the movie “Footloose” for the first time. Bacon’s son said, “Dad that was really cool how you jumped up on the roof and swung from the rafter. How did you do that?”

“Well, son,” said Bacon, “I didn’t actually do that part. A stunt man did.” “What’s a stunt man?” asked his son. “That’s someone who dresses like me,” said Bacon, “and does things I can’t do. Things that are too dangerous.” “Oh, well what about that part in the movie where you spin around on that gym bar and land on your feet” persisted the boy. “How did you do that?” “Well, son,” said Bacon, “that was the stunt man again, not me. He’s really good at gymnastics.” “Oh,” said his son. Then there was a long pause. “Dad,” his son asked, “just what did you do in the movie?” Bacon sheepishly replied, “I got all the glory.”

Jesus was like that stunt man. He took all the dives for us, suffered all the blows and wounds of the stunt man for us, that we might win all the glory by being redeemed and welcomed as children of the Father. He exercised his power and authority through his empathy, by becoming one with us, by walking in our shoes … or like Kevin Bacon’s stunt double, wearing our clothes, our humanity. He became one with us, so that we could become one with him, and experience the life of God. And so that Christ’s empathy could become a part of how we relate to people, in his name. You see, once we become a citizen of the “Upside down king” his empathy becomes the standard for how we exercise our own power and influence.

I think we see ample examples in the news every day of how power without empathy leads into neglect, abuse, domination, self-serving and control addiction. Tragically, though we have become a part of the kingdom of light, we Christians still, unfortunately, allow room for these forms of spiritual darkness to operate in our lives. Whenever we see these things at work in the church – the use of power that steamrolls or manipulates – know that it is an aberration, and a distortion of power as we see it exercised by Christ. Remember what Irenaeus said: “He became as we are in order that we might become as He is.”

Rudolph Guilliani, former Mayor of New York, has not always been that city’s most popular mayor. Not everyone agreed with his politics or management of the city. In fact, prior to 9-1-1, a serious strike affecting public services was causing problems for his administration. But when that terrible tragedy struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, Guilliani became a different type of leader. He wept with fellow New Yorkers as he shared that several of the firefighters who had died in the building collapses had been personal friends. He went down to ground zero to see, smell and feel at first hand what it was like for the rescue workers. Putting politics to one side, his leadership embodied courage and determination, along with compassion. He was leading from empathy.

In our families, our church, our work and community life, can we do that? Can we put aside the need to be right, the need to be on top, the need to win, the need to be recognized? With Christ as our King, can we be the human face of God’s empathy, as Jesus was when he walked this earth? Can we be the human face of grace?

The mother of a nine-year-old boy named Mark received a phone call in the middle of the afternoon. It was the teacher from her son’s school.

“Mrs. Smith, something unusual happened today in your son’s third grade class. Your son did something that surprised me so much that I thought you should know about it immediately.” That was not a particularly comforting thing to say to her.

The teacher continued, “Nothing like this has happened in all my years of teaching. This morning I was teaching a lesson on creative writing. And as I always do, I tell the story of the ant and the grasshopper: the ant works hard all summer and stores up plenty of food. But the grasshopper plays all summer and does no work.”

“Then winter comes. The grasshopper begins to starve because he has no food. So he begs, Please Mr. Ant, you have so much food. Please let me eat, too.” Then I say, “Boys and girls, your job is to write the end of the story.”

Your son, Mark, raised his hand: ‘Teacher, may I draw a picture?’

“Well, yes, Mark, if you like, you may draw a picture. But first you must write the ending to the story.”

“As in all the years past, most of the students said the ant shared his food through the winter, and both the ant and the grasshopper lived. A few children wrote, ‘No, Mr. Grasshopper. You should have worked in the summer.  Now, I have just enough food for myself.’ So the ant lived and the grasshopper died.”

“But your son ended the story in a way different from any other child, ever. He wrote, “So the ant gave all of his food to the grasshopper; and the grasshopper lived through the winter. But the ant died.”

And the picture? At the bottom of the page, Mark had drawn three crosses.

The cross reminds us that our salvation came at great cost to God. His Son gave up his life that we might keep ours.

“The Bedrock of our Faith” Luke 21:5-19

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, November 17, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Have you ever tried to make a prediction? Here are some predictions from the past. All from people who were trusted individuals:

Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, in 1943 said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

Popular Mechanics magazine in 1949 made this prediction: “Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons.”

There was an inventor by the name of Lee DeForest. He claimed that “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”

The Decca Recording Co. made a big mistake when they made this prediction: “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” That was their prediction in 1962 concerning a few lads form Liverpool. Their band was called the Beatles.

As the disciples walked out of the Temple in Jerusalem Jesus paused, looked back at the Temple and predicted, “Do you see all these great buildings. Not one stone will be left on another.” To the disciples this was bedrock. Nothing could bring down these walls. “Look, teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” they said to Jesus.

The smallest stones in the structure weighed 2 to 3 tons. Many of them weighed 50 tons. The largest existing stone, part of the Wailing Wall, is 12 meters in length and 3 meters high, and it weighs hundreds of tons! The stones were so immense that neither mortar nor any other binding material was used between the stones. Their stability was attained by the great weight of the stones. The walls towered over Jerusalem, over 400 feet in one area. Inside the four walls was 45 acres of bedrock mountain shaved flat and during Jesus’ day a quarter of a million people could fit comfortably within the structure. No sports structure in America today comes close.

You can then understand the disciples’ surprise. As they walked down the Kidron Valley and up Mount Olive, Peter, James, and John wanted to hear more. Jesus’ prediction that a structure so immense would be leveled to the ground seemed implausible. But they pressed Jesus for more information. They wanted to know when. What would be the sign that this was about to take place? In their voice was fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear that their lives were about to change forever. Jesus had not made any predictions like this one. This was different. This, they could understand.

Forty years later the prediction came true. In 70 AD the Temple was destroyed by Rome. What are we to learn from this prediction and its fulfillment? We learn what true real bedrock faith is all about. The kind of faith you can stand on, build on.

First of all, bedrock of faith is not in Temples. Try to place yourself in first century Jerusalem. From anywhere in the city you can look up and catch a glimpse of the Temple. The 45-year project of King Herod was the third such Temple. It had been the center of their national life for a thousand years. In the Temple the Jews sacrificed. Confessed their Sins. Gave their first fruits of the harvest. Yearly sacrificed a lamb for the nations’ sins. It was here that Passover, Pentecost, Day of Atonement, Feasts of Tabernacles, and Feast of Weeks were celebrated.

With the Temple so central to their life and worship this major question then arises: How would they worship God without the Temple? It was a question for which the Disciples had no answer. We understandably get tied to things. We can even develop sentimental attachments to them. But the Temple was unique. God himself is said in Deuteronomy to be the architect giving the exact dimension of the Altar, the grounds, the Walls, the doors, down to the very size of the stones. This was God’s building.

Did you know that the Christians continued to make sacrifices at the temple after Jesus death? Paul even makes an offering (Acts 21). It is the place where John’s birth was announced, Jesus’ preeminence was recognized by Simeon and Anna, Jesus’ religious intelligence was recognized by the leaders at age 12, and where the money changers were driven out years later. It was here that Paul was arrested.

With the Temple so central to life how would they worship God without it? I like the story told about Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) in his later years. On a special evening at the Vienna Music Hall his oratorio “The Creation” was being performed. As the majestic work moved along, the audience was caught up with tremendous emotion. When the passage “And there was light!” was reached, the chorus and orchestra burst forth in such power that the crowd could no longer restrain its enthusiasm.

The vast assembly rose with spontaneous applause in the middle of the piece. Haydn weakened by age and confined to a wheelchair struggled to stand and motioned for silence. With his hand pointed toward heaven, he said, “No, no, not from me, but from thence comes all!” Having given the glory and praise to the Creator, he fell back into his chair exhausted.

Perhaps that is the lesson Jesus would have the disciples learn. Haydn directed the crowds attention away from his talents to God’s, away from the beautiful music to a majestic God. Whether a great oratorio or a Temple devoted to God, neither deserves our devotion, only the One from thence comes all!

First of all bedrock faith is not found in Temples, places of worship. And secondly, bedrock faith is not found in signs. Tell us, the disciples insisted, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they all are about to be fulfilled?

A preacher was recently talking for an hour about his new book that supposedly explained everything we needed to know about the coming of Jesus and the end of time. “You must have this book,” he said over and over again, a telephone number (not even toll-free) constantly flashing at the bottom of the TV screen. Seems that he had prophetic insight into world events, and for a mere $14.95 we could have the benefit of his wisdom. It was inferred that we would not survive the coming terrors unless we had this book. A certain pastor called the number and suggested to the poor operator that if this preacher really thought this was so vital to the survival of the planet, and that the end was so near, he would be giving the book away! I mean; he won’t need the money, right? It’s all coming to an end anyway. Who needs a bank account? True, it costs money to print, but he will not have to pay for it if it goes as he says. The woman on the other end of the line was not amused. “Sorry, sir,” she said, “but I don’t know much about theology,” to which the pastor responded, “Neither does the writer of the book you’re selling.”

It is the greatest of all biblical mysteries. 23 of the 27 New Testament books claim that Christ will one day return but we have no indication of when or what will usher it in. The problem with predicting the Second Coming is that most predictions center on world events. Let me let you in on a little secret. World events are not indicators of End Times. Wars, earthquakes, international political instability, famine, persecution…these, says Jesus, are not a sign of the end they are simply facts of life from the beginning. Verse 7 reads: Do not be alarmed these things must happen; the end is still to come.

Listen to me…I can’t tell you when but I can tell you why–to redeem this planet and you and me with it. My friends, if you don’t live with the expectation that he will one day return you’ve missed one of the bedrock teachings of Jesus’ life. It ought to be part of your life. It will make you watchful, cautious, and prepared.

The bedrock of faith is not in Temples or Signs. The bedrock of faith is in Christ.

The disciples are told in verse 5: “Watch out, that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name claiming, “I am he,’ and will deceive many.” My friends there are a lot of false messiahs out there claiming to have the answers, deranged people trying to be world leaders. They manipulate and lie, recruiting people to kill in God’s name. They go by many labels. We call them terrorist. But I am here to tell you there’s something bigger than any who would threaten us.

History will sweep such people under the rug. And there will be others. Christ will return. And we all will stand, not in the bedrock of a Temple made with human hands which is here today and gone tomorrow. No! We will take our stand with Christ, the bedrock of our faith.

It is easy to be afraid! But it is dangerous to be afraid. Will Willimon once wrote, “When you are very frightened, you tend to hold on very tightly — even to things that do not last.” Like temples, and nations, and political parties… when you are afraid you cling to the well-known and comfortable, the past, the history you know, and you turn away from the possible and the potential. And that may be the thing that frightens me the most… the tendency of the human heart to be afraid…

God delights in us when we turn from fear and take our place as builders of God’s future. Do not be afraid when you consider what the future may hold, for God holds the future. Centuries ago, Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow. Father Martin replied, “If I knew the world should end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” I am sure that God delighted in that response.

Children of God, let God delight in you! Let God change you today, so God can change the world tomorrow. Trust in the future. Give it to God. Do not be afraid. Plant a tree. Don’t put your trust in things that will not last. Build the peaceable kingdom. Be a delight in the mind of God. Amen.

“God of the Living” Luke 20:27-38

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, November 10, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

A young pastor in had just taken his first call. The church board chairman came by to visit him on a Sunday afternoon. This layman has been a highly respected member of this congregation for over 25 years. 
They were sitting on the back porch of the parsonage and the man said, “Pastor, I’ve got something to tell you. I’ve never told this to a soul, it’s extremely difficult to tell you this now, my wife and I have had a fight almost every day for the past 30 years of our marriage.” 
The pastor was taken back. He nervously took a sip of his coffee. He didn’t know what to say. After a brief pause, the young Pastor said, “Everyday?” “Yes, just about every day.” “Did you fight today before you came to church?” “Yes.” “Well, how did it end up?” “She came crawling to me on her hands and knees.” “My Goodness what did she say?” “Come out from under that bed you coward and fight like a man!” (1)

Well, the Gospel lesson of today recalls a busy friction and fighting going on among religious leaders of Jesus time. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were in constant struggle over the subject life after death. Almost wherever these two groups met, this subject of death and life came up. Each group trying to persuade the listeners their side was right

Do you remember when we were kids how there was always a way to measure who was the toughest–who was the strongest kid on the block? “My dad is stronger than your dad!” “Oh ya! Well my dad can beat up your dad!” But what a challenge when one of the kids would try to trap the other by spitting on the ground and saying “You think your so strong – well pick-up that!”

The Sadducees are trying to trap Jesus in a similar manner — draw him into a “no win” situation: “if you think resurrection is so real than try to answer our trick question.”  A whole bunch of folks are threatened by Jesus: the Sadducees, the scribes and the Chief Priests. They are all afraid of him. It’s probably similar to the way some of the candidates for election this past week must have felt about one another. At least that is the way I viewed much of the campaigning and TV spots that I saw. Local politics probably played into the mood of the religious leaders of our Lord’s time. They must have been saying such things as: “Jesus must be exposed.  His lack of authority disclosed. Trap Him! Trap Him!”

Look around our world. There are many these days who are threatened by Jesus. Not threatened by the popular view of the bearded man in sandals but, by the one who brings new ideas about life, justice, relationships and power.  Threatened by the Jesus who is on the side of the poor.  Threatened by the Jesus who’s on the side of justice, our “fat-cat” nation where, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve, the richest one per cent of the population owns more than forty percent of the wealth. Threatened by the Jesus whose “put-away-your-swords” kind of peace-making interferes with the power brokers among the nations. There are people who worry about their authority being undermined by Christ’s liberating words of love.  Those who feel their power is being challenged by the One whose greatest strength is his powerlessness. People with great power fear him the most. Like their turf is being violated, they lash out –attack his apparent weakness: “By what authority do you do these things?”  they challenge.

Jesus’ way of love is too much of a threat.  Just flip open the daily paper, the headlines say it all; “Man goes on shooting rampage at the LA Airport.”  “Shootings in DC are on the rise.” The gospel is called subversive in many lands, a thorn in the sides of many governments. In Pakistan16 Christians were gunned down while worshipping in their Catholic Church by terrorists. Jesus is a menace to the powers that be. The powerful fear him, want to trap him, corner him. Christ is a threat.

Things aren’t much different in Jesus’ own day. Take a peek back in time into the temple where Jesus is telling the good news. Look at those Sadducees, those spies for the chief priests.  They’re on a mission to snare Jesus. “By what authority do you do these things?” they sneer.  “Who gives you the right to parade into town, teach and preach, toss table in our temple?” Trap Him, Trap Him.  Look at them backing Jesus into a corner–dancing about like Mohammed Ali — hands raised ready to do battle in a bout of religious fisticuffs. One of them swings, “show us your credentials!”  Another one jabs, “where did you study?” Listen, their voices are climbing: “Is he ordained? Does he have a degree? Show us your resume, Jesus!”

Pompously, they point to their own qualifications — revered and wealthy priests of the Torah, highly respected men in their community. With the etiquette of a cat fight they begin to hiss and scratch and poke fun at Jesus’ humble background: “Look at him,” they jeer, “he’s just a lowly Galilean — an infant in God’s grown-up game of religion. By what authority do you do these things? Jesus, who gives you the right?”  It’s written all over their faces and you can hear it in their quivering voices — the chief priests, the scribes, the Sadducees, they’re all so frightened of Jesus. He’s challenged their turf and so they rally with a religious pummeling. We chuckle at religious street corner scuffle and shuffle, though, don’t we, the big boys and girls of religion bandying about their sanctimonious weight. After all, Jesus isn’t interested in playing that kind of power game. He doesn’t need to. And that scares folks.

Look at Jesus’ new world of love. Jesus has flipped all our worldly notions of power upside down. He has stood with the sick and the weak where others more powerful have turned a blind eye. Christ has walked with the lame, given ear to the children, forgives us sinners even at our worst. By what authority does Jesus do these things? By the authority of love. Selfless, life-giving, ‘die-on-a-cross,’ love.  Jesus needs no resume for us. His powerless love is his calling card. You don’t need a distinguished title to calm the storminess of people’s lives or feed them when they are hungry or quench them when they thirst.  Just love. Christ’s love. Not Love PH.D. or Love MBA — just the power of love.  Mysterious, oh so mysterious. Christ’s love lifts us when we are down and out. It carries when we are too weak to walk. Christ’s love forgives us when our brokenness is so ugly we want to crawl under a rock and die. “By what authority?” The authority of love.

Jesus is telling us about a greater power. A power so great that it gives us the power to meet the evil in our lives head-on, to speak the good news in our broken world, even in the face of death. By what authority? The authority of love. Selfless, life-giving, die-on-the-cross for the world – Christ love.

As a church of our Lord, we are called to bring a new power to the world. We are called to be the agent of change in the world that desperately needs God’s love. Our purpose is to change the world by changing people in the world, one at a time, not to preserve the status quo, not to keep things the way they’ve always been, as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day tried to do. We are God’s tool in bringing about change in the world, and we must be willing to be used up for the sake of the world. If we, like the religious leaders of Jesus day, blindly dedicate ourselves to the preservation of all things traditional, how can we ever hope to bring about change?

We are tempted to treat scripture the way the Sadducees did. Part of the reason why the Sadducees had difficulty in believing in the age to come or the resurrection of the body was the way they were trained and taught. They tended to use their own experience to understand scripture.

We all filter Scripture; so we have to be very careful. Interpreting scripture from our own experience can lead us astray if we aren’t careful.

That reminds me about a Sunday school teacher, who was trying to demonstrate the difference between right and wrong to her young teen class. She chose stealing for her example. The teacher said: “All right let’s use this example. If I were to go into a man’s pocket and take his wallet with all his money, what would I be?” A teenager in the back freely offered the answer, “You’d be his wife.”

We are tempted to be sentimental and talk about the good old days…how the church used to be. I don’t begrudge such memories. I have a treasure chest full of such memories. But let’s not confine God to sentimental memories of the way we were. Let’s not lock Jesus up in memories of the church as it used to be, where we sang the same old songs and prayed the same old prayers, and fought the same old battles over and over. The church is the body of Christ, alive, and vibrant, and changing according to Christ’s creative Holy Spirit.

We are called to acknowledge God’s ownership of all things, including the church. We are called to seek God in the events of every day, because that’s where our faith is tried and tested, not in our yesterdays but in our todays. “We never did it that way before” could be very well the last words of the church – this church or any other. God accepts us just as we are, and at the same time expects us to become new creations in Jesus Christ. And new creations do not accept old limitations. May we seek the new power that Jesus brings us and experience true resurrection as the church, the Body of Christ! AMEN

(1)  Story adapted from Peter Vethanayagamony, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, November 12, 2007.

“In Memory of our Saints”(For all Saints Day Sunday)

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, November 3, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

We express thanks to our youth for leading in the Youth Sunday Service today.  It is refreshing to see our youth taking leadership roles normally taken by our adults.  And we really appreciate the skit and the special music they provided. Thanks also to our Youth Sponsors and parents of the youth who assisted today and in the preparations.  We look forward to the chili “cook off” that they are hosting for us after worship this morning in Fellowship Hall.

In place of today’s sermon I want to lead you in a brief service of remembrance since this is All Saint’s Day Sunday.

When we gather in worship, we praise God with believers we cannot see. When we celebrate Holy Communion, we feast with past, present, and future Disciples of Christ. We experience the communion of saints, the community of believers––living and dead. This faith community stretches beyond space and time. We commune with Christians around the world, believers who came before us, and believers who will come after us. We believe that the church is the communion of saints, and as a believer, you belong to the communion of saints.

Some of you have seen the movie Places in the Heart. The last scene in the movie portrays the communion of saints during Holy Communion. The audience sees Sally Field surrounded by people from her life. Some are alive and join her in worship. Some in the scene have moved out of town. Some have passed away yet appear in the scene as they did in life. All sit together, side by side, and participate in the passing of the bread. The visual reminds us that all believers of all time celebrate together the gift of God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ.

When we celebrate Holy Communion, we do so with all the saints. I celebrate with my grandparents who are among the company of heaven, and I celebrate with my parents and my sister who have passed on. I celebrate with my children who live out of State.  I celebrate with my congregation, those in attendance and those not. I celebrate with past, present, and future believers. My belief in the communion of saints reminds me that God’s gift of salvation is for everyone, everywhere.

Today we join with many other churches in celebrating All Saints Sunday, when we publicly recognize and honor in a variety of ways those saints who have passed away. In a few moments we will read the names of our church members and family of our members who have passed away this past year.

(Move to the table that has the votive candles for the rest of the service)

Hear the words of Isaiah: “They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord.” (Isaiah 62: 12)

Now, the words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”   (Ephesians 1:15-23)

Let us pray: Almighty God, whose people are knit together in one holy Church, the body of Christ our Lord: Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN.

(Have a candle lighting taper prepared beforehand)

I will ask that we stand.  (All standing).  I will now light a candle for each of our Saints who have passed on during this past year….

(Worship leader slowly reads each name as a candle is lighted)

Loring Nealis

Billy Kubina

Judy Hart

Helen Miller

Linda Stweart

Jack McDaniel

Rev. Dan Feltner-Kapronyai

Joyce Carter

Allen Webb

Thomas Kursey

Jeanne Smith

Allene Trabert

James Hess

Larry Politte

John Mickeline

Charles Miller

Charles H. Miller

Wuanita Siler

Pansy Morrison

Lauren Armentrout

Evelyn Albright

Shirley Simpson

Let us pray:   God of our mothers and fathers and of all who have gone before us, we thank you for their lives of faith that show us how to live.  We thank you for all those people who have helped us to grow to become who we are – those whose words have challenged us -those whose lives have inspired us – those whose love has upheld us … We have named them before you.  May we with them know your forgiveness and love, and our eternal life together; through Christ our Lord. AMEN.

(Preparation for Communion)

Now, I invite us all to prepare our hearts for the experience of communion together.

This is the table where all are welcome;

It is the table around which we gather with Jesus and with all who love him.

So come!

You who have much faith and you who have little,

You who have been here often, and you who have not been here for awhile,

You who have tried to follow, and you who have failed.

Come!

Not because I invite you: It is our Lord.

It is his will that those who want him should meet him here.

So come!

May we sing our Communion Hymn in Preparation.

“How to Be Exalted” Luke 18:9-14

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, October 27, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Teachers have discovered that by giving children a camera, they begin to express their thoughts and feelings in new a creative ways.  Take a child who is relatively powerless and give him a camera, and suddenly that child is empowered by the chance to express himself.  Take the case of the young Indian boy named Pratap.  When his teacher handed him a camera, Pratap began to shake all over.  With fear. He explained that he was a Harijan, a member of the lowest, untouchable caste in India.  Harijans aren’t allowed to hold cameras.  Pratap was afraid of even touching one. But the teacher insisted that he take the camera and use it to share his ideas.  A few days later, the teacher passed Pratap’s house.  He was posing his family for a picture.  The scared, self-conscious little boy was bursting with self-confidence.  A simple camera had changed his self-perception.  (1)

Jesus was the kind of person who would have given untouchable people cameras to build their self-concept. We need to remember that. Jesus was continually taking those who were on the bottom and putting them on top. Whether they were despised Samaritans, or deeply feared lepers, or powerless women and children, or hated tax-collectors, or whoever they might be. If Jesus were here in the flesh today, he would be the champion of the underdog.

Consider our lesson from the Gospel. Two men are in the Temple. One of the men is a righteous man. And he is proud of his righteousness–as well he might be. After all, as he reminds God, he doesn’t cheat, he doesn’t commit adultery, he fasts twice a week, and he gives to God a tenth of everything he earned.  Wow! We would like to have him as a member of our church. How many of us can say we never cheat? How many of us can say we tithe? The average person gives about 2% of his income to God, so maybe this man had a right to brag. He was a righteous man. Surely Jesus loves people who are righteous. And yet . . . None of us like being around someone who is self-righteous–someone who is proud of their moral superiority.

There is a story about a cantor in a Jewish synagogue who was uncommonly proud of his voice. He was heard bragging that Lloyd’s of London has insured his voice for $500,000. An older lady in the synagogue brought him to earth by asking, “So, cantor, what did you do with the money?”

There is something about people who are pompous and self-righteous that turns us off. Such pomposity has been known even to infect men and women of the cloth.

A well-known pastor filled with his own self-importance decided to visit a local nursing home. He strolled into the nursing home and announced himself, but nobody seemed to recognize him.  He went to one elderly woman in a wheelchair and asked, “Sister, do you know who I am?”

“No, sonny,” she replied, “But you check with the lady at the front desk.  She can tell you who you are!”

The righteous man in Jesus’ parable was not only reminding God of his virtue, he was also trumpeting his goodness to the other worshipers in the Temple. He was a blowhard, a braggart, in short, a jerk. Still, he had kept the Law, as he understood it. He was a moral, upright citizen. He may have even been known in his local synagogue as a man of God. Surely Jesus was appreciative of that. Isn’t this what we learn from religion above all else? Be a good boy. Be a good girl. Then you will be acceptable to God.

But there was another man there in the Temple that day. A tax collector. A man who was a traitor to his own people. A man who was corrupt and made his livelihood cheating others. A man we wouldn’t even want sitting next to us in church. There he is. Look at him. He can’t even lift his eyes to heaven. He’s beating his chest in sorrow. And he is mumbling. What’s that he’s saying? Get a little closer. Oh, yes. We can hear him now. He’s mumbling,  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  What’s to be done with such a man? Is he sincere? Sure, he regrets his lifestyle, but is he going to change?

We honestly don’t know the tax collector’s heart. All we know is the shocking end to the story. Jesus said to his listeners, “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home forgiven! For the proud shall be humbled, but the humble shall be honored.” (LB)

This is a shocking ending-for it goes against everything most of us believe about Christian faith. We believe it is about righteousness, morality and keeping all the rules. It is about not playing hooky, staying away from drugs, and abiding by the speed limit. All of these are important, of course. Without these virtues we cannot have a functioning society. Without these virtues our families would be endangered and our physical, mental and spiritual wellness would be threatened.  Not to mention they are “wrong!” But you can be righteous, moral and law abiding and still miss the Gospel. You can be the most virtuous person in your community and still not know the good news that Jesus came to bring. And the good news is this: Regardless of who you are and what you have done, God loves you. God gave God’s Son to die for you. And, even if your life is full of sin, the slate can be wiped clean. “If you confess your sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive you your sins and cleanse you of all unrighteousness.”

This is a message that someone in this room needs to hear today. Someone in this room carries around a terrible secret. Sometime in your life you did something you deeply regret. In my life too! And it gnaws at our hearts and souls. It destroys our quality of life.

Guilt can be a terrible thing. In a survey on alternative methods of dealing with crime, a group of prisoners was asked what they would choose if given a choice between jail time or meeting the victim of the crime.  Overwhelmingly, the criminals chose jail time.  They would rather not confront the pain they caused.  (2)

We can relate to that. Guilt is a terrible thing. Guilt is a terrible thing to carry around in your heart. Who can deliver you? Who can deliver me? Only Jesus. You look around at the well-scrubbed people in this sanctuary, some of the best people in this community, and it is easy to think that these are the people God prefers. But that is not what the Gospel tells us. It tells us that Jesus is constantly searching for that one lost sheep, that one troubled teen who always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, that one businessman who cannot seem to get it all together, that one elderly woman whose heart is filled with so much hurt and regret. And Jesus says to you, “I hear your prayer: ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’ I hear your prayer and I want you to know it was for you that I gave my life.”  Someone here today needs to know that Christ hears your prayer. You are forgiven.  You see, Jesus favors the underdog. He really does. Because he knows that those who are weak can be made strong by the power of his love, his forgiveness, his grace.

If it is not guilt, then it is ego. We let our ego’s get in the way. I love the alternate story of creation I heard recently. It goes like this.

Eve, in the Garden of Eden, called out, “Lord, I have a problem.”

And the Lord said, “What’s the matter, Eve?”

“I know you created me and this beautiful garden. But I’m lonely – and I’m sick of eating apples”

“Well, in that case,” God replied, “I’ll create a man for you.”

“What’s a man?”

“Well, he’s a flawed creature with aggressive tendencies, an enormous ego and an inability to listen. But he’s big and fast and muscular. He’ll be good at fighting and kicking a ball and hunting animals. And, at times, he can be very loving.”

“Sounds great!” replied Eve.

“There’s only one condition, though,” added the Lord. “For this to work, you’ll have to let him believe that I made him first.”

How many of us let our egos get in the way of our important relationships. Or get in the way with our relationship to God?  It happens with men and women. It happens with children, too, as they model their lives by what they see in us! Jesus looks at us not on the basis of what we have done in the past, but on the basis of what we can do in the future. His purpose is not to punish us, but to empower us to become what he has fashioned us to become.

Two men in the Temple. The tragedy of the righteous man was that he thought he had arrived. There was nothing more God could do with him. But the man who prayed, “God have mercy on me, a sinner” was ready to be molded into something beautiful for God.

This parable is really a story about grace. The grace of God. The Pharisee and the tax collector are the same. They both need God. The only thing is, one man doesn’t know his need and the other one does. The tax collector who comes before God with his hands empty understands the truth of the Gospel: that salvation comes by faith alone. The kid who hasn’t done his homework is the one who goes to the head of the class. Because there is nothing, nothing, one can do to earn the grace of God. It is free.

If we don’t know who we are, let us turn to Jesus on the cross. There we will see who we should be.

1. “Shooting Dreams” by Francine Prose, The Oprah Magazine, April 2001, pp. 168-171.

2. “Restorative Responses: From Vision to Action” by Jean E. Greenwood, The Clergy Journal, April 2013, p. 7.

“One Out of Ten Ain’t Bad”

Luke 17:11-10

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, October 13, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Traveling one day along the border between Galilee and Samaria, on His way to Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus approached a village where ten seriously ill men came out to meet Him. Ten lepers met Jesus, ten men afflicted by the worst disease imaginable in Jesus’ day. Leprosy was incurable, leprosy was disgusting, and leprosy was revolting. Leprosy was considered proof that you were the vilest kind of sinner. God was really punishing you for something really bad. If you had leprosy, you actually watched your body rot away. You died a slow and painful death, cut off from society, cut off from family and the only friendships you had were others like you. Nine others in this case that kept reminding you, as you looked at them how really bad you were. Ten lepers, ten dying, decaying wretches met Jesus and cried, “Jesus Master Have mercy on Us.”

This was their only chance to escape the awful consequences of their disease. If Jesus did nothing for them, surely their lives would end in a slow painful death.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us ” Can you imagine that air was filled with tension as the ten lepers, as ten lives hung on the words or actions of the Man of Galilee.

“Jesus, Master, Have Mercy on Us”. He didn’t touch them. “Jesus Master, Have mercy on us”. He didn’t wash them. “Jesus, Master have mercy on us.” He didn’t even pray for them.

Finally, finally after what seemed to be an eternity for these desperate men, Jesus spoke: “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” In other words, Jesus was saying, go to the priests for certificates of cleansing. They weren’t healthy–but they were to go and get a health certificate to proclaim they were healed. Jesus said, “Go get a physical examination.”

Can you imagine their situation. They must have stood and looked at each other and then started to debate this command. They might have said, “But we have already been there, done that, and they couldn’t do anything for us. You have got to be kidding.

Go show ourselves to the priests. They had surely expected something more, something else. Something of their desperation, and their growing, but doubting faith led these ten men to turn and start walking toward the priests. Something about this man of Galilee led them to obey, to go, to do what they had done before.

Then it happened. At some point, some instant–quite by surprise—those ten outcast lepers were changed. Every diseased cell in their bodies were changed. Every cell suddenly sprang into full health signaled by an unseen force. A force of events which began in a twinkle of an eye, in a flash of excitement as one of the ten noticed his body becoming healthy.

Who was the first to notice? We don’t know, but with tremendous swiftness the reaction must have sped through the group. In amazement, they stopped, looked at their hands, their feet, at each other’s ears, they were whole, they had been changed, Jesus had done it again. His reputation was true. The Son of God had touched ten suffering human beings. Ten suffering men had encountered the touch of a loving God. Ten suffering men had been touched by the creating hand of God that was still very much at work in his world.

Can you picture them bounding down the road to the priest, now running, now leaping, now dancing, wondering how the priest would react… anticipating the glee, the excitement of their families as they would return home–healthy, alive, with a health certificate proclaiming to all what had happened. All ten men caught up in the joy, the excitement of the moment.

But one of them halts in his tracks. He stops, he smiles, he turns, now walking, now running…back to the Master, back to this man of Galilee, back to this one who touched him with this mysterious force. He comes back, “shouting, laughing, proclaiming glory to God with a joyful and thankful heart.” He runs back to Jesus, falls at his feet and gives the Son of God thanks for the great healing that had been done. Only one of the ten who were touched by the love of this man of Galilee had seen beyond the miracle of healing to the one who had dared to risk for him. Perhaps he saw Jesus for who he was. As, one who cared, one who loved. He saw the Son of God as a man of love, a builder of relationships. Perhaps he saw the miracle as Jesus’ way of building a bridge between the fallen creation, the brokenness of disease and the loving hand of God who wants to reach into that brokenness with his creating and redeeming power. Never-the-less, he saw Jesus!

Then notice Jesus response. “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?” Only one in ten came back to give thanks. Only one in ten. Why, Jesus is asking, why only one in ten?

By dwelling on the fact that only one in ten came back, Jesus is telling us very plainly he wanted the thanks. He wanted them to see beyond the miracle to the miracle worker. He wanted them to come into a relationship with him.

What is the ratio for us today? Is it the same, one in ten. Why did nine cleansed men wander in the valley of ingratitude when they should have been by the mountain of the one from who all blessings flow? Perhaps one reason they walked in the valley of ingratitude was they suffered from a lack of sensitivity and imagination. They never stopped and reflected on what happened. They didn’t think about who, or how this happened. They just took it for granted. They were healed. Their lives could go on, they had a lot of catching up to do, so they better be about it. They couldn’t see beyond the gift of the miracle of healing to the one who gave it to them. They never saw the giver.

Do you remember the Aesop fable, Androcles and the lion.? “Androcles was a young boy who wandered off into the forest one day. Suddenly he came upon a lion that was groaning in pain. Androcles turned to run away as fast as he could, and as he glanced over his shoulder to see how close that lion was, he noticed the lion had not run after him.

So Androcles, stopped, turned back to the lion to see what was the matter. He saw that the lion had a huge thorn in his paw. Androcles pulled it out and helped the lion to his den where the lion was healed.

A few days later, Androcles and the lion were captured. Androcles because he was a Christian and the emperor wanted some fun watching Christians being eaten in the theater, and the lion, because they needed one to do this deed. Androcles was pushed out into the big arena and the lion came charging from the cage on the other side.

Androcles fell to his knees waiting for the huge mouth of the lion to devour him, but to his amazement, the lion stopped dead in his tracks, laid down and crawled towards Androcles, and began to lick his face and play with him. It was the same lion who Androcles had helped, the one who had the thorn removed. The lion saw beyond the  act of help to the helper, and responded in likeness when the opportunity rose. Aesop always has a moral tacked on at the end of his fables, this one being: “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”

Can you see the giver? Can you see beyond the gifts, the blessings, the love, the touch of grace in your life to the giver? Do you see redeemer, the Son of God as you experience his touch in your life?

Maybe another reason that only one of ten returned to the healer, is the fact the other nine lacked humility. They saw in this act of healing something they were due. Human beings can develop such an inflated sense of their own importance that we take everything good that comes our way as if it were our due. We tend to take for granted as our due all those things that we have worked so hard for. We say we have paid our dues in life, now, now we can reap the rewards. And as we tend to take things for granted, as we tend to look only to ourselves as the foundation for living, we become more and more possessive, more and more greedy, more and more wanting only the best, the biggest.

The ten lepers got it all. A new life, a clean bill of health, a return to family and friends. But only one could see the greatness, only one could see the magnitude of the gift, only one could see the blessing. We are all blessed by God in different ways, at different times with different blessings. Jesus is asking us to see beyond the gifts, beyond our own need of those things, to the giver. To be humble and accept with a grateful heart what we have. And in that attitude a peace, a contentment about living will come. We will see our blessings, our talents, our resources coming from God and then an amazing thing will happen. God will continue to bless us, a usually more and more. He will lead us in ways that we would have never dared to go.

Ten are healed, but for nine of them their healing is only skin-deep. Only one has the eyes of his eyes opened and he accepts the surprising gift, acknowledges it as gift, and returns gratefully to give thanks. He is thank-ful.  He is grate-ful.  He is grace-ful.  You can’t be thankful or grateful or graceful and be half-full.  You’re either full of thanks and gratitude and grace or you aren’t.

And gratefully, returning to give thanks, he falls on his face entering into a bond, into a relationship with the giver, with Jesus.  He comes to say, “Thank you!” Which is to say, “We belong together.”  This nameless man, this foreigner, this Samaritan, the one you would least expect to return gratefully to Jesus, begins his journey with, “Jesus!  Master, have mercy!”  “Kyrie eleison!” and he ends his old life and begins a new way of life singing, “Eucharisteo!”  “Thank you, God!”

Jesus looks upon this brother, this grateful, thankful, graceful brother, smiles and says, “Rise up and go!  You are saved!”  Rise to new life! You are a new creation!  You are a child of God!  Begin living now in the realm of God, the kingdom of God!

So this one whose healing is more soul-deep than skin-deep begins to live from out of the truth that, “The kingdom of God is within you!” The “kingdom of God is within you!”  It is within you! And you! And you! And you!  You are a child of God.  Wake up!  Open your eyes!  Behold the surprises of a new day!  And give thanks to the giver of life.  “Lord make us truly thank-ful!” that we might live in this kingdom as your

beloved sons and daughters.

Let us pray: The Light of God surround us, The Love of God enfold us, The Power of God protect us, The Presence of God watch over us, Wherever we are, God is.

“We Are Welcome at the Table”

Luke 17:5-10

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, October 6, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Today’s gospel lesson is a very difficult one to grasp. On the surface it does not seem like “good news.” I would much rather spend some time considering the various imageries called to mind with the mustard seed and faith. There are several places Jesus mentions the grain of mustard seed in the gospels, but in different contexts than this one. This section is different and difficult because we are still brought back to this new saying (reported only by Luke) about the farmer or the shepherd coming in from the fields and not being immediately welcome at the dinner table.

The question raised by Jesus in this little vignette is so totally different than the kind of mood we are trying to foster on this Sunday we call World Communion Sunday. It is so different, at least it appears so, than the theme I recall we had at one of our General Assemblies a few years ago, the one at Kansas City, when we met around the theme “At the Welcome Table.” The same feeling was present in Orlando this past July as we met each day and had communion.

Recently a person who has been attending worship with us sent me the following note. “I have felt at home at WACC and look forward to continued fellowship.  Wish I had more to bring to your congregation.  Can’t carry a tune in a bucket (of course, that never stops me) ringing chimes makes me so anxious I could never do it and my knowledge of the bible is clearly lacking.  However, I’m a good listener, know what it’s like to care for a dying relative, have good organizational skills, am a pretty good cook, can clean the devil out of a dirty house and my faith is firm.  Hope I can add something.”

My response to her was “Of course you can add something, but even if you couldn’t, we at WACC accept you just as you are as this is the way Christ accepts you and His table is open to you…” But in the light of today’s reading was I a bit hasty about this? Perhaps I should have said “My friend…get in the kitchen! And get out your dust rag!” Somehow I don’t think so.

As hard as Jesus words are in this section, I think we will finally see that they reveal to us the incredible goodness and love of God that is extended to you and me.

We start by acknowledging our gratitude to God. We need to be grateful for everything we have. As we consider the whole grand picture we can begin to see our life as a gift that is given to us from the hand of God. We owe our lives to God!

This is partly what the story before us says. Jesus tells us about a typical rural laborer of his day, perhaps a farmer coming in from plowing the fields all day, or a shepherd who has been tending the sheep out on the pasture. Jesus calls this worker a servant, evidently one who was not part of the owner’s family, and therefore one whom the owner had hired out of a gracious heart.

Now Jesus poses the question.  “Imagine you are that owner of the farm; when this hired hand of yours finishes his day and comes toward the farm house, are you going to immediately invite him in to sit down at the table and eat?” The answer seems self-obvious, at least for the rural understandings of that day. The obvious answer is “no.” Jesus suggests that first, you as the farm owner would sit down at the supper table and tell your staff to prepare a meal and serve it to you. The farm owner is under no obligation to share a meal with the staff.  Even afterwards, though it was a delicious meal, you would feel under no compulsion to share the meal with your staff at your table. You can just get up and go to bed and let your staff eat the leftovers and then clean up. In fact, when you do leave the room, the hired hand ought to thank you for the privilege of serving you!

So we begin to get a bit of a different twist on this story than a first reading might suggest. It is a sort of stewardship scripture. The world we live in is God’s creation. In wisdom God has allowed us as God’s creatures to inhabit this good world and enjoy its bounties. God has even given us an undeserved role of leadership in the world. But we are all stewards, and out of the successes we have we need to feel grateful. If we are successful in life, we need to remember that we would be nothing without the nurturing and help that came from parents, grandparents, siblings, and from teachers and friends. In the words of an old Beetles’ song, we only “get by with a little help from our friends.” Our place in this life is a fantastic divine mystery for which we can take absolutely no credit. May we experience gratitude to the God who provides for us.

This little vignette Jesus tells gives us a glimpse of the incredible Grace of God as well. God does not owe us salvation. Nor can you or I claim or accomplish one single thing that would be considered a way of earning our salvation. We can work in the field all day long, all week long, for a lifetime, and there would still be no reason why God should feel indebted to invite us to the table. The good news of what Jesus was saying in this story would then be that God nevertheless does save us, evidently purely out of grace and love on God’s part. Since there is nothing we can do to earn the right, God still brings us to the welcome table.

Jesus wants us to be impressed by the total humility that the servant in the story exhibited. We are unworthy even to stand before God, much less to claim something of Him. Even if we have done something positive or exemplary, we, like the servant, have only done our duty.

As you can see, this story is a way of proclaiming the good news in reverse. There is nothing we can do to merit salvation. The reverse side is that God does everything for our salvation. The Good News is that in Jesus Christ God has done it all. When Christ is placed on the cross, he is taking on his shoulders the debt of sin owed by the whole world. As the pain of crucifixion embraces him, he is embracing each one of us in the blood that cleanses us from all sin. On the third day, Easter morning, he provides a place for us to stand before God when we die.

On this day we call World Communion Sunday, may we understand that we are invited to come to the Table that God has provided for us. May we rejoice with Christian all around the world as we join in this special feast.

This table clearly represents the Grace of God. What we find before us helps us remember in a special way the last meal, which Jesus ate on earth with his followers.  We are familiar with how symbols are important reminders of those things that have deep meaning for us.  The wedding ring, for example.  Whenever I look at my wedding ring, all sorts of wonderful memories come to mind. And so it is that we remember in a special way the meaning of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we receive Christ’s welcome at this table, we recall together and with Christians around the world, the meaning and significance of his death.  Part of our emphasis is upon memory and sometimes we hear the communion service called a memorial.  We establish memorials to remember special events in history.  Our Washington D.C. area is full of them.  And so it is that we establish a memorial to our Lord through the reenactment of the Lord’s Supper. May we acknowledge that Christians are also reenacting this memorial this day throughout the world!

In the third place, at the table of the Lord’s Supper there is a fellowship among the disciples and with the Lord.  From this point of view the service is rightly called communion, a word which is used in this connection in the early church (I Cor. 10:16).  Our communion is in two ways, horizontal and vertical.  In other words, it is with each other and it is with our Lord.  The kind of relationship we are to have with the Lord in terms of love, grace, forgiveness and commitment, is the same kind of relationship we are expected to have with each other. May we lift up or vertical relationship to God through Christ and our relationship to other Christians this day throughout the world!

A fourth aspect of our time at the Lord’s Table is that of anticipation and hope. (Mark 14:25; I Corinthians 11:26). The Lord’s Supper not only looks back to the death of Christ, but it also looks ahead to his ultimate triumph in the consummation of all things.  It is no accident that the idea of hope is linked to the death of Jesus which we memorialize in the Lord’s Supper.  The hope shines through on Easter Sunday.  It is a comfort to all of us who are in Christ and face the eventuality of physical death either for our loved ones or ourselves.  At such times the scripture is true that says “We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.” May we proclaim our hope this day for a world that has been gripped by terror and acknowledge together that Christ provides ultimate triumph in all things!

Finally, our place at the Table is suggested by the term Eucharist. This is derived from the Greek word for giving thanks, where it is said that Jesus gave thanks before he broke the bread and gave it to his disciples.  In this light, the Lord’s Supper is an expression of gratitude and thanksgiving to God.  Prior to taking communion our Elders offer prayers of thanksgiving for the bread and the cup. Thanksgiving should always be a part of our experience at the table of our Lord.

We seek to have faith as a grain of mustard seed. May we find our faith and hope and love together here at the table our Lord prepares for us. We do not deserve it. God is not obligated. But God, in God’s love, gives us grace through Jesus Christ. Through our Lord Christ we join with all Christians at this, God’s welcome table!

“The Middle Lane Club”

Luke 16:19-31

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, September 29, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Many of us belong to the “Middle Lane Club.” The  middle lane is the safest place. We have less risk in the  middle lane. When driving and approaching the intersections of our great cities, most of us prefer to be in the  middle lane. You don’t get honked at as much as folks try to pass you. You don’t have to come in direct contact with the offensive things that may be at the side of the road, on the left or on the right. You can just “go with the flow” in the  middle lane.

Back when I lived in Northern Virginia and would drive into DC for business or pleasure, I would cross the Potomac River at the 14th Street Bridge. I would drive past the Pentagon from Virginia into the District. The first stop light to be encountered, over by the Holocaust Museum, you could always count on a homeless person to be standing there and then walking up and down along the island as cars stopped for the red light. It was always one person, holding a sign saying “Homeless,” dressed shabbily, walking up and down the island, thrusting a can at the driver’s window. It seemed to be the same person every time. I remember wondering why it was always the same person. One time I self-righteously thought “they must have quite a union that one person could carve out his favored spot to get a handout!” And I would invariably head for the middle lane at this intersection.  In the middle lane I would be out of reach from the thrust out can. In the  middle lane I could pretend I didn’t see the homeless man. It would even be hard for my peripheral vision to sense what I didn’t want to see.

How many of us belong to the “Middle Lane Club?” How often to we prefer not to see and respond to the needs around us? Do we find ourselves in the same situation as the rich man in the story that Jesus tells us in the gospel reading for this morning?

Jesus tells us about a rich man. We don’t know the man’s name. Our Lord simply called him “the rich man.” Whatever you and I think qualifies one to be “rich” we could probably project on to this man. No doubt he was richly blessed. He was blessed, but unwilling to let his blessings flow through to others. He preferred to be in the middle lane. Uninvolved, not engaged, not even seeing or hearing.

Here is Jesus’ description: “There was once a rich man who dressed in the most expensive clothes and lived in great luxury every day” (v. 19). There is no indication that the man was happy, or joyful even. It is just a simple description of a person who has a lot, probably more than what he would ever need. He was living in the middle lane and not allowing any of his blessings to touch the lives of others.

By contrast, Jesus talks about the poor man whose demeanor, clothing, appearance and general situation in life was exactly the opposite than the rich man’s. Any sharing of the rich man’s blessings to this poor man was strictly by accident, as though he sometimes was forced into the left lane and had to respond to the can thrust at his window. Jesus describes it this way: “There was also a poor man, named Lazarus, covered with sores, who used to be brought to the rich man’s door, hoping to eat the bits of food that fell from the rich man’s table” (vv. 20-21).

I think Jesus tells this story to get us out of the  middle lane of our lives. Our Lord wants our blessings to flow to others. That can only happen when we allow ourselves to see, hear and smell the needs that exist around us. And that cannot happen if we stay in the  middle lane. It cannot happen if we decide to remain comfortable.

What does it mean to us to be rich? How do these words of Jesus apply to us in a middle class and upper middle class congregation. Actually, his words apply to everyone, regardless of “class” or “station” (oh how I dislike using those words). We don’t have to be financially rich people to apply the point that Jesus is making in this story. What we need to do is reflect for a few moments and we will know that each person hearing these words is greatly blessed in some way. So the question for us is…how do you and I share our blessings with others?

Remember that old song “Count your blessings, name theme one, by one?” Perhaps it is time to sing that song and name our blessings and find some intentional ways to share our overflow with others.

For some of us such blessings include financial overflow. I was particularly glad to hear how many who apparently are not used to giving money to help other have freely done so in the light of our national and personal disasters and tragedies.

One of the greatest blessings we have is our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We experience this collectively as a Body of Christ and we powerfully experience it on a personal level. We come to celebrate the salvation in Jesus Christ and our faith in it. We lift up God’s mercy and love. We boldly proclaim that the Son of God died upon the cross for our sins and our forgiveness. We believe that Christ has risen from the grave so that you and I don’t need any longer to fear the grave. Because of this saving work of our Lord Christ, we are spiritually blessed beyond belief.

Do we let this blessing over flow into the lives of those we touch, or do we stay in the  middle lane? Are we even aware of the spiritual hunger in those around us? Those around us are spiritually hungry and thirsty for the gospel of our Lord. Each of us have a way of sharing the overflow of our faith with others. But we need to get out of the  middle lane. Again, we need to be willing to share.

We could start right here and now by preparing our hearts and lives for the sharing. Begin by letting Christ flow through you in this place, even now while you worship. Be hospitable, as Christ is hospitable. Let the joy of the Lord flow through you. Experience the enthusiasm of Christ’s spirit. Begin right now to be freed up to share the overflow of your spiritual blessings with others.

We need to find ways to let God’s loving care and healing to flow through us, to others. Again, we may all do this in a variety of ways. I celebrate this aspect, our variety, our diversity. As we refresh the lives of others our own lives will be refreshed. That’s what we see in Jesus’ life. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit. In other words, God’s power and blessing were with Jesus. Jesus did not choose the  middle lane.

In Jesus’ ministry we see God’s power over flowing. People were healed; people were given life; people received new hope and had their sins forgiven; the very elements were calmed; the hungry were fed as bread was multiplied. Jesus did not take the  middle lane. Rather, he became the instrument through which God’s blessings over flowed to others.

Jesus didn’t fault the man in today’s story for being rich. If we think that, we missed the point. The rich man’s problem was that he did not let his blessings over flow to others. To put it in theological terms, the man wasn’t practicing good stewardship. He violated the principle of good stewardship. What was only loaned to him he thought he owned.

So what are we to do? In order for us to become instruments of God’s loving care and healing we are to get out of the  middle lane. Sometimes we see only what we want to see. Get out of the  middle lane. Even when we see it all and don’t like it, get out of the  middle lane. Jesus makes it clear that when we have our minds and hearts made up not to hear and see, we probably won’t. Jesus helps us see the radical reality of our situation when he says: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (v. 31).

I invite you to get out of the  middle lane. Take a look around you. Notice the needs around you. Notice the broken hearts, the depressed and lonely. Some right here in this congregation are going through some crisis. Look around you. Your family members, your neighbor, your friend need your ministry, the kind of overflowing love and concern that only you can give.

God is blessing you richly each day. Don’t sit in the  middle lane. Let the blessing God has blessed you with, whatever that is, overflow into the lives of others. In so doing, you will come to know further blessings of God directed to you.

Tony Campolo tells of when a grizzled old man approached him on a street in a big city.  Tony tried not to look at him, but the man stopped right in front of him.  Tony could barely breath because of the stench of body odor and alcohol.  The man had a stained coffee cup in his grimy hand, but instead of asking for money, he offered Tony a drink of his coffee.  Tony did not want to insult the poor man, so with a silent prayer he took a drink.  Then Tony asked him why he shared his coffee.  The poor man replied that the coffee was rather good that morning and if God gives you something good you ought to share it.  Tony knew then he had been set up and would have to give this man something.  So he asked if there was anything he could do for him.  The man said yes, I would like a hug.  Tony would have rather given him money.  The dirty old man reached out and grabbed Tony in a big bear hug.  After a few minutes Tony wondered if he was ever going to let go, but when he did, he looked Tony right in the eye and Tony saw Jesus. (1)

(1) Tony Campolo at NEW 2001 in Kansas City July 12, 2001.

“What Will I Do?”

Luke 16:1-13

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, September 22, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

I heard about a young lawyer who was called in from the big city to represent a large railroad company that was being sued by a farmer. It seems that the farmer’s prize cow was missing from a field through which the railroad passed, and the farmer was suing for the value of the cow. Before the case was to be tried, the lawyer cornered the farmer and convinced him to settle out of court for half of what he originally wanted. The farmer signed the necessary papers and then accepted the check. The young lawyer could not resist gloating a bit about his success. He said to the farmer, “You know, I couldn’t have won this case if it had gone to trial. The engineer was asleep and the fireman was in the caboose when the train passed through your farm that morning. I didn’t have a single witness to put on the stand!” With a wry smile, the old farmer replied, “Well, I tell you young feller, I was a little worried about winning that case myself because that cow came home this morning.” Both the farmer and the lawyer could have related to a shrewd crook Jesus told us about.

Shrewd. Even a little sneaky. Sometimes in business the line between ethical and unethical, shrewd and outright dishonest, is a little blurred. And nice guys, or ladies, don’t always finish first.

All’s fair in love and in war, it is said. That’s often true in business. Ask people who are losing their jobs as more and more companies outsource their work overseas. Ask the small merchant put out of business by the large superstore. Ask shareholders who have lost their pensions because some greedy executive manipulated stock prices. Be careful if you are in the marketplace. You never know when somebody who’s both shrewd and slightly unethical is going to clean your clock.

Jesus knew such people existed. In fact, he told about such a person in one of his parables. And here’s what might steam some of us–he had words of praise for this scoundrel. Amazing! Outrageous! Jesus says something good about a sleazeball. Let’s see if we can’t figure out what’s going on here.

There was a rich man who had a manager who was cooking the books–lining his own pockets at the rich man’s expense. So the rich man gave this rascal his pink slip. The soon-to-be jobless manager was mortified. He said to himself, “What’ll I do? . . . I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” And then this unscrupulous manager hatched a plan. He decided to use his remaining time to make a few friends. Summoning the people one by one who owed the rich man money, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my boss?”

“A hundred jugs of olive oil,” was the answer.

“Make it fifty,” said the manager. I can see him rubbing his hands together with glee and avarice. This is a good example of why some employees should not be given two weeks notice. Some should be sent packing immediately. Then he asked another of his boss’ creditors, “And how much do you owe?”

He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.”

The manager said, “Make it eighty.”

Now here’s the outrageous conclusion of this parable: According to Jesus, the rich man commended this dishonest manager because of his actions. Then Jesus added these interesting words: “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

This is disturbing–truly outrageous. Jesus, in effect, praised a dishonest man. What in the world could this mean?

First of all, Jesus is not praising the man’s dishonesty. This is evident in the verses that follow. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,” said Jesus, “and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” Jesus was not praising the man’s dishonesty.

We don’t need any more dishonest business people, or dishonest doctors or dishonest clergy or whatever the profession may be. Everyone loses when people cheat–and that includes when people only half-way do their jobs.

A minister tells of stopping at a gas station near his church one day.  He bought some gas and picked up some soda and candy for the kids.  As he walked back to the car he looked at the receipt and noticed that he had received too much change so he went back in to refund the money.  He said to the clerk, “You gave me too  much change.”  The clerk responded, “I know I did.”  The minister asked, “Why did you do that?”  The clerk replied, “I attended your church last Sunday and when you came in I recognized you.  I wanted to know if you practice what you preach.” The minister talks about being amazed that he even bothered to look at the receipt and he shutters to think what would have resulted if he hadn’t made the effort to right what was wrong.  Surely, that clerk would never have come back to his church and maybe she would not have come back to any church.  Little things make a difference.

Jesus wasn’t praising the man’s dishonesty. Remember this is a parable. A parable only makes one point. I believe that what Jesus is praising is this man’s willingness to act. He was about to lose his job. He was “not strong enough to dig, and . . . ashamed to beg.” What was he going to do? Well, what could he have done? Put yourself in his position.

He could have done nothing. He could have sat around, wringing his hands whining, “Oh, I am so unfortunate. Woe is me. I never get any of the breaks.” You would be surprised how many people react to hardship that way.

The dishonest manager could have gone home and spent his days watching Oprah. He could have waited for someone to give him a break. That’s the first thing he could have done, nothing.

The second thing he could have done was ask God to solve his problem for him. Now I have to be very careful here. It sounds so pious to say, “I’m just going to pray about this, and if God wants me to work, God will provide a job.” Have you ever known anyone with that kind of attitude toward life? It sounds like such a nice, religious idea–waiting for God to provide our need. But friends, it can also be an evasion of responsibility. And as such, it can be deadly–deadly personally, professionally and spiritually. It’s very much like saying, “If God wants me to lose weight, God will keep me from desiring ice cream.” Or, better yet, “If God doesn’t want me to stop at Krispy-Kreme, there won’t be a parking place out front when I drive by.” One guy prayed that prayer, and as providence would have it, there WAS a parking place–his sixth time around the block. Friends, the little platitude, “God helps those who help themselves” isn’t in the Bible, but it very easily could be.

Dwight L. Moody was one of the world’s great evangelists. He was on a ship that was crossing the Atlantic. The ship caught fire. The crew and the passengers formed a bucket brigade to transport water to the fire. One man in the line turned and said, “Mr. Moody, don’t you think we should retire from the bucket brigade and go down and pray?”

“You can go pray if you want to,” Moody replied, “but I’m going to pray while I pass the buckets.” (1)

Moody understood the relationship between prayer and personal responsibility.

Jesus praised the dishonest manager because the man had a problem, and immediately took action to solve it. Jesus follows this parable with these words which provide the clue to its meaning: “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Who are the “children of light”? That’s us. But listen carefully: the “children of light” can actually be very frustrating to both God and their friends when they refuse to help themselves; even worse, when they use their religion as an excuse for inaction.

You may think I’m being a little harsh, but it happens so often. And it is demonic. There are people who are ruining their health, ruining their relationships, ruining their careers waiting for God to give them some kind of sign before they ever do anything. Do you remember what Jesus had to say about this? It will surprise you. He said, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign . . .” (Matthew 12:39) The context was slightly different, but the point was the same. We can evade all kinds of responsibility looking for signs. I believe God gives us signs and the ability to discern their meanings. But we are not to sit around waiting for signs. Pray about your situation, yes! But then use the good brain that the good Lord gave you and tackle the problem head on. That’s the winning way to deal with life–whether in business or family life or with regard to your own well-being. “The children of this age are more shrewd . . . than are the children of light.”

A great philosopher once told about a make-believe country where only ducks live. On Sunday morning all the ducks came into church, waddled down the aisle, waddled into their pews and squatted. Then the duck minister came in, took his place behind the pulpit, opened the Duck Bible and read, “Ducks! You have wings, and with wings you can fly like eagles. You can soar into the skies! Ducks! You have wings!” All the ducks yelled, “Amen!” and then they all waddled home. (2) No one flew.

Friends, there’s just too much truth to that little fable. It’s time for the children of light to quit waddling. It’s time for us to soar. If there is something honorable that you and I need to do to better our own situation or to better the world, it’s time for us to get into action. No more wringing our hands helplessly saying, “What will I do? What will I do?” No more praying that God will solve our problems for us, and thereby absolving us from responsibility. May we be the people that Jesus praises. Why? Because we saw something that needed to be done and we did it.

The Bible tells us that the future is in God’s hands.  Because God is working to reconcile the world to himself, we can be filled with boldness.  We can move out into the future with great confidence and vitality, free to act in outrageously creative ways, because we are free from anxiety about how it all will end.  Our future is taken care of. That is a promise from God.  Jesus signed that promise with his suffering and sealed it with his blood.  We can be absolutely sure of that and we can act on it.  Even if what we can do doesn’t seem like much we are called to do it and trust in God to use it to make a difference.

If we are to learn anything from this strange parable it is that God wants us to be shrewd yet honest, be smart, be decisive and to take action, trusting that God will bless the things that we do and use them to make a difference.  Amen.

(1) Merrill Douglas, Success Secrets (Tulsa: Honor Books), p. 83..

(2) Jim Burns, Radically Committed (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991).

“How Much Does God Love You?”

Luke 15:1-10

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, September 15, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Can you remember the first time you were really lost and then the relief of being found?  Think for a moment about that?  Think back to your childhood, perhaps.  Can you remember being so lost that you were afraid that you’d never be found?  Most of us have lived through those traumatic experiences either as a child or an adult.

Chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel is the “lost and found” department of the Bible. Luke talks about what it is like to live in the Realm of God – the Kingdom of God – and there is probably no more compelling image than that of being lost and then found. Jesus tells three lost and found stories in the Gospel, a story about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son that we call the parable of the prodigal son.

All three parables are addressed to Scribes and Pharisees.  The Scribes and Pharisees are the most religious people of their day – like many of us here today. They attend church every week. Some of us do that. They tithe 10 percent of their income to their church. Some of us do that. They don’t eat pork; just as many of us don’t eat high-fat or high-carb.  They don’t use four letter words when they hit their thumbs with hammers; they are always present for the important seasonal activities and other meetings of the church..

They think that they are the “found” and others outside the synagogue, outside their church, that those people are “lost.”  The insiders of the church are the found; and the outsiders are the lost.  Now this is a problem because Jesus is always drawn to the so-called outsiders; Jesus enjoys being with people like tax collectors and tanners, camel and donkey drivers, men and women all covered with sores and smelling to high heaven and all of them are outside the church, all sorts of sinners.

Jesus spends a lot of time welcoming these people, the outsiders; eating with them, talking with them, visiting them, and otherwise fellowshipping with them, so the church folk don’t like that. So they say, “This fellow eats with sinners and welcomes them!” That’s when Jesus tells the lost and found parables.

Once upon a time there was a shepherd, who had a hundred sheep, but one got lost, and so the shepherd left the 99 to find the one.  The Pharisees smile to themselves because they agree with the story; God always goes out to find the lost; that is, those people outside their church e.g. the tax collectors and tanners and camel drivers.  Jesus continues and says that the shepherd finds the lost sheep, and there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who truly repents than over 99 good people, who don’t think they are lost, who don’t think that they have any need for repentance.

Now the Pharisees sense that this parable is directed at them; but they aren’t sure. So Jesus tells them a second story.

Once upon a time there was an old woman who lost a precious coin, not just any coin, but one of the most precious coins that she had. She sweeps and sweeps that house ever so carefully, looking for that lost precious coin. And the Pharisees smile with delight. Yes, this story makes sense to them. God is deliberate and careful as God searches for the precious lost.

Jesus explains that she finds the coin and is so happy. So it is with God. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who truly repents than over a good person who doesn’t know that he or she is lost and in need of repentance.  Again the Pharisees sense that Jesus is talking about them and they don’t like the idea that Jesus is implying that they are the ones who are lost.  It is so clear to the Pharisees that they are part of the found.

It confirms for them some things they knew about God. God comes after us when we are lost. God is like a shepherd who searches diligently for a lost, precious, sheep; God is like an old woman who searches carefully for her lost precious coin; God is like a young man and woman who search intently for their lost precious diamond ring, symbolic of their love; our God is like a husband and wife slowly and persistently searching for a lost contact lens in the grass. God is like any of us searching for a lost set of keys.

That’s the way God is.  And every so often, we think that maybe God has given up on us; that we are so persistently sinful that God has finally given up on us. But this story tells us clearly of God’s forever wanting to find us. Yes, that is the way God is. God is persistent, diligent, and untiring in pursuit of us when we are lost.

But, the catch in the story is that the Pharisees think that they are found when in reality, they are part of the lost.  The question is: can you come to church every week, be generous in your offerings, say all the right prayers, show up for communion, Christmas and Easter, and still be lost?  The answer is yes, both then and now.  And this story for today is about us when we are lost from God.

Imagine a scene with me for a moment. You and your four year old child or grandchild hold hands as you walk together through the crowds at the Washington Zoo.  Both of you are looking at the animals and you release hands for a moment – just a moment – and you both momentarily go in different directions.  Suddenly the child is out of sight and a mob of people have come between you.  The child is momentarily lost. You panic and begin moving in what you feel is the right direction.

Meanwhile, the child doesn’t even know that he or she is lost yet.  The child is cheerfully walking along, enjoying the monkeys.  The child has no clue that he or she is lost.

Isn’t that us?  Isn’t that you and me?  We lose our grasp with the hand of God and we go wandering, totally absorbed in our anxieties about tomorrow. We go about our jobs, our homes, our busy schedules, our church, our tee times, our thousand and one events that fill our calendar, and we are not even aware that we have lost contact with God.  It happens all the time. It happened to the religious Pharisees of the past and to the best religious church going people like you and me today.  It is the story of your life and mine, so busy, and so lost and we don’t even know it.

This story is about you and me when we become lost from God, when we lose significant contact with God, and don’t even realize it, just as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day.  It is a story for us when we are disoriented and we have lost our way because we are no longer attending to our God-Compass or our spiritual GPS (to use a metaphor).  We are so busy trying to read the map that we get all turned around and we lose our direction in life.

Of course using a God-Compass means that we may meander a bit.  We may take some detours, go down some dead-ends now and then, and even be a little unsure of which way to turn.  That’s because we prefer using maps.  We want to know exactly which way to go.  We don’t want to make mistakes.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have an accurate map that has our life all mapped out? But life is not like that! Instead, God gives us a compass and not a map.  There is no map for the human geography. There is only a compass.  Your God-Compass will lead you home if you trust it and use it. Trust- Your God-Compass will lead you home if you trust it and use it.

There is a beautiful song that says:  “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark.  At the end of a storm is a golden sky and the sweet silver song of a lark. Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain, tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on.. Walk on.. With hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone!”

This story is God’s invitation for us all to reorient ourselves, to turn around, to see our world and our life once again through God-shaped lenses, to discern which way our God-Compass is pointing us and even to grab God’s extended hand and hold onto God and talk with God and walk with God and pray with God, the way we were made to be because we never walk alone; to give and take love, to give and share life, to live thankful lives, joyful lives. We finally come to our senses, wake up, and return to a loving and living relationship with God and in doing so we find once again those loving and living relationships with others in our life.  So maybe it’s time for you and me to be found…again.

Robert Fulghum tells a story about a kid in his neighborhood who was so good at playing hide and seek that the other kids in his neighborhood could never find him. Sooner or later they would give up, and the kid would finally grow tired of hiding and would come out angry that the others didn’t keep looking for him. He’d say the game was called hide-and-seek not hide-and-give-up. All the kids would yell about who makes up the rules, who cares about whom, and who needed him anyhow.

One day Fulghum is writing a sermon and he looks out his window and sees this kid hide under a big pile of leaves. Ten minutes go by and no one finds him. Another ten minutes goes by and then 30 minutes and still the kid is hiding. Fulghum opens his window, and just yells “Kid, get found!”  The kid jumps up and runs home. Maybe that is a word we all need to hear “Kid, get found!”

I remember reading a Peanuts cartoon strip in which Lucy comes up to her brother Charlie Brown and does something that is very unusual for her. She says–I love you. But Charlie Brown keeps responding by saying: no you don’t. And each time Lucy answers a little louder: yes I do, I really love you. But Charles Brown has been rejected so many times he keeps saying: it can’t be true. So in the last square, Lucy has reached the limit of her patience and she screams out in a loud voice: Hey stupid, I love you.

I wonder if God has to do that with us sometimes. I mean, what does it take to get through. Does he have to yell out: Hey blockhead, I love you. Can’t you see that God will literally turn this world upside down in his search for one human soul. Maybe you feel like God has been turning your world upside down a little bit lately. Well, that’s love at work. And the supreme sign of that love is the gift of Christ Jesus.

On a news program, Diane Sawyer revisited a group of kids that she had originally spoken to eight years ago when they were runaways living on the streets of Oregon.  In the original interview, she had asked one young man to describe his ideal parents.  The boy replied, “They would have their mouths taped shut so they couldn’t yell at me and their hands tied so they couldn’t hit me.”  When she asked this same young man years later what he really wished for during the time that he was on the streets he answered, “I wanted someone to care enough to come looking for me.”

“What are we Starting, Anyway?”

Luke 14:25-33

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, September 8, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

A woman in Vancouver, Washington, wanted to sell an old Brothers’ sewing machine. So she took out an ad in her local paper’s classified section.

But when the ad appeared, it read simply “Brother for sale” instead.

Worse yet, the ad appeared in the “Items under $50” section.

There were actually a couple of calls inquiring about the ad. One wanted to haggle over the price. The other caller hung up when he or she learned that there was not a real, live brother being offered on the market. For the record, the woman has two brothers, neither of whom is currently up for sale. (1)

I thought of her ad when I read today’s lesson. Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple . . .” Say what? Hey, this is a church that cherishes its families. What in the world can Jesus mean by this–hate your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters?

Oh, sure, we get a little upset with them from time to time. Like the lady who was showing an insurance agent through her home. The agent pointed to an exquisite vase on the sideboard and asked, “Do you keep anything in it?”

“Yes, my husband’s ashes,” came the reply.

“I am sorry,” apologized the agent, “I didn’t know he was deceased.”

“He isn’t,” she said. “He’s just too lazy to look for an ashtray.”

We all get frustrated with those we love. But hate them? No way.

This is Luke’s version of the story. It’s interesting to note that when Matthew reports Jesus’ words, he softens them a bit. In Matthew Jesus says, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Well, that’s better. We can see loving Jesus more, but who could literally hate his father and his mother?

Jesus often spoke in hyperbole. He wanted to impact the lives of his listeners. In this particular case, he wanted them to understand the radical nature of the commitment he was asking them to make. That is clear from the rest of the lesson. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” Jesus continues. “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? . . . So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Say, what? There he goes again. Give up all my possessions? My Land Rover? My golf clubs? Surely he would allow me to keep my membership at the Health Club?

Relax. Jesus doesn’t want you to sell all your possessions or to get rid of your family. Some of you may be in a mood to get rid of your family, but that impulse did not come from God.

A Michigan State University study reported that one third of four-and five-year-olds would give up their relationship with their dad for television. That’s terrible. But when you consider that the average employed American watches forty hours of television a week, you have to wonder if some mothers and fathers don’t love the idiot box more than they love their children.

After one couple returned home from a Family Life Marriage Conference, the husband immediately walked into the family room and unplugged the TV. With the cord dangling and wide-eyed kids in tow, he picked up the set and carried it to the garage.

In the empty place where the television had once stood, he hung a picture of the family. Their five-year-old son sat down on the floor, staring at the portrait. Then he looked up at his dad and asked, “Does this mean we’re going to become a family?” (2)

The last thing Jesus wants us to do is get rid of our families. But Jesus does want us to ask this question: where does my ultimate loyalty lie? And there are times when there can be a decided conflict between love for family, or love for possessions, and love for God.

There are still families in the world today where, if a son or a daughter were to become a Christian, the parents would disown this son or daughter and have no further contact with them. It would be as if they had died. You and I have it so easy. Our parents, most of them, were delighted, some overjoyed, when we committed our lives to Christ, but that is not universally true. Some people have had to say goodbye to family and friends forever when they decided to follow Jesus. You and I might ask if our commitment to Christ is that strong? Some of us, maybe most of us, will admit that it is not. We love the church, we support the budget, but do not ask us to decide between loyalty to those we love and our love for God. Fortunately that is not a choice that most of us will ever have to make, but the very harshness of Jesus’ words makes us pause and reflect on the question.

This is such an outrageous teaching–that we are to hate our families. I wonder–in light of our present world–what would Jesus say to us on this subject if he were here in the flesh today? He might say that it is not love for him that is causing us to hate our families today, but love for the world.

There was a story recently in Time magazine titled, “Does Kindergarten Need Cops?” It told of a study done by Partnership for Children, a child-advocacy group in Fort Worth, Texas. According to this study, angry outbursts and violence are on the rise today in kindergarten classrooms. That’s right, I said kindergarten. It appears to be a trend throughout the country. Ninety-three percent of the teachers who responded to the study said that they had seen an increase in emotional and behavioral problems in young children over the last five years.

What accounts for this trend? Violence in television and video games, perhaps. But many teachers and psychologists believe that a simple lack of family time may be the biggest contributor to the problem. Moms and dads are working longer hours; they don’t have as much time to spend with their children. It is in the simple rhythms of family life that children learn socialization skills. They learn the difference between right and wrong, they learn effective ways of coping with emotions and impulses, they learn self-control. As one veteran teacher says, “Kids aren’t getting enough lap time.” (3)

Now I certainly don’t want to heap guilt on working Moms and Dads. You have enough stress in your lives. But in today’s materialistic world we all have to guard against the belief that if we provide our children with nice things we are meeting their primary needs. Nice things will never compensate for loving attention. That’s the first thing Jesus might say to us. It is not loyalty to him that is the problem for most of us, it is loyalty to the world.

The second thing he would probably say to us is that loyalty to him usually produces more loyalty to those we love, not less. But there’s one last thing that must be said, in fairness to our text: If you ever have to make a choice, your first loyalty is to God.

Everything in this world belongs to God. Our possessions. Our bodies. Our hopes and dreams. Even those we love. Everything belongs to God. Here is where the rubber meets the road for most of us. It’s easy for us to be people of God. Too easy. We are like Job before he was afflicted. Remember the story. God says about Job: “Behold a righteous man.” And Satan says, “Of course, he is righteous. Look at all you’ve done for him.” And in this thought-provoking drama, God allows Satan to take away from Job everything that Job prizes–his wealth, his health and even those he loves. There he sits, the saddest man on earth, covered with boils, penniless, his children all dead. Never has a man suffered more than Job. But how does Job respond to this devastation? Remember? His wife tells him to curse God and die. But here is how Job responds. When word comes to Job that his children have died in a great wind that devastated their house, we read these words: “Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.'” Later, when everything he has prized is gone, including his health, Job says, “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

Did Job hate his family? No. Did he hate his vast possessions? No. Did he hate his own body? No. But he loved God more.

How about you? It’s a choice that hopefully you and I will never have to make. Usually it is the world that comes between us and those who are dear to us, not Christ. Usually love for Christ causes us to be more loyal to our families, not less. However, if there is ever a time when we must make a choice, let us be able to say, with Job, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

A little boy asked his grandfather how old he was.  The grandfather replied, “39 and holding.”  The boy thought about this for a moment, and then asked, “How old would you be if you let go?” I invite you to let go of those things that keep you faithful to the Lord and then let your faith to our Lord transform and enrich you. Again, “blessed be the name of the Lord.” Amen

1. CNN.com, “Oh brother! Paper bungles woman’s ad,” Feb. 11, 2004, International Edition.

2. Denis Rainey, The Tribute (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishes, 1994), pp. 274-275.

3. Claudia Wallis, Time, December 15, 2003 p. 53.

“What will My Friends Think?”

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, September 1, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Imagine this situation, if you will: a husband comes home from work on a Friday night, say the Friday of Labor Day weekend. And as he drives into the driveway, he sees that there is a rented tent in the back yard. Under the tent are tables and chairs for about forty people. A bandstand and dance floor are assembled in one corner of the tent. Paper lanterns are hanging all around. Now mind you, none of this was there when the husband left for work that morning! Seeing all these preparations and having them come as a surprise, what do you think the husband might think?

A first reaction from some husbands might be one of panic: “Good Lord! It’s our anniversary, and somehow I’ve forgotten! And, look at the preparations! It must be one of the big ones!” But, assuming he does some quick arithmetic and realizes it isn’t their twentieth or thirtieth or fortieth, he might continue thinking, “I guess all this must be for a Labor Day party, which I forgot.”

Then imagine the husband walking into the back yard to find his wife furiously basting a dozen chickens and discovering a pile of choice steaks in a cooler nearby. What might he think then? Probably, “This one’s going to cost me a bundle!”

Then suppose his wife looks up, smiles sweetly and asks, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Now his guess might have been: “Relatives, longtime friends, neighbors and business associates.” But before he can respond, she answers: “I’ve invited twenty homeless men and women from the Homeless Shelter, a family of boat people from Haiti, and all the residents of a group home. Don’t worry, dear, you won’t know a soul. And best of all, not a single one is likely to ever pay us back!”

Given that situation, how do you think the husband might react? Don’t you think he might think his dear wife was behaving a bit oddly?

Yet, God bless her, she would only be literally following the words of Jesus: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12b-14, NRSV).

Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Jesus overturns the world’s values. For one thing, we generally stick to entertaining people in our own “social circle,” people we know. And, one invitation to dinner often is reciprocated with another invitation to dinner.

That reminds me of Oscar Levant, the pianist and author who, with his wife June, received an invitation to the White House to dine with the Trumans. As they left Harry and Bess at the White House door, Levant turned to his wife and said, with resignation, “Now I suppose we have to have them over for dinner.”

Jesus isn’t saying that it’s wrong to want to entertain our family and friends. That’s perfectly natural. And this passage is about more than just how to make out a guest list for dinner.

No, Jesus is encouraging us to engage in what one writer calls “disinterested charity.” We are being asked to give of ourselves, our time, energy, talents and treasure, and not look for any reward. To some extent, what Jesus proposes is like that bumper sticker that says: Practice Random Acts Of Kindness And Senseless Acts Of Beauty. Have you seen it? A random act of kindness would be something like driving North on 81 on the way to New York and stopping at the toll booth, there are plenty of them when you get to New Jersey. And then paying for the next five drivers behind you in line. Can you imagine the looks on the faces of the next five drivers when they are told to “Have a nice day, the toll is already paid!”

What Jesus is proposing has that kind of spirit, but goes even further — for what Jesus is calling for is more than just an occasional act of kindness done for a stranger. This passage encourages us to make a special place in our hearts for the disenfranchised, for those on the margins of society, for the broken, weak, and poor. “When you give a dinner,” Jesus says, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” In other words, have a “soft spot” in your heart for anyone who is needy, and do good for them, without expecting any “pay off” in return.

Why? The whole Gospel passage for this Sunday has to do with humility. The first parable, the parable of the Guests at the Wedding Feast, reminds us of the dangers in thinking too much of ourselves. Those who try to build themselves up, like the pushy guest at the wedding feast, get “put down.”

But the second parable, the parable about who to invite to dinner, is also about humility. I think we are called to reach out to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” because at various times, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind are us. Perhaps we’re not financially poor. But we can be “poor in spirit,” grieving or confused or angry or lonely or discouraged. And we may not be crippled physically. But sometimes we’re crippled emotionally. And, while most of us have our sight, we can be “blind” about various aspects of our lives, like how much we’re hurting someone who’s near us. Jesus wants us to give generously of our time, our treasure, and our talent to the needy. And he wants us to do so in humility, realizing that we’re needy ourselves.

Imagine, if you would, one of the angels returning from a hard day’s work, doing whatever angels do in heaven. Imagine that angel coming back to see Jesus, Heaven’s Delight, God’s only beloved Son, working hard to prepare a feast. It’s a spiritual banquet, an offering of every good thing God can give: joy and peace and satisfaction and grace and forgiveness of sins.

Imagine Jesus looking up at the angel and smiling and saying, “Guess who’s coming to dinner!” And, when the angel shakes his head and says, “I don’t know, Lord,” Jesus continues: “I’ve invited sinners. I’ve invited anyone who’s ever broken God’s laws. I’ve invited husbands and wives who have betrayed each other. I’ve invited children who have let their parents down. I’ve invited parents who feel like they have failed their children. I’ve invited people who have subjected their bodies to all kinds of abuse. I’ve invited those who are twisted up inside, crippled by all kinds of painful memories. I’ve invited those whose eyes are blind to other people’s pain. I’ve invited people who say they love me, but whose actions deny me. I’ve invited all the people who, in any way, have ever failed me. I’ve invited anyone who has ever done anything that sent me to the cross.”

“Why, Lord? Why?” asks the angel. “Why would you invite those people? How could they possibly deserve you? How could they pay you back?”

“They can’t,” responds Jesus. “But still, I love them. And I understand their hunger. And I hope that once they have been fed, they might just be moved to feed somebody else. You see, there’s a world down there full of people who are poor and crippled and lame and blind and lonely and hungry. In fact, they’re all poor or crippled or lame or blind in some way. It’s a world that needs to be loved with my kind of love. The kind of love that keeps on giving and doesn’t count the cost.”

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” In other words, give to others who can’t pay you back. Look for nothing in return. Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. Do so out of humility, realizing you are poor and needy yourself, but that you already have been fed at the Table of Christ. And then, says Jesus, “You will be blessed.”

“An Awesome Calling”

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, August 25, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Avenue Christian Church

Twenty-five young teenagers are sitting at their desks in the classroom, minds focused on anything and everything except the complex algebra problem that their teacher is writing on the board. Suddenly, their reverie is broken by the word of the teacher: “I need a volunteer to come to the board and solve this simple binomial equation.” Immediately, students become deeply involved with books under their desks. Pencils suddenly drop to the floor. Eyes become engrossed on a page, any page, in textbooks. No one dares look at the teacher. “Jerry, what about you?” asks the teacher. “I know you can do it.”

Jerry’s heart sinks to the bottom of his new high-top shoes. “Why me?” he thinks. “I can’t do this. I’ll be humiliated in front of everybody. I can’t do this. That teacher has it in for me for no reason.” Jerry rapidly sorts through his mental file of excuses: bad back, flu, torn hamstring muscle, chalk allergy, dentist appointment. None seem appropriate. Jerry slowly drags himself to the board. “Come on, Jerry. I’ll be up here with you,” encourages his teacher. “We’ll go through this together.” Jerry picks up the chalk. His mind goes blank. Poor Jerry.

We know that sinking feeling all too well. Each of us has been challenged to accomplish a task that seemed to require more of us than we thought we were able to give. Each of us has a prepared list of reasonable excuses for just such occasions. Each of us, like Jerry, remembers times in which refusal was not an option.

This is precisely what happened to another young boy named Jerry. Actually it was Jeremiah, about 627 B.C. in a small town just three miles northeast of Jerusalem. It was not the words of an algebra teacher that startled Jeremiah. It was the word of the Lord, in Hebrew Dabar Adonai. It was not a call to solve a complex math problem that Jeremiah resisted. It was a call to be a prophet to nations in great political, military, and religious turmoil (v. 4). It was not a call to stay in the classroom. It was a call to “go wherever I send you and speak whatever I command you” (v. 7).

As the son of a priest, Jeremiah was expected to enter the priesthood like his dad.   The priests were the bridge between the people and God.  Priests taught the Law and guarded the covenant between Israel and God.  They offered incense and offerings on God’s altar on behalf of the people.  They sacrificed animals as an act of atonement for the people’s sins. Although the priesthood required a huge amount of work and responsibility, the position had its perks too.  Priests were highly respected. They had an honorable and secure place in society.  The people usually took good care of their priests.

But Jeremiah never got to experience the joys of the priesthood.  God had other plans for his life.  When he was just a young man, about twenty years old, Jeremiah was called to be a prophet–a much less cushy job by every measure.  Nobody likes prophets. They tell us the stuff we don’t want to hear–they tell us we’re sinners, they tell us we’ve got to look after the poor, they tell us that we’re selling out1 to the popular culture, and if we don’t turn ourselves around RIGHT NOW and obey God, then we’re in for a–well, let’s just say it’s not a pretty picture.  This is not at all the type of ministry that Jeremiah was looking forward to.

Has God ever done that to you?  Changed your plans in midstream?  Shaken you up and turned you around and set you on an unexpected road?  Or has God ever called you to do something you were absolutely, positively sure you just couldn’t do?  What was your excuse?  We see Jeremiah’s excuses: I’m too young, I wouldn’t know what to say.  Jeremiah’s excuses are no different from our excuses; the bottom line is we all have the chutzpah to tell God that He’s wrong.

But listen to what God tells Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Wow!  What an awesome charge.  And then, in the following verses, God promises to be with Jeremiah and equip him for the task.  Jeremiah would need those words of assurance.  As a prophet, he would be mocked, humiliated, beaten, imprisoned, and threatened with death.  And yet, Jeremiah never once gave up.  He lived to see his prophecies fulfilled and his name vindicated.  But what kept him going?  I believe when Jeremiah was at his lowest point, locked deep in a dungeon, without human contact, abandoned by everyone, he remembered these words,  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”  He was special, he had a purpose, and he was not alone.

A few years back, a company called Yankelovich Partners conducted a nationwide survey, the basis of which was one question:  If you could ask God one question, what would it be?  One-third of the people said if they had an audience with God, they would ask why they were put here on earth. (1)  In other words, what is their purpose in life? Would that be your question?

This passage, applied to your life and mine, tells us that we have a purpose in life  too.  You are not an accident.  You were made and “set apart” for a very important task: to glorify God and reflect His image to others. Does that mean you have to go into the professional ministry?  No.  Does that mean you have to give up your job and spend all your time in prayer and Bible study?  Not hardly.  Maybe you glorify God through your position as a parent, a special ed teacher, a stockbroker, a data entry clerk, a nurse, a spouse or a mechanic.

Someone wrote in to the “Ask Marilyn” column in Parade Magazine (July 30, 2000) and asked her to answer the age-old question: what is the purpose of our life?  The questioner included his own opinion that the purpose of each individual’s life is to pursue his or her own happiness and fulfillment, regardless of the means of reaching this goal.  Marilyn, who is listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest recorded IQ in the world, replied this way.  Fortunately, this brilliant lady was wise enough not to give an answer.  Instead, she turned the whole question around.  She wrote that if there is an intelligent Creator and a plan behind the creation of the universe, then our purpose is decided by our Creator.  But if there is no intelligent Creator behind the universe, if it all happened as the Big Bang theory says, then there is no ultimate purpose in life.(2)

Did you get that?  If there is no God or if we live as if there is no God, then there is no purpose to our life.  But, if there is a Creator, then there is a purpose to it all. That’s good news!  There is a purpose to our lives.  We were made to glorify God.

A little boy came home from church looking visibly upset.  His mother asked what was wrong. “We learned a stupid song in Sunday School today.” “What was the song?” the mother asked. “It says Jesus wants us to be his sunbeam.” “What’s stupid about that?” said the mother. “Because,” the little boy fumed, “I don’t want to be a sunbeam.  I want to be a truck driver.”

Don’t buy into the idea that serving God is an either/or situation.  You can be a truck driver and be Jesus’ sunbeam at the same time.  No matter where you are in life, you have a holy and awesome purpose for living.  Never forget that.

The second thing this passage tells us is that we are special.  God knows us.  God loves us.  So few of us are really known.  We wear masks so much in life that no one around us truly knows who we are.  And, sadly, we also wear those masks when no one else is around.  We often don’t really know ourselves.  Deep inside, we think if someone really knew us, they wouldn’t love us.  But check out the first verse of this passage: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart . . . ” God really knows you, not just the clean and shiny version of yourself that you present to the world, but the real you.  He knew you long before you even had the consciousness to know yourself.  And He loves you.  As someone once said, “God could not love you more, and He will not love you less.”  You are special.

I was greeting our members after church one Sunday when one of our women came up to me and caught me in a big hug.  She was crying as she whispered in my ear, “Don’t ever stop telling us that we matter to God because it’s changed my life.” It’s true; you matter to God.  And if you really, truly believe that, it will change your life too.

And finally, if we apply this passage to our lives, we learn the great truth that we are never alone.  Admit it: there are times when you think God just created you and then dropped you into this cold and lonely world and left you here to fend for yourself.  That was Jeremiah’s first fear when God called him to be a prophet.  That’s why he made excuses.  He thought that God was calling him to this harsh and difficult job under his own power.  But Jeremiah was never meant to perform under his own power.  God promised him that he would be equipped with God’s power, with God’s protection.  He even gave him the very words to say.  The job of prophet is a lonely job.  That’s why God told Jeremiah from the very beginning that He would never leave him alone.

Max Lucado wrote a cute-sounding, thought-provoking devotional about how much we mean to God.  It’s called, “If God Had a Refrigerator.”

If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If He had a wallet, your photo would be in it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, He’ll listen. He can live anywhere in the universe, and He chose your heart. What about the Christmas gift He sent you in Bethlehem;  not to mention that Friday at Calvary. Face it, friend. He’s crazy about you. (3)

That’s why God sent Jesus, God’s self in human form.  Jesus came to preach the good news that we are special, that we are loved, that we have a purpose, that we are not alone—-that God is crazy about us.  And if you believe it, if you really, truly believe it, it will change your life.

(1) From: The Oregonian, Copyright (c) 1999, http://www.oregonlive.com/oregonian/obuff==er.ssf

(2) “Ask Marilyn” by Marilyn vos Savant, Parade Magazine July 30, 2000, p. 7.

(3) A Gentle Thunder–Hearing God Through the Storm by Max Lucado  (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1995).

“Staying Focused”

Hebrews 12:1-2

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, August 18, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Ave Christian Church

The hardest thing I had to learn during flight instruction was how to land the airplane. Takeoffs were a breeze. Maneuvering in the air was a charm. But landings—that took hours of hard work and practice. What finally got me over the “hump” was when my flight instructor noticed that I was looking at the wrong place on the runway. His advice to me made all the difference and finally I was able to “flare” and land the plane with no difficulty. He noted that I should be focused on the distant end of the runway instead of the point where the plane was to actually touch down. That little bit of change of focus made all the difference in the world and soon after that I was able to fly solo.

In our scripture today we are reminded to stay focused on our Lord Jesus Christ. The writer also mentions several heroes of the faith. There is a bit of double-edged sword here. The great heroes of the Word can point us to Jesus, the perfecter of our faith. Or they can get in the way.

One way to not let the great personages of the Bible not get in the way is to recognize that they are very human people, just like us. I do not think they would have seen themselves as heroes. But it is through their faithfulness, spiritual persistence and commitment to the things of God that rightly makes them so. It was not always the case for them, however.

If we could have “law enforcement” pull up their records and let us take a look at their “rap sheets,” or maybe NSA check their emails, wawe might see them in a different light. Adam and Eve stole a few pieces of fruit from the local vendor and, when questioned, couldn’t keep their stories straight. Moses was a murderer and had to flee the country. Samson fell for Delilah and what a fall it was, losing all his strength. David had his eyes focused on the inappropriate. He just had to have Bathsheba. If we were to look at our modern day heroes we would likely see similar stories.

Every hero is human. Unfortunately, we have this practice of building up our human heroes and then tearing them apart because they’re human. Fortunately, the writer of Hebrews is a lot more gracious. He reminds us that God is accepting. I like the way Jesus put it, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” So if you are looking for a hero, take Jesus’ perspective on it. Jesus accepts our humanity. He is our friend. We can lean on him. We can place our whole faith in him.

I love the story of John G. Paton, missionary and Bible interpreter that was trying to translate the New Testament into the language of the natives of the New Hebrides. Paton was a pioneer missionary to the New Hebrides. Dr. Paton discovered that while the natives had words for house, tree, stone, and so on, they had no words for love, joy, and peace. They had no word for believe. One day as he sat in his hut filled with frustration, an old native entered and slumped down in a chair. Exhausted from a long journey, the man said, “I’m leaning my whole weight on this chair.” “What did you say?” asked Dr. Paton. The man repeated, “I’m leaning my whole weight on this chair.” Dr. Paton cried, “That’s it!” And from that day on for that primitive tribe, “Believe in Jesus” became “Lean your whole weight on Jesus.”

We also have that old hymn “Cast your eyes upon Jesus…look full in his wonderful face….” Looking to Jesus, the perfecter of our faith, gives us the appropriate focus and perspective.

Yes, our human heroes end up a little too human. It is all too easy to be disappointed by them. But there is one we can look to and focus on that will never disappoint us. Jesus alone is worthy of absolute trust. As Hebrews 12:2 urges, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus!” I’m still trying to learn how to play golf. Like flying, as soon as I learn the appropriate focus, I’m sure my game will improve. As Christians we are called to focus on our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christians focus on Jesus as the perfect pattern for faith and life. The bracelets that many wear that say WWJD represent the kind of questions we need to ask. What would Jesus do about it? What would he say about it? By asking those kinds of questions we can be “Christian” in the best sense, that is a representative of Jesus the Christ. There is a catch here, though. If you are going to answer those questions you better know your Bible and have a sound prayer life. Otherwise you end up projecting your own thought and feelings into the answer.

Jesus represents a model for us in our lifestyle and behavior. But more than that, the writer of Hebrews loudly proclaims the truth that Jesus is our savior. We are saved by the one who is called the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Jesus becomes our greatest Hero. He loved us so much that he endured the cross, setting aside it’s shame, and died for us that we might live forever. This is God’s free gift to us.

In Hebrews we find our Christian life compared to a race, a hard race. It’s not hard for us to relate to this today as we read of the athletes who have conquered great odds to become champions.

If only we would run the race Jesus talks about with such passion! The truth is, we can! We can run the race of faith! We can run that race because Jesus has gone on before us. He has won the prize for us already. God’s kingdom is ours. We are spurred on by those great heroes of the faith who become, though imperfect, our examples of how to hang in there in faith. And we, like them, can answer God’s call and take on our Lord Jesus Christ. We can become Christ-like in that sense—living for others as Jesus did.

Today’s scripture should be encouraging to us. It calls us to be all that God has called us to be. Some of us may have trouble with running in the literal sense. But with Christ we can soar! We can mount up as with Eagles wings. With Christ, God dwells in each of us, in our heart and in our very soul. With Christ we are called to let the light of God show in our every day lives.

The importance of keeping one’s eyes ahead when running was powerfully illustrated for me years ago when I was attending a high school track meet. The most highly anticipated race of that track meet was the 440 relay. There were four teams competing, and two teams in particular had excellent beginnings. The runners for these teams got out of the blocks well, and other teams received solid performances from their second and third runners. In fact, as the leading teams turned the corner for the home stretch, they were neck and neck. The deciding factor for the race would be the performance of each team’ s anchorman.

The exchange of the baton is crucial. The anchorman for one of the teams, in the heat of the moment, looked back, consequently messing up the timing of the third runner who was handing him the baton, and there was a fumbled exchange. The anchorman for the other team, however, kept his eyes straight ahead and began slowly building momentum. Approaching the anchorman, the runner of the third leg hollered, “Stick!” which is the exclamation that occurs during the exchange of the baton. When the third runner yelled, “Stick!” this was the signal to the fourth runner, not to look back, but simply to stick his hand back and receive the baton. The exchange of the baton was flawless, and that team won the race. The key to victory lay in the anchorman’s ability to keep his eyes on what was before him.

Let us keep our focus! May we know that the Grace of God is sufficient for us.  May we  join that great cloud of witnesses, and run the race with Jesus pulling us through. Jesus not only goes before us; he leads us and sets an appropriate pace. Let’s keep our focus! Let us follow Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith!

“LET’S SEE WHAT THIS BABY WILL DO!”

Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11

Twelveth Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle C, August 11, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ Winchester Ave Christian Church

Here is comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s description of life. It reminds me of some of the rides we encountered last month at Disney World: “Life is truly a ride. We’re all strapped in and no one can stop it.  As you make each passage from youth to adulthood to maturity, sometimes you put your arms up and scream, sometimes you just hang on to that bar in front of you.  But the ride is the thing.  I think the most you can hope for at the end of life is that your hair’s messed up, you’re out of breath, and you didn’t throw up!” (1)

While most of us would not describe the life of faith that way, maybe we should.  Too often we have domesticated Christianity until it is seen as dull.  One of the big criticisms of worship that you hear from young people is that is boring.  But biblical faith was certainly not boring.  The Bible tells all kinds of stories of faith that are filled with adventure and excitement.  We need to help others understand the adventure of faith’s journey.  Maybe we also need to rediscover some of that excitement ourselves.

I read a story about a minister who was shopping for a Harley Davidson motorcycle.  The salesman talked about speed, acceleration, risk, and how women love to go for a ride on them.  Then the salesman found out the guy he was selling to was a minister.  Immediately, his language and tone of voice changed.  He spoke quietly about good mileage, visibility and how practical it was.  The minister wrote this:

“Have we told the world that being a Christian is more like riding a lawn mower than a motorcycle?  Is the life of faith more safe and sound or dangerous and exciting? ….  The common image of the church is pure lawnmower – slow, deliberate, plodding.  Our task is to take the church out on the open road, give it the gas, and see what this baby will do!”  (2)

As a culture, we are big believers in stability and security. We believe in home ownership and steadily rising property values. We believe in broad-based investment portfolios that cover all the contingencies of market fluxuation. We believe in managing our careers so that we maximize our options and position ourselves to achieve our financial goals.

We teach our children how to succeed in school because we believe that the

surest path for their stable success is through education. We believe in insurance. We believe in organization.  We believe in having a solid business plan with focused goals that are measurable and attainable.

But we need to be careful.  If we focus so much on security we may abandon a “motorcycle faith” and settle for “lawn mower living.”  If those become the source of our security and the things we treasure, our heart may be empty.

Do you remember the perspective offered in the book of Ecclesiastes? The author starts out that book saying, “Vanity of vanities!   All is vanity.”  By vanity he means emptiness.  He said that he has tried everything, and nothing was of value; it’s all hollow – like trying to catch wind (1:14).  According to the author of Ecclesiastes, it is futile to look for satisfaction in money (5:10); possessions (2:40-11); pleasure (2:1); alcohol (2:3); new things (1:10); power (4:13-16); work (2:20-23); study (12:12); women (7:28); youth (11:10); or age (12:1).

Searching for meaning in those things can anesthetize us spiritually.  It can lead us astray from the place where we find real meaning.  It can put our heart in the wrong place.

The final advice of the author of Ecclesiastes is to turn to God: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.”   Jesus says the same thing in our Gospel text.  For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”  Jesus calls us to treasure and value God above all things.  God is to be number one in our life.  Following God may mean that some times we leave behind some of those things we think of as offering us security.  Following God may mean we get off our plodding lawn mower, get on our motorcycle of faith and see what that baby will do!

One of our texts today is from Hebrews. It has this wonderful line: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  It is awfully hard to trust in something you can’t see and yet Abraham and Sarah did.  They lived out their lives on a promise.  God tells them to leave behind all the security they have known and go to a new land.

Where are they going?  God only says, “I will show you.” Why are they leaving?  Because they believe that somehow God is going to bless them and make a great nation.

They are old.  The plan is a long shot.  Whole pages in this business plan are simply blank, but they start out anyway.  Faith is like that, it is a journey, it’s a motorcycle ride.

From humble beginnings in Alabama, Millard Fuller rose to become a young, self-made millionaire at age 29.  Despite having a successful business and a pile of possessions, his life was empty and his marriage was dying.  Fuller decided to re-evaluate his values and direction.  His “soul-searching” led to reconciliation with his wife and to a renewal of his Christian commitment.

The Fullers then took a drastic step: they decided to sell all of their possessions, give the money to the poor, and begin searching for a new focus for their lives.  They started Habitat for Humanity.  Fuller says, “I see life as both a gift and a responsibility.  My responsibility is to use what God has given me to help His people in need.”  (3)  Fuller has found this new direction for his life to be life-giving and it has been life-giving for the millions who have become involved in Habitat since it began in 1976. That is a motorcycle faith instead of “lawn mower living.” I’m thrilled that our youngest daughter, a public school teacher, dedicates her summers to directing international builds of Habitat.

What makes people like Fuller do that?  Are they somehow “super religious?”   Most of the people who are drafted into the adventure of faith in the Bible aren’t any more religious than anyone else.  Abraham and Sarah were ordinary people.  Joseph and Mary were ordinarily the kind of people you never hear anything about.  Moses, David, Ruth – in every case, there is nothing in the biblical stories about them to suggest that they were more pious, prayed harder, or had some unique divine connection that the rest of us don’t have.

Scripture seems to go out of it’s way to suggest the opposite.  They were ordinary people who made mistakes and committed sins, just like we do.  They were just trying to get on with their lives like the rest of us, when suddenly, in quite an unexpected, unwanted, unanticipated way they are called to make a decision, to open a door to the future, to take a risk and jump.  They are called to get off their lawn mower and get on their Harley and roar off on a ride of faith.  And they did it, reluctantly sometimes, but they did it.  When God called Moses, God received a full chapter of kvetching from Moses – every reason under the sun why he shouldn’t go to Pharaoh and plead God’s case.  But he went.  He did it.

Sometimes we put Abraham, Moses and others on a pedestal and begin to think that such a faith is far beyond us.  One example of this is the story of the three-year-old fiddling with a toy trumpet, as she watched television.  The program featured a highly skilled musician who played a fabulous trumpet solo.  The little girl listened intently to the whole song.  Then she held up her own toy trumpet, and said to her Mother, “Mine doesn’t have that kind of music in it.”  (4)

Some of us can relate to that.  When we compare our own faith journey to that of Abraham and other Bible heroes, it gives us pause.   We felt pretty self-satisfied until we heard what real music sounds like.  And we usually forget that faith can grow, if we only nurture it, and if we are willing to trust totally in God.

Such faith will not let us rest in the security of our jobs or our possessions or our pension plan, because after all those things are not as secure as we would like.  Steady plodding, “lawn mower living”, leads to emptiness.  It is “vanity” It is like chasing the wind.  We are called to more.  Like the author of Ecclesiastes, we are called to discover that true meaning is found in our relationship with God.

Taking risks is not easy.  Acting out our faith takes courage.  But that is what we are called to do.  In his book, “The Purpose Driven Church”, Pastor Rick Warren says, “You only believe the part of the Bible that you do.” Millard Fuller says, “It’s not your blue blood, your pedigree or your college degree.  It’s what you do with your life that counts.”

These texts call us to evaluate our lives and our priorities. Are we into security and possessions? What do we treasure? Where is our heart?

Are we living the adventure of faith like we were on a riding lawn mower or are we Harley riding, wind in the face, kind of Christians?

Abraham, Moses and other biblical characters were common ordinary folks. They simply answered God’s call.  We don’t have to be Millard Fuller.  But we are called to be people of faith just as we are.  We are called to put our faith into action.  We are called to play the music God gave us in our trumpet.

Jesus calls us to put our faith into action in our everyday lives. That is why he assures us that God will be with us and will care for us.  He says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  We do not need to be afraid to act in faith because we are following Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  He is with us to hold our hand.  His Holy Spirit dwells within us to give us courage and strength.  God has given him the victory over all things and as his people that victory is promised to us.

All of us take risks at times.  We would never have or do anything if we didn’t.  Helen Keller got it right when she said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”  Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky put it this way, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”  Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.”  (5)

So get off that riding lawnmower, climb on the Harley of faith and ride! Feel the wind in your face.  Let your hair get messed up.  Explore.  Dream. Discover that, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Amen.

1. The Clergy Journal – Volume LXXVII, Number 7, May/June 2001 – p. 37

2. Ibid.

3. http://www.habitat.org/how/millard.html

4. Paul Rooney, PRCL list

5. The Clergy Journal – Ibid

THE FOLLOWING SERMON WAS GIVEN AT VESPERS SERVICE AT WAR MEMORIAL PARK

“Speaking to our Fears” Luke 12:32-40

Twelvth Sunday After Pentecost, Cycle C, August 11, 2013

Rev. Ben C. Manning @ War Memorial Park, Martinsburg, WV

I saw a news item on TV Friday night that really grabbed me. In Missouri, last Sunday there was a serious auto accident. A 19 year old college student, Katie Lentz was pinned in her car, trapped, seriously injured and the firemen could not get her out. After 45 minutes the nearly unconscious Katie said in a week voice…. “Pray for me.”  A man stepped forward and said “I’ll pray for you.” He appeared to be a priest. He offered a blessing and disappeared just as quickly as he arrived.

He sprinkled Holy Water on Katie and the rescue workers. Suddenly everyone seemed calm. Some claimed to hear a voice telling them exactly what to do to extract Katie. A helicopter arrived to take her to a hospital where she is recovering.  The fire chief said: “I think it was miracle. I would say whether it was an angel that was sent to us in the form of a priest or a priest that became our angel, I don’t know. Either way, I’m good with it.”

No one had seen the man before or after. Among the  70 pictures taken before, during and after the recovering an cleanup, the man does not appear in any of them.  Where did he come from? Katie said “Pray for me.” Someone steps forward and does that and something creative and amazing happens. Was it an angel? Do you believe in angels? Was it the power of faith?

Jesus told the disciples to relax and enjoy life as it comes to them. We know most of his words by heart: “… do not be anxious about your life … which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? … Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin….” The underlying message is the idea of “Let go, and let God.” In a children’s sermon last week I illustrated that by talking about the monkey that put his hand through the hole in the melon to get the seeds he loved to eat. He wouldn’t let go of the seeds, no matter what. So he couldn’t get his hand out of the melon and was captured. Let go and let God!

Perhaps it is the very thought of “letting go” that stirs up all of our fears and anxieties. Where is the safety net out there if we truly let go and let God? It is no wonder then that Jesus quickly adds these words in his discourse “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Lk. 12:32).

Let’s try to put ourselves in the position of the disciples. What would we be afraid of? We begin to get in touch with the feelings we get when we are called to move into a new direction. When we are called to leap out into the great unknown in faith. The kind of churning we feel in our “guts” when we are in the midst of transition or new decisions. We have certainly been there, haven’t we? Moving from high school to the college scene. Beginning a new job. Asking a beloved to marry you or saying “yes” to the proposal. Deciding that you want to bring children into the world. Setting the date for retirement from your life-long profession. We could go on and on about ways we get caught up in transition, change and the like. We know what it is like to be on the edge of taking “the plunge.”

So the disciples were scared. Just like we would be. Just like we usually are. And Jesus’ suggestion to them was just as scary.  They were being asked to make their lives totally dependent on God. It’s like the man who was foolishly mountain climbing by himself. He fell off the cliff and on the way down reached out at grabbed the root of a scrub tree that was growing out of the cliff face. Hanging there he shouted “Help…is anybody there.” Then came a voice that said. “This is the Lord. Just put your trust in my hands. Let go and I will save you…”  After a momentary pause, the man shouted back…”Is there anybody else up there…?” Such a prospect of trust can be frightening.  So Jesus offers his encouragement: “Fear not, little flock. It is the father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (vs. 32).

The philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, called it “the leap of faith.” The obvious reason for our fear of taking such a leap is that we trust in our own assets and abilities more than we do in God’s promises.

In her book called Dakota, Kathleen Norris, a best-selling writer and poet, relates how she and her husband moved away from the heady excitement and stability of New York City to one of the most remote towns in America, Lemmon, South Dakota. She writes how most of her friends were shocked by their contemplated move. But Kathleen Norris subtitled her book “A Spiritual Geography,” because it was in that sparse location that she found her own spirit more than ever. In Lemmon, South Dakota, she blossomed as the person and writer she suspected she could be. Most of her self-discovery was pleasing and would have been impossible had she insisted on remaining in the “safe” literary environment of New York. (1) Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” People experience this when we take the “leap.” What are we afraid of?

We find so much comfort and strength packed in these words. In sixteen little words we find an incredible description of God, a description of a relationship we can have with God that can surely take away our fears, regardless of our situation. Let’s take a quick look at the three understandings about God that we see packed into these words.

“Fear not little flock…” Here we are reminded that the “Lord” is our shepherd. If we are the flock then we have a dependable God who shepherds us. How beautiful are all the images of the shepherd that we have in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. We see this in David’s Shepherd Psalm. We see it in the beautiful “I am” statements of Jesus. “I am the Good Shepherd.”  We have this wonderful vision of being taken care of. Of God’s sacrifice for us and on our behalf. We can picture our Lord bedding down in the door of the sheepfold so that nothing can get in to harm us. This should speak to our fears… “Fear not little flock…”

“It is your father’s good pleasure…” We have here the wonderful view of our Lord as a “parent” to us. A parent in the best sense of parenthood. Whether we view God as father or mother we begin to understand God as nurturing and loving as a parent nurtures and loves. We see a God that wants only the best for us. I grieve for those who have not had exemplary earthly fathers and mothers and who have difficulty with this imagery about God. But again, let’s take that “leap.” God loves us as a heavenly parent and wants only what is good for us. “Fear not little flock. It is the father’s good pleasure…”

“To give you the kingdom.” If God is to give us “the kingdom,” it suggests a further role of God in our lives…that of King. The Lord is all powerful and rules over all things. We are given a promise here. Jesus promises that the kingdom is a domain where God’s grace and abundance can be experienced by his disciples. As humans we tend to limit our view to what is only going on right now. God is both King and offers us a kingdom. God gives us a promise. What a wonderful way of overcoming our fears of taking the “leap of faith.” “Fear not little flock. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

It is in this context that Jesus wants us to be “ready.” He says, “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home …” (vv. 35-36). Then he adds, “You also must be ready” (v. 40). What are we to be ready for? The usual transitions and changes that we must experience in life. Well, that could be. God can certainly help us through our changes and transitions. Ready for the end? There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus wants us to be prepared for our “end.” Notice that he concludes this text with the words, “… the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (v. 40). Jesus is saying that we should be prepared for any and all of the surprising transitions and opportunities of life — for those unplanned times when challenges and alternatives of life are thrust upon us.

Let go and let God. Take the leap. We need to do this in the midst of physical illness. We need to do this when seeking ways to live out our future.  We need to do this when facing issues around aging. We need to do this when discovering how to fill our time. We need to do this when facing issues of death and dying. Let go and let God! “Fear not little flock, it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Like the mysterious priest, be willing to be an angel for someone.  And like Katie, be willing to open your life to let God work within you and through you.  AMEN!

It’s a classic children’s story told time and time again. A little boy is asked by his kindergarten teacher where his heart is.  He points to the seat of his pants. “Why do you say that is where your heart is?” asks the kindergarten teacher. “Because,” said the little boy, “My grandmother is always patting me there and saying, ‘Bless your little heart.'” (2) There is no more relevant question that we can ask than this one: “Where is your heart?”

Toward the end of today’s reading we find the summation of Jesus teaching in this section. In verse 34, Jesus says in summary: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  May we fear not. May we take the leap. May we take up the cross and follow him. “Fear not, little flock. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

(1) As related by Richard W. Pratt in The Fear Of Taking The Plunge

(2) Dynamic Preaching, August 12, 2001.

10 Responses to View Sunday’s Sermon

  1. Helen Thompson says:

    I love this feature.
    Helen

  2. Thanks, Helen. I’ve had many requests from our folks to post my sermons on the web site. I hope this proves to be helpful for those who want to hear it again, compare with their notes, or for those who happen to miss church. I’m glad there is this interest. I truly enjoy your musical contributions each Sunday, especially your occasional solos. Too bad I can’t figure out a way to get those on our web site. Maybe in time….. Pastor Ben

  3. David Shreeves says:

    The sermon Aprl 21 is “all about Jesus” and our relationship to Him—no theme or emphasis can be more important than that. THANKS for believing and preaching the same GOSPEL as revealed in the sacred writings of the Bible! — David Shreeves, a retired minister who started
    every Sunday preaching 67 years ago.

    • Thank you for your feedback, David. Coming from an experienced and caring minister such as yourself it means a lot! Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Pastor Ben

  4. Sharolyn Smith says:

    Pastor Ben this is great. I heard somewhere if you hear it and you read it, you will retain
    it much easier! Thank you for all of your tireless work with our Church.

    Sharolyn

  5. Janice Manning says:

    These sermons are fabulous dad! It is great to be able to read your sermons, even though I’m not able to hear them on Sundays. I love the reference to Millard Fullerb and Habitat for Humanity. Such a great example of taking a risk and living a life of faith.

    Janice

  6. Sharolyn Smith says:

    Once again, I love this feature. I was in the nursery Sunday so was unable to hear the
    sermon and my memory forgot about the “Park Vesper Service”. How wonderful to be
    able to keep up with your sermons, though they are much better in person as you
    have a knack for delivering the message.

  7. I’m so glad you take the time to look at our web site and read the sermons on this link. I will try to keep the current each week. See you Sunday! Pastor Ben

  8. Hi there everyone, it’s my first go to see at this website, and
    piece of writing is actually fruitful designed
    for me, keep up posting such articles.

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