Sermon Synopsis Luke 21:5-19

A message following a divisive election…

Luke 21:5-19

This is the passage were the disciples are awestruck by the majesty of the Temple in Jerusalem and Jesus speaks of its relative insignificance compared to the power of God…

It has been a challenging week for many at the Spring Lake Presbyterian Church. I say this… not because of a particular political perspective… but because as Presbyterians we live out a rather unique diversity of viewpoints. The very structure of our denomination’s polity arguably tends to invite conservative (read Republican) perspectives; while at the same time our doctrine of social justice supports liberal, progressive (read Democratic) issues. This dichotomy has manifested itself recently on Facebook with church member’s posting some strongly opposing opinions that may make for uncomfortable conversations at the family Thanksgiving table.

I wonder how many of you remember (or even were alive…) when the original “Star Wars” film aired in 1977? I recall standing outside the Lyric Theater with the line going down the street and around the corner. Not too long prior to that I remember paying 75 cents for a theater ticket and having enough left over from a dollar to be able to buy five “Payday” candy bars from a vending machine. Man… I am feeling old now!

You literally “felt” that the movie was going to be unique from the opening banner folding back on itself into space. George Lucas reportedly paid a fine for beginning the film without director’s credits in order not to distract from the emotion he was evoking from the audience in the opening scenes. The music pounded in your ears as Darth Vader spoke of the relative insignificance of the Death Star compared to the power of the Force. I recently viewed a clip of that scene with the ominous music replaced by upbeat carnival songs. I was stunned to see how the lighthearted music changed my feeling about the events unfolding on the screen.

Let me suggest that for the last several months… regardless of political perspective… all of us have had powerful backing tracks pumped into our consciousness’ by the political advertisements as well as the media fighting for our viewership and attention. Our passions have been fired up and we can’t understand how anyone could vote for (fill in the blank). I recently replied to a Facebook friend who was warning how the “media” was vilifying his candidate… I suggested that all one needed to do was change the channel in order to choose the bias of their choice.

I want to believe that most people vote for what they hope will be a better life… for themselves, their loved ones, and the world. If we can look for those rays of light in each other maybe we can focus less on the darkness that commands our attention.

Maybe we can change the background music…

Warmly,

Rev Dan

Sermon Synopsis Luke 20:27-40

This is the passage where the Sadducee's challenge Jesus’ belief in an afterlife…

There were two major “religious/political” parties in ancient Judaism, the Pharisees and the Sadducee's. …and then there were the Essene's who lived in small communal settings and wrote prose on sheep hide and stored them for future generations. So in essence, in ancient Judaism there was a conservative party, a liberal party and a green party… (Wink)

I have often compared the Sadducee's to today’s extremely liberal worshiping communities because of their lack of belief in the resurrection or an afterlife. I have categorized the Pharisees as excessively conservative because of their strict adherence to the Laws of Moses without empathy in its effects on others. Many scholars would correct me and say that the Sadducee's really were more like strict constitutionalist's because they denied any theology that wasn’t explicitly written in the Law. My point is that having sharp divisions of belief is not new to humankind.

One of the most ancient biblical stories of conflict is about two brothers fighting over how to best worship God. It ended with one killing the other. When God asks Cain; “Where is your brother, Abel?” Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?!” God’s response in Genesis is, “The blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground!” Issues that separate us have fed our passions and have led us to acts of violence towards others from the beginning of recorded time. So I believe that the response of Jesus to the Sadducee's may offer us insight into our lives today.

First, it bears noting that the Sadducee's example of a woman being married to a man who died and her subsequent marriages to several brothers… all of whom died as well… is part of the obligation outlined in Mosaic Law to ensure a family’s lineage. Their challenge to Jesus does not involve the loving relationship of marriage, but one of property ownership. Who will she belong to in the afterlife? This patriarchal attitude is a lens that they are looking through that limits the possibilities of their understanding. It seemed ridiculous to them that seven men would “own” one wife.

Jesus erases the concept of women as property with his claim that in the life to come a woman is not “given” in marriage (as property), but that we will be like the angels. Some have suggested that this means that in heaven we do not experience intimate love. I would argue just the opposite; that physical love is a dim reflection of the perfect love that we will all share in the life to come. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians “…now we see dimly as through a mirror… then we shall see face to face. Now we know in part… then we shall be fully known.”

As followers of Jesus we seek... through love and justice... a better today. We await a perfect tomorrow.

Warmly,

Rev Dan

Sermon Synopsis Luke 19:1-10

A brief background to better understand the passage… Rome “hired” local individuals to collect the taxes due the emperor. Roman soldiers would provide the “muscle” and tax collectors would be paid with any “excess” they could force out of their neighbors. Zacchaeus had not only become rich but he had become the “chief” tax collector in Jericho. He was absolutely hated by his community. It is easy to imaging the crowd pressing their shoulders together to block Zacchaeus’ view as he tried to see the famous prophet from Nazareth coming down the road. The bible says that Zacchaeus was, “small in stature” and could not see over their shoulders. With no other option, he runs down the road and climbs into the branches of a tree in order to see Jesus. Jesus stops at the tree and announces that he is going to his home to dine with him. The crowd is furious that Jesus would “associate with sinners.” And then something quite amazing happens…

It is easy to imagine the difficult life Zacchaeus experienced as a child literally being looked down upon by others. People from childhood through adults can be and often are cruel to those they feel have less power than themselves. Physical stature, social economic standing and racial prejudice are all opportunities for victimization occurring throughout history. It is not hard to imagine Zacchaeus using his wits to gain power over those who had treated him with disdain. Now, he had the power of Rome standing behind him as he extracted payment from those who had previously belittled him.

I am old enough to remember the boxing career of Cassius Clay who took the name “Muhammad Ali,” rejecting what he called “his slave name.” In an early interview an angry Ali asks reporters, “Why should I care that a few white people admire me when tens of thousands of white people want to kill me?” Growing up black in a white culture may have inspired him to use the power of his anger to win again and again inside and outside of the boxing ring. And yet, as his faith in God matured Ali was reported to walk out from his home in Chicago and carry a tray of cookies onto a tour bus, shaking people’s hands and signing autographs.

In one powerful story told of his life by a young assistant, Ali was seated at a table signing photos when a woman in line was overcome with emotion at the sight of the frailty brought on from his Parkinson’s disease. She left the line in tears. Ali sent his young agent to tell her that, “Muhammad has something he wants to tell you.” Taking her back to the front of the line Ali tells her that his physical condition was a gift from God. He had struggled with infidelity throughout his many marriages and in answer to prayers Allah took that struggle away…

When Jesus acknowledged Zacchaeus and said that he was going to his home to dine with him the crowd looked at them both with bitterness and resentment. But Zacchaeus responded to Jesus placing value upon him as a child of God and in that moment his heart was changed. Zacchaeus’ acts of charity and justice became a manifestation of God’s love reflected within him. Similarly, Ali became an ambassador of peace and goodwill by reflecting that same love from God to the world. If we can begin to see others through God's eyes we may find that they are not the only ones whose hearts are transformed.

Warmly,

Rev Dan

Sermon Synopsis John 8:1-11

This is the passage where Jesus challenges the one without sin to throw the first stone.

It is not often that I suggest that a person should leave my church… It happened many years ago when I was the pastor of a small country church. The member involved was a very nice lady with a beautiful smile. Her husband would drop her off in front of the church every Sunday but he never stayed. Instead, he would go to another church while she worshiped at mine. They were both “older” adults (some time ago I might have said “elderly” but I’m getting closer to 60 now so…) She had a great spirit that just radiated wherever she went. After the service was over her husband would return and occasionally visit with me as he waited for her to finish a conversation or some other errand. I learned that he was a lifelong member of “his” church and though he was polite when I would teasingly suggest he visit our church some Sunday… he sincerely loved his church and would never leave. One Sunday I found the opportunity to speak to her alone and I suggested that maybe she should consider leaving our church to worship with her husband. That is when I learned why she would not do so…

She told me about a young couple who had grown up in their church. They had attended Sunday School and Vacation Bible School for years …and as teenagers, had been part of their Youth Fellowship program. They fell in love and dreamed of a wedding and a life together in “their church.” And then… the young woman became pregnant.

They spoke to the pastor about moving the wedding date up as soon as possible. He insisted that they must first appear before the Church Board to confess their sins before permission could be given to host a wedding. After facing that hurdle the Board (made up of men) insisted that the young couple must stand before the congregation and make a public confession. They bravely and tearfully stood on a Sunday morning before the congregation …made up of their trusted “church family” …and confessed their sins. Afterword’s the congregation held a vote and denied them permission to be married in the church; worried that in so doing they would be condoning the young couple’s indiscretion.

I shook my head and told her that I understood why she had left that church. She replied, “That was not when I left…”

“I left,” she said, “After I attended a beautiful wedding held less than a year later in that same church.” The new Bride and Groom were members of very wealthy and prominent church families …and the bride was very, very pregnant. This couple had faced no judgments or public humiliation. She went on to say… “Every time I worshiped in that sanctuary after that, all I could think of were the tears in the first couple’s eyes… …all I could hear were the judging whispers of the people that they had trusted. I just couldn’t stay.”

I find it interesting that in our passage, like in the couple’s story above, there are differing standards used for those lower on the social ladder. In our passage only the woman was brought before Jesus to be stoned, not the man. Jesus makes a point of not responding to the passion of those bringing accusations against their intended victim. Instead, he reminds us all of our need for grace and forgiveness.

Warmly,

Rev Dan

Sermon Synopsis Luke 17:20-21

We recently returned from a very enjoyable musical event in Rhode Island called, “Pat McGee’s Ocean State of Mind…” or OSM. It was our second year, having attended their inaugural event last year. It is a series of concerts in small venues over 4 days with many opportunities for intimate interactions with the artists. Pat also arranges for visits to local attractions which include artists involved at a very personal level. Each artist brings their unique style and personality to their performances’ and as a musician, I appreciate both the level of talent as well as seeing these artists interact with each other on stage in pubs and restaurants, and pubs and corn mazes, and pubs, etc.

On the last day of the event I had a moment of insight… It dawned on me that what I kept hearing from the artists that touched me deeply were messages of love. Not romantic love or something trivial, but a deep expression of love in their lyrics and instrumentation. It was displayed not only on stage (which might have been attributed to a performance) but also in the non-public moments that a keen observer might oversee. I commented on this to one of the artists standing outside between sets… he looked at me for a moment… then he simply wrapped me in a hug and thanked me. I found it ironic that this intimate display of fellowship is so often lacking in the church.

In our passage Jesus is asked by the religious leaders when the Kingdom of Heaven would appear. I would argue that they were not looking for a kingdom filled with peace. They were looking for a God who would use supernatural force to establish their own dominance over others. Jesus tells them that the Kingdom of God is not coming in a way that is physical… but that the Kingdom of God is “among” them. The word that is translated “among” can also mean “within” which many scholars argue is a better reading for our text. [By the way, when individual words in the bible have various meanings you will often see an asterisk “*” indicating that there is a footnote describing the possible variant.]

I wonder why institutions like the church tend to bring out politics of power. If the Kingdom of God described by Jesus is truly within us then acts of charity and love should be our defining nature. Why then are we in the church so often seen by those outside as judgmental and hypocritical rather than welcoming and transparent about our own struggles? Maybe the real kingdom that we should be seeking is the ability to simply love others… in spite of our differences in lifestyles and beliefs. Maybe then we would be truly welcoming the Kingdom of God into the world!

Warmly,

Rev Dan

Sermon Synopsis Luke 16:19-31

(Disclaimer: I have owned a dive business for several years and have been certified at technical levels for some time. I am in no way recommending the following actions without the proper training, supervision and preparation… which is the point of my illustration).

It hit me at 175 feet of depth…

The technical description is 175 fsw (feet salt water) on air (21%O2). I was on a training dive with a very experienced retired Navy dive buddy. The two of us had been given permission to separate from the larger group and go over the wall for what is known as a bounce dive (go to depth and return with very little bottom time). The purpose of the exercise was to measure my body’s reaction to narcosis brought on by diving to depth on air.

I had previously completed a stopwatch timed multi-numeral mathematical computation on shore and at 100 ffw (feet fresh water) with no discernible difference in computation time. We would be stopping every 25 feet of descent beyond 100 fsw to communicate with each other and would only continue as long as both divers concurred.

At 150 fsw I could discern no noticeable effect. In hindsight, I was undoubtedly being impacted by the increase of nitrogen in my bloodstream going to my brain but I was able to communicate clearly and use my computer efficiently and so indicated that we would descend another 25 feet to reevaluate.

When we reached 175 fsw I began to become self-aware of the effect of narcosis. I had to expend mental energy to focus my concentration on the information on my computer screen. It read; 2740 psi (plenty of breathable gas) and 186 fsw… I signaled “thumbs up” which means ascend.

We completed our decompression obligation in stages as we ascended to the shelf and reconnected to our group who were busying themselves looking at fish within the reef. We signaled our return to the dive master and completed our dive with the group.

In our passage, Jesus tells the story of two men spending their lives within yards of each other. Lazarus suffered with hunger and painful sores; experiencing as well the mental anguish of being in proximity to, but never benefiting from, the rich man’s abundance. In contrast, the rich man, living with extreme wealth was insensitive to Lazarus’ needs. It is relevant to point out that the rich man knew his name (and so presumably his circumstances).

Jesus’ parable describes the spiritual consequences of living a life of abundance while being apathetic to the needs of others.

The rich man’s pleas reach a point of desperation as he calls out for a supernatural warning to be sent to his brothers who are still living. In response, Jesus describes Abraham saying (with some irony) that if his brothers ignore the lessons that are already before them they will not be convinced to soften their hearts, “…even if one were to rise from the dead.”

I believe that we can experience a spiritual form of narcosis. We enter an environment that dilutes our sensitivities to the world around us. We participate in an illusion, in which we come to believe that the life which we have been blessed with, we somehow deserve. Instead of the diver’s brain being impacted by excess nitrogen we allow ourselves to be drugged by self-righteousness and arrogance.

We assume that we are blessed because we have worked harder than Lazarus (not thinking about the person working two jobs at minimum wage who rents our properties, gaining equity for us but nothing for themselves). Or we indulge ourselves in thinking that are smarter (again, discounting the people or the circumstances in our lives that have facilitated our success).

Jesus is not condemning people who have been blessed in this life. He is pointing out that it is easy for us to allow our sensitivities’ to the needs of others to be dulled… and the consequence can be a steady decent into the abyss.

Warmly,

Rev Dan

Sermon Synopsis Luke 16:1-15

God did not design me to be fleet of foot.

The North Country Run is a 13.1 mile half marathon, a 26.2 mile full marathon, and a 50 mile Ultra in the beautiful National Park system called the Big M Trailhead near Wellston, MI. I am not a runner. My stride might best be described as “an old man shuffle.” Thankfully, that pace worked for me over the course of 26.2 miles up and down hills and through narrow, rain soaked trails. I admit to enjoying the hospitality of the volunteers at the aid stations as I chatted and drank pickle juice and flat coke (and ate quite a bit of goodies) to keep fueling myself for the “onward shuffle.”

Our Scripture passage in many ways reminds me of that trail. It has obstacles to get over and pitfalls to avoid as we seek to reach the finish and grasp the meaning of the lesson Jesus is lifting up.

First of all, Jesus is talking to his followers; not the crowds or the Pharisees that overhear him. He tells a story about a dishonest employee who has abused his position for personal gain. When the employee is confronted and learns that he will soon be fired he uses his resources to better place himself in the next “life” that he will be moving on to after he loses his job. His employer then commends him for his cleverness. Note that Jesus does not end the story with the manager not being punished or fired… just that the employer recognized that he had acted shrewdly.

Jesus points out that the church could learn something from the employee’s “worldly” behavior. We are often confused by the advice found in this Scripture passage… with Jesus recommending that we act in a similar fashion. But He is not suggesting that we act with criminal intent… but by using the resources found in the world to further the kingdom.

Do you find this hard to swallow? Let me offer a biblical example…

In Luke 19:1-10 Jesus encounters Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he is going to dine with him in his home. The crowd… literally “all who saw it” grumbled and judged Jesus for going into the house of a sinner to dine. But what does Zacchaeus do? He lives out the advice Jesus has just given his disciples in the story of the dishonest steward. He gives half of his wealth to the poor and restores with interest all whom he has defrauded. Jesus points out that Zacchaeus’ acts are reflections of the spiritual change that has taken place within him.

I believe that Jesus is suggesting the radical concept that… what we do with our physical possessions has an impact on our spiritual lives. Please note that he doesn’t instruct people to give their wealth to the church but rather to place more value on the poor (and those which the church has considered sinners) rather than placing value in our wealth.

When the religious leaders ridiculed his message Jesus responds, saying in essence, “You may make yourselves look superior to others; but God knows your hearts. What may be impressive to your peers is an abomination to God!”

Warmly,

Rev Dan

Sermon Synopsis Luke 15:1-10

This is the passage where Jesus tells the story of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep and the woman seeking the lost coin.

The religious folk grumbled…

In their opinion Jesus was hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Jesus attempts to create a teaching moment for the church leaders (the Pharisees), describing the compulsion of the shepherd to seek the one lost sheep out of the entire flock …and for the woman to seek for the one lost coin out of ten. He says that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

We know from a broader reading of the scriptures that the leaders of the church just don’t “get it.” Too often, I think we misread the passage as well. How many of us in the church have assumed that we are part of the righteous ninety-nine?

Ironically, those whom the Pharisees judged as unworthy… and therefore inappropriate for Jesus to associate with… probably already considered themselves “sinners.” The crowds who were drawn to this person who spoke truth regardless of political consequence were well aware of their shortcomings. It was the people of the church; the grumblers, the judgers, the schemers and ultimately, the ones responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion ...who were absolutely blind to their own faults.

There is another passage where the leaders of the church have judged and discarded a man who was born blind whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath.

Having been cast out of the life of the church for crediting Jesus with the miraculous event …the man encounters Jesus again. During their exchange Jesus says that he came, not for those who claim to see and yet are blind, but for those that know that they are blind… that they might see.

A Pharisee standing nearby asks Jesus, “Are you saying that we are blind?” His response reveals that in order to be made whole we must first accept our brokenness.

I believe the message of our passage is that we are all lost sheep. But we need not despair. The shepherd has come …and is calling us by name.

Warmly,

Rev Dan

Sermon Synopsis Matthew 14:22-33

It has been 80 years since the path gave way under their feet…

Maybe it was remembered because they were children and they were hurt so deeply. It is quite likely that adults had participated in the act. Many in the class had laughed. But 80 years later the story is still being told.

The family had rented the house across the street from my grandparents; a mother, father and at least a boy and a girl about 9 years old. They had accumulated enough money to buy a lot in an underdeveloped part of town. The father spent months collecting building material from odd jobs and alleys with which to build a home of their own. They finally moved with wheelbarrows and wagons the several blocks to their “new” home; no longer renters. It was by all accounts little more than a shack with the walls papered with newsprint, but it was theirs and they were proud to call it home.

It was almost Christmas and the elementary school teacher had organized a class gift exchange. Simple playthings but the children were excited to open their gifts in front of their classmates. Little windup toys, molded soldiers and then… The person narrating the memory to me paused reflecting the pain still felt for his classmates so long ago… instead of toys they received bars of soap. Their faces where dirty and they smelled of smoke and kerosene. Many of the children laughed. Some did not.

When Jesus responded to Peter’s challenge to invite him onto the water with the word, “Come.” Peter stepped over the rail of the boat. His eyes were kept forward on the apparition that claimed to be Jesus. Suddenly the reality of the storm entered his thoughts and pushed out this faith… and the path gave way under his feet. In the scripture passage it was Christ who reached down and lifted Peter up with the question, “Why did you doubt?”

I wonder at the rational of those who had purchased and wrapped the bars of soap as presents. Had they smiled in anticipation of the prank? I like to think that they regretted their act in the moment they saw the pain they caused. Sadly, most of us typically rationalize guilt away and therefore miss the opportunity to gain a bit of wisdom, even through another’s tuition.

Some of us will reach a point in our lives when, out of the blue, the path falls away. Maybe it will come in a moment of embarrassment or shame. It might possibly come with a phone call or a knock on the door; as a police officer I made some of those calls. In any case, when the enormity of life pushes out against your faith and the path falls away… don’t be afraid to reach out. Ironically, that is often when we find ourselves lifted up.

Warmly,

Rev Dan

Sermon Synopsis Luke 14:1-14

Choosing my seat was easy… I suspect most people would be surprised to learn that I am an introvert. Yes, I am outspoken in most situations and I tend to be noticed in a crowd because I am not “shy.” It was explained to me that as an introvert I draw my energy from places of quiet reflection and solitude. When I am “working the room” I am draining energy and eventually I must retreat to find a quiet place to be restored.

When the John Guest Crusade made its way back to West Michigan, pastors and church leaders were invited to an informational meeting in Grand Haven. When I walked into the meeting I made my way to the back of the room near the kitchen. I took an empty chair between two individuals and introduced myself. The gentleman on my left was the CEO of the crusade; the gentleman on my right was one of John’s special guest speakers, Rev. Jimmy Gallant. The conversation that ensued resulted in a relationship that took my ministry into a totally unexpected direction that I cherish to this day.

I believe the advice which Jesus offers to those seeking seats “higher up” at the table may be a metaphor for the church today. He describes a banquet where individuals who chose places of honor may end up “losing face” if someone more important than themselves arrive, causing them to move down to the lowest place. He suggests that by humbling themselves they are given the opportunity to receive a greater honor by being welcomed by the host to move up the table. The message I hear from many in the church today reflects the attitude and behavior more of the Pharisees than the one who follows Jesus’ advice.

In the beginning of our passage Jesus is travelling with religious leaders (Pharisees and Lawyers) to the home of a prominent leader to dine. We are told it is the Sabbath. Suddenly Jesus encounters a man with what was considered an incurable disease. Jesus asks the religious scholars whether it was breaking the law to heal on the Sabbath. They would not respond to his question so he miraculously heals the man and continues on to the dinner. What I find intriguing is that Jesus was literally breaking the law according to their narrow definition of God’s Laws. It became one of the charges that led to his crucifixion. Some of these same principles are used by many in the church today to condemn other’s lifestyles.

I was in attendance at a gathering of “senior pastors” who were praying one after another around a circle. I recall one pastor thanking God for making us, “gatekeepers of the community.” I prayed and asked forgiveness for us being like “whitewashed walls.” Both statements were biblically sound. But they reflected dramatically differing attitudes about “places of honor” at God’s table.

I wonder if our ministry of lifting up the love of Jesus Christ to the world would have more dramatic effect if we were less critical of those on other spiritual paths; or those who we feel are living outside of our interpretation of spiritual laws. Maybe if we approached conversations regarding faith issues with less arrogance we might see the Holy Spirit miraculously impact our relationship in such a way as to truly be an instrument of Christ’s love for all creation?

That sounds like a dinner I would enjoy!

Warmly,

Rev Dan