Wednesday, December 28, 2011


It has almost been two months since I started my new call at First Pres of Plymouth. Things have gone very well so far. We have made many new friends and have begun to settle into the rhythm of life and worship with the congregation. We have still not found a house as it seems God has other plans for our housing situation at the moment. Right now, we are living on the hospitality and compassion of a couple of members of the church. We moved out of the hotel at the beginning of December and into a member's house while they are not using it. We will continue to wait on the Lord for his perfect timing for a place to settle down. My ordination date has been solidified for January 29, 2011 at 10:30am, that is, if I can make it past the examination of Presbytery on the 24th of January. It will be nice to have ordination done with since it is quite a bit of work to organize and stress inducing with all the examinations to pass. I am still not settled enough to be in a rhythm of writing daily devotionals for this blog but soon enough things will settle down. Thanks everyone for your support and prayers.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

From Generation to Generation - Luke 1:46-55

Luke 1:46-55 (ESV)
46 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever."

I can't imagine the position Mary was in. For one thing I am a man so I have little to no real idea what it is like to bear a child, but beyond this I cannot imagine being in such an incredible position. We have no sign that Mary was from a noble or rich family who may have been in a place to expect some kind of grace like this to happen to them so it came as a surprise. Mary is engaged to be married and here God comes and tells her she is to bear the messiah. As a young Jewish girl this would have been a high honor. Every good Jew awaited the day that God would send His messiah to free Israel from captivity under Rome, lift them up to salvation and rule over all the other nations. Mary has not only had this experience with the angel to confirm it but upon visiting her cousin Elizabeth, who is much older, wiser and married to a temple priest, is given affirmation of the calling she has been given.

Even though I have a hard time imagining what she must have went through, in many ways Mary is a proto-Christian. She is the first to be acted upon by the Holy Spirit and filled with the presence of Christ. She is the first to submit her own will to God to bear Christ into the world. We can learn from her response and see how we are to act as a Christian.

Mary was humble. Mary recognized that she was of no significance. She did not earn this right to bear the messiah and she did not come from some line or order which guaranteed her to be the bearer of the messiah. She recognizes that any future glory which may be given to her is from God and God alone. God has seen her humble state and yet given her a precious gift.

We as Christians also recognize that we come from humble positions. We were sinners and undeserving of grace and yet for some reason God has reached out and gotten our attention and given us grace. God has brought us into a relationship with himself despite our own rejection of him. Any glory we receive because of this reaching down by God, can only be credited to the one who reached down.

Mary humbly accepts her position. Mary does not reject the proposal or come up with a different plan. I know that if I were Mary, I might ask God to hold off a bit, not knowing how I would explain to my fiancé that I am pregnant. It sure would be a lot easier if God would simply change the timing a bit. Mary's response is different however. Her faith and trust in her God lead her to trust the will of God and give herself over to that will.

We as Christians are also to give ourselves over to the will of God. God may call you to do something which completely inconveniences you. It may be at a time that just doesn't work. You may even be perfectly willing to do what God is asking but in six months, after you have worked out a few things. God's timing is much better than our timing and we learn from Mary that we are to submit to it instead of fighting it.

We learn through Mary of God's faithfulness. Mary remembers that God doing great things for her is really an extension of God's faithfulness to those he has covenanted with and have trusted him generation after generation. What Mary is experiencing as her soul magnifies the Lord is not an isolated event. She recognizes her connectedness to all of God's people across time and space.

We as Christians learn from Mary to see God's acts in our lives as a fulfillment of God's good promises to all those who fear and love him. We should share God's faithfulness with each other. We should shout to the world how good God has been to us rather than being timid not to offend others.

While we learn about God's faithfulness here in this passage if we step back we see how much greater God is than we can ever imagine. The next verses of Mary's hymn of praise are a foretelling of what God will do in this Christ child she is bearing. God will scatter the proud, bring down the mighty, lift up the humble, feed the hungry and bring low the rich, God will restore Israel. All of these things are true and yet I wonder how Mary expected them to be fulfilled. If she was anything like her peers she imagined that the one growing inside her would be a political revolutionary, leading Israel in victory over its enemies and subduing the nations under their rule. Maybe Mary did not see things this way, but it is hard to imagine her understanding the cross event when it happened. All she had believed and all she invested in must have seemed like a complete loss. She must have been hopeless. Yet it was this very event that accomplished the prophetic words of her prayer here in Luke.

I want us to take a lesson from Mary here. Her expectations were right on because they were from God's own promises but God went so much deeper than she or any other person could have possibly seen. God redeemed the world by taking on the sins of the world and dying for it. God humbled the proud by being humbled underneath the judgement of the proud and being broken by their arrogance. God brought down the mighty and the rich by becoming poor and destitute. What are your expectations from Christ this Christmas season? Will you miss the depth of what God has done for you in Jesus and is at work completing in you because your expectations are not being met? Let us bring ourselves to a humble place and recognize that God's faithfulness to us is far beyond what our expectations can ever imagine. Let us be on the lookout for what God is doing and trust that his will is so much better than our own. Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Together In the Waiting Game

1 Corinthians 1:4-9 (ESV)
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus,
5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge-
6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you-
7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,
8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

I have heard about this church that just couldn't seem to get its act together. It had some major problems and it really wasn't addressing them. Let me tell you a little about their problems. One of their biggest problems was that they were extremely divided. They looked for and usually found, any reason to distinguish themselves from the pack. They went so far as to argue about which leader in their church they most identified with. They lorded the gifts they had over each other to make themselves feel special. They argued about marriage and whether someone should stay single or get married. It seems they may have even argued about the idea of getting divorced for Jesus. If these were their only problems there might have been some hope but the problems only get worse. Many people came to fellowship with the idea of getting drunk and gorging themselves before others got a chance to eat. It seems there was a major sex scandal in the congregation. A man was carrying on an affair with his step-mom, which was something even the outside world looked down at, but they covered it up. It is even possible that members of the congregation were using prostitutes. They had major problems. This church was located in Corinth around the middle of the first century AD.

I only mention all of this because we have to be aware of it to understand our lectionary passage today. Paul was writing the Corinthians to address these major issues so it is clear that as he is writing our passage today he is aware of them but our passage would never tell you that. If you only read our passage you might think that Corinth was a place of incredible piety in Christ. Paul is writing a thanksgiving for the Church in Corinth, I want to look at this thanksgiving today in light of the holiday we just celebrated and the season of advent we are entering, to see what we might learn about ourselves.

We are together in the waiting game. As a community we are in a waiting game. We are waiting for Christ to come but we are not alone we wait together with all believers everywhere and more specifically those whom we are in fellowship with in our congregation.

We are entering into a season today that recognizes waiting on many different levels. The most obvious remembering of waiting is the birth of Christ. This season is the preparation season for Christmas so we await the coming of our salvation in a tiny baby. Behind this obvious waiting we also remember the waiting if Israel for their messiah. In advent we take on the role of Israel who has waited in anticipation for their messiah to come for hundreds of years. They expected true deliverance from this messiah. They believed he would come to rule them and save them from the oppression they were under from other nations. In remembering this we also anticipate freedom from oppression. We remember that we have come from a past where we were under the power of sin and evil and our messiah will come to save us. The last layer to this waiting is in our anticipation of Christ's return. This season is as much about our community waiting for Christ to come again as it is about remembering that Christ came in the first place. This is why we have this passage for our first Sunday in advent in the lectionary.

My two daughters were born early. Well, they weren't really born early but they came at the very beginning of being full term rather than going the full 40 weeks a pregnancy can go. This spoiled my wife and I when it came to our third pregnancy. Azariah was not like his sisters. He liked the comfort of the womb and just wasn't ready to come out. It came to 40 weeks and the doctors decided to induce labor. Who knows how long he would have stayed in if labor hadn't been induced. Though it got difficult to wait that long it wasn't all bad. The waiting gives you time to prepare and time to savor what is to come. In all of our pregnancies we used key events along the way to keep our families in anticipation for the little one who would soon join us. The first announcement, the first ultrasound, finding out the sex of the baby, revealing the name and then the birth. We found all of this got everyone excited about the little person who was joining our family. In the same way, we as a community join together year after year to remember our waiting and to get excited about it because we know what will be at the end.

I don't think I have to mention here that Paul is speaking to a Church. He is not writing to an individual. He is writing to the Church of God in Corinth. This passage has to be understood in the context of community and specifically the community of Christ. Paul is speaking to a community that has identified with each other for one reason, they are under the same Lord. More than this, they recognize that they are a part of a larger community and that this community is incomplete. There is a future for this community. It is going somewhere, or rather going towards someone. The anticipation of the future is something that defines who this community is and how they act. In some sense it tells us that we are not to remain stagnate. We are a moving community. We are always to be moving toward the return of Christ but we don't do this alone we are in this waiting game together.

We are to be thankful for each other. We just celebrated a season of thanks where historically it was thanking God for provision in the harvest. Today we use it as an excuse to remember all we are thankful for. Paul shows us here that we are to be thankful for each other in all that we do. We should celebrate that God has provided us with an eternal family under his rule.

Sometimes the people we end up thankful for are the ones we least expect to be thankful for. In several ministries I have served in there have been people that It seemed were always of a different opinion than my own. Our personalities were strong and we had different ideas about the ministry and usually ended up arguing. Two different circumstances come to mind when I think about this. In both these circumstances it was someone who was a lay leader in the ministry and they were very involved with what I was dong at the time. One relationship deteriorated to the point where I realized we couldn't even have a conversation without tension anymore, so I organized time with a professional mediator. The other was relationship with a volunteer couple became stressed as their constant demands for more led me to walk around on egg shells. In both these circumstances there was a pivot point where I realized these people were my strongest partners in Christ and God had provided them for the ministry he was doing through me.

Maybe if I had followed the example of Paul in this passage I could have avoided the stress in those relationships. If I had viewed them not in the perspective of how they related to me but how Christ related to them then I would have been more thankful for them. Paul has every reason to not be thankful for the Corinthians. It seems to me that Corinth could have been in the running for the position of Paul's "thorn" in his side. It is customary in his letters for Paul to thank God for the church he is writing to but it seems with the content of the rest of this letter there is little to be thankful for. Custom or not, I might have just skipped the thanks while writing to this church. Paul is a much better man than I am and when he looks at the Corinthians he sees Christ and not their imperfections.

We should learn from Paul's example. In my experience Church can be one of the most contentious places when personalities battle for dominance. When people fight to get their own way they come up against each other as adversaries. In our denomination this is happening right now. Whatever side of the issues people are on the real problem in my mind is that sides have been drawn. People have begun to see each other as enemies. This ultimately makes people objects to overcome and not people to know and love. Paul reminds us to reorient our vision. To see people through Christ and not how we can get over on them. Ultimately this leads us to Paul's conclusion of thanksgiving. We must thank Christ for the work he is doing in the world reconciling his Church to God. When we do this I think the gospel is displayed and a new community is formed that does not resemble any other community on earth. Our thankfulness for each other despite our own problems and failures is a witness to the gospel for the world. For this we should always remain thankful for one another in the Church.

While we are thanking God for one another we should also remember that Christ is our present and our future. We live now for Christ and we live toward Christ. Our season of advent is possible because Christ came and created us as his church and because we anticipate his return for final consummation.

In our passage today I believe Paul's whole goal is to redirect the Corinthians to Christ. Within the opening verses of the letter Jesus Christ is mentioned in almost every sentence. In our short passage alone Paul mentions Jesus by name five times and refers to him even more often. If you dig deeper into what Paul is doing here you begin to see a genius form of rhetoric.

Paul takes some of the major problems happening in the church that are causing division and gives thanks for Christ accomplishing them. The church had lost its focus and began to see the reason for their greatness as coming from within. Instead, Paul reminds them that the traits they saw themselves as having are really from Christ. In chapters 12-14 we learn that one of the biggest divisions in the Church is over spiritual gifts. There are some who have gifts of prophecy and some with gifts of tongues. These groups used these gifts to try to gain distinction for how special they were rather than to point to Christ. In our passage today, before you ever read about this conflict, Paul thanks Christ that they were enriched in him in all "speech and knowledge", the same two gifts later talked about as being points of contention. He is showing them that their problem is not the gift but how they are viewing the gift. They see it through themselves and not through Christ.

Paul also does this in affirming the one who his hope is in. He states that he trusts the faithfulness of God in Jesus and this is the reason for his thanksgiving. Paul can be hopeful for these people because he trusts the one who has made himself manifest in them. He does not have hope and faith for the Corinthians to figure it out on their own but knows Christ is ultimately in control of his church and will work them into his own image.

I was born a Roman Catholic because my mom had been raised in the RC Church. When my mom became a protestant I naturally followed in her footsteps. When I was in college I learned about the history of the Church. It was then that I began to struggle with the idea of the Reformation. I began to see that the unity of the church is very important in the gospels to Jesus and also in almost every letter in the New Testament. When I viewed what happened in the reformation and subsequent generations, all I saw was division. Eventually I came to a conclusion that I would trust the church into the hands of the one who it belongs to, Jesus. Jesus became my hope for the church and I began to trust that despite the division, Jesus was at work spreading his gospel.

The question I want to ask us today as we enter advent is one that Al Timm spoke about last week. Is Jesus the center of our lives? We say it often, "Jesus is the reason for the season" and that may be true but can we let this season of advent make Jesus the reason for our being? Can Making Jesus the center change the way we see and interact with each other? Can we enter into this season of Advent with incredible thankfulness for each other because we see each other in Jesus' eyes and not our own? Can we reorient ourselves around Jesus and see that we are together in this waiting game so we should be thankful for each other remembering that Jesus is not only our future hope but our present reality. Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Risk Management - Matthew 25:14-30

Matthew 25:15-30
14 "For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.
15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.
17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.
18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money.
19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, 'Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.'
21 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.'
22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, 'Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.'
23 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.'
24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,
25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'
26 But his master answered him, 'You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?
27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.
28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.
29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

It is very easy to look at the third servant in our parable today from a judgmental perspective. We have the advantage of being the audience to Jesus' little story. The point is very clear and we can act much like David did when he was confronted by Nathan about his own sin in parable form. We can be righteous and see that clearly the servant needed to invest the money but if we stop and think about it, the story goes against our own sensibilities. The one we should really feel for is the third servant. He did what was safe. He did not risk his masters money and gave it back to him the exact way he received it. This is what we do all the time in our culture, risk management. I do not know one person who does things without first determining the risks and weighing their options. Actually I have to take that back, I do know people like that and I call them irresponsible. Since our natural reaction would be to act like the third servant what is Jesus trying to get us to see in this parable?

With great gifts comes great tasks. Or you may have heard it said from a super spider somewhere, "with great power comes great responsibility." if something is given to you there is an association of tasks that thing comes with, whether it is an object, trust, or a person, like a child.

In this parable there is no explicit task laid out for the servants. The master does not leave instructions saying, "Make sure to take this money and invest it in the bank." There is a parallel parable in Luke 19 where a king gives out some money and tells them to engage in business. So why does Matthew leave that out of his parable? I think the connection here is what the servants know about their master. The servants were aware that they were being given the role of steward over this money. This means they were to act to the money as the owner of the money would act. The third servant betrays his own disobedience to this call when he acknowledges that his master is one who makes profit from nothing. His own public profession about the character of his master stands as his condemnation.

In this passage the word talent is used. In Jesus' time this was an actual measurement of worth. It had to do with weight and was an incredible amount of money. It is not a coincidence that this word is the same word we use for gifts and skills a person may have. The traditional view of this passage is that it is about the gifts God gices us to serve him and the world. This view has led to the word entering the English language to mean just that. The meaning of our word has its start right here in this passage.

How many of you have seen the Lord of the Rings? In this story a small and insignificant creature known as a Hobbit comes into possession of a ring which has great power. When it comes to light that this ring is the key to an evil tyrant coming to power again it is debated who should take on the task of carrying it to a place where it can be destroyed. The little hobbit takes this task on because he has already been given the ring and carried its burden. Along the way things do not go as planed and the hobbit gets separated from his party, taking a very difficult route to his goal. For some time in the story he is not sure whether they are going to make it. In the end he gets there and completes his task with the help of his friend and an unlikely companion.

The tasks which God gives to us are rarely ever defined. Many theologians even debate whether Jesus knew the exact way his own end would come or if he just had a general sense. When God called you to follow him you are probably aware that this did not come with a very detailed how to manuel. Even the Scriptures take incredible work to discern and much time must be spent in prayer and listening to make major decisions in life. In my own life, though I have a job description for my call at this Church, I have no idea how God is working to use me here. But one thing I do know is that with great gifts comes great tasks.

We also need to keep in mind that what the servant is given is not theirs. They are a steward to take care of what belongs to someone else. They are not to act on their own accord but how they think the one they represent would act. In the same way we are called as ambassadors of Christ. We represent him on earth while he is gone.

My freshman and sophomore years in college I had a string of roommates who drove me crazy. One in particular was worse than the others. In an attempt to be generous with my possessions, I told him he could use my computer and my mini fridge but to always leave me room to use them as well. After two different occasions of him abusing his privileges I revoked them. One day while I was writing a paper he stood looking over my shoulder, pacing back and forth. He kept getting closer and closer to me. Finally I said, "Do you need something?" and he said, "I was wondering if you can finish because I really need to write a paper that is due tomorrow." It was so infuriating to me that he took my statements about using my computer to mean that he should have priority, as if the computer was his. A few weeks later I came home to stick some leftovers in my fridge and found my items from the fridge sitting on top of it and the shelf from the inside taken out. When I opened it I found out that he had taken my stuff out to make room for a very large piece of meat he had wrapped in newspaper. These things are pretty petty in the scheme of things and in and of themselves can easily be overlooked but it really bugged me that his attitude was so selfish. He viewed my generosity as license to do whatever he wanted with my things. Sometimes I have to remind myself this is how I often act with the things God has generously given to me.

In our story the servants are given a task but it is not specified what they would receive in return. If we take the third servant's perspective on the master to be true, it might be that they expected nothing. They may have fulfilled their tasks simply out of obedience. In Luke 17 Jesus says, as servants who have done our work we should not expect praise and adoration but should say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty". The faithful servants are given much for their efforts but what they are given are more tasks, more responsibility. The master now knows he can trust them to act on his behalf and so they will work even bigger projects. The third servant, because of his actions, has what is given to him taken and he is cast out.

Jesus is surely telling us about our place in the kingdom. This parable is at the end of a discussion about Jesus' return to earth at the end of time to usher in the Kingdom of God. We are the servants and Jesus is telling us that nothing we have is ours. Everything we have been given is from God and belongs to God ultimately. We are stewards over these things acting with them as we believe God would act. The closer we know our master the closer we will act to his will with what we are entrusted. This means the talents we have, the money we have, the jobs we have, the families we have and the relationships we are a part of all around us. All the things God has entrusted us to are his.

The weird thing in this parable is that it seems the only risk is not to use what we have been given. There is no mention that the investments of the first two servants could have returned void. Both of them received back twice what they invested.

I think most of us today would love to have an investment which is a sure thing. Many have lost much of their retirement from the crashes that have happened in the stock market. There has been some recovery but the future is still unsure. With the uncertainty in the Euro and the increase of unemployment here there is still a risk in all monetary investments. There has always been risk in investing. There is always the chance an investment might go bad no matter how secure it seems. Even gold means nothing if food is scarce.

With this in mind, who can blame the third servant? As I stated before, I think that most responsible people today would have made this decision. It is better to give the master back exactly what he gave me than to risk loosing it. Even though there is no mention of a possible loss for the third servant loss is possible. When you get to the heart of it, the loss he foresaw was a selfish one. He feared what the master would do to him if he lost the money. It was motivated by self preservation. And if you look at national trends in giving to non-profits this is the same attitude which has driven America. I am new here so I don't know what has driven giving here but I know churches I have worked for in the past have been struggling as people tighten up what they see as unnecessary giving.

The most interesting thing I have ever heard about stewardship was a sermon by John Ortberg at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California When the recession hit really big he preached a sermon about where you find your security. He said that people should give more in times of less financial security if they truly trust Christ. His reasoning was that tough times remind us our security is not found in money or things, because they can be taken from us at any time. Our security is found in Jesus and this reminder should cause us to hold more closely to Jesus and less closely to money, so giving should go up in recession.

Jesus knows well that investment into the Kingdom is a sure thing. This does not mean we get what we think we should get back out of it. It does mean that if we use what God has given us faithfully, for the purpose of building his kingdom, God will use it to bring about returns for the Kingdom. You may never see the returns or understand them in this life but I believe it to be true. I heard a respected Pastor one time say that he has never seen a church close its doors because it risked all its money in mission. I have never seen a church like this either. The churches I know that have closed their doors have usually focused their money at inward concerns. The only risk is to not use what we are given.

This story really is about doing the task assigned to us. Each parable, I believe, has a overarching point. The one point that stands above them all here is, that we are to be faithful with the tasks assigned to us. Whatever it is that God has given you to do, you must be faithful with it. It is so easy to become like Francis Chan showed us in the video last week, safely holding onto the balance beam of life. God asks us to be faithful to use what he has given us to its fullest.

What is our task though? Each of you has a specific gift for the building up of the church so I can't assume to know what your task here may be but I do know what the task of the church is. If we flip from our passage three chapters forward we find Matthew write out the task Jesus gave to the church when he left, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.". This is our task. (Show video from igniter:

You never know what kind of impact you may have by taking the gift you have received, the gospel, and going forth with it. Get out there. Get involved in your community and with people who don't go to church. Be intentional about building a relationship with them that which love them in Christ. Make them disciples of Christ and teach them to obey all he has commanded. Remember the giving of the gift is the assigning of a task, the gift does not belong to you and the only risk is to not use what God has given to you so go therefore and make disciples. Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sermon - Sunday, November 6, 2011

Matthew 25:1-13 (from the ESV)
1 "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.
2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.
3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them,
4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.
6 But at midnight there was a cry, 'Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.'
7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.
8 And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.'
9 But the wise answered, saying, 'Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.'
10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.
11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.'
12 But he answered, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.'
13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

Today's lectionary passage is hard to preach on. In fact passages like this are regularly avoided because our society has deemed them too harsh. We would much rather hear feel good messages which assure us everything will be alright. If a pasage begins to hint about an outcome where things might not be alright, it is classified as fire and brimstone and cast out as fear mongering. I think this is in disservice to the church in the West, though there may be a good reason we have come to it. Often when these passages have been preached carnal imagery is used and this brings about carnal fear. Carnal fear can bring about the results we want but it often doesn't change what is underneath. Jesus' purpose is to bring about awareness not carnal fear.

If we trust Jesus as our Lord and believe that the gospels are an accurate accounting of his life and teaching then we must come to some understanding of these passages. I see this passage as a warning. It is as if I were to yell out, "Watch Out!". In this room the context is fairly well known to be safe so none of you would react to to a warning like that but what if it were a different setting? What if we were in a park or we were at a construction site getting a tour of a new building going up? The warning would be taken much more seriously, in fact I would venture to guess that that particular warning would result in many people ducking to cover their head and instinctively moving away from the area the warned danger was perceived to be coming from. Jesus' teaching was full of these kinds of warnings. They are not to induce a carnal fear but an awareness of the spiritual reality we live in. This warning comes in the middle of Jesus' teaching about his return at the end of time. I hope we can learn from this warning and react properly in our lives to it today.

We are all living in limited time. It is the ultimate statistic, one out of every one person dies. Even if Jesus does not return to Earth in your life, there will still be an end to your days in this life. The letter from James says our life is like a vapor, here one day and gone the next.

Recently Steve Jobs the founder of Apple computer company died. When he died many news outlets played a recording of a speech he had given at Stanford for their commencement in 2005. In it he says "remembering we'll all be dead soon is the most important tool I have ever encountered to make the big choices in life." He continues by saying that it helps by making the unimportant things fade away and only the important things remain and he says, "knowing you are going to die helps avoid the trap of feeling like you have something to loose." This is a basic message of the gospel. In fact the gospel doesn't call us to remember we will die but calls us to live death now. To shed off all things from our sinful past and live anew. To take off the old-clothing of our self centered lives and put on the new outward looking clothing of Jesus.

One of my mentors from history knew this well, Jonathan Edwards. At the young age of 19 Edwards did what was common for serious puritans to do and he wrote a list of resolutions. By the time Edwards finished he had 70 resolutions which he was committed to live by. Out of the 70, nine specifically mention his death and many more allude to it. When I first came upon these, one stood out and acted as a mirror for the condition of my own heart. Resolution 7 says, "Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life." For Edwards this was a message that pushed him toward purity and holiness but at the time, when I thought of my own death all I could think about was a list of selfish things I would want to do. It made me realize I was living my life for myself and not for Jesus.

In this passage Jesus is hoping that the knowledge of our limited time refocuses us on what is truly important. This parable comes at the end of a discussion about Jesus' return at the end of time. Something known theologically as the parousia or the coming near. Each teaching of Jesus on this topic makes sure to point out that the time is unknown. It will come suddenly and unexpectedly. Watch out! He is saying. Be ready.

I want to remind us all today that no matter your views on Jesus second coming and the end of time, YOU will have an end time. Your life here on earth will end at least for a time and then it will be too late to live your life over. We are all living in limited time.

But, unexpectedly in this parable Jesus reminds us we should be ready for the long haul. Since we do not know the time or the hour of Jesus' coming, or more personally our own death, we should live as though it were far from now just as we should live as though it were immanent. The problem of the foolish virgins is that they live for the short term and not the long term. They do not prepare.

In June I completed my Masters of Divinity and had already begun a search for my first call. After the first round of churches began to be whittled down, one Church was left. It was between me and another candidate and I felt like I had the edge. In God's providence I did not get the call but I was disappointed. Not particularly because I wanted to be at that Church but because I had nowhere else to go. Stacy and I trusted that God would lead us to the right place but our reaction wasn't to wing it until that happened. We found a place for us to stay in the interim and I began searching for work I could do to bring in income. We were digging in for the long haul in case it took some time. God's timing came suddenly and much faster than we anticipated and a few short months later I stand here preaching for you.

The early Church founded in Thessalonica was not as prudent however. Many there became convinced that Jesus' return was immanent. Something we should all believe, but they used this as an excuse to live their lives for themselves. If they had listened to Jesus' teaching in the apostles they probably would not have needed Paul's rebuke in 1 Thessalonians 3 and 5. Many had stopped working and had begun to live off of the work of others. Jesus' point here is that we live faithfully as though he were returning at any point but also with perseverance if the timing is longer than we thought.

In this story the wise virgins had extra oil. They had enough forethought to live in preparation for the worse case scenario. The foolish has enough for what they thought the timing should be as if it depended on them or ran on their schedule. When the time came they realized they did not have enough to burn for the whole wedding processional which would mean they would not be accepted into the wedding feast. We should learn from this and be ready for the long haul.

What does this passage mean for us? I think that it means we should be focused on the bridegroom. The focus of the story is the bridegroom. The bride is never even mentioned in the whole parable. Of course the bridegroom in the parable is Jesus so our focus should be on Jesus.

Many scholars when looking at this passage, have focused on the details. What does the oil represent? What does the fire represent? The problem with these questions in my mind is that none of these things are the focus. The real focus is the bridegroom and the relationship of the virgins to him. The reason why I would propose this as the real focus is because of the end. The foolish virgins are not rejected from entering the wedding because of their lack of oil or fire but because the bridegroom did not know them.

In our culture, there are many things which demand our resources; time, money, property...we are so busy and pulled in many different directions. Some of the things that demand our attention are good things; family, school events, work...but we can not give all of them all of our attention. We make choices and give as much attention as we can to the things we really value or see as necessary.

When you are invited to a wedding there are often varying levels of whether it will be important to you. If it is the wedding of an immediate family member you will be there on time. If you are invited to be in the bridal party you will make sure to be on time. I have been in multiple weddings and usually the wedding becomes the focus of my life for at least the day of the festivities. Even though I am not needed hours before the wedding I am there to make sure I don't miss it because it is important.

I think that the actions of the foolish virgins betrays their true feelings about the bridegroom. If they cared they would have done everything necessary to be ready. The ceremony would not have been viewed as something that needed to fit into their schedule but they would be ready to be flexible for any circumstance. The fact that they did not do this showed their lives were focused around themselves and not the bridegroom.

Jesus is teaching us here that we are to live our whole lives in preparation for his coming. We should act as though it may come at any moment but be ready if he delays for some time. Our focus should not change either way. We should not waver in our focus but be completely sold out to Jesus in all we do. This means that in all the things that vie for our attention we need to make them about Jesus too. Our work should be done in praise of Jesus. Our family should be built around Jesus and every relationship we have should have Jesus at the center. In all that we do, we should be focused on the bridegroom.

I want to remind us though that this parable is not without the context of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our ability to wait on Jesus is only because the one we wait on first waited on us. It was we who turned away from God and God spent millennia in patient love knowing one day he would send Jesus. In fact, God's patient waiting is an example to us who are made in the image of God about how to act.

There is another parable Jesus tells about waiting. In this one a father is dishonored by his son when he asks for his inheritance in advance. The son runs off with the inheritance and squanders it. In this parable the father is the one who waits. He waits by the door for his son to return home. God our father has done so much more than wait for us. He has been patient and waited till the perfect time and then he acted by sending Jesus to die for our sins and reconnect us with God.

This parable is not about works but about relationship. Knowing the bridegroom and being in constant anticipation for him is the key. Know if you feel you have lived your life in complacence or for yourself without focusing on Jesus he has already provided the way home. He sits waiting in anticipation for you to come home and put your focus where it belongs.

When I first heard Steve Jobs' speech about death I did not feel hope. Though the gospel shares a similar message there is something missing from Jobs' message. His message is one that makes you look inward for hope you can provide yourself. It requires that you have some sort of opportunity before you to make life changing decisions. What if you do not have that opportunity? For a child born with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa no decision you can make will give you hope. Only the message of Christ is universal and frees us because he accepts us back home where we belong, in relationship with God.

I want to challenge all of us this week that all we do would revolve around our Lord Jesus. When you get home from work and just want to relax but the kids want attention, serve them in Jesus name. When our spouse has done something around the house that makes us angry let us look to Christ and forgive them because we are forgiven. When we see our neighbor outside let's let them know we care for them by having a conversation with them, sharing life together.

In all these things let us constantly remember that we are living in limited time, but we should be prepared for the long haul focusing on the bridegroom because the one we wait on has first waited on us. Amen.


Today I preach my first sermon for the congregation at First Pres, Plymouth. Later I will post the text of my manuscript and once we settle in fully (in a month or two) I will get the video and post it as well. Right now things are a bit hectic so the daily devotions will not be possible so that will take time as well. Once I get into a swing of things in my new setting I will work in time to post daily thoughts for families on the daily lectionary passage.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Best Laid Plans

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gospel Reading - Luke 12:22-32 (from the Message)
22-24He continued this subject with his disciples. "Don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.
25-28"Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can't even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don't fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?
29-32"What I'm trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don't be afraid of missing out. You're my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

Yesterday I awoke in Pittsburgh, PA to snow. Snow!? In October! The picture on this post is from our front window. In the two winters we spent in Pittsburgh we had never experienced snow this early in the year. Normally snow for our family would bring a bit of excitement because it is a sure sign winter and all the festivities that come along with it, is here. The kids would be excited to go outside and play and I would be looking for an excuse to curl up on the couch with something hot to drink. Yesterday, however, snow was not a part of my personal plan. Yesterday we were packing up our most needed possessions into our tiny car and driving our family from Pittsburgh to Plymouth, Mi, where we will hopefully live for some time to come. The snow was not welcome because I knew I was going to have to stand in it to get our car packed.

I set out to accomplish my task as quickly as possible but the snow had other plans. Quick was not a part of the snow's vocabulary because quick movements landed me on my backside covered in a cold muddy mess. After getting changed into new clothes, I set about my task a little more slowly this time. It was very difficult to pack everything we needed into a two door volkswagen golf which also needed to fit three kids and two adults. This would have been a chore in perfect weather but the snow continued to bring extra problems. Our day did not start out well but we eventually got ourselves crammed into the car and got on the road. We all had a little less space than normal since we had to share our seats with clothes, pillows or toiletries and food. This led to quick tempers and cranky kids. The day did not seem to get better as we got caught by a highway patrol speed trap in Ohio and got a speeding ticket in a construction zone with amazingly little construction going on but plenty of cops.

Today's gospel reading is perfect after the day we had yesterday. So much of my life is spent worrying about time. Either the pressure of deadlines looms over me or the guilt of time wasted. Jesus knew that most those around him also worried about things which they couldn't control. I was so worried yesterday about following a schedule and getting to Michigan in my planned time. God was not so worried about my plans and it seemed He even had opposing plans. It very well could have been a test of my trust in Him. Was I going to relax and trust that the God who takes care of the ravens and the wildflowers would also take care of the Thomas clan on our relocation? I am not so ego centric to think that God arranged weather patterns for my own lessons but also know God is intentional enough to take full advantage of the plans He has laid out to form His servants in the likeness of Christ.

We are now safely in Michigan and in the scheme of things our bad day yesterday was pretty trivial. The weather in Michigan is much warmer than the weather we left in Pittsburgh. We arrived here in plenty of time to unpack and relax before having dinner with some new friends. Even the speeding ticket will soon be a distant memory. Our goal now is to try and relax and take things as they come trusting that God will provide exactly what we need as a family. Today the Thomas' will choose to bless God by praising Him for all He has provided is with.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Welcome Message

I am starting a new adventure in life.  Well, really it is an old adventure entering a new phase.  For the last eleven years I have been working for Churches in various positions and at the same time completing degrees for the purpose of becoming a Pastor.  My undergraduate degree was done at what used to be a tiny ministry based college in Northern California called San Jose Christian College.  By the time I graduated with a Bachelor of Art degree in Bible and Theology and dual major in Counseling Psychology, my school had moved campuses, changed names, changed from quarters to semesters and completely re hauled their curriculum into a liberal arts university.  I served for three years after graduation as a full time youth minister in a Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara, Ca.  During my time as a youth minister God opened doors for me to attend seminary and eventually led me to enter full time seminary to finish my Masters of Divinity degree.  I ended up in Pittsburgh at a Presbyterian Church (USA) school called Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (the best Seminary in the States if you ask me).  Having now finished my M.Div and the process for preparation for ordination in the PC (USA), I have been extended a call as Associate Pastor of Family Ministry Development at First Presbyterian Church of Plymouth, Mi (FPCP).  Quite a mouthful, but it is exciting to see such a long process of preparation begin a little bit of fruition.

I hope this blog will serve as a place for me to reflect on ministry and provide daily devotional thoughts based on the Daily Lectionary Passages used by the PC (USA).  I will attempt to make the devotional thoughts "Family Friendly" to be used during a daily family devotional time by families at FPCP.  At the time I was writing the previous sentence my 19 month old son came running up the stairs screaming like a banshee because of something his sister did to him.  I know well the difficulty of developing a daily devotional rhythm with a family of young ones.  This blog will be an experiment more than anything else.  I welcome feedback from anyone reading as to what worked and what didn't so that I can be mindful of how to best provide a practical devotional thought for the whole family each day.  Let's figure this thing out together.

Along the way I will also be posting links to sermons I have preached or sermons I have found particularly moving and hopefully will have an update on my ministry reflections and family life twice a month.  This way some of you who know me can keep up on what is going on with the Thomas' from a distance.  I don't know about you but I read many blogs on a daily basis.  The best way I have found to do this is through subscribing to the blog's RSS feed via Google Reader.  Every day I browse through my subscriptions and read what catches my eye.  Many of my subscriptions are blogs of friends who I have moved away from and it is a great way to keep up to date with what is going on in their lives.  If you have never used an RSS subscription tool like this, Google Reader is very simple and makes reading through your favorite blogs an easy process.  Lastly I want to welcome you to this space and thank you for reading, as surely I am probably one of the least important or knowledgeable voices in your life, it means a lot to me that you would take the time to read my thoughts.  Peace and Grace to you in Jesus Christ.