Reflections Upon the Sunday School Lessons Uniform Sunday School Lessons Teacher: Esther Kletsch
December 9, 2018 Theme: Love and Serve God Scripture: Joshua 24
Choose This Day Home You Will Serve
The First twelve chapters detail the securing of the promised land through warfare and divine help. The next chapters outline the distribution of this land among the twelve tribes of Israel. In the last chapter of this book, Joshua, the leader of the people, calls upon all the tribes to promise their devotion and faithfulness to the God who released them from slavery, sustained them in the wilderness and now leads them into the future in the promised land.
There are times in our lives when making decisions becomes very hard. Career path, relationship issues, doing the right thing when it is not popular, choosing between competing values, standing up for those who have suffered wrong or need our help. Our modern life is a maze of choices that need to be made.
I have found that it is easier to make these choices once a foundation of values and commitments has been established. Sometimes we have to remember who we are, what we believe in, what we value and were we have come from. This day, on the verge of a new life in the promised land, Joshua calls all the people to establish a strong connection and faithfulness to the God of Israel.
In a like moment in our lives, we need to continually remind ourselves of our values and commitments to the God of Israel and our call to follow Jesus. Pastor Joel
December 2, 2018 Theme: Love and Obey God Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Shema Shema is the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4 "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."
These words are recited in contemporary Jewish worship. The use in private devotions was as a statement of faith to be recited at night. The Bible instructs the faithful to recite these words in the morning and in the evening. It goes on to urge parents to teach these words to their children.
Jesus, when asked what was the most important commandment in the Law, replied by quoting the Shema (Matthew 23:34ff) extending the command with an additional command: to love one's neighbor as oneself.
The Shema can be a transformative prayer. It can empower and guide us to live a life of significance and positive influence. It is primarily through our own adherence to these principles that we show the world that our faith is real. Pastor Joel
November 25, 2018 Theme: God's Blessing Scripture: Genesis 30:22-32, 43
The first book of the Bible might well be thought of as the story of God's blessing. The critical role of the blessing comes to full expression in the lives of the three Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob in particular lives his life in pursuit of and possession of this blessing. The blessing is God's gift. But in the story of Jacob, the blessing is obtained often through subterfuge. I guess the message in this is that God's blessing comes to and is expressed in the lives of imperfect, grasping, people.
The blessing in Genesis moves through the lives of these three patriarchs beginning in the 12th chapter and continuing until the concluding chapters of the book. In chapter 49 and following, Jacob, now advanced in age, reaches out and blesses his twelve children and grandchildren. The blessing will move through those who are blessed and out toward the distant horizons of the future. These varied blessings are beautiful.
Marc Chagall, a modern painter, beautifully illustrates these blessings in the last chapter of Genesis. They are contained now in a synagogue located in the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. These windows convey how the blessing of God gives life in all its magnificent variety and splendor.
November 18, 2018 Theme: Jacob's Dream Scripture: Genesis 28
Jacob's Ladder (Stairway)
After the deception of Esau made it necessary for him to flee his home, Jacob stopped for the night on the way to Padam-aram, gathered a stone for a pillow, and lay down to sleep. He dreamed that night of a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. There were angels going up and down on the ladder. Then the Lord spoke and promised the land to him and his descendants. It is a beautiful story of the hope that comes from heaven and revives our spirits in times of trial and upheaval.
There are times in our lives where change and transition come and it feels like we are far away from the familiar supports and comforts of home. A rock for a pillow certainly suggests the discomfort of these moments of change. Israel, in the distant future would know such a time in their exile when, defeated by a hostile foreign power, many were taken to a distant land to live. Those living in time of exile understand this hope of a God who moves with us in and through periods of change, Jacob discovered the truth that God comes to us whenever and wherever we need God to be.
Psalm 139 memorializes this truth: Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there, (7,8)
November 11, 2018 Theme: Jacob's Deception Scripture: Genesis 27:1-28:5
In this passage we encounter the deception Jacob and his mother Rebekah use to secure the blessing of Isaac for Jacob rather than Esau. This scheme echoes a pattern of life Jacob has shown throughout his life. The pattern is so deep in his nature that it is reflected in his name, which is interpreted as meaning, "the supplanter."
It is not useful to overlook the wrongdoing of Jacob in his successful attempt to deceive his father and secure his blessing that was intended for his older brother. Perhaps many might justify his deception as serving a larger purpose in the history of salvation. Others may admire his pursuit of advantage over another through morally questionable means. But wrong is wrong. The deception caused a primal conflict between brothers that would widen historically into violence around nations.
The ethical question arising here is this: It is right to do wrong to do good? You might think of the plight of the powerless or oppressed. Is it right for those who have been trampled on, to employ evil means to redress wrong done to them? Tricky questions.
To interpret this passage it is helpful, in my view, to see it being less about Jacob and his supplanting and deceptive behavior, and more about a sovereign God who works through imperfect people. The heros of the Bible are often conflicted and always imperfect. Yet the story of God's sovereign grace is shown and told in these lives.
November 4, 2018 Theme: Siblings' Rivalry Scripture: Genesis 25:19-34
Fortuitous Rise of the Second-Born
It is a consistent theme throughout the Bible that the second born rises to prominence over the first born. That theme is clearly seen in the birth of Jacob and Esau. Jacob, born as the second twin, battles with his brother even before birth, to secure advantage. The conflict continues through their lives as second-born Jacob rises in power and privilege over his brother.
We repeatedly notice the Bible's tradition of the rise of the second born to great privilege and blessing. As examples of this we may include Cain and Abel, Ephraim and Manasseh as well as Issac and Ishmael. The sorry of the Prodigal's Son in the New Testament also emphasizes the ascendency of the second born over the elder son who fumes over the fuss the father lavishes on the wayward younger son.
Further, if instances of children born later to previously barren women are included, like Samuel or John the Baptist, then this tradition becomes even more compelling. If you go on to include children born later in the family birth order, you can also include King David and Joseph.
Affirming this continuing pattern, we should ask ourselves, "why?" Why does the Bible continues to emphasize the ascendancy of the later-born? I am able to think of two theological affirmations that can be made.
1. God's grace is disruptive. Like the parables of Jesus which upset conventional understandings of who is blessed and who is not, who is included and who is not, who is first and who is not, grace is seen as transforming conventional understandings and attitudes.
2. God favors those who are disadvantaged in some way. The second born in ancient days would tend to be overlooked in conventional understandings of status. God's grace, like the ministry of Jesus, reaches out to those who have been pushed aside or dismissed.
October 28, 2018 Theme: Marriage of Isaac Scripture: Genesis 24
The Kindness of Rebekah
This is a beautiful and detailed account of the arrangement of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac, as is customary of him, plays a passive role in this. A faithful servant of the family is sent off the the original homeland of Abraham to the north to find a wife for Isaac. The journey there is a great distance, but this servant is full of faith and hope.
Upon arrival at the ancestral homeland, the servant stops at a spring for water. There he sees a beautiful woman, which will be the future bride of Isaac. The servant asks of her a drink, which she provides. Then she goes on to water the camels until they all have had enough to drink. The servant is watching carefully as this happens, his faith confirmed that this woman truly is the one God intends to be Isaac's wife.
The story of the initial encounter of the servant and Rebekah is similar to the meeting of Moses with his future wife Zipporah, one of seven children of the priest and and shepherd of Midian. While there, Moses saved the daughters from some shepherds who were up to no good. Moses not only saved them but watered their flock.
In both of these stories we see the operation of kindness. Kindness is the important matter that comes into focus in these stories. For men and women, kindness is the issue.
Kindness is a thoughtful and willing consideration of the needs and feelings of others. Kindness is a key ingredient in human well-being. It is what our faith affirms and promotes. It is that quality that should be most prominent in the life of Christian men and women.
Even if you are having a rotten day, you can still accomplish the good of being kind to another. Then the rotten day can be redeemed by good. Maybe you feel bad, but you did good.
Certainly, kindness comes ultimately from God. Psalm 145:9 declares: The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
Saint Augustine wrote: He that is kind is free, though he is a slave; he that is evil is a slave, though he be a king.
So, be kind and considerate to one another. Pastor Joel
October 21, 2018 Theme: The Birth of the Promised Son Scripture: Genesis 18:9-15, 21:1-7
Living In Hope Abraham and Sarah were already quite, quite old by the time the promised birth was spoken to them by the visitors sent from God. That is why Sarah laughed when the time came for that promise to be realized. She and her husband had lived most of their lives with this promise out ahead of them, somewhere in the very uncertain future. I especially think of Sarah. This hope of a child seemed lost for most of her life, She watched others around her enter the joy of possessing children, but she was left out.
In the years before the promise came to be, Sarah had to push on with her life, living each day wondering, hoping, doubting, questioning, but always continuing to do what each day demanded of her. All the work of raising a child, and it is considerable, can, and often does seem light because of the bond between mother and child. You see the hope of the growth of a child, the joy of seeing someone progress toward adulthood and become their own unique person. Childless for so many decades, Sara was not a part of that hope and satisfaction. She was left out.
But then the day came when the messengers of God brought the unbelievable news. Sarah laughed. A son would be born to them and a future would open up for her.
I want to lift up in appreciation the many decades Sara lived without a child of her own. I want to lift up everything in her soul that kept her going, living, working, praying and loving all those years in advance of the miracle birth. She never really gave up, however remote the hope of that birth had become for her. She lived through so many challenges, changes and trials. When the one thing you long for is denied, just getting up and through the day can be a challenge.
Sarah kept herself together, year after year, until that fateful day when the strangers of God came and found her and her husband camped outside of Hebron. Good for her! She helped it together as long as she needed to until her faith in God turned into laughter and joy.
Oct 14, 2018 Theme: The Call of Abraham Scripture: Genesis 9-12
Against All Odds Abraham is named Abram by his father Terah. Terah took part of his extended family and courageously traveled the vast distance (in those days) from Ur to Haran to the North. From Haran, Abram is called to continue the journey into the land of Canaan. Abram never really settled down anywhere, but was always a nomad.
He was driven by a promise that he would be the progenitor of a great people and that God would bless him and through him, "all the families of the earth." ( Gen. 12:3)
We have already learned, at the end of the preceding chapter, that Sarai is barren. The promises given Abram are beyond amazing, but the path to their fulfillment is extremely unclear. So, in this story of the "Father of our Faith," we have, one one hand, brilliant hope, and on the other, boundless uncertainty.
Uncertainty and hope: So it is in this story. So it is in our lives. I remember the birth of my son. I could not have been more amazed or grateful at this gift of the miracle of life. Later, after we brought my son home, I would look at him in various moments and feel uncertainty about this new life before me. I wondered about the uncertainty of the future, and how things would be for this baby as he grew and how the world would be in the years to come, and how all the contingencies in life would arise. This experience helps me to understand the central dilemma of human life: hope vs uncertainty.
I believe this is the Bible's portrait of what it means to be alive, I also believe that the Bible shows us the answer: It is faith. Abraham has faith. Now we know that Abraham and his wife experience uncertainty. Faith doesn't banish uncertainty. Faith makes uncertainty manageable and permits us to live our lives in hope.
Oct 7, 2018 Theme: The Righteousness of Noah Scripture: Genesis 6
Few stories in the Bible are as well known as the story of Noah and the Ark. Details of the story are sung and its message of faith is cherished.
The church is frequently conceived as a type of ark. The church holds in safety those who are rescued from a troubled world. The church with its message, mission and fellowship is a saving escape from a perishing world.
The association of the church and the ark is elaborated in great detail by Hugh of St. Victor in De Areca Noc Morali: (Theologian of Mystical Theology --1096-1144). St Victor declared that the ark's height expresses the hierarchy of the Church, its squared beams the learned members of the church, its rooms the many mansions in heaven and the dove the Holy Spirit, and on and on and on. St. Victor found a vast hoard of spiritual insight in Genesis as many theologians have.
The association of the church and the ark continues with church architecture . The area between the narthex and the sanctuary was called the "nave". This word comes from the Latin navis, or ship and was meant to portray the reality that the Church is a ship, protecting those inside from waves and buffets of the world.
For me, the power of this story resides in a theme that runs through the entire scope of scripture. That story is God's salvation of many though a few. At some point in early human history, and several moments along the way, God rescues humanity using either using a single person or a small group. In Genesis 18, Abraham stands before God and pleads that Sodom not be "swept" away if only for the sake of a few righteous people who dwell there. In the course of this argument, God is more than willing to spare the city if only a few righteous people dwell there. Abraham talks God down to 10 before going the argument. We are left to conclude that even if a single person in Sodom was righteous, the city would be spared.
Anyway, it is evident that, for God, the faith of one or two, or ten people can bring about the salvation of many. Ultimately, this principle holds to the time of Christ, were many are saved by the faith of one.
Don't ever, ever, underestimate your faith. It may seem like it ebbs and flows, and sometimes we feel our faith is weak. Other times we may wonder. "Oh, what difference does it make, this matter of my faith." Today we like to talk about "personal faith" as if our faith just sits there with no saving impact on the world around us. Guess what. I don't like the term, personal faith. Our faith has to do with God saving the world and its future. You have faith. It matters. And it is a lot more than merely personal. God uses women and men in their faith to save the world. Pastor Joel
September 30, 2018 Theme: God Confronts Sin Scripture: Genesis 3
So, Adam and Eve share in the sin of rebellion against God, partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil which is in the midst of the Garden of Eden. That was the only stated prohibition, and they could not resist violating it.
It has become a doctrine shared among Catholic and Protestants that this sin is passed on through the generations, so that all are now corrupted. This is called the Doctrine of Original Sin. The concept of Original Sin was developed by St. Augustine in the Fifth Century. Really, it took some four hundred years to come to this doctrine in its present articulation. Some might cynically propose that this doctrine was employed to scare people into the church.
I have heard people argue against this doctrine, asking "How in the world can we think of a baby as being born in any way corrupted by sin?" Those favoring the doctrine may point to the overwhelming and devastating historical witness to the terrible evil human beings are so inclined towards.
Presbyterians may turn to our confessional standards for direction on this matter and will discover a firm insistence on this doctrine when we do. Discussion of Original Sin is found near the beginning of Chapter Six in the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is very harsh. Here is just a bit of our historical understanding of the inevitability of human sin.
They (our first parents Adam and Eve) being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation. iv. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to do evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.
That is not all that is said on this matter, but I think you get the drift. We are in a heap of trouble.
Personally, I just don't know. The doctrine of Original Sin raises perplexing questions. It takes seriously the dire situation of human sin and our inability, unaided, to rise above it. But it does not sufficiently regard the beauty and power of the natural order and our original innocence, So, I don't know.
Be that as it may, we have the grace of God in Christ which may be embraced even as we ponder all the other mysteries of faith and life. Pastor Joel.
September 23, 2018 Theme: God Creates the Family Scripture: Genesis 2:18-24, 4:1,2
After man created, God recognizes that man needs a suitable companion. God creates all the animals and brings them, one by one to this man to name. But none among any of these animals proved an appropriate companion.
So, God set the man into a deep sleep, then took a rib out of that man and fashioned a woman. The man woke up and saw the woman and declared that this is: "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh"
This event anchors human relationships and destiny in a primal act of creation. That it is a rib taken to make the woman means that man and woman are equal. If the woman were fashioned from say a foot, then woman would be created to serve man. If the woman were taken from the head, the woman would be created to rule the man. The rib is located in the middle of the body, not the top or the bottom. A suitable companion for a man is one who is radically equal in all ways. From the beginning, the Bible acknowledges that human well-being begins and ends in this equality.
Further, this passage affirms that our deepest human well-being resides in connection with others. Jesus, one day, was asked by some Pharisees, (Matthew: Chapter 19) "4 is it lawful fora man to divorce his wife for any cause? Jesus answered, Have you not read that the one who make them at the beginning "made male and female", 5 and said, "For this reason man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh"? 6 So they are no longer tow, but one flesh. Pastor Joel
September 16, 2018 Theme: God Creates People Scripture: Genesis 1:26-2:7
We have spent three Sunday's looking at the fist chapter of the Bible as it presents the account of the creation of everything that is: stars, galaxies, light, cells, life, water and on and on until humankind is made is God's own image. There is just no way to speak of or imagine the wonder of that moment what God's light broke out through the primal darkness.
The Austrian poet Rainer Rilke must have been familiar with the sight of the Alps catching the burning majesty of early dawn light. That experience helped him to imagine the first moment of creation.
"Early successes, Creation's pampered favorites. Mountain ranges, peaks growing red in the dawn of all beginnings - pollen of the flowering godhead, joints of pure light, corridors, stairways, thrones, space formed from essence, shields made of ecstasy, storms of, emotion whirled into rapture." For me, to contemplate the wonder of creation, particularly the wonder that is our humanity, it is best to consider the most ordinary of things, and that is: human memory. I haveno great powers of memory myself, but I am in awe of the miracle of remembering. Consider how much is in our memory: people we have met even if we don't remember their names, songs we have heard, events of the past, the feel and fragrance of a rose, words we have spoken or heard, and on and on.
And think about what a memory is. We have brain cells called neurons that carry electrical energy and interact with an incalcuable array of other cells and chemicals. Somewhere in all of that activity is the memory of the first time we saw the face of our beloved, the taste of an apple, the smile of a child, our own sense of self and everything else. I have known people who possess no short-term memory, but can recall a moment when they were a child sitting on their parent's lap.
The Bible again and again calls us to remember. Our memory and how we use it makes us human. God created us to remember. And yet this is just one of the many wonders of creation. Pastor Joel
September 9, 2018 Theme: Creation Scripture: Genesis 1:1-14
Our pastor is on a well deserved vacation so no comments from him this week. But the editor would like to say that she encourages all to come to our SS. Our teacher Esther spends hours every week to present a well thought out study. And we all have something to add in an welcoming setting where we can freely discuss. It is a wonderful time to share God's word and our fellowship. All are welcome. We look forward to Pastor Joel's comments next Sunday.
September 2, 2018 Theme: Creation Scripture: Genesis 1:1-13
When God Took a Chance and Created the Universe
The Sunday School lesson today concerned the account of God's creation contained in the first verses of the Bible.
One of my favorite stories about the Bible comes from the traditions contained in the Haggadah. The Haggadah contains the recited traditions which include the Exodus. It also refers to the collected stories of the Jewish faith told to illustrate a passage in the Bible.
In one such story, God is about to create the universe. Just before God begins creation, began, a hesitation occurs in the mind of God. This hesitation is represented as a debate between God and Torah. You may think of this as an internal debate in the mind of God an instant before creation.
God and God's law, the Torah, are the two sides in this debate. The Law is arguing against God creating the world. The Law, arguing from the standpoint of God's holy justice and high purpose for humanity, points out that creation, with all humanity in it, will not work. Humanity, prone to error, will surely violate the guidelines of God's justice and upset God's good intent. Human beings will mess things up. God replies that with the aid of God's gifts of repentance and the temple, humanity can restore itself to health after such violations. The promise of a Messiah is added to the benefits humanity shall have. God knew that justice by itself would undermine the world, so God associated mercy with justice.
I like the story. It is almost as if God is taking a chance creating the world, by putting very fallible human beings in the midst of it. God's high regard for justice and right ordering will surely be offended with these human beings running around messing stuff up. But God knows, not only from the beginning, but before the beginning, how necessary mercy will be to make this thing work.
Christ of Creation Colossians and Ephesians contain the final development of Pauline thought. The book affirms a cosmological Christ that is Lord over all creation. This statement is contained in the first chapter of Colossians and is one of the most incredible and liberating parts of the Bible. It is a description of Christ as the Lord of Creation and does so in these terms. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. (v 15 NRSV)
This statement of Christ's majesty opens up brave new avenues of human life, devotion and faith. Creation is made, sustained and renewed in Christ. The natural world bears witness to the power of Christ. Creation is involved, like each of us, in the drama of salvation and redemption. This understanding of Christ widens the scope of our involvements and commitments.
From this affirmation in chapter one we move to chapter two to realize there that our source of power and moral courage comes from the Lord of Creation. We live as we do because Christ is "in all and through all." We are involved in what Christ is doing not only with human souls, but the hope of all the world. We draw power from that constant source which is now a part of our lives. Pastor Joel
August 19, 2018
Theme: Loving and Just Behavior Scripture: Romans 12:9-21
We cannot earn our salvation. Romans 12 begins a whole new direction in Paul's message to the church. The first eleven chapters establish a theology of God's grace offered alike to Jew and Gentile. This grace is about a salvation that comes from God which we did not and cannot earn. In this 12th chapter we have a description of the "therefore" of this grace. Since we have been saved by grace, we respond by living our lives appropriately. Christian ethics are the "therefore" of our faith. Loving and just behavior are the "therefores" of faith.
Now I can get to what I really wanted to get to. This matter of earning our salvation concerns me. Paul makes clear that salvation is not something we can earn. Period. And I guess we can, for the most part, accept that. Except for not really. Something in us wants very much to believe that we earned our salvation one way or another. We can talk all day about God's grace, but deep down inside we want to cling to the idea that, despite God's grace being all that it is, we had something to do with it as well.
There is this rolling anxiety in Christians that is hard to get rid of. It is something like this: " Gee, I wonder if I am good enough to go to heaven." We keep wanting to make salvation a matter of our merit or deserving. We talk about grace but we bargain with merit. Let's come clean. We want to believe in our merit and in our part of earning salvation, even if we talk up grace all day long. Maybe we cling to our merit in salvation because we do not want to give away our control. Maybe we cling to this sense of merit so we can feel superior to others and make distinctions between "us" and "them." I can feel good about salvation because I have earned it.
But, that is not Paul's affirmation. God's grace knocked Paul silly. He never sought God's grace. He certainly did not earn it. He had a deep understanding of the necessity of grace in salvation.
So, there is this. We are saved by grace. We cannot and did not earn our salvation. Let us order our hope and our thoughts not according to our merits but God's grace. That would make Paul happy.
August 12, 2018
Theme: Giving Justly Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8,9
Paul encourages the church in Corinth to "excel in the grace of giving." Paul was particularly interested in raising a collection for the poor in Jerusalem. The Apostle employs various arguments and rhetorical devices to persuade this Christian community to be involved in this purpose.
Paul argues that Corinth ought to respond generously to this cause in order to live up to their own high standards of what it means to be a Christian. Paul then adds that the Christian communities in Macedonia, every though they were suffering issues of persecution of their own, had responded generously to the call to aid the poor in Jerusalem.
There are three Christian communities that are highlighted in this passage: The churches in Macedonia, the church in Corinth and the church in Jerusalem. Each of these churches had their own struggles and issues. The church in Jerusalem had its poor. Perhaps they were poor because their walk of faith had compromised their social and economic standing. The communities in Macedonia struggled with persecution. The church in Corinth was torn by differences of culture and tradition.
Paul reminds Christians that we are all in this together, despite our differences. We help each other out. We look out beyond our own needs and respond in kindness to others. Paul is the Apostle of Christian unity, not only within a particular church, but among all churches.
The church today needs to heed the call of Jesus, in his prayer in the gospel of John: 11 Andnow I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. (John 17---NRCV) Pastor Joel
August 5, 2018
Theme: God's Justice Scripture: Romans 2:1-16
Onward Through the Fog
The opening two chapters of Paul's letter to the Romans is a fascinating witness to the Apostle's belief in natural law and natural theology. Independent and apart from divine revelation, there is enough order in the natural world to establish belief in God. Before we pick up a Bible, we can look at the world around and see that there must be a creator. Not only that, but we can look at this order and establish from it natural law and ethics. So, whether we are a believer or not, we are held to accountable to a standard of right and wrong.
Whether you are a believer or not, there is still right and wrong. Paul goes on to observe that all of us fall short of meeting that standard. I guess we can come close and get most of it right, if we try real hard. But all of us will fall short. We can avoid most of the sins that are listed in the first chapter, but none of us can avoid slipping up somewhere. Paul wants us to be very careful in ever judging someone else when none of us are without sin. I think he is right. I think the overall point here is that none of us can eliminate sin on our own. All of us stand in need of God's grace. The idea that someone could really bear down and be good always and without exception, or be without sin, is not a possibility for Paul. That later point Paul will make clear in the next chapter: 3:23...for all have sinned and fall short of theglory of God. Paul will make the point that Christ is God's grace made flesh.
I wanted to pursue a different point after reading the fist two chapters of Romans. That is to celebrate Paul's affirmation of natural theology and natural law. I believe God has written God's truth in the natural order and that can be a basis for standards of conduct and behavior. There is truth to be found and known in this world.
We live in a day and time when everything is so up for grabs in terms of truth. What is right and what is wrong is so much reduced to perspective or opinion. Everyone has their own notions these days. I like that Paul in Romans establishes a truth that is beyond debate and is accessible to all people. I think there are basic truths that all people can agree on. We can therefore talk to each other, learn from each other, knowing that the the truth is something that can be discovered out there somewhere. Paul thinks so anyway. Pastor Joel
Theme: The Parable of the Great Dinner Scripture: Luke 14:15-24 God Plays it out to the End.
The passage before us in this study is Luke 14 where a certain host prepares a great banquet. What we know of this person may be inferred. He is affluent because he has the means to provide the dinner for many and he has servants to help him prepare for the guests. he is determined to have many people present and enjoy their company.
He orders his servants to invite his friends and let them know the dinner is starting. Unfortunately, none of these friends are able to come, They are all tied up with other responsibilities. They say they can't make it. Undeterred and with growing anger, he orders his servants to bring in those not previously considered for this invitation. This group includes people typically living closer to the margins of society and including the poor and variously disabled. Apparently they are pleased to be invited. But even with all of these present, the host remains unsatisfied. The host wants a full house and more people are needed. So the host again turns to his servants and tells them to go further out along the roads and see who they can find, and compel them to come.
The parable ends with a warning: Not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.
I have just two thoughts about this parable. My first thought is: This must have been a really fun dinner. Those who got to go, including the poor, got a really nice dinner. Also, many of these people who attended perhaps had lived their lives being excluded in various ways. But with this invitation, they were wondrously included. I bet there was joy, laughter and glad celebration at this party. I bet it was the best party ever. To get to go to a party like this would have been the last thing they might have hoped for and when they got to go, you know it was an amazing surprise. I think that is what God's grace is like. It is the glorious surprise of God's love and acceptance given to us.
My second thought is this: God, like the party's host, will do whatever it takes to gather people together for this joyous celebration. For Jesus, "whatever it takes" was a cross. That is how far God was willing to go to make sure everyone got the message of that great love and this gracious invitation. Pastor Joel
July 22, 2018
Theme: How Many Will be Saved--The Narrow Door Scripture: Luke 13:22-30
Jesus was traveling through a village when someone asked this question: was simply, "Lord, will only a few get saved?" Jesus responds with the admonishment, "Strive to enter through the narrow door." But wait, there is more. Jesus goes on to state that not only must a person enter a narrow door but must do so within a given period of time. This person must enter before the owner locks the door. Finally, waiting too long to enter the narrow door will risk terrible torment.
This class discussed an interpretation of this passage in which many found value. We decided part of entering the narrow gate means making your own decision about faith, rather than relying on inherited faith. The faith of a child must grow into the self-realizing faith of adulthood.
Another discussion of this class covered the inappropriateness of anyone assuming they know whether another person is saved or not. We decided it is best to put our speculations about the faith of others into God's hands, where it belongs. God knows the heart of others, we don't.
Finally, there was a discussion of the bottom line for the readers of this passage. That is: "Will I be saved? My suspicion is that the person who asked the original question did so in general terms only to disguise the real concern, which was: Will I be saved?
I believe those who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and promise to follow him through study, prayer and service, are saved.
Here is the problem. Sometimes we wonder: Am I really saved? Through my own experience I have noticed that frequently the most serious, earnest and devout Christians are particularly those who are prone to wondering if they are truly saved. God does not necessarily lead Christians into ever greater certainties. Sometimes God leads us into darkness, or questions, or even doubt. It is in the darkness of our most honest questions and doubts that we learn who God is beyond our understanding. It is in the darkness that we learn how to trust God even more, even when all our questions are far from answered.
Mother Teresa herself had terrible spiritual crisis doubts. She wrote the following to one of her spiritual mentors: Jesus has a very special love for you. (But) as for me--the silence and emptiness is so great--that I look and do not see, --listen and do not hear. (MOTHER TERESA TO THE REV. MICHAEL VAN DER PEET, SEPTEMBER 1979)
What we can hold onto involves our answers to the following questions: Do I know who Jesus was? Do I know how he loved others? Do I know how he forgave others? Do I know how dearly he loves me? If a person is ever in the darkness that faith sometimes involves, park that faith right here, right in your answers to these questions. Many people may wonder if they are truly saved. But don't park your faith in the unsteadiness of your understanding or your feelings, or your thought, or your answered questions. Park your faith in Jesus and who he was. Nearly everyone has doubts even if they don't admit it.
And then rejoice in these words of St Paul in Romans 8:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.' 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerers through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, no angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NRSV) Pastor Joel
July 15, 2018
Theme: The Widow and the Unjust Judge Scripture: Luke 18:1-8
A Defiant Faith
The scripture is from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It is a parable Jesus uses to describe the power of defiant faith. The story is short and sweet. An unjust judge closes his heart against the honest pleas of a powerless widow. He couldn't care less about her or her issues. Except for the fact that this window is not about to give up. She keeps after him, voicing her request for justice again and again until this judge grants her plea, not out of justice or mercy, but out of aggravation.
Jesus explains the meaning of the story in this way: We do not appeal to a heartless judge but rather to a compassionate God. We therefore should be encouraged to pray with confidence. The last line of the scripture for this lesson asks, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
For me this parable is about praying with confidence, but it is more even than that. It is about living a defiant faith that stands up to evil or heatless human cruelty. It is about standing up to the powers of this world that cause harm, even if we are at a disadvantage. There is spiritual leverage in persistent prayer and honest effort. Maybe the battles we engage in and the good we fight for may not be achieved in our lifetime. Yet we know that, up above, we have a compassionate God and not a heartless judge.
Defiant faith is spiritual leverage. I can't think of a better example of defiant faith put into practice than St. Francis of Assisi born Giovanni di Peitro de Bernardone, informally known named as Francesco (1181/1182 - 3 October 1226). He did not let the ways of the world suck him in. He lived his faith regardless of whatever forces of opposition rose up again him.
This defiant man has taught us a defiant prayer that will be remembered as long as there are human beings on this planet:
Lord made me an instrument of your peace Where there is hatred let me sow love Where there is injury, pardon Where there is doubt, faith Where there is despair, hope Where there is darkness, light And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console to be understood as to understand To be loved as to love For is is in giving that we receive It is in pardoning that we are pardoned And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life Amen
July 8, 2018
Theme: Jesus Criticizes Unjust Leaders Scripture: Matthew 23:1-4, 23-26
On Hypocrisy The scripture lesson is taken from this chapter in Matthew that contains seven woes which Jesus declares against the religious leaders of the time, specifically the Pharisees and Scribes. The theme of those woes involves the sin of hypocrisy.
The church has gotten a lot of criticism over the years, often deserved, for the sin of not practicing what we preach. What is said in church falls flat against the reality of our actual behavior. Needless to say, this sad truth becomes a reason many give for turning away from the church.
The seriousness of the sin is the reason why Jesus so passionately confronts these leaders, earlier in this same gospel he declares: (Matthew 7:3-5) Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Let me take the speck out of your eye", while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.
St. Augustine follows the thought in these words: While to complain against sin is the duty of good and benevolent persons, there is in fact a class of troublesome pretenders much to be guarded against who even while motivated to complain against all manner of other's faults, merely from hatred and spite, which to present themselves as counsellors.
The French playwright Jean-Baptiste Moliere (stage name) in 1664 presented the controversial comedy, Tartuffe. Tartuffe plays the part of a pious man, who preaches morality to the point where "anything we take pleasure in / Suddenly becomes a mortal sin". But he indulges his baser desires when he believes no one is looking. Tartuffe's actions do not back up his words. Tartuffe mentions that "there'll be no sins for which we must atone / 'Cause evil exists only when it's known."
Finally , among the famous literary treatments of hypocrisy, there is the unforgettable portrait of the eternal punishment of the hypocrites in Dante's Inferno (Canto 23)
Dante journeys ever downward into the realms of punishment until he arrive at the 6th circle. There he sees what once were religious leaders. They are walking slowly around in a circle; wearing bright, glittering and beautiful robes. However, these robes are made of lead. This is how the poet sees and evaluates hypocrisy:
A painted people there below we found, Who went about with footsteps very slow, Weeping and in their semblance tired and vanquished, They had on mantles with the hoods low down O everlastingly fatiguing mantle!
The poet here diagnoses the sad plight of hypocrisy. Eventually it just wears you down under the effort and weight of maintaining a pretense and loving a lie. Pastor Joel
July 1, 2018
Theme: Parable of Unforgiving Servant Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35
The passaged studied this week in our Sunday School was taken from the 18th Chapter of Matthew and involves a teaching of Jesus regarding both our need to receive forgiveness and our need to forgive others. Turns out that both are strongly connected and cannot be separated.
Peter gets it going by asking this question of Jesus: "How many times shall I forgive another person? Up to Seven?"
Jesus answers , " Not even close. Why not try 77 times? ( In other translations the answer is 70 times 7)
Then Jesus tells a story. A servant falls under a terrible debt of of 10 thousand bags of gold. His master has the power to place him and his family under bondage until the debt is paid. (Of course it cannot). The man pleads that he will do anything to pay it back. The master at this point has pity and forgives the debt.
What happens next is surprising. Or maybe not. The man, freed from terrible debt and a catastrophic penalty, turns around and sees a person who owes him a laughably small about of money. He immediately grabs this poor guy by the throat and demands immediate payment. His victim begs for mercy but is given none. Before too long the unforgiving man's original master hears how the man he has just forgiven had denied forgiveness to another. The master cancels his intention to forgive the signal debt and throws the guy in prison, but not before torturing him.
So, should we gather from this that we, who have been so generously forgiven so much from a loving God, stand under an obligation to forgive others. God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others are a part of a whole. Can't have one with out the other.
But there is something else here. There is another human and divine impulse that is the key to forgiveness. That is empathy. Empathy is when we put ourselves in the place of another and try to understand what they are going through, who thy are and what they are feeling. The master originally had empathy when he considered the plight of the one who owed him so much money. The man forgiven such a considerable sum lacked even a drop of empathy when he grabbed by the throat the guy who owned him money.
Empathy is the key. It is what we have in our hearts and minds when we forgive. Without empathy, this is a very cruel and hostile world. Without empathy we are forever separated from each other, the gulf dividing us widens and we learn to treat others as objects of our needs, issues and agenda.
Instead of trying to understand others, we argue with them, dismiss them, use them, attack them or ignore them. This is not the way of mercy, healing or of Christ.
The theologian Martin Buber wrote the spiritual classic, Land Thou in 1923 and it was translated into english in 1937 before war broke out in Europe.
The book instructs us of the wonder of encountering human beings. When we encounter someone, we are open to who they are in this moment. We disregard the past and what happened and what we thought and knew. We put aside the labels we give to others so we never really have to see them for what they truly are. Human interaction is a moment of spiritual power. It is sacred. That is now God relates to us. God is prepared to set aside the past. God can see us through our labels. God sees where we are and who we are now. Human and divine empathy is one of the qualities of this sacred interaction. Pastor Joel
June 24, 2018
Theme: Reaping God's Justice Scripture: Luke 16:19-31 Pastor: Joel Whiteside
The passage for this Sunday involves the familiar parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The relationship between rich and poor is always a matter of discussion and concern for any age, particularly out in our country today. The rich man lives in luxury every day. All the while there is a dying man at his gate. The rich man fails to notice the desperation of a human being suffering right there at his doorstep. Perhaps the rich man sees another man in absolute need and simply does not care to respond. However soon both men die. Their eternal fate is a reversal of their earthly life. Now the rich man is desperate and the poor man comforted. The rich man sends up a desperate plea to Father Abraham. The rich man is refused by Abraham on two levels. First the rich man is denied water to cool his mouth. Second, in a later plea, the rich man is denied the ability to warn his relatives about what he has learned, tragically too late to do him any good. So, the question occurs to me: In regards to God's mercy and justice, is there ever a point of no return? Can we get ourselves so messed up that there is no way back? Can we harden our heart so long to God's mercy that eventually we have drifted beyond even divine hope? Some people just don't get it and they won't get it. You wonder what could ever break through their resistance. These thoughts genuinely trouble me. Is there a "too late" for God's mercy? I want to believe that God can rescue us up until the last moment. But what if the last moment comes and goes? What then? There is a "too late" in our human relationships. Sometimes human relationships get so bad that there is no way back. Our actions have consequences and there are only a finite amount of opportunities to make it good again. Sometimes, when our loved ones need a word from us of love or appreciation we fail to speak it, knowing we should. But we do not know how many chances we will get to put it right. We are thankful God is a God of second chances. God is infinite in patience. But let us not presume that we have forever to do what we need to do in our lives. Today is a good day to help the poor, lift up a friend, pray the needed prayer or anything else our heart is telling us to do. Each sunrise is a new chance to get it right. Let's not wait too long. Pastor Joel