Friday, February 27, 2009

Entering Lent

On Wednesday, we entered the season of Lent, and if you don't already know, Lent is a 40-day period ending in Easter (not counting six Sundays). During this time we have the opportunity to prepare ourselves to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Traditionally, this has been done through pentence and repentence, remembering that Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness forty days before he began his ministry. I guess you could call Lent forty days of voluntary sacrifice so that we can identify with the one who assumed human flesh in order to identify with us.

Of course, given the nature of the economy, suffering and sacrifice is not exactly voluntary. I talk to people almost every day who've lost their jobs and often have no way to support themselves and their families. And even if they've managed to hold on to their pay checks, they're worried about the future. I mean, with all the talk of pension fund nightmares and shrinking personal retirement accounts, it's difficult for even a Christian to feel optimistic as he looks into the future. Without any question, for a lot of folks, times are tough.

But you know, when times get tough, I think it's particularly important for Christians to remember three things. First, we need to remind ourselves that we follow the Son of God, the Lord of the Universe; therefore, no matter how frightening things may seem to be, the problems we face are never stronger than God. Second, I think we also need to remember that, when we pray, we're heard by one who knows what suffering is all about. He can truly identify with our pain. And finally, we need to remember that the message Jesus proclaimed is still true. The time has been fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is near. And because of that, we still have the opportunity to repent, to change our lives and our direction, and to trust in the victory won by Christ.

You see, these are some things we can remember. And although they won't make the problems vanish, they may give us the strength and the focus to endure.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sermon: A Matter of Timing

Mark 9:2-9 - And after six days Jesus took along Peter and James and John, and he took them up onto a high mountain all by themselves. And he was transformed before them. And his clothes became glistening, intensely white as no laundry on earth is able to bleach them. And Elijah and Moses appeared to them, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it’s good that we are here. And we will make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." For he didn’t know what to answer. For he’d become afraid. And a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is my son, the one who is loved. Listen to him." And suddenly they looked around and saw no one but Jesus alone with them.

And as they were coming down the mountain, he gave them an order so that they might tell no one what they saw, except when the son of man might rise from death.

**********

As y’all know, last Saturday was Valentine’s Day, and you know, it’s kind of interesting, how you celebrate the day changes when you have a seven-year-old. I mean, in the past, Debbie and I would be thinking about setting up something really special, you know, like a romantic dinner for two; now we’re trying to find a movie that all three of us can attend together. Such is life. And so, I checked what was playing in Steubenville and saw one that Debbie had already told me that she really wanted to see, because I think she said it was an educational film: Confessions of a Shopaholic, not that she really needs to pick up any pointers.

Anyway, I saw that it was playing over at the mall and so I went to one of my favorite online sites, Rotten Tomatoes, to read some reviews. Now, from what I gather, it’s about a woman who’s sort of addicted to shopping, and the reviews, well, they really weren’t all that great, at least not from the critics. I mean, although a lot of the folks who saw it thought it was really funny, most of the people who review movies for a living weren’t all that impressed, for a variety of reasons.

But you know, one review I found particularly interesting. It was written by a guy named Robbie Collin for a British newspaper called News of the World. And right at the beginning, he wrote: "In comedy, timing is everything. Particularly if you’re releasing a light-hearted romp about designer shopping binges, six months into a global recession. And that’s the problem Disney has been lumbered with, thanks to their latest film Confessions Of A Shopaholic. Cruising into cinemas with worse timing than a Taiwanese Rolex, this chick flick about one woman racking up five figures of credit card debt seems less like a comedy than an epic 104-minute finger-wagging session."

Now that’s what he wrote and frankly, I don’t know if he’s right or wrong about the movie. But I’ll tell you, I think he’s right on the mark about timing. Timing really is everything, and not just for comedies. Good night, ask any guy who had flowers delivered on the day after his wife’s birthday, which by the way has never happened to me, regardless of what you may have heard. In that kind of situation, timing’s pretty important.

And you know, I think that applies to our faith as well, and in particular, to how we respond to the call of Jesus Christ. Because I’ll tell you, sometimes our timing gets a little out of wack. For example, as Christians, sometimes we assume that to be a follower, we’ve got to be busy all the time even if that means a lot of unfocused activity. I mean, Jesus called Peter and Andrew to be fishers of men, didn’t he? And that applies to us, right? Well there’s no two ways about it, that must mean that we’re suppose to grab our rod and reel as soon a possible and then rush into the world as quickly as we can without even thinking about whether we have the right bait. In other words, we get it into our head that God wants us to be doing something right this minute, you know, something, anything for the kingdom, even if we’re not sure want. And if we’re not doing something, my goodness gracious, at the very least we sure should be talking, you know, saying something that sounds spiritual, even if we have only a vague idea of what we’re talking about.

But for a lot of Christians, that’s O.K., because things like knowledge and understanding, even goals and objectives, well, often that stuff really doesn’t matter, in fact they can even get in the way. Now’s the time for action. Now’s the time for serving and preaching. That’s what God wants, and he wants it now. Or so we think.

There’s just one problem. Sometimes all that doing and talking, well, let’s just say it’s less than effective. I mean, we end up spending a lot of time and effort and maybe money trying to address needs that may not exist in ways that are not particularly helpful or sharing a message that even we don’t really understand so why should they. And as a result, not only is our impact minimal, but our enthusiasm and energy, our fire, well, that kind of goes down the tubes. And you know, that’s terribly sad. Because the reason, well, it may just be a matter of timing.

And you know, when you think about it, that’s really what’s going on in this passage, isn’t it? I mean, look at what happened. We have something truly spectacular on that mountain. Jesus was transfigured. His appearance was changed. All of a sudden he reflected the God’s glory. And Elijah and Moses, two men that the Jews expected to return before the end, they were up there with him. Talk about a mountain top experience.

And in the face of this incredible event, well, I want you to notice what Peter said. I mean, as he stood there in front of that glorious scene, the Rock said something that Mark wrote came from fear not faith. He said, "Rabbi, it’s good that we are here. And we will make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." Give me a break. Is that the best he could do? In other words, "Teacher, all this is great. Even though I have no clue about what’s going on and personally, I don’t understand why you’re glowing or how I know that these two guys with you are Moses and Elijah, I’ve got to do something. I’ll tell you, let me put up some tents; that’ll be cool. Then y’all can stay the night. And later maybe we could build a campfire and make smores." That’s sort of what he said, and although that might have been fine in another situation, right there, on that mountain top, at that moment, well, his timing was just a little off.

And you know, it’s interesting, after it was all over and they were coming down, it was like Jesus knew that these guys were probably busting to start talking about everything they’d seen, and yet now was not the time for that either. And so "he gave them an order so that they might tell no one what they saw, except when the son of man might rise from death." In other words, they were to say nothing about this chapter until they understood the entire book. You see, timing was important here too.

And so if it wasn’t the right time to get busy and it wasn’t the right time to start preaching, right then and there, what were those three disciples supposed to do? Well, according to the passage, that’s easy. What does it say: "And a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my son, the one who is loved. Listen to him.’" Listen to him. You know, it’s amazing, in the Old Testament God gave ten commandments, but in the gospels, he gave only one. Listen to my son. Listen to the one who is loved. Now’s the time, listen to him.

And I’ll tell you something, I think the same is true for us right here and right now. Although as a preacher I’ve got to tell you, I would be really exciting for me to get y’all fired up and to challenge y’all to start running around and doing stuff or maybe better, to jump out of the pew and start sharing what you believe, although I’d love to see this church become as active and involved as we can possibility be, I also believe that this morning God may be saying the same thing to us that he said to Peter and James and John: that right now may be the time to put aside our agendas and to slow down a little bit and simply to listen.

And you know, that listening business, it’s really not hard to do. My goodness, it’s not difficult to listen to what Jesus Christ taught and preached and shared. It’s something we can do by attending a Sunday School class or a study or by just reading our Bibles or even the e-mails that we send out from the church every morning. You see, we can step back from the activities of the world and quiet ourselves down and listen to the Holy Spirit speaking through God’s word.

And I’ll tell you, when we do, we’re going to hear Jesus say the same sort of thing he told his disciples right before some of them climbed that mountain. We’re going to hear him when "...he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And we’re going to hear him when "...he called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’"

You see, that’s the kind of thing we’re going to hear, and because of that we’re going to understand that to follow Jesus, we’re probably going to have to change what we expect and how we measure our success, that it’s not about how much we get and are able to gain for ourselves but rather how much we give and are willing to lose for the gospel. You see, it’s not about how many giving units we can attract to this church but rather whether we’re willing to reach out to those people in our community who are absolutely lonely and lost, I’m talking about the least of these who are our brothers and sisters, even if that means sacrificing a little bit of ourselves.

I mean, are we willing to claim the example of Jesus? Are we willing to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses and to follow him? My gosh, are we willing to do what he did, to forfeit our lives for the very people who still drive the nails, trusting that on the other side of the cross is an empty tomb, that because of Christ, death has become life, and that in spite of all the reasons we have to be negative, we can look into the future with hope, because we know that we’re in the hands of God? Are we willing to believe that? You see, if we listen, those are some of the questions we’re going to hear.

And because of that, my goodness, what we say and do will change. I’m telling you, instead of wasting our time putting up three tents or sharing a message that’s the spiritual equivalent of cotton candy, we’ll be ready to step boldly into the world, proclaiming the truth and reflecting the love and mercy of Jesus. You see, that’s going to happen, because we’ve taken seriously the Word of God and recognized that now just may be the time to listen.

Remember last Saturday, Valentines Day, when Debbie, Maggie and I were planning to go to a movie; well, we didn’t go to Confessions of a Shopaholic. Given the toys we already have, frankly, I thought that was way too risky exposing Maggie to something like that. The timing just wasn’t right. And for us as Christians, now may be the time for us to hear the voice of God and to make the decision that we’re going to listen to Jesus and to understand why he came and how we can follow and then to live and announce the good news in a way that can change lives. Because you see, when you get right down to it, it really is all a matter of timing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rear Adm. Arlington Campbell Remembered

Below is the obituary of Arlington Campbell, a member of our Cove Presbyterian family, as it appeared in the Weirton Daily Times. You can find out more about his life, you can visit The Official Website for the U.S.S. Richard B. Russell.


Rear Adm. Arlington Campbell Remembered

A Weirton native with a long and distinguished career in the U.S. Navy has died.

Retired Rear Admiral Arlington F. Campbell died Jan. 27, at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He was 69.

Campbell was a 1961 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served 33 years in active duty, with much of his service as a submariner.

According to information found on the Web site for the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation, Campbell served aboard four submarines before taking command of the attack submarine U.S.S. Richard B. Russell. In 1981, he was named the first commanding officer of the U.S.S. Ohio, a nuclear-powered Trident-class submarine. He later commanded submarine squadrons and groups along the East Coast of the United States.

He was granted the rank of rear admiral in November 1985.

In addition, Campbell worked on developing nuclear reactors for submarines as part of the staff of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover and led the Navy's worldwide telecommunications command, as well as serving as vice director of the Defense Information Systems Command, which included White House communications units.

Campbell retired from the U.S. Navy in 1994, later becoming the vice president of Decision Systems Technology, an information technology firm in Rockville, Md. for about two years.

Campbell is survived by his wife, the former Bonnie Jackson, and two children, William Campbell of Colton, Ore., and Caroline Lewis of Waterford, Conn., a brother, sister and two grandchildren.

A memorial service was held in the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Md.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sermon: Discipleship 105 - Disciples Obey

Mark 1:40-45 - And a leper came to him begging [Jesus] and falling on his knees, and he said to him, "If you want, you are able to make me clean." And because he was moved to pity, [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, "I want. Be made clean." And immediately, the leprosy went from him and he was made clean. And Jesus snorted with rage at him and immediately cast him out. And [Jesus] said to him, "See that you say nothing to anybody. But go, and show yourself to the priests and offer for your cleansing what was prescribed by Moses, as a witness to them." And after he went out, he started to proclaim everywhere and to spread abroad the word, so that he was no longer able openly to enter into a city but was out in desert places. And they kept coming to him from everywhere.

**********

Thursday night I did a little presentation for some of the Cub Scouts, you know about their duty to God. And as I was waiting for them to call me, Roger Criss came by, and I asked him if he was preaching this morning. You see, Roger and Frank are what’s called "preaching elders," which means they can fill a pulpit twice a month. So I asked if he was preaching, and he said yes. And then asked, "Are you preaching this passage from Mark?" And he said, "No, I’ve decide to go with something from Jonah." And then I told him that he’d probably made a good choice, because these verses from Mark, well, they’re really kind of tricky. I mean, there’s stuff going on that, in my opinion, is pretty difficult to understand. Now, that’s what I told him, and I’ll tell you, even though I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching and writing the sermon, I still believe its true.

I mean, just look at the passage there in your bulletins. Now, on the surface, it may seem pretty straight forward. A leper comes to Jesus. Jesus heals him. And the healed man goes out and spreads the word, making Jesus so popular he can’t go into the towns openly, sort of like President Obama or Miley Cyrus. Now that’s what happens in a nutshell, and if we leave it there, all we have is another miracle story and very little else.

But to do that, you know to make it simple, well, you’ve got to ignore a couple of the other things that for me, are just hard to understand. For example, what’s all this stuff about how, right after the healing, "Jesus snorted with rage and immediately cast him out." Now that’s how it reads in the Greek. Jesus uttered the sound a horse makes when he’s really mad and then did to this guy the same thing he did to the demons, he cast him out. I mean, for some reason, Jesus was already ticked off before he gave a single command. Why? That’s one problem.

And then, after Jesus was very specific about what the man was supposed to do, "‘See that you say nothing to anybody. But go, and show yourself to the priests and offer for your cleansing what was prescribed by Moses, as a witness to them.’ [the guy] went out [and] started to proclaim everywhere and to spread abroad the word." In other words, the former leper did the exact opposite of what Jesus told him to do. Why? I’ll tell that’s the second thing I really don’t understand; and that’s why I called this a tricky passage.

But you know, something happen the other night at the house that kind of clarified my thinking a little bit. You see, we’d all agreed that Maggie needed a bath and that I would go upstairs and run the water and then call her when it was ready. Now, that was our understanding, but I’ll tell you, I knew I was in trouble before I even made it to the stairs. You see, Maggie was watching I think Hannah Montana on television, and even though she had her glasses on, she was sitting in her High School Music chair, about three feet from the screen. And I knew this was going to be a problem, even though I think she pinkie swore that she’d come as soon as I called.

But even though I was sure that this was not going to easy, I still went ahead and ran the water. I put in the Mister Bubble like I was supposed to, got out the Polly Pocket swimming pool and when the tub was full, I called, "Maggie, it’s ready." Of course, nothing. "Maggie, it’s ready." Again, nothing. Moving to the head of the stairs, "Come on Maggie, it’s ready." Nothing; it’s like you could hear crickets chirping. Finally, I head down to the family room. "Maggie, let’s go." Her eyes never leave the screen. "In a minute." That’s it. I turn the television off. She looks at me. "Why didn’t you come." "I didn’t hear you the first two times you called. And the third time, all I heard was the last word." Now, without even trying to figure out how she didn’t hear me call her twice, I knew that whether or not she heard, that really wasn’t the problem at all. The issue involved listening. You see, the stupid television had completely distracted her, and because of that, she hadn’t done what I asked her to do. She didn’t obey me.

And you know something, I think that was something that Jesus must have been able to see in that guy he’d just cleansed. You see, before he told him anything to do, I think Jesus knew that he was distracted, you know, like Maggie, he wasn’t really paying attention; therefore, there was almost no chance that he was listening and no way that he would obey. Now, that’s what I think probably happened. I mean, why else would Jesus get so mad, before the person had done anything: good or bad. In other words, just like I thought there might be a problem with Maggie coming upstairs for her bath as soon as I heard "It’s best of both worlds," I believe Jesus had a gut feeling that for some reason, going to the priests and keeping his mouth shut was not on this guy’s agenda. Man, he was simply distracted by other stuff.

And I’ll tell you, I really think that applies to us as well, and not just around bath time. In other words, I believe that when disciples find it really difficult to obey Jesus, generally it’s because they’ve become distracted by other things, I’m telling you, our minds are either elsewhere or we’ve pretty much decided what we’re going to do before Jesus has uttered a word. And you know, when you think about it, that just makes sense. I mean, to obey you’ve got to listen, right? Like my wife tells me, if there’s a football game on, I’m probably not going to remember much less do anything she asks me to do. You see, the game distracts me from what she’s saying, or so she thinks.

And I’ll tell you, as Christians we can be just as distracted. Of course, when you talk about distractions, well, they’re like sand on the shore or stars in the sky; there’s no shortage of them. I mean, they can be physical, you know, like sickness or injury or some kind of addiction. They can be emotional, like sadness or maybe worry or pride. You tell me, what’s a better distraction to doing God’s work than fear or frustration, jealousy or greed, intolerance or ignorance. And I’ll tell you, they can even be spiritual, you know religious. Last week I got an e-mail from someone who took exception to a certain biblical translation I used, because it interpreted one word in one verse in a way that didn’t support what he already believed. And so he was willing to toss aside everything else.

But you know, regardless of the specifics, all these distractions do the exact same three things. First, they narrow our focus. Let’s face it, sometimes it’s hard to see past our televisions or beyond our assumptions or outside our boxes. And second, these distractions allow us to close our minds. I mean, if I’ve convinced myself that the world is always against me and that I never seem to win, then why listen to anything else. And third, this kind of thing has just got to mess up our response. My goodness gracious, how in heaven’s name can I ever do what Christ has called me to do, I mean, how can ever even come close to obeying him, if I’m so distracted by other stuff that I can’t really to listen even if I want to.

And you know, it’s because of that very fact, it’s because all this can actually prevent me from becoming the kind of disciple Jesus has called me to be I’ll tell you, this is the reason that we need to stop messing around and start making a few changes. I mean, as disciples who want to obey, right here and right now we need to recognize and deal with the distractions that we face, because I’ll tell you, that’s the only way we’re ever going to be able really to listen and then do what Christ has called us to do.

And although that may sound pretty tough, I think it’s more than possible the minute we decide to do two things. You see, if we want to get past the stuff that distracts us, I believe the first thing we need to decide is that we’re not controlled by all this mess that gets in the way. Speaking for myself, I can simply decide that I’m not going to be bullied by my remote control and that the NFL does not rule my life and that my physical limitations may be, at worst, speed bumps instead of walls. Who knows, they may actually be opportunities. That’s something we can decide. Or maybe that I’m no longer going to be shaped by what I was told as a child or by insecurities that piled on as I was growing up or by the fears I feel as I look into the future. Man, negative thoughts don’t have to dominate my life. And I’ll tell you, spiritually, I can sure decide that I don’t have all the answers and that I may not be nearly as wise and as righteous as I think I am and that praise the Lord, I’m in the middle of my spiritual journey, not at the end. And that’s O.K. My goodness gracious, first, I can make the decision to put all this mess on the back burner.

So that, second, I can decide to trust in God with my entire heart and spirit and mind. You see, I can decide to trust that I’m in the hands of God, body and soul; therefore, I don’t have to be afraid to step out into the unknown. Man, if I fall, I have faith that he’ll catch me. And I can trust that not only does God love me, and I’m talking about loves me on my most unlovable days, but that, as Paul wrote, nothing can separate me from that love, a love that’s grounded in Jesus Christ himself. In other words, although I’ll probably pay the consequences for my actions, the good news is that I can’t screw up so badly that God will turn away from me. And finally, I can trust that God’s loving and compassionate and merciful will is going to be done, like we pray, on earth as it is in heaven. You know, I believe God’s will is like a river, flowing to the ocean and that we don’t have the power to stop or control it. All we can do is to decide whether we’re going to stand against it or go with the flow. But you know, regardless of what we decide, that river is going to move and eventually, it’s going to take us with it, and we’re going to end up right where God wants us to be. You see, as we turn off the distractions, we can turn toward God, trusting that’s he’s in control.

And if that’s what we decide to do, than I believe we’re going to be able to really listen, and I’m not talking about just to the stuff we want to hear. No, we’ll be able to listen to everything he has to say without fear, because we know the one who’s talking loves us. And we’ll be able to listen with a mind that’s open to new possibilities and opportunities to serve him. And we’ll be able to listen, knowing that what we hear is going shape what we do. In other words, with the distractions out of the way, if Jesus tells us "to say nothing to anybody, but go, and show yourself to the priests and offer for your cleansing what was prescribed by Moses, as a witness to them," that’s exact what we’re going to do. That’s what obedience is all about.

You know, I think this passage is still a little tricky, and frankly a little bit uncomfortable, because I don’t think any of us would want to visualize our gentle savior snorting like a horse and treating a person for whom he just had compassion like a demon. And I know I don’t want to imagine that I could ever be the kind of person who, when told by Jesus to one thing, would go out and do the exact opposite. This kind of stuff, well, it’s just not easy to explain. But fortunately, we don’t have to. Instead, we can try to push aside the distractions and simply trust God; because if this is what we decide to do, we’ll be on our to becoming the kind of disciples who obey.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Sermon: Discipleship 104 - Disciples Serve

Mark 1:29-39 - And immediately after they left the synagogue, they went into the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. And Simon’s mother-in-law was lying ill with a fever. And immediately they told [Jesus] about her. And after he’d come to her, he helped her up by taking her hand. And the fever left her. And she served them.

And when early evening came, when the sun had set, they brought to him all who were sick and possessed by demons. And the whole city gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons. And he didn’t allow the demons to speak, because they knew him.

And early, before it was very light, he got up and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him hunted him down. And they found him and said to him, "Everyone is seeking you." And he said to them, "Let us go elsewhere into the next market town, so that there I might preach also, for this I came." And he went preaching in their synagogues in the whole of Galilee and casting out demons.

**********

Let’s see, what’s the title? Disciples serve. Well, I’ll tell y’all something, on one level, this has the potential to be the shortest sermon I’ve ever preached. Now if that doesn’t deserve an "amen," I don’t know what does. I mean, give me a break, disciples serve. That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? It’s sort of like saying people breath or the economy stinks or (and get this) the Steelers win Super Bowls. Dah. Disciples serve; sure they do, at least they’re suppose to. Man, we all know that.

And I’ll tell you something else, I think we’ve all got a fairly decent idea about some of the different ways we can do it, right? I mean, if we’re really bold, we can head out to Zambia like the Schwertfeger’s or to Haiti like Chris Connell and Chad Marsh or maybe to the southern part of the state like the mission team that sets out every summer. That’s service with a big "S," right? Or, if we’re a little less bold, we can bring food for our food pantry or offer to serve as a church officer or maybe a Sunday School teacher or we can volunteer to do all the kind of unsung stuff that happens around here all the time. My gosh, we can do something as simple as drop some money in the offering plate so that we pay other folks to serve. Man, that’s service too.

Now, that’s something we all know. And so a sermon saying that disciples serve, well, that’s a "no-brainer." We should be able to get that table at Eat N Park way before the rest of the church crowd.

And I’ll tell you, I believe that’s true, that is if we decide to stay right on the surface and assume that we already know everything we need to know. But you know, I really don’t think that’s the case, and I’ll tell you why. Although I believe most Christians would agree the we’re all called to serve, I mean, that’s just something God wants us to do, from where I stand, most of us, and I certainly include myself, well, most of us have only a vague understanding of what Christian service actually involves. In other words, we kind of move from the broad command to the little, biddy details without considering some basic characteristics that should be involved in all service, regardless of what the specifics are.

And so, for a little while this morning, we’re going to talk about this stuff. You see, we’re going to use the passage we just read and in particular Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law so that we might better understand the nature of Christian service. And hopefully, by the end of the sermon, we’re going to see that there are three characteristics that really should be involved whenever and wherever disciples step out and serve.

For example, based on what Mark wrote, I think we’re safe in saying that Christian service is responsive. That’s the first characteristic. In other words, genuine human need is always, and I mean always the focus for a disciple who serves. And although I think that may also be a "no-brainer," I’ll tell you, often we’re probably not as responsive as we could be. I mean, instead of offering people what they actually need, sometimes we give them what we think they need (you see what I mean) or even what we’ve decided we want to give them. And although that may be better than nothing, often it’s just barely. In fact, it can actually be a lot less than nothing, because, I’ll tell you, sometimes it can be downright cruel, sort of like giving a person who’s got no food a microwave oven or who’s houseless a coupon for free carpet cleaning. Sadly, sometimes what the person actually needs doesn’t even appear on our radar screen.

But you know, that’s not what we see with Jesus Christ, not in this passage nor in the rest of his ministry. I mean, when he saw that Simon’s mother-in-law had a fever, that’s the need he addressed, isn’t it? He didn’t launch into a sermon or offer an engaging parable about the Kingdom of Heaven, although that’s exactly what he did in other situations. No, when he was face-to-face with a person who had a fever, that’s exactly what he did something about, the fever. And you know, he did the exact same thing when "he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and [when] he cast out many demons." He was just plain responsive to the needs around him.

And you know, so should we. As disciples of Jesus Christ, following his example, our service should be based on their needs rather than our assumptions or desires. And to do that, well, it seems to me we really need to keep our eyes and ears open so that we can see the problems and hear the cries for help and hope. But more than that, I think we also need to use a little common sense. Back when I was in college, we learned about something called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; have y’all ever heard of that? Well, it’s usually illustrated as a pyramid, divided into five levels, each representing a different set of needs, starting with the physiological, like food and water, and then moving to safety needs to needs related to loving and belonging then esteem and finally what he calls self-actualization. Now that’s what he developed and his point was this: higher needs only become important when the lower needs are met. And you know, as we serve, I think that’s something we need to remember, because if a person is sweating bullets about losing his job and feeding his family, we’re really not responding to his needs if we hand him a book on how to boost your self-esteem. That would really be a waste of time, wouldn’t it? You see, as Christians, we must let those in need shape our agenda. That’s being responsive, the first characteristic of Christian service.

And second, I think our service should also be liberating. In other words, I really believe it should, in some way, free the person or people from the very forces that are holding them back, whether that be poverty or addictions or greed. And you know, I think that’s every bit as important as being responsive, and I’ll tell you why. Sometimes, even when we’re really responding to genuine human need, sometimes for whatever reason, our help is very limited and incomplete, sort of like giving a person with strep throat an aspirin rather than penicillin; they may feel a little better for a while, but we haven’t done anything about what’s really causing the problem. Although we’ve responded to their immediate need, we really haven’t offered them any kind of freedom that will last.

But you know, that’s a lot different from what Jesus did for that woman, isn’t it? I mean, he didn’t try to comfort her with soothing words and he didn’t put cold compresses on her head, in other words he didn’t just address the symptoms. No, instead he took her by the hand, and the fever did what...it "left her." In other words, she was freed from that disease, just like those who were possessed were freed from their demons when Jesus cast them out and a little bit later in the gospel, people will be freed from their sins, when they hear Jesus say, "Your sins are forgiven." You see, the kind of service offered by Christ was liberating.

And believe me, so can our’s. I mean, we can do more than put a band-aid on a scratch. Working together, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit, and recognizing that surface problems have underlying causes, we can not only announce over and over again that through grace of God made real through Jesus Christ there is freedom from those evil forces that oppress us, we can also begin to address the root causes for hunger and hatred and isolation. Now, I’m not saying we can solve them, but we can make a start right here in our community. You see, Christian service is liberating, and that’s number two.

And finally, I think it’s also empowering. I’m telling you, when we follow Christ’s example, we’ll be helping those liberated people go out and serve others. And you know, that’s a whole lot different from offering help and then moving on or simply fixing a problem without giving the ones we’ve helped the tools or the opportunity or even the encouragement to go out and help others.

But I’ll tell you, that’s exactly what Jesus did in the passage we just read, isn’t it? I mean, not only did he respond to that woman’s need and liberate her from the fever, he also empowered her to respond. He restored both her health and her place in the household, and the result was that she became the very first deacon, because that’s the actual word in Greek that’s translated "serve."

And you know, I think that’s part of our job too. Have y’all ever heard the concept of "pay it forward?" Well, if you don’t know what that means, it’s really cool. I help you, with the understanding that in the future, when you’re back on your feet, you’ll help someone else. And so just like Jesus, after he called the Peter and Andrew to follow, told them that they were going to be fishers of people, I think it’s crucially important that we challenge those whom we help to help others. But more than just that, I think we also need to give those folks both the tools and opportunity to do that. And for me, that’s where the church comes into the picture. I mean just imagine how exciting this place would become if after responding to their needs and helping them become free from those powers that keep them down, imagine if we would invite those folks into our congregation and then join and work with them to serve God by serving others, my gosh, I think we would see the Spirit of God flow through our community and through our church and my goodness, through our lives with a power that will knock our socks off. You see, I think that can happen when our Christian service becomes the way God empowers those whom we serve. And that’s three.

Like I said earlier, Christian service is a no-brainer and I’ll tell you, there’s no shortage of opportunities for those who have eyes to see. But if we want to follow the example of Jesus and to serve others as he did, then I think it’s important for our service to be responsive and liberating and empowering. And if this is what we set out to do and actually do it, then we may not need to hear another sermon on it at all.

Sprouts of Faith - Parents and Me Music Sessions

Sprouts of Faith starts with a test class on February 10, 2009

We are offering a free of charge Sprouts of Faith test session on February 10, from 10:00 a.m.-11:00 a.m. at Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, WV 26062 Telephone (304) 748-5980.

Registrations forms for the six week spring class will be available shortly. If you need additional information or want to sign up for the free class, please call (304) 794-6802 (Lolou Roseberry) or e-mail lolourose@hotmail.com or contact Pastor Ed Rudiger at (304) 748-5980 or email CovePresbyterian@aol.com.

(Please enter through the office entrance opposite the street side which is located between the Millsop Center and the Municipal Building).

Sprouts of Faith is a faith-based music program for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. It allows children and their parents, grandparents, or caregivers to sing and dance to Christian music. Along with singing and dancing we play with puppets, roll cars to the beat, play musical instruments, and have fun riding on a big parachute. If approved by the session, The Sprouts of Faith spring six week session will be scheduled for Tuesday mornings from 10:00 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. (Starting date TBD).

Sprouts of Faith started at:

  • Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church, ELCA in Prior Lake, Minnesota in March 2006 to present by the founder Lisa Seekins
  • North Way Christian Community in Wexford, PA in August 2008 to present by Lisa Seekins

Friday, February 6, 2009

Taking Ownership in Evangelism

I found a 1996 Presbyterian Panel Survey that made a summarizing comment:

Pastors and laity tend to have different perspectives on which group has major responsibility for membership growth and decline. Pastors are more likely to see laity in that role, while laity are more likely to see pastor’s in the role.

I wonder if the survey occurred today if the result would be any different? I would imagine not much has changed in 12 years. There seems to be a clear divide between who is responsible for the growth and decline of the church. We love to blame everyone else than to look at ourselves to see if we are the problem.

In our own constitution, it says, "The Church is called to present the claims of Jesus Christ. leading persons to repentance, acceptance of him as Savior and Lord, and new life as his disciples." (G-3.0300b) Evangelism with respect to church growth must be done first, and church growth will be the natural outcome of our Church’s faithfulness to the evangelistic call. If we have done our evangelism, church growth would not be a problem. But it is a problem. We are declining rapidly. Membership growth through evangelism must be the call to the whole church both elders and pastors. Let's stop pointing fingers, and point more people to Christ Jesus.

—Eric Hoey, Director of Evangelism and Church Growth for the General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Disciples Who Teach Also Are Willing to Learn

At long last, it looks like the temperatures will go up a little bit this weekend. And although it'll still not be what we used to call "short-pants weather," I know for me it'll be a nice break. But I'm sure not going to pack away my overcoat. The worse may be yet to come.

But right now I'm talking about the weather, not the condition and ministry of this congregation, because I believe the best it just around the corner. And that's why I'm excited that the session has adopted Christ's call to make disciples of all nations as our vision for the next year. And over the last couple of weeks, we've been discussing discipleship during the worship service. The sermons may be found on our blog. So far we've said that disciples understand, follow and are confident. This week we'll consider how disciples are also called to serve, and specifically, some characteristics of Christian service that we can apply in every aspect of life. I'll tell you, as we live as informed disciples of Jesus Christ and as we trust in the Holy Spirit, I believe we're going to see God work in exciting ways right here in our community.

Notice, though, I wrote "informed disciples." Since part of our call to make disciples involves "teaching them," it would seem to be important to understand what we believe. In the Brown Bag Bible Study yesterday, we looked at God explaining the Passover meal to Moses. And in his explanation, God told Moses that the people of Israel should pass the meaning down to their children, and that's something we're called to do as well. I think it's important to tell our children and those who are new to the faith all about the grace and love of God. But to do that, I think it's important for us to be willing to learn and grow ourselves.

And that's the reason, as we equip ourselves to act on our vision, we're providing opportunities to grow right now and will be offering more in the future. For example, each day I send out Bible Readings as given in Eugene Peterson's paraphrase The Message. Although the language may be more contemporary then we may expect, I think it offers new insights and perspectives that we may not have considered before. And if we keep up with the readings, we'll read the whole Bible by next year this time. We also have a weekly Bible study, Thursdays at noon, and several adult Sunday School classes that meet right before the worship service. During Lent, we'll have simple dinners after church followed by a brief lesson. This year, we'll look at the nature of the Trinity. We'll also be offering an exciting new program for parents and their preschool children called "Spouts of Faith." There'll be a trial session on Tuesday, at 10:00 here at the church. This should give families the chance to bound and grow in their relationship with God.

These are opportunities we all have to grow. Unfortunately, as they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. I guess whether we drink or not is really up to each of us. For the sake of our mission and witness, let's take advantage of what we have right here in our church.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sermon: Discipleship 103 - Disciples Are Confident

Mark 1:21-28 - And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath, after he’d gone into the synagogue, he began to teach. And they were astounded by his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who has authority and not like the scribes. And immediately, there was in their synagogue a person with an unclean spirit. And he called out and said, "What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the holy one of God." And Jesus rebuked him and said, "Be quiet and come out from him." And after the unclean spirit convulsed him and cried out with a great cry, it came out from him. And everyone was amazed, so that they began to discuss among themselves, "What is this? A new teaching with authority and he commands the unclean spirits and they obey him." And immediately a rumor about him went out everywhere, into the whole country of Galilee.

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Well, today is the day, right? Super Bowl 43: the Steelers vs. the Cardinals, Tomlin vs. Whisehunt, Casey Hampton and the immovable object vs. Kurt Warner and the irresistible force. And although I don’t want anyone to walk out, I understand that on ESPN, the pre-game show started at 10:00. And you know, to tell you the truth, I really think it’s going to be a pretty good game, which means, I honestly think the Steelers are going to win. You know, not only do they have what looks like a better team, their attitude, well, that just seems right.

You see, in listening to interviews and stuff like that, they appear to be really confident, and that’s a good thing going into a big game. I mean, on one hand they’re certainly not afraid of Arizona, but on the other hand, they’re not cocky either. No, instead they seem positive, up-beat, and ready for the coin toss, confident that if they play their game they should come out ahead.

And you know, as we continue to talk about discipleship, that’s the same attitude that I think Christians can have. In other words, right along with understanding who Jesus is and making the decision to get out of the boat and follow, I believe that disciples have every reason to be positive and up-beat as we live the kind of life and do the kind of work Christ has called us to live and do. Simply put, like the Steelers approaching the Super Bowl, I believe faithful and dedicated disciples can sure be confident.

But I’ll tell you, unfortunately, that’s evidently not an attitude that comes naturally, because it’s not something that I see oozing from most of the Christians I’ve met. In other words, although I think we’ve all known a few believers who were sort of cocky, you know, like God is lucky to have them on his side and whatever they do is right by its nature, although I’ve run across some who have a mighty inflated view of themselves, most of the folks I know seem to have a problem with what’s on the other side of the coin. My goodness, at times they almost appear to be scared or at the very least apprehensive as they go about their business as disciples of Jesus Christ.

But you know, when you think about it, that’s really not all that surprising. I mean, give me a break, just consider what’s going on all around us, and I’m talking about what’s happening in the world, my gosh, think about the greed and the hatred and the violence, the poverty and the hunger and the ignorance, good night, the loneliness and the hopeless and the despair, man, just think about all this and then take a look in the mirror or at the church directory, knowing that we’ve been called to do God’s work out there and to deal with all the crud. Now, does that fill you with confidence?

I don’t know about y’all, but it scares the puddin’ out of me. My gosh, I’m just one person and we’re just a small congregation; it’s like we’re drowning in problems and needs. Man, you just can’t address them all, right? It’s too many; it’s too big. And so, it’s no wonder so many Christians and congregations circle up the wagons and retreat behind these walls, and pretend that Jesus really commanded us to argue about piddly little things around here and to gossip about and judge one another rather than to get off our pews and to make disciples of all nations. From where I sit, this kind of thing happens far too often in the modern church And I’ll tell you, that’s really sad, because this kind of stuff, this inaction can not only cripple the church but can devastate any kind of personal Christian growth. And yet that’s what happens when fear pushes out confidence.

And you know, it’s because of that, it’s because Christ didn’t call us to be the writer of laws but the fishers of people, brothers and sisters, it’s because right here in Weirton, West Virginia the harvest is ready but the workers are few, it’s because of all this, that right now, we need to regain a sense of confidence as we try as hard as we can to do what Christ wants us to do.

And you know, I think that’s possible, I think it’s possible for Christians to be positive and up-beat as they move into the real world, man, I think it’s possible for disciples to be confident, and the reason, well, I think it’s right here in the passage we just read. As a matter of fact, in these verses I believe there are two outstanding reasons for us to be confident, and they both center on one single word: authority, and now I’m talking about a power that’s grounded in the nature of God himself and that was shown through the work of Jesus Christ and that’s alive and well right here in the church. Just let me tell you what exactly why we can be confident.

You see, first, we can be confident because the message that we’re called to share has authority; man, it has power. And that’s certainly something we can see in this passage. I mean, after Jesus had been teaching, according to Mark, the folks who heard "...were astounded by his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who has authority and not like the scribes."

Now, that’s what it says, that unlike those guys who spent their lives copying the scriptures and arguing about piddly little details and gossiping about and judging people who had better things to do then worrying about how many figs a person should carry on the Sabbath, that unlike the lessons offered by those rigid scribes who couldn’t see beyond their own little boxes, the words of Jesus had real authority; man, they had real power, because they could absolutely change lives.

But you know, we already knew that. I mean, just think about what we talked about last week. My gosh, when he said, "The time has been completed and the Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news," he was offering a reason for hope and peace that the people may have never heard before. You see, according to Christ, God was doing it all. It wasn’t something that had to be earned or deserved. Rather it was already happening right then and there.

And to appreciate it, to feel the hope, to know the peace, well, all they had to do was to turn from whatever baloney they’d banked on in the past and to trust the good news, to trust that the victory had already been won; therefore, they could celebrate right now, in the present. I’m telling you, this was the message of Jesus Christ, a message that had authority and power.

And I’ll tell you something else, it’s one that can still change lives the minute we claim it and then take it beyond these walls and offer it to folks who are lonely and lost. I’m telling you, it can change lives; it can offer real hope. And praise the Lord, this is the word that we can share and live. Man, this is our message; and for me, that’s one reason a disciple can be confident.

And second, just think about the one whom we’re called to follow. I’m telling you, he has authority, he has power too. You know, it’s interesting, if we trust this passage, we really don’t have any reason to feel positive about the world as it is. Man, along with the other garbage, there are unclean spirits out there. And you know, I think they can mess with our minds. They’ve done it before, they can do it again. I mean, they’ve convinced honest and sincere people that intolerance can be noble and that human rules lead to righteousness, and that morality is determined by what you want and that Christ would never lead you to a place you don’t want to go.

But worse than that, they convince us that we should be ashamed of what we believe. And in spite of what we want to think, they’re heck of a lot smarter than you and me. Remember, they knew exactly who Jesus was, calling him "the holy one of God" before anyone else had a clue. No, the presence of evil makes that world a tough place and that’s something we’re just going to have to accept, because frankly, I don’t think God wants us to walk around with rose colored glasses or to become cocky, you know, thinking that we can beat evil by just showing up. No, that can’t be the will of God.

Instead, I think he wants us to trust that even though evil may be stronger than us, it’s not stronger than Christ. I’ll tell you, even the unclean spirits knew that their time had come, because they knew that Jesus came to destroy them as sure as Raid kills bugs, dead. And that’s as true now as it was then. You know, when you think about it, Jesus is like all those people who follow you around when you’re using Verizon. Or maybe better, he’s like that big old tackle who’ll be opening up holes for Willie Parker later this evening. Man, Paul hit the nail on the head when he wrote, "if God is for us, than who can be against us?" You see, because Jesus has authority, because he has power, a disciple has every reason to be confident. And that’s number two.

I’ll tell you, it’s good to see that the Steelers are confident going into the big game. Let’s face it, I think we’d all agree that they’d probably be in big trouble if they were either cocky or scared. Of course, confidence alone isn’t going to be enough to win. They’re still going to have to leave the locker room and get out on the field and play. And you know, the same is true for us. Although I think the authority that’s in the message we share and the one whom we follow, although that should give us two good reasons to be confident, we still have to leave this building and to get out into the real world, because when you get right down to it, that’s exactly where disciples are called to play.