The Gift of Peace - How to Conquer Your Enemies

From December 10, 2017
by Rev. Shawn Coons

In just a few moments I’ll be reading part of the Christmas story from the book of Luke. We are familiar with the Christmas story and the various characters in it. We know the ensemble gathered around the nativity.  Of course, there’s Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.  The shepherds and the wise men.  An angel or two, as well as a couple sheep, a donkey or a cow.  I’m guessing you all have nativity sets at home with all of these present.

But there are other characters in the Christmas story that we often don’t remember, or that we leave behind by the time we get to the candlelight of Christmas Eve.  And I’m not talking about the extra characters you see in some nativity sets. For example, we have an advent calendar at home that has a different Christmas character for each day of December up until Christmas Eve.  24 different ones.  There are the ones mentioned above, but then they add a few more.  There’s one who is a bringing a pizza.  And then there’s also a bag piper.  So much for your silent night.

The passage that I am reading from Luke has none of the people (or animals) listed above.  Instead the only person speaking or acting in the passage is Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and husband of Elizabeth.  John the Baptist is an important person in the Gospels. He is the one who comes before Jesus to prepare the way of the Lord.  Elizabeth is familiar from the passage before this one, where her relative Mary comes to her after receiving word of her miraculous pregnancy.  And when Mary and Elizabeth greet each other, it is recorded in poetic verse with memorable lines such as “Blessed are you among women!” and “My soul magnifies the Lord!”

But Zechariah doesn’t have as big of a role to play in the typical Christmas story, nonetheless if we skipped over his story and how the Spirit works through him, it is only to our loss.  In some ways, the story of Zechariah and Elisabeth seems more at home in the Old Testament.  When we are introduced to them we meet an older couple, their lives and ancestry rooted in the Jewish tradition and the Jewish priesthood.  And we hear this familiar theme, “ they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.”

Immediately, this will remind many of the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, who were well beyond child-bearing years with no children, until God came to them to being them the good news that Sarah was pregnant and would bear a son.  Elisabeth and Zechariah also received this news.  In both cases it was met with skepticism, and in Zechariah’s case his disbelief caused God’s messenger to strike Zechariah mute until his son was born and named.

The passage we will be reading this morning, Luke 1, beginning with verse 67, are the first words he says after regaining his speech. And it is a poetic verse on par with Mary and Elisabeth’s earlier verses.  First recounting the promises of God, and then naming God’s plans for his newborn son, John.

67Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

“To guide our feet into the way of peace.”  Today is the second Sunday of Advent, and on this Sunday we focus on the Advent theme of peace.  In first century Israel, especially at the time of Jesus birth, the Jewish people were longing for peace.  They weren’t currently at war. The people of Israel wasn’t battling any other country at the time. But that’s because they had lost the war.

Israel was an occupied country. The Romans had long ago conquered Israel and their rule was law.  So when Zechariah speaks about God raising up a savior who would save Israel from their enemies. He meant the Romans. When he says that God will bring light and guide our feet into the way of peace. He is expecting a messiah he will bring about peace by fighting the Romans and throwing them out of Israel.  Zechariah, would have been a typical Jew of his time and recall the stories of Hebrew scripture where God was often on the battlefield with the armies of Israel. God led them in battle to defeat and conquer their enemies of old. Peace in Israel was brought about by the mighty hand of God against their enemies.

But we begin to see a clue that this isn’t what God has planned for Israel. Mary is not carrying in her womb a military messiah who will bring peace through might, but one who with the dawn from on high will bring about the tender mercy of God.  In Zechariah’s poetic passage he uses imagery and words from Isaiah chapter 42.  In this passage, there is a servant of God described. One who will be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind.”

A light to the nations.  Not the general of one nation. But a light to all nations.

For the people of Israel, and for us today, there is a monumental shift in how peace is achieved that becomes reality through the incarnation, through Jesus taking human form.  During this time of Advent, you may remember that we look to and prepare for Jesus’ coming, not just 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, but to when Jesus comes again, at the end of time to fully realize the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes when looking forward to the Second Coming of Jesus we talk about the apocalypse, which is often described at times in the Bible with striking and almost violent imagery. Dark skies, the sun and moon turning red as blood, turmoil across the earth.  For many Christians, the apocalypse has come to serve as code for a cosmic and spiritual war to end all wars. It will be a battle where God will strike down and conquer any enemy of God and Christians throughout the world.

But does this sound like how Jesus would bring about peace?  Through violence, through war, through conquering? Does this sound like the Prince of Peace?  James Alison in his book Raising Abel suggests a different way of looking at the end of time when Jesus comes again.  He asks us to look at the second coming not as apocalyptic but as eschatological.  Eschato-whu? 

Eschatology is a fancy word for a how Christians talk about the end of time.  Not the end as in the finish, but the end as in the completion, the goal, the fulfillment.  When we talk about eschatology, it’s not about how the world will end, how the world as we know it will be destroyed.  We talk about how the world should end up, how the world should be when all is right and God’s purposes are achieved for all creation.

James Alison compares Apocalyptic vs. Eschatological:

Apocalypse is about a violent ending to the creation, a retribution by God against the tyrants, and the vindication of God's people. Behind this understanding of the completion of all things is a God who is a super version of ourselves. He will redeem and cleanse the world from its violence and evil, by using even more violence.

In apocalyptic thinking the hope is in God’s ultimate sacred violence [whereas in] eschatological thinking… the nonviolent God is rescuing us human beings from our own violence.

A key part of apocalyptic thinking is a dualistic us and themgood and evil mindset.  The sheep will be separated from the goats, and we inevitably think we can perceive the lines of that separation, despite long experience that we get it wrong.

When Zechariah spoke his words of prophecy about the coming savior who would rescue Israel from its enemies, he didn’t know what he was saying. Yes, Jesus would come to get rid of our enemies. But not by fighting them, but by loving them. Ghandi once said, “Whenever you are confronted with an opponent. Conquer him with love.”  And Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

But long before any of those were said, Jesus taught people to “love their enemies” and to “turn the other cheek.”  Jesus knew that true peace wasn’t achieved by destroying those opposed to you, but by loving them until they were no longer your enemy.  This was a powerful and strange message to those in Israel who were looking for God to take care of their enemies and give them what they had coming to them.

It’s a powerful and strange message to us today as well.  We live in a time and place, where too many people are looking to strike out against their enemies, where too many people are looking for enemies where there are none.  Some of our leaders have discovered that the quickest way to power is not to unite people, but to divide, to label this group or that group as the enemy. To look for those who are of a different faith or a different skin color, and turn their followers in anger against them.

Some leaders even claim to do this in the name of God and Christian faith.  But a true leader from God doesn’t look to make enemies out of neighbors, or create enemies for personal or political gain. A true leader from God seeks to create neighbors out of enemies, and to lead and live in such a way that enemies are not vanquished or conquered but loved until they are enemies no more.

It’s so easy to find an enemy and pray for that they get what’s coming to them, but that is not what we are called to, Christians.  In Matthew 25, we have a somewhat apocalyptic passage where Jesus comes back at the end of time to judge the nations based on how they treated those who were poor and in need.  And it can be easy to read it as a passage where God takes our enemies and gives them the punishment they deserve.  Jesus separates them like sheep and goats, the sheep, the good ones on one side going to eternal reward, and the goats on the other side, headed for eternal punishment.

But I want to read to you a continuation of this story, written by Andrew Prior. It’s not from the Bible, but it rings of truth to me, and maybe to you as well.

A great silence settled over the stockyards. Many among the sheep had expected to go to the other place. They had, after all, not lived well. But some small mercy on their part had them standing here kingdom bound. A few shifted uneasily. Some of that charity had only been to shut up and get rid of beggars on the street.

n the other yard, people who had worked long and hard, and sacrificed much for God gazed dully at the ground. It was so obvious now− how could they have not seen that doing the right thing while leaving someone unloved was an absolute contradiction of the kingdom?

A small lamb squeezed its way between the fence rails and limped into the middle of the goats. The king rumbled, "You! Lamb! What are you doing there?" The lamb quavered before the roar of the king."

You said you would draw all people to yourself." (John 12:32) The Great King said nothing. The lamb paled. "Blessed Paul said, 'One man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.'" (Romans 5:18) Still the King was silent. "He said, 'For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.' (Romans 11:32) And he said, 'all will be made alive in Christ.' (1 Corinthians 15:22) And he said− "

"Enough!" said the King. "What do you propose to do, little lamb?"

"I… I think I will stay with the goats, sir. They need someone to care for them."

And the King laughed a laugh of great joy. "Someone has understood! Someone has really loved! They have seen. The only judgement is love." And the King was gone, and all that remained was a Lamb standing among the people, goats and all.

Zechariah’s words call through the ages to us today, on the Sunday of Peace, in a world where peace seems far and enemies seem near: The dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And so we pray for peace, we pray for an end to our enemies, not to their end, but to the end where we are enemies no longer.





Getting Christmas Right

From December 3, 2017
by Rev. Shawn Coons

Everybody talks about New Year’s resolutions. But how many of you have ever heard of Christmas resolutions? Maybe you haven’t heard of them, but I’m willing to but you’ve made a Christmas resolution.

The video we just saw talked about “getting Christmas right” and Christmas resolutions are all about getting Christmas right. These resolutions aren’t made on Christmas necessarily, although they can be, they are usually made in the stressful moments of this season.

·         Next year – I’m getting all my shopping done in November!

·         Next year – we’re not going overboard with the presents.

·         I’m tired of sending Christmas cards out in January, I’m starting them in July next year!

·         We’re doing Christmas simpler next time.

·         Next year we’re putting our tree up before Christmas Eve.

·         Next year we’re taking our tree down before Easter.

Any of this sounding familiar?

I have my own personal resolutions each year regarding our Christmas lights outside. I really enjoy Christmas lights, both seeing them and having them on our hoe and in our yard. Over the years, I’ve bought white lights, blue lights, multi-colored lights, icicle lights, warm lights, cool lights, C5s, C9s. I’ve put them on the roof, on our trees, along the walk.

And each year, I wish I would have done something different. A different color, style, placement. I’m never quite satisfied.  Last year, I don’t think I put up any at all because I couldn’t figure out what would look best. I wanted the get it right.

There can be so much pressure to do Christmas right.  To meet the expectations of family, kids, parents, in-laws, distant family. To meet our own expectations of making Christmas meaningful and reflective.

How do we get Christmas right?

I’ve got good news for you this morning. I have the answer to that question. And it’s a pretty simple answer. We don’t have to get Christmas right. That’s not our job.  Our hope - and this is the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Hope - our hope is in the fact that we don’t have to get Christmas right, because God already has.

Advent and Christmas are not about what we do, but about what God has done and God will do. The simple fact is we aren’t going to get Christmas right. We are fallible human beings, living in a more than fallible world. At times our Christmases are going to be less than perfect. At times our lives are going to be less than perfect. At times our world is going to be less than perfect.

And Jesus didn’t come 2000 years ago to help us make the world better. Jesus came to make the world better, because we hadn’t done such a good job with that up until that point.

Our gospel lesson today is a prime example of that.  We are going to read form the 13th chapter of Mark. This section is sometimes called “the little apocalypse.”  Scholars believe the gospel of Mark was written in the latter part of the first century. When Roman persecution of Judaism was rampant and the Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Roman government.

So it should be no surprise to hear Jesus, in the gospel of Mark, speaking about turbulent times and how to get by in a less than perfect world.  Mark 13:24-37

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light, 
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he* is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert;* for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 

This is the Word of the Lord.

When we read apocalyptic passages like this one, it can be helpful to think of them as what one scholar calls, “crisis literature.”  There was something going on at the historical moments the passage was written, and the author and/or the author’s community had questions about the power and righteousness of God.

These words came at a time when the Christian and Jewish foundations were shattered, and their world was coming down around them.  The destruction of the Temple represented a catastrophe of divine presence and a violent break with the continuity with the past. The Temple was a center of religious life, but also political and economic life, too.

And it was destroyed.

It was to this community that Jesus’ words were addressed:

the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken

Now this may sound scary to us, but remember this would sound familiar to the 1st century Christians.  Jesus wasn’t describing something that might happen, he was describing what was happening.  This passage isn’t predicting turmoil in the world, it is acknowledging it. Not only, acknowledging it but then Jesus goes on to say, don’t worry because when your world is shaken that may be the moment when God comes back.

In the 21st century we think of apocalypse as a bad thing. apocalypse to us means the world as we know it coming to an end through nuclear war, zombies, aliens, or some other larger than life, Hollywood blockbuster scenario.  But to those first century Christians the apocalypse meant that God was right around the corner, ready to come on stage and save the day.

The scary apocalyptic events were already happening to them, so their hope was in looking for signs that God had not left the building. So when Jesus speaks of signs to come, and portents in the sky, the early Christians looked eagerly for those signs.  Because they were the announcement that God was coming.

If you are familiar with Batman, those signs were kind of like the Bat signal. If you saw it then you knew that Batman was probably not far behind.  This is why we don’t have to worry about making Christmas right.  Christmas is about God making the world right, making the world whole, making us whole.

Advent literally means coming, and it is the time when we not only look forward to Jesus coming to Bethlehem, but we look forward to Jesus coming again to make things whole and right.  So if this Christmas, things don’t go according to plan. It’s OK. If right now in your life, things aren’t going according to plan it’s OK. Right now, if your world is falling apart around you. It’s OK.

God is coming to make things right. God comes to make things whole.

There is a wonderful story about Russian composer Ignace Yan Paderewski. It seems one evening he was scheduled to perform at a great concert hall.  In the audience of black tuxedos and long evening gowns was a mother with her fidgety nine-year old son.  His mother brought him in hopes her boy would be encouraged to practice the piano if he could just hear the immortal Paderewski.  So, against his own wishes, he had come.

As she turned to talk with her friends, the boy slipped from her side, and without much notice from the sophisticated audience, the boy sat down at the stool, staring wide-eyed at the black and white keys, he put his small fingers upon the keyboard.  He began to play "Chopsticks."  The roar of the crowd was hushed by hundreds of frowning faces turned in his direction.  An angered audience began jeering at the boy, booing and hissing for him to be taken from the stage.

Backstage, the Paderewski overheard the sounds out front and quickly put together what was happening.  Hurriedly, he grabbed his coat and rushed toward the stage.  Without one word of announcement, he stooped over the boy, reached around both sides and began to improvise a counter melody to harmonize and enhance the tune.  As the two of them played together, Paderewski kept whispering in the boy's ear:  "Keep going.  Don't quit son.  Keep on playing.  Don't quit. I'm right here...don't quit!"

Advent is the time when we hear Jesus right behind us, whispering in our ear, “Keep going.  Don't quit. Keep on going.  I'm right here."






How Will You Measure Your Life? Week 1

From October 22, 2017
by Rev. Shawn Coons

We’re going to begin this morning with a reading from Philippians 3:1-11. This is a letter believed to be authentically from the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi. 

In this passage, Paul is addressing the ongoing conflict between some Jewish Christians and some Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. The argument is about whether Gentiles should be follow Jewish law and traditions, including circumcision. What should be the measure of one’s Christian faith. Is it, as some propose, how closely one follows Jewish law? Paul squarely confronts this issue of measuring faith by contrasting the measurements who used in his own life in the past vs. how he measures his faith now. Listen and see if you can pick out his old standard of measuring vs. his new.

Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.2Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh—

4even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

[9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.]

Did you hear it? Paul’s old unit of measurement vs. his new one? He recites his credentials as a, in his words, “a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”

circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

That’s the old standard of faith: his Jewish credentials by birth and by practice. Then he says he considers all of that “rubbish.” The Greek word used here is stronger than rubbish. Trash, excrement, filth. And what is his new standard of measurement? The surpassing value of knowing Christ.

Paul addresses this conflict in the church by telling them that how they measure their faith matters. It matters what the standard of measurement is.

Ok, let’s put Paul aside for the moment. And I’m going to give you a pop quiz: what is pictured here? What is the metallic object inside these bell jars?

This is a kilogram. And I don’t mean it weighs a kilogram, although it does. I mean it’s literally a kilogram. It is one of a small number of official kilograms made over the last century and a half.  All of these officials kilograms are copies. Copies of what is affectionately known as “The Big K,” or officially known as the IPK, the International Prototype Kilogram.  The IPK is stored in the outskirts of Paris, at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. It is kept in a safe, in a lower vault, in a basement at this international headquarters.

A kilogram is 1000 grams, and on April 7, 1795, the gram was officially defined as, “the absolute weight of a volume of pure water equal to the cube of the hundredth part of the meter at the temperature of melting ice.” A little unwieldy, eh?  By 1889, others thought so too. So the IPK was manufactured and the official definition of the kilogram was changed. “A kilogram is equal to the mass of an object known as the International Prototype Kilogram.”

There are copies of the IPK in various parts of the world to be used in calibrating tools and scales and other kilogram measurements. But on close scientific examination we’ve found that these kilograms all have slightly different weights!  Due to environmental conditions, various minute amounts of other materials have gathered on these copies, changing their weights ever so slightly.

In other words, the kilogram used by this part of the world may not weigh the same as the one in another part of the world, and so people are using different standards to measure by.  And if the difference is big enough, that can be disastrous.  Take the example of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999.

This was a 700 pound robotic satellite sent by Nasa to orbit around Mars.  Unfortunately, after years of planning, tens of thousands of work hours, and hundreds of millions of dollars it made it to Mars but was apparently destroyed in Mars’ atmosphere when it arrived.  It ended up descending too far into the atmosphere because one of the software programs was using U.S. standard measurements while another piece of software was expecting metric measurements.

Because one team in this project used the wrong standard of measurement, the whole mission ended in disaster. The standards we use to measure, matter. And I believe this carries over into our lives as well. If we use the wrong standards to measure our life, the results could be disastrous.

This is what we are going to be talk about over the next three weeks in this series, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

This is the question asked in a book Clayton Christensen, entitled, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Christensen is a Harvard Business School Professor and in one particular course he teaches his students about theories they can use in business. These theories offer explanations for why things happen in certain ways, and seek to help predict what the outcomes of various business practices and strategies will be. He instills in them the idea that specific outcomes in business are the result of specific decisions and actions.

But on the last day of the class each semester he asks them to apply this concept beyond the business world, and he asks, “How will you measure your life?” What results do you hope to achieve with the decisions and actions you make.  Christensen feels this is an important question to ask based on his observations of his own life over the years, and also his observations of his classmates.

Christensen went to Harvard and Oxford for his education. He was a smart, hard-working, motivated and accomplished young man with lots of potential after he graduated.  And the men and women he graduated were likewise filled with talent, intelligence and potential.  The schools he attended, Harvard and Oxford, both do a remarkable job of reuniting alumni and classmates, so over the years Christensen often got to see his classmates and friends and learn about their lives and accomplishments.

Early on, there was much for people to be proud of. High paying positions in Fortune 500 companies. New marriages and families. Book deals, big houses, semi-annual trips to Europe.  But as the years went on, Christensen noticed that some of his classmates didn’t seem to be happy with their lives. Other classmates were struggling in their marriages, had gone through multiple divorces, or felt distanced from their children. Some of his colleagues had even ended up in jail for business fraud or embezzling.

Christensen began to wonder how this had happened to so many of these bright, talented and driven people. They had so much potential but so many of them, sometimes including himself, had ended up in places they never intended.

So he began to think in terms of his education in business theory. A business theory seeks to make sense of how certain actions and decisions are translated into specific results. It says that if A and B happen, then the natural results will be C and D, but if E and F happen, then expect G and H to happen.  And what he saw is that many of his classmates had a sound theory for their businesses, but they didn’t apply a sound theory to their life.

They put great thought and effort into a strategy for business, but not into a strategy for life. In his words:

I know for sure that none of these people graduated with a deliberate strategy to get divorced or lose touch with their children—much less to end up in jail. Yet this is the exact strategy that too many ended up implementing.”

So how did they do this? How do we do this? How do we have the best of intentions? Want the best for our life? But end up choosing a strategy, making decisions, that lead us to different results?

Let’s go back to Paul, and let’s go back to our question for the day, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” A few moments ago I said, if you use the wrong standards to measure your life it would end up being disastrous. Too often we have the best of intentions. To live a generous life, to have a thriving marriage, to be close to our children, to go to bed happy and fulfilled each day. We have the best of intentions, but we choose poor standards of measurement.

And I don’t believe we do this because we are dumb, or because we are short-sighted. Rev. Adam Hamilton, in preaching on this same subject, suggests that the reason we choose the wrong standard of measurement is because some things are easier to measure than others. 

Think about it. If I’m building something with lumber, and I need to cut a piece of wood to a certain length, I’m going to use a tape measure and measure in inches.  If I’m trying to lose weight, I’m going to use a scale and measure in pounds. If I’m cooking at home, I’ll use a measuring spoon and measure in teaspoons.

But what do we use if we are measuring more intangible things?  Can we use a scale or a yardstick to measure how happy someone is? What tool should we use to measure the enjoyment that comes from reading a good book or coming home to your dog?  So when it comes to measuring our life we tend towards measurements that are easier that we can understand, even if they are the wrong measurements.

So what is easy to measure?  How much money you make. Your job title. A promotion. How many hours you work. How big your house is. The clothes you wear. The degrees you hold.

What’s not so easy to measure? How close you are with your spouse. Your presence in the life of your children. Care and compassion for others.

See the difference?  I certainly fall prey to this.  I’m a pastor, and there are multiple standards I could use to measure how our church is doing. But do you know what’s easiest? Nickels and noses. How much money is in the offering plate and how many people are here on Sunday. Do you know what’s a harder standard to measure? If someone came in this morning feeling low, and somehow had their spirits raised enough to get through another day. It’s hard to measure the amount of times one of you is inspired by a song, a sermon, a prayer, a bible study, and shares a word of care or an act of hope with someone you meet. 

But there are times when we can see clearly what is important to measure in life.  For me, one of those times is when someone dies.  I’ve done many funerals over the years, and one of the privileges I have in this role is to meet with the family of the person who died to hear about their lives and who they were.

And without fail, as I sit down with the family, do you know what they tell me first about their loved one?  It’s not how much money they made. It’s not their job title. It’s not what they acquired in life or the degrees they held. It’s statements like:

She loved her family so much.
He was always there for me.
He was so proud of his children.
She was so generous and caring.
He always had time for me.

It is always some form of how much the person loved others and how much the person was loved by others. How we love. Who we love. Those are how you measure a life.  Are you familiar with the song from RENT, “525,600 Minutes?”  The lyrics are:

525,600 minutes. How do you measure a year in the life? How about love? Measure in love.

We measure in love. Chet read from 1 Corinthians 13 a little bit ago. A familiar passage to many, but it speaks to this exact question: “How Do You Measure Your Life?” Allow me to paraphrase:

If I measure my life by being able to speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not measure my life by love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I measure my life by my prophetic powers, and my understanding all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I measure my life by having faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not measure my life by love, I am nothing. 3If I measure my life by giving away all my possessions, but do not measure my life by love, I gain nothing.

So here is your homework for today. Ask yourself “How do I measure my life?” And be honest with your answer.  I would encourage you to make this a conversation with others. Parents, ask your children to answer this question for you. How are you showing them what measurements are important in life. Ask this question of each other at coffee hour after the service, on the way home in the car, at lunch or at dinner. Ask your friends, classmates, co-workers, neighbors.

And if you are unsure of the answer, or unhappy with the answers you get or arrive at. Then you won’t want to miss the next two weeks. Because we will be going deeper into what exactly it looks like to measure your life in love.

“How will you measure your life?”

Joint Anti-Racism Statement from Neighborhood Congregations

To the residents and friends of the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood:

As people of faith representing the congregations of our neighborhood, we feel that it is our duty to respond to the racism, hatred, and discrimination that exists and continues to resurface in different ways within our nation and even here at home. We were profoundly troubled to learn of racist comments and an act of racial intimidation in our Butler Tarkington neighborhood.

Collectively we are speaking out against any action, group, or ideology that demeans the unique dignity of every person that lives, travels through, or even visits our neighborhood and beyond. We condemn acts of racial intimidation in any form.

We recognize the systemic injustices that exist against the African American community and have a collective desire to act. We condemn groups like the Ku Klux Klan, all white supremacist groups, and all others that adopt their beliefs, recognizing that their roots are not found in any of our faith traditions. Every faith tradition values every life.

It is our common hope that our faith and goodwill will encourage everyone to seek understanding, peace, and reconciliation among all people. We are committing not only our congregations, but asking all people to join us in praying, if that is your tradition, and certainly acting in love toward others. We look forward to future engagements with the clergy, congregations, and neighborhood and future partnerships with the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association. We invite you into this journey of conversation, listening, acting, and supporting one another during this time.


Rev. Ronnie Bell, North United Methodist Church
Rev. Jeff Bower, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Rev. Shawn Coons, Fairview Presbyterian Church
Rev. Steve Conger, Meridian Street United Methodist Church
Rev. Sarah Ginolfi, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Fr. Michael Hoyt, St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church
Dr. Philip Karl James, Pastor, Mount Zion Baptist Church
Rev. Matt Landry, Meridian Street United Methodist Church
Pastor Jim Matthies, Common Ground Church
Pastor Jeff Reichanadter, Common Ground Church
Jamie Hinson-Rieger, Worship Leader, Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis
Bethany Scott, Director of Family and Neighborhood Ministries, Meridian Street United Methodist Church
Rev. Darren Cushman-Wood, North United Methodist Church

Neighboring - We Are Each Other's Air

From October 8, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

neighboring postcard -front.png

Indulge me in a little geekiness this morning.  How many of you have heard of an internet service called Napster?  How about BitTorrent?  Ok, not many.  How many of you have heard of BitCoin?  Napster first came to fame a number of years ago as a file-sharing program. What this means is that you would download the Napster program to your computer and then you could share specific files on your computer with another Napster user, and they could do so with you.  And one of the first major uses was to share mp3s, digital versions of songs.

So if you wanted the latest Britney Spears song, you just needed to find another Napster user who had it on their computer, and download it directly from them.  BitTorrent is a similar program, that makes many different types of files shareable directly between users.

It’s kind of like borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor instead of going to the grocery to buy it directly from the store. It’s a little bit more sketchy, because many people have used these programs to share copyrighted material illegally. BitCoin is a little bit different, it is a currency system. You can buy BitCoins and then use them to make purchases. But the records BitCoins and their transactions aren’t stored at a bank or with a specific company. The records are distributed and shared among BitCoin users.

All of these are what are called “peer-to-peer” services. They are decentralized, distributed, there isn’t one source which everything flows out of, instead each user contributes, gives and takes as required. Which means that users of the services are dependent on other users to make the service work.

Great, Shawn. What in the world does this have to do with church? And what does it have to do with our current series on loving your neighbor? Well, this series is called Neighboring, God’s plan for taking care of each other, and I want to suggest to you that God’s plan for taking care of each other is “peer to peer.”  There are dozens of examples in the gospels of Jesus taking care of people, showing love to specific individuals.  Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, healing the centurion’s daughter, and casting out demons from the Gerasane man.

But that wasn’t the limit of acts of love and care that we find recorded in the gospels. We can read about thousands of people shown care in the gospels, not by Jesus, but by Jesus’ followers. Where ever Jesus went, once people began to follow him, once they received his care, he turned them into caregivers for others. Care was given “peer to peer,” person to person, not just from Jesus to person.

This continued throughout the rest of the Bible, as the early church spread.  This morning we are going to read about one church where this model of care was practiced.  Modern day Turkey is the site of the city of Ephesus, who’s residents were known as Ephesians in scriptureAs Jesus’ message and movement spread, it got farther and farther away from Israel and the large Jewish population there. So by the time the church spreads through Asia Minor and reaches a city like Ephesus, it is going to places with a large Gentile (non-Jewish) population.

Ephesus was already ancient in the time of the New Testament.  It was a major urban area, with a large (for that time) population of fifty to a hundred and fifty thousand people, with all the diversity of population, trade, religious groups, and social classes that was typical of a Greco-Roman city. Ephesus in particular held an important place as the location of the great temple of Artemis, and the place where great Asian games were held.

We’re going to be reading from Ephesians 2:11-22, a letter to the church in Ephesus, often attributed to Paul, but scholars believe it is more likely a student or follower of Paul based on the textual clues. Listen for the calls for “peer to peer” care among this diverse church of Jews and Gentiles.

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

There’s a rift in this church, and it seems to be between those who were born Jewish and followed Jesus, and those who came to follow Jesus without being a Jew. There is a conflict here between the Jews and the Gentiles of the church.   Now there really shouldn’t be, this has all been decided. In Acts 15 we read about a council of church leaders that were wrestling with this very issue.

Shortly after the time of Jesus’ resurrection the early church was still solidly connected to Jewish tradition and Jewish law. And it was thought by many that any Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus would be required to follow Jewish laws and customs. But there were some church leaders, Paul and Barnabas among them, who argued against this. They brought this matter to the apostles and Peter declared that except for a few simple laws, Gentiles did not have to practice Jewish traditions.

So the word has come from the top-down that Gentiles should be welcome to follow Jesus alongside Jews. But the problem was that it was top-down still and not peer to peer.  This had not been embraced by individual members, both Jewish and Gentile, within churches. And it’s peer to peer that matters, because that’s how God intends it.

Notice the imagery that the author of Ephesians uses in the passage.

You are…members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 

Jesus and the apostles are the foundation of the household of God, Jesus is the cornerstone, but if you think of the rest of us as bricks or stones in the household.  They don’t all touch the cornerstone or the foundation, but each brick is connected to another brick, multiple bricks. We aren’t all directly connected to the cornerstone or the foundation, but we are directly connected to each other, each of us, side by side with others. We are each meant to support the others around us.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it?  Jesus wouldn’t have been able to directly care and nurture every one of his followers, once the church grew the apostles wouldn’t be able to either. Paul, who was instrumental in developing churches, nurturing the faith of many Christians throughout the New Testament. He wouldn’t have been able to provide nurture and care for everyone he introduced to the faith.

This makes for a stronger church. When we are all tasked with providing care and love for one another, than our support network is stronger.  Go with me on a mental journey.  Let’s travel up to the International Space Station. First, imagine you are an astronaut going on a spacewalk, you have to get in your spacesuit and go outside of the station on a mission. How do you breathe?  Well, the suit has oxygen tanks in it. Your air comes from one place – your suit. If something goes wrong with that one source of oxygen, you are in trouble.

Now imagine that you are done with your spacewalk and you are back inside the space station. Or better yet, imagine you are done and back on earth. Now where is your oxygen coming from?  It’s all around you, it surrounds you. You aren’t dependent on just one source for the air you breathe.

Friends, we are oxygen for one another. The love and care we provide for someone is their life support, and so the more sources of that life the better.  If you look around this room, these people should be your life support. You should be able to find multiple sources of love and care and support, and likewise you should be ready to provide love, and care and support for multiple people here.

Now, nobody is expecting you personally to provide direct and personal care for all 150+ members of our Fairview family, that’s not realistic. But each one of us is expected to care about and for as many people as we can, and to make sure that our circle of care is inclusive. Not just of people we know, but we should especially pay attention to the people that we may not know.  We don’t have to know everybody intimately, but we should be aware of people who may not be known, may not be connected to others.

We have many groups of care and support here at Fairvew. There are the formal groups: the chancel choir, the bell choir, weekday Bible studies, Sunday School classes, the Wednesday night pitch-in crowd.  There are relationships and bonds that form within these groups as we get to know each other more personally by meeting week after week together. But there are also more informal groups here at Fairview.  We group ourselves by generations, by how long we’ve been at the church, by where we live or where we used to live, sometimes by political leanings or by how old our children are.

There’s nothing wrong with these groups, but we can’t let our care and support and love be limited to these comfortable groups.  If we only tend to our circle of friends, then we are kind of in the same boat as the church in Ephesus. We may not have a division between Jews and Gentiles here, but if we aren’t careful we can end up with different isolated groups within the church. 

You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God

We are no longer strangers.

The Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus weren’t united by Gentiles becoming like Jews, or Jews becoming like Gentiles, they were united by both becoming like Jesus. Likewise, our unity is not based on how old we are, whether we have children, what we want for the church, who we voted for. Our unity, our love and care for each other, our life support, our love for neighbor is dependent on the God who has called us all here.

So I encourage you, to take this call to unity seriously. Take your part seriously. In the next month or two we will be welcoming a number of new members into the church.  Every time we welcome a new member, and every time we baptize a child, as a congregation we make promises to be there for that person, to be there life support, to be a source of love and care.

Continue to take that promise to heart. Renew that promise today.  Look for someone you don’t know, or someone you know who may need you to be their life support today.  And if you feel your oxygen running low around you, reach out to someone here and let them be your support and comfort.  If we do this, if we continue to live into the people and the church God is calling us to be, then with Christ as our cornerstone, we will indeed “grow into a holy temple in the Lord…built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

Neighboring - Go!

From October 1, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

This morning we are continuing with our series on neighboring, which is God’s plan for taking care of each other.  We’ve heard about God’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves, last week we talked about loving our actual neighbors, the people next door to us, by getting to know them by name and by their stories.  Next week, we will talk about what this looks like within our congregation- how we can all be responsible for loving and taking care of our neighbors in this room.

But first, this week, we will be talking about what it looks like for us as Fairview Presbyterian, for us as a congregation, to love our neighbors.  How can our church be a good neighbor?  How can we live this out so much, that when people pass our church they say, “That’s the church that loves their neighbors and shows that love all the time?”

The first step in being a church that loves its neighbors is an easy one.  It’s simply realizing how many neighbors we have. In the passage we are going to read in just a moment, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”  This is Jesus’ way of saying, there are a lot of people out there who need what we have.

The same is true for Fairview. This church does a great job at offering God’s love, hope, good news, challenge, care, healing, transformation to all who come here.  But here’s a little not-so-secret. The majority of Indianapolis doesn’t go to Fairview. Shocking. I know.  Well, OK but other churches offer God’s love and hope too. Absolutely, they do. But here’s another not so secret, a lot of people don’t go to church.

So, if we are going to define a neighbor, like Jesus did in the parable of the Good Samaritan, that Bill read a moment ago. That is, we define our neighbor by someone in need of help, in need of God’s love and God’s care. Than we need to realize we have thousands of neighbors.

The harvest is plentiful but the laborer’s are few.  So what’s the plan then. For bringing the love of God that we experience here at Fairview to the thousands of our neighbors who need that same love.

Let’s see how Jesus goes about this in Luke 10:1-11:

10After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.

7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

What has Jesus’ ministry looked like up to this point.  Jesus and his followers were curing the sick, offering healing to people.  They were casting out demons and feeding the hungry.  They were sharing good news, bringing hope to the oppressed and downtrodden.  And Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful. There are so many more people who are sick, struggling with oppression or their own demons. So many more who need hope and healing.”

And Jesus comes up with a plan. I’m not going to share that plan with you this morning. I’m going to let Rev. Katie Hays of Galileo Church in Texas, share that plan by video. We’re going to hear from Rev. Hays a couple times this morning. Back in September, Elder Stephanie Bode and I had the chance to hear her speak on this morning’s passage at a conference we were attending. And Rev. Hays brought some powerful words about this passage. And rather than try to sum them up I will let her speak for herself.

So Jesus realizes the vast number of people in need of good news and God’s love and he has to come up with a plan. Here is one option that he could have chosen:

Hays Video #1 7:47-8:52

Jesus could have set up shop. Could have planted himself and his ministry in one place and said let everybody know I’m here and let them come to me. But he didn’t. Instead he realized that he and his followers needed to go to the people. They needed to spread out all over the area and find those who need healing where they were. They needed to reach those struggling with their own demons, wherever they were. The burden of travel should not be on those who needed help but on those who had already received God’s blessings.

So Jesus gathers seventy of his followers, and he gives them some two things. First, he gives them some specific instructions. Don’t take anything with you, and rely on the hospitality of those who will welcome you. Don’t take a bag to carry stuff in. Don’t take stuff. Don’t even wear shoes!

Why is this? Is Jesus being harsh? Cruel? No, I don’t think so.  What’s happening here is Jesus wants them to know that when they go out, they aren’t to rely on their own abilities, on their own power.  They are to rely on the second thing he gives them: power and authority.  Jesus tells them that wherever they go they are to cure the sick and let them know the Kingdom of God has come near.  They don’t have traveling provisions, but they don’t need them because they have the power and authority given to them by God.

And to make that clear, Jesus says that the seventy need to simply move on if they are rejected, because in reality, the people aren’t rejecting Jesus’ followers, they are rejecting God.

I think we, you and I, often miss this blessing.  Too often, we are intimidated when we think of going out offering God’s blessings, healings, message of love, to other people. We worry about how we will come across, what will people think of us, what if we offering a bit of our faith or a kind act out of God’s loves and it is rejected?  Or we worry that we don’t know how to talk about our faith or offer a compassionate act to someone in need of God’s blessing.

But Jesus promises the seventy, and Jesus promises us, that we don’t need to have exactly the right words, or know exactly what someone needs, we don’t need to rely on ourselves and our own ability. If we just go to the people, then God will do the rest.

Our biggest challenge, is not knowing what to do when we get in the midst of the harvest, but going out to join in the harvest in the first place. The biggest challenge we face is truly believing not in God, but that God is calling us to love and care for our neighbors as much as we care of ourselves.  If we truly believe that our thousands of neighbors out there, need God as much as we do, need God’s love, and healing, and wholeness, as much as we do, then like the seventy we must go find them.  Let’s here from Katie Hays again:

Katie Hays Video #2 17:37-19:25

Loving our neighbors as ourselves, means leaving our beautiful church building. Not expecting the man left for dead by robbers on the side of the road to pick himself up and come to us, but for us to be like that Samaritan and go to him in his need.  Loving our neighbors as a church means hearing the urgency in Jesus’ voice. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Jesus is saying, “Don’t wait until you feel full ready. Don’t wait to pack your bag. Don’t wait until you have a place to stay. Go! Now!” Jesus was always moving forward, always looking for the next person who needed God in their life.

Jesus is saying to us, “You did a great job of taking care of the person in your midst who had cancer, so keep it up, keep going. There’s ten people with cancer who need that care, your care, my care, ten people within blocks of you right now!”

We’ve talked as a congregation about “Finding Our Why” discovering and articulating God’s call for us, the reason behind everything we should be doing. For Jesus, his Why was to go to as many people as he could, heal them, love them, give them good news.  As Christians, that’s our why too: get to as many people as we can, bring them God’s love, healing, and good news.

We are long past the time when we can expect that most people who need God will come to us.  And many of them have good reason. Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic, a church in Los Angeles, says, "people have given up on the truth of God because they don't believe anyone can be trusted. The world is full of people who have been hurt by those who were supposed to love them-people they should have been able to trust. Before churches will be heard, they must reestablish trust. To establish trust, they must first show their ability to love.”

The harvest is plentiful. Let me turn one last time to Rev. Katie Hays, and a story she has about her church’s work in the harvest.

Katie Hays Video #3 21:55-24:14

How do we make Fairview a church for non-churchy people too? Nothing against churchy people, I’m one of the churchiest people you will find. But most of our neighbors in need are not churchy people. They aren’t going to come to us, but they have needs and struggles like we do, but they don’t have the faith, the community of care that we do. How do we bring it to them if they aren’t going to come to us?

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

How many of us are here this morning?  1..2…3…maybe somewhere around 70? God says, “I am sending you. Go. Don’t worry about what you will bring with you, you don’t need it. All you need is me. Bring peace to those you meet. And if they reject you, they are really rejecting me. Go! Cure the sick, bring wholeness in my name. Let people know that the Kingdom of God is near!”

Later in in Luke chapter 10, the seventy return, amazed and what happened at what God enabled them to do.  I have no doubt, that if we go, trusting God, our results will be amazing too.


From September 24, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

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We’re going to get to our second reading in a moment, but first I want to visit briefly a passage from the gospel of John, not even a passage, just one verse, and not even one verse, but just a part of a verse. It’s the first part of John 1:14 and if you were to open your pew Bible it would read: And the Word became flesh and lived among us.  If you don’t know much about what’s going on in the first chapter of John that’s OK. Let me just tell you that it’s a poetic and symbolic summary of how and why Jesus comes into the world.

In this chapter, the author refers to Jesus as “the Word.”  The first verse of the chapter is: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God. But right now I’m more interested in: And the Word became flesh and lived among us. And even more than being interested in that verse, I’m interested in how John 1:14 is translated in a translation/paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. Here’s how it reads: Jesus moved into the neighborhood.

Now, technically, that’s not really a good translation of this verse.  But, I want to suggest to you it may be a good interpretation of this verse. Jesus moved into the neighborhood. And even more than a good interpretation of this verse, I think it is a good theological summary of much of Jesus’ ministry and who he was.

Jesus moved into the neighborhood.

Right now, at Fairview, we are in the middle of a Sunday morning series on “Neighboring: God’s Plan for Taking Care of Each Other.”  We’re learning about God’s call to love God by loving our neighbor, we’re taking specific steps to practice loving our neighbors. And this falls right in the beginning of a larger journey we are on as a church of learning about our neighbors, learning about our community, listening to God and seeing how God is busy in our neighborhood and figuring out how God is calling us to be part of that work.

All of this hinges on getting to know our neighbors. And that’s what I want to focus on today. And not figuratively. We’re going to explore getting to know our neighbors, my neighbors, your neighbors, the churches neighbors. The people that are near us. The people that we interact with and see day to day.

Before we go further, I want you to do an exercise with me.  This is something you can write down or you can just do mentally.  I want you to name your neighbors.  Take the houses around you, next door, across the street, on the other side of your back yard. And write the names down of the people who live there. Parents, children. Extra credit for pets.

In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we don’t have any record of where Jesus lived and who his literal neighbors might have been, but we have plenty of examples of Jesus encountering people in their homes, where they work, where the live. In their neighborhoods.  Ruby read the story of the calling of Levi (who we know as Matthew). Levi was a tax collector, Jesus met him at work and called him to follow, and then the next scene takes place at Levi’s home where he is having Jesus and other guest over for a big dinner.

We have a similar story in Luke 19:1-10. Another tax collector, another meeting in a neighborhood, and another invitation to dinner at home.

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 

So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

This passage starts in Jericho.  Jericho was a nice city. It was on a major trade route. It exported a lot of crops and goods. There was one point in earlier history where Mark Anthony was supposed to have presented Jericho as a gift to Cleopatra. Zacchaeus appears to be the chief tax collector for the Romans in Jericho, and that’s a pretty good job, in some respects.  With all this trade, with all this wealth, there were plenty of taxes to be collected.

Taxes worked a bit differently in the Roman world. It was kind of a franchise deal. Each city or area would have a tax collector, and Rome would tell that tax collector how much taxes he was to collect from the city.  This was how much money the collector owed Rome on the area’s behalf.  But Rome didn’t say that the tax collector only had to collect that much.  He was free to collect more in taxes from the people, and then keep the extra for himself. 

The more taxes a collector collects, the more money he pockets.

That’s Zacchaeus’s job.  So he is hitting people up for their fair share of taxes, and then some.  Add onto this that he was a Jew helping the Roman occupiers.  It is safe to say that Zacchaeus was probably not a popular man in the Jewish town of Jericho.

But then one day, Jesus is “passing through” Jericho. He’s walking through the city, walking through the neighborhoods. And he’s kind of like a rock star, all these people want to see Jesus, including Zacchaeus. And so the crowds start forming. The Bible says that Zacchaeus is not a tall man, so he climbs up a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  And then something happens. And this is where we get our first lesson from Jesus about getting to know our neighbors.

What happens is that Jesus sees Zacchaeus. Jesus looks up into that sycamore tree and sees Zacchaeus, who is trying to see Jesus.  I wonder, how often do we see our neighbors?  How often do we see the people we live near? Literally, how often do you see your neighbors?  Earlier I asked you to name your neighbors, now take that list or mental list and think of the last time you saw them. Maybe in the yard, walking the dog, driving to work.  When was the last time you saw your neighbors?

Back to Jesus and Zacchaeus.  Jesus sees Zacchaeus, and then, he speaks to him. He tells Zacchaeus to get down from that tree and hurry home because Jesus is coming over for dinner.

When was the last time you spoke to your neighbors?  Take a moment to think of the last time that you had a conversation with them.

Now as you are doing this, I’ll confess that I was a little ashamed as I did this exercise myself.  I’d love to tell you that I could name every one of my neighbors in the eight houses closest to us. I couldn’t. I could name at least one person in each house, but maybe not their spouse or all their kids.  We had a neighborhood block party this past weekend, so I did a little bit better in the last time I talked to them.  But I still wasn’t pleased with how little I’ve had conversation with some of my neighbors.

Marie who lives on one side of us, we see and talk to her with some frequency. She loves to work in her yard, and it’s common to say hi or have a conversation with her.  On the day of the eclipse a month ago, Carrie and I had a fun time of 20-30 minutes passing around our one pair of eclipse glasses with her and her son-in-law. But our neighbor, JoAnn, on the other side works in her lawn a fair amount, and I haven’t talked with her as much. Our neighbors across the street we don’t hardly see at all.

But Jesus speaks with Zacchaeus, and as we read, he does more than that. Jesus isn’t satisfied with a passing greeting in the street. He wants to sit down with Zacchaeus, to break bread with him, get to know him. Even though it causes quite a stir with those “religious folks” who can’t believe that Jesus would spend time with a tax collector.

But, look what happens!  Even before they leave the scene, even before they get to Zacchaeus’s house, Zacchaeus makes a promise to Jesus that he will stop his crooked ways, he will repay fourfold those he has cheated, and he will use his wealth to help those in need.  I guarantee you that people were surprised and shocked when they heard Zacchaeus say this.  But it’s even more interesting than that. The tense of the Greek verb here suggests that this may not be a new promise, that this is a present action that Zacchaeus is doing and he is promising to continue it.

If this was the case, I wonder if any of Zacchaeus’s neighbors knew this about him.  Had anyone taken the time to get to know Zacchaeus, to learn that he might be more than just a despised tax collector? Did anyone know why he was so eager to see Jesus?

When we take the time to get to know our neighbors, we are bound to be surprised at what we learn about them. There’s a church in Colorado, that decided they wanted to make loving their neighbors an important part of each person’s walk as a Christian, and that began with knowing their neighbors. So they challenged each person at the church to begin to know their neighbors, their names, what’s going on in their lives, their hopes, their challenges. I want us to watch a brief video where one couple tells of their experience.

I’d like to invite you to love your neighbors by knowing your neighbors. Maybe for some of you, you really do know your neighbors well, but I’m guessing for many of us, it’s something we could work on.

Before I end, I’d also like to give you another resource to help you love your neighbors and get to know your neighborhood.  In your bulletin, you should have a sheet that describes what a neighborhood prayer walk is.

Neighborhood prayer walking is just what it sounds like. Praying and walking in your neighborhood.  It is an activity that allows you to not just enjoy the outdoors and a nice walk, but to be mindful and aware of where you are, who is there, what is special about your neighborhood, what is unique. It also allows you to see with a new lens, so to speak. To look for things you may not have noticed before, to have God guide you to see new things, or to pray in specific ways.

I invite you to take this home and try prayer walking your own neighborhood this week. I’d also like to invite you to come next Sunday at 10:00 a.m. and we will be sent out to prayer walk the neighborhood around Fairview. Then we will gather briefly to share what we experienced on our individual walks.

Love God. Love Neighbor. Jesus said that that sums it up.

I’m game! How about you?


From September 10, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

In the beginning of Matthew, chapter 21, Jesus enters triumphantly into Jerusalem.  The crowds adore him and praise him. This is what we celebrate on Palm Sunday. The day that Jesus had a rock star entrance into Jerusalem.  And then Jesus gets down to business. He goes to the temple, the heart of first century Judaism and he overturns the table of the money changes and vendors there.  He takes on the religious authorities of his own Jewish faith with this bold and defiant act.

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This action begins a series of confrontations and arguments with the Jewish authorities, the Scribes and Pharisees, that take place over the next few chapters of Matthew. After coming into Jerusalem like a king, cleansing the temple, and having his authority challenged by the chief priests, Jesus goes on to tell those leaders that tax collectors and prostitutes will make it into God’s Kingdom before they will. He tells a story of a landlord and some wicked murderous tenants, and tells the Scribes and Pharisees that they are like those evil tenants. Then tells another story of a wedding banquet where those originally invited were judged not worthy to come, and makes it clear that it’s the Jewish authorities who God is uninviting to God’s banquet.

In short, Jesus comes into Jerusalem ready to confront and condemn the Scribes and Pharisees. Ready to take on the powers that be. And in just a few days, Jesus makes so much trouble, so many enemies, that he is arrested, tried, tortured and executed as a criminal.

I wanted to set the stage of these penultimate chapters in Matthew, because it’s where we find a passage of Scripture that many of us are familiar with.  It’s a passage about love, and we often think of love as a beautiful, soft, warm, fuzzy, tingly feeling or emotion. Love makes our hearts swoon. Love lifts us up where we belong. Love is a many splendored thing.

But as we read this passage about love, I want us to remember that this was part of what got Jesus killed.  So as we listen to this passage that you may have heard before, listen for what’s dangerous in what Jesus said. Listen for its subversive nature. Listen and try to figure out what is so offensive about what Jesus says.

Matthew 22:34-40

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As I said a moment ago, in this part of Matthew the religious leaders are trying hard to get at Jesus. He and his movement are becoming a threat to the order of the day, to the powers that be, and they want him stopped. So, they are trying to catch him doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing.  They bring out all these religious experts and all sorts of legal experts, and they try time and time again to get him to convict himself by doing or saying the wrong thing.

Then this lawyer comes to Jesus. Not this is not a lawyer as we think of it, but a person studied and Jewish law and scripture. And he asks Jesus, which is the greatest commandment?  The lawyer knew that there were over 600 different laws in Jewish scripture. And he’s hoping Jesus will pick one, so that the lawyer can accuse Jesus of ignoring the others. Or if Jesus says they are all important, then the lawyer can get on Jesus for the times he broke certain laws like working on the sabbath or hanging out with the wrong kind of people.

Jesus could have avoided answering. He’s done it before. Jesus could have answered the question with another question, putting the lawyer on the spot. But instead he answers straightforwardly. He quotes Deuteronomy 6 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” And it’s kind of hard to argue with that. This is the command that God told the Israelites to remember, to teach to their children, to literally wear it on their bodies and post it in their homes.

But Jesus isn’t done. He then goes on to add a second greatest commandment.  The lawyer asked for one commandment, but Jesus goes for extra credit. He quotes Leviticus 19:17-18: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Then he adds one more thing for good measure. On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets. So, Jesus answered the trick question by highlighting two commandments that encompassed all 600+ commandments. 

In one answer, Jesus essentially says to this group of religious leaders, who feel they know it all that love of God and love of neighbor aren’t parallel endeavors. They are mutually interdependent. You can’t have one without the other.  If you love God you will love your neighbor. When you love your neighbor, you are loving God.

And I find it very telling that Jesus lays down this profound rule of love in the midst of his confrontations with the authorities. Jesus is confrontational, he is disruptive, he is in your face. Why? Because he likes to make trouble? No. Because he has a chip on his shoulder? No. Jesus is making waves because he is following the greatest commandment. To love God and love neighbor.

Lance Pape, Homiletics professor at Brite Divinity School, writes:

Our definition of “love” is often suspiciously easy on and for us. But this is not the definition of love that Jesus is working with in Matthew. The Jesus we see in these stories thinks that to love God with the whole self, with “all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind” (verse 37) is demanding and risky. Following the path of love leads him to jump into debates and conflicts with his whole self. Love leads Jesus into all kinds of situations that are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous.

The same love that inspired Jesus to eat with the outcast, reach out to the untouchable, and embrace the powerless, also drove him to confront the demonic, outmaneuver the manipulative, and correct the clueless. 

So let’s pause for a moment. This week we are beginning a series on Neighboring: God’s Plan for Taking Care of One Another.  And maybe it seems a bit odd, to talk about loving your neighbor by saying that Jesus’ confrontations and condemnation of the religious authorities are how Jesus showed love.

Am I saying that I want you to love your neighbor by confronting them with hypocrisy or wrongdoing? I can just see it now, some of you are getting some idea. You’re thinking of that neighbor who doesn’t mow their lawn often enough, or who plays loud music late at night, parks in front of your yard.  You’ll be knocking on their door this afternoon, and saying, “I love you neighbor, and my pastor said that I could show it by pointing out what an insensitive jerk you are!”

That’s not quite what I had in mind, and it’s not quite what scripture has in mind.  The point of putting Jesus saying, ‘love God love your neighbor’ in the midst of his religious confrontations is to demonstrate what love is and isn’t.

So often today, we think of love primarily as a feeling. It’s warm and fuzzy, it’s overwhelming. Love makes you do silly and romantic things. Love is cheery and pleasant.  But what we read in scripture about love, specifically the kind of love God practices and calls us to practice, is that love isn’t a feeling. Love is a commitment to act. Love isn’t something we get caught up in, but it’s something we choose to do.

To love our neighbor, is not to have warm feelings for them, it is to act lovingly towards them. To make a conscious choice to put their needs on the same level as our own.  Think about it. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus calls us to love our enemies. This doesn’t mean, this can’t mean, feel lovingly towards them. That’s not realistic. What it does mean that even if we don’t feel love for someone, especially when we don’t feel love for someone, we have to consciously choose actions of love towards them.

Alyce MacKenzie writes:

Biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous. Herein is the good news for Christian people. To love neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as one would act toward those close to you. We treat the stranger as well as we treat those that we love emotionally.

God never commands us to feel love, but to do love.

To love the neighbor (including our enemies) does not mean to feel affection for them, but to imitate God in taking their needs seriously.

So, no matter how you feel towards your neighbor, and by neighbor God means your literal neighbor, your family member, your co-worker, your boss, your enemy, a stranger that you see on the road, anyone. No matter how you feel towards your neighbor, if we love ourselves more than our neighbor, then we are not acting as a Christian. We are failing at the greatest commandment.

Over the next few weeks we are going to be talking about what it looks like to love your neighbor, not what it feels like. I will be asking you to do specific things to love your neighbor, get to know your neighbor, to think about what does it look like to love my neighbor as much as I love myself. But we won’t just be talking about loving God through loving your neighbor. We will be choosing to act.

Next week we will be having the Day of Caring. We will be joining Presbyterian churches all over the Indianapolis area in loving acts of service to our neighbors.  We will meet here at 10:00 a.m. Have a very brief service of prayer and then disperse to different places to serve.

On September 24th we will be back for our regular worship service and the sermon will be focused on our literal neighbors, the people that we live next to, and how can we get to know them better so that we can love them better.  You will get some resources to take home with you that day that will help you get to know your neighbors, and get to know your neighborhood. You will take home with you that day a guide for prayer walking. A guide to help you walk through your neighborhood while praying for those who live there, and keeping your eyes and ears open to see what God moves you to see there.

On October 1, at 10:00 a.m. we will gather to do the same sort of prayer walking in Fairview’s neighborhood. The church is called to be a good neighbor, and since you are the church you are an integral part of loving Fairview’s literal neighbors. After we are done walking, we will come back for our regular worship service and hear more in worship about Fairview’s call to love our neighbors, and what that might look like at a congregational level.

Let me close by reminding you of Alyce MacKenzie’s words I read earlier:

Biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous.

Our faith is not a romantic comedy or a good love story. We can’t just sit around waiting to feel love for our neighbor. It’s something that we choose, whether we feel it or not.  With that in mind, I want to give you some homework. As you go from here today, as you go about your week. As you are at school, or at work, or at home, or with friends, I want you to consciously observe every chance you have to choose to love your neighbor.

Take note of the times when you could have chosen to say something or do something that would have expressed God’s love for someone. A kind word, a helping hand, a listening ear, a needed gift, anything that someone needed that you could have provided. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, so ask yourself throughout the day: If I was that person what would I need right now? What would make me feel loved?

Choose to love your neighbor throughout the week, and be mindful of the opportunities to choose that present themselves to you.

’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Simple Questions. Simple Answers? Can God Forgive Me for Anything?

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From August 27, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

Can God forgive me for anything?  This is the final question in our short series, “Simple Questions. Simple Answers?” Our first two questions, “is science the enemy of faith?” and “can God save non-Christians?” dealt directly with misperceptions about Christian faith held by many people outside of the church.  Today’s question does as well.

Unfortunately, there are many people who believe that Christianity teaches about a punishing God. I God who is eternally vigilant in waiting for us to mess up so that God can quickly deliver punishment, or write it down on our divine scorecard to be used against us at a later date.  It is also unfortunate that it is mostly Christians who have perpetuated the myth of God who is based on punishment.

To be fair, there are definitely scripture passages that illustrate that there are punishing consequences for sin.  If you remember Jesus story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. Lazarus was a poor man who suffered in his lifetime, while the rich man lived a life of luxury. After they both died, their fates were reversed and Lazarus was taken care of at Abraham’s side, and the rich man was in the torment of Hades.  Then there’s Exodus, were God punishes the Pharaoh and the Egyptians for keeping the Hebrew people as slaves.

But what Christians have done with passages like this is fixated on them and elevated them above the larger witness of Scripture which shows God is a loving, forgiving God.  And so we have works like Dante’s Inferno, which is a book detailing the various circles of Hell and the punishment God has in store for each type of sinner. 

A more recent example that I witnessed, was when a group of us from Fairview marched in the Indy Pride Parade.  We were there to let our LGBT neighbors know that they are loved by Fairview and by God, but at one point we marched by a group of Christians with signs condemning people who are gay and detailing the punishment that God had in store for them.

It’s no wonder people think God is judgmental and punishing. It’s no wonder people think Christians are judgmental and punishing.  God’s message of love, mercy, forgiveness and grace speaks louder throughout scripture than punishment and condemnation, but that doesn’t always come across, does it?  So it’s important for us, as Christians and as Fairview Presbyterian Church, to be loud in proclaiming God’s love so that our faith is represented accurately. This is one reason we are addressing the question, “Can God Forgive Me for Anything?”

But I think there’s a more important reason, today, and that is for us. And maybe more specifically for some of us.

Can God Forgive Me for Anything? Simple Question, and the Simple Answer is yes. An absolute,  unqualified yes. This is the fundamental bedrock of our faith. But the problem is, there may be someone here this morning who cannot believe this, you think it sounds too good to be true. Especially for you. Maybe there is something that you have done, something you think is so bad, something that hurt someone deeply, and you can’t imagine every being forgiven for it.

You are unable to forgive yourself, and so you can’t imagine a loving and holy God being willing to forgive you.

There was a movie in 1986 called The Mission. It was set in the 1700s and follows a Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel, as he works with a remote tribe in the jungles of Argentina.  In this movie Robert DeNiro plays a slaver, Rodrigo Mendoza, who in the past has kidnapped members of this tribe to sell into slavery.  He later repents of his actions and goes with Father Gabriel to work with the tribe he once enslaved.

But he carries the guilt of his sins with him. Literally. As they are going up through the mountains into the jungle, as penance, Mendoza bundles his heavy armor and weapons together and ties them to his back to pull up the mountain.  He cannot imagine forgiveness for his sins of slavery and so he punishes himself as he feels God must be punishing him.  Let’s watch a short clip of this:

Mission Video #1

I wonder if that seems familiar to any of you. Are you carrying a burden that weighs you down? A burden of something you’ve done in the past that you can’t let go, that you can’t forgive yourself for, and certainly can’t imagine God ever forgiving you for?

If so, I want to state again. Can God Forgive You for Anything? Yes. 100% yes.

But don’t believe me. Believe Jesus, as he speaks with a woman accused of sin and facing the punishment for that sin. A reading from John chapter 8:

 2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 

7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.* 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11She said, ‘No one, sir.’* And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’]]* 

If you are someone who is holding on to something you think is unforgivable, then maybe you can relate to the woman in this story.  Here she is, her sins exposed for all to bear witness to.  Imagine the emotions she is feeling at this moment. Fear. Shame. Remorse. Imagine how she feels about herself. She feels like a sinner, unworthy. She knows what she has done. How can Jesus forgive her? These scribes and Pharisees have made clear to her what they think God has in store for her.  She’s guilty. She knows it. She feels it.

Now at this time, there’s really no historical evidence to suggest that stoning took place in situations like this.  But certainly there would public judgment and punishment of some sort.  And these scribes and Pharisees are looking to Jesus to condemn and punish.  And they are appealing to Jewish scripture, our Old Testament, as the basis for their (and God’s) condemnation.

But what they are conveniently overlooking, is the rich Old Testament and Jewish tradition of a forgiving God, of a God who from the very beginning acknowledges that we are sinners and makes plans and paths for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Lauren read a moment ago from Psalm 103:

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
   slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 
9 He will not always accuse,
   nor will he keep his anger for ever. 
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
   nor repay us according to our iniquities. 

The Bible shows us that forgiveness and mercy is fundamental to who God is.  Let’s go way back to Genesis. Within the first four chapters, there are two egregious sins committed, and if any sin was unforgivable it might be these two.  In Genesis chapter 2, the second creation story we find in the Bible, God creates Adam and Eve, God creates the Garden of Eden, God gives them everything they need and gives them free reign, except for one thing, right? God says, see that tree there, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Don’t eat from that. See all the other trees? Have at them! That tree, no. Everything else, all yours. God says, don’t do that thing, so what do they do?  They do that thing?

Immediately, they rebel against God. And according to Genesis, God punishes them. There are consequences for their actions, but God also provides for them. Moves them from the garden, makes sure they can’t get back to it, but provides for them by still giving them animals for food, the ground to work, and clothes to wear. God could have said, “Well, that didn’t work,” and decided to get rid of Adam and Eve and start again. But God essentially, said, “You screwed up, but I’m not giving up on you. There’s a way forward and a way back to me.”

In the next chapter, Genesis chapter 4, we have the story of Cain and Abel.  Cain murders his brother out of jealousy, and God punishes him with exile, but when Cain is fearful for his like God protects him with the “mark of Cain” so that all will know the he is under God’s care. Even in this sin, even when God has a right to be most angry, God is keeping the door open, saying “I am not ready to give up on you.”

Then fairly quickly in Genesis and later more fully developed in Exodus and Leviticus, we have an ordained system of sacrifices as a way to repent for sin. A way to reconcile with God and be forgiven for sin.  From the very beginning there is a strong message from God that says our relationship with God is not based on us being perfect, but forgiven.  Our relationship with God is not based on whether or not we sin, because guess what, we will sin.  We don’t have to be perfect, we aren’t perfect, just forgiven.

That’s hard to admit for some of us. Marjory Bankson, author of The Call to the Soul, recalls a conversation with her mother, a recovering alcoholic, in which her mother wondered why she could be more honest about sin at her Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than she could be at church.  The only answer she could come up with is “because they know it’s a matter of life and death at AA and they don’t at church.”

We could learn a thing or two from Alcoholics Anonymous.  What if I came up here and said, “Hi, my name is Shawn, and I’m a sinner,” and then shared with you my struggles with sin.  And after me, someone from over here came forward and did the same thing.  Just take a moment to imagine how you would feel as you walked forward with everyone’s eyes on you, stepped up to the microphone with a lump in your throat, and then looked out at everyone gathered here today and admitted to us that you were a sinner.  I know I would find it a little scary and pretty intimidating.  How about you?

But, you know what?  It shouldn’t be embarrassing.  There’s no reason that anyone of us should be afraid or ashamed to admit our sinfulness to one another, because we are all sinners.  Each and every one of us! 

This is why it is so important to answer the question, “Can God Forgive Me for Anything?”  Because some of us know all to well that we are sinners, and the problem isn’t being honest about your sin, the problem is not being honest enough about the forgiveness God will grant.

Oswald Chambers, in his devotional book My Utmost for His Highest, says that “Forgiveness is accepted, not earned.”  Forgiveness is accepted, not earned.

Let’s go back to John chapter 8. At the end of this passage, Jesus forgives this woman by pointing out that there is no one there to condemn her, including himself. She doesn’t ask for his forgiveness. She doesn’t repent. She doesn’t do anything but accept the forgiveness offered by God.  Now I could certainly make an argument, that accepting God’s forgiveness can’t truly happen without some sort of remorse or repentance. But the forgiveness and mercy of God is there before we can truly grasp our need of it.

Remember where we left slaver Rodrigo Mendoza literally carrying his burden of sin behind him?  Let’s watch another clip that begins when he and his party meet the tribe that he had formally enslaved. Let’s watch what happens when they recognize him and the burden he is carrying.

Mission Video #2

Let me close with a story from Norman Neaves:

A young father and his daughter were on a cruise, a "get-away" cruise because his wife/her mother had just died. Turning to one another to help relieve the pain, they huddled together on board ship. And on the deck of that ship the little girl asked her father: "Daddy, does God love us as much as Mommy did?"

At first, the father didn't know what to say. But he knew he couldn't side-step the question. Pointing out across the water to the most distant horizon, he said, "Honey, God's love reaches farther than you can see in that direction." Turning around he said, "And God's love reaches farther than you can see in that direction, too." And then the father looked up at the sky and said, "And God's love is higher than the sky, too." Finally he pointed down at the ocean and said, "And it's deeper than the ocean as well."

Then the little girl said "Oh, just think, Daddy. We're right here in the middle of it all!"

We are right in the middle of God’s love, wider, higher and deeper than we can ever imagine. Know that you are forgiven, for anything, and be at peace.

Simple Questions. Simple Answers? Can God Save Non-Christians?

From August 27, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

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“Can God save non-Christians?” That’s the question we are asking and answering in week2 of our series: Simple Questions. Simple Answers?  In this series, I’ve promised to give you simple and direct answers to these questions, and I’ll get to that in a moment.  But first, a reminder about why we are doing looking at these questions.

It’s important to ask these questions and answer these questions.  Because these are questions that we have as Christians, but for people outside the church – they often feel like they know how we Christians will answer these questions. This is why people say things that aren’t so flattering about the church. “Why do Christian think science is bad?” “Why do Christians think God will punish everyone but them?” “How can you believe in a God that is so punishing?”

We Christians, as a group, have done a lot to misrepresent God and to misrepresent our faith.  And it’s important to answer these misconceptions directly, understanding how they might have come about, but being unwilling to let them continue.

So, our question this morning, “Can God Save Non-Christians?”  Yes.  But this question needs a whole lot of unpacking to understand why we say the answers is “yes.”

Let’s begin by trying to understand the question a bit more specifically. “Can God Save Non-Christians?”  What do we mean by save?  The language of salvation, being saved, Jesus saves, is common in Christianity, and usually what is meant is the idea that all humanity, every one of us, starts as a sinner, a sinner who has sinned against God and is condemned to an eternal fate of separation or punishment from God.

And the only way a sinner can be spared from that fate is to become a Christian. To place trust in Jesus and commit one’s life to following Jesus. In many Christian traditions, this is synonymous with saying a prayer “inviting Jesus into your heart.”  It is this moment of accepting Jesus that marks when one becomes a Christian.  And at the end of time, on judgment day, God will save Christians from the eternal punishment that all of us, as sinners, supposedly deserve.

This is the most common understanding of what it means to be saved. It may or may not be the most complete or correct understanding. But when the question is asked, “Can God Save Non-Christians?” what is meant is usually “when someone dies who isn’t Christian, whether that’s someone of another faith or no faith, can God spare them from eternal punishment, can they go to heaven?”

Now I want to point out that this is merely one understanding of what salvation may mean.  And there are some larger problems with it.  The Bible speaks with different voices and images of what the endgame of Christian faith is.  Certainly, there is language about an afterlife and places called Heaven and Hell. The Bible also talks about the Kingdom of God being already among us, but not yet complete, and that it is this here and not yet here but coming Kingdom that encompasses salvation. Other places in scripture talk about a new earth at the end of time, not an otherworldly afterlife.

Within the next few months, we’ll be doing a sermon series on different Biblical understandings of salvation, the kingdom of God, the afterlife, revelation, and the ultimate end for Christians. But for this morning’s purpose, let’s stick with the typical understanding of being saved, so we ask will only Christians be spared an afterlife of eternal punishment or separation from God, or “Can non-Christians be saved?”

And again, I assert that our particular Christian tradition answers that with a solid “yes.”

In a 2002 PC(USA) study paper entitled “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” the following is written:

Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, for “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” [Ephesians 2:8]. No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.

“we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”

“we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith.”

Essentially, the authors of this paper fall back on a fundamental Presbyterian belief found in scripture, that God is 100% in charge, God is the ultimate power in all creation, and God can do whatever God wants to do. So, if God wants to save non-Christians, then God absolutely can.

But far be it from me to have anyone take the word of a committee, even though we Presbyterians love our committees, let’s go to the biblical understanding that underlies our answer.

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ*—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.


For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing”

 Let me give you one piece of background on the book of Ephesians that is important to our message this morning.  This letter is attributed to Paul, but most scholars today believe that it was writing after Paul’s death, most likely by a student of Paul or a follower of Paul’s theology.  One of the reasons biblical scholars think this letter is not from Paul, as well as several other supposedly Pauline letters in the New Testament, is because of the shift in the understanding of Jesus’ return.

In Paul’s early letters Paul writes as if Jesus will be returning to gather his followers within his lifetime. He writes as if he and the other early Christians will still be living when Jesus returns.  But in these later letters, there is an understanding that Jesus hasn’t returned as thought and that it may be a while.  So while Paul seems to assume that Jesus will be coming soon, and who is saved and who isn’t will be pretty clear before too long. These later letters assume that it could be a long time before Jesus comes and resolves these questions, so there is more attention placed on who is saved and how we are saved.

So in this passage from Ephesians,  the author makes pretty clear that being saved is nothing that we do, and has everything to do with God’s action.

“for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing”

 This is not your own doing. That’s pretty clear, but early in the passage it is even more clear.  The passage begins by saying “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.”  “You were dead.”  If we were dead, and God gave us new life, then we didn’t do anything to deserve it, earn it, or bring it in any way, shape, or form to us.  Now, often Christians want to nuance this by saying, sure, we didn’t do anything to earn or deserve God’s grace, all we have to do is accept it. But even accepting it is doing something, isn’t it?

The writer of Ephesians says that we were dead in sin, can dead people accept gifts?  Imagine someone swimming at the ocean. He is out in the waves and a big one sweeps him under and he loses his breath, inhales a lungful of water and goes unconscious.  Fortunately, there’s a lifeguard on the shore who sees this and she swims out and reaches him just in time.

Imagine if the lifeguard said to that unconscious person, “I need you to swim back to shore, please.” Does the lifeguard wait for the person to accept help? No, the lifeguard brings him back to the shore, with no help or assistance from the unconscious person.  When the lifeguard gets to shore, does she say, “Sir, I know you’re unconscious but I need you to start breathing please?” No, she begins mouth to mouth resuscitation and gives him new life with her own breath.

This is our understanding of how God saves. It is not our own doing. There is no God’s part and our part. There is just God. We were dead to sin. Dead people don’t help the doctor.  Richard Carlson, a New Testament professor at Lutheran Seminary, looks at the grammar of this passage to make this point. He writes:

"You have been saved by grace." Here the Greek use of a passive, perfect periphrastic participle bears comment. The use of the passive voice underscores how we are totally passive when it comes to being saved. God's grace has accomplished our salvific reality. The use of the perfect tense and periphrastic participle emphasizes the duration of our being saved. It was accomplished in the past and remains our reality into the coming ages.

 Ok, I admit, one reason that I read that was just to say, “passive perfect periphrastic participle.”  But the point he is making is that the tense of the Greek indicates that our being saved happened a long, long time ago, and that it is ongoing into the far future.  Our being saved, happened before we could ever have anything to do with it.

Martin Luther, in a debate with the great humanist, Erasmus, illustrated this idea another way. Erasmus pictured God’s rescue like this. It was like a mother helping a baby learn to walk. She holds the baby’s hand, steadies the baby’s little body, let’s the baby take a few unsteady steps, and then catches the baby when she falls. No, said Luther, with characteristic bluntness, it was like a caterpillar surrounded by a ring of fire. God reached down and plucked the helpless creature from certain death.

So, we don’t do anything to deserve, earn, or receive our salvation. It is by grace, it is completely not our doing. And so, if God can save us independent of our belief or actions, then why can’t God save anyone else, even non-Christians, independent of their beliefs or actions? This is why we say, yes, God can save non-Christians.

Now here’s the catch, just because God can does not mean God will or has to. Remember the excerpt from the study paper:

we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith.

God is sovereign, God’s in charge, we don’t determine what God must or mustn’t do.  In fact, we try to stick to the things that we know about God and what God wants from us. Another passage from the Hope in Christ Alone study paper reads:

Christians find parallels between other religions and their own and must approach all religions with openness and respect. Repeatedly God has used the insight of non-Christians to challenge the church to renewal. But the reconciling word of the gospel is God’s judgment upon all forms of religion , including the Christian. The gift of God in Christ is for all. The church, therefore, is commissioned to carry the gospel to all, whatever their religion may be and even when they profess none.

“The church, therefore, is commissioned to carry the gospel to all, whatever their religion may be and even when they profess none.” Just because God can save non-Christians, we are not relieved of our call to share the gospel message of love and justice with others. There is a strong Biblical message that says the job of Christians is to be bearers of good news throughout the world. We are to talk with people about our faith, sharing what God means to us, wanting others to experience the blessings and joys of faith that we have experienced.  It may be possible that there are other paths to God that we don’t know about. But as long as we do know about the path that Christianity shows us to God, we are called to invite others to walk that path with us.

Here’s how I like to think of it.  When I met my wife, Carrie, in seminary. Her parents, Richard and Nancy, lived in Ashland, KY. Her dad was serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ashland.  We would visit them in Ashland with some frequency, and eventually we were engaged and got married in Ashland. Ashland is right off of interstate 64 where Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia come together, it’s on the bank of the Ohio River, and it’s in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, and it’s quite confusing to navigate in. 

Most of the roads don’t go straight, but wind through the foothills. I grew up in Iowa. It was flat and most of the roads were in a grid, so when this midwestern boy was dropped in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, I got lost pretty easily.  But eventually, I learned how to drive from Carrie’s parents’ house to downtown. And I was pretty proud of myself.

But then Carrie would say, “There’s a faster way if you go down this street.” Or “If you’d like there’s a neat way to downtown that goes by the hospital…”  And each time I would say, “No, thank you. There may be faster ways. There may be better ways. But there is one way I know, and I know it will get me to where I need to be. I will stick with that.”

I think this is how we can approach Christianity. Our faith is a path to God, it is a path to salvation.  There may be other paths to God, there may even be better paths to God, but this the one path we know of, and we know it will take us where we need to go. So rather than speculate on other paths that may or may not lead to God, we are called to share the one path we know for certain does lead to God.

So, can God save non-Christians? Yes. This is one of several reasons that we are called to treat other faiths and people of other faiths with respect. But this doesn’t lessen our call as Christians to share, with respect and love, that path that God has shown to us.

Simple Questions. Simple Answers? Is Science the Enemy of Faith?

From August 20, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

For the next three weeks we are going to be looking at three questions. Three simple questions, at least simple in the terms that they are brief, and only require a yes or no answer.  Today, “Is science the enemy of faith?” And then in the following weeks: “Can God save non-Christians?” and “Will God forgive me for anything?”

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I think it’s important to ask these questions and answer these questions. Why? Because these are questions that some people outside the church are asking. Often assuming the question has already been answered. “Why do Christian think science is bad?” “Why do Christians think God will punish everyone but them?”

Millions of people assume they know what you believe, what I believe, simply because that’s the impression they get from other Christians.  If we don’t actively engage and correct these misperceptions, then we encourage them. I want to share with you a story about Jenny, a member of a church in Arizona.  It’s told from the perspective of her pastor, Eric Elnes. It beings with Jenny saying something a little odd to her pastor.

“I’m tired of being a Christian butt,” Jenny exclaimed with obvious exasperation.

I thought this was rather unusual language coming from a high school choral director and member of my congregation in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s not her choice of words but the sentiment that surprised me. In the past few years, I have only seen Jenny get more excited about her faith, not less. When Jenny first cautiously started coming to my church, she had not actively participated in a church for over twenty years.

She considered herself “spiritual but not religious.” “I have a problem with organized religion,” she had told the friend who originally invited her. “Not to worry,” her friend said. “My church is more like disorganized religion. [Through her involvement in the church Jenny had] her personal “Great Awakening” about Christianity. Since that day, she has been like the Energizer Bunny of spiritual exploration and discipleship. She has rarely been immersed in less than three or four small groups. She has helped with our teen mentoring program and assisted in our outreach to homeless families. Jenny almost never misses a Sunday worship experience and sometimes helps lead it.

So you can imagine my surprise when Jenny used Christian as a modifier for butt. “What do you mean by that?” I asked. “I mean,” she replied without hesitation, “I’m tired of having always to qualify the word Christian when I tell people I’m going to church. I might as well say I’m radioactive. They get a surprised look on their face and say, “Not you, Jenny. You don’t seem like the Christian type.” So I find myself throwing in more and more buts all the time: ‘I’m a Christian, but . . . but . . . but . . .Why should I have to explain to people, ‘I’m a Christian, but I don’t think [people who are gay] are evil.... I’m a Christian, but I believe women are equal to men . . . but I’m concerned about poverty . . . but I care about the earth . . . but I don’t think people who believe differently from me will fry in hell for eternity . . .’?”

If we ignore these questions and aren’t proactive in asking and answering them, then we may simply remain a “Christian, but.”

So let’s dive into the first simple question: Is science the enemy of faith? In 2011 the Barna Group published the results of a study surveying young adults about their perceptions of Christianity and the church. 3 out of 10 young adults feel that that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in.”  1 out of 4 young adults believe that “Christianity is anti-science.”

Are you familiar with the “Jesus fish?”  How about the Darwin Fish?  How about the Truth fish eating the Darwin fish?

Is it any wonder people think science and faith aren’t compatible. So let’s put this to rest right now. Is science the enemy of faith? No. No, science is not the enemy of faith. Not in any way shape or form.  But don’t trust my word, let me walk you through a Presbyterian understanding of faith and science.

Let’s start in the beginning, literally in the beginning with Genesis 1:1.

1In the beginning when God created* the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

Our understanding of faith and science is rooted in Genesis. In the belief that it is God who created the universes, it is God who is the power behind all of creation. Now in the Presbyterian church, we don’t necessarily mean that God created the universe in six 24 hour days, or that the earth is only 6,000 years old. We understand that in Genesis, what we are reading is a poetic origin story, not meant to teach us scientific cosmology or scientific truth, but a different kind of truth. Truth about God.

And we believe that these truths are complementary not oppositional. We see science as running parallel, alongside theology.  That is to say, that theology is a way of talking about God, a way of trying to learn more about God, about us, about God’s world and the relationships between God, us and the world.  What is God like, what are the characteristics of God, what kinds of things does God do.  Who are we? What did God make us for? How does God expect us to act in the world?

For centuries in the Christian church, science has been seen as answering a different set of questions, but still related to God. Randy read from Psalm 19 a moment ago:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.

A Christian understanding of science understands the knowledge and discoveries learned through science illuminates the universe created by God.  So the more we learn through science about the world, nature, the universe, ourselves, the more we learn about God.  Think of it like learning about an artist by viewing and studying their artwork. By examining their handiwork, the techniques they use, the subjects they paint or draw or sculpt, the materials they employ. All of those things give you clues to who the artist is.

From early on in Christian history, the Bible was not seen as the only source of truth given to us by God.  In the 5th century, there lived a man named Augustine. He was a theologian and writer from Northern Africa, and one of the most influential people in church history.  He cautioned Christians not to elevate claims about the natural world found in Scripture above human reason and experience. He was worried that doing so would make Christians appear ignorant, and cause people of faith to be scorned and laughed at.

John Calvin, one of the most influential theologians in our Presbyterian tradition, taught that reason, mathematics, and science were gifts from God bestowed on us, and to not use them would be a slap in the face of God.

More recently, in 1947 the Presbyterian Church put out a paper on science and faith in which they said:

There is no conflict between religion and science.  Each new discovery demonstrates the infinite wisdom, logic and consistency of the omnipotent Creator. 

A Presbyterian paper from 2016 says:

Scientific inquiry to date has provided descriptions and ever more profound understandings of the scope of God’s creation in space and time.

We have a long Christian tradition of valuing science as a God-given source of truth to which we are called to apply our God given minds, and powers of reason and observation.  But, it would be dishonest to say that the Christian church and even the Presbyterian church has always lived up to this.

You may remember that the findings ofGalileo and Copernicus were both denounced by many Christian authorities, including the Pope, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.  They all felt that the finding that the earth revolved around the Sun, that the earth was not the center of the universe, was heretical and must be wrong because parts of the Bible indicate that the sun and the heavens rotate around the Earth.  As Martin Luther said in reference to Joshua chapter 10, where God, working through Joshua, stopped the sun in the sky: “He ordered the sun to stand still and not the Earth.”

More recently in Presbyterian history we have William Jennings Bryan, most famous for arguing against the teaching of evolution in the Scopes “Monkey” trial.  Bryan was a Presbyterian elder, who almost became moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly. In his time as a Presbyterian, he tried to get the denomination to cut off funds to schools that taught evolution.

We’ve had a long history of respecting science as a partner to faith and theology, but we have not always lived up to that ideal.  As Presbyterians, we not only believe that science informs our faith, we believe the reverse is true, that Christian faith can inform science.  Not in the sense, that the Bible teaches scientific truth, but in the sense that science needs moral and ethical guidance and constraints, and that theology and faith can be a valuable conversation partner in this area.

Have you ever seen Jurassic Park? It’s the movie from several decades ago where someone thinks it’s a good idea to take DNA from fossils and use it to bring back dinosaurs.  What could go wrong?  There’s a famous line from the movie, spoken by Jeff Goldbloom’s character:


It is common sense to most people that just because science has enabled us to do something, doesn’t mean we should do it.  Swedish Fish flavored Oreos, may just be evidence of that (confession: I think they are kind of tasty).  How to use what scientific discoveries make possible, is not a question that can be answered through science alone.  Science created the atomic bomb, but science couldn’t tell us when to or not to use it.  Science has enabled us to live longer, and prolong death in new and unheard of ways. But science cannot tell us whether life is worth preserving at any cost, or with extraordinary measures, or when quality of life should be weighed against length of life.

Surely Christian faith is not the only source of wisdom in these matters, but for the millions of Christians around the world, our faith must not remain silent in these matters.

A 1982, Presbyterian study paper state:

Theology and natural science though oriented to different “objects”—theology to God, science to nature—have common concerns. If they are to be effective and directed rightly, they ought not only recognize one another’s importance, they ought consciously to be in dialogue with one another and even depend upon one another.

Furthermore, as Christians we are obligated by God to use our minds, our intellects, scientific pursuits and discoveries, to serve God and the world as best we can.  In Genesis, God gives all of creation to the care of humanity, and to ignore what science tells us about caring for our environment, is to turn our back on how God created us and what God created us for. To deny the truths found in science, that help us to exercise care over creation, is like being given a shovel to dig a hole and deciding to use our hands instead.

To recap. Science is not the enemy of faith. Christians can and should embrace the knowledge and truths science bring us to help us serve God and others as best we can.  What we do with the capabilities that science provides is a question that science alone cannot answer, and should be determined by moral and ethical considerations, which Christian faith has a lot to day about.

I want to close this sermon with a short video from Mayim Bialik, who you may know as Amy on the Big Bang Theory, or Blossom from years ago. She is an actor, but she also has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and a self-described “Modern Othodox Jew.”    In this video she talks briefly about her thoughts on faith and science.

I’m with her. Understanding that there is a force that underlies all of this “beautiful chaos” and understanding the proper relationship of faith and science makes me a better Christian and a more complete person.

Is sciene the enemy of faith? No.

Half Truths: Love the sinner. Hate the sin.

From August 13, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons


We’re on our final week of our Half-Truths series. This series is based on a book by Rev. Adam Hamilton called Half-Truths. In this series we are looking at common sayings that are often associated with Christianity and said by many Christians. And at first, they may sound OK, and we often mean well when we say them. But when we look a little closer we realize that these sayings aren’t as true or as Christian as we first might have thought.  The final saying we are looking at today is “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.”

This weekend, as I watched the news out of Charlottesville, I debated writing a completely different sermon for this morning. When neo-Nazis and KKK members are marching in broad daylight on the streets of America, their words and actions filled with hatred and racism, then there is the need for the word of God to be heard.  When people are killed and injured by an act of domestic terrorism for the world to see on TV. The church should not remain silent.

So yesterday, I wrestled with whether I should throw out what I had written and instead devote this sermon solely to what is taking place in Charlottesville, and what it says about what is taking place all over America. But in the end, I decided to mostly remain with my original sermon. I did this for two reasons.

First, I was unsure that I could come up with the words needed to theologically address the events taking place in Charlottesville. Like many of you, I am still trying to make sense of what has taken place, and how God is calling us to actively engage in opposition to hate, racism and white supremacy. The second reason that I stuck with this sermon is because I think it does speak, in several important ways, to the events of this weekend.  We need to be talking about love. We need to be talking about sin. We need to be talking about hate.  And it’s more important than ever, that we speak loudly of love and tread carefully when talking about hate, sin and sinners.

Love the sinner. Hate the sin.  It sounds Ok, on first read.  How can it be bad to love anybody?  And doesn’t it sound really Christ-like to love sinners? And shouldn’t we hate sin? Especially if we think of sin as things that we do that hurt ourselves, others, or hurt God.

The phrase is not in the Bible, though.  It is thought to have originated with St. Augustineseveral hundred years after Jesus.  In one of his letters he called for early Christians to have a “love for mankind and a hatred of sins.”  Over the ages, this saying has appeared in various forms, but they all mean basically the same thing.  If we know of someone who is sinning, we should continue to love them as a sinner, but hate and condemn the sinful actions they do.  And this does sound true, right?

Never stop loving someone no matter what horrible things they’ve done.  But here’s the catch. Rarely, are we ever able to contain our hatred only to the sin. Ghandi once spoke about this saying: “Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.”

Love the sinner. Hate the sin. If we practice this, we end up focusing much more on sin and the label of sinner, much more than we focus on love.  Jesus never said love the sinner. Jesus said love your neighbor.  Jesus knew that if he commanded people to love the sinner, they would begin looking people more as sinners than neighbor.

Think about it. If I said to you right now, I want you to love everyone sitting here in the congregation today, especially those who have been recently diagnosed with a highly contagious form of smallpox. Are you going to focus on loving your neighbor, or on who looks a little under the weather today.

Love the sinner. Hate the sin, doesn’t lead us to love, instead it leads us immediately to a place of judging who is a sinner and what sins are they guilty of.  Love the sinner. Hate the sin, is often used as code for saying “I judge you. You are a sinner, you should be ashamed that you do _____, but even though I am better than you, I will love you anyway.”

This is a good time to read our second scripture this morning. Because it addresses this very topic.

Luke 18: 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

In Jesus day, the Pharisees were Jewish authorities, who by all accounts, should be considered as righteous. They strictly lived their lives according to proper Jewish laws. And to many who first head Jesus tell this story, they would probably agree with the Pharisee’s self-assessment. He was a righteous man, especially when compared with the tax-collector.  The tax-collector would have even agreed that the Pharisee was more righteous than he was.

But in a twist at the end of the story it is the tax collector who is justified by God, and not the righteous Pharisee.  Seminary professor, David Lose says this about the story:

Here is the essential contrast. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord's benevolence. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn't so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.”

What matters to God in this story, and in our own lives, is not who is righteous, but who is judgmental and who is not. Not who lives a so-called perfect life, but who realizes their dependence on God and that righteousness is a gift from God and not our own doing.

So coming back to Love the sinner. Hate the sin. The problem with this saying is that it focuses us on the sins of others, on judgment of others, rather than on our own sin and being honest about where we are with God.  Love the Sinner. Hate the sin, at its heart focuses on the sins of others and our judgment of them.

In the Half-Truths book, Adam Hamilton tells this story about Billy Graham:

Some time ago I read an interview with Billy Graham’s eldest daughter, Gigi. She was her father’s date to Time magazine’s seventy-fifth anniversary party, a banquet in Washington, DC. President Bill Clinton spoke at the event. He had just been impeached by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice. The charge of perjury involved what President Clinton had said, under oath, about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. At the banquet, her father sat with President and Mrs. Clinton. He was warm and gracious to them. After the dinner ended and Graham and Gigi were riding back to their hotel, the two discussed difficulties the president and First Lady were going through with so many people gossiping and judging. Gigi said her father’s simple comment was, “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict; it’s God’s job to judge; and it’s our job to love.”

It is our job to love. Not to judge. It is our job to love.  When we label someone as sinner, we stop seeing the person and we start seeing the sin. Our job is not to convict but to love.

Should we keep silent about the problem of sin? Of course not. There are absolutely times when Christians must stand up and name sin and evil for what it is.  This moment in the life of our country is one of those times.  We must name hatred, racism, white supremacy, and the failure to condemn them as sin.  Any Christian who engages in actions or rhetoric motivated by hate or racism, has ceased to represent Christ. Any Christian who remains silent in the face of racism and hatred, will have to answer to God for their complicity.

But we must resist the urge to judge and label those protestors in Charlottesville simply as sinners or to think of them as lesser people, not as holy and righteous as we are.  Our job is not to convict but to love. In fact, Adam Hamilton says:

The truth in “Love the sinner, hate the sin” stops with the first word: Love.

Let me ask you this. Where have you most often heard the phrase Love the Sinner, hate the sin, used? I have most often heard it used in terms of homosexuality. For those Christians, who believe that Bible says that homosexuality is sinful, this verse has been used to explain how someone can condemn a large part of someone’s identity while still claiming to love that person. Ask someone who is gay, ask someone who is transgender, ask them if they feel loved by people who say love the sinner, hate the sin.

When we use this saying we are first and foremost defining that person as a sinner, rather than as someone we love. Furthermore, as you heard Kelsey read from Matthew, we should not be judging other people, we have enough sin in our own lives that makes us liable to judgement.  The only person we should label as sinner is ourselves. Love the sinner, hate the sin should be rewritten and we should instead be saying, I love you, even despite the fact that I am a sinner.

·         Everything happens for a reason.

·         God helps those who help themselves.

·         God wont’ give you more than you can handle.

·         God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

·         Love the sinner. Hate the sin.

Five half-truths. So if I have done my math correctly, that makes 2.5 whole truths. And isn’t that better than no truth?  If there is some truth to these why do we really need to be worried about saying these things? If we mean well, isn’t that enough. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. The reality is these half-truths can hurt people who need hope and healing. These half-truths can be destructive to someone in a time of need. These half-truths can discourage people and turn people away from God and Christianity.

And even more importantly, why would we give someone a half-truth when we could give them the whole truth of a God who loves them and is there to support and guide them every step of the way.

I am indebted to Rev. Adam Hamilton and his Church in Kansas that made the inspiration for this sermon series available to other churches and preachers, and so I’d like to close with his words today:

I’d like remind you of the “whole truths” we found behind the half truths we have rejected. We reject the idea that everything that happens is God’s will. Instead we say that whatever happens, God is able to able to work through it, to redeem it, and to bring good from it.

We reject the idea that God only helps those who help themselves. We recognize that God expects us to do what we can to help ourselves. We pray and we work. But ultimately the very definition of grace and mercy is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

We reject the idea that God won’t give us more than we can handle. This is partly because we reject the idea that whatever adversity we face is given to us by God. What we do believe is that God will help us handle all the adversity life will give us.

We reject the idea that every verse of Scripture should be read, out of context, as the literal words of God. Instead we recognize that the biblical authors were people, influenced by God but not merely stenographers. Like all of us they were shaped by, and responded to, the historical circumstances in which they lived. And thus we believe that, when they are rightly interpreted, God speaks through the words of Scripture in order to teach, guide, shape, and encourage us.

Finally, we reject the notion that God calls upon Christians to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” When we choose to focus on the sins of others and speak of hating their sin, we violate the words and spirit of Jesus. Paul calls us to hate our sins, and Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, all of whom are sinners. When we demonstrate love and not judgment, we draw people to Christ rather than repel them from him.




Half Truths: God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

From July 30, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

We’re on the home stretch of our Half-Truths series, where we look at sayings that are commonly associated with Christianity, often said by Christians, but when we examine these sayings we find that they aren’t quite as true or as Christian as they appear.

This morning, we are looking at “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

And when we look at this saying at face value, I’m tempted to call it a whole truth. Taken simply, it’s hard to argue with. God said it. I believe it. That settles it.  In the Presbyterian tradition we place a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God.  God is the ultimate power in the universe, the ultimate authority. God is our creator and the power and force within and throughout creation.  So if God speaks, then who are we, who is anyone, to contradict God.

Furthermore, we believe that because of sin, because we are imperfect people, that are judgment is off. It’s not completely gone, or unreliable. But in our tradition we believe that we will make mistakes, we will choose the wrong course of action, believe things that are lies.


So if God says something, if God who is supreme tells us something, then we have no standing to say that God is wrong and we are right. God said it. I believe it. That settles it.  It’s kind of like parenting.  I think there comes a time for every mother, for every father, when they tell their child to do something. The child responds with, “Why?” and we could go into the details about why that’s the best thing for them to do right now, and eventually they will see that even if they don’t know. But instead when they say, “Why do I have to do that?” we respond with, “Because I said so.”

Now, I will be the first to admit that there are times when I have said that and it is simply because I didn’t want to argue, I said it just to end the discussion. But often for parents, we say that because we have years of experience and knowledge and living and we can see that what we’ve asked them to do is the best thing for them, but there is no way we can convince our children of that.

So when a mother tells her son “Because I said so” what she means is you’ll have to trust me and my authority that this is for the best, and someday you will understand why getting a tattoo of Rihanna on your face isn’t a great long-term decision.

In that sense, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” expresses something we need to keep in mind. As Christians there should be time where our Christian faith corrects us.  There should be times where our natural instinct or decision is to do or say one thing, but when we think about how our faith guides us, we reconsider and change our course because of what God wants for us. 

I’ve always liked this Peanuts cartoon, because I think it expresses a fundamental posture that Christians should take.  “Has it ever occurred to you that you may be wrong?”  We should constantly be measuring and adjusting and correcting what we do, what we say, how we spend our time and money, based on what our faith teaches.

When God speaks, we listen, and we obey.  So God said it. That settles it. I believe it.  How can that be a half-truth?  I want to suggest to you that while the plain statement may be more true than not, how we use it often renders it half true (or less).  So how does this get used?

If you are visiting today. If you don’t know much about Christianity and Christians, I want to let you in on a little secret. Sometimes Christians disagree with one another about matters of faith.  There are times when we don’t see eye to eye on something, when well-meaning, faithful and intelligent questions disagree on matter of Christian practice or doctrine.

It can be about how we worship, God and politics, family life, marriage, abortion, capital punishment, or a whole host of other things. Many times, Christians discuss these differences well. We listen, we try to understand where the other person is coming from, we listen to how their experience and understanding of God and the Bible led them to believe what they believe. Other times, we trade talking points, sound bites, and Bible verses back and forth without really listening. And at some point, someone gets frustrated and says something like, “Well, that’s what the Bible says, and so I guess you don’t believe in the Bible.” Or “I’m sorry if you don’t like what Scripture says, but it’s right there on the page.”  Or “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

And that’s meant to be the end of the conversation. We’ve gone to the Bible and so there is no more room for discussion. But what if that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.  Watch this video from Rachel Held Evans:

The Bible doesn’t always speak with one clear voice. How many thousands of Christian denominations do we have, that read various parts of the Bible differently? Now we are at the heart of the matter, how do we read the Bible?  How can Christians disagree on what the Bible says? Isn’t God’s word written clearly and simply in the pages of scripture? Don’t we just have to read it, believe it, and that settles it?

Well, let’s get to our second lesson for today.  This is from Mark chapter 2, and we join Jesus and his followers on the Sabbath.  The Jewish Sabbath was a day of rest, instituted by God at creation in Genesis chapter 1, further rules for the Sabbath were written in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  And one of the biggest prohibitions for the Sabbath was work.  It was well understood that God had said that no work whatsoever was to be done on the Sabbath.  Food would be prepared ahead of time, just to avoid the need to get a meal ready this breaking the commandment not to work on the Sabbath.

Mark 2:23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’25And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

Jesus is walking through the fields on the Sabbath, and he and his followers travel they pick grain to be used in their meal later.  Tending to crops, picking food, that was work. That was a clear violation of what was laid out in Scripture.  Or so it was thought. But Jesus offers a different interpretation of scripture, or possibly even a contradiction of scripture. He goes back to the creation story and says that God made humankind first and the sabbath second.  He even references yet another part of Scripture were King David also went against “What God had said.”

Jesus does this in Matthew. He expands on scripture, reinterprets it when says a series of statements, “You have heard it said,” and then he quotes Jewish scripture. But then he says, “But I tell you,” and he offers a new interpretation of Scripture.

A simple fact of the Christian faith is that every Christian interprets scripture.  No one reads the Bible literally.  Jesus said things like “If your right eye causes you to sin then pluck it out.” “If you want to inherit eternal life you must sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” Paul said that women should remain silent in church, not braid there hair or wear gold jewelry. How many Christians do you know that take all those literally?  I don’t know of any.

We all interpret scripture. So the problem with God said it. I believe it. That settles it. Is that the “God said it” part just isn’t that straightforward. 

Some Christians have the idea that the Bible is God’s words dictated exactly to the authors.  But in our tradition we believe that the Bible is inspired by God and God’s interactions with God’s people, but not God’s exact words.  In our tradition we take the Bible seriously, but not literally.  We don’t ask people to believe in the Bible, we ask people to believe in the God that the Bible points to. 

So “God says it. I believe it. That settles it,” is only a half-truth, because first we have to spend time, and study, and prayer figuring out what God says, what the Bible says.  And there are a number of ways of doing this, but in our Presbyterian tradition we do have some guidelines that we follow.

When determining what God is saying through scripture we always approach the Bible seeking to be guided by God’s Holy Spirit.  Before every scripture reading in worship we offer a prayer for illumination. We understand that God did not stop speaking when these words were written 2000 years ago. God is still speaking and can speak to us and through us.

We also believe that scripture is best understood within a community. As we study scripture together and seek to hear from the Holy Spirit, we understand more clearly if we can bring multiple voices and perspectives to the Bible.

When looking at a particular Bible passage we also following the guideline that scripture interprets scripture. We don’t isolate a verse of the Bible and hold it up as true if the rest of Scripture says otherwise. Paul says women should be silent in church, but throughout the Bible women are raised up as teachers and leaders of faith. Jesus does this. He did it in our passage from today, he referenced the creation story, and the story of King David.

We study scripture in its historical context.  We understand that the Bible was written thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away.  It was set in a different culture and context. When Paul writes that slaves must obey their masters, we don’t take that literally, we realize that Paul was speaking in and to a different society.

There’s at least one more very important guideline for understanding scripture, and I want to go back to Rachel Held Evans to hear more about it.

When we study scripture to determine what it says for us today, how it should guide us and correct us, we interpret everything through the lens of Jesus and the rule of love. We always ask how does this particular interpretation of Scripture align with Jesus’ teaching and ministry?  And will this interpretation bring about actions of love?  If a particular interpretation of scripture brings harm or hatred, can it really be from God?

God said it. I believe it. That settles it.  True at first reading, not so true as most often used. What if we reword it just a bit?

God speaks in many ways.  Through love and prayer we do our best to listen and believe.  We settle on our best understanding of God but remain open to God expanding or even correcting our understanding.

Not as catchy is it? Hard to fit on a bumper sticker. But as we heard earlier, the Bible shouldn’t be used to end conversations, but to begin them. God’s word to us is not an end to an argument, but an invitation to deeper understanding and knowledge of God and of one another.

Half Truths: God Won't Give You More Than You Can Handle

From July 23, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

This is week 3 of our series on Half Truths, where we are looking at sayings that Christians often say, and that many think are found in the Bible, but when we look a little closer we learn they may not be as true or even as Christian as we first thought. This series is based on Rev. Adam Hamilton’s book Half-Truths.  We’ve talked about “everything happens for a reason,” and “God helps those who help themselves,” and this week we are tackling “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

With each of these sayings, I’ve begun by acknowledging that many of us may have said this before, and when we have we mean well.  Often we might say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” to someone who is dealing with a lot of adversity. Maybe one hardship piled on top of another. And what we mean when we say it, is something like, “You’re strong. You’re touch. You can do this. You are up to the challenge. You will get through this.”

And there is nothing wrong with want to be encouraging, wanting to give someone hope in tough times.  Isn’t it natural to want to tell someone that “this won’t defeat you, this won’t overwhelm you. God is in control still and he loves you and wouldn’t allow you to be defeated by this.”

There is even some scriptural support for this.  1 Corinthians 10:13

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

“God is faithful and will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” That sounds similar to “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  So let’s explore this verse a little bit more. It was written by the Apostle Paul to the Christian church in Corinth a couple decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Corinth was a crossroads, Corinth was a very cosmopolitan town, with lots of activity and lots of people from different places and backgrounds.  The people there would have been labeled pagans in New Testament times, meaning they weren’t Jews of Christians.

The Corinthians would have worshipped a host of various gods and goddesses, and in a host of various ways. Idolatry, drunkenness, temple prostitutes.  It is these “pagans” that make up the first Christian church in Corinth, and in following Jesus they were called to give up their former religious practices.  The problem was, that they were tempted just by being in Corinth, where all these practices were still happening. So these early Christians struggled with sexual immorality, gluttony, drunkenness.

It is this situation that Paul is addressing.  In the Half-Truths book, Rev. Hamilton writes:

The context for this verse in 1 Corinthians is self-discipline in the face of temptation with the hope of avoiding sin, particularly the sins of sexual immorality and idolatry.

 Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians that their experience is not unique. Just as the Israelites were tempted, so too the Corinthians will be (and were being) tempted. In fact, we’ll all be tempted. Jesus himself experienced temptation. This passage is not about God declining to give you more burdens in life than you can handle. It is about God helping you when you are tempted…Temptation is indeed a test of your resolve, your character, and your faith. And that is what Paul is talking about here—not about adversity and the difficult circumstances that come into every life at some point.

There is something Paul is saying in this passage, but there are at least two things Paul is not saying. 1) Paul is not addressing tragic circumstance, hardship we may face, loss, pain, suffering. Paul is addressing temptation to former practices that are sinful or otherwise destructive. 2) Paul is not saying that God is authoring all sorts of hardship in your life. That God is making bad things happen to you. Paul is not saying “everything happens for a reason.”

When I was in middle school and high school, I was very involved in my youth group, it formed me in some very important and positive ways. But I also received some messages about Christian faith that weren’t so helpful. One of those messages is that God uses trials and tribulations to strengthen and refine us. Like a blacksmith who purifies a metal by heating it in the forge and then hammers out a strong tool through brute force. I was told that the hardships we may face could be God refining us and strengthening us.  There are several problems with that that we could go into, but let’s just say for now that metal doesn’t suffer or feel pain, and God doesn’t treat us like objects.

That’s not what Paul is saying in this verse. Paul is saying temptation is real. That we are tempted to do things that are not good for us, or others, or often both.  But those aren’t tests from God. There aren’t from God, usually they are from ourselves, right?

This past week we were having waffles for dinner, and we realized we were missing a key ingredient.  Chili.  Ok, when we have waffles we have several different kinds. Just plain waffles, sometimes with chocolate or butterscotch chips, topped with bananas, but we also have chili waffles.  Trust me, it’s good. But anyway, we didn’t have any chili so I ran to the store to get some.  Like many of you, I’m on a constant quest to improve how I eat. And I knew going to the grocery store at supper time, when I was hungry, was not a good time to avoid temptation. So I resolved going in that I was just coming out with a can of chili, and nothing else. And so I came out with a can of chili, and this box of Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tarts.

God didn’t put this box of Pop Tarts into my life to test me. God wasn’t sitting around saying, “War, poverty, racism, greed, what should I be doing now. Oh! Shawn’s going shopping, quick get the Pop Tarts!”  I was the author of my temptation. And God had already given me what I needed to avoid it.  Now that was a small temptation, right?  And unfortunately, we are all at one time or another, prone to giving into bigger temptations, with more drastic consequences than a few calories.

We may be tempted to drug or alcohol abuse, cheating at school infidelity, self-harm, dishonesty at work, silence or apathy in the face of injustice. But when we are tempted to these destructive choices, God has provided us with a way out.  Paul is saying that we are not on our own in the face of temptation, even if it doesn’t feel like it we have a choice of what to do next.

Let’s face it. There will be times where it feels like we have no choice, like we are powerless to choose what’s healthy for us and that the destructive choice is just too strong. But even in those moments God gives us an alternative. Sometimes that only choice we have is to ask for help. To admit that we cannot help ourselves and that we need God, we need someone else to help us in this moment.

Unfortunately, asking for help is often portrayed as a weakness, isn’t it? We want to be self-sufficient, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  But there are times in our lives where asking for help is the bravest thing we can do.  Go to any Alcolohics Anonymous meeting, or Narcotics Anonymous, or Gamblers Anonymous. Every person there began their road to recovery by admitting they needed help, and coming to that group asking for help.

In our scripture lesson from Luke, Jesus says, ask and it will be given to you, everyone who asks shall receive!  This passage is preceded by a story about a man who needs something late at night and he goes to his neighbor’s house and bangs on the door. The neighbor doesn’t want to help him at this late hour, but ultimately can’t refuse such a need.  Jesus says that if even that neighbor can grudgingly help, imagine how ready God is to help you, God who loves you.

We all need help at various times in our lives, and God wants us to ask for help. God wants us to cry out in prayer for help, but God also wants us to turn towards each other. We are here as God’s answers to prayer. We are here to help on another. I received a phone call last month from a woman who wasn’t a Fairview member, but she wanted to talk to a pastor because of the hardship she was facing in her life.  I listened as she described the challenges she was facing, and at a later point I suggested that she may want to talk to a trained counselor or a therapist. She replied that she didn’t need that, because she had God.  So I asked her, if God’s help was all she needed then why did she call me?

God has put us here for one another, from the very beginning. Remember the second creation story. God forms Adam out of the dust, breathes life into him, and then says “it is not good for him to be alone.”  We were created to help each other.

Adam Hamilton writes:

I remember a conversation on this subject with a woman who told me, “For years this statement helped me when I was facing difficult things. I kept telling myself that God wouldn’t give me more than I could handle. It reassured me that somehow I was going to make it through. Then one day I was at my therapist’s office and mentioned it to him. He laughed and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Surely you don’t really believe that. I can tell you plenty of stories about people who had more than they could handle. In fact, my profession consists of helping just such people.’ ” The counselor reminded the woman that in her own case, she had come to him because the emotional pain and difficulty she was facing had been more than she could handle. In addition, the woman’s mother had committed suicide because life had become more difficult than she could handle. At first, the woman was angry that her therapist had called her belief into question. But the more she reflected on their conversation, the more she concluded that he was right.

We will face adversity in our lives. We will experience hardships. We, or someone we love, may face terminal illness. We may struggle with debilitating depression or suicidal thoughts or grief so heavy that we feel we’ll suffocate. We may walk through financial circumstances where it seems there is no way out. If we are like most human beings, at some point we absolutely will face things that are more than we can handle. The promise of Scripture is not that we won’t go through hard times. . . . What Scripture does promise is that at all times, good or bad, God wants to be our help and our strength.

It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.  That’s an important message. I think it’s so important that I want you to take it home with you. As you leave today you will find a card that you can take, and put it somewhere that you will see regularly. In your car, by your toothbrush, in your purse or wallet, on the back of your phone.

And one last word I’d like to give. It’s possible someone is sitting here today, and feeling like they absolutely have more than they can handle. If that’s you, if you are facing a challenge that has overwhelmed you. Addiction, financial difficulties, relationship challenges, depression or other mental health issues, grief, pain, whatever it is. Please, ask for help. You can start this moment by asking God for help, but don’t stop there. Talk to someone, talk to a friend here this morning, talk to me, a teach, a family member, a therapist. God has put people in your life already that can help you.

It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Preached on July 16, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

We are on our second week of the “Half-Truths” series where we are looking at sayings that are commonly associated with Christianity and said by well-meaning Christians. But when we look closer at these sayings we find that they may not be as true or as Christian as represented.  Last week was “Everything Happens for a Reason” and this morning we are moving on to “God Helps Those Who Helps Themselves.”

In a survey done by the Barna Group, eight in ten Americans responded that they were pretty sure that “God helps those who help themselves” could be found in the Bible, and more than half of the people responding were strongly convinced that this was a major message found in Scripture.  In fact, the saying pre-dates much of scripture and can be traced back to Greek mythology five centuries before Jesus.  It’s been used by a number of people throughout the ages but possibly made most famous by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac.

It’s probably a saying that a number of us have said at one point or another, and often what we mean by it is that you can’t sit back, be lazy and expect God will take care of everything for you.  If you want a job, then put together a resume, get out there and start applying for jobs, don’t just hang out at home, pray for a job, and then hope the phone will ring with a job offer. God helps those who help themselves.

When we say this, we sometimes mean don’t offer prayers to God for something unless you are also willing to work for it to.  Sometimes God answers prayer by saying, I’ve given you the brains, the strength, the resources to attain what you are asking my for, so get to it.  I came across this story on Facebook one day:

I dreamed I was face to face with God, and so I asked God, “There’s so much suffering in the world, so much poverty, so much violence, racism and sexism. People are treating each other so horribly. God, why don’t you do something about it?” Then God looked at me and said, “That’s interesting. I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

Adam Hamilton, in his book “Half-Truths” which this series is based on writes:

We don’t sit around waiting for God to miraculously right the wrongs in society. As Scripture reveals over and over again, God works through people. We are the instruments God uses to change the world. Our times of prayer are meant to empower us for and guide us into action. Those who fought for civil rights did not simply show up at church and pray; they prayed and then marched, knowing they were likely to be beaten and arrested but that God would somehow see them through.

But then what about people who seem incapable of helping themselves. Who seem, for any number of reasons, helpless to get out of a situation? What about someone trapped in circumstances that have gotten out of control?  Will God help them?  Just a moment ago, Steve read from Psalm 18.

The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help…He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me.

That sounds to me like someone who is unable to help themselves. So what does God do? Say to them, well you got yourself there and you’ll have to figure how to get yourself out?  No, God reached down from on high. It says “God delivered me from my strong enemy.”  Think about that wording. God delivered me. Delivered. I have an image of a UPS driver delivering a package.  Does the driver get help from the package?  Does the driver only deliver those packages that help deliver themselves?  No. If God delivered you then you were passive in that rescue. God delivered you because you couldn’t.

Let’s turn now to the Gospels and see if Jesus only helps those who help themselves.  We’ll be reading from Mark 5:1-13.

They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes.* 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain;4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus* asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits* begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

We have a man here in the grip of demonic forces. Trapped by forces beyond his control. These forces are making him do strange and destructive things. Things that no person in their right mind would do by choice.  Here is a man in need of help when he cannot help himself.  Today we have people in the grip of forces beyond their control. People in need of help who cannot help themselves. People trapped by poverty, war, violence, racism, sexism.

And while we may admit that people are mired in circumstances too deep to get out of on their own, sometimes we want to nuance a little bit and so we may say a version of “God helps those who help themselves.”  “God helps those who don’t get in that kind of trouble in the first place.”  We go beyond saying use what God has given you to help yourself, and we move on to labeling people, judging people, to implying that they have made choices that have led them to a place where they may not deserve God’s help.

We say “God helps those who help themselves” but what we mean is that you made your bed, now lie in it!  You made some bad decisions and now you deserve what’s coming to you, you don’t deserve God’s help.  So we see someone homeless on the street asking for money, and we question whether they truly deserve our help or God’s help because surely they must have done something to get there. They didn’t work hard enough, they did drugs, they spent excessively.

I think at the heart of this is hopefully a simple desire for God to be fair.  We want God to be fair, at least what we see as fair. We want people who do good things to get good things, and people who do bad things to get bad things.  To borrow from another faith, we want karma.  Is it do bad to want God to be fair?  Maybe not, but be careful.  This idea that God is fair (by our definition) can expose a deeper unhealthy belief. George Barna writes that the “God helps those who help themselves” belief “exposes our theological cornerstone - that we are the center of all things, that it is up to us to determine our destiny, and that God is merely our assistant, not our foundation.”

This belief can allow us to labor under the illusion that you and I have earned every blessing God has given us, while others are not as hard-working as you and I, and they are probably on divine welfare.  Surely, we deserve every last blessing and help God has given us, we have done no wrong, but others… But if God is truly fair, the real possibility is we might get what we deserve and not what God has blessed us with.

I don’t think we can impose our idea of fairness on God.  God is not fair, at least not if being fair means being unmerciful, or even being without grace.  Jesus didn’t ask the man possessed by demons how they got there. What did you do to deserve this? You know, if you somehow invited them in then you don’t deserve my help.  No, Jesus helped him.  I don’t remember a single story in scripture where Jesus pre-screened somebody to see if they deserved help. What did you do to become sick? What bad choices did you make to become hungry?

Jesus didn’t ask those kinds of questions.  He did just the opposite, in John 8 Jesus comes to a woman accused of adultery, the Pharisees, stones in hand, are ready to convict her and punish her according to the law.  Did she deserve help?  Fair is fair, right?  She sinned so she must pay the price. She was helpless, defenseless before the law, but Jesus helped her even when, especially when, she couldn’t help herself.

This concern for those in need defined Jesus’ ministry. It defined Jesus. Really, this is a fundamental characteristic of God, this is what defines God isn’t it?  God helps those who are in a hole so deep they can’t get out. That hole can be poverty, racism, war, violence, but like the woman sometimes we dig ourselves into a hole, and even still God comes to us.  Adam Hamilton again. He writes:

Thankfully, the idea that God helps those who help themselves does not capture the truth of the Bible. Sometimes we can’t help ourselves, not because we are poor or destitute or without resources but because we have descended too deeply into sin or despair. God is the God of the hopeless cause, the God who loves sinners, the God who walks with us through the darkest valleys. He is the God who brings light into our darkness and helps us find peace amid our times of anxiety and despair. God rescues, redeems, and forgives. We receive blessings from God even though we cannot earn them and don’t deserve them. Even when we have made a mess of things and can’t fix them, God extends mercy to us. There’s a word for God’s mercy toward those who cannot help themselves. We call it grace.

This concept of grace is central to the Christian gospel. It is the undeserved work of God in our lives, the unmerited favor of God. Grace is not something we earn, buy, or work for. We cannot help ourselves into grace. We can only ask for and accept it. The essence of grace is that God helps those who cannot help themselves!

The core message of our faith is that God helps those who cannot help themselves! Paul writes in Romans that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.  Not when we had gotten our act together, or when we had taken the first step and God was sure we were really trying.  God looks on those who are most helpless and has mercy on them.  God is judge, but God is a merciful judge.  Much like Judge Frank Caprio of Providence in dealing with a woman and a number of overdue parking tickets. Let's take a moment to watch Judge Caprio (

Rev. Adam Hamilton again:

There are times when we can help ourselves, and we should. God is counting on us to do the best we can—to pray and to work. There are times when people cannot make it on their own, and God prompts us to help. We become the hands of God. We become God’s answer to someone else’s prayer, God’s instruments of grace.

But you will find, if you haven’t already, that a time will come when you cannot help yourself. There are things from which you simply cannot save yourself, no matter how hard you try. You will not have the strength or the resources or the knowledge. And there may be times when you don’t believe you deserve help because you know you are responsible for the difficult situation in which you find yourself.

In those moments, we cry out to God, the only one who can help us. And despite the fact that we are poor and pitiable, weak and afraid, and that we have made a mess of things, God reaches out and picks us up and makes us clean. God says, “I love you and will not abandon you. Put your trust in me. Together we can make this right.” This is the message from God that we find over and over again in Scripture.

“I am here,” says God. “You matter to me. Your life has meaning. Nothing, no matter what you may have done or been unable to do, can separate you from my love.”

Half Truths: Everything Happens for a Reason

Rev. Shawn Coons
Preached on July 7, 2017

All through the month of July and into August we are going to be looking at a series of “half-truths” that are often said by Christians.  These particular half-truths are coming from a book by Adam Hamilton, called Half-Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say.  And each week we will explore one of these half-truths and we will try to find the truth in it, as well as explore what may not be so true about it.

Before we go further though, I want to say that the goal of this series is not to offend anyone.  Chances are many of us, myself included, have said one or more of these half-truths at some point.  And I know that when we’ve said these things we have meant well.  So I’m not saying that if you’ve said one of these you are a bad person. Not by any means.

But it’s important to talk about these half-truths, even if it makes us a little defensive or uncomfortable.  If you do feel a little unsettled, that’s OK, I promise that we will all get through this together.  So why is it important to talk about these?  Why is it important to label as half-truths things like:

  • Everything happens for a reason
  • God helps those who help themselves
  • Love the sinner, hate the sin

It’s important because even with our best intentions, saying these things can potentially be hurtful.  It can be harmful. It can wound people in their hour of need, and can turn people away from God and Jesus.  So we’ll be looking at these half-truths, for the truth that is there and the truth that isn’t. And we will ask questions as to how true they are and indeed how Christian they are.

We are beginning with “Everything happens for a reason.”

I’m guessing we’ve all heard this said at some point, or even said it yourself.  We usually say it at the point when something bad has happened, when someone is suffering, and we are trying to help them through a difficult time. We might say, it was meant to be, it must have been there time, it was God’s will, it was all a part of God’s plan.

And we say these kind of things at moments of loss, because we want to affirm that even in tragic circumstances God is in control, that if this awful thing happened then God must have a greater purpose in mind. When tragedy strikes we want to know that even when we are riding through the storm and the waves are threatening to overturn the ship, we want to know that indeed the captain is at the helm and the captain is keeping the ship on course.

It is perfectly natural and understandable to look for God’s strong and loving hand guiding things in our darkest hour. But let’s look a little bit closer at “Everything happens for a reason.”

Let’s ask this question: Does everything happen as part of God’s plan, and is that plan immutable, set in stone?  This is the fundamental question, if the answer to this question is “no,” we can’t trace everything that happens back to God’s immutable place, then everything does not happen for a reason, at least not a reason according to God’s will.

Try this exercise to answer this question.  Watch the evening news one night, and after every story, shootings, war, famine, terrorism, say out loud “Everything happens for a reason, that was part of God’s plan.”

How does that feel to you?

When Carrie and I were serving our church in Florida, there was a 4 year old boy named Mitchell who lived a couple blocks from the church. His family weren’t members, they didn’t come to worship, but Mitchell often came to our Wednesday afternoon children’s program.  One Halloween, Mitchell and his mother were crossing a busy street to get to the Methodist’ church Trunk or Treat event, and a car hit them and killed Mitchell.

Mitchell’s funeral was at our church, and I spent a lot of time with his family during this awful time.  I heard things like, “I guess God needed another angel.” “It must have been Mitchell’s time.” And other versions of “Everything happens for a reason.” I have a hard time believing any of those.  I don’t believe God causes four year old children to get killed. I don’t believe God causes anyone to be killed.

If “everything happens for a reason” as part of God’s plan than God is responsible for tragic death’s like Mitchell’s, for war, for famine, for the holocaust, for terrorism. And I don’t think that sits well with any of us. And I don’t think it lines up with our experience. Nor does it line up with the whole witness of Scripture.  Let’s read a passage from Genesis 2, from Adam and Eve, and see how this helps us this morning.

4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

This is from the second version of the Creation story that we find in Genesis. And here we see one of the very first things that God does with Adam. God creates Adam, creates the Garden of Eden, puts the forbidden “tree of knowledge” there and tells Adam not to eat from it.  And then God gives Adam one more thing. God gives Adam a choice.  To obey or to disobey. To choose life or choose death.

If everything happened for a reason. If everything was part of God’s unchangeable plan, then there is no choice in this story is there?  God would have had to have made Adam eat the forbidden fruit as part of God’s plan. If everything is a part of God’s plan, than we have no free will, we make no true choices. Everything we do, everything we say, every action we take, every choice we make, has been pre-determined by God and we are just going through the motions. “Everything happens for a reason” not only means that God is the author of all evil acts, but it also means that we have no free will.  It takes away personal responsibility from you and me.

So we said this is a half-truth, so you may be wondering where is the truth in “everything happens for a reason?”  Let’s talk for a moment about the concept of God’s sovereignty.  What does sovereignty mean in this case?  YOU are probably familiar with the word sovereign.  It simply means the boss, if someone is sovereign it means there is no higher authority.  In our Christian tradition, the sovereignty of God is important. We don’t believe that anyone has power over God, or that anyone can control God or have more control than God. 

And so when we say “everything happens for a reason” it is a way of affirming God’s sovereignty.  God is still the ultimate authority. Not the powers of hate or violence or death. God is supreme.

So if God is supreme, is sovereign, and bad things happen, but God doesn’t cause them to happen, then who does?

There are a couple ways Christians answer this questions. One way is to say, yes, everything happens for a reason and often times that reason is that we are stupid people who make bad choices.  Much of the suffering and pain in this world we inflict on one another.  That’s not a part of God’s plan, it’s part of ours.

We read the beginning of one of the Creation stories in Genesis, later on in that same story God speaks to Adam and Eve and tells them that they are the caretakers of the Garden, of Creation. They have dominion (authority) over it.  God remains in charge, sovereign, but delegates responsibility for taking care of things to humanity. And further more, God gives us all sorts of instructions and guidance for how to choose the right thing to do.  But time and time again, just like Adam and Eve, we choose the wrong and someone gets hurt.

Well, does that mean that God handed the keys to the shop over to Adam and Eve and then checked out? Are we on our own, God created everything but then like an absentee landlord left us to our own devices?  There’s a fancy name for this way of thinking about God, it’s called Deism. It was pretty popular with a number of America’s founding fathers. In Deism, we sometimes call God the “Watchmaker God.” God creates the world like a watchmaker would create a watch. He gets it running, winds it up and then leaves to let the watch run on its own.

In our tradition, we reject this idea that God is no longer here. We believe God does not abandon us. So now we’ve said that God doesn’t control and script every last thing as part of an eternal, unchangeable plan. And we’ve rejected the idea that God got creation started and then went on vacation.  So if God doesn’t control us and God isn’t hands off, how do we understand how God works in the world in our lives.

Ray Firestone lost his wife in a car accident, and he often shared this quote that guided him:

Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”

God is present at all times, and through all circumstances, and even when tragedy strikes, maybe especially when tragedy strikes, God is with us and can bring healing and comfort, and in time perspective and maybe new insight.

My mother died three months ago.  I don’t believe God gave her cancer as part of God’s plan. I don’t believe God took her because it was her time.  But I do believe God was part of the closeness and love I shared with my mother and the rest of my family in her last days.

Think back to the most painful times of your life.  With time can you now see God working through the tragedy? Not causing it, but coming to you when you are vulnerable and in need. Lifting you up, teaching you compassion, showing you love.

One final story, and I apologize that I’m hitting you with tragic ones this morning, but this is another story of a lost child.  Todd and Kathy were parents to three year old Austin, when he died. It was a horrible time for them, but through it all their faith in God emerged stronger.  This is Kathy’s thoughts on how their faith was strengthened:

At the time I had had people tell me that it was Austin’s “time,” and I was having a hard time believing in a God who would plan to take my child at age three. I learned that tragedies weren’t necessarily part of God’s plan, but that God gave us free will, and that bad things sometimes happen. Understanding this helped me to turn to God instead of away from Him. . . . Since Austin’s death, I believe that my faith has grown and continues to grow. His death changed the way I view God and my faith. I no longer have a naive, childlike faith where God protects you from all harm and makes everything OK. It’s a deeper faith that has been tested through tragedy. I know that God doesn’t promise me a pain-free life, but He does promise to always be there to love me, comfort me, and guide me.

Does everything happen for a reason?  That’s not what our faith teaches us. Does God have an immutable plan that scripts everything, good and evil, that will ever befall us?  No.  But I do believe that God has a plan, and that plan is to love us and be with us, no matter what.  And that plan is a promise, now and forever just as the Apostle Paul wrote to the church of Rome:

5Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor 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. 

Room at the Table


Sermon preach on July 2, 2017 by Rev. Shawn Coons

On June 26, 1997, the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published, and for millions of readers around the globe found a collection of books and characters to enjoy and grow up with.  Our family enjoys Harry Potter.  Even before we had kids, Carrie and I were Harry Potter fans.  I remember when the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out. I went to Barnes and Nobles at midnight to pick up two copies, so that Carrie and I could both read it at the same time, and I stayed off the internet for the whole weekend while I finished the book so that I could avoid any spoilers.

If you are unfamiliar with the books or movies, the story follows a group of young students as they attend a Hogwarts, a boarding school for young wizards.  One of the things I like about the books is how each year at school begins.  The very first night that the students arrive they meet in the Great Hall of the school.  This is a huge and impressive room with stone columns and an expansive ceiling enchanted to look like the night sky.

In the Great Hall are several long rows of tables at which the hundreds of students sit at while the headmaster of the school gives some opening remarks about the upcoming year.  Usually his words are brief and then he invites the students to “dig in” and enjoy their dinner.  At that moment the tables, which have formerly been barren, magically become loaded with steaming plates of turkey, ham, potatoes, vegetables, breads, desserts, and a variety of other wonderful delicacies.  It is a feast that could probably feed thousands, which appears out of thin air

It begins with a crowd of hungry people, and no food to be seen. It ends with everyone getting more than enough with food left over.  Very magical if we are still talking about Harry Potter, or very miraculous if we are now talking about Jesus feeding the 5000.  In our passage from Matthew this morning, there is no mention of magic (or house elves for that matter), but the events of this story are astounding and certainly out of the ordinary.  As the story begins Jesus has just heard the news that John the Baptist, his cousin, has been killed by Herod.

Matthew 14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.


The story begins with Jesus hearing the news of John the Baptist’s execution. When Jesus hears this he gets in a boat alone and tries to go somewhere where he can be alone.  But people in the area find out where Jesus is heading and a great crowd goes ahead of Jesus to meet him at his destination.  At a time like this we could certainly understand if Jesus wanted to get back in his boat and try to get away from them, but he doesn’t.

The Bible says he has compassion on them, even during his own grief, and he goes among them and heals those who are sick.  He apparently spends almost all day doing this, because eventually evening rolls around and people are starting to get hungry.  The disciples get a little worried because there is no way they can feed this crowd of thousands, so they ask Jesus to send the crowd away.  But Jesus basically says to them, “No, you feed them.”  I’m sure at this point the disciples are a little bit perplexed.  They ask around and come up with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Not a lot of food.  If you want to get exact, according to one minister this would be about five servings of about 650 calories per serving, including 55 grams of fat, 130 grams of carbs and 35 grams of protein.  Not quite enough for a crowd of 5000 men, plus several thousand women and children.

But this doesn’t stop Jesus.  He takes the food, blesses the fish and bread, breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples who in turn give it to the crowd and everyone eats until full.  Does this sound familiar to you?  Specifically does this language sound familiar to you?  Does it remind you of anything else Jesus did?  Jesus took the bread and fish, gave thanks for it, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples.  In just a few moments I’ll be standing at the communion table saying “On the night that Jesus was arrested, he took bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples…”

What Jesus does in our passage from Matthew this morning is very similar to what he does during the Last Supper.  In fact, the author of Matthew uses the exact same verbs to describe each event.  Take.  Bless.  Break.  Give.  It’s almost as if this story is supposed to make us think of communion.  Well, I think that’s what the author of Matthew intended.  As we read this story, it is supposed to bring our hearts and minds to the communion table.  Let’s look at some ways that this story helps us understand communion.

On the day that Jesus and the disciples fed that crowd of thousands the Bible tells us that Jesus walked among the people.  Jesus was there, present with them, not just standing in front of them speaking to them as a crowd, but he was in the midst of them.  Talking with this woman over here, healing a man over there, greeting a young girl, meeting a small boy.  Jesus was really present to the people on that day.

As Presbyterians, when we celebrate communion, we believe Jesus is really present, and not in a sentimental “Jesus is always in my heart” kind of way.  As we share the bread and the cup during communion, Jesus is here with us.  Really here!  We don’t believe that communion is just a symbol.  We don’t believe it is just a fancy way to remember Jesus.  We believe something happens as we come to the Lord ’s Table.

Now unlike certain traditions, we don’t believe that the bread and the wine (or in our case juice) becomes the physical body and blood of Christ, but we do believe that the real spiritual presence of Christ comes to us in the mystery of communion.  When I first heard that phrase “the real spiritual presence of Christ” I wanted to know exactly what that meant.  Precisely how is Jesus here with us?  What takes place in the blessing of the bread and wine?

Unfortunately, it isn’t something that we can really understand or articulate fully.  It’s not like we can say Jesus is here in spirit, standing right over there, or that Jesus manifests himself in this specific way.  But what we can say is that Jesus is present to us in communion, here in a way that is real and that is unique to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  As sure as Jesus walked among a crowd of hungry people 2000 years ago, Jesus is present in the breaking of the bread.

To understand something else about communion, I want us to try to imagine the mood and atmosphere on the day that those thousands of people were fed.  At first there was probably some tension in the air.  This crowd of thousands probably came looking for Jesus for a number reasons.  Some of them wanted to be healed, others may have wanted to hear him teach, and some may have just wanted to see the man so many people were talking about.

I would imagine, by the end of the day, the mood there was pretty joyful.  Jesus has spent a good part of the day meeting people, talking to them, and healing them.  Then just when they think the day is over, Jesus and the disciples give them a huge meal to eat!  This is cool!  I’m imagining a huge outdoor picnic with people talking, children playing, and lots of laughter and smiles all around.  I am sure if first century Israel had Frisbees™, there would be several of them flying around.  It’s a big party!

This is one image of what communion is supposed to be like.   It may be hard to tell from taking communion at many churches, but communion is referred to as the Joyful Feast of the Lord.  There is a reason that we usually say that this morning we will be celebrating communion.  But, somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten this.  Communion today in most churches is solemn, quiet, and serious.  There doesn’t seem to be much room for joy or laughter or a smile.

But that isn’t how communion is always supposed to be.  Communion doesn’t just look back to Jesus time on earth 2000 years ago, it also looks forward. When we take communion, we are not only remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection we are celebrating the day when we will all sit down at the heavenly table in the Kingdom of God.  And you better believe that that’s going to be one rockin’ party!  Communion is a celebration of the children of God coming from all different places to be united in Christ and be in fellowship with one another.

Let me tell you about one of the most meaningful communion experiences I was ever a part of.  It was at an event called the Massanetta Middle School Conference.  It was at the end of a four-day camp and I was in an outdoor auditorium with a couple dozen adults and several hundred 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  We were having our closing worship service and the minister went forward and presided over communion in a manner you and I are familiar with.

He prayed, he said the words, “On the night Jesus was arrested…”, the whole liturgy you have probably heard before.

And then he looked at us and said, “the gifts of God, for the people of God.”  At that moment, the first notes of an upbeat rock song by the group U2 started playing loudly from the sound system. A cover of Woodie Guthrie’s, “They Laid Jesus Christ in the Grave.”  And then we all got up from our seats and literally danced down the aisle to take communion.  It was great!  It took a while for everyone to be served so while we were waiting we continued to dance and clap and celebrate the joyful feast of the Lord.  It was truly amazing.     

Now when we celebrate communion here in a little bit, I’m not going to ask anyone to dance down the aisle, but I will ask you to reflect on the joy that Christian fellowship brings and if I see one or two of you smiling a little bit, it’s OK!  Jesus commands us to “Do this in remembrance of me,” but what we need to keep in mind is that we aren’t remembering a loved one who has died and is no longer with us.  We are remembering the risen Lord Jesus Christ who is alive and among us today!  Communion isn’t a wake, it’s a celebration dinner where Jesus is the guest of honor.

The final thing that we learn about communion from this story is that everyone is invited and everyone is involved.  I would imagine that the crowd gathered on that day was a motley crew.  There were probably all sorts of people there.  Men, women, young, old, Jews, Gentiles, rich, poor, Israelites, foreigners and all manner of folk.  So when dinner time rolls around, the disciples look out on this mass of people and decided that they needed to go somewhere else.

In 1995 a small piece of satire in Sojourners magazine described the scene this way.  "Apparently, biblical scholars funded exclusively by the Christian Coalition now feel that, for their own good, the 5,000 should have worked for that food instead of depending on an overly generous Messiah. Scholars are convinced that the disciples--the first shareholders in the kingdom of God, if you will--probably tried to stop Jesus from creating a culture of welfare among his followers. 'Oh sure, Master. Today you feed 5,000, then what? Feed 10,000 tomorrow? Look, just give back [the fishes and loaves], make your speech, and let's get out of here.”

But Jesus has a different plan.  Jesus looks at the crowd and sees God’s children, every last one of them.  Jesus knows that God doesn’t turn anyone away.  And so, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “No.  You give them something to eat.”  Jesus doesn’t agree with the disciples wishes to send the crowd away, and he doesn’t just disagree with the disciples and then miraculously feed the crowd by himself.  He makes the disciples get involved.  He makes them a part of the celebration.

I don’t have much more to say in this sermon because this final point really gets at the heart of what communion is.  Everyone is invited and everyone is involved.  There isn’t anyone who isn’t welcome at God’s table and everyone invited is also called to be involved in helping to serve the meal to others.  When we sit at the table with each other and with God we are fed, and in being fed we are nourished, and in being nourished we are strengthened to go out and bring others back to the table for the next joyful feast.  This morning let us all come to the Lord’s table with hearts of joy and lives ready to be strengthened for God’s service.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One God, Mother of us all.  Amen.

"Yes, And..."

Sunday, June 25th, 2017
Psalm 100, Genesis 18:1-15
Rev. Carrie Smith-Coons

yes and

Today is my last Sunday with you all as one of your pastors.  I’m sad about that.  I will miss being in ministry alongside you, and I’ve felt very honored to be part of your lives for the last five years.  It’s been a pleasure to get to know many of you more, and to discover Fairview’s many unique gifts.

I have appreciated this call as a co-pastor, and I’m grateful you all took a chance on Shawn and me together.  I will miss working alongside Shawn. That has been a joy and a gift – he has many skills and gifts I don’t, and I’ve always loved that we complement each other that way.  However, I’m very glad he will continue with you all, and I feel confident that as you move into this new visioning phase, he brings many skills that are important for that task.  And I trust that you’ll support him as he makes a difficult transition into being a solo pastor.

This is not the last Sunday I’ll ever see you, and I’m glad for that.  As I’ve said before, usually when we’ve ended a pastorate, we’ve moved out of state, and so I’m grateful to stay here in Indy, with folks I’ve grown to love, and I’m glad I’ll continue to see what Fairview’s future holds.

So, let’s move from me, to what we pray will be God’s message to all of us this morning.

I’ve been thinking about some things these past few weeks that I’d like to share with you, and I’d like to set the stage a little before we read our next scripture lesson - and I really do mean “set the stage.” I’ve been reading a series of articles about improv, and about how improv has some things to teach us about our faith.

How many of you know what improv is?  Have any of you actually done improv? 

Improv is short for “improvisation,” or improvisational theater, and it’s entirely  unscripted.  So everything is off-the-cuff, spur of the moment.  There’s no planning ahead, no cheat sheet, no one whispering your lines from the wings.  If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, then you’ve seen improv.

So, one person will start a scene, and the other people in the skit just have to go with it.  They have to take whatever they’re given and improvise.  No one ever knows quite what will happen; sometimes things go well, and sometimes NOT so well.

However, even though it’s unscripted, there are actually several very clear rules for how you should go about doing improv. 

Tina Fey is a comedian you may recognize from Saturday Night Live, or multiple movies and TV shows.  She explains the rules of improv in her book Bossypants.  She writes,

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas!” . . . then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

 . . . The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah...” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

Don’t say “No.”  Say “Yes, and . . .”  Build on what you’re given.  Trust that something good will come out of it.

Improv is supposed to be funny, but the rules of improv can challenge us in good ways with our life, and, I think, also with our faith.  What do we do – and what do we believe - when our life challenges us to improvise?

How good are you and I at responding – when something comes along that we don’t expect?  Do we protest, and stop in our tracks?  Or do we trust that we and God together can bring something good out of what happens next?

Hang on to these ideas a moment, and let’s think about them in the context of our scripture reading.

This morning we have part of the story of Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham and Sarah are two of the matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith.  They will become the ancestors of the Jews and eventually the Christians. 

But at the point where we find them today, Abraham and Sarah are pretty ordinary people, who’ve been doing an extraordinary thing.  They’ve left their home without really knowing what’s next.  Back in Genesis chapter 12, God simply told them “Go.”

 “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

Abraham and Sarah are really living out their faith in an improvisational sort of way, because they’re figuring it out as they go along.  All they have is their trust in God’s promise of land and children – and so far, neither have happened.

This story happens about midway through their lives and their journey, and it’s been many years since those first promises. 

Genesis 18:1-15

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Sometimes God shows up in almost playful ways.  Here we have three strangers who turn out to be God’s angels in disguise.  The book of Hebrews in the New Testament talks of this moment, and says that we should never neglect our own duty to welcome the stranger, because you never know when it might really be God. 

But what has always stood out for me in this story, and what stands out for many people, is Sarah’s laughter. 

She hears she will have a baby, and she can’t keep the emotion in:  she laughs out loud.  There’s no clear sense here whether or not she and Abraham knew these were divine visitors, although by the end, her fear indicates that maybe she’s caught on.  At first, we just hear her pure reaction to their conversation.

So her laughter might have been cynical at first, or it might have been a laugh of wonder . . . or laughter mixed with tears.  But what we definitely hear is her protest.  “You say I’ll have a child, BUT I’m too old, and my husband is old.  It’s impossible.”

Sarah is living a certain narrative.  She has a certain view of her life and her husband Abraham’s life, and that view does not include children.  That possibility is no longer on her radar.  Her reaction is understandable, and maybe we GET it – because that kind of reaction is something we’ve had ourselves at some point in our lives. 

We start out thinking we’re going one direction, and then something happens to change it.

And it could be a good thing – like, “Honey, we’re pregnant!”

Or it could be a bad thing.

·         “Your furnace is completely dead.”

·         “You have cancer.”

·         “I’m sorry, but we have to let you go.”

·         Or here at church, “Our membership is still shrinking.”

It’s not what we planned.  And often, it’s not at all what we wanted.  And our instinct is to answer with a “no.”  We know we’re supposed to trust God in all things.  We know we’re called to be patient, and see how God is at work.  But we’re not always ready to accept things as they are.  So, we hit a full STOP.  We protest.  

But let’s go back to our improv challenge.  Sarah has broken the first rule of improv, right?  Instead of accepting what’s being said, and agreeing with it, in order to build on it, she stops the conversation it its tracks.

God has started a conversation, but Sarah isn’t ready to continue it.

God . . . ends up being much better at improv than Sarah is.  God says, “Yes, you’re older now . . . AND watch what happens next!”  God refuses to stop the conversation going forward.  God’s grace and love are too big for that. 

And not long after - 9 months or so, if we want to get technical – Sarah does give birth to a baby – a son, and his name is Isaac, which means “laughter.”  There’s that wonderful rhetorical question the three angels ask, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

God keeps the conversation going.  God keeps moving, and working, in Sarah and Abraham’s lives.

 . . . How often do you and I respond as Sarah did, at least at first?  How often do we put a period where God puts a comma?  How often do we refuse to build on what we’re given, because it’s not what we expected?  And we dig in our heels, and refuse to see possibilities - and we say “no”?

We can take a hint from improv.  We can choose to live with an attitude of “yes . . . AND” – with an attitude of openness . . . and hope . . . and a belief in God’s grace and ability to work with us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

You could argue that improv actually isn’t going into a situation totally unprepared. It’s actually going in ready for the unexpected.  We can choose to go through life realizing that things will happen that we didn’t prepare for, but trusting that we’ll find your way through, with God’s help.

·         Build on what you’re given.
·         And trust that God is with you in whatever unfolds next.

I will be improvising and trusting God in this coming year, as I leave my position here with you all and take a chaplaincy residency at St. Vincent’s Hospital. 

It’s not necessarily what I planned, five years ago.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not good.  That decision required me to acknowledge that things had to change.  It required me to accept that one thing was ending and say “yes” to the possibility of a new thing beginning . . . and to trust that God can work through both.

So, YES -  I’ve had a wonderful five years with you all, AND – God’s not done with me yet.

And what about you?

Where are you being invited to faithfully improvise in your life? 

Is it possible for you to say YES, to acknowledge the reality of whatever situation you find yourself in . . . AND to trust God is working with you as you move forward?

Is it possible for you to say:

YES, God didn’t show up quite the way I wanted AND YET– I see God at work even in this difficult time I’m going through . . . or in the friendship that’s sustaining me now . . . or in the job that came along instead of the one I expected. . . or in the love of my family.

What about our church?

Between staff changes, and the New Beginnings process we just went through . . . and the dialogue and learning we still need to have, things are in the process of changing and shifting.  And each of you is invited to be part of it. 

And you can say “no” – you can STOP the dialogue. 

·         Or you can say, “I’ve already done my part.”  Because you’re tired.
·         You can say, “yes, those are nice ideas, but they just won’t work . . . and here’s why.” 
·         Or you can say, “YES, these things are important to talk about, but I just don’t have time to help.”

All of those are ways of saying NO, right? 

And you can do that.  But then the collaboration stops.  The movement forward stops.  And when our own dialogue stops, it also becomes harder and harder to dialogue with God.  We can shut the movement forward down.

Or you can choose an attitude of openness.  Trust that God is still speaking – that God has ideas for you, and for Fairview – that God is at work here.  You can expect laughter, and grace, and possibility.

Don’t be too quick to end the story, to make conclusions, or cut off conversation.  Be aware of ways in which you stop possibilities from emerging – with others in the church, with God, within your heart.  How can you say, and practice, “Yes, and . . .”

So, YES . . . our staff and budget have shrunk over the years – AND – we still have a lot of assets, in money, location, and especially our people. 

YES, we are a small church, AND God can do amazing stuff with small things. 

YES, we are in a time when fewer and fewer people are coming to church, AND that’s just more people to tell about Jesus.

YES, we don’t know our next step yet . . .  AND God’s not done with us yet.

YES, there are and still will be times of discouragement, AND we are people of resurrection HOPE.

God is not done speaking yet, in your life, in our lives, in the life of Fairview.  WE must not be done with responding yet.

And so I charge you to be a resurrection people, a people who continue, over and over, to live with faith, and joy, and excitement . . .  to see what comes along in your lives and in the lives of the community around us . . . and say, “YES, here we are . . . AND let’s see now what God can do through us!”

And I give you these words, from St. Francis, and may they be both a charge – a call to action – and our prayer together:

May God bless you with discomfort
with easy answers and half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that you will live deeply
and from the heart.

And may God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people,
so that you will work
for justice, freedom and peace.

And may God bless you with tears to shed
for those that mourn,
so you will reach out your hand to them
and turn mourning into joy.

And may God bless you with just enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you will do those things that others say
cannot be done.



Hearing from our neighbors

At our annual Fairview Fish Fry we invited people to write a brief prayer on a ribbon and connect it to the prayers of others.  Lots of prayers for peace, the neighborhood, our nation's leaders, and for loved ones.

We also asked people what Fairview could offer that they might be interested in.  75% of people responding chose "Meet your neighbors of different race, ethnicity, and gender identities" followed closely by "Meet your neighbors of different faith backgrounds."

"Faith topics: life after death, prayer, caring for God’s creation, etc." were chosen by about 25% of people responding.

Story Time - Sermon - May 14


There’s something compelling about a good story, isn’t there? Who’d have thought that a good story could come out of a 50 second video about a goldfish? I’ve been thinking about story this week, and spent some time looking at short stories, and I mean really short stories.  There are a number of 1 minute stories on Youtube like the goldfish one. But there are even shorter stories. Carrie clued me in to two sentence horror stories. Like this one:

 I begin tucking Johnny into bed and he tells me, “Daddy check for monsters under my bed.” I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another Johnny, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.”

That’s pretty good for two sentences.  But when I think of compelling and engaging short stories, one that I think of is from the Pixar movie Up. In the first ten minutes of the film the story is told of Carl and Ellie, who meet as kids and grow old together as husband and wife.  The power of their story brings you from laughter to tears in mere breaths.

There are things that get communicated through story that can only be communicated through story. I think this is why the central book of our faith is primarily a book of stories. The Bible begins with a story of how God created the world, in Christianity our two holiest days are Christmas and Easter, the story of Jesus coming into the world and of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Stories abound in scripture.

Today for our NT passage, we are reading another story, and this is a story about a man who tells a story.  We’re going to read from Acts 6:8-7:1 and it picks up with a dispute among Jews, between Jesus’ followers and mainstream Jewish authorities.

6:8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit* with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ 

12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth* will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 

7:1 Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are these things so?’ 

I ended the passage here because what happens next is Stephen begins to tell a long story of the Jewish people, starting with Abraham, the Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and his journey to Egypt, the Hebrew people’s slavery in Egypt, Moses, the Exodus, through Joshua and through David. It’s a long story, an entire chapter of the Bible, a long chapter, 60 verses. 

And what happens when Stephen gets to the end of his story?  The Jewish authorities are outraged with what Stephen has said, and they kill him.  What’s going on here?  Let me suggest that if Stephen wasn’t such a good storyteller, they may not have killed him.  There was a power in Stephen’s story that moved the people who was telling it to to violence.

Stories are powerful. Story can communicate in ways that explaining cannot.  I can tell you to give to help people in need, but if I tell you the story of someone who is struggling it’s going to register with you more.  We’ve all experienced this, but it’s been studied as well. Let’s just say your listening to a me explain scientific facts about storytelling, or to a PowerPoint presentation about it, bullet points and all.  There are parts of the brain that get activated at moments like that – parts that process language, where we decode words, but there’s not a lot else going on in the brain when someone is simply explaining facts to us.

But if we are listening to someone tell a story…the language processing part of our brain is active, and so are other areas depending on what’s happening in the story. If someone is describing a wonderful meal that they ate, then our sensory cortex is active. This is the part of the brain that is active when we eat. It activates when we eat or when we hear someone sharing a story about eating.

Similar things happen if someone tells us about a dog’s soft fur, or the warmth of the summer sun.  Or if someone is telling the story about skydiving, the feeling of jumping out of the moving plane, suddenly falling at great speed towards the earth, then in our brain our motor cortex lights up. Story engages more of our brain than simply explaining or lecturing.

This is why story can be so powerful – when you tell a story to a group of people, you are syncing their brains in a real way.  You mention the smell of fresh baked chocolate cookies, and you are engaging the sensory cortex of every person listening.  Often when people are engaged in listening to the same story they will even begin syncing their breathing with the story teller and consequently with other listeners.

And when we hear a story, we instinctively want to make connections, when we hear someone tell us about a time they were really scared, we being scanning our mental files for stories about when we were scared, when we hear a story about a great trip someone took, it’s likely that we will share a story about one of our trips.  We want to connect with one another, and we get that stories of our experiences do that on multiple levels.

Story reaches us in a way that connects on multiple levels.  I can tell you that forgiveness is powerful. I can tell you that forgiveness can provide a release, it can lift a burden. But you aren’t going to hear that the same way you would hear it from Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel as they tell the story of how Mary forgave Oshea for the murder of her only son.

Story is powerful.  As I said before, this engagement with the story may have been what gotten Stephen killed, because he wanted to connect his listeners to the story he was telling, and he did so, but the connection he wanted was powerful but angering.  Stephen was brought before the Jewish authorities because the Jewish followers of Jesus were being accused of departing from traditional ways of JudaismSo what Stephen does is tell stories from Jewish tradition, he begins a grand overarching story that shows God at work through Abraham, Moses, David, and others, but he also talks about the people that opposed God’s work, kings, pharaohs, at times even the Israelites

He tells a story of good guys and bad guys, he gets these fellow Jews connected to the story he is telling, a story they are familiar with and then he ends his story this way:

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

He ends his story of good guys and bad guys, by saying, “We, the followers of Jesus, we are the good guys, we are the ones who have stayed true just like Abraham, just like Joseph. You are the bad guys, like the Pharaoh, like the kings who opposed the prophets, like our ancestors in the desert who rebelled against God.”

He makes a powerful connection. They get what he is trying to say, they get preceisely the connection he is making. And they react to it. Violently.

There is power in story, and there are things that can be best communicated through story.  I think this is especially true for faith. Just think about God, or try to, that’s kind of the problem isn’t it? We believe God is real, but we also believe that God can’t be contained by our thoughts. God is so much bigger than our words.  God is so much bigger than any description we can come up with.  And so we tell stories about God and how God has acted and continues to act in the world.

Have you ever had to explain a joke?  If you have then you know that you’ve lost all chance of it being funny, because the humor isn’t in the explanation.  It’s in the telling. That’s what God is like.  God and God’s plan isn’t reducible to three clear and concise bulleted statements.  God can’t be summed up with one creed or confession.  One of the many things I love about the Presbyterian Church is that we use a variety of creeds and confessions and Affirmations of Faith.  And look at the richness of the Biblical witness.  The Bible is a library of stories.  History, romance, intrigue, war, visions, parables, poetry.

We need stories.  Not only because stories are the best way for us to learn about God and God’s will for us, but because stories help us to experience God.  I love reading a book that immerses me in its plot and characters, because there comes a point where I know the people in the book pretty well.  I can imagine what it might be like to hang out with them for an evening.  There comes a point where I have been a part of their story and so I know more about them than just what the story says.

Every time I read or watch a production of Romeo and Juliet a get a little weepy.  I cry for them because by through their story, I know them and I can feel the despair and sadness they are feeling.  That’s how it is with God.  If we hear enough of God’s story, then we can know and experience God in a way that goes beyond a simple description. Through story we can connect and know God on an intimate level.

And when we tell God’s story, when we tell stories of love, of compassion, of justice then we can share God in a way that is powerful. 

My hope for us this day is that we can become master storytellers. And hopefully, our audience will be a little more receptive than Stephen’s audience. But I hope that we can tell God’s story with the same kind of power, because there are some things that can only be communicated through story.