Sermons












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Soul-Sustaining Power
Luke 4:14-30
February 3, 2019

Unless You Bless Me
Mark 7:24-30
September 9, 2018

Love Languages of God
Isaiah 43:4 and Ephesians 3:14-21
July 29, 2018

Called from Holy Ground
Exodus 3:1-12
July 22, 2018


“God’s Plan A”
Acts 11:1-18
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
May 19, 2019

This was not their plan. It wasn’t any of these first believers’ plan for what it looked like to follow Jesus, what it meant to be faithful to the Lord.  Those first believers saw themselves as part of a reformation within the Jewish faith, and expected to remain as they had always been—Jewish—just now also followers of Jesus.  

After all Jesus himself was Jewish.  He and his disciples observed the Passover and the Sabbath, practiced circumcision, worshipped in the temple, and followed a kosher diet, all in accordance with the religious traditions handed on to them from birth.  Naturally they expected these practices to continue.

But Peter’s vision at Joppa—and his visit to Cornelius—ushered in a radical new vision of what God’s plan had been for them all along.  

Cornelius and his family were Gentiles and he was a high-ranking Roman military leader—in other words someone the believers would never have expected to become part of their community of faith.

When the rumor spreads that Peter—impulsive Peter, the one who regularly failed to think things through—had gone to the home of this Gentile, eaten with his family, and worst of all baptized the whole household in the name of Jesus, the church leaders—seasoned session members of their day—are utterly appalled. 

This unapproved, unsanctioned act of evangelism transgressed the boundaries of their theology and tradition; it was an unorthodox affront on what they held most dear.  

Yet in this moment of criticism, Peter doesn’t back down.  He doesn’t apologize.  He doesn’t deny what he has done.  He doesn’t fire back accusations that these church leaders are small minded or prejudiced. No, Peter tells a story.  Peter takes his time, calmly describing the vision, the voice from heaven, the visitors from Caesarea, and his visit to the home of Cornelius.  

Peter humbly explains how God changed his mind and gave him the courage and conviction he needed in order to break with tradition, to let go of rules he had observed all his life, and embrace the new thing God was doing.  Peter told how he saw the work of the Holy Spirit in this family’s life and that he had dared not get in the way.

The story is so powerful that the religious leaders unanimously agree that they were wrong. Clearly God has done this. Clearly God wants this.  It was never their plan to welcome Gentiles but it was absolutely and always God’s plan.

This one story—the story of a family’s conversion and the openness of the church leaders to having their minds changed—became a turning point in the story of the church.  

No longer did those who wanted to follow Jesus have to follow traditions related to diet and circumcision.  Now they could be full followers of Jesus without following those rules.  

It was a monumental moment and one that might just be responsible for turning these first followers of Jesus into a faith that has swept the globe.  Because while following a special diet requires some sacrifice, we can live with food restrictions.  
But if the church leaders had kept insisting that adult Gentile men who wanted to follow Jesus had to be circumcised—let’s just say that is not the way to grow a church.

And there was another issue with circumcision: it applied only to the men.  
On one hand this was probably a relief for the women but there was a major downside.  Because it meant that women could never be full members of the community.  The key physical mark of membership could never apply to them, meaning they would never fully belong and would always be second-class, tag-a-long members.  And so this requirement of circumcision had become a barrier to Gentile men AND women, pushing them away from belonging within the community of faith.

To the enduring credit of Peter and these other Jewish men on the council, they are willing to let God change their minds.  They are open to discovering that the traditions that have given them a sense of identity, the practices that they have held dear, are not necessary for the Christian faith, and in fact had become a hindrance to it.  So they let God change their minds, and boldly follow the Holy Spirit into the new future of their faith.  Now the message could spread, not by requiring people to become like them but by welcoming people as they are, differences and all.

This transformation hinged not only on Peter’s vision or decision to baptize Cornelius and his family but on the other leaders also letting go of their plans for the church in order to embrace God’s plan.

God’s plan for them was radical hospitality.  In his book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Pastor Robert Schnase names radical hospitality as the first key practice of vibrant congregations.In defining radical hospitality, he explains that the roots of the word “hospitality” lie in two words meaning “enemy” and “people.”   

Our word “hospitality” comes from the practice not of welcoming those who are like us but rather welcoming those we might once have thought of as being different, wrong, or even our enemies.

Schnase explains, “By radical I mean ‘offering the absolute utmost of ourselves, our creativity, our abilities, and our energy to offer the gracious embrace of Christ to others. Churches characterized by radical hospitality are not just friendly and courteous, passively receiving guests warmly. Faith communities practicing radical hospitality offer a surprising and unexpected quality of depth and authenticity in their caring for the stranger.  People intuitively sense that ‘these people really care about me.  They genuinely want the best for me.  I’m not just a number, a customer, a target in their strategy to grow their church.  I’m welcomed along with them into the body of Christ.’”

We see this radical hospitality in the story of Peter, Cornelius, and these ancient church leaders. And we see that radical hospitality often requires a change of mind.  It challenges treasured traditions, stretching the whole community of faith.  For the church to welcome Cornelius and his family just as they were didn’t just change that one Gentile family, it also changed the theology and practices of the believers, revolutionizing their understanding of what the church was called to do and be.

In his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory,Rev. Tod Bolsinger writes about the difference between our Plan A—in our lives and in the church—and God’s Plan A.  He says that our Plan A is never God’s plan A, and we only get to God’s plan A when our plans A, B, and C fail.”

God’s plan A for the ancient church was radical hospitality, reaching out to Gentile believers, welcoming them, differences and all, as full members of the family of faith.
It took a while for the church leaders to get on board with God’s plan A.  It took some disagreement, some criticism, and major risk.  But most of all it required the powerful movement of the Holy Spirit and the believers’ openness to the work of God in the church and in their lives. 

So today, inspired by this story, we can praise God, for radical hospitality is a central commitment of our congregation and a gift that Covington has in abundance.  

But let us also be stretched by this story.  Stretched in our faith and expanded by God’s grace as we follow the call to radical hospitality.  

Let us pray for and watch for God’s plan A, unfolding before our eyes.  Let us rejoice to be part of it.  And always remember that God’s Plan A—for our lives and for our church—is infinitely better than anything we could ask or even imagine.  Thanks be to God!  And let all God’s people say, Amen.

Resources: Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase and Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territoryby Tod Bolsinger.


“Call to Confession”
Psalm 32 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
March 31, 2019
Imagine for a moment that you are not here in church on a Sunday morning; instead it is a weekday, and you are sitting in a courtroom.  In your mind’s eye, you can see the judge and jurors, the attorneys, and the accused.
A witness comes forward to take the stand.  He places his hand on a Bible and promises, to tell (say it with me) “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
The truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth.  The phrase brings us back from the courtroom and into the sanctuary, where we are today.
This commitment to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is, in a very real way, what the psalmist is describing.  He tells us how hard it was to try to hide his truth from God.  He says he physically “wasted away”: keeping silent about what he had done wrong sucked out his strength and ate away at him from the inside out.
This kind of silence is not at all the same as our “silent confession” in worship—for the psalmist “silence” means hiding from God, stuffing sin down deep inside.  The only antidote to this condition is confession—speaking, naming, and acknowledging his sin.   He writes, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.” The psalmist lets it all out.  He confesses everything.  And God forgives him.
Unlike an ordinary courtroom scene, where confession leads to conviction and sentencing, God responds to our confession in a very different way.  
In the words of Isaiah, God is our Judge, yes, and he is also our Redeemer, who calls us to tell him our whole truth and who also forgives and saves us.  No wonder the psalmist proclaims, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”  Happiness, energy, and freedom come from confessing his sin.  His spiritual, physical, and emotional vitality are restored.
Following this example, and that of many other passages in Scripture, a time of confession—silently and aloud—is a part of our worship service each week.  
As Presbyterians we don’t require anyone to confess their sin to a priest or pastor but we do take very seriously our need to confess to the Lord.  We believe that sin is real; it is pervasive; and it infects every one of us.  No one is exempt.  We have all said and done things this week, and probably already this morning, that we know were wrong.  Things that have hurt other people.  Things that have hurt ourselves.  Things that have hurt God.  Reckoning with our sin calls for courage.  
But no matter what it is we most struggle with, no matter how painful and even shameful it may feel, we can share our whole truth with the Lord.  God calls us to confession, not just through a pastor’s words in worship but far more so by the voice of the Holy Spirit within us, showing us our sin and unsettling our spirits until we truly, whole-heartedly confess.
The Apostle Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, describes this feeling, our internal awareness of our sin, our feeling of being unsettled, as a kind of “godly sadness”: it is godly sadness because it produces a change of heart.  Godly sadness makes us willing and even eager to confess, to get everything out and receive the forgiveness of our Lord.
“Godly sadness” is good sadness because it leads to change in our lives: transformation, in fact, the kind of transformation Paul describes as a “new creation” coming through our relationship with Jesus.  “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
That newness means we cannot simply return to our old ways of being, resigned to confess the same old sins again each week for decades, without ever trying to make a change.  The new creation means we are fundamentally transformed by God’s forgiveness and called to lead a new life in him, a life that is ever more faithful and true.
While it can be hard to get away from the sins that most entice us, that doesn’t mean we should accept them as inevitable.  God challenges us instead to let him help us change.  
Some eighty years ago, pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote about what he calls “the cost of discipleship.”  While many members of the German Church were giving in to the destruction wrought by Hitler, Bonhoeffer led the efforts of German Christians courageous enough to oppose him. 
In his writing and teaching, Bonhoeffer makes a distinction between what he calls “cheap” and “costly” grace.  “Cheap grace,” he writes, would permit us to half-heartedly confess in worship on Sundays and then live the rest of the week however we want, accepting lies, hate, and destruction, with no sense of connection between confession and the new creation.
But in Christian faith, we believe that grace does come at a cost: a tremendous cost, first of all in what it cost Jesus, in his suffering and death.   And second in what it costs us: it’s not that we could ever purchase grace but that grace costs us dearly because it calls for transformation in our lives.
Now, in these final weeks of Lent, we remember the tremendous cost Jesus faced so that we might receive God’s grace.  And in response God calls us to seriously, and soberly, reflect on our lives, opening ourselves to seeing our whole truth and confessing it to the Lord.
One of the ancient prayers Christians have used in confession is called the “Kyrie”—which means in Greek, “Lord”—the words are sung, “Kyrie Eleison,” “Lord have mercy,” We share this simple, powerful prayer with Christians all around the world and throughout all time.
Lord, have mercy.
Today, following the sermon, we’ll have a time of confession, an opportunity when we can seriously and soberly ask for the mercy of the Lord, and renew our commitment to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.
So now, in prayer, meditation, song, and silence, may we tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to our God.
“Kyrie Eleison” (Ghana)                                          Sung by the Iona Community
Prayer of Confession
I acknowledge my sin to you.  I do not hide my iniquity.                                                Forgive the guilt of my sin. 
Silent Confession

            Lord have mercy.  
Christ have mercy. 
Lord have mercy.  

“Kyrie Eleison” (Russia)                                          Sung by the Iona Community

Assurance of Forgiveness

Gloria Patri 
Glory be to the Father, 
and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.  Amen.

Resources: Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 2, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor.   “2 Corinthians 5:16-21” by Amanda Benckhuysen at workingpreacher.org.  The Cost of Discipleshipby Dietrich Bonhoeffer.





  


“In the Shadow of God’s Wings”
Psalm 63:1-8
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2019

Strong King David. Mighty David.  The warrior.  The victor. The conquering hero. But now in the wilderness, David is alone.  Hiding. Fleeing for his life.  

Psalm 63 is attributed to King David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.  At least twice in his life David was in this wilderness—early on as a young man, when he fled the violence of Saul; and again decades later, when his own son Absalom conspired to take the throne.  In both cases David, this man after God’s own heart, this mighty king, fled into the wilderness to escape the violence of those intent on taking his life.

In many ways the wilderness is a good place to hide— the barren terrain provides a kind of protection, discouraging assailants and making tracking someone hard.  But the barren nature of the desert means water is elusive too.

So here David speaks openly of his thirst—physically he needs water in the wilderness; and spiritually, he needs God’s presence flowing within him, sustaining his life.   “My soul thirsts for you,” David writes, “my flesh faiths for you, as in a dry and weary land.”

In this dry and weary land, David turns to his memories of worship in the sanctuary, thinking of God’s power and glory as well as of God’s steadfast, intimate love.  And here, in these memories, there is power enough to sustain him.

“My soul is satisfied and my mouth praises you with joy, ” he writes.   For despite the reality of vulnerability and fear, David’s memory of joy in God’s presence is so powerful that it quenches his spiritual thirst.

David goes on to imagine himself sheltered in the shadow of God’s wings: wings hovering above to protect him from the desert sun; wings sheltering around to hold him close, near to the living God.

Earlier I invited our children to imagine such closeness to the Lord.  To physically feel the comfort on being in the shelter of a wing, near to someone they love.  Now I invite you all to imagine such protection.  To imagine God’s wings above you, casting a shadow of coolness to protect you from the blazing desert sun.  And to imagine yourself tucked beneath God’s wing, with warmth and security around you. 

David himself, for all his power and achievement, felt the need for such protection. 

For a shadow of coolness from the desert heat; for the comfort of being held close to the living God. 

This psalm shows us that David was not only brave in battle: he was spiritually brave as well, for he put his need, his thirst, his vulnerability into words, showing us that we too can be honest with God.

At times we all find ourselves, like David, in a wilderness of the spirit.  We may be in a wilderness right now or may remember a wilderness we have journeyed through in the past.

Maybe, like David, we have faced literal violence, and have had to flee from those who threated us.

Perhaps we face now or have faced an illness that invaded our bodies, or an injury that attacked our sense of wholeness.

Maybe our wilderness has been brought about by loss: the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, of the loss of a hope or dream for our lives.

It could be that our wilderness is one of uncertainty or fear, for ourselves or for a loved one.

Everybody, no matter how strong and powerful they may seem, ventures into such barren places, periods when we feel profoundly our need, our thirst, our hunger, a deep desire that the things of this world cannot fill.

In such times, David’s words show us how to survive: thinking not only of the threat against us but also of the power of God to shelter and sustain.

As with David, God calls us close, inviting us to nestle beneath his wing.

Centuries after David, Jesus mourned over the city of Jerusalem, and those who turned away from him, saying, “How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Like the sheltering protector of this psalm, God invites us to take refuge with to him.
Like the mother hen of the gospel, Jesus wants to gather us beneath his wings.

So let us be willing. Willing to come near to God, bringing our own need, our own vulnerability and fear, remembering that our God is mighty to save AND near to us, sheltering us like a mother bird.

Whatever your wilderness may be today, however you may long for the Lord to shelter you beneath his wings, Jesus calls you close now, offering love, strength, and tenderness.  Amen.

Resources: Feasting on the Word,Year C, Vol 2, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor.  “The Psalms” by Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.





“The Heart of St Patrick’s Day”
Luke 5:1-11
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
March 17, 2019


The year was 403.  Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire, whose power stretched from Syria to Britain, North Africa to Turkey.   

But at the far western reaches of the Empire, the power of Rome was beginning to crumble.  Britain had come under attack as tribes from neighboring lands raided the coast and began to sweep inland.  In less than a decade, the Roman Empire would pull its troops out of Britain, leaving warring tribes to fight for land, wealth, and control.  Western Europe was on the brink of what we now call the Dark Ages.

One night, during an attack on a village, a boy was among those taken captive.  At the time he was about 16 and his name is likely to have been Magonus Sucatus.   Irish pirates captured the youth, bound him, and took him across the sea, to their native land, where they sold him as a slave.

Magonus was the son of a Roman officer and church deacon, though at the time of his capture, he was not much convinced of Christian faith himself.  But during those years of captivity, and his hard, lonely work as a shepherd, the faith Magonus had learned as a child took root and began to grow. Magonus began to seek refuge in God and prayer became his one source of comfort.   Many times a day he prayed those words he had learned as a child, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.“ 

Later, reflecting on this period of his life, he wrote, “after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I prayed many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; 
I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.”
Through his years in slavery, Magonus found his strength in Christian faith, a faith that by now had become his own. 

Then one day, six years after he was captured, Magonus sensed the Lord calling him to escape, to flee to the coast, and seek passage home.  After an arduous trip across the Irish Sea, Magonus was reunited with his family.  And there, at home in Britain, he discerned a call to the priesthood.  

Once again he left home, this time to study in Gaul, modern-day France, where he began to prepare for ministry. When he completed his studies and became a priest, Magonus took on a new name, Patricius, the Latin version of the name we now know as Patrick.  Patrick heard a clear call in his ministry, to return to the people of Ireland and share with them the Christian faith.  

Though this must have been a fearsome call, Patrick submitted the request to his superiors and the pope appointed him as the first bishop of Ireland, to which he now returned, not as a slave but as a missionary.

Perhaps the words of Jesus inspired his courage and sense of call: Jesus said to the men he first called as his disciples, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”  To Patrick, the sense of call may well have been, “Do not be afraid, for I will make you a shepherd not of sheep but of the Irish people.”  For Patrick sensed God’s call to share the gospel with the very people who had so mistreated him, shepherding them into the Christian faith.

As George Hunter, a professor of evangelism and church growth writes, "As far as we know nobody [else] in history has ever escaped from slavery and voluntarily returned to those who still owned him at great personal risk, loving them and telling them of the high God whom they had only dimly known."

The strategy Patrick took in this ministry was brilliant and utterly unconventional.  For rather than dismissing the Druid traditions of Ireland, or forcing people to give them up entirely in order to convert, Patrick incorporated many of these traditions into his proclamation of the Christian faith, building on and adapting every traditional Irish belief that he could in order to teach about Christianity.

For example if a Druid community worshiped at a large standing stone, that is where Patrick planted his church; eventually the new Christians there would carve the great stone into the shape of a cross.  

Another ancient Celtic symbol was the ring, which stood for the sun or world, 
and Patrick superimposed the Christian cross on the circle, adapting the meaning of the cross and circle to represent Jesus, the Son of God and redeemer of the world.

Patrick was also on the cutting edge of mission in the way he preached the gospel in Irish Gaelic, the native language of the people.  Patrick’s courage and innovative strategies eventually became widespread and Christian faith swept across Ireland.  

Years later, long after the death of Patrick and the fall of the Roman Empire, missionaries from Ireland were sent back to Britain, Scotland, and western Europe, using Patrick’s very methods to re-evangelize the people.

Patrick’s impact on the island of Ireland, and ultimately on the faith of much of the western world, has made him one of the most influential missionaries of all time, perhaps second only to the Apostle Paul. 

Patrick boldly followed the call Jesus, given to those first disciples, and experienced the same awe-inspiring results—like the disciples’ remarkable catch of fish and ultimately of people, Patrick gathered an astonishing flock in Ireland to the Christian faith.

His story echoes the promise that as we follow Jesus, he can do amazing things in and through our lives, far beyond our own dreams and aspirations. For the first disciples, the people they gathered into Christianity ultimately stretched across the ancient Mediterranean world.  For Patrick, the people gathered into the flock were from all across Ireland and beyond, in the legacy of those who have followed his example and methods in sharing the gospel.

While the call to share the good news of Jesus does not come easily to most of us Presbyterians, it IS part of our call to follow Jesus, and it is the central meaning, the true meaning, of St. Patrick’s Day—when we honor a man who shared the gospel with so many.

So I challenge you to embrace the true spirit of St Patrick’s Day: our call as Christians to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Prayerfully and courageously consider today, just as St Patrick did, who is in the flock entrusted to your care.

With whom is God calling you to share the hope of Christian faith, through your words and your example?

Perhaps your flock encompasses your children or grandchildren, or the children of this church.

Perhaps God has placed in your flock a family member or friend, someone who is facing heartbreak or struggle and feels very much alone.

Maybe God has given you a flock in your place of work, where you, through an example of compassion and integrity, quietly communicate the power of Christian faith.

For the heart of St Patrick’s Day is not a celebration of Irish culture—as much as we may love it—it is the celebration of a missionary, who courageously shared the gospel with those who once enslaved him.  So let us get in the true spirit of this day and discover the flock God has entrusted to our care.  Amen.

Resources: “What St. Patrick Can Teach United Methodists” at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/what-st-patrick-can-teach-united-methodists
“Ancient Britain” at https://www.ancient.eu/britain/  “Will the Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up?” by Ralph Wilson and “The Confession of St. Patrick” at Joyful Heart Renewal Ministries http://www.joyfulheart.com/stpatrick/pat.htm



“A Glimpse of God’s Time”
Isaiah 6:1-8
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2018

“Holy, Holy, Holy,” we sing so beautifully in worship. Gently.  Reverently. 

But when these words were sung in Isaiah’s vision, the sound was loud enough to shake the foundation of the temple.  Can you imagine it being so loud here in the sanctuary that the floor was shaking?  You see repetition is used in Hebrew for emphasis, so with each successive “Holy,” the volume rises until it is at a nearly unbearable pitch.

The angels here are seraphs, which bear no resemblance to the golden haired, cherubic figures we often see depicted as “angels.”  Seraphs or seraphim are more like fiery, flying serpents—with six wings.  Isaiah sees them here; John glimpses them in Revelation.  And John says their wings are covered in eyes.  Can you imagine it?  Fiery, flying serpents, wings covered in eyes—it’s worthy of nightmares.

So no wonder Isaiah says, “Woe is me,” or “there is no hope for me.”  He thinks of his sin, and the sin of his people, and is terrified in the presence of this holy, holy, holy God.

But rather than leaving Isaiah to despair, one of the fiery serpent angels flies toward him, with a burning coal, and sears his lips. Like boiling water killing germs, the heat of the coal is meant to cleanse him from his sin.

Then Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord, asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  And he answers, without hesitation, “Here I am, send me.”  Isaiah has said yes to this call, knowing nothing about what it will entail, only knowing that he has seen the living God and must respond with faith.

When God does divulge the details, Isaiah must have been appalled.   Because his call is to speak words that will make people stubborn and resistant, unwilling to repent, unable to comprehend.  

The best Isaiah can do is ask, “How long?” and the answer doesn’t help.  It sounds like a very long time indeed: “Until the cities lie in waste, and the land is utterly desolate.”  Can you imagine such a call?  It’s as terrifying as the vision.  Maybe even worse. 

It brings to mind the story of God sending Moses to Pharaoh: how God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so he refused to free the Israelites from slavery.

It’s a difficult image of God: hardening people’s hearts.  It’s not what we think of God being like.  And yet this image makes it clear that God is serious about sin.  

In the story of Moses, God cannot accept the brutality of Pharaoh against the Hebrew people, and God is determined to show his power over and against the power of Pharaoh.  And here in the time of Isaiah, God cannot accept his own people’s rebellion.  At the time the spiritual, financial, social, and political lives of God’s people were in terrible disarray.  Spiritually they had begun worshipping idols; financially the rich were cheating the poor; socially the powerful were taking advantage of the vulnerable; and politically their leaders were making alliances with neighboring superpowers, rather than trusting the power of God.

Isaiah’s call is to call them out on this mess and let them know they have some serious problems that have got to be addressed.

But there’s more to the message, something very important that Isaiah doesn’t know about his call.   Because along with calling the people out on their sin, he’s also going to have the privilege of offering some of the most hope-filled, memorable words in all of Scripture.  Passages you may even know by heart, 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…a child has been born for us, a son given to us, he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  (9: 2, 6) 

And then this vision of a peaceable kingdom, where “The wolf shall live with the lamb”…and “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (11:6, 9).  

These amazing prophecies of the Messiah show us that Isaiah’s call isn’t just about the words he will speak to hisgeneration.  God is calling him to speak words that will echo for centuries to come.  

In his time Isaiah may seem like a failure but generations are coming who will listen and comprehend; who will look and understand; who will turn and be healed, as they meet the Messiah Isaiah has foretold.

In our own lives, it is so easy to lose the long-view, to focus on our days or decades so much that we forget the great expanse of God’s time.  But like Isaiah, our words and actions, ordinary as they may seem, have the capacity to reverberate through the generations.  They may not be written down or formally recorded but our faith and faithfulness are imprinted on the hearts and minds of generations to come.  So our words matter, our worship matters, and our Christian commitment matters, more than we can ever know.

When we seek to answer the call of the Living God in our own lives; when we say to God, “Here I am, send me,” we are shaping the faith of generations yet to come.  

Just think about the faithful people who have come before us; the people who guided you in your faith, who encouraged you to know and love the Lord.  No doubt each of us can name parents or grandparents, Sunday school teachers, pastors, or mentors who shaped our faith and may even be the reason we are here today. 

There are many others, whose names we do not know, who shaped the faith of those who have shaped and guided us.

For God’s call—and our response—is not for us alone. It comes through those who came before us and it is for those who are yet to come.  By God’s grace, as we answer the call, we take our place in this great expanse of the faithful stretching across the generations.

So today let’s step back from our own days and decades and catch a glimpse of God’s time.  God is always, utterly, fiercely beyond our comprehension: above us, beyond us, worthy of our awe-struck reverence and praise.

God is at work in ways that we can only glimpse around the edges, doing so much more than all we can ask or even imagine—and by some divine miracle of grace, God is even doing that good through us.

Amen.


Resources: “Isaiah 6:1-8” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 3, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor.  “Isaiah” by Susan Ackerman in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.




"The Other Kind of Call"
Luke 9:28-36
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
March 3, 2019

We’ve been talking these past few weeks about God’s call: Joshua accepting the call to leadership and Jeremiah accepting the call to speak words of truth to God’s people.  In both cases the call was to do something on behalf of God.  To lead God’s people.  To prophesy.  
Today’s story is also about God’s call but it’s about a different kind of call.  Because sometimes when God calls us, it’s not about what we should do for God but rather what God wants to do for us.
Jesus invites these three disciples to climb the mountain with him because he wants to offer them a gift: the gift of time, extended, personal time with Jesus, praying together in this majestic mountaintop location.  
In the ancient worldview, the heavens were literally believed to be above the earth, so people considered mountains peaks to be physically closer to God.  According to this view of the cosmos, Jesus invites them to get closer to God, together with him. And that alone would be gift enough.
But there’s more to the story, because as they are praying, they suddenly glimpse the glory of Jesus in a whole new way. His clothes turn dazzling white; his face become radiant; and Moses and Elijah, these two pillars of their faith, appear alive together with him.  
It is often said that Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets of Israel, yet in this moment they also serve as reminders of people who accepted God’s call.  Moses accepted the call to leadership; Elijah accepted the call to speak God’s words.  And both of them received the promise of God’s presence with them; God’s provision for them.  Manna in the wilderness, bread from ravens, waters parting, words given, God gifting each one with the abundance and provision needed for the day.
Like these ancient leaders of Israel, Peter, James, and John have also received a call. They have heard Jesus say, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men and women.  Jesus has given them power and authority to heal and sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God.
Now they are receiving another call, and this one is not about ministering to others; it’s about letting Jesus minister to them.  Letting him give them this mountain-top moment, where they are renewed and reinvigorated in their faith.  Jesus intends this to be a gift, a sign pointing them to his true identity and a promise to provide for their needs as surely as God provided for Moses and Elijah.
It’s important to remember that these disciples didn’t do anything to earn this moment.  It didn’t happen because they were top-notch disciples.  Peter, James, and John struggled as much as anybody in their faith and maybe even more.  Peter would let fear and doubt fuel his denial of Jesus; James and John would vie for seats of power at Jesus’ right and left.  They were not better disciples than the others. Rather in this moment they needed special encouragement in their faith; needed it even more than they could have known.
Jesus, however, knew what they were about to face, the very difficult trials and testing ahead.  Within little more than six weeks, their friend, companion, and Lord would be arrested, condemned and crucified.  
The disciples would grapple with their anger at Judas for betraying Jesus; with their hopes being dashed by his crucifixion; and with their own fears that they would be the next ones on the cross.  Anger, heartbreak, and terror were ahead.  They needed this, this moment, this gift, to help them get through.
In reflecting on this story, there is much talk about Peter’s failed understanding: how he rushed ahead with building plans, talking when he should have been listening, acting when he should have been still.  
But the truth is that Peter is very much like many of us.  Rushing ahead, dodging God’s gifts, making plans that all too often distract us from the rest and renewal Jesus wants to give.  By God’s grace, Peter is not left to his busy plan-making.  A cloud descends, and this voice from heaven interrupts him, saying, “Listen to Jesus.”
Like Peter, we too may struggle to receive the gifts God wants to give, rushing ahead with plans, wanting to do something, anything to keep busy.  But even well-intentioned plans, as Peter’s surely were, can distract us from God’s call. Sometimes what we need is not to do anything forGodbut simply to be withGod.
You see the other disciples, the ones down the mountain, were trying to minister without the benefit of this time with Jesus.  A father has brought his son to them for healing, but they can’t do it.  We don’t know why they hadn’t climbed the mountain to pray.  Maybe Jesus only invited Peter, James, and John because he knew they had a special need; maybe he invited all the disciples and these three were the only ones who accepted.  But whatever the reason was, the other nine, on their own, don’t have the strength to heal. It is only Jesus, coming down from the mountain where he drew close to his Father, who has the power necessary in that moment.
In the end, after his resurrection, Jesus will entrust this healing ministry to the disciples.  Yet as he does so, he also promises that they will be clothed with power from on high, power to minister in his name.  
And the source of their power will be the presence of the Holy Spirit, descending to them at Pentecost.  Peter himself will find the right words that day, preaching with such power that three thousand people come to faith in Jesus Christ.
In challenging times, when it feels like there is so much to do, so many people to help, and difficult uncertainties ahead, perhaps in our own lives, Jesus wants to offer us a gift, as surely as he did to Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration, and to all the others at Pentecost.  
It many not be dazzling or dramatic but a quiet invitation, to time together with him. To get closer to God, in prayer with Jesus, so that we have the strength we need in order to serve others in his name.
For God doesn’t just call us to give; God also calls us to receive.  
And that is the other kind of call: to let him renew our soul, with his goodness, his mercy, and his love.  
Amen.

“To See What God Sees”
Jeremiah 1:2-10
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
February 24, 2019

Today I’d like to start with a question for our children.  How many of you have seen a mirror that made you look funny—really tall or super short, skinny or really wide?  
Raise your hand if you’ve looked in one of those funny mirrors. How about the adults— sometime we call them funhouse or carnival mirrors.  Have you all seen yourselves in one?

We laugh when we look at ourselves in those mirrors, because we know that’s not the way we really look.  The person who made the mirror curved the surface in order to distort the image.  We know that’s not a true reflection of ourselves.

On the other hand, there are those mirrors in dressing rooms, and when we look in them, we look just a little bit taller and thinner than we really are.  Our reflection is close enough to what we really look like, that we think,  “Wow, these clothes are great.  I need this outfit.” The mirror achieved its desired effect: we buy the outfit and because of that mirror, feel a little bit better about ourselves.

Even in our own homes, with accurate mirrors, we have to be the right distance from them.  If we stand too far away, we don’t see details, and if we’re too close, we focus on just a few parts of ourselves and exaggerate our flaws, rather than seeing the whole person.

While we can laugh at ourselves in funhouse mirrors, and feel good about ourselves in dressing room mirrors, and look too closely at our flaws in the mirrors in our homes, none of these ways of seeing ourselves tells the whole story.

As with our reflections in these literal mirrors, we also tend to have only a partial, or even a distorted mental image of who we are.  While there are a few people who fail to see their own limitations, most people tend to see their flaws, sins, and shortcomings in high definition, while being less aware of the strengths that other people see in them.

It was this way with Jeremiah. Like many of the people God calls in Scripture, resistance to the call, and a sense of being unworthy, is a key part of his story. 
God speaks these amazing words to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Jeremiah responds to this unexpected announcement, not with “Wow!” or “Really” or “Yes!” but with a protest—Ah, Lord God, I don’t know how to speak, I’m just a boy.

I’ve been wondering about just how Jeremiah said those words.  Was it “Ah, Lord”—there must be some mistake; are you sure you’ve got the rightJeremiah?  

Or was he trying to persuade God to change his mind, “Ah, Lord God, you really don’t want me.  I’m not actually qualified for that job.

Or was it an all out, “Ahhhh!!!!!!  No way am I doing that.”

However he said it, Jeremiah clearly does not like what he’s hearing from God. 

So he tells God the two major problems with this call: number 1, “I am not a public speaker”—a lot of us have probably said something like that.  And number 2, “I am too young.”  At the time he was probably a teenager or very young adult—not really a boy, but suddenly he’s feeling very much like one, ill-equipped unprepared for such a serious call.  

As we think about Jeremiah’s protest: I’m not a public speaker and I am too young to be called, I want to invite you to think about how you in your own life might protest God’s call.  

What are the reasons you give, why you can’t do what God asks?  Maybe it is fear of public speaking or it could be your age—too young or too old. Maybe it’s a matter of experience or education or confidence.  Maybe it’s being too busy.  It could be something you’ve done that you really regret, and think God wouldn’t want to use someone like you.   Maybe it’s not any one thing in particular, but a general sense of being unworthy of God’s call.

Here’s what God says, not just to Jeremiah but to a lot of other people in the Bible too: “Don’t be afraid. I am with you. You will go.”  

You see, when God sets his sights on us, God’s going to keep on calling us, and keep on promising to be with us.  To help us. To give us what we need in order to serve him.

So whatever is stirring in your heart today, whatever call or hint of a call you may be feeling, God says, “Don’t be afraid.  You can do it.  I will help you.  I will be with you.”

A few weeks ago I heard a song that has spoken to me ever since, on the subject of God’s call.  Some of you may have listened to it with my e-votional.  Gospel artist Eddie Ruth Bradford sings, 
“I’m too close to the mirror, 
to see what you see, 
why you shower down your blessings, your blessings on me.  
Cause you don’t see me like I am, 
you see me like I’m gonna be.  
So I believe I’ll run on see what the end’s gonna be.”

Bradford is singing a truth with which many of us can identify.  Like the prophet Jeremiah, we’re too close to the mirror to see as God sees.

We zero in on our flaws, on what is wrong with us; but God can see the whole picture, the whole person—not just our present but also our future selves. Who it is that we are going to be.

Right now, just as we are, God is calling to US.  Calling us to serve and minister in his name.  And the miracle is that as we respondto this call, we become more and more the people God wants us to be.

This happens for us as individuals, when we accept God’s call to us, and it happens for God’s people together as the church.  We might be tempted to say, “We’re just a small country church.  We don’t have much staff.  We don’t have a big budget.”

But I don’t think that’s how God sees you at all.  I believe God sees a vibrant, dedicated community of disciples, people of deep faith and Christian commitment.  
People who strive to love and serve the Lord, accepting God’s forgiving love and God’s daily call in your own lives.

So today I’d like to offer you a gift, a glimpse of how God might see us here at Covington—both as individuals and as a church community.  

I spent some time recently looking back through my church photos.  A lot of them were taken by our dear friend Gary McIntyre.  God saw gifts in Gary that he himself didn’t always see.  When people at Pluta Cancer Center would ask Gary to talk with others going through cancer, he would sometimes say, “I don’t know what I can tell them.”  But he trusted the call, and accepted it, becoming a listening and understanding presence, helping many people in our community get through their own battles with cancer.

Gary also had the gift of photography, and he is one of the people who has helped us see ourselves a bit more like God sees us.  Some of Gary’s photos are among those I’ll share with you now.  

So friends today, let’s take a few steps back from the mirror, to see our full selves, and perhaps even to catch a glimpse of who it is God sees.


Resources: “Jeremiah” by Kathleen O’Connor in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.  “Too Close to the Mirror” by Eddie Ruth Bradford.









“Who Has God Been for You?”
Selections from Joshua 1, 3-4
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
February 10, 2019

Forty hot, dry, dusty years of wandering in the wilderness.  Forty years of waiting for the Promised Land; forty years dreaming of fields and vineyards, milk and honey; they are so close now they can almost taste the sweetness.

Their hearts thrill at the sight of what lies just beyond the Jordan and yet so much is unfamiliar. The wilderness is all that most of them have ever known: it’s where they were born, grew up, and buried their parents. They are sick and tired of manna and quail but it’s the only thing their tongues have ever tasted; its flavor bland but comfortably familiar.

Now this new generation of Israelites gathers at the Jordan, remembering how once their parents stood at the Red Sea, with slavery behind and freedom ahead, as God parted the waters before them.

Now in order to make this crossing, from wildness to promise, from being nomads to farming their own land, they will need a leader. Moses has died and they will need someone for this time who is brave and strong and listens carefully to God.  
God has chosen Joshua for this moment. God gives Joshua the same promise offered to Moses: “I will be with you.”

As with Moses at the burning bush, this promise comes with a call:  “Be brave and strong because you are the one…you are the one who will help the people take possession of the land.” 

God gives this special call to Joshua and yet God does not intend for him to lead the people alone.  God tells Joshua to call twelve men, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, to lead the way into the water, carrying with them the Ark of the Covenant.  

Despite the striking similarities to the story of crossing the Red Sea, things are a bit different here.At the Red Sea, the waters parted while everyone was still standing on the shore; this time the leaders have to get their feet wet.  These twelve men must be the first ones in, and only when their feet touch the water does God begin to hold the river back.

They walk ahead carrying the Ark of the Covenant, the symbolic vessel of God’s presence with them.

God has called these twelve to risk and trust, as their ancestors once did, believing the waters of the Jordan would be held back as surely as the Red Sea was for the generation that came before.

And thousands upon thousands of people walk through on dry land, passing the Ark, the presence of God, and climbing the banks on the other side.

This ancient story of God’s call, given to Joshua, to the twelve, and to all the people, challenges us to consider God’s call to us today.

There are times when God may call you to be like Joshua, brave and strong, listening carefully to the voice of the Lord, taking on a new leadership role.

There are times when God may call you to be like the twelve who got their feet wet, trusting God to make a way as they held up the presence of the Lord before the people.

And there are times when God may call you to be like the people and trust him with your future, moving forward, believing his promise to be with you no matter what.

These are three distinct callings.

Yet there is one call in this story that each and every person receives.

God tells Joshua to send twelve of the men back into the riverbed, to lift up a stone and bring it across to the other side.  With these stones they build a monument, a permanent reminder of how God held back the waters for them.  

Yet the monument of stones is more than a memorial—it is meant to be a conversation starter for them all.  When their children see it, and ask about the stones, it will be an opportunity for them to tell their story of God’s presence and power.

They still have the stories of the past, of the Red Sea and the water from the rock, and all the ways God provided for their parents in the desert.  But now they have their own story too, their own experience of the power and presence of God, calling them to risk and trust as God’s promises were being fulfilled in their own lives.

Stories of the past, stories of our ancestors’ faith and Scripture are rich and wonderful to know and to share.  But they are not the only stories we have to tell.  The children in our lives, and the children of this church, need to hear our own stories too.  The stories of who God has been for us. 

Stories from our lives—no matter how seemingly ordinary—hold a remarkable attraction for children.  And perhaps among the stories we tell, we might look for ways to lift up and name the presence of God, who God has been for us, how God has been with us.  The truth is that children might just be the most curious and open people with whom we could ever share our faith.


Each of you received a stone today when you arrived in worship. 

And I invite you to hold the stone in your hands now.  Feel its shape, perhaps worn smooth by a river, washed by the waves of the ocean, or still rough or jagged in spots.

As you hold your stone, remember how God held back the waters of the Jordan.  

Remember how God made a way for the people.

Now consider your own life and who God has been for you.  

You may think of words like Guide, Strength, Shelter, Friend, Hope, Savior, Redeemer, Wisdom, and many others. 

Who has God been for you?

In what ways has God held the waters back for you and made a way in your life?  

God calls us, like the ancient Israelites, to share with the next generation who God is; who God has been for us; and what God has done for us…

In a moment I’ll play a piece of music, and as I do, I invite you to take one of the markers in your pew and write on your stone your word or words about who God has been for you. 

What do you want your children and the children of this church to know about who God is?

Then I invite you to come forward with your stone, and perhaps also with that of a neighbor, and place it here by the river, as a prayer of gratitude and a witness to the powerful presence of our God.

Resources: “Creative Connections” gathering January 23, 2019, with the Reverends Kevin Hershey, Brandi Wooten, Sue Thaine, and Nick Dorland, Chili Presbyterian Church.


Soul-Sustaining Power
Luke 4:14-30
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
February 3, 2019
Things are going so well—the people of Nazareth are amazed when they hear Jesus reading in the synagogue.  They say great things: “Did you hear that?  What a speaker!”  “A one line-sermon—I could get used to that!” “I can hardly believe he’s Joseph’s boy. I always knew there was something special about him.”
How tempting it must have been for Jesus to end there.  To soak in the praise, to relish the moment, this high of public approval.  It’s early on in his ministry and he’s recently returned from the wilderness, where he resisted his first round of temptations; Luke tells us the devil departed from him until “an opportune time.”  
Just three verses later, that time has come, here in Nazareth.  Dr. Jonathan Walton, professor of Christian Morals at Harvard, wonders if this moment in Nazareth might be when Jesus’ real temptation began.  
Maybe it was easier in the desert, easier to stay true to his mission when he had such an obvious opponent as the devil.  Now, in this familiar worship space, the temptation is much more subtle …to let praise matter a little bit too much, to let people’s words entice him away from his mission.
Jesus pushes back against temptation, refusing to be intoxicated by their praise; his sermon isn’t over yet.  He’s got some truth to tell, truth nobody wants to hear.  So he continues with stories of ancient prophets and faithful foreigners—the widow at Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian.  The Nazareth congregation has to hear the truth that no community—not even his hometown—has special access to God’s grace; the love of God is meant for everyone.  And that assertion is so inflammatory, that in five short verses the crowd turns from praise to rage.
Rage is a serious word.  On the anger continuum, we could say there’s displeasure and irritation on one side; in the middle there’s “we’ve got to talk about this right now upset-ness”; and on the far extreme, there’s rage.  Rage is a kind of all-consuming anger, overwhelming fury, that prevents us from even thinking clearly. 
There was an article on NPR this week on the subject of anger and the ways that diverse cultures talk about it.  In India there’s a fantastically vivid word for a particular kind of anger: the translation is, “When eggplant hits hot oil”—it’s when you suddenly become furious “at hearing something shocking or learning something you really, really dislike,” says Abhijeet Paul, a professor of South Asian literature.  And here in the synagogue, eggplant hits hot oil, and rage morphs this congregation into a murderous mob.  

They drive Jesus out of the synagogue and run him out of town, to the edge of a precipice, where they’re about to throw him off.  It’s an unbelievable switch—an eerie glimpse ahead to how things will end for Jesus—the change that will take place from the Palm Sunday crowds praising him to the Good Friday calls of “Crucify” that lead him to the cross.

That Good Friday rage starts right here: at the beginning of his ministry, in his hometown, where Jesus is already offending people with a truth they don’t want to hear.
There are some people in the world who seem to have the gift of not really caring what other people think, but for many of us it’s a constant battle.  It is incredibly tempting to focus our attention on pleasing other people.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with praise, it’s got a dangerous edge. 
It feels good to hear good things about ourselves; we may start to crave that positive attention so much, we start making our decisions based on what we think will be most popular.
It’s certainly true for pastors, who tend to thrive off the appreciation of their congregation.  
It’s true in dating, when we fear the other person won’t be attracted to who we really are.
It’s true for parents, when we want too much for our kids to like us.  
It’s true for politicians, when they make decisions based on what will get them reelected.
It’s true in Hollywood, when profit drives decisions to show graphic violence and sexuality.
And it’s true in our work, when we set a boss’s approval as our highest aim.
In each of these temptations, we’re being enticed to put the praise of people ahead of things like honesty and integrity. 
But while we may know this is a problem, it’s easy to be intoxicated by the appeal of approval.  Praise feels good and criticism can easily touch a nerve. Yet criticism is not always a sign that we are doing something wrong. 
The prophets of ancient Israel were widely criticized for their faith, as were the early Christians. What Jesus experienced in the synagogue was not unique—people who came before him faced angry criticism and so did many people after him. So as Professor Walton proclaimed last year to a room full of pastors and church leaders, we need to be careful “not to get high on the contact smoke of praise.” 
True praise and validation have got to be rooted in the quiet voice of God, the stirring of the Spirit in our conscience, and our own quest to be faithful servants of the Lord.
When we face criticism, we’ve got to ask, “Who am I seeking to please?”—“Am I striving to win the approval of a person or the approval of God?”
“Is this criticism a genuine critique that I need to hear or a temptation to draw back from my commitment to Jesus Christ?”
Two hundred years ago, a man named Elijah Parish Lovejoy must have wrestled with these very questions.  Lovejoy was a Presbyterian minister and journalist and in 1827, a year before our congregation was founded here at Covington, Lovejoy became editor of the St. Louis Observer, a Presbyterian weekly publication; in it he wrote strong condemnations of slavery.  
Missouri was a slave state and many important men publically requested that he tone down his calls for emancipation.  Lovejoy replied by reasserting his beliefs and his right to the freedom of speech.  
Threats of attack led him to move his press across the river into the free state of Illinois, but the mobs followed him there.  His press was destroyed by violence several times and finally, in 1837, when he was only 34 years old, a mob attacked the building that housed his press and Lovejoy was killed in its defense; he was buried in an unmarked grave. 
Yet his death did not deter the movement; just the opposite, in fact, stirring up the passions of those opposed to slavery, strengthening the abolitionist sentiment in our country.  
Twenty years later, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “Lovejoy’stragic death for freedom in every sense marked his sad ending as the most important single event that ever happened in the new world.”
The opposition, the murderous rage of the crowd at Lovejoy’s press, couldn’t crush the movement of God’s Spirit; it fanned the flames of passion in moving our nation toward justice.  That opposition was painful, and destructive, but it couldn’t get in the way of God.
Mindful of these two stories: the response to Jesus in Nazareth and the opposition faced by Rev. Lovejoy, I want to challenge you today, in the words of Professor Walton, to have a healthy suspicion of praise.  
For we follow this One named Jesus, whose preaching and teaching repeatedly challenged the culture of his day, upsetting assumptions, even among the people who once knew him best.  
As Christians we follow him, not trying to provoke unnecessary conflict but also not letting ourselves be swayed from discipleship when we face opposition.
So I invite you to consider: what has the power to sustain your soul?
Praise from other people leads to a quick high but a long-lasting low, jostling our self-worth on the rollercoaster of rejection.
But the voice of God is steady, wise, and clear—loving, affirming, and correcting us, always drawing us nearer and nearer to the heart of God.  Inviting us to seek first of all to follow Jesus and find in him the soul-sustaining power of our God.  Amen
Resources:“Luke 4:14-21” and “Luke 4:21-30” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor.  “Be Suspicious Of Praise,” Jonathan Walton, Next Church National Gathering, February 2018, Baltimore, MD.  “Got Anger?  Try Naming it to Tame It” by Michaeleen Doucleff, Jan 28, 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/01/28/688180879/got-anger-try-naming-it-to-tame-it.  Abraham Lincoln in a letter to his friend Rev. James Lemen, March 2, 1857
https://newseumed.org/news/elijah-lovejoy-first-american-martyr-press




“Gifted for Good”
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
January 27, 2019

Today at Covington we are celebrating God’s grace—grace that has led us through another year of ministry; grace that has empowered and inspired our life together; grace that fills the pages of our 2018 Annual Report.  

We see the evidence of God’s grace in the diversity of gifts among our members: gifts of finance and administration; gifts of hospitality and welcome; gifts of faith formation, music, wisdom, learning, leadership, generosity, and service.

The Apostle Paul writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”

Notice this word “activate.” To activate something means to make it active or get it working.  When you receive a new credit card in the mail, you have to call customer service in order to activate it.  When you get a new cell phone, you have to go through a series of steps in order to activate it.  If your credit card hasn’t been activated, you can’t use it to make a purchase.  If your cell phone hasn’t been activated, you can’t use it to make a call.

With credit cards and cell phones, we as individuals are the ones who take the initiative to activate them.  But Paul says that when it comes to spiritual gifts, God is the one who does the activation. God is the one who sends the gift AND gets it working, activating our gifts so we can put them to good use.

This point was especially important for the Corinthian church to hear.  The people there were dealing with some serious challenges.  It was a diverse congregation—Jews and Greeks, rich and poor, slaves and free, and tensions had developed among these church members over their status within the congregation.  The hierarchy of the outside world was starting to affect the community of believers…In the Gentile culture around them, speaking in tongues and prophesying were abilities held in high esteem.  Many of the church members, influenced by these cultural values, believed those who could speak in tongues and prophesy were superior to those who could not. They had come to think of such things as achievements—“If you have enough faith,” they thought, “anybody can speak in tongues.” “If only you are a good enough Christian, you’ll be able to do it too.”

Paul needs them to know this is a dangerous misconception.

And to address it he begins with the simple word “gift.”   A gift isn’t something we earn or deserve.   So Paul says,“Can you speak in tongues?  That’s a gift.  Are you a person of faith?  That’s a gift.  Are you respected by the community for your wisdom?  That’s a gift.”  Paul does not want the Corinthians to be misled by their culture but to understand that God gives us spiritual gifts AND activates these gifts for good.  

Along with this word “gift” Paul chooses to emphasize the word “same”—the gifts may be diverse but they have the same Source.  The same God has given them.  For Gentile converts to Christianity this would have been an important clarification.  For while they had once worshipped many gods, as Christians they now have the same God, the One God who is alive and at work in all them.  It’s not just a few members of the community who have gifts to share.  Young and old, male and female, Jew and Gentile, every single person is included.  And the purpose of these gifts is not to boast or look good to others.  Paul writes, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” 

“The common good”: it was a phrase used by ancient Greek philosophers to refer to seeking the good of the community rather than just personal gain; it’s one part of the Greek worldview that Paul draws in to support his teaching to the Corinthians and it’s an important point of connection between the Greek philosophers and Christian communities.  

“The Common Good” is a phrase that has recurred in many times and places since the writings of the ancient Greeks and early Christians.

A few years ago one of my favorite social scientists, Shankar Vedantam, looked at how Americans today tend to respond to the idea of “the greater good” or “the common good.” Regardless of political affiliation, Americans on the whole tend to react negatively to the language of the common good. From the very founding of our nation, independence has been one of our key American ideals and it’s still a guiding value for Americans of every political persuasion.

Vedantam interviewed MarYam Hamedani of Stanford University, who has studied this phenomenon.  She found that when volunteers were asked to think about the greater good, their performance on a variety of mental and physical tasks went down.  By contrast they tried harder when they were asked to think about themselves as trailblazing individuals.  When she studied people of other cultures and backgrounds, this was not necessarily the case.

The same bias appeared when she studied American attitudes toward public policy.  
When volunteers were asked to think about an environmental policy, they were more willing to support it when the policy was described in the language of individual liberty rather than in terms of the greater good.

Like Paul challenging the Corinthian’s culture for the way they valued some spiritual gifts over others, his mention of the common good in this passage might just be what really stretches us as American Christians today. 

Choosing to use our gifts for “the common good” rather than first of all for individual gain runs very much counter to our culture.  And the church’s commitment to seek the common good, rooted right here in the writings of the Apostle Paul, is one of the ways the church of today stands out from our culture.  As Christians our core message isn’t about individual liberty—it’s about the whole-hearted commitment of our lives to Jesus Christ.  

Jesus modeled this principle in committing his own life to serving his Father in heaven. When Satan tempted him to turn those stones to bread in the wilderness, he was urging Jesus to serve his own self interest; but Jesus wouldn’t let his hunger sway him from God’s purposes for all of humankind.  And ultimately as Jesus hung on the cross, and the crowds called for him to prove he was the Son of God by coming down, he resisted that temptation to seek his own self interest and alleviate his pain.  Through his self-sacrifice, Jesus stayed whole-heartedly committed to our good.

As Christians we do have freedom—freedom to choose to follow Christ and in him we find ultimate freedom from sin and death.  Yet the path to these freedoms travels along the way of humble service and self-giving love.

This is just what we see in our annual report—in these pages we read stories of generosity and kindness here at Covington, of self-giving and service, of people working together for the common good—the good of this church, the good of the community, the good of the world.

The witness of Christians working together for the common good is a message our culture needs to hear and see today.  And it’s a message that this church and countless other congregations are living out: the message that true life is found not in putting ourselves first. That true life, and ultimate freedom come through giving, through serving, and through committing our lives to loving God and our neighbors.  That’s a light, that’s a witness, that’s a message our culture needs.

Rev.  William Barber, an African-American pastor from North Carolina, has said that our nation “is need of ‘moral defibrillators’ to work on its weak heart.” He says, “We must shock this nation with the power of love. We must shock this nation with the power of mercy.”  And get it alive again.

The witness of the church, using its gifts for the common good, has the power to revive the moral heart of our country.  And so your ministry, your gifts, your service matters, perhaps even more than you know, because together we’re a witness at Covington; we, like so many other churches, are a light shining in our community and country today. Not because of who we are but because of who God is.

God has gifted us for good.  God has activated those gifts in us for the common good.  

So let’s help restore the heart of our nation.  Restore it with love.  Restore it with mercy.  Restore it with God’s grace.

Amen.


Resources: “1 Corinthians 12:1-11” in Feasting on the Word,Year C, Vol 1, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. https://www.npr.org/2013/03/19/174708597/when-pitching-the-common-good-is-bad





“True Love”
Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:21-22
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
January 13, 2019

“Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all parenting, all relationships—love or the lack of it.” These words, from the world’s most famous Presbyterian minister, Mister Rogers, challenge us to see more clearly, and realistically, the essential nature of love.

It was just a few weeks ago that my children heard for the first time that famous Beatle’s song “All You Need is Love.”  One of them thought the song was great and started singing it right away.  The other told me, “It’s not really true, you know, you need more things than love—like food and a place to live.”  And I thought, “You’re right!”  Yet while love is not all that we need, it certainly is the first —and I would argue, the most important thing—we humans need.

The story of Jesus’ baptism places love at the very root of his identity and ministry.  After Jesus is baptized, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.” It’s no coincidence that God speaks these words of love right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  This love does not depend upon what Jesus accomplishes; this love depends upon his Father, and the relationship they share.  Before anything he does or says, Jesus is God’s Son. The Beloved.  Only then, after the relationship of love is firmly established, does God say, “With you I am well pleased.”
You see these words of approval come after the affirmation of relationship and love. Yet in far too many human families, the order of these words has been reversed, to communicate some version of conditional love.  As in, if you please me, then I will love you.  But that message is like poison for our souls.  It’s approval, not love.  And when we always have to get approval by pleasing others, we will never really feel secure.
By contrast the true love of a parent for a child always comes before judgment.  True love can’t be diminished by a child’s actions. Parents get angry, frustrated, disappointed, and maybe even heartbroken, but true love can’t be taken away.
While all of us may understand this theoretically, I have met a great many adults who never really felt loved as children.  In many cases the parents had no ill-intent, but didn’t know how to give their children what they needed most—acceptance, validation, and true, unconditional love.  So instead, and perhaps unintentionally, they communicated some version of conditional love, as in, “If you do this or that, then we will love you.”  Perhaps it’s because they too were carrying the wounds of conditional love. 
Yet if we did not receive unconditional love from our earthly parents, we can still experience such love from God.   When people discover God’s love for them, and really come to believe it, gradual yet remarkable healing takes place.  Knowing that we are truly loved, just the way we are, is what allows us to love other people.
This is where this story of Jesus’ baptism—and our own baptism—has power to transform lives. Baptism begins with love: with the Father’s love for Jesus.  And our baptism begins with God’s love for us, his beloved sons and daughters too.  God pours this love out upon us in baptism, and nothing can ever separate us from it. Nothing we do or say or think can keep God from loving us.  As Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it in her Jesus Storybook Bible, God loves us with a “never stopping, never giving up, always and forever love.”
And while God may or may not be particularly pleased with us at any given moment—after all, John the Baptist came preaching about repentance, God always loves us.  
As children some of you experienced such love, from your earthly parents, growing up in families that were, for the most part, warm and caring, with appropriate boundaries and responsibilities, and therefore from the very beginning you understood that you were loved.  Apart from anything you might do or say. 
But other people, and perhaps more than you might guess, simply didn’t have that experience of unconditional love.  The pain of this can last a very long time.  Yet healing is available to us in the knowledge of God’s true love.   No matter what our parents may have done, we have a heavenly Parent who loves us. Really loves us, no matter what.
Wherever you are in your experience of love, or the lack of it growing up, the gift of Christian faith is that we discover the One who loves us with a never stopping, never giving up, always and forever love.
It’s what baptism proclaims—that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters.  Claimed by God’s grace before we did anything.
Discovering such love, remembering such love, letting it sink deep into our hearts, is like a powerful antidote to painful memories, and can provide a kind of security that some may have never known.   It’s this experience of unconditional love that teaches us how to really love our children. 
As parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, it’s vital that we think seriously about the way we have experienced love ourselves and about the ways we are showing love to the children and youth in our lives.  

Are we loving them with conditions?  With strings attached?  

Or are we doing our best, with God’s help, to love them unconditionally?

To do this we can’t just think about love in the abstract, as an idea or concept.  
We have to go deeper, to our own experiences of love.  To consider how we, as children, were loved.  
Was it mostly conditional (I’ll love you if…) or unconditional (I’ll love you no matter what)?

With these memories in mind, we can listen for God’s words to us.  

God says, in Isaiah 43, that we are “precious in his sight, and honored, and he loves us.”
That’s who you are in God’s eyes—precious, honored, and loved.  Renewed by the truth of God’s love, we find strength to love, really love, the children and young people in our lives.

Responding to the story of Jesus’ baptism and these words of God’s love for us, I want to challenge you today to think seriously about the place of love in your life.  

I’ve included three questions in the bulletin for you to take home with you.

How were you loved as a child?  Was it mostly conditional or unconditional love?

God calls you “precious, honored, and loved”—what does this message mean for you?

In your own close relationships, how are you showing conditional love?  How are you showing unconditional love?  

No matter where we are in our journey of faith, our capacity to receive love from God—and give love to others—can always grow.

So beloved, let us love, really love one another, for love is at the root of everything.

Amen.


Resources: “Looking into the Lectionary,” January 13, 2019 by Jill Duffield, The Presbyterian Outlook.  Fred Rogers, speaking inWon’t You Be My Neighbor.  “All You Need is Love,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  The Jesus Storybook Bibleby Sally Lloyd-Jones.


20 + C + M + B + 19
Matthew 2:1-12
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2019

Like the magi’s gifts, this story offers remarkable riches: the value of scientific study; the cosmic, star-moving power of God; the faith of foreigners; the threat felt by those in power at the Messiah’s birth; the meaning of the magi’s gifts; and the call to listen for God’s leading in our lives. Each of these themes is worthy of consideration, rich in wonder and wisdom.

Yet this year, as I came to the passage, I was struck by words I had not really thought about before: these ones from verse 11, “On entering the house...” It seems quite simple, this phrase, telling us the location of their meeting with the Messiah.  But there are layers of significance even in this small detail.

It appears that this little family has not returned immediately to Nazareth, but settled for a time in Bethlehem, moving from the stable where Jesus was born into a more permanent house. Matthew, always mindful of the way Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, includes this detail of the family’s residence in Bethlehem, the town from which the Messiah was expected to come.

We might also note that “Bethlehem” literally means in Hebrew, “House of Bread”—perhaps there is a play on words here, as the magi enter the house of Jesus, in this town that is the “House of Bread.”

The magi themselves, entering the house, must have been quite a sight.  They were priests in the Zoroastrian religion, one of the oldest living religions in the world, still practiced in Iran and India and other parts of the world.  Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persia before the rise of Islam.

Here’s what’s fascinating about this heritage:  Zoroastrians believe that their prophet, Zoroaster, was miraculously conceived in the womb of a 15-year-old Persian virgin.  He started his ministry at the age of 30 after resisting temptations from Satan.  And he predicted that other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets.  Thus, very much like the Jews, Zoroastrians were anticipating the birth of a Savior, and the magi believed they could foretell this miraculous birth by reading the stars.  Jesus is therefore a fulfillment not only of Old Testament prophecies of the virgin birth, but of Zoroastrian prophesies as well.

Despite these remarkable similarities, the appearance of Zoroastrian priests at the doorstep of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus would surely have been a strange sight.  Yet, when they knock on the door, this holy family welcomes them in.  And so it is that these truly strange strangers “enter the house.”

How different this scene is from the night when so many doors in Bethlehem were shut on Mary and Joseph.  On thatnight not one single person gave them lodging in their home—the only place they found was a stable.  Yet despite having had so many doors closed to them, they give these travelers what they did not receive themselves—welcome.   And it is this welcome, this door opened to the guests, that creates space for the magi to kneel down in worship and present their precious gifts to this true King.

The image of a door opening, a welcome given—as in our experience of Las Posadas a few weeks ago, may challenge us to reconsider the place of hospitality in our own lives. What it means to be hospitable and truly welcome others into our lives and into our homes.  In the act of making room, in the offering of welcome, we follow the example of Mary and Joseph, and like them, we may also receive gifts and blessings from our guests.

Hospitality has long been a deeply Christian practice—it’s rooted in the Old Testament and grows through the early church, which for decades and even centuries met, not in formal sanctuaries, but rather in people’s homes.  

In Hebrews we read, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers—for in doing so some have entertained angels unawares,” and we might add, some have entertained gift-givers and faithful foreign followers of the King.

So this Epiphany—the first Sunday in a new year—perhaps we may let this story challenge us to strengthen our practice of hospitality—not just welcoming those familiar to us but also opening our doors, from time to time, to those we do not know as well.  

One old Epiphany tradition affirms the role of the home as a place for blessing and welcome.  The tradition is called “Chalking the Doors” and means using a piece of chalk on Epiphany to write a combination of letters and numbers on the door of Christian homes. 

The letters are CMB, which mean two things—first they are the initials of the names attributed to the magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar).  They also represent a Latin phrase meaning “Christ bless this house.”

In Chalking the Door, the numbers of the New Year are written, separated by crosses and the letters CMB.

For this year it would be 20 + C + M + B +19.  

The tradition of chalking the doors, though likely new to us, has deep roots in Christian tradition and it is a way many Christians still ask Christ to bless their home in the new year, and dedicate their house to the service of God.  

Today, in the spirit of Mary and Joseph welcoming the magi and receiving from them precious gifts, I invite you to pray for the gift of Christ’s blessing upon your home in the coming year, welcoming the presence of God, and praying that your house, apartment, or dwelling place may be a space of peace and welcome.

Each household will receive a piece of chalk and a prayer of blessing and I hope you really will take this chalk and join this ancient Christian tradition, marking the door of your home on Epiphany—inside or out—and offering this blessing prayer.

This year, like Mary and Joseph, may we welcome unexpected guests, and receive from them the gift of blessing.  

I would like to invite our children to come forward now to help pass out the chalk.  

(Children pass out chalk with blessing prayers to worshippers).

Friends, let us join together in prayer. 

Guide us O God, by your word and spirit, to dedicate our homes to hospitality and welcome, to receive your blessing, and to meet you in those to whom we open our doors.

Amen. 


Resources: “Zoroastrians” in The Perennial Dictionary of World Religionsedited by Keith Crim. “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12” by Niveen Sarras at workingpreacher.org.  Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA), 2018.  “Matthew 2:1-12” in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol 1.  “Looking into the Lectionary” by Jill Duffield at pres-outlook.org. 




Gertrude’s Gift
Mark 12:38-44
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
November 11, 2018
It would have been easy to discount the widow’s gift.  Compared with the loud clanking of weightier coins, hers would have barely made a sound. 
The coins she dropped into the offering plate that day were the very smallest in circulation.  Together worth even less than our penny.  
But this widow’s gift stands out to Jesus.  For in his day, widows were among the poorest and most vulnerable people in society—they were alone, dependent, and often destitute.  
So he calls together his disciples and points out the significance of her gift… “everyone else contributed out of their abundance;” he says, “but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
In the world of Biblical scholarship, there’s quite a bit of debate over the meaning of the widow’s gift. Looking at the larger context of this story, we see that Jesus has just critiqued religious leaders who “devour widows’ houses.”  Is this widow being devoured?  Is she being taken advantage of by the system that should protect her?” This could be the case.
Except that this particular offering box was not for the temple taxes wealthy people paid.  It was a place to make anonymous gifts.  No one was there keeping track of who gave what. No one, that is, but Jesus.  And in seeing this widow’s gift, which everyone else might consider worthless, Jesus understands its precious cost.  He knows that she has offered God far more than any of the rich people who’ve given handfuls of weighty coins.  Because this widow hasn’t offered 1% or 5% or even 10% of what she has—she’s given 100% -- everything she has to live on.
Jesus recognizes the commitment that her gift carries and the trust that it displays, and so he calls his disciples and points her out to them, because he wants them and us to look, not just at the amount of a gift, but at the heart from which it is given.
In her book The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist tells a story that is a kind of modern-day retelling of this gospel account. It’s about a woman named Gertrude whom she met one night in a church basement in Harlem. 

At the time Twist was a young fundraiser for an organization known as The Huger Project, which works to end world hunger, and she’d been asked by community leaders to do a fund-raising event in Harlem.  She wasn’t so sure that Harlem would be the most profitable location for a fundraiser but agreed to go.  

The morning of the fundraiser, Twist had another meeting to attend.  This one was with the CEO of a famous food company.  He was the biggest potential contributor she had ever approached.  Twist was aware that this particular company had recently experienced some serious public-relations problems and that they believed making a donation to The Hunger Project would help improve their image.

When Twist arrived at the CEO’s office, she was given just fifteen minutes of his time. So she spoke rapidly about the mission of The Hunger Project and the challenges of ending world hunger.  When she was done, the CEO opened his drawer and pulled out a preprinted check for $50,000.

She writes, “It was clear that he wanted me gone as quickly as possible. The perfunctory presentation and the tone of his voice told me that he had no genuine interest in our work…this was purely a strategic move…handing me this check for $50,000 bought his company an opportunity to mend its reputation.”

“As he slid the check over to me, I felt the guilt of the company coming right across that desk with the money…but I was a fund-raiser and a pretty new one at that so I put the check in my briefcase and thanked him… This check was the largest amount of money I’d ever been handed by a single contributor... But I felt dirty, and sick to my stomach.”

Later that day Twist arrived at the other fundraising event, the one in the church basement in Harlem.  It was raining and church members had strategically placed buckets all over the room to catch the drips.

As Twist looked out over the gathering of about 75 people, she knew no one had much money to give.  She spoke about the work of The Hunger Project, and when it came time to ask for donations, Twist hesitated, but went ahead and made the request.

She writes, “After what seemed like a long silent pause, a woman stood up…she was in her late sixties or early seventies…tall, slender, and proud.  ‘Girl,’ she said, ‘my name is Gertrude and I like what you’ve said and I like you.  Now, I ain’t got no checkbook and I ain’t got no credit cards…I have fifty dollars in my purse that I earned doing a white woman’s wash and I want to give it to you.’”

The woman walked up the aisle and handed Twist fifty dollars in five, ten and one dollar bills.  As she returned to her seat, other people started coming up and making their own contributions.  There were so many that Twist opened up her briefcase as a kind of impromptu offering plate.  

She writes, “These moments, with people streaming up to give their money, had the feeling of a ceremony.  There was a sense of integrity and heart.   The amount of money that was given—maybe $500 at the most—was more precious than any I had ever seen before.”  

At the bottom of that same briefcase was the $50,000 check.  And when she saw it, Twist realized that Gertrude’s fifty dollars seemed to hold a far greater value.  Gertrude’s gift had not come from a bank account; her gift came from the soul. Her gift didn’t carry guilt but generosity; it wasn’t about calculation but compassion. The amount of the money was of secondary importance to the purpose, energy, and integrity in her act of giving. For her gift carried with it her commitment to make a difference and so it inspired others to give and renewed Twist’s own sense of integrity and purpose.

The next day Twist mailed the $50,000 check back to the CEO.  She sent a note with the check, thanking him for considering The Hunger Project and suggesting that instead he choose an organization he felt committed to.  Twist felt unburdened, as though she was returning the guilt the check had carried with it.

Now this story could have ended there.  But God had something much more in store.
Five or six years later she received a letter back from the CEO.  In his retirement he had begun to reflect back over his life and career.  And he wrote to Twist that one of the moments that most stood out to him was the day when the check came back in the mail.  That day stood out because it was a moment when all the rules of corporate America that he had learned so well—that you do anything and everything to increase profits—had been upended.  

The experience stayed with him.  And he began to see that he was living in a kind of abundance that far exceeded his needs. He began to realize that he did in fact want to make a difference in ending world hunger.  

So from his own resources he made a personal contribution to The Hunger Project that was many times in excess of the original $50,000 that had been returned.

 “It was a triumph!” Twist writes.   “A triumph for Gertrude, a triumph for fundraising, and a triumph for this man who spoke with such deep generosity about an interaction that uplifted”—and indeed ultimately transformed—“his life”

Gertrude’s gift was the energy and commitment that set this chain of events in motion—inspiring her neighbors in Harlem to give, sparking new clarity and purpose in Twist’s fundraising, and ultimately moving this wealthy CEO to uncover his true capacity for giving.  

Like Gertrude at the church in Harlem, the widow in the temple gave with a similar clarity and commitment.  Such gifts have the potential to set in motion a chain of generosity—sparking a renewed clarity in our own lives and helping us uncover our true capacity for giving.

Because Jesus doesn’t just want his disciples to give, or even to give generously. 
He wants us to give with our whole heart.  For this is the kind of giving that transforms lives, starting with our own. 

Amen.

Resources: Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. “Sermon Brainwave Podcast” for November 11, 2018 at workingpreacher.org.  The Soul of Moneyby Lynne Twist.  “The Widow’s Might” by Karoline Lewis at workingpreacher.org.












“Take Heart, Get Up, He Is Calling You”
Mark 10:46-52
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
October 28, 2018

Thanks be to God indeed, that at last someone has gotten it right.  

Over the past few weeks, in our journey through Mark’s gospel, we have read story after story about people getting faith all wrong: the disciples argued about who among them was the greatest, then they tried to keep the kids away from Jesus, and finally, last week, they vied for the best seats in God’s Kingdom.

But today we hear the story of a man who is the model of discipleship, a man everybody thinks is blind, who turns out to be one of the few who can really see. For while Bartimaeus is physically blind, he perceives with spiritual clarity the true identity of Jesus and his power to transform lives.

Mark tells us that Bartimaeus is the son of Timaeus, a blind beggar.  He had clearly heard the stories of Jesus, and found them so compelling that when he learns this teacher and healer is passing through his town, Bartimaeus cannot hold back.  He starts to shout to Jesus, calling out for mercy, and is blessedly undeterred by the crowd trying to silence him. In fact when they attempt to quiet Bartimaeus down, he yells even louder.  He calls Jesus the “Son of David,” a prophetic pronouncement of the kingly heritage of Jesus, the proclamation that he is the long-awaited messiah and true king.  

But rather than recognize the prophet in their midst, the crowd is ashamed of this shouting beggar. They want to put their best foot forward, to show Jesus that Jericho has it all together, and a shouting blind man is not good for their image.  So like the disciples who tried to keep the kids away from Jesus, the crowd does their best to hush this man, or at least to keep him hidden from Jesus.  

Jesus, of course, will have none of that.  He hears this man calling and he stops.  In this moment, Jesus could easily have chosen to walk over to the man and talk with him where he was sitting.  But Jesus makes a different move; he gets the crowd in on the miracle, giving them a new message to share.  With these words, “Call him here,”  Jesus transforms the crowd from a barrier into a blessing. They begin to say to Bartimaeus, “Take heart, get up, he is calling you!”

To get a sense of the sound of the crowd, say these words with me.  Listen to them again: “Take heart, get up, he is calling you!”  
Together: “Take heart, get up, he is calling you!”  “Take heart, get up, he is calling you!”  

Bartimaeus springs up, throws off his cloak, and comes over to Jesus.  His joyful, whole-hearted response tells us that Bartimaeus is utterly convinced Jesus will transform his life.  He has even thrown down the remnant of his former life—the street-worn garment on which he sat to beg, because he trusts he won’t be needing that any more. 

Jesus does restore his vision and Bartimaeus begins to follow Jesus.  But another, less apparent, miracle has taken place here too.  For Jesus has been at work healing another form of blindness—one that is much more pernicious.  For the crowd could see with their eyes but their hearts were blind, both to faith and to human need. 

By enlisting them in this miracle, Jesus has restored the vision of their hearts, showing them what faith looks like and focusing their vision on the value of people others might discount.

Jesus even transforms their vision of themselves, teaching them to bring their own needs to him, and turning them into messengers of good news, calling them to proclaim,   “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.”  

It is always a risk to respond to those words. To rise and come to Jesus, and speak our deepest truth, seeking mercy and new life—this takes a great deal of courage.  Today, on this Reformation Sunday, we are remembering people through the ages who, like Bartimaeus, responded with courage to God’s call.

We can imagine Martin Luther, who clearly saw the problems in the church of his day, hearing these words, “Take heart, get up, I am calling YOU.”  Responding to this call required great courage and trust in the Lord.  Yet Luther, like Bartimaeus, responded with passion and faith, trusting that the Lord was indeed calling HIM.

We can also imagine the courage of our spiritual ancestors, those who founded the York and Covington congregations.  They sought to share the words of Jesus in our communities, believing Jesus was calling themto be messengers of good news. Like Bartimaeus, they too responded with passion and faith, trusting that the Lord was calling them.

In our time, there is again a great need for men and women who hear the call, “take heart, get up, he is calling you” and then rise, ready to follow Jesus.  It’s so easy to believe that Jesus is calling someone else.  Anyone else.  Someone with more abilities, qualifications, or resources than we have. But instead Bartimaeus and the crowd turn to us and say, “Take heart, get up, he is calling YOU.”

Calling you to receive mercy, yes, AND to follow in the way.

Calling you to share Jesus’ power to transform lives.  Calling you to minister to the poor and hurting people of our day and listen to the voices of those often silenced or ignored.

Jesus isn’t looking for perfect people to be his disciples.  

He is looking for us. 

Jesus hears us when we pray, he calls us to come to him, and he even has the power to transform voices of resistance into messengers of hope.

So today, let us remember and celebrate the reformers of the past. But let us also hear Christ’s call to reformation in our day: for he is calling us to bring new vision, 
new possibility, new hope, and new courage to our world.

Take heart.  Get up.  He is calling YOU.

Amen.

Resources: “Commentary on Mark 10:46-52” by Matt Skinner and “Reformers in Our Midst” by Karoline Lewis at workingpreacher.org.  Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. “Sermon Brainwave Podcast” for October 28, 2018 at workingpreacher.org.



“True Greatness”
Mark 10:35-45
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
October 21, 2018

Jesus and his disciples are now very near to Jerusalem.  In just a day or two, they will enter the city, accompanied by waving palms and shouts of “Hosanna.”  Holy Week is upon them.  But they do not know it yet.

James and John are still dreaming of popularity and power.  They ask Jesus to give them the places of honor when he comes in glory.  They envision a promotion into the cabinet of Jesus, the highest appointments in the kingdom of God.  

It’s easy for us to judge their pride and misunderstanding.  But because we believe that the word of God is living and active, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart, we know that this is not just a story about the past but a word of challenge for us today.  So rather than critiquing James and John, we must bravely let the light of this passage illumine our own hearts.

In this light we begin to see our own temptations—perhaps we have a similar drive for popularity and power.   The desire for praise is a natural human impulse.  And so this passage challenges us to consider how much this desire for distinction fuels our own efforts and drives the way we spend our time? Does the need for praise motivate our work?  Does the desire for recognition push us to excel?  Does the hope of standing out prompt us to miss too much time with loved ones?

If we are not careful, the desire for distinction can shape not only our own choices, but also those that we make on behalf of our children.  When I was in seminary, I had a part time job at an afterschool program in a local private school.  The parents of these children were professors at the University of Chicago, candidates for national political office, and others who most definitely outranked me.

But as I talked with the children there, I learned how many of them were loaded to the breaking point.  I remember one first grader who explained his schedule to me.  After school on Monday, he had soccer; Tuesday was piano; Wednesday was Chinese; Thursday was math club; Friday was soccer, again; and Saturday was swimming.  That little boy spoke to me with sadness and fatigue.

I was tempted to judge his family for pushing him so hard but the truth is that we all feel tremendous pressure for our children to succeed.  We want them to do well and have every opportunity.  It is so easy to stretch them too thin.  And our culture encourages this practice every day until very soon we begin to sacrifice the things that really matter.

Yet it’s not only in our activities that we try to set ourselves apart.  This temptation can also drive our spending.  In the hopes of making a good impression, we stretch finances too thin.  And as with scheduling, our culture encourages this inclination to spend.

Little by little, the desire for distinction—in our children or possessions, in our  work or appearance, skews our values and draws us away from what is essential in life.  

Two months before his assassination, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his final sermon.  It was to the congregation where he was baptized and grew up—Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  And the sermon was on this very text.

King cautioned the congregation that the ultimate outcome of failing "to harness this instinct" to be first...is "that one may try to push others down in order to push himself up."  So many of the destructive forces in our society: gossip, deception, racism, looking down on other people, and pushing those we love too hard--are the outcomes of making prominence and popularity our main purposes in life.

That's not what Jesus has in mind for us.   That's not what he wants for our lives.  Jesus redefines success by calling us to serve.

When James and John ask for places of prominence, he says, "you do not know what you are asking—can you drink the cup I drink? Can you be baptized with my baptism?"

In their pre-good Friday confidence, James and John respond with conviction, “We are able.”  But they have misunderstood the question, taking Jesus’ words literally.  
They do not understand that by “cup” he refers to is the cup of suffering; and that by “baptism” he is speaking of his death.

So Jesus goes on to draw a contrast between the culture of his day and those who follow him.  He urges his disciples not to be like the people who look down on everybody but themselves.  He calls them to stand out—not because they’re powerful or prominent or prosperous—but to stand out because they serve.

Jesus handles this conversation carefully, not as an occasion for judging James and John but rather as a moment for learning.  He knows that James and John aren’t alone in their temptation.  He wants them—and us—to take another way. 

In that final sermon he preached, Dr. King invited his congregation to hear Jesus saying to his disciples, "I want you to be first in love.  I want you to be first in moral excellence.  I want you to be first in generosity."  Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.  Whoever wants to be first among you will be the last of all.
It’s what Jesus himself is going to do.  This is how he lived his entire earthly life.  Even though he was God and King, Jesus wasn’t born in a palace but rather in a stable.  His parents didn’t wear the robes of royalty but the clothes of commoners.  He didn’t grow up walking the halls of power but living in a hamlet called Nazareth.  He didn’t have a high status career; he worked as a carpenter in his father’s shop.  He became a traveling preacher and never owned much.  He didn’t have an advanced degree, a high-paying job, or even a family.  Jesus didn’t do any of the things that we typically associate with being great.

In fact Jesus was in his early thirties when he began to really stand out; people took notice, but not in a good way, and those in power came for him.  They didn’t call him great.  They called him a friend of sinners, a rule-breaker, and a threat.  Even his friends didn’t stand by him—one denied knowing Jesus at all and another turned him in.

Jesus endured a mockery of a trial and drank the cup of suffering on the cross.  The crowds laughed and the guards gambled for his clothes.  He was baptized into death and buried in a borrowed tomb.  Jesus gave his life to liberate many.

And, as Dr. King writes, 2000 years “have come and gone and today he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected the life of people on this earth as much as that one solitary life… "He is the King of Kings." "He is the Lord of Lords."

Jesus calls to us today, as his modern day disciples, to reexamine our priorities.  To look at what values are driving our decisions.  To bravely recognize the distorted desires of our hearts, and let Jesus turn those values, those desires back toward him, so that our lives will attain true greatness, the greatness that only comes when we love, when we give, when we serve.

Amen.


Resources: “Sermon Brainwave for October 21” and “Commentary on Mark 10:35-45” by Matt Skinner at workingpreacher.org.  “The Drum Major Instinct,” by Martin Luther King, Jr., February 4, 1968, available at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/drum-major-instinct-sermon-delivered-ebenezer-baptist-church
“Asking the Wrong Questions” by Jill Duffield at https://pres-outlook.org.  “Mark 10:35-45” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson.

“The Hard Questions”
Mark 10:17-31
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
October 14, 2018
Today’s gospel reading leaves us with far more questions than answers.  How can Jesus ask such a thing of this man?  To sell everything and give the money to the poor?!  Is Jesus serious?  Does he really mean it?  Or is this some kind of test, an act of intentional hyperbole?  And, of course, the most unsettling question of all, “What does this story mean for me?”
Mark tells us that the rich man leaves this conversation shocked and grieving.  No doubt he was even more confounded than we are—because for this man the conversation was clearly personal.  Jesus actually wastalking to him.
He is shocked by Jesus’ words, not only because of what Jesus is asking but also because he thinks of himself as a good man.  He’s never killed anyone; he’s been faithful to his wife.  He never stole or lied under oath.  He’s been honest in his business and takes care of his parents.  
Yet despite all the good that he has done, there is this unease within him—he’s not convinced that what he’s done is enough.  And in truth, this discomfort arises from the movement of God’s Spirit in his life. He finds Jesus, and asks the question nagging at his soul—“What must I do to inherit eternal life?" 
He calls Jesus “Good Teacher”—which seems to be a reasonable and respectful form of address.  Jesus replies,  “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” When I’ve read this story in the past, I’ve always heard Jesus’ words as making a distinction between himself and God the Father.  Perhaps this iswhat Jesus intends.  
But this time as I read to these words, I wondered if something else was happening—could Jesus be challenging this man to see that he is more than a Teacher?  Maybe the word “Good” IS right, not because Jesus is a Teacher but rather because he is God?  No one is good but God alone.  Jesus is good.  Jesus is God.
This question Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good?” appears in a variety of ways, in the Gospels, often as, “Who do you say that I am?”  Is Jesus a Teacher OR is he God?  Is he Elijah or John the Baptist or a prophet OR is he the Messiah?  The answer we give, the answer this young man gives, will make a great deal of difference in the way that we respond to Jesus’ words.   
Mark also takes care to mention the emotions present in this story.  There is the man’s experience of shock and sadness.  But Mark tells us that when Jesus looked at this man “he loved him.”  He is the only person in Mark’s whole gospel, that we are explicitly told Jesus loved. These words of challenge that Jesus speaks come not in a spirit of condemnation or critique, but rather these words of challenge arise out of Jesus’ love.
Jesus loves this man enough to tell him the truth, that despite all he has and all he has done, he still lacks one thing.  What is the one thing he lacks, do you think?  Is it generosity?  Is it trust? Is it compassion?  Any of these might be what Jesus means, the one think he lacks that is getting in the way of his faith.
Perhaps the man is stingy with his wealth, determined to preserve it.  Or he might be struggling to trust God to provide, focusing instead on taking care of himself.  Or maybe he looks down on the poor, thinking they deserve poverty because they haven’t worked hard enough.
Each of these temptations—holding on too tightly to what we have, putting our trust in ourselves, and looking down on the poor, remain obstacles for those who wish to follow Jesus.
Still Jesus’ instruction, that this man sell everything and give the money to the poor, feels unrealistic. Our impulse is to ease our own discomfort by saying, “Jesus isn’t speaking literally.  No one can sell everything and survive.  It’s too much to ask.  Jesus is testing the man’s faith, like God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Jesus just wants to see if he is willing to give up his possessions.  He’s not actually expecting him to do it.
But to answer in this way avoids the power of this passage.  Because Jesus’ words have the capacity to drive us deeper in our faith, if we will let them, if we will accept the challenge to examine what in our own spiritual lives, and especially in our use of money, might be lacking.
Lynne Twist, in her work as a fundraiser for The Hunger Project, has learned to challenge contributors to be known for what they allocate, not what they accumulate.  
She writes, “Accumulation in moderation—saving money—is part of a responsible approach to personal finances. But when ‘holdings’ hold us back from using money in meaningful, life-affirming ways, then money becomes an end in itself and an obstacle to well being.  Just as blood in the body must flow to all parts of the body for health to be maintained, money is useful when it is moving and flowing, contributed and shared, directed and invested in that which is life affirming.”
“When blood slows down and begins to stop or clot, the body becomes sick.  When water slows down and becomes stagnant, it becomes toxic. Accumulating and holding large quantities of money can have the same toxic effect on our life.”
Twist continues, writing, “We become burdened by our excess; it clutters our thinking and our lives…True wealth, or well-being, can’t be found in a static balance sheet, no matter how large the accumulation of financial assets.  Wealth shows up in the action of sharing and giving, allocating and distributing, nourishing and watering the projects, people, and purposes that we believe in and care about, with the resources that flow to us and through us.”
Perhaps the question Jesus would leave us with is this: 
How are resources moving through our lives?  
Are we careless with our money and possessions?  Not paying enough attention to using them well?  Or do we care too much about holding on to what we acquire, finding our worth in what we accumulate?  Or, are we striving to use our resources for the most good possible in this hurting world?
This summer Mike and I attended a conference for clergy couples.   One component focused on financial well being.  The speaker, who teaches personal finance to college students, asked all the couples to spend the month in advance of the event tracking every expense, then to look at the way we are using our resources and consider whether it reflects our deepest values.
This act of financial self-examination is simple yet powerful.  And I would challenge you to do the same.  It’s a question that is so much bigger than just focusing on what we give to the church or to any other organization.  It’s a whole-life question that challenges us to ask whether our habits align with our values—and then, in all likelihood, to make some changes based on what we see.  
Whether money gushes, flows, or trickles into your life, Jesus challenges you to ask whether it is just moving to you or if instead money is moving through you, in ways that give and honor life.
Amen.
Resources: “Sermon Brainwave Podcast” for October 14, 2018 at workingpreacher.org.  “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31” by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson and “What Do You Lack?” by Karoline Lewis at workingpreacher.org.  “Mark 10:17-31” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson.  “See and Be Seen” by Jill Duffield at https://pres-outlook.org.  The Soul of Moneyby Lynne Twist.

“The Neighborhood of Loving Kindness”
Mark 10:13-16
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
October 7, 2018

I have watched with delight these past few years as the cultural icon of my childhood—Mister Rogers—surged back into the public sphere.  Those of us growing up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s are likely to have spent some time during our preschool years watching his show and remember the powerful connection Mister Rogers formed with his television neighbors.  As children—and perhaps as parents watching with them—we saw Mister Rogers as a gentle friend, who affirmed the worth and dignity of all people.

In recent years however, thanks to the work of biographers and documentary filmmakers, another aspect of his character has emerged, and it feels as though our society may be meeting Mister Rogers again for the first time.

We’re starting to recognize the pattern in the topics chosen for his shows—when a challenge faced our society, something quite similar would often arise in the Neighborhood of Make Believe.  In those years when America was embroiled in war, violence also flared in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, until messages of peace and kindness prevailed.  In times of alarming racial discrimination, Mister Rogers cast African Americans in the roles of neighborhood police officer and mayor. When famine hit Ethiopia in the 1980s, characters in the Neighborhood learned about countries solving the problem of hunger. And over the years Mister Rogers talked openly about difficult realities such as death and divorce, teaching children healthy ways to express their whole range of feelings.

Yet Mister Rogers did not only address the issues of his time—he was also often well ahead of them. Long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, he affirmed the value of each person, just the way they are.  And when gender stereotypes still often went unquestioned, Mister Rogers gave girls permission to be tough and boys permission to be tender.  While some have parodied Rogers as tepid and oblivious, the truth is that he was fierce in his commitment to lift up the value of all people.   From our 21stCentury vantage point, we are beginning to see that Rogers was, in his own gentle way, a profoundly counter cultural voice and example.

I think it is no coincidence that his return to public discourse comes in a time increasingly characterized by denigrating those with whom we disagree.  Mister Rogers’s words of kindness feel like a balm to souls worn down by conflict.  As we hear his words in this new time, we are, in a very real sense, meeting him again for the first time.

A similar dynamic is at play in our gospel reading for today.  When we imagine this scene, of Jesus embracing these little children, we are likely to envision a gentle, welcoming man.  And this is true.   Yet, when we place this vision of Jesus in the context of his time, we begin to see a counter-cultural edge in his actions.  

The ancient world had a very low view of children.  They were thought to be willful, ignorant, and in need of stern discipline.  Religious teachings about manhood equated spending time with children to sleeping till noon or drinking away the day.  The disciples, raised with these cultural norms, quite naturally think that they are doing their job by keeping these kids away from Jesus.  

But when Jesus hears what they have done, he is indignant.  Incensed.  Furious that his own disciples have been turning families away.  And there's nothing gentle about his response.  He challenges the disciples not only with his words but also with his actions.  Jesus takes the children in his arms--and the verb Mark uses here is one specifically reserved for women. Jesus takes these children in his arms like a mom, like an aunt, like a grandma.  He lays his hands on them and blesses them.  He is, in this single act, expressing deep love and kindness to these children and their parents AND he is simultaneously subverting the standards of his day.  It is a warm, welcoming scene AND it's a radical, counter-cultural moment.

Jesus goes on to push the disciples even further when he tells them that they themselves must become like these children if they want to enter the kingdom of God.  For while children vary a great deal from one another—some are full of energy, others more reserved; some are naturally trusting, others are cautious—one thing that’s true of all children is a basic dependence on the caregivers in their lives.  When a child is born, he or she must, for a number of years, depends on the care of others, relying on adults for everything necessary to grow and thrive.

In the words of Mister Rogers, all of us have people in all our lives “who smiled us into smiling, talked us into talking, walked us into walking, and loved us into loving.”  And that’s what Jesus is getting at here, with his urging to be like children. What he means is, depend on God, like a child depends on, and learns from, a parent, becoming their full self in response to the parents’ love.  This vision of Jesus welcoming the children is like a little glimpse of the kingdom of God--here there is trust, welcome, dependence, and blessing.

Irish poet John O’Donohue, in his book To Bless the Space Between Us, writes, “A blessing changes the atmosphere…flowing into our hearts from the invisible neighborhood of loving kindness.  In the light and reverence of blessing, a person or situation becomes illuminated in a completely new way.”

These days many of us long for the atmosphere to be changed and to find ourselves in a neighborhood of loving kindness—a neighborhood where schools offer safe space for growing; a neighborhood where justice restores more than it punishes; where words build up rather than tear down; where leadership is marked with integrity; where neighbors feel connected to one another. 

This vision is, in a very real way, the neighborhood that Jesus founded: an invisible neighborhood of loving kindness.  Yet a neighborhood that can become visible—through us, the neighbors who live there. 

On this World Communion Sunday, we have the opportunity to make visible, in our own way, the neighborhood of loving kindness.   A neighborhood that we believe stretches to every corner of the world, encompassing all people, affirming each life’s dignity and worth.

So if, on this day, we see that we have settled in the slums of bitterness; if we have ever resided in the high rises of superiority; if we have ever sheltered behind the gates of self-sufficiency, Jesus invites us to make a move today.  To make our new home in the neighborhood of loving-kindness.  

Moving to this neighborhood is always going to be a counter-cultural decision.  But we all know that this world needs neighbors.  This world needs people who bless rather than curse; people who build up rather than tear down; people who welcome those others have turned away.

So let’s make our home in the neighborhood, the neighborhood of loving kindness, answering the question posed to us long ago, a question humming in the air, a question that Jesus asked even before Mister Rogers,

“Would you be mine, could you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor?”

Resources: “Mark 10:13-16” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. To Bless the Space Between Usby John O’Donohue.  Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogersby Michael Long.  The Simple Faith of Mister Rogersby Amy Hollingsworth.  Won’t You Be My Neighbor,directed by Morgan Neville.






Healers in the World
Mark 9:38-41
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
September 30, 2018
Time after time, Mark tells stories the disciples probably wished they could forget. Accounts of misunderstanding, disasters of discipleship, and moments when they stood in the way of the gospel.
The disciple in the hot seat today is John.  He was, by trade, a fisherman—and he was also among the first four disciples Jesus called. John is the brother of James, and together they left their home and work and family in order to follow Jesus.  As one of the first disciples, John has been with Jesus longer than most.  He’s had more time to learn from him and observe his ways.   Along with Peter and James, John seems to be especially close to Jesus. These are the three he takes up the mountain at the Transfiguration, the only witnesses to that incredible event. But we see today that John still has a lot to learn.  
As our story begins, he is eager to share that the disciples have just made a dramatic intervention.  “Jesus, you will never believe what just happened.  We saw somebody we don’t even know and he was using your name to cast out demons!!  So, you’ll be glad to hear that we did our best to stop him.”
John is absolutely, 100% convinced that he has done the right thing.  He’s certain that he has acted faithfully by squashing the unsanctioned use of Jesus’ name.  But Jesus hears things very differently.  Jesus hears that there’s a man out in the world, doing good, freeing people from suffering and pain, and his own disciples are getting in the way.  
Notice also that John doesn’t say, “He’s not following you, Jesus.”  John says instead, “He’s not following us.”  In other words, he’s not one of us.  Jesus is not pleased.  He speaks quickly to correct this way of thinking.  No, John, don’t stop that man.  Don’t stop anyone from doing good in my name.  
2,000 years later, it is still our human tendency to emphasize divisions over common ground. To expend energy on the question of whether or not somebody is “one of us.”  We do this by constructing barriers of race, status, and tribe, viewing with suspicion those who differ from us.  The church has been guilty of these practices too.  
We’ve set Catholics against Protestants, mainline against mega church, traditional against contemporary—the divisions are everywhere, and the truth is that they get in the way of the gospel.
So Jesus speaks up to correct this way of thinking.   
To clearly and firmly redirect John’s understanding. Jesus’ response brings to mind the times when religious leaders were critical of him for healing on the Sabbath.  In each of those cases Jesus insisted that it’s always the right time to do good.  And that it’s always wrong to limit the life-giving work of God.  So we get it wrong when we think of ourselves as competing with other churches for members, programs, or donations.  Whether a congregation is Presbyterian or Baptist, liberal or conservative, Roman Catholic or Amish, thriving or struggling, we are all on the same team.  When any of our churches grow or flourish, building up the community, it is an opportunity for every church to celebrate.  
At our Presbytery meeting on Tuesday, a joyful spirit arose as we spent part of our meeting celebrating the ministries of several churches in our region.  We learned about a congregation providing hospitality for homeless families in Victor and one offering financial assistance to those seeking addiction treatment in Dansville.  There was a palpable energy in the room as we celebrated these deeds of powerful hospitality and healing.
Today our church is joining other congregations for the Crop Walk, hoping to raise far more money and energy for hunger relief together than any of our congregations could on their own.  
Beyond the bounds of churches, even more deeds of power are taking place.  Both the York and Pavilion Elementary Schools are taking steps this year to respond to the crisis of violence in our society.  During the month of October York will be focusing on anti-bullying initiatives and teaching alternatives to aggression. Pavilion is introducing restorative justice among fifth graders, training teachers in methods to help students restore damaged relationships and build friendship and belonging with their peers.
Along with our schools, another community institution, the library, is also taking new initiative for good, planning a community-wide Trunk-Or-Treat event, intended to provide a safe and fun way for families to celebrate the holiday.
As we see these things taking place, Jesus challenges us to recognize his presence alive and at work—in churches yes, AND in classrooms, offices, and libraries.  For whenever anyone works for good—whoever they are, wherever they are, and whether or not they even use the name of “Jesus”— God IS at work.There are healers in the church, yes, thanks be to God.  
AND there are also healers beyond these walls, beyond the walls of any church: they are teachers, principals, social workers, and librarians, who are doing deeds of power to build peace and restore wholeness.
They are healers in the world, blessing our schools and libraries by building community and promoting peace.  Let us rejoice in the power of God, at work in so many places and people.  Building peace in our schools, strengthening community through the library, and bringing us together with other believers in the Crop Walk.
In a world that often drags us down, let us rejoice in the good news that God is always bigger, always greater, always at work for more good than we can ask or even imagine.
Amen. 
Resources: “Insiders and Outsiders” by David Lose at workingpreacher.org.


“Being Great”
Mark 9:30-37
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
September 23, 2018

Who is the greatest? 

We’re still having those arguments, aren’t we?   In our society being “great” generally means wealth, strength, power, and putting ourselves first.  We see these values in government.  We see them in Hollywood.  We hear them in locker rooms and stadiums.  And, to tell the truth, we feel their sway in our own hearts too.  Wealth, strength, power, and prominence sing such seductive songs.

Like the ancient Greek myth of the sirens—beautiful women who sang songs so intoxicating that sailors smashed their boats into the rocks, trying to get to them, we too can fall under the spell of the siren song of greatness.  This beautiful but deadly song that tells us greatness means wealth, strength, power and prominence.

As disciples of Jesus, we know these values stand in conflict with his ways, yet none of us are immune to their temptation.  Even the disciples, who were quite literally walking behind Jesus, found themselves embroiled in an argument over greatness.  Who was the best healer? The most compelling speaker?  The top giver?  The first follower?

I imagine Jesus sighing. He hears snippets of this argument, enough to know the crux of it—and asks, “What were you arguing about on the way?” Their silence here speaks volumes—they knew he would disapprove.  Yet they had still joined in the argument.

Jesus responds, not with condemnation but with teaching.  He says, in the realm of God, we measure greatness a different way—being great means serving.  The example Jesus uses is a child. This may seem a strange choice for us—in our society children are treated with special care and protection.   In the time of Jesus, though, children weren’t even considered people.  Like the poor, widows, women, and lepers, children just didn’t count.  

We even see this bias in Mark’s writing, with his word choice here.  Rather than calling the little child “him” or “her,” Mark uses the word “it.”  He tells us that Jesus “took a little child and put it among them.”  Can you imagine calling a child “it”?!  We even refer to pets and farm animals by the more respectful “he” or “she.”  “It” is the word we use for objects and possessions.  
But Jesus sees this child instead as a person, and wraps his arm around him or around her to show what it really means to be great.  
To welcome, to serve, to include those discounted by society—to see their value—that, Jesus says, is being great.

Churches of our time, like the first disciples, can also be tempted to mis-define greatness, using the worldly standards of wealth, power, and strength as our guide.  The church versions tend to be words like giving, membership, programs, and attendance.  But although these measures tell part of the story, they also, and ultimately, miss the mark.  Because greatness in the eyes of God is not the same as being rich.  Or powerful.  Or strong.  And it's certainly not about putting ourselves first.
“Go to the back of the line,” Jesus says.  Being great means being a servant.  Being a great disciple—a great church—means serving too.

Some of you may be familiar with the children’s book series The Magic Treehouse.  It’s a favorite for our family, and tells stories of the adventures of Jack and his sister Annie, who travel through space and time on missions for good, working on behalf of Merlin the Magician.  
At one point Merlin sends them on a series of missions to discover the four secrets of greatness.  One by one they meet historical figures, and learn from each one a secret of greatness—together discovering that true greatness comes from humility, hard work, a sense of meaning and purpose, and enthusiasm.  
We can hear in these values very clear echoes of Jesus’ redefinition of greatness. Being great isn’t about being strong—it’s about being humble.  It’s not about attaining wealth—it’s about working hard.  It’s not about becoming powerful—it’s about having meaning and purpose in what we do.  It’s not about trying to be first—it’s about living with enthusiasm and joy.
As we reflect on the values in our lives, the values that guide our decisions about work, family life, and society, Jesus challenges us to be honest about the allure of wealth and power, and how easily they can sway our best intentions.  Even those who are trying to follow Jesus, those who have accepted the call to discipleship, can find it hard to avoid the temptation.
But Jesus doesn’t shame the disciples for their argument or their misunderstanding of greatness.  Instead he invites them to tell the truth about what has swayed their hearts.  “What were you arguing about on the way?”  And then, after their silent confession, to hear a new call: You can be great, Jesus says. Not because you’re first but because you’re last.  Not because you’re powerful but because you serve.
Likewise, if we have been swayed in our past by the siren song of greatness, Jesus does not condemn us. He doesn’t shame us.  He simply shows us another way, invites us to take another path, now that we do know.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached to his congregation, "Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.  You don't have to have a college degree to serve.  You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.  You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.  You don't have to know Einstein's 'Theory of Relativity' to serve...You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love."

A heart full of grace, a soul generated by love—that is the heart of a servant.  And there lies true greatness.  

In the ancient stories of the sirens, some sailors came upon them unsuspecting, not knowing their danger or how to protect themselves.  But in those stories when people are warned about that danger, or intuitively recognize it, and act upon that knowledge, things turn out very differently.

In the Odyssey, Ulysses is warned in advance about the sirens and their bewitching danger—their beauty hides monstrosity, and their true intent is to destroy.  He takes the warning seriously, having his men fill their ears with beeswax and then tie him to the mast so he could not break free, no matter how much he fought.  And so he and his crew pass safely by on their journey home, past the place where so many others had met their end.

But I love the story of Orpheus, the great musician in Greek mythology, who also found his way past the sirens.  Not by plugging his ears or having himself tied down.   
Instead he took out his lyre and played a more beautiful song.

In these ancient stories, both heroes recognized the danger.  Both took action and passed safely by.  Ulysses did so by having his men fill their ears with beeswax and tie him down.  But Orpheus and his crew survived because he played a more beautiful song.  

Perhaps we the church may take our cues from this ancient story and resist the siren song of greatness by playing a more beautiful song.  For Christ has given us, the church, the most beautiful song of all.  A song that can rise above the sirens shouts of what it means to be great, to be first, to be best.  

Our song is Jesus, God’s hymn of love that moves the heart like nothing else can.  We sing this song with our lives when we serve, when we give, when we love.  Our Lord invites us to live this song of service and with it rise above the arguments over greatness.  Our Lord calls us to lift up the melody of love and the harmony of grace, so that we, and those around us —may find safe passage home.  Amen.

Resources: The Magic Treehouse, Books 49-52, by Mary Pope Osborne.  Strength to Loveby Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Greatest” by Karoline Lewis at workingpreacher.org.

Gift and Cost
Mark 8:27-38
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
September 16, 2018

One of the great ironies of being the church is that we think we have to bring our best selves: people without flaws, without struggles, without failings, people who have it all together.  

But the Gospel of Mark is boldly honest about the truth that disciples don’t have it all together—the truth that disciples struggle to understand and follow, to comprehend and to believe.  This is precisely what we see in our gospel reading for today.

In this passage we overhear a conversation between Jesus and Peter, where Peter gets it: Peter understands this remarkable, ground-shaking truth that Jesus is the Messiah.  But then he doesn’t understand what that means. Peter gets the part about glory and honor but doesn’t get the part about brokenness and suffering and shame.  

Peter rebukes Jesus, saying that suffering and death must not be the way.  And Jesus calls Peter out on this misunderstanding, using some of the harshest words in the New Testament: “Get behind me, Satan.”  We are right to be disturbed.

Yet there is a sense to this word Jesus uses that we, with our 21stCentury understanding of “Satan” might easily miss.  In the Bible, “Satan” is not necessarily the personification of evil.  Satan instead means “tester,” “tempter,” “accuser,” and “adversary.”  

So Jesus is telling the truth here, naming the reality that Peter is acting as his adversary.  That he is thinking and speaking in ways that test, tempt, and resist the will of God.  And that is very serious indeed.  So Jesus also says to Peter: “Get behind me.”

I have always thought of these words as Jesus putting Peter is his place—get out of here, Peter, get out of my sight.  But this time as I considered the words, I realized that Jesus is not just putting Peter is his place; he’s putting Peter in a place where he can follow Jesus.  Peter must not get ahead of Jesus, trying to find an easier way; Jesus wants Peter to be behind him, so that Jesus can take the lead. 

With these words Jesus is rebuking Peter but not giving up on him.  He is putting Peter in his rightful place, not as a condemnation but rather a correction, and calling Peter to follow him.

The grace in this moment is that Peter has not brought his best self to Jesus. He has acted as an adversary and yet Jesus still calls him to be his disciple.  Jesus corrects Peter but he does not reject him.  

Despite all of Peter’s struggles, despite the fact that many times his worst self showed up rather than his best, Peter did eventually get behind Jesus.  He did come to understand that the cross was and is at the center, not only of the life of Jesus, but also at the center of the life of every Christian. We see this in the Book of Acts.  Peter healed and preached and baptized thousands; he was on the cutting edge of ministry, understanding the radical inclusion of the gospel.  And Peter was also repeatedly arrested and imprisoned, criticized by other believers and persecuted by Rome.  His life ended in crucifixion.  Peter took up his cross and followed Jesus.  

Peter’s example helps us see what it means to take up OUR cross.  Jesus isn’t talking about the suffering that is simply part of living in this broken world—whether that’s conflict with coworkers, natural disasters, or illness. Neither is Jesus saying that we should seek out suffering or accept such things as abuse. 

Instead Jesus’ words about taking up our cross refer to a very specific kind of suffering—the suffering that we experience when we seek to follow Jesus.  There are consequences for us when we strive to follow Jesus; being his disciple will come at a personal cost.  Following Jesus will help us in many ways AND it will also make our lives more difficult.  

This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor in Germany who led the church’s resistance to Hitler, described as “costly grace.”  As Bonhoeffer reckoned with the cost of living out his Christian faith under the Third Reich, he came to see a very clear distinction between cheap and costly grace.

“Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer writes, “is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without discipline, Communion without confession...  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross…”  Cheap grace, grace without the cross, is what Peter wants when he rebukes Jesus.  

By contrast Bonhoeffer writes that “costly grace is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus.  It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life…above all it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son…and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

If we, like Peter, have thought of Christian faith in terms of cheap grace, Jesus invites us now to take another way.  He does not reject us for our lack of understanding in the past but rather calls us now to take a new way, to get behind him, and follow where he leads.

Because we can’t truly understand Jesus when the knowledge of him remains in our heads.  Knowing Christ is always intertwined with following him.  If we want to learn who Jesus is, we’ve got to get behind him.

There are certain people in our world that we immediately think of for the ways they have followed Jesus at great personal cost.   Bonhoeffer is one.  Martin Luther King Jr. is another.  And so is Mother Teresa. 

Author Lynne Twist writes about how deeply she was affected by the example of Mother Teresa, and how she sought out the opportunity to meet her.  When an invitation for this meeting came, Twist jumped at the chance.  She arrived at Mother Teresa’s orphanage in New Delhi, where the Missionaries of Charity cared for abandoned and orphaned children under two.  She learned from the sister who greeted her that Mother Teresa had been delayed and would join them as soon as she could.  

Twist writes that as she looked around the room, she saw “fifty babies, cooing and playing, with the nuns and their helpers talking and singing gently to the babies and each other.” The nuns invited Twist to wash her hands, put on an apron, and join them in caring for the little ones.  

She writes, “First, I bathed a blind baby girl.  She must have been about fourteen months old.  Then I was given a tiny, three month old, with one leg that was a little stump.”  She sang as she bathed the tiny child.  “I have always been drawn to those in need,” she writes, “and especially children who are deprived in some way….I felt in a state of grace.”

Although Twist did meet with Mother Teresa later that night, it was this experience of doing her work, of loving and bathing and feeding these children, in which she came closest to knowing and understanding her hero of the faith.

Mother Teresa has often been quoted as saying, “The way to know me is to know my work…” And it is, in a sense, what Jesus says to Peter, “The way to know me is to know my work.” Get behind me SO THAT you may follow.   Give your life for my sake, spend your life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, and you will find life that is true life.

This is the invitation Jesus extends to us today—to get behind him and follow.  To spend our lives for his sake, knowing that in Christ there is both gift and cost.  And there, spending ourselves freely for the sake of Jesus, we will find the life that is true life. Thanks be God.  Amen.

Resources: “Commentary on Mark 8:27-38” by Matt Skinner; “Commentary on Mark 8:27-38” by Elisabeth Johnson at workingpreacher.org.  The Cost of Discipleshipby Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The Soul of Moneyby Lynne Twist.


“Unless You Bless Me”
Mark 7:24-30
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
September 9, 2018
Take a moment now, and imagine Jesus. 
You might see him healing.  Or speaking before a great crowd of people.  Maybe  you envision him welcoming children, breaking bread, or calming storms. The gospels give us hundreds of moments in the life of Jesus, any number of which might offer us comfort or peace.  But today’s reading was not one of them.  It’s a story we might prefer not even to know.
This story comes right after some of the most memorable moments in Jesus’ life—feeding the five thousand, walking on water, healing the sick, teaching the scribes and Pharisees.  And even though we might not like this story, it too has something of great importance to teach us.
Scripture Reading: Mark 7:24-30

Part of me would prefer not to even know this story—wishes it had never happened at all.  This slur that Jesus uses—calling this mother and her daughter dogs—this resistance that he shows, seems so out of character.  It’s not like the Jesus that we know.

In fact, when this story comes around in the lectionary cycle, most pastors struggle with what to say. Some propose that Jesus was just testing the woman’s faith.  Other suggest the word “dog” had softer connotations.  

But one of the rules we learn in seminary about Biblical interpretation is that the hardest reading is probably the right one.  And, after all, who are we to censor Jesus?  
So, in reading this story, we have to take Jesus at his word; and we have to wrestle with this text until we get a blessing.

The set up for the story is that Jesus has traveled to the region of Tyre.  This is Gentile territory.  A sea-side town north of Galilee.  Just right for a bit of vacation.  Jesus is here in Tyre looking for some rest and blessed anonymity, in this place where he expects no one to recognize him.  But somebody does, of course, and word gets out, and soon there’s a woman at the door, begging Jesus to heal her little girl.

Jesus is tired.  And when people are tired, really, really tired, two of the first things to go are patience and compassion.  Here is this woman—a Gentile, who also carries the massive social stigma that her daughter is possessed by a demon.  She is one too many people needing help AND she is interrupting his vacation.

So Jesus says something he probably regretted later on.  “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

Really?  Really Jesus?  Jesus is supposed to be a healer, a teacher, a friend of children, an exemplar of mercy, and he just called this woman and her daughter dogs?  Tired or not, this is not what we expect from Jesus.  

In that moment, there were a lot of ways this woman could have responded.   Her face could have burned hot with humiliation.  She might have been too stunned to say anything at all.  She could have turned quickly to leave.  Or she might have fired back, “Don’t call us dogs.”

But this woman takes a very different approach.  She claims the slur: “Yeah, Jesus, we’re dogs.” And then she pushes back:  “And even the dogs under the table get the crumbs.”

Her words are like the classic defensive move in martial arts, where your instinct says to back away from an aggressor but instead you step toward them.  You have to learn to do this, and practice until it becomes second nature, because our human instinct is, when someone grabs you, to pull back. But often the stronger move is to step in to your opponent.  It puts you in a better position to deflect blows and counter strike.  Being close is where the advantage lies.  So she steps in to Jesus with her words: “Even the dogs under the table get the crumbs.”  She owns his words and then she turns them.  Because this mamma’s not gonna let her baby live like this.  She’s determined to wrestle Jesus until she gets that blessing.  

She ends up being the only character in Mark’s Gospel who argues with Jesus and wins.   She gets the blessing and her daughter is healed.  But the win is actually even bigger than that.  Because she’s taught Jesus something about his ministry.  She’s shownhimthat God’s grace is greater that even he imagined.

It’s like the moment in John, when Jesus’ mother sees that the wine’s run out at the wedding.   She points it out to Jesus, and he says, “What’s that to me?  It’s not my time.”  But his mother is determined too, and Jesus ends up turning huge amounts of water into wine. 

In both stories—the wedding without wine and the little girl in need of healing—mothers come to Jesus, not on their own behalf but on behalf of others—the bride and groom, the family, the guests, the little girl.  And in both stories Jesus’ protest has to do with timing.  To his own mother he says, “My hour has not yet come” and to this mother in Tyre, he says, “Let the children be fed first.”  In both cases, the mothers insist that actually the time is right for the gift of grace.  They understand that God’s grace is bigger than we think—it’s even bigger than Jesus thought.   Because even he wasn’t immune to the pull of prejudice.   Even Jesus had to learn that God’s grace isn’t just for one group of people.   It’s not just for people who look like us, and live near us, and think like us.  God’s grace is always crossing over the divisions that human beings set up.  And this border-crossing grace calls us to relate to one another with mercy.

This week Evan Dawson, host of 1370 Connections, had a program on the theme of mercy.   A recent study found that most Christians believe mercy influences their daily behavior. More than six in ten say that mercy often influences their words and actions.  But the other four out of ten Christians are less likely to describe their words and actions as merciful.  It may be part of their system of belief but doesn’t influence their actions on a daily basis.

As Dawson and his panelists grappled with the topic of mercy and the reality that a sizeable minority of Christians don’t see mercy guiding their behavior, a man asked the panelists, “Who are you to judge me?  Who are you to say I’m not doing enough?”
While they quickly replied they were not intending to judge him, they remained firm in challenging his resistance.  Christian faith, they said, has always been countercultural.  It doesn’t allow us to just go along with the values and standards of our culture.  Christian faith doesn’t let us limit ministry to certain groups of deserving people and call the others “dogs.”  

And in fact, when we do feel a challenge, when we do feel uncomfortable about what we are or aren’t doing, that discomfort is probably the voice of God.  God, stepping closer, and giving us a holy push, asking, “Who do you find it hard to treat with mercy?  Who do you think is ‘Less than?’ Less deserving.  Less responsible.  Less important?”  It’s what this mother does to Jesus, stepping closer, wrestling for her blessing, teaching him the expansive nature of God’s grace.

As it turns out, I’m glad, fiercely glad, that Mark had the courage to tell this story.  I’m grateful he didn’t back down.  That he stepped into this fray, showing us that even Jesus struggled with compassion fatigue, and that even Jesus found it hard to break the grip of prejudice.

I’m glad that the gospel tells this story of a fierce mom who wasn’t afraid to wrestle with Jesus and won’t let go without a blessing.  And most of all I’m glad we’ve got a gospel that doesn’t just bring us comfort.  I’m glad that the stories in this book challenge and change us.  Because that, after all, is what makes this the living and active word of God.  Amen.

Resources: “The Gospel According to Mark” by Mary Ann Tolbert in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.  “Facing Racism: A Vision of the Intercultural Community Antiracism Study Guides” by Presbyterian Mission Agency Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministry. “Commentary on Mark 7:24-37” by Matt Skinner; “Commentary on Mark 7:24-37” by Elisabeth Johnson; “Dogs and the Kingdom of God” by David Lose at workingpreacher.org.  “Who Is Responsible for Showing Mercy,” 1370 Connections, Evan Dawson and Megan Mack, http://www.wxxinews.org/post/connections-who-responsible-showing-mercy
“Does Mercy Influence Christians’ Actions?” https://www.barna.com/research/mercy-influences-actions/


“Grateful for Grace”
1 Peter 1:1-9
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
September 2, 2018

One of the most meaningful moments I have had in ministry happened in a parking lot some years ago.  I was leaving a funeral home after the service for a man—a friend to many in this congregation—who had ended his life in suicide.  

As I walked toward my car, a man in a pickup truck called out to me:  “Hey preacher!”  

I turned and walked toward him.  

“Thanks for what you said in there.  My brother took his life 20 years ago; ever since then I thought God had condemned him. What you said changed that. I’ve got a peace I never had before.  Thank you so much.”   

This man’s words amazed me. I had never met him before.  I had no idea of the burden that he carried.  When I was planning that funeral service, I simply knew I had to speak about the misconceptions people have regarding suicide—to name the fear people carry about loved ones being condemned.  

Many myths about suicide circulate in church and society yet the clear and consistent witness of Scripture is to the wideness of God’s mercy and the greatness of God’s grace.  I had no idea that my words would speak beyond the present tragedy and deep into the past.  While I did not know this, God did. God knew this man’s burden and God did far more than I could have asked or imagined to bring healing to his hurt.  

In that conversation I discovered in a new way the power of God’s grace—the profound hope people find when the good news of Jesus Christ touches their pain.  
And I discovered that miracles can occur through us, even when we have no idea what’s happening. That is grace.

“Grace” is a word we often use, especially at church, yet it is one that many people of faith find it hard to define.  In the English language, grace can describe physical movement, as in a graceful dancer. It can mean relating to other people with the social graces of poise, hospitality, and ease.  But in a Christian sense, “grace” means the gifts of God’s love and forgiveness.  Grace means we don’t do anything to earn love or deserve forgiveness—these are gifts to us from God.  In fact the origins of our English word “grace” lie in the word “grateful.”  Grace and gratitude go hand in hand.  

The book of 1 Peter affirms that this gift of grace comes through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord; teaching that faith and salvation depend, not upon us leading a “good” life but rather upon the gift of Jesus.

This message challenges the common cultural practice of using the word “Christian” as a synonym for “nice” and “good.”  While Christians are of course called to lead lives of kindness, generosity, and love, Christian faith is very honest about the reality of sin.  Christians are people who know they need God’s forgiveness—and respond to this gift with gratitude and love.

1 Peter, like many other parts of the Bible, affirms that our salvation doesn’t depend on anything we do—it is not a decision we make.  It’s not gained or lost by our actions.  Salvation is a gift God gives us through the cross.

As our session discerned our church theme for ministry this year, we felt led to the words “Celebrating God’s Grace,” rooted here in 1 Peter 1:2: “May grace and peace be yours in abundance.”  

Notice that the author addresses this blessing of grace and peace to the “exiles,” spread across the ancient world.  For some in his audience, exile was a physical reality, as Christians were dispersed in many different communities, some of which were hostile to Christian faith. Yet with this word “exile,” he also reminds us that ALL of God’s people are living far from home.  For our true citizenship lies in heaven.

The author continues, lifting up the good news of grace as a source of strength amid our trials, proclaiming that no matter what, we can rejoice in the gift of Jesus, and find our strength in him.

What I find so helpful here is that the author is honest about the pain that we experience.  We all struggle and suffer, sometimes facing periods of extended pain.  At times there’s not much in our own lives that we feel like celebrating.  

Our Christian faith doesn’t promise abundant riches; it doesn’t assure us of good health; it does not teach that we will have easy lives—instead Scripture repeatedly tells the truth that God’s faithful people suffer all sorts of problems.

Yet along with naming this truth, 1 Peter offers those who struggle words of blessing: right in the midst of your trials, while you are still exiles in this hurting world, “May grace and peace be yours in abundance.”  

Right here, right now, no matter what we face, God is ready to touch our pain with his love; God in ready to sustain us with his grace.  

God gives us this living hope in the gift of Jesus Christ.  Not because we are good. But because God is.  Not because we are faithful.  But because God is.  Not because we have decided to believe.  But simply because God loves us. 

This God who loves us, has chosen us and will see us through every challenge that we face.  Even in those moments when we wonder if we have lost our faith; even in those times when we feel like we can’t hold on to God; grace means that God is holding on to us.

In the words of the old hymn, our “Hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” In the dark times of our lives, we can rest in his unchanging grace.  When everything we thought was secure falls apart and we feel as though we are on sinking sand, Jesus is ready to be our Rock.  He is the Solid Rock on whom we can build—and rebuild—our lives.

So let us rise up, filled with grace and gratitude, and stand firm upon our Rock.

Amen.

Resources: “The First Letter of Peter” by Donald Senior in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.  “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” by Edward Mote.


"Serenity in the Storm"

Mark 4:35-41

Rev. Laura Fry 

August 26, 2018 

It’s no wonder they were afraid.  Here are the disciples, storm raging, winds howling, waves swamping the boat with water.  And Jesus is asleep on a pillow.  Of course they cry out in fear and outrage:
Teacher, teacher wake up!  Don’t you care?  We are about to die!
Jesus does care, of course—and immediately stands up, responding to their need—commanding the wind to be quiet and the waves to be still.  
Only when the great calm descends, does he address the disciples.  Only after he has met their physical need for safety does he speak to matters of their souls.
“Why are you frightened?”  He says, “Do you still have no faith?”
I have always thought of these words as a response to the way these disciples woke Jesus—not with prayerful request but rather with an accusation: “Don’t you care?”
But in reading the passage this time, another possibility occurred to me.  I began to wonder if it could be that Jesus is instead speaking about their ongoing fear—the fact that they are still afraid even after Jesus calmed the storm.
The clue is in verse 41—where Mark observes their response to Jesus, “And they were afraid, enormously afraid, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this man, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”
The fear the disciples felt at first, fear of the storm, has morphed into a fear of Jesus.  This is not the “Fear of the Lord” that we read about in Scripture, which is a good and holy fear—a mix of awe, wonder, and profound respect. Rather the fear for which Jesus rebukes them is about being wary and suspicious of Jesus.
Reading the story this way, Jesus is concerned not about the disciples’ response to the storm but rather about their response to him. Jesus expects them to respond with faith—but what he gets is fear.
When we think of fear, a storm is probably a fitting metaphor.  Fear can swirl around us and within us—and fear can easily feel overwhelming.  For those who struggle with anxiety, fear can literally flood the awareness with overwhelming panic.  
The fear that we experience has the potential to push us either toward God or away from God.  At its best, fear can propel us toward God, leading us to put our trust in him and find strength and peace in his power.  But fear can also lead us away from God, in those moments when we try to calm our fears and numb our anxiety in ways that bring us, and our loved ones, harm.
The question therefore is not about choosing between faith and fear—the question is whether our fear leads us to Jesus. 
As we consider this question, I invite you to step, with the disciples into the boat.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the scene. You are sailing into the middle of a lake.
Begin to hear the howling winds,
experience the heaving of the boat, 
feel the cold waves drenching you, 
sense the pounding in your heart.
In fear you cry out to Jesus.  
He stands.  And speaks. 
In an instant, everything grows calm.  
The waters are still.  
The wind is now a gentle breeze
The boat rocks ever so gently.  
Your heartbeat slows.  
You feel the peace.  
You experience the calm.  
Serenity encircles you, around and within.
Now open your eyes.
Friends, this story teaches us that serenity is a gift. A gift that interrupts the storm. 
A gift that interrupts our storms.
The gift of serenity doesn’t mean we won’t face storms; it means that God can help us live through storms and find peace on the other side.
There is a great deal in our lives that we cannot change.  Pains and sorrows, illnesses, heartbreak, and regrets that are very real. 
In the midst of these storms, Jesus is with us in the boat, ready to give us the serenity to accept the parts of the storm that we cannot change.
Yet he is with us also, to help us see what we can change. 
By God’s gift of courage, we can put our trust in Christ and find our strength in him.  We can embrace creativity and discover possibilities we have never before considered.
And by the gift of wisdom, we can come to see the difference between what we can and cannot change.
One thing is surely true: our fear can lead us away from Jesus or it can bring us closer to him.
So may we have serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.


“A Feathered Faith”
Matthew 6:25-34
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
May 13, 2018

This weekend is the height of spring bird migration here in western New York.  More bird species are reported in May than in any other month of the year—an average of 68 new varieties will arrive this month, for a total of 230 species of birds—more than double the number here in January (90 species on average).  Songbirds flock to woods, meadows, and backyards; shorebirds wade in shallow waters; hawks and eagles fly over in abundance.  

This astonishing diversity fills the month of May with a feathered choir wearing robes of yellow, red, orange, and blue.  And amid all of this abundance, Jesus urges us, “Look at the birds of the air.”  

How easy it is to overlook the birds.  Up until a few years ago, I barely even noticed them.  I could tell a robin from a blue jay but beyond that, I knew very little about them.  

When my husband began to take an interest in birds, I gradually—and truth-be-told, reluctantly, found myself doing the same.  Mike’s appreciation of birds piqued my own curiosity, opening my eyes to the abundance all around me, teaching me to recognize species I never even knew existed.  

My skills in identification remain well below the level of any serious birder but I have come to appreciate the astonishing array and sheer volume of birds.  The best world-wide estimate suggests there are 9,000 bird species in all—so many that even the most dedicated birders have not come close to seeing them all.  

Yet even as we celebrate the abundance of God’s feathered creations, I do not mean to paint all birds as universally benign.  There are the robber starlings, and the nest-invading cowbirds, and ubiquitous house sparrows.  But by and large the birds of the air are faithful prophets of God’s provision.

Each day they sing anthems of eloquence and insight, if only we will listen.  Morning and evening they preach sermons on the majesty, delight, and creativity of our God.  Then they invite us to observe by their example what it means to put our trust in the Lord.  “Look at the birds of the air;” Jesus says, “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”  

Jesus is right of course: there are no finch farmers, hawk harvesters, or barn-building buntings.  However birds do not just sit around waiting for their Father to feed them.  They work hard to gather what God provides.  Sometimes traveling thousands of miles, always appearing to be on the move, swooping to catch prey, pecking up earthworms, snatching berries.  Like us, they work hard to provide for themselves and their families.  

The difference between these hunting, gathering birds and ourselves as human beings is not the degree of work so much as it is the spirit with which we go about it.  
The diligent work of birds is accompanied by joy, trust, and song.  It is most unlikely that we have ever seen a songbird overwhelmed with worry about finding food to feed their nestlings.  There is simply a confident and trusting spirit that with diligent work, there will be plenty to eat and energy enough for joy too.  The birds seem quite naturally to trust in their Creator, confident that abundance is waiting to be found.

The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther writes, in a wonderful sermon on this passage, of the songbirds’ daily praises, as they “sing Lauds and Matins to their Lord before they eat…They sing a lovely long Benedicite and leave their cares to our Lord God, even when they have young that have to be fed.”

Luther continues, “Whenever you listen to a nightingale…you are listening to an excellent preacher. He exhorts you with this Gospel, not with mere simple words but with a living deed and an example.”

Jesus calls upon us to listen and watch the feathered faithful.  Then he says, “Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
Worrying, no matter how naturally it comes to our own species, will do us no good.  Worrying will not extend our lives by even an hour, and will in fact rob us of enjoying the days and hours we do have.
We may well argue that we have good reasons for worry: it’s been a very difficult year for dairy farmers, international tensions appear to be on the rise, and we each face personal realities of illness, conflict, injury, and loss.  But Jesus urges us to listen to our hedgerow choir and heed their words of praise.  When we sing to the Lord with trust, our joy will increase.  
Jesus promises that our Father knows what we need and will provide, for we are most especially precious to God.  Because our heavenly Father knows all our earthly needs, we need not be single-mindedly concerned with them.  
As William Wordsworth writes, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”  
Jesus says, “Strive first for the kingdom of Godand hisrighteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  Do not focus on these earthly things; do not cling to them; do not set your heart on them as the most important part of your existence.  
But put your trust in the Lord.  
Breathe deeply of God’s grace.   
Release to God the worries you carry, the burdens known only to you and to our Lord. 
We can trust in God’s care for us.  
God knows our needs.  
God will provide.
As Martin Luther preaches, “Every day you see these illustrations before your eyes, how God nourishes and feeds everything that lives and grows from the earth, clothes and adorns it so beautifully.  Now let these illustrations persuade you to lay aside your anxiety and your unbelief and to remember that you are Christians.”

The abundance that we enjoy does not depend upon our worry but rather relies on God’s provision. 

Like a mother lovingly spreading the family table with a feast, God provides for all our needs, pulling out a chair for us, calling us to the place where we belong, 
to enjoy the abundance spread before us.  

“Come to the table,” God calls.  You need not be anxious about whether or not there will be enough—whether you are worrying about enough food, enough money, enough time, or love, or healing.  There is enough and more besides.  

God honors our work, our efforts, our action.  God helps us to provide for ourselves and our families.  So work hard but know that there is more to life.  Put God’s kingdom first, above all else, and you will find all that you need.

Many of us need a daily reminder—and sometimes a moment-by-moment reminder—to put our trust in God.  So Jesus invites us to pay attention to the feathered faithful.  They sing with joy and trust each day, and call us to do the same, finding strength and assurance in the provision of our Lord.

So let us listen for the melody of birdsong today and everyday.

May the birds serve as our preachers and choirs, singing to us of work and trust and joy, preaching God’s provision, and calling us to share their faith.

Amen.

Resources: “The Place of Trust” by Martin Luther in Spiritual Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster and Emilie Griffin. The Birds: Our Teachersby John Stott.  Rochester Birding Association, rochesterbirding.com.  The Westminster Bible Companion: Matthewby Thomas Long.  

Practical, Powerful, Profound
Matthew 5:43-45
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
May 6, 2018


Out of all of Jesus’ teachings, this might just be the most challenging: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  

Loving our enemies is exactly the opposite of our natural human impulse.  We are much more likely to divide the world into “us” and “them,” allies and enemies, Americans and foreigners, blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats.  And while such deep divisions are certainly a problem in our day, they were also a challenge in the time of Jesus.

Popular religious teachers had been telling people that although they must love their neighbors, they had every right to hate their enemies.  This teaching kind of sounded like Scripture but it wasn’t really.  These religious leaders had looked at Leviticus 19 and the words, “love your neighbor” and inferred that they could treat anyone who was NOT their neighbor—Samaritans, Gentiles, Romans, foreigners—any way they pleased.  

In this spirit an expert in religious law famously questioned Jesus, asking, “Who is my neighbor?”  He was hoping Jesus would justify a narrow definition of who we are to love.  But Jesus responds with his Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), astronomically expanding what it means to be a neighbor.

Jesus addresses the topic here as well, in his Sermon on the Mount, in a manner that is more direct: “love your enemies” he says, “and pray for those who persecute you.  So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  Just like children who take after their mother and father, bearing a resemblance to their earthly parents, Jesus is letting us know that when we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we are bearing a resemblance to God.

Jesus taught his followers that love and prayer for our enemies are essential marks of the Christian life. And we see this love most fully revealed in the life and death of Jesus, who prayed from the cross for those who crucified him.  

But there is a second reason why Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us: so that we may be free from the destruction brought into our lives by hate. Hate doesn’t just harm the person who is hated; it also harms the one who hates.  We do violence to others and to ourselves when we talk bad about people behind their backs; when we pile on the criticism while they’re out of earshot.  

We might not call any of this talk hate—we probably just consider it venting or complaining.  But an attitude of hatred can masquerade in the clothing of complaining.When we give ourselves a license to complain—whether that complaining is about our spouse, children, parents, coworkers, friends, neighbors, 
national figures or our own church members, bitterness is only going to become a stronger force in our lives, corroding our spirits and infecting our souls. There’s certainly a place for naming disagreements and seeking to address them but complaining without collaborating for solutions is only going to bring about harm.

It is important to know, however, that loving those we have a hard time getting along with is not the same as having a loving feeling about them.  Jesus did not say, “Like your enemies.” It’s a good thing too because we can all probably think of people who have caused us, or our loved ones harm.  Jesus does not say that we have to like them.  Instead Jesus calls upon us to “love them.”

This kind of love is about treating people with respect.  It’s about demonstrating humility and recognizing our shared humanity. This kind of love is not about how we feel but about how we act.

Choosing to act in the ways of love does not in any way excuse wrongs that have been done to us. Neither does it mean that we should submit ourselves to ongoing harm.  

What Jesus teaches us instead is a way to be freed from the corrosive effect that hatred has upon our souls.  Jesus wants to replace hatred with love, turning our complaining into compassion, as we release our pain into the hands of God through prayer.

You see, Jesus doesn’t just instruct us to love our enemies; in the very same breath he urges us to pray for them.  Prayer is a powerful and a practical tool for those who are striving to love their enemies. The ability to act with love toward those who are hard to love depends on a power beyond ourselves. 

Through prayer we connect with this power, the power of God, who can change our hearts, lead us on the path of forgiveness, and bring healing to our pain.  
Through prayer we draw near to the One who gives us strength to love.

Perhaps as you consider Jesus’ words today, you are thinking that all of this sounds impractical and idealistic, out of touch with the way things really work.  Lots of people have thought the same.

But as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes in a sermon on this passage, “We have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos.  Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities that surrendered to hatred and violence…Returning hate for hate only multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

Rather than being the idealistic instruction of a dreamer, Jesus’ words, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” might just be the most practical advice of all. 

It’s been 57 years now since a little girl named Ruby Bridges became the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South.  By the end of Ruby’s first day of first grade, white parents had emptied the school of all the other children, beginning a massive boycott.  

Day after day that year, Ruby walked through angry, jeering crowds just to get to school.  Angry parents chose to keep their own children out of school altogether rather than have them learn in the same classroom as Ruby.

During this time of desegregation, psychiatrist Robert Coles began to study its effects on children in the South and he took a special interest in Ruby.  Coles wondered how it could be possible for her to demonstrate strength, determination, and even cheerfulness, while walking through that angry mob day after day.

One morning Ruby’s teacher observed her lips moving as she walked into school.  The teacher told Coles about it and he asked, 
“Who were you talking to, Ruby?”  

“I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street,” she said.  

“Why were you doing that, Ruby?”  

“Well, because I wanted to pray for them.  Don’t you think they need praying for?”  

Coles agreed but inquired further.  “Where did you learn that?”  

“From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church.  I pray every morning [when I come to school] and every afternoon when I go home.” 

 “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you.  You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.”  

“No,” she said, “I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good to them…I always pray the same thing. ‘Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

That six-year old little girl understood and put into practice day after day the words of Jesus.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Her parents, who could neither read nor write, had memorized this Scripture at church and practiced it at home.  They understood that love and prayer are the most practical, profound, and powerful ways that we can follow Jesus.  

So by the time Ruby entered first grade, she had already learned from her parents the strength that can be found in love and prayer.

Little by little love and prayer chip away at the power of hate, releasing us from bondage to bitterness, freeing us for a life of faith.  

As we hear these words of Jesus today, as we think about all the challenges we face, let us choose to live in the practical, profound, powerful way Jesus—and pray to God that we may have the strength to love.

Amen.


Resources: “Love Your Enemies” in Strength to Loveby Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  “When Ruby Bridges Prayed for Her Enemies” by Peter Marty in The Christian Century, March 24, 2017.  Westminster Bible Companion: Matthewby Thomas Long.




“Free to Live the Golden Rule”
Matthew 7:12
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
April 29, 2018

Our Sunday school children have been learning the Golden Rule.  If you know it, will you say it with me: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Jesus teaches this principle in his Sermon on the Mount, presenting it to his disciples as a concise guide for their behavior.  The Golden Rule has become a core component of Christianity and is one of the treasured teachings of Jesus—we call it “Golden” in reference to Psalm 19, where the psalmist describes the Lord’s instruction as “more precious than gold.”

Yet although this teaching is important within Christianity, it is not exclusive to our faith.  In fact a version of the Golden Rule appears in many religions of the world.
Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism all teach variations of it.  It appears in these religions as, “Love your neighbor as yourself”; “Do nothing to others that you would not have them do to you”; “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself."  

Even among those who profess no faith at all, considering themselves to be atheists or agnostics, the Golden Rule is widely known and affirmed as an important principle for life.

But the truth is that the Golden Rule is not always an easy one to follow.  It may be “a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior,” yet ournatural tendency as humans is in fact just the opposite—much more along the lines of doing unto others what has been done to us. 

This is why harmful patterns are often passed down through generations, as destructive behaviors emerge from unhealed wounds.  It’s why the child who is bullied often becomes a bully.  It’s why the one who was abused often becomes an abuser.  And it’s why those who want nothing more than to break family cycles of pain often struggle mightily to do so.  The difficult truth is that our natural human tendency is not to follow the Golden Rule at all but rather to do unto others what has been done to us.

When I’m working with couples preparing for marriage, I always invite them to share about their families of origin—about what values and practices they observed and experienced growing up—which ones they want to continue and which ones they would like to change.  My purpose is to help couples begin to see that they can be intentional about the life they are creating.  

We are NOT destined to do unto others what has been done to us.   Instead, by God’s power in our lives, we have the ability to change.   Regardless of our marital status, age, or experiences, we can surround ourselves with relationships of support that will help us live out the choices we wish to make for our lives.  And most of all we can recognize that the strength for building a new way of life comes through the power of God.

Left to our own devices we may know the Golden Rule and may even strive to follow it—but the ability to live this rule comes not through our own determination but rather by God’s power at work within us.  Through Christ, and the love of those around us, we are healed; we are freed; and we are ultimately empowered to live the Golden Rule.

Jesus promises that as we bring our brokenness to God, as we name the pain we carry, as we ask God to mend that hurt and lead us to new life—God is faithful and will do so.  

In fact just before he teaches his disciples the Golden Rule, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” When we ask, when we search, when we knock—God will respond with love, mercy, and healing. 

In The Mothers of Preschoolers Magazine, author and speaker Tammy Kennington describes the heavy burdens she carried from her childhood. She writes, “I dragged them into marriage and motherhood unwillingly.  They tracked my steps and lurked in the shadows until it was safe for them to emerge.”  As a young mother those long-buried memories nearly overwhelmed her, yet by God’s work in her life, through her loving marriage, and the support of friends and therapists, she ultimately broke free. 
“Link by link,” she writes, “the chains of my past were loosened.  Some required more prying and harder work than others.  A few only gave way to counseling or prayer….Finally, one beautiful day, the chains lay broken at my feet and I stretched out my arms—embracing freedom—as joy left its trail on my cheeks.”

That freedom, that breaking of chains, is the work of God in us.  This is the healing and joy that are possible on the other side of pain. Kennington writes, “Perhaps your story runs as deep as mine…Can I encourage you?  Tell someone.  Invite people you trust to be part of your journey.  When you do, you’ll begin to chip away at those chains and you’ll be one step closer to freedom—with God at your side.”

Our human impulse is to bury pain.  When we do it buries us.  Jesus promises, “Knock and the door will be opened for you.”  So maybe the door we are knocking on is not a door leading in but a door leading out.  Maybe the door we need to knock on today is the one on the inside of a tomb, a tomb of the past, a tomb of pain.  Maybe we are knocking on that door with all our might, hoping for Jesus to answer us. Maybe we are just starting to tap tentatively upon it, wondering if anyone will hear.  

Jesus promises, when you knock, the door will be opened.

For just as God raised Jesus from the dead, God raises us too—Easter means that right here and now, God opens the door to free us from tombs of pain.

God is rolling the stone away, and inviting us to step into the light of day, the light of a new day of freedom and transformation, when we can live in the strength of Christ.  Then, and only then, will we be free to live the Golden Rule. 

Jesus promises: “Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Today God is opening the door of mercy to you; the tenderness of Christ is here to heal all that is broken; and the power of the Holy Spirit is ready to raise you to new life.  

Amen.


Resources: “The Gospel According to Matthew” by Warren Carter in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. “One Step Closer” by Tammy Kennington in The MOPS Magazine, Spring 2018. 





“Remember Who You Are”
Matthew 5:1-16 in The Message Version of the Bible
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
April 22, 2018
What does it mean to be blessed?  
That is the question with which Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount.  And while blessing may seem to us to be a gentle topic, in Jesus’ time this concept of “blessing” carried strong social and religious implications.
Many people in his day believed that being “blessed” meant financial prosperity, physical health, and family strength.  These kinds of “blessings” were seen as rewards for faithful living.  
Therefore those living in poverty, facing illness, disability, or infertility were believed to be undeserving of God’s love and blessing.  Jesus is about to dramatically and definitively upend that belief—but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Because the other thing that it’s important to understand about the culture surrounding Jesus was that blessings were seen as a limited commodity.  If one person was “blessed” with wealth or power, then someone else’s resources and power would necessarily be decreased.
We see this concept playing out in the story of Jacob stealing his brother Esau’s blessing. As the older twin, Esau had the right to receive their father’s blessing; Jacob however manages to trick their father Isaac into blessing him instead.  When Esau discovers the trick, he begs his father to find some blessing left for him. But very little remains that could be called a “blessing” (Genesis 27).
These two cultural understandings—that blessing is limited and that being blessed is defined by health, wealth, and power—shaped the community surrounding Jesus.  And these are precisely the perspectives that Jesus aims to challenge in the opening lines of his Sermon on the Mount.
According to Jesus, there is no scarcity when it comes to blessings.  Instead blessings are abundant.   There are more than enough blessings to go around.
But Jesus defines blessings in a very different way from his culture.  The blessings Jesus speaks of are not at all what people were expecting.
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this passage is helpful here, because the fresh language he uses may help us newly encounter the strange nature of these blessings.
Consider these words:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
According to Jesus, being blessed does NOT mean self-sufficiency, health, wealth, power, or easy, comfortable lives.  
In fact, Jesus teaches just the opposite—that we are blessed as we experience our need for God, as we feel compassion for the needs of others, and as we grapple with the inevitable struggles we experience as God’s people.
All of this presents a direct challenge to what we may have heard referred to as the “Prosperity Gospel”— teachings that are part of a movement that has been gaining popularity in the US since the mid-20thCentury, although its roots go back much farther. 
The Prosperity Gospel teaches that God blesses people who live faithfully and give generously, rewarding them with financial prosperity, political success, and good health.  But from the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus warns us to beware of these teachings.  They sound appealing—what if we could guarantee wealth, power, and health just by living upright lives?!  But this isn’t the way God works.
Instead Jesus says, “You’re blessed when you know you need God.”
You’re blessed when you grieve over the chasm between the way the world is and the way God created it to be; when you’re pained by the violence in places like Parkland and Syria. 
You’re blessed when you seek reconciliation rather than retaliation. 
And you’re blessed when your life is hard and you’re criticized because of your faith, because then you’re in good company with faithful people who have suffered and struggled for generations before you.
Jesus does not promise that our lives will be easy; rather he promises that even when we struggle, God will bless us and provide for us—not with health, wealth, and power but with faith, hope, and love.
This is the upside-down, inside-out gift of God.  We see the proof of it in our lives when we observe that true joy and happiness come to us not by obtaining things for ourselves but rather by giving and sharing with others.  
For just as Jesus says, “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.”  If we want a boost of happiness, one of the best things we can do is something kind and generous for someone else.
Jesus goes on to say that when we live these upside-down blessings, when we open our lives to loving God and those around us, we become God’s gift to the world.
We’re like salt that helps people taste goodness, bringing out the flavors of God’s love.  And we’re like light, helping people see God’s presence and the hope and guidance God provides.
Salt and light are ordinary, common elements in the world—found nearly everywhere.  We know that salt has many important uses. It’s a key ingredient for seasoning and also preserving food.  It is also an important ingredient in many baked goods, helping to balance the flavor and texture in ways we may not even realize.
One important thing I have learned about making bread is the way that salt and yeast interact with one another.  When salt and yeast come into contact for a prolonged period of time, the salt inhibits the action of the yeast.  If they’re together for a little while the effect is undetectable but in cases of extended contact, the salt will profoundly inhibit the yeast’s ability to make the bread rise.
We, of course, want our bread to become light and fluffy from the action of the yeast. But in the New Testament, yeast is viewed in a very different way.  Jesus repeatedly uses “yeast” symbolically in reference to the Pharisees and also Herod, and warns his disciples to watch out for their influence.
By calling his disciples “salt,” I wonder if Jesus may also be inviting us to see that as salt inhibits the action of yeast, we as the people of God slow the growth of negative forces around us.  As we, the salt, come into contact with those who would cause harm to the world, we naturally inhibit their impact and influence.
As we are mixed into the whole, spread out in the world, we bring out flavors and preserve values like love and generosity, and we also naturally, simply by virtue of our presence, decrease the impact of those who would cause harm.  Like salt coming into contact with yeast, it is in our very nature to decrease the influence of powers of destruction in the world.
Jesus began this powerful sermon by teaching his followers that they are blessed, and that they are salt and light in the world.  This is their deep and true identity.   In her book More Than Words,Rev. Erin Wathen tells the story of a friend of hers named Kara.  When Kara and her brothers were growing up and getting ready to go out on a Friday night, their mother never said the things other parents would say: Things like “Don’t do anything stupid…” or “You’ll be in big trouble if…”  Instead Kara’s mom would always say, “Remember who you are.”
That instruction became a powerful force in Kara’s life, shaping the decisions she made on those Friday nights, and guiding her as she went off to college, and began her life away from home.  Remember who you are.
It is in a sense what Jesus says to his disciples.  Remember who you are--You are loved. You are blessed.  You are salt.  You are light.  You do make a difference in this world.  Remember who you are.
Resources: More Than Words: 10 Values for the Modern Family by Erin Wathen.  The Message Version of the Bibleby Eugene Peterson.

“Super Natural”
Matthew 14:22-33
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
March 4, 2018

“Mom, come on!  Get in.  I want you to swim with me!”

“I don’t know, honey, I don’t feel so well.”

“Please, please, please get in the water with me?”

Left to my own devices that day, just a few weeks ago, I would have stayed in the boat.  After thirty minutes on what had, it turns out, been accurately advertised as a “high-speed thrill ride,” I wasn’t feeling so well. 

A strong east wind was sweeping across the Atlantic, stirring up the waves, rocking our little boat to and fro. The last thing I wanted to do was get in the water.  I was wearing a life-vest but didn’t know if I could trust it. 


My reluctance to get in the water that day was about more than just the waves.  For over two decades, I have carried around with me a phobia of snorkeling, ever since the time I tried it as a teenager and panicked at the strangeness of breathing underwater, and the nearby darting of unfamiliar fish.

I became determined last summer to overcome this fear, braved the waters, and discovered for the first time the great enjoyment of snorkeling, which was a breakthrough for me. 

Last summer I was snorkeling in still waters.  On our family travels to snorkel a few weeks ago, the waves were high.

And yet with a burning certainty, I knew that giving in to my fear would set an example I did not want to set.  Giving in to my fear could very well mean I was passing my own phobia on to the next generation. 

If I wanted my kids to be free of my fear, then I had to get out of the boat.  I had to climb down the ladder with the six year old who was thrilled to snorkel at a coral reef.   And join my son who did not want me to miss out.  With my heart pounding, I crept over the edge of the boat, climbed down the ladder, and leaned backwards into the waves. 

Clearly I survived.  And of course it was wonderful once I got in the water.  A whole world of beauty lay beneath the surface.  And I was no longer afraid. 

I wonder if Peter’s heart felt a bit like mine when Jesus called him to get out of the boat.   A strange mix of terror and excitement, the certainty that it must be done, and that perhaps something wonderful lay just beneath the surface of the moment.

After all Peter himself had come up with the bright idea … asking Jesus to call him out on the waves, only to be quickly faced with the crisis of decision when Jesus did as he had asked.

So often we remember Peter’s worst moments and misguided ways, yet he also understood something of fundamental importance to the Christian faith, something that none of the other disciples seemed to comprehend.  Peter knew that the very sign of Jesus’ nearness, the very proof of his presence, would be the command to step outside his comfort zone.  Peter understood that if Jesus could walk on the waves, then Jesus could empower him to do the same.  But there was only one way for him to confirm the power of Jesus: he would have to get out of the boat.

What Peter understood is that when we are close to Jesus, we will not always find ourselves feeling comfortable.  When we are close to Jesus, our faith will not always bring us comfort.  When we are close to Jesus, sometimes he will disrupt and disturb our lives.

Looking back at the beginning of this story, we see that Jesus was, in fact, the very one who sent the disciples into the storm.  Matthew tells us that after the miraculous feeding of the multitude, Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side,” while he himself went up a mountain to pray.  Jesus sent his disciples out onto the lake that night, knowing they were heading into a storm.

Earlier on in the gospel, Matthew told us that it was none other than the Spirit of God who led Jesus into the wilderness to face temptation by the devil.   In a similar way it is now none other than Jesus himself who sends the disciples out onto the lake, to have their faith tested by the wind and waves.

When Jesus comes to them, walking calmly on the waters that terrify them, he demonstrates his power—supernatural power over the forces of the natural world.  
But along with revealing his own identity through this use of power, Jesus extends this power to Peter.   To access that power, Peter has to step out of the boat. 

So I wonder about those times in our lives when Jesus offers us power, if only we will get out of the boat.  Often we are tempted to stay in our boat, even if we do feel queasy there. 

The boat where we find ourselves may not be comfortable but it is at least a familiar place.  Seemingly more secure than the open seas.  The wind and waves tempt us to stay in the boat, to stick with the familiar, when the storms of life crash toward us,
believing our little boat to be the place of safety from the storm.

Some of our boats have been tossed about by the violent gales of addiction
or the storms of self-harm, some of our boats have been sucked down by the dark depths of depression, flooded with the crashing waves of anxiety, swamped with the sorrow of grief, and tossed against the turmoil of rocky relationships.

Moreover sometimes the waves that crash around us are not personal in nature but social in their scope: gathering storms of bigotry, tsunamis of mass shootings, and cyclones of corruption.  We begin to wonder if the stormy waters of social struggle and personal pain are about to sink us. 

But then, at the very height of the storm, in the coldest, darkest hours before the dawn, when the wind is blowing mightily against us, we catch sight of someone walking toward us.  And we realize that it is Jesus, treading on the turmoil that terrifies us, and calling us to walk on those very waves toward him. 

He calls us, with a simple, “Come,” then gives us his own power…

So we venture a step out of the boat; we begin walking toward Jesus. 

But then we notice the wind, and we get afraid. We feel the waves, and just like Peter we start to sink.  Yet in that moment when Peter thinks he is a goner, he cries out, “Lord, save me!”  And “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘Why did you doubt?’”

Jesus critiques his failure of faith, and yet he also immediately reaches out to save him, putting Peter safely back into the boat.  Jesus doesn't require perfect faith from his disciples; he doesn't demand unwavering trust, but readily responds to our need, whether we cry aloud in terror or whisper in the silence of our soul those words of sacred prayer, "Lord, save me!"

Rev. Billy Honor, a pastor in Atlanta, Georgia talks about how often we try to go through our lives forgetting about the saving power of God.  Trying to make it on our own, to cope in our own ways, to get through life relying on a whole array of vices. 
Rev. Honor says that so often we forget that we need the power, the batteries, of the Holy Spirit in order to make our lives work.

How much better to pray, he says, to say, “Lord, I need you to put some “super” on my “natural.” Because the “super” that God can put on our “natural” is better
than what the phone booth did for Clark Kent, better than what the lasso of truth did for Wonder Woman, better than what spinach did for Popeye and what vibranium did for the Black Panther. 

When God puts the super on our natural, it’s better than what alcohol does to help us cope and what drugs do to numb our pain, better than what any object can do to make us feel safe or help us escape.
When God puts the super on our natural, we can be sure he is going to call us to step out of our familiar boat and risk putting our trust in him.  And we can be confident as well that in those moments when storms of life threatens to drown us, he will reach out his hand to lift us up.

Peter says,  “Lord, save me!” “Lord, put the super on my natural.”

And we can pray those words too…

Lord, save me!

Lord, give me the power to make it through this life.

Lord, put the super on my natural.

Amen.



Resources: “Sermon” by Rev. Billy Honor, Opening Worship at the Next Church National Gathering, February 26, 2018, Baltimore, MD.













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