Monday, March 30, 2009

Project Christmas Smile Is Coming

Dearest Members of Cove,

Hello! I hope you are all enjoying this Lenten season by reconnecting with Christ and all of the blessed wonders our Lord has bestowed upon us. Although Easter is definately our "holiday priority" right now, I am writing to invite each of you to participate in a matter that is close to my heart...Project Christmas Smile. Last year, Project Christmas Smile helped bring a memorable Christmas to 25 needy children in our area. I speak for myself, the committee, and also Ed when I say this day was one of the most magical days any of us have ever witnessed. The sheer joy and excitement written on each tiny face was worth every minute spent on the project. So many members of Cove helped in so many ways and I honestly cannot thank you enough. However, we need your help again to make Christmas wishes come true this year.

The committee is ready to begin Project Christmas Smile 2009 and intends to kick off the program by hosting a spaghetti dinner on Sunday, April 19th immediately following church until 4:00 p.m. Again...we need your help! The committee wants this to be a successful fundraiser and in order for that to happen, we cannot do it alone. We need our church family to assist in our efforts. We are asking that each family try to sell 4 tickets to family, friends, neighbors, or even co-workers. The more ticket sales that are generated, the more money we can earn to grow our project. If this is something you feel called to do, please feel free to sell the tickets and return the money by Monday, April 13th to the church office. If you cannot sell the tickets, I truly understand and would appreciate the tickets returned to the church by the same date (Monday, April 13th). I know that many of you have expressed interest on how you can help with Project Christmas Smile and this is a great way to put forth a little time to "pass along" along one of the messages Christ was brought on this Earth to proclaim...administer to those less fortunate.

The details of the 2009 Cove Church Spaghetti Dinner are as follows:

Where: Cove Presbyterian Church
When: Sunday, April 19th
Time: Noon-4 p.m.
Take Out is Available!

Again, thank you for your time and I look forward to seeing you all at the dinner.

Nicole Drobish

Sermon: When You Survey the Wondrous Cross

John 12:20-33 - And there were certain Greeks from those who went up in order to worship in the Temple. Now they went to Philip who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and they made a request to him, saying, "Lord, we want to see Jesus." Philip went and spoke to Andrew. And Andrew and Philip went and spoke to Jesus. And Jesus answered them saying, "The hour has come so that the son of man might be glorified. Amen, amen I say to you, unless the grain of wheat which falls in the soil might die, then it remains one. But if it might die, then it bears much fruit. The one who loves his self losses it. And the one who hates his self in this world will keep it into eternal life. If a person might serve me, then let him follow me. And where I myself am there is also the one who’s serving me. If a person might serve me, then the father will honor him.

"Now my self has become troubled. And what might I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But for this, I came to this hour. ‘Father, glorify your name.’" Then a voice came out of the heavens, "And you glorified it and will glorify it again." Then the crowds that were standing and listening, said it had thundered. Others said, "An angel had spoken to him." Jesus answered and said, "This voice didn’t come for my sake but for your sake. Now this is the judgement of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I might be lifted up from the ground, then I will draw everyone to myself." But he said these things to indicate what kind of death he would die.


"When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride." Now of course this is the first line of a hymn we’re going to be singing in just a little bit, one that I think most people who’ve been around the church for a while would consider an old favorite. And as y’all can probably tell by what we sang earlier in the service and the prayer we prayed, the cross is sort of our focus this morning. And I’ll tell you, I certainly think that’s appropriate. I mean, as we approach Easter, I hope we’d all agree that there wouldn’t have been an empty tomb if there’d been no cross. I think we’re all on the same page; the cross is pretty important, right?

And I’ll tell you something else on which I think we might all agree and that’s what the cross represents. My goodness gracious, we’ve already sung about it. Let’s see, "On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame" and "upon that cross of Jesus my eyes at times can see the very dying form of One who suffered there for me" and of course later, "See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down: did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?" Now I think those lines pretty much capture how most Christians see the cross. It’s primary an instrument of torture and pain, a device that reflects just how cruel the Romans could be, you know, something designed to make people suffer and that’s what Jesus did. That’s certainly how Mel Gibson portrayed it in The Passion of the Christ.

I remember when I was in high school, and this was back in the early ‘70s although I don’t look it. I remember, after having this religious experience right after a Junior Varsity basketball game (I’ll tell you more about that some day), I wanted my parents to give me a cross that I could wear, you know, to show what I believed, which they did. And I remember the next day, going to school all excited (Now understand, I went to a Christian private school back then, so a guy wearing a cross wasn’t unusual) and having a teacher come up to me and ask, "Why are you wearing that? It’s like having an electric chair around your neck."

I was crushed, but now I understand his point. Of course, I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why he said it to a fifteen-year-old who was excited about his faith, because I’ve got to tell you, the first thing I did was put that cross inside my shirt. Still I understood what he was getting at. For him, the cross represented shame. It was the place where Jesus suffered. It was the place where sorrow and love meet, and if that’s all you see, it really doesn’t make sense to hang that around your neck.

And you know, maybe that’s the reason the cross and crucifixion, well, let’s get real, they’re kind of downers, things that most people would try to avoid if they could. I mean, give me a break, I think we’ll print a few more bulletins for our service on Easter than the one for Good Friday because if they’re head-to-head, the resurrection is going to beat out the crucifixion every time. Let face it, I think everybody prefers pastels to pain. The cross means suffering.

But you know, in light of the passage we just read from John, it might be worthwhile to pause just a little bit and take a second look at both the cross and the crucifixion, because maybe there’s more going on here than we may have seen or even sung about. And I’ll tell you, if we do that, I mean if we slow down and look at what John wrote in these verses I think we just may discover a dimension we may not have considered before. And you know, it’s interesting, although I think there’s no question that pain and suffering is a big part of how Mark and Matthew described the crucifixion, when John surveys the wondrous cross, I think he saw something that can lift us up rather than bring us down, something that we’re going to want to embrace rather than avoid, something that we can share with joy and enthusiasm rather than with sorrow and sadness. And let me tell you exactly what I’m talking about.

You see, for John, first, I think the cross was a sign of glory, and I’m talking about the glory of the almighty father revealed through the son. I mean, listen again to what John wrote right here: "The hour has come so that the son of man might be glorified. Amen, amen I say to you, unless the grain of wheat which falls in the soil might die, then it remains one. But if it might die, then it bears much fruit." And a little later, "Now this is the judgement of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be cast out."

You see, for John, the cross, more than anything else, revealed the power and the love of God. He wrote that Jesus was "lifted up" on the cross which, in Greek, also means he was "exalted." And you know, that just makes sense, because at the beginning of his gospel, John said that Jesus came down from the father into our world; therefore, when he was lifted up, when we was exalted on the cross, the hour had come for him to go home. I’m telling you, the promises of God were fulfilled through the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus; therefore, not only was the ruler of this age cast down, not only were those forces that cause people to hide in the darkness broken, brothers and sisters, not only was the enslaving power of sin shattered once and for all (I’m telling you, on the cross Satan lost both his claws and his teeth.), not only did all that happen, but people finally had the chance really to understand the father by believing in the son as revealed through the Spirit. You see, that’s what the cross is all about; man, it is glorious.

And for that reason, if we let it, that wondrous cross can fill us with all kinds of praise and excitement and enthusiasm, my gosh it’s something we can feel good hanging about our necks, and that’s something we can experience right now when we see the cross as a sign of glory. That’s one thing we can take from this passage.

And second, looking through the eyes of John, for us, the cross can also can represent an example we can follow. I mean, remember right after Jesus announced that his hour had come and the son of man was about to be glorified, he said, "The one who loves his self losses it. And the one who hates his self in this world will keep it into eternal life. If a person might serve me, then let him follow me. And where I myself am there is also the one who’s serving me. If a person might serve me, then the father will honor him."

You see, on that cross, Jesus showed us exactly what this selfless business was all about. I mean, think about it. If we disregard the sacrifice Jesus made and decide to live for ourselves alone, you know, look after number one, something that frankly our society encourages us do to all the time, we put ourselves outside the life that Jesus offers and we loss touch with the very people we were created to be. Man, we lose our selves.

But if we follow the example of the one who was hung on a cross to save the guys who drove the nails, if we decide that because he served us we’re going to serve others, I’m telling you, if we say that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we’re willing to sacrifice not just our lives but our selves for the sake of our neighbors, which is exactly what he did, not only will Christ be where we are every minute of every day, and that’s eternal life, but God will also honor us. You see, if we take Jesus at his word, as we open our eyes and look at the cross, we can get a clear challenge and a clear sense of direction. That is, if we see in it as an example we can follow. And that’s number two.

And third, if we are really open to it, the wondrous cross of Jesus Christ can offer an incredible reason for us to hope, and I’m talking about hope not just for ourselves but for our families and for our neighbors and for our community and for our nation and for our world. Remember, right after saying that " this is the judgement of this world, now the ruler of this world will be cast out," Jesus said, "And I, if I might be lifted up from the ground, then I will draw everyone to myself."

Now, I want you to just think about what that means. The exalted Christ is drawing people to himself, which means that ultimately, it’s not up to us. In other words, we’re not responsible to bring anyone into the kingdom; that’s God’s job. He’s the one who loves the world. And he’s the one who entered our space as a light in the darkness. And he’s still the one who inspires people to understand and empowers them to believe. This is what God does; not us but God. And I don’t know about you, but that’s a load off my mind.

But more than that, it also means that he’s drawn us right here, on March 29, to hear this sermon and to sing these hymns and to share in this fellowship. You see, if we believe Jesus, we’re not here because we chose to be here any more than we have faith because we’re smarter than those who don’t. No, just like Christ is drawing whole peoples to himself, he’s drawing each one of us, and he’s given us a place to live and grow and serve. And I can tell you, when we understand that, not only can that pump a little humility into our systems, but maybe it can lead us to appreciate just how special we are together and just how important it is to support and encourage one another. Man, we’re not a volunteer organization, where we can come and go as we please; we’re the body of Christ, because he’s drawn us here. And that’s got to make a difference in how we work together. And that’s something we can see when we look at the cross, because it still offers us a reason to hope.

Now I recognize that the cross will probably continue to be seen as an instrument of torture and of pain and of suffering. And that’s really O.K., because I’d be hard pressed not to see that kind of stuff in the Gospel of Mark. That’s certainly an important dimension of the crucifixion, something that we can sure see in the hymns we’ve sung and will sing.

But you know, there’s another hymn in our hymnal, one that we don’t generally sing, but that I think captures what John saw: "Come, brethren, follow where our Savior trod, Our king victorious, Christ, the Son of God. Led on their way by this triumphant sign, the hosts of God in conqu’ring ranks combine. O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree, as thou hast promised, draw men unto thee. Set up Thy throne, that earth’s despair may cease beneath the shadow of its healing peace. For Thy blest cross which doth for all atone, creation’s praises rise before Thy throne." You see, a sign of glory, an example to follow, a reason to hope; that what you can also see, when you survey the wondrous cross.

Sermon: Like Removing a Crayon from Your Brain

This sermon was preached at the Presbytery Youth Rally, March 27

Before I say anything else, I want to thank Nancy DeStefano for asking me to come and speak with y’all this evening. I used to teach history in high school and I’ve got to admit, some days I really miss it. And so this evening I kind of feel back home. The only difference is that I can’t give you a test later. ...Or can I?

But you know, not only am I happy to be here, I really think you’re going to be glad that I came, because I’m going to offer you one of the most profound, one of the most important, man, one of the most exciting statements having to do with Christianity you have ever heard. (You don’t think I’m overselling it, do you?) I’m telling you, what I’m about to say can absolutely change your lives. Now are you ready? Here it is. I think we need a drum roll. Your decision to believe, your decision to follow, your decision to see Jesus Christ as Lord and savior is exactly like removing a crayon from your brain. There it is. Thank you for asking me here this evening, you know, giving me the chance to share this little nugget of wisdom. Have a wonderful time for the rest of the weekend.

But before I go, let me ask y’all: how many of y’all understand what I’m talking about? How many of y’all think that I have no idea what I’m talking about? O.K. How many of y’all wondering how you can catch any of the North Carolina-Gonzaga game later? Now that’s not too bad. Brains and crayons, sounds like a bad day at an art school cafeteria.

But you know, this business about how following Christ is like removing a crayon from your brain, well, trust me, it really does make a lot of sense but, I’ll tell you, only if you’re a fan of the Simpsons, like me. You see, if you are, you know exactly what I’m talking about. But if you’re not, let me explain. Way back, I bet fifteen years ago (which means its been repeated at least a hundred times), there was an episode when Dr. Hibert discovered that Homer had a crayon in his brain. You see, when he was a boy, he was seeing how many crayons he could shove up his nose, and when he sneezed, he blew them all out, except for one. So anyway, he’s got this crayon up there, and so they decide to take it out, which they do. And you know, it’s amazing. Once the crayon is gone, Homer completely changes. I mean, no longer is he this dumb, insensitive guy. All of a sudden, he’s smart and he cares. He starts to read. His language changes. He even gets closer to his daughter, Lisa. I mean, it seems like things are great.

There’s just one problem. Now that the crayon’s gone and his life has changed, well, he no longer enjoys some of the mindless things he used to enjoy before. But even worse than that, suddenly he’s not as close to some of the people who had been his best friends for years. I mean, not only did he not feel exactly comfortable sitting around Moe’s for hours, but frankly Barney didn’t feel particularly comfortable hanging around him either. All of sudden, he didn’t have much in common with the people he’d been closest to in the past. In fact, as he was walking through the night, he found that most of the places out there were really no longer for him. He’d changed, but they hadn’t. And he felt lonely. And it was all because he’d removed that crayon from his brain.

And I’ll tell you, I think you can say the exact same thing about our decision to follow Jesus and live the kind of life Christ called us to live. I mean, see if this sounds familiar. One day you decide to take seriously following Jesus. Now I don’t care if you grew up in the church and always believed or if, on March 27, at 9:01, in Steubenville, Ohio you made a bing, bang, boom life altering decision, I’ll tell you, one way isn’t better than the other. But regardless of how you did it, one day you make the decision to put your money where your mouth is, you know, to put or shut and decide that you’re going to live like you really believe all this faith stuff you talk about.

Now the minute, when you make that decision, your live have got to change, doesn’t it; and I’m not talking about just on the inside, I’m talking about on the outside as well, like where you go and what you do and how you act. Man, that has got to change.

I’ve got a good Christian friend, a few years older than y’all, who told me that before doing something he’s not sure is right or wrong, he asks himself this question: Would he feel comfortable if Jesus Christ were sitting next to him? That’s it. Not would Jesus feel comfortable, but would he feel comfortable knowing that Jesus Christ, his lord and savior, the one who was hung on a cross to save the guys who drove the nails, would he feel comfortable if Jesus could see what he was doing or overhear what he was saying.

Wow. That’s pretty heavy stuff, what if Jesus could plug into my iPod or was sitting beside me in the theater or standing beside as a nasty joke is being told and I laugh or a person’s character is being assassinated and I don’t say anything at all? You see, when the Holy Spirit enters my life and I stand up on my hind legs and say that Jesus is my Lord, and I’m going to live like I believe it, I better be doing a heck of a lot more than mouthing a bunch of words. My life have got to change.

And I’ll tell you, something, when that change happens, all of sudden some of the things we used to enjoy doing and places we used to enjoy going, well, we’re not going to enjoy them quite so much. But maybe even tougher than that, some of the people we use to hang with, that’s going to change too. I mean, give me a break, if we’re following Jesus, what do we have in common with people who live to be high or wasted, or who trash one another and can’t see outside their little cliche, or who couldn’t care less about what we’re doing to God’s creation, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the environment or something else?

What in heaven’s name do we have in common with them? Man, we know it, and I’ll tell you, so do they. I mean, if I’m trying to follow Jesus and live the kind of life I know he wants me to live, I’m not an idiot; I know there are things he doesn’t want me to do. And I’ll tell you, the last thing somebody who likes doing that stuff, the last person they want to be around is someone who says no. It would be like me showing up at one y’all’s parties and asking the guy playing music is if he has any Billy Joel and if he doesn’t I just happen to have his greatest hits. Man, you wouldn’t want that; you wouldn’t want me there.

You see, when we change, a lot of our friends aren’t going to able to handle it, and they’re sort of going to drift away, just like they did to Homer. Unless, that is we change back, or at least fake it. And I can tell you, from personal experience, that’s really easy and tempting to do, to kind of go along with everybody else even though you feel uncomfortable. And you know what’s remarkable, the more you do it, the more comfortable you feel doing it and farther you move from the one you say you follow.

But you know, before you do anything like that, I’d like y’all to listen to this passage from the Bible, because in it I think there are some things we should remember. And although this stuff isn’t some kind of magical formula that will make life perfect, I believe it might make it a least a little bit easier, especially when following Jesus hurts our popularity. Now if you’ve got your Bible with you, open up to John, chapter three, verses fourteen through eighteen and listen to the word of God: "And just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, thus the son of man must be lifted up, so that all who believe in him might have eternal life. For thus God loved the world, that he sent the only son, so that all who believe in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God didn’t send the son into the world so that he might judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through him. The one who believes in him has not been judged. But the one who doesn’t believe, already has been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the only son of God."

Now, I want you to think about Jesus is saying here. First, he says the son of man is like the snake Moses lifted up on a pole. Now does anybody understand what that’s all about? Well, in the Old Testament, when the Jews were heading to the Promised Land, they started to whine and complain, and God kind of got fed up them so he sent these poisonous snakes to bite them. And because of that, man, they were dying right and left. But Moses went to God and asked him to rethink this little situation and to show a little mercy to his people, which is exactly what God did. And the mercy was in the form of this bronze snake on a pole. And whoever looked at the snake they’d live and if they didn’t, they were pretty much toast. You see, that snake on a pole, not snakes on a plane, but a snake on a pole represented life, and I’ll tell you that’s exactly what Jesus Christ is for us. When he was up there on the cross he offers to us life, no matter how bad we’ve been.

And why did God do it? It’s right here, because he loves us. No "if’s," "ands," and "buts;" he just, plain loves us. But not just us or other folks like us, you know, people who are good and sweet and loveable, but he loves everybody, everybody in the whole world, which includes the bully who used to take our milk money in elementary school or the jerk who thinks she’s better than us. Christ came to save us all. And that’s one thing he says.

And second, he says that if we believe, if we believe in him, we’ll have something he called eternal life. But before y’all think that this is some kind pie in the sky by and by when you die, listen to me: when Jesus talked about eternal life, he really wasn’t thinking about duration, you know, like endless existence, rather he was describing the kind of life that we can live in the unending presence and love of God. Later in the gospel, Jesus will pray to his father, "And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." I’m telling you, it’s amazing, eternal life is always described in the present tense; therefore, it isn’t something you have to wait for much less die to receive; rather it’s an understanding, it’s a closeness, it’s a relationship we can enjoy with the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit and we can enjoy it right here and now. And it’s something we receive each and every time we decide to believe. And that’s the second thing he says.

And third, he talked about how people who believe can be sure that they won’t be judged. Now in my book, that’s pretty sweet, but just like with eternal life, I think we have to be really clear about what this judgement business is all about, because when you’re looking at your Bible, I bet the word "condemn" is used. But you know, I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind because he used the Greek word κρινω which has more to do with separation than condemnation.

In other words, when we believe that Jesus is exactly who he said was and does exactly what he did, we can be confident that our connection with God and with his people is secure and constant. But if we decide not to believe, well, we’ve pretty much separated ourselves, haven’t we? And although I don’t believe that will send us to Hell hand basket, because where we spend eternity is and always will be in the hands of God, it’ll sure affect how we live our lives in the present and how we look into the future. You see, when we decide not to believe, we separate ourselves from the one who loves us. But you know, that would be a pretty stupid thing to do, wouldn’t it? You see, that’s the third thing that Jesus says.

And you know, it think that’s the kind of stuff we need to remember when we sort of get the feeling that we just don’t fit in. I mean, we need to remember what all this business about the snake on the pole and eternal life and not being judged, you know, we need to remember what it means to us personally, and I’m talking about the joy and the hope and the peace we can know each and every time we say yes, we believe we are saved through Jesus Christ, and yes, we believe that we have eternal life through him, and yes, we believe that we can have a close and growing relationship with the creator of universe. Man, that’s got to make you feel good inside, and if doesn’t, come and talk to be about that later.

But more than that, we need to remember that there are a lot of other people out there who can say yes right along with us to those exact same things. I’m telling you, it’s no accident that we’re called brothers and sisters, because that’s exactly what we are, a family of people who share a lot of things and who, even though we may scrap and fight and act silly from time to time, still love and will support one another when the chips are down. Man, we need to remember that.

And finally, when we feeling a little isolated, you know a little cut off from the past, we need to remember that we have the absolutely best message in the world for those folks who no longer feel comfortable with us. I mean, I want you to imagine, if your best friend from elementary school, that guy or girl you used to play with back in the day but from whom you’ve kind of drifted away and who may now be messed up with drugs or alcohol or sex, I want you to imagine having the chance to share with him the good news of God’s grace and the good news of Christ’s love and the good news of the Holy Spirit’s power, and I want you to imagine how you will feel when the Spirit moves and the love of Jesus breaks into his heart like a light shining in the darkness and he realizes, maybe for the first time, that because of grace, he’s a child of God. Man, imagine how you will feel. Kind of makes the discomfort worth it, doesn’t it? You see, this is the kind of stuff we need to remember.

And talking about remembering, do you remember the Simpson episode we were talking about a little while ago, you know, the one about Homer removing the crayon from his brain and becoming a different person and how that’s a lot like what happens to us when we decide to follow Jesus. Well, Homer couldn’t take it, you know, being cut off from his friends, and by the end of the show, he had the crayon reinserted and he became just like he was before. And like I said, that can be a real temptation for us. But before we either toss out or water down our faith so that we can fit in, I think we need to spend a little time thinking about Jesus said and what it means to us and those around us. Because I can tell you, and I say this from personal experience, it feels pretty good to finally have that crayon out of your brain.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Taking a Second Look at the Cross

Well, here we are, a little bit closer to Easter, which means that two weeks from today we'll be celebrating Good Friday. Now in case some of y'all don't know what that day represents, on Good Friday we remember the crucifixion. And because of that, it's a pretty important day. Let's face it, without the cross there wouldn't have been an empty tomb. For course, when you compare the two days, Easter and Good Friday, I think we all know that Good Friday comes in a distant second. I mean, how can a cross compare to Easter lilies, new clothes and the coming of spring. My goodness, the crucifixion reminds us of the pain suffered by Christ, of his agony physically, emotionally and even spiritually. And with all the stuff going on in our society and community, I don't think any of us need to hear about more suffering. The pastels of Easter tops Good Friday darkness any day of the week.

But you know, maybe we should pause a moment and take another look at the cross, and I'll tell you why. Although without any question the Gospel of Mark presented it like something from a Mel Gibson movie, that's not what we see in the Gospel of John. In other words, instead of it being an instrument of pain, in John the cross is a symbol for glory. It's the way Jesus is lifted up or, according to the Greek, exalted, offering life to those who believe right now. You see, in John, it's on the cross that Jesus glorifies the name of God, casts out the "ruler of this world," and draws all people to himself. And for that reason, we can look at the cross with hope and joy.

Of course, the crucifixion and the resurrection are two sides to the same coin. In a real sense, they're one event, with one losing it's significance if the other isn't present. As we approach Easter this year, let's take a second look at the cross and see that's it's more than a downer before the big day. it can also represent glory, life and hope.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Rhythm of the Synod

Faith Notes from the Meeting of the Synod of the Trinity
Gathering in the Presbytery of Lehigh
March 19-20, 2009

During the first meeting of the 292nd year of the Synod of the Trinity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Commissioners made significant changes to the ways that the Synod relates to networks. There will no longer be a process to make networks “formal” which has meant being endorsed by two presbyteries and recognized by the Synod, as well as providing lengthy written reports on their work and financial status. All networks in the Synod are invited to apply twice a year for funds through the Grants and Scholarships Committee. This group will now be administering networks grants, awards, and travel scholarships, in addition to their current work of awarding educational grants, scholarships, and Mission Development Resource Grants. A Network Task Force will work with Synod Executive Bruce Stevens and Associate Executive Susan Faye Wonderland to promote all networks and facilitate information sharing among a wide variety of persons with very different interests and passions for ministry and mission.

Four Mission Development Resource Grants were approved: Eddington Church Transformation Project (Philadelphia Presbytery); Hospitality Ministries at Broad Street Ministry (Philadelphia Presbytery); Peters Creek New Church Development (Washington Presbytery); and 2UP Welcome Mat Transformation Project (Pittsburgh Presbytery). These will go to the Mission Development Resource Committee of the General Assembly for final approval.

Dr. Virginia Rainey (Elder, Stated Clerk of Huntingdon Presbytery) gave an interesting presentation on the proposed new Form of Government. Commissioners engaged in small group conversation discussing the implications of passing the proposed changes and what they would like kept in place from the current Book of Order. These ideas were then shared with the entire group.

The 2009 Synod Moderator, Mary Speedy (Elder, Carlisle), installed 2009 Vice-Moderator Neal Galley (Clergy, Redstone) and Synod Associate Executive Susan Faye Wonderland (Clergy, Lackawanna). Synod Executive Bruce Stevens (Clergy, Carlisle) and Stated Clerk Lesley Imler Shoup (Clergy, Washington) reaffirmed acceptance of their calls for an additional five years. Communion was celebrated during the worship service in which this celebration of installation vows took place.

Elder Paul Lucia, Moderator of the Presbytery of Lehigh, brought greetings from the Presbytery. Elder Mary McElroy (Upper Ohio Valley), Moderator Presbyterian Women in the Synod, brought greetings and an update concerning their work.

Commissioners were treated to a “worship and learning experience” led by the Rev. Dr. Erin Cox-Holmes (Kiskiminetas) where they learned about multi-media worship and the potential impact of communication technology in sharing the message of the Gospel.

The next stated meeting of the Synod will take place during the Summer Conference which will be held June 10-12, 2009, at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. A promotional DVD was shown to highlight workshops and special events that will take place during the conference. The keynote speaker will be Dr. Beau Weston, a professor of sociology and active Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Elder.
Submitted Joyfully in the name of Jesus Christ by,
The Rev. Lesley Imler Shoup, Synod Stated Clerk 800-242-0534 ext. 222

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sermon: The Most Important Decision You'll Ever Make

John 3:14-21 - And just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, thus the son of man must be lifted up, so that all who believe in him might have eternal life. For thus God loved the world, that he sent the only son, so that all who believe in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God didn’t send the son into the world so that he might judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.

The one who believes in him has not been judged. But the one who doesn’t believe, already has been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the only son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil. For everyone who practices worthless things hates the light and doesn’t come to the light, so that they might not be exposed. But the one who does the truth comes to the light, so that his works might be made clear because what he carries out is in God."


Y’all who were here last week know that Debbie and I had some guests in from out-of-town. Now the woman was one of Debbie’s best friends in High School, which would have been, what fifteen years old. In fact, she was the maid-of-honor in our wedding, and we went to St. Louis last Summer when her daughter got married so that Maggie could be the flower girl. Anyway, Mike and Kathy stayed with us a couple of days, and as I think everyone here knows, when you have guests from out-of-town, well, you’ve got a whole lot of decisions to make. I mean, they’re only going to be here for a few days. Where are you going to eat? And what do you want them to see? And who do you want them to meet or not meet for that matter? My goodness, there’s a lot to think about before the car ever pulls up, right? And then after they come, well that doesn’t make the decisions ease up one bit. In fact, in a way, they get harder, because now you’ve got to consider what they’d actually like to eat and where they’d really like to go. I mean, what if, and I know you’ll find this hard to believe, what if they don’t want to read and discuss some of your old sermons or go to a restaurant that specializes in prime rib and oysters? What then? I’ll tell you, when you’ve got guests, man, you’ve got decisions to make.

But you know, when you think about it, that’s really true whether you have guests or not. I mean, let’s face it, we make decisions all the time, don’t we? Now fortunately, most of them are pretty much "no-brainers."Good night, most of us don’t have to decide consciously that we’re going to take a breath or that we’re going to get up in the morning or that we’re going to cheer for the Mountaineers, although that didn’t help against Dayton, did it? Man, that’s like rolling off a log, and fortunately most of our decisions are like that. And I’ll tell you, a surprising large number are "one timers," you know, ones that you don’t have to make continually, and I’m talking about things like college and career and unless you’re like a few members of my family, marriage. Easy and isolated, that’s the way I like my decisions.

And maybe that’s because, the ones not like that, well they’re pretty tough, and I’m thinking about times when the choices aren’t very clear and when the results are hard to determine and when we have to decide the same thing over and over again. And although I really don’t think there are as many of these as the easy ones, there’s enough of them to occupy a lot brain cells, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a whole lot to spare.

And maybe because we have so many to make, maybe that’s the reason that a lot of people seem to completely miss the very most important decision they can ever make. I mean, maybe it’s because there’s so much other stuff, both big and small, going on that they can overlook a decision where the choice is clear and, in my opinion, obvious. Or maybe it’s a case of wishful thinking, you know, assuming that this is a decision that a person can make once and for all, rather than one that we really have to make each and every day. I’m really not sure. It just seems to me that an awful of people sort of miss the boat when it comes to a decision that can make an enormous difference in how we live each and every day our lives.

And right now, I’m talking about the decision with which we’re confronted in the passage we just read from the Gospel of John. You see, we have to decide how we’re going to respond to Jesus Christ, whether we’re going to believe or not. That’s it. And you know, I think that’s the most important decision we’ll ever make, but I’ll tell you, it’s one we have to make over and over again.

You see, right here and right now, we have to decide if we really believe in Jesus Christ. That’s the decision we have. And it doesn’t matter that we made it yesterday; we have to make it today as well. There’s no "grandfather clause" to faith. But let me clear about this. I’m not talking making Jesus something, like "Lord" as though we have the authority or giving him anything, like our lives as though we have the power. In other words, I’m really not talking about doing something that shows that we’re actually the ones in control. Instead, the decision we have is whether or not we believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God. It’s as simple and as straight forward as that, yet it’s something we have to decide every minute of every hour of every day of every year of our lives. Do we believe, I mean do we really believe in Jesus?

I mean, do we believe that he came to do what he talked about in the passage we just read, you know, that he was exactly like that snake Moses lifted up in the wilderness, that when he was lifted up on the cross he did for the people of the world what that bronze snake did for the children of Israel, that just like that snake on a pole saved the Jews from a snake problem, namely poisonous snakes biting them, and enabled those who’d already been bitten to live, the son of man up there on the cross saves us from a human problem, namely sin and rebellion and arrogance, and enables those of us who are still sinners to live? Is this what we believe?

And do we believe that God, his father, sent him into our time and space because he loves the entire world, not just folks who are good and sweet and loveable, you know, like us, but the entire world, which also means those who don’t know him or accept him, I’m talking about men and women who prefer darkness to the light; do we believe that it’s love that drives the Father and not the desire to drop people into Hell unless they can prove to him that they’ve done enough to earn a little piece of the rock, and I’m talking about the rock of ages? Man, is this what we believe?

And do we believe that we’re able to make this decision, not because we’re so all fired smart, but because the Holy Spirit is alive and well and living right here in this community, and that because he’s present, we’re being guided into all truth, because, as Jesus will say later, "he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare...the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you."? I’m asking you, is this what we believe? Man, we’ve got a decision to make. It’s as simple as that.

And if the answer is yes: yes, that’s what the Son came to do and that’s why the father sent him and that’s how the spirit enables us to know and yes, this is something we’re going to say that we believe continually, if that’s what we decide to do, we’re going to receive two things that can absolutely change our lives, both of which are in the these verses. I mean, first, we’re going to receive eternal life. But before anyone assumes that this is some kind pie in the sky by and by when we die, let me be really clear: when Jesus talked about eternal life in John, he really wasn’t thinking about duration, you know, endless existence, rather he was describing the kind of life that we can live in the unending presence of God. Remember, later in the gospel, Jesus will pray to his father, "And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." You know, it’s amazing, in John, eternal life always described in the present tense; therefore, it isn’t something you have to wait for much less die to receive; rather it’s an understanding, a closeness, a relationship we can enjoy with the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit and we can enjoy it right here and now. You see, that’s one thing we receive each and every time we decide to believe.

And second, we also receive the assurance that we won’t be judged. And again, just like with eternal life, I think we have to be really clear about what this judgement business is all about, because when you look at a lot of English translations of this passage, the word "condemn" is used. But you know, I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind because he used the Greek word κρινω which has more to do with separation than condemnation. In other words, when we believe that Jesus is exactly who he said was and does exactly what he did, we can be confident that our connections with God and his people are secure and constant. But if we decide not to believe, well, we’ve pretty much separated ourselves, haven’t we? And although I don’t believe that will determine our ultimate destinies because that is and always will be in the hands of God, it will sure affect how we live our lives in the present and how we look into the future. You see, when we decide not to believe, we separate ourselves from the one who loves us. And although that may seem like a pretty stupid thing to do, and when Maggie says that I used the "s" word that’s what she’s talking about "stupid", although it may seem like a pretty stupid thing to do, if we’ve got something to hide, you know something we don’t want exposed, something we’d rather keep in the dark... Let’s just say that there were plenty of things I did during my teenage years I still don’t want my dad to know. Unfortunately, when we do the same thing with God, we’re pushing away not only the one who sent his son to save the world but who couldn’t love us more than he does right this minute. You see, when we believe, we can be assured of that constant love, and that’s the second thing we receive.

Remember how I said, last weekend we had to make all kinds of decisions. Well, on Saturday, we decided to have a Primanti Brothers sandwich and then take a ride on the incline and then hit an outlet mall, something that Mike and Kathy really wanted to do. And frankly, I kind of wish all my decisions were as easy and painless. But you know, when it comes to our decision to believe in Jesus Christ, a decision we’re called to make anew every day and one that will lead us toward eternal life and away from divine judgement, in other words, when it comes to the most important decision you’ll ever make, well, when you get right down to it, that’s pretty easy too.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Girlfriends Unlimited

Cove Presbyterian Women are excited to announce the introduction of Girlfriends Unlimited, a new opportunity for you to meet and have fun with other women. Girlfriends Unlimited is a world wide women's ministry program ultimately focused on building and strengthening women's relationships with Jesus. We find this happens best in relationships with other girlfriends.. At Girlfriends Unlimited, we seriously focus on having fun, building friendships, and being silly! What's it like to be involved in Girlfriends Unlimited? Fun! Throughout the year we'll come together for large, themed events where we'll let our hair down, pamper ourselves, try something new(papermaking anyone?), or just have fun. You can also join shared-interest groups to pursue that special talent. Love Cooking? A great scrapbooker? Can't get enough hiking? Come join us. We'll connect you with other women with the same passion! Join us on May 16th at 2pm at Cove Fellowship hall, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, for the first Cove Girlfriends event. The event will be filled with Girlfriend activities with a SURPRISE "Finale". Tickets will be on sale beginning April 1st for a cost of 5.00. Purchase a ticket for yourself and receive a Girlfriend ticket at no charge. Should you have any questions, please contact the church at 304-748-5980 or email us at

Taking a Stand

I have some exciting news. At the session meeting Monday evening, the elders of our church adopted four principles which they believe are important to affirm. As a session, we decided to do the following:
  • The pastor and elders will make an intentional effort to be positive and encouraging with every member of the congregation. This includes greeting them in a friendly way and including them in conversations. We also commit ourselves to stop making negative comments about church members and to discourage negative and cutting comments when made by others. To accomplish this, we promise to resolve any unresolved conflicts with others within the church and to encourage others to do the same.
  • The pastor and elders will make an intentional effort to attend church activities, Bible Studies and Sunday School classes when possible to encourage spiritual growth.
  • The pastor and elders will dedicated themselves to the mission of this church by looking for opportunities to make disciples in our community.
  • The pastor and elders will explore ways to deal with congregational conflicts and frustrations in ways that are constructive.

Now I think this is one of the most important stands with which I've been associated in my twenty years of ministry. Instead of just talking about the importance of Christian unity and involvement, our leaders have said that they intend to "walk the walk."

But you know, this is something we all can to do. In other words, for the sake of the gospel of the Jesus Christ, we can all promise to be positive and involved. And we can all look for opportunities to broaden our mission in our community and for ways to settle disputes before they disrupt the unity of Christ's body. Right now, we all do what the session has already done, and then if we follow through on this commitment, we'll continue to see the Holy Spirit do exciting things through us.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sermon: The Place to Meet God

John 2:13-22 - And the Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus came up to Jerusalem. And he found in the Temple those who were selling cattle and sheep and the money-changers sitting. And after he made a whip out of many cords, he cast them out of the Temple, the sheep and the cattle, and he spilt the coins of the brokers and overturned the tables. And to those who sold doves he said, "Take these things from here. Don’t make my father’s house a house of trade." His disciples remembered that it had been written, "Zeal for your house will devour me."

Now the Jews answered and said to him, "What sign can you show us, that you can do these things?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Destroy this Temple and in three day, I’ll raise it up." Now the Jews said, "It took forty-six years to build this Temple, and are you yourself going to cause it to rise in three days?" He said this concerning the Temple which was his body. Now when he was raised from death, his disciples remembered that he said this, and they believed in the writing and in the word which Jesus spoke.


I want you just to take a second and think about the title of the sermon: The Place to Meet God. Now, wouldn’t that be nice, you know, to have a special place where you could feel really close to God, sort of like what happened to the guy in that book The Shack. Now, if you haven’t read it, it’s about a man who’s struggling with this devastating event, and he ends up meeting God up-close and personal, and I’m talking about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in this shack. And by the end of the story, well, of course he’s been changed, but I don’t want to tell you any more, because I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it. And although I would never want to face the kind of tragedy he faced, I know that I’d sure like have a place where I could feel close to God in a special way.

And I’ll tell you, I don’t think I’m alone in that. I mean, I believe, somewhere down deep, most people would like to have some kind of special encounter with the divine, you know, our own little, personal shack. There’s just one problem; I’m not sure most folks know where to do go or how to do it. My goodness, where do you go to meet God?

Of course, for Christians, I guess the best answer is the church, right? But then you’ve got to deal with which church, because let’s face it, they’re all a little different. And then when you’ve found the right one, you know, the one for you, my goodness gracious, all of a sudden, you’re confronted with the little cliches and the gossiping and the complaining and the enormous amount of time and energy and even anger devoted to issues that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with one you came to meet, unless Christ really is concerned about the color of the carpet in the parlor or whether to serve potato or macaroni salad at the next church dinner. I’m telling you sometimes you feel more separated than you did before.

And then, of course, we don’t want to forget all those people who talk about how they feel closer to God in a boat fishing or on the slopes skiing or on the fairway hacking than they do in church singing and praying and listening. And although that sounds wonderful on the surface, often I feel that those comments sound more like excuses than statements of deep spirituality. I mean, personally, I kind of doubt that God is the first thing on their mind as they’re watching the big one get away or waiting in line at the lift or heading to the nineteenth hole. A couple of weeks ago, I read a book entitled Eat, Pray, Love. It was about a woman who went to Italy then India then Indonesia just to encounter God. I’ll tell you, sometimes the right kind of shack is sure hard to come by.

Of course, if we were ancient Jews, well, it really wasn’t difficult at all. Man, you knew right where to go. If you wanted to met God, you went to the Temple. That’s where God hung-out. At the Brown Bag Bible study on Thursdays, 12:00, plenty of good seats still available, we’ve been reading the Book of Exodus and Numbers, and the presence of God was literally like a cloud that filled the tent of meeting, the place the Jews used before they settled down and built the Temple.

You see, that’s where you could find God, and because of that, that’s where people could sacrifice their bulls and their sheep and their doves or pay their religious taxes and know that they would be received by the Lord. And on special holy days, you know, like Passover, well if God wasn’t in the Temple, where could he possibly be. God was there. Man, you could count on it.

And you know, I’ll tell you something, that’s why what happened in the passage we read is so incredibly dramatic. Because in what he did, Jesus was hitting at the very heart of Temple worship. Just think about it, cattle and sheep were sacrificial animals and the ones being sold, they would have been certified by the priests as acceptable, something you couldn’t be sure of when looking at your stock at home. Just think about driving a sheep fifty miles on foot to Jerusalem to sacrifice only to find that it had a blemish. Better to buy something at the Temple, right? And the money changers, well, since you couldn’t use money with an image stamped on it, like Greek and Roman coins, you pretty much had to change your money in order to buy your sacrifice or pay your Temple taxes. That’s just the way it was; therefore, when he chased out those selling animals and the brokers changing money, Jesus was overturning more than tables. Man, he was overturning Jewish Temple worship.

But he didn’t stop there. Remember, when they asked for a sign, he said, "Destroy this Temple and in three days, I’ll raise it up." Well right here he was stating that there was a new Temple in town, and it wasn’t made of brick and mortar. I mean, although the Jews misunderstood what he was getting at, later the disciples realized that he was talking about his body. In other words, by his words and actions, Jesus had announced that he had replaced the Temple in Jerusalem. He was the new Temple; therefore, he was now the place to encounter the divine. In Jesus Christ people could now meet God.

And you know, that’s as true today as it was two thousand years ago. You see, this is something that’s just as real for us as it was for them. In other words, Jesus is still our Temple. In him, we meet God. I mean, it’s not beside a pond or on a slop or in a sand trap. We don’t have to go to Italy or India or Indonesia. Man, God is contained in something built with brick and mortar or even a shack. Praise the Lord, through Christ, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through and around us, brothers and sisters, we meet God.

And I’ll tell you, if this is something we believe, my gosh, it’s got to change our lives. I mean, first, it’s got to motive us to go to where Christ is shared and proclaimed and lived, right? We’re going to be want to be with him and his people. And if one of those places isn’t Cove Presbyterian Church, then we had better clean up our act, because if our center isn’t Jesus Christ we’re just taking up space. In other words, everything, I mean everything we do should help folks inside and outside this congregation feel the presence of God. And to me that means that anything that interferes with a person’s ability to experience his power and his grace and his love needs to be thrown out like last week’s egg salad.

I mean, this has got to be a place where every person feels welcome; therefore, we need to make a special effort to greet everyone, even if that means stepping away from a friend, somebody you’re probably going to talk to tomorrow, so that a stranger feels at home. And this has got to be a place where personal animosities and hurt feelings are not allowed to create the kind of atmosphere that gets in the way of the good news. And this has got to be a place where worship is challenging and fulfilling and exciting. Man, it should make you feel good and cause the next week to be a little better because you came. And brothers and sisters, that’s something we can do together, because I’ll tell you right here and now, I don’t have all the answers.

You see, I think this is something we’re going to want to do, we’re going to want our community to be the kind of place that radiates the grace and love of Jesus, the place where a person can meet God. And how exciting is that? But you know, I believe that’s only one of the things we’ll see happen.

Because second, right along with drawing us to where Jesus is shared, believing that Christ is where we meet God, well, that has got to motivate us to listen to what he said. And although we can talk about all the stuff we can learn from a quiet meadow or a babbling brook, if we really want to understand who Jesus is and what he wants us to do, we’ve got to read the Bible. It’s like the guy who came to his pastor and said, "This business about prayer is a lot of baloney. I’ve been praying and praying and praying that I win the lottery but nothing’s happened." And the pastor says, "It might help if you bought a ticket." Well, I had a woman in my church back when I was in Indy tell me that she just didn’t feel like she was growing in her faith and she thought she should probably go somewhere else. And so I asked her, "Do you go to any Bibles studies?" "No." "Do you come to Sunday School?" "No." "Do you read your Bible?" "No." I’ll tell you, I felt like saying, "My gosh what do you expect; you’ve got to buy a ticket!"

No, if we really believe that in Christ we move into the presence of God, we’re going to seek out as many opportunities as we can to learn as much as we can. And although I think this applies to everyone, officers, that may apply even more strongly to y’all. I mean, along with personal growth, just think about the example we’d set for our young people and new members if every elder and every deacon and every trustee was involved in a Sunday School class or a Bible study? And just so you know I’m not letting myself off any hook, I’ll make a promise to you. If you agree to come but right now we don’t offer one that fits into maybe your work schedule, come and talk to me and we’ll work something out. You see, listening to Christ is something we’re going to want to do when we believe that in him we meet God.

And third, and trust me, this is last one so you can relax, I think believing this should also motivate us to respond to what he said. And you know, that’s going to be so much easier as soon as we make the decision to come and to listen, because when we do that, one of things we’re going to see and hear is this little lesson Jesus taught his disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. [And] this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. ...You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last... I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."

I’m telling you, that’s what Christ has called us to do, simply to love one another. And we can certainly do that through our actions. Whether it’s contributing something to the food pantry or visiting a person who’s lonely or simply shaking the hand of a stranger, man, we’re showing love, aren’t we. But you know, we can also do this through our words as well, and I’m talking about sharing joy with someone who’s excited or offering a word of sympathy and support to a person who’s facing tough times or my gosh forgiving a Christian brother or sister who’s hurt our feelings; those things are important. But maybe most important of all, we can share the victory we have through Jesus Christ, something that we didn’t earn therefore we can’t lose, something that’s grounded in the very will of God, and something that can absolutely transform our lives. You see, if we believe that Christ is where we meet God, I can’t imagine not wanting to do what he’s called us to do.

In The Shack, a man entered into the presence of God, and it changed his life. But you know, if you’ve read the book, I seriously doubt that anybody here will have an experience like his. No, seldom do we find ourselves in our own little shacks, talking to God. But you know, that’s really O.K., because if we believe this passage, Jesus Christ is the shack; man, he’s the new Temple. And because he is, I think it has to motivate us to go where he’s shared and lived and to listen to what he had to say and then to do what he’s called us to do. And I’ll tell you, if we manage to do all this, imagine the change we’ll see, when we recognize that Christ really is the place to meet God.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Memorial for Harry Richards

Born in Weirton, West Virginia on Dec. 3, 1913

Departed on Jan. 27, 2009 and resided in Solon , OH.

Memorial Services:
Saturday, Mar. 28, 2009
Please click on the links above for locations, times, maps, and directions.

Harry A. Richards, of Solon, Ohio, passed away on January 27th, 2009. Mr. Richards was born on December 3rd, 1913 in Weirton, West Virginia. A graduate of Weir High School, he worked 44 years for Weirton Steel Company, retiring in 1976 as Manager of Raw Materials Purchasing. He was a member of the Cove United Presbyterian Church and New Cumberland Lodge 22 AF & AM. Mr. Richards was an avid golfer and a former member of the Williams Country Club and The Ponte Vedra Club. His wife Betty passed away in 1963 and son Michael passed away in 1993. He is survived by his companion, Nancy Schreck of Solon, OH as well as his brother, Jack A. Richards of Weirton, West Virginia. He is also survived by his sons Harry K. "Pete" of Cleveland and Stephen D. Richards of Atlantic Beach, FL, and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren. The family suggests that those who wish may make contributions in his name to a charity of choice. A MEMORIAL SERVICE WILL BE HELD SATURDAY, MARCH 28TH AT 10 AM, IN ST. MARTIN'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH, 6295 CHAGRIN RIVER ROAD, CHAGRIN FALLS, OH. For additional information, directions, complete obituary and to sign the guestbook, please log online to SERVICE 216 752-1200

Sermon: How to Save Your Self

Mark 8:31-38 - And he began to teach them that the son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after the three days rise again. And he said this openly. And Peter took him aside and began to scold him. And after he’d turned around and saw his disciples, [Jesus] scolded Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan, because you are not thinking about God but about human things."

And after he’d called to himself the crowds with his disciples, he said to them, "If any person wants to come after me, then let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever might want to save his self, then he will lose it. And whoever will lose his self for my sake and the good news, then he will save it. For what help is it to a person to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his self? For what might a person give in exchange for his self? For whoever might be ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, then the son of man also will be ashamed of him when he might come in the glory of his father with the holy angels."


This morning we’re going to talk about how you can save your self. And you know, that little space between the "your" and "self" is absolutely crucial and I’ll tell you why. Although we spend a lot of time and effort and maybe even money trying to discover ways we might be able to save ourselves on the outside, I think saving our inner selves, you know, that stuff that Jesus talked about in the passage we just read; for a lot of folks, man, I don’t think it’s even an afterthought.

I mean, I don’t think most people spend much time working on what the ancient Greeks called the psyche, which for them was spirit and personality and soul all rolled into one. This stuff that really defines who we are, well, often it just doesn’t seem all that important, at least not as important as the surface. Put another way, for most folks, it seems a lot more energy is spent on the shell than on the nut inside, so to speak.

Of course, that’s no surprise. I mean, give me a break, saving ourselves, you know, externally, this is almost an obsession in our society isn’t it? My gosh, there’s even a magazine dedicated to this kind of thing called appropriately enough Self. Just look at the cover printed above. I’m telling you, if you really want to save yourself, man, there’s a lot of good stuff in there: "Inches off All Over," "Flattering Swimsuits: Your Body-type Shopping Guide," my goodness, "Wake Up Happier Everyday," and a must read for anyone with a doctor’s appointment in the next week, "Medical Mistakes: How to Avoid Being a Victim." Of course, I had to skip one because we are Presbyterians, and let’s face it, Presbyterian are never "tired or stressed." Kind of makes you wonder about exactly what’s inside this "special freebies issue." My goodness, right here we have a magazine that will tell you exactly what you can do to save yourself, right?

And if all this is a little too secular or what, self-indulgent, I’ll tell you, you can get the same kind of thing in a lot of popular religion. In other words, you don’t have to look very long or hard to find somebody who will tell you exactly how to save yourself, you know, the things you can do to take a few inches off your sins and to wake up in heaven one day. And you know, it’s interesting, most would have you focus on saying yes to Jesus, even when you’re tired and stressed. Because saying Jesus is like dropping the right name in a fancy hotel, it guarantees a room with a view. Of course, how you do that, well, that depends on the one talking. I mean, it may be just reading a prayer or taking a sacrament or maybe speaking in a strange language. But regardless of the means, the end is the same, by your words and actions, you have done the same kind of thing the magazine promises. You have saved yourself.

And although if you’re talking about your physical lives that may be fine, I’m not sure that doing this kind of stuff does a whole lot for what’s on the inside, and now I’m talking about our identity, our essence, our selves. In fact, if we take seriously what Jesus said in the passage we read a little while ago, saving your self is a whole lot different than buying a flattering swimsuit or staking out a little bit of heaven.

As a matter of fact, again according to him, saving your self really doesn’t involve doing anything, instead it seems to have everything to do with accepting: accepting two realities that frankly, are as difficult for us to swallow as they were for people living almost two thousand years ago and yet that can literally transform our lives and establish our inner selves on a foundation that’s as firm and as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. And let me tell you exactly what those two things are.

You see, first, if we’d like to see our selves saved, I think we need to accept what Jesus came to do. In other words, we need to trust that he really knew what he was talking about when he said "that the son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after the three days rise again." And although I think most us would probably say that we certainly agree with everything he said, if we spend anytime considering the implications, I’m telling you, I don’t think it’s any easier for us to accept then it was for good-old Peter. Because let’s face it, just like him, I think most of us would much rather follow a savior who does good stuff, you know, like healing the sick and casting out demons and passing out free fish sandwiches. That’s the one we want to follow, not the one who talks about suffering and rejection and death. I mean, give me a break, how many people would attend next Sunday if we put a big banner on the front of the church saying "Come to Cove and suffer for an hour." No sir, that’s not going to draw a crowd. Speaking for myself, I’d much rather follow a messiah who will make me wake up happier every day, and one that offers a miracle workout wouldn’t be bad either. Now, that’s what we as products of our pain-killer, self-help culture want.

There’s just one problem, that’s not what Jesus came to do. Instead, he came to suffer and be rejected, and I’ll tell you why that’s important. Because he suffered, we know that he can identify with us, can’t we. You see, when we suffer whether because of something we’ve done to ourselves or something done to us by someone else, when we feel rejected and isolated and alone, and when turn our eyes to God Almighty and let lose with our pain and frustration and maybe even anger, through Jesus Christ, he knows what we’re feeling. That’s why he came.

But more than that, he also came to die, a death he didn’t desire and yet one that he endured, so that we could experience a freedom that would be impossible for us to get on our own. Let me explain. According to the Apostle Paul, we are like slaves to sin, and that power, well, there’s only one way to for us to be freed and that’s through death. In other words, it’s like a doctor telling you that he has good news and bad news. The good news is that he can destroy the disease but the bad news is that to do it, he has to kill the patient. Well, that’s our situation. But praise the Lord, according to the Bible, the patient did die and we’re still alive and kicking. You see, we’ve been joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit, which means, when he died, so did we. Therefore, in spite of the fact that we haven’t done a blessed thing, because we’re in Christ, we can now accept this freedom, this new life we’ve been given. Why; because he came to die.

But even more than that, he also came to rise again, showing in a real and tangible way that we can have hope as we look into the future, because just like his tomb was empty, so will our’s. You see, that’s why he came, and that’s the salvation he offers and that’s what we can claim the minute we accept it. And that’s the first step in saving our selves.

And second, right along with this, we can also accept what we’ve been called to do as well. And I’m not sure Jesus could have been any clearer than he was: "If any person wants to come after me, then let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever might want to save his self, then he will lose it. And whoever will lose his self for my sake and the good news, then he will save it."

And you know, right here is what I think you can call the great paradox of Christianity. If we really want to save ourselves, to do something, anything to build some eternal security, you know, to grab the bulls by the horns and take control of our destinies, something that we’re told to do whenever we open Self magazine or sadly settle into way too many pews, man, if this is what we want to do, we’re going to blow it. We’re going to shift our focus from the one we’re called to follow so that we can satisfy ourselves and please others. When you get right down to it, we’re going to deny that Spirit-given unity we have with the one who both hung on a cross but who also walked away from an empty tomb.

I’m telling you, if we set out to save ourselves and our desires and our values and our pride and our prejudices to do that, we’re going to have to reject our very selves, and I’m talking about rejecting the men and women we were created to be as well as the very spirit that enables to see our future in the person of Jesus Christ. We’re swapping the truth for a lie and showing the world that we put the values of this adulterous and sinful generation above the victory won by Jesus Christ. In trying to save ourselves, man, we will lose it all.

But you know, that’s not what we’ve been called to do. Instead, we’ve been called to deny ourselves, to sacrifice what we value for the sake of the one we follow, to let go of some of the stuff the world considers important, things like possessions and popularity and security because those things have the potential of distracting us from what should be most important. And we’ve been called to take up our cross, which for me means two things. One, it means we’re willing to face even death if that what being faithful to Christ demands. But two, for me it also means being willing to carry our cross through hostile crowds just like Jesus did, in other words, to walk openly through our world as Christians even though we know bystanders are going to laugh and throw insults at us, I’m talking about, being willing to display our faith publically even though we know we’re going to be mocked or maybe worse, ignored by folks who are far more interested in finding the best shampoo or moisturizer than in trusting the one who’s already done it all.

You see, we’ve been called simply to follow, not lead or walk beside, but to follow, trusting that since God is in control, our ultimate destinies are absolutely sure and confident that, in the meantime, wherever he leads us is where we are meant to go. You see, as we surrender to God, we may loss our status and our prestige and our importance in the eyes of the world, but in a very real sense, our very selves will be saved. And that’s the second thing we can accept.

Now, I really don’t expect the world to change anytime soon; therefore, I think I’m safe in saying that we’ll continue to see Self magazine on the stand at the check out aisle. And I imagine people will continue to want to control of their lives as the way to save themselves. And although that may be fine when it comes to taking some inches off and finding a flattering swimsuit, let’s not make that the center of our lives. Instead, when it comes to who we are on the inside, let’s simply relax and accept what Christ did and what we’re been called to do. Because, I’ll tell you, even when you’re tired or stressed, I believe you’ll actually be saving your selves.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Giving Up Pride for Lent

Personally, this has been a very busy week for me and my family. As y'all know, my grandmother passed away on Monday, and I flew back to Norfolk, Virginia for the funeral. And during the flight I started a book on the theology of John Calvin, the person who's biblical interpretation shaped the Presbyterian Church.

Although I'd read other books on Calvin in my life, as I was going through this one I was struck by something I'd never considered before. I never realized the emphasis he put on humility. But you know, it's interesting, what Calvin had in mind is not how we view being humble. Often it something people are forced to do against their wills. For example, we talk about someone being "humbled" as a negative thing, something to be avoided if at all possible. In a sense, we're dragged into humility, kicking and screaming. All things considered, most of us would much rather be proud and confident than humble.

But for Calvin, humility can be a wonderful attitude. It comes when a person considers everyting that God has done for humanity through Jesus Christ. You see, he's given us a source of comfort and hope that we can't reach on our own. And for that reason, we've been freed the worry that comes from having to do it all ourselves. Now all that's a good thing. And the resulting humility, well that's got to be a good thing too.

And so, as we prepare to celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, maybe we can work a little more humility into our characters. Put another way, this year, maybe we should give up a little bit of pride for Lent.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A place where peace truly abides

A monthly column for the church-at-large by the Reverend Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

March 2009

I traveled recently to Israel/Palestine/Jerusalem on your behalf. Victor Makari (coordinator for Middle East, Asia Minor, and Jinishian Memorial Program), Randy Ackley (coordinator, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance), Joel Hanisek (Presbyterian United Nations representative), and I were there to show our pastoral support for the Palestinian and Jewish people who had been impacted by the Gaza violence.

This was my first trip to the Middle East, and it left me with many impressions. For example, seeing the actual geography of places like Bethany, the Mount of Olives, and the road on which Jesus rode a donkey on Palm Sunday had me wondering at a new level what it was like to be in Jerusalem in those early days.

Perhaps the greatest impression is that the struggle of those in that region reminds me so much of our struggle to live together in this country. We are still learning that people have basic common needs, regardless of race or creed.

People need a secure home – one in which you can put your child to bed at night without fear of some violence from the sky. They need the ability to earn a living – not very possible if you cannot get to work safely. And people need a sense of future for their family, which is left in question when your children leave your country to find a better life.

The season of Lent provides us with a time of prayer and introspection as we prepare ourselves for Easter morning. This year, I want to invite you to add a regiment of daily prayer for the people of Jerusalem, Israel, and Palestine. They are all people who are trying to live their daily lives in the midst of a huge relational struggle. It is a struggle that inflicts a thousand little hurts into hearts and minds on an all-too-regular basis.

Perhaps first, though, we need to pray that we will continue to learn our own lessons about living together in a common land. Then, let us pray that we will find a way to share what we have learned, so that the geography of the Holy Land will be a place where the peace that passes all understanding truly abides.

What happens when the bush stops burning?

A monthly column for the church-at-large by The Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) This month, the column is written by the Reverend Dr. Byron A. Wade, Vice-Moderator of the 218th General Assembly.

March 2009

I remember very well the day of commencement from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. I was graduating with honors. I had a master’s degree from Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education. I was definitely ready to serve a congregation and was energized to do ministry.

The commencement speaker that day was the Reverend Dr. Renita Weems, former professor of Old Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Her message was entitled, “What Happens When the Bush Stops Burning?” from the call of Moses in Exodus 3. She asked us, “What will you do in-between the first time you heard from God and the next time you do?”

In her message, I was reminded of the “burning bush” moments when God is present in our lives – ordination and installation of pastors, marriages, births of children, formation of friendships or relationships, and so forth. Those are the times when God’s presence burns brightly in our lives.
But as life goes along, things happen – church conflicts, broken relationships, loss of loved ones, periods of economic recession, loss of employment, and more. In those times, we cannot feel the presence of God, and we don’t know when we will hear next from God.

Rev. Weems ended her message that day by telling the story of a time when she was invited to be a guest preacher. She recalled that she was going through some difficulties in her personal life that particular Sunday. As the choir sang, she heard the most beautiful voice. She wanted to see who was singing, so she turned around to look at the choir. The voice was coming from a man whose face was totally disfigured. She knew then that God used that man to speak a word of comfort to her in a time of need.

What happens to you when the bush stops burning? What do you do in-between the last time you heard from God and the next time?

For me, it is helpful to remember Rev. Weems’ message, especially during this Lenten season. God speaks to us in unexpected ways to let us know the “bush is still burning.”

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sermon: When Times Get Tough

Mark 1:9-15 - And it happened in those days, Jesus went from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And immediately, as he was coming up from the water, he saw the heavens being ripped apart and the spirit as a dove come down into him. And a voice come out of the heavens, "You are my son, the one who is loved, in you I’m well pleased."

And immediately, the spirit cast him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days and was tested by Satan, and he was with the wild animals, and the angels served him.

And after John was handed over, Jesus went into Galilee, preaching the good news of God and saying, "The time has been fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is near. Repent and trust in the good news."


This morning we’re going to talk about a few things we might want to remember when times get tough. And I’ll tell you, I can’t think of anything that says hard times more clearly and powerfully than the photograph above. Of course, I think most of us have seen it sometime in our lives. It was a picture taken by Dorothea Lang in March of 1936 of a thirty-two year old migrant mother of seven children named Florence Owens Thompson. But you know, this became more than just a picture of one person struggling to get along. Over the years it’s become one of the dominate images, almost an icon of the Great Depression. But more than that, it’s also become an enduring image of strength and courage in the face of almost insurmountable odds. You know, I find it amazing; you can see almost etched in her face, the stress and strain that comes from trying to survive when times have become incredibly difficult.

And I’ll tell you, although the world has changed an awful lot in the seventy-odd years since that picture was taken, the affects of tough times, well, they haven’t changed at all. And you know, it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about big economic problems, like the kind of thing that went on during the Great Depression or what we can see happening right now in our community and country or those personal and family issues that we all seem to face from time to time, this kind of thing can push us beyond being mad or sad to just feeling numb, sort of like the fighter who gets beat down because he’s too tired or maybe dazed to slip punches any more.

And I think y’all know what I’m talking about, because if I can see it every day, I know you can too: and I’m talking about the family standing in my office with a shut-off notice in their hands, asking for assistance for the first time in their lives, because for them, two minimum wage jobs can’t pay for food and rent and utilities anymore. Or maybe it’s a couple who’s doing fine until the lay-off or the accident or the illness. Or maybe it’s the wife who’s told by her husband that he doesn’t love her anymore or the husband who stumbles on a little pile of notes careful hidden in his wife’s draw or the parents who get that horrible, almost unimaginable call that no parent wants to get.

Now this is what I’m talking about, along with a ten thousand other examples of situations that can just plain knock us down and drain our spirits. And if you don’t think this stuff applies to Christians, let me give you a copy of an article I got in the mail a couple of days ago about how a little, bitty church I served in Virginia burned to the ground due to a faulty furnace that was inspected last October. I’ll tell you, whether we like it or not, problems and pain don’t discriminate based on religion. No, trouble can and probably will hit us all at one point or another, regardless of how faithful and dedicated we are.

But you know, having said that, I do think believers have a leg-up on a lot of other folks, but not because God miraculously shields them from everything that’s unpleasant but rather because he gives them, man, he give us some resources that we can use to endure the most difficult situations. As a matter of fact, right here in this passage, I think God has given us three events that we can remember, you know, almost hang on to, events that I believe can help us get though the toughest of times. And briefly let me share with you want they are.

You see, first, when times get tough, I think we need to remember the baptism, and of course, I’m talking about the baptism of Jesus right there in Jordan. I’ll tell you, in this little scene, we can find all kinds of hope. I mean, look in your bulletins and just consider what happened. According to Mark, " he was coming up from the water," what did Jesus see? My goodness, "...he saw the heavens being ripped apart and the spirit as a dove come down into him."

Now I want you to think just a minute about what that means. Like I said about a month and a half ago, the heavens weren’t neatly opened, you know, like a door. Instead, they were ripped apart, sort of like punching a hole through newspaper or maybe better like tearing the curtain in the Temple from top to bottom. I’m telling you, that hole was so ragged that not even duct tape could seal it back up. And because of that, since his baptism, the connection between us and God has become permanent and unchanging. And with the coming of the Spirit, my goodness gracious, through that raggedy hole the power, the inspiration and the fellowship and the direction, my gosh, the very presence of God entered our space. You see, right along with Jesus himself, that’s exactly what we can see as he’s coming out of the water.

And then, what can we hear? "And a voice come out of the heavens, ‘You are my son, the one who is loved, in you I’m well pleased.’" I’ll tell you, if you’ve made the decision to follow Jesus, you’re not just walking behind a great teacher and a great preacher and a great religious leader. No sir, you’re following the very revelation of God himself, the one who brought salvation and wholeness to the entire world, the person alluded to by Isaiah when God speaks of "my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations." You see, when we feel like we drowning in problems, we can find hope when we think about the baptism of Jesus. You see, that’s the first thing we can remember.

And second, we can also remember the story of the temptation. In other words, when life gets tough, we can focus our attention on how Jesus was tempted and tested out there in the wilderness and find the strength it offers.

And even though, if you know the other temptation stories, you know the ones in Matthew and Luke, this one in Mark is pretty brief, I believe these couple of verses can offer a lot of power when we need it. I mean, I want you to notice how, according to Mark, immediately after his baptism, the spirit did what? It "...cast him into the wilderness." In other words, before he even started his work, God wanted his beloved Son to experience a little bit of the real world, you know, life in the fast lane. He wasn’t going to be like those people born with silver spoons in their mouths; his son was going to have to get his hands dirty; he was going to have to break a sweat.

And that’s exactly what happened when Satan spent forty days trying to get Jesus off course, something the tempter successful did with the people of Israel as they whined and complained and rebelled for forty years in their own wilderness and I’ll tell you, something he can sure do to us when he convinces us that all we have to do is mention the name "Jesus" and we can justify, even Christianize greed and hatred and intolerance. Man, not only did Jesus stand toe to toe with Satan, he also had to deal with lions and tigers and bears, oh my. He knows how we feel on our worst day.

But I want you to notice that he didn’t do it alone. He got through it with a little help from his friends, and I think that’s really important. Because just like "the angels served him," when we’re in the middle of trials and feel like we’re being torn apart, those same angels are there to help and to support and to serve us too. You see, I think we can find a real source of strength whenever we remember the story of the temptation. And that’s number two.

And third, and this may be the most important thing of all, when life seems at its worst, we need to remember the good news, and I’m talking about the victory that has already been won through Jesus Christ. I’m telling you, we should never lose touch with this message, news, because in it, we can have more peace then we can even imagine.

I mean, just think about what Jesus said, "The time has been fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is near." Well, that’s just as true today as it was back then. You see, right now God is fulfilling his promises and no amount trouble can change that, and the Kingdom of God is still near and this is something we can experience every time take a step back from the world so that we can feel of his presence flowing through his people. You see, right now is God’s time.

And for that reason, we have the opportunity to repent, which simply means to turn, and I’m talking about to turn from actions and attitudes that only get us into to trouble and to turn from values and opinions that can screw up our relationships with God and with one another and to turn from a faith that puts us in the center of universe, which is, when you get right down to it, a pretty lonely place to be.

Man, we can turn from all that garbage and simply "trust in the good news," in other words, trust that the battle has already been fought and that sin and death and Satan have already lost. And you know, if you don’t find peace in those words, I’m sorry for you. You see, when times are tough, we can remember the good news.

On Friday, when I was working on this sermon, I read that Florence Thompson, the woman in the picture, I read that she died of "cancer and heart problems" on September 16, 1983, and when she was buried, her gravestone read: "Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood." You see, she survived the Great Depression. And you know, so can we; we can survive even when life seems to be tougher than we can handle. As a matter of fact, we can do better than just survive. I’m convinced that if we remember the baptism and the temptation and the good news of Jesus, we’ll feel a sense of hope and of strength and of peace that will keep us moving regardless of what’s been thrown against us.