Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 2/9/14
I Corinthians 2:1-12
February 9, 2014

            Last month the earth lost, and heaven gained, a man of great gifts and insights, a tremendous pastor, eloquent preacher, and faithful disciple of Jesus: Robert Watts Thornburg, who was Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University for many years.  When news of his death reached the people who had been touched by his life, some of us wrote back and forth a little bit.  One reflection came from a classmate of mine, both in college and seminary.  She wrote this:

“I was just thinking about Bob and how he was doing not too long ago.  I still tell a story about him every time someone asks me about my call to the ministry.  I remember sitting in his office one day confessing to him that I had some fear and trembling about going before the SPRC [Staff/Parish Relations Committee] of my home church to be approved as a candidate for ministry.  This is the same committee that had ousted the beloved long-time pastor for not being evangelical enough.  I knew they would ask me for a dramatic conversion story, and I didn’t know what to tell them.  My call to the ministry came from my studies at B[oston] U[niversity].  So Bob got out his Bible, read Matthew 22:37 and told me, ‘Becky, few enough people love God with their minds.  Never be ashamed of that gift.’  I have carried around those words all these years.  They sustained me until I had my own story to tell, and still sustain me today.  Bob had lots of gifts and lots of flaws.  But I believe that God spoke to me through his words that day.  Here I am pastoring in the very heart of Silicon Valley.”[1]

God does ask to be loved with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength.  We are not to leave our brains in the parking lot when we come to church.  When Paul speaks about not emphasizing human wisdom, he is not denying its importance, but warning about its limitations, “that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” [I Corinthians 2:5]

            Human beings have tried, as long as we have been around, to understand God.  There are some things about creation itself that point out some of God’s attributes.  Paul makes a lot of that in his letter to the Romans, where he says that anyone who tries should be able to figure out at least a few things.

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” [Romans 1:19-20]

It’s the same outlook that’s expressed in the familiar hymn:

“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed,
Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to thee,
‘How great thou art!  How great thou art!’
Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to thee,
‘How great thou art!  How great thou art!’”

In traditional philosophy, it’s held that anyone should be able to identify these three main points: God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent – everywhere, all-knowing, and all-powerful.

            That’s all well and good, to a point.  Think it over, though, and you’ll realize that those three categories can be problematic.  If God is everywhere, does that imply a physical presence; or does it mean God and the world are alike in some way?  And if God knows everything, what does that do to human freedom?  If God knows our choices even before we make them, do we really make those choices or are they inevitable? So, then, how far are we responsible for the consequences?  (Two down, one to go.)  As far as being all-powerful, the great theologian George Carlin used to do a routine about how when he was in elementary school and the priest came to teach the weekly religion class, he would ask questions like, “Hey, Father!  If God is all-powerful, can he make a rock so big that he himself cannot lift it?”

            Human reason is a precious gift from God but it is human.  It has its limitations.  I like to think of it in terms of football.  When I see the Broncos or the Seahawks roll onto the field, there are some things I can easily know about them.  I can tell that they are football players.  I can see which team they play for, and read their names and numbers on the backs of their jerseys.  I can see that they are powerful and fast.  If I am down on the field or if a camera is aimed at them I can see by their eyes that their minds are focused.  I can put all of this together and safely say that I don’t want to face off against any of them at the line of scrimmage – I don’t care how much padding I may be wearing.  All of that I know with my head, as would any reasonable human being.  To push the analogy further, if I have some experience of the game, I will know what kind of play I could probably expect when they go into action based on the way they’re lined up; if it’s third and twenty and they send in their kicker, I will look for a field goal attempt. 

            Notice, though, that I said, “Probably”.  There is always some element of doubt, some possibility that at the last second the quarterback will call a different play.  It may be unlikely.  It may make no sense at all.  But it could happen.

            God is free to do anything.  The Bible teaches that when Moses met God at the burning bush, he tried to pin God down at least a little bit by getting a name, and was rebuffed.

“Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’” [Exodus 3:13-14]

Just to add another layer to that, the Hebrew can also be translated “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”, so we don’t even know for sure what the ambiguous answer really was.  When Job tried to figure out the reason for his suffering, and for all the pain of the world while he was at it, God showed up and spoke to him from a whirlwind, and said,

“‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’”  [Job 38:2-3]

Then for the next four chapters Job is reminded of everything he does not know and cannot explain, until he pretty much gives up.

“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” [Job 42:3-5]

That is where real wisdom began for him, and what it is for us.

            God does not just want us to know about him.  God wants us to know him.  The goal of it all is to be in relationship, a living and growing relationship between ourselves and our Creator. 

“As it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”  [I Corinthians 2:9-10]

That is the kind of deep communion that God came to us in Jesus to establish and to secure, so that when we face all the questions that life puts in front of us, and when we honestly say that they baffle us sometimes, it’s good to realize that “faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” [I Corinthians 2:5]  We are called to love God, as we are loved, entirely: with heart and soul and mind and strength, so that when we even find ourselves questioning God’s ways, then even our faith (which is the trust in your heart, not the doctrines in your head) speaks out and says there’s more to it all than we will ever know and for now it is enough to know that God is love.


[1] Quoted by permission.

"Scandal and Folly"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 2/2/14
I Corinthians 1:18-31
“Scandal and Folly”
February 2, 2014

            Last week I was a little stiff and sore after shoveling for the forty-ninth time in two days (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration) and decided that I was not up to cooking supper but after being out in the cold I wanted a hot meal, so I did the logical thing.  I dragged myself to a Chinese restaurant.  It was one of those small, family operations where there’s a little girl in the corner doing her homework while her Paw-Paw (which I’m told is, in one dialect, the word for “grandmother”) takes the stems off stringbeans.

            So there I was, sipping my tea and gorging myself on noodles, feeling all the muscles in my shoulders begin to relax and thinking basically of nothing, the peace was broken by a group of somewhere around ten people who came in, stamping their feet and talking very loudly to one another.  It was a small room and there were only a handful of other people there, so it was impossible not to hear everything they were talking about.

            I don’t know which church they were from, but there was no question that this was some kind of church staff who were hosting guests.  The conversation was filled with all kinds of church-talk and the Bible references were flying left and right.  It seemed like nobody could say anything without giving chapter and verse.  It also felt – and let me say that I didn’t know them and may be totally wrong on this, in which case I ask forgiveness – like they were all trying to impress one another.  It was all about who had been on what mission trip or how many people they had seen come to Christ or how they had just developed a new app for evangelism.

          It scares me to think that when I and my clergy friends get together we may sound like that, or some version of it.How many people were at Bible study last week?  How much did the UMW raise for the Heifer Project last year?  How’s the capital campaign going?  (I am proud of those things, by the way.)  At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking about what I may sound like.  All I could think was what would happen when their fortune cookies came.  I just knew that one of them would start talking about how fortune cookies should offer a verse of scripture instead of some random comment.  Then I pictured the loudest among them opening his fortune cookie and reading aloud for all to hear,

“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” [I Corinthians 4:31]

            Paul’s letter was written to a community that had lined up in factions that were trying to go one up on each other all the time, competing for the title of the most spiritually advanced.  Paul knew how to play that game, and he could hold his own against any of them.  At one point, he reminded them of all that he had gone through in his days to spread the good news:

“Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” [II Corinthians 11:25-27]

Then he went on to point out that if they wanted to compete about being closer to the Lord, he could outdo them, speaking in the third person to add a little touch of humility.

“It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.  But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.” [II Corinthians 12:1-7] 

The whole point of this was to point out exactly how foolish it is.

            Look, if you will, at Jesus.  No one could ever have had a closer walk with God than his Son.  No one could ever have known the inner workings and the power of the Holy Spirit than him.  Did he brag?  For that matter, did he even give a thought to what might look like success to the world?  Certainly not, if you want to measure success by the usual standards.  One of his followers sold him to his enemies for some cash.  Then he was hastily hauled up before a court that may or may not have had proper jurisdiction, handed over to Roman soldiers who decided to have some fun by torturing him before nailing him up and leaving him to die by the side of the road.  The message that Paul shared wasn’t about himself, it was about this man whose moment of truest success came when he was a lifeless corpse.

“We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” [I Corinthians 1:23-24]

By any standard other than God’s, that sounds totally upside-down.  By any standard other than God’s, it is.

            If we have anything to boast about, though, it’s the ability not to be judged by anyone other than God.  I don’t have to compete against you in my spiritual life, or in my finances, or in my education, or in my athletic ability, or in anything.  You do not have to compete against me in any way.  None of us have to measure our lives against anybody else’s.  The only person whose evaluation matters is God’s, and when I look and see that he would give his own life to gather me to him, that he would go to the cross itself, then I know that there is love enough to guarantee mercy for my shortcomings and my sins.  If I boast of anything, it’s that. 

            We are all on the same level before God.  There’s a story about Mother Teresa that tells how when Prince Charles was on a visit to Calcutta in 1980, he went to meet her.  She said she wanted to introduce him to someone, then what she did was to take a newborn baby who had been abandoned but had been found and brought to the sisters, and she put the baby into his arms and then the three of them went into the chapel for about ten minutes and prayed together.  Maybe that is a good image to keep in mind.  The Prince of Wales, heir to the throne, presumptive leader of the British Commonwealth; a Nobel-prize winning Albanian nun who lived in voluntary poverty; and a tiny, Indian baby who could not do much of anything at all: each of them sharing in the presence of God, who loves each alike and without reserve.


"Leave Your Nets"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 1/26/14
Matthew 4:12-23
“Leave Your Nets”
January 26, 2013

                The gospels have two separate traditions about the calling of the disciples Peter and Andrew.  One of them we looked at last week.  The other version combines it with the calling of James and John, as we’ve heard this morning.  That story is one of the dramatic scenes that Matthew is so fond of repeating.

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” [Matthew 4:18-22]

Can you imagine what it would take to make you drop everything, right then and there, and go? 

            John Allen, a U.C.C. pastor in Wellesley, Massachusetts points out that it might not have taken much to get them to do that.  When Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, that meant he came preaching that the Roman Emperor was not the be-all and end-all.  Fishermen were heavily taxed and had to pay for the privilege of fishing whether or not they caught anything.  The proceeds went to support the soldiers who occupied their country.  He points out how the historian Josephus records that in the year 37, Galilean peasants who were in the same position simply stopped farming as a general strike to protest Roman offenses against the Temple in Jerusalem.

“Jesus is inviting Simon and Andrew to take a profound economic risk and he is calling them away from the business of feeding empire and toward the work of healing, teaching, and loving ordinary people.  The young men’s eagerness to follow Jesus is striking: they walk away briskly from the life they had known, even abandoning family.  This is a response to Jesus’ charisma to be sure, but it also bears witness to a smoldering sense of dissatisfaction in the brothers, a sense that they were ready to leave behind the tasks of a dominated people and seek new freedom with this leader.”[1]

            The call of Jesus always means turning away from something, but it always means turning toward something else that turns out, in the long run, to be better.  It means leaving behind a life ruled by frustration or fear or greed or power games – all the things that the Bible calls “works of the flesh” – and toward a life of freedom that reaches for justice.

            When I think about people in our own day who have experienced that kind of call, a man who comes to mind is Millard Fuller, who founded “Habitat for Humanity”.  This is from the obituary page of the New York Times for February 3, 2009.  It’s long, but bear with me, and listen for the same theme, of how Jesus calls people away from one way of life and into another.

“Millard Dean Fuller was born on Jan. 3, 1935, in Lanett, Ala., then a small cotton-mill town. His mother died when he was 3, and his father remarried. Millard’s business career began at 6 when his father gave him a pig. He fattened it up and sold it for $11. Soon he was buying and selling more pigs, then rabbits and chickens as well. He dabbled in selling worms and minnows to fishermen. …

Mr. Fuller went to Auburn University, running unsuccessfully for student body president, and in 1956 was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He graduated from Auburn with a degree in economics in 1957 and entered the University of Alabama School of Law.

He and Morris S. Dees Jr., another law student, decided to go into business together while in the law school. They set a goal: get rich.

They built a successful direct-mail operation, published student directories and set up a service to send cakes to students on their birthdays. They also bought dilapidated real estate and refurbished it themselves. They graduated and went into law practice together after Mr. Fuller briefly served in the Army as a lieutenant.

As law partners, they continued to make money. Selling 65,000 locally produced tractor cushions to the Future Farmers of America made $75,000. Producing cookbooks for the Future Homemakers of America did even better, and they became one of the nation’s largest cookbook publishers. By 1964, they were millionaires. …

Mr. Fuller’s life changed completely after his wife, the former Linda Caldwell, whom he had married in 1959, threatened to leave him. She was frustrated that her busy husband was almost never around…

There was much soul-searching. Finally, the two agreed to start their life anew on Christian principles. Eschewing material things was the first step. Gone were the speedboat, the lakeside cabin, the fancy cars.

The Fullers went to Koinonia Farm, a Christian community in Georgia, where they planned their future with Clarence Jordan, a Bible scholar and leader there. In 1968, they began building houses for poor people nearby, then went to Zaire in 1973 to start a project that ultimately built 114 houses.

In 1976, a group met in a converted chicken barn at Koinonia Farm and started Habitat for Humanity International. Participants agreed the organization would work through local chapters. They decided to accept government money only for infrastructure improvements like streets and sidewalks.

Handwritten notes from the meeting stated the group’s grand ambition: to build housing for a million low-income people. That goal was reached in August 2005, when home number 200,000 was built.”

            That just blows me away.  All of that happened because the Fullers realized that they needed to save their marriage, and that what had endangered it was a kind of endless drive toward acquisition and outward success that our society both applauds and nourishes.  When its consequences began to show themselves, Jesus called out to them, and called them out of that into something better – and look what it has done for other people’s lives, as well.

            There’s never any way to know who will hear that call next, or how it will reach them, or what they may be doing at the time.  There’s no way to tell where it might take them.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3:8]

All I can say about that is to keep your ears open, because the call will come to you at some point and in some fashion.  Be ready then to put down whatever you’re doing at the time, and be ready to enjoy the journey.


"There He Goes"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 1/19/14

John 1:29-42

There’s an odd little linguistic tic in this passage from John [1:38-42].  Like the rest of the New Testament, it was written in Greek, which was the common language of the eastern Mediterranean in that day.  But it contains these scraps of Aramaic, which was the dialect that Jesus and the disciples probably would have spoken at home or with one another.  Andrew calls Jesus, “Rabbi,” and John adds, “(which translated means Teacher)”.   He tells his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah,” and John comments, “(which is translated Anointed)”.  Simon goes to meet him and is greeted, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas,” and John adds, “(which is translated Peter).”  At this point maybe I should explain that the Greek “Petros” is a translation of the Aramaic “Cephas”, which means “Rock”.  “Peter” is really a nickname whose equivalent in our terms would be “Rocky”. 

Now, notice: here we are, not much more than a minute or two into the sermon, and I’m explaining in English how John explained Aramaic to Greek speakers and eyes are beginning to glaze over already.  Am I just talking about the Bible instead of passing on the message that the gospel writer set down? 

Not really, because this passage is all about the way that people tell each other about Jesus.  John encountered Jesus and told two of his followers.  They met Jesus for themselves, and then one went and got his brother.  The brother went and met Jesus there in Galilee, and eventually became one of the major spreaders of the good news as far away as Rome, where he died as a witness to his faith.

All too often, we think we cannot share our own faith the way that they did.  Whatever barriers there are between us and someone else, we think that will inevitably mean that they will never understand us, or what Jesus means in our lives.  What John did, what the disciples did, really was just to say, “There he goes.  See for yourself.”  When that happens, it isn’t on us anymore, because Jesus takes over for himself.

We concentrate way too much on the differences that make it hard for us to understand one another.  That’s not to say they aren’t real.  I’ve already mentioned language.  What about politics?  What about age?  What about economic status?  What about culture?  (One time when I was in England visiting friends, I tried to explain why nobody I know in the United States would ever name their son Nigel.  You just could not send a kid to school with a name like that and expect him to grow up without a deep resentment toward you.  They didn’t get it, and there was no way to make it clear except to say that we are odd.)  If you cannot explain something like that fully, how can you expect to speak fully of what it means to have a Savior?  So we don’t try.

What if, however, we concentrated on the things that we have in common simply because of who we are as human beings?  Take a Maori tribesman from New Zealand and a Sherpa from Nepal and anyone you want to pick from Chester or Montgomery County.  When it comes to the deepest aspects of life, they each have to face the same challenges.  They each have to earn a living, and want to do it in a way that is satisfying.  They will each care about their family.  They each will know what a broken heart feels like, and each will enjoy a good laugh.  None of them will be without fears or hopes.  Surely those similarities are richer than differences like tattoos or mullets.  Those deep, human needs, are the ones that are met by Jesus.

John the Baptist called him “the Lamb of God”.  That title alone, easily intelligible by the first hearers yet so strange to our ears, says a lot in itself.  The lamb was then, as now, a symbol of innocence and gentleness and purity.  A teacher might say of two students, “This one’s a terror, but that one’s a lamb.”  That innocence, however, puts a lamb into danger.  Jesus was the absolute example of the innocent and spotless person, sent out into the middle of a cruel and hungry world, and he knew what he was in for.  He warned his disciples when he gave them their mission,

“I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” [Luke 10:3]

Lambs sometimes get eaten up.  The world has never been able to tolerate those whose simple statements of right and wrong call into question the compromises that most of us make every day.  Such people are an embarrassment, and if they speak too loudly or are heard too clearly, they can count on being silenced one way or another.  Who does not understand that?

In another sense, too, he was “the Lamb of God”.  The people of Israel had for centuries followed the rituals of the Law that provided for the sacrifice of a lamb as a sign of the re-establishment of proper relations between people and God.  It wasn’t so much, as has sometimes been described, that God’s anger was put off with a gift.  God cannot be bribed.  It was more a recognition that God asks our best of us, which involves the purity and gentleness a lamb shows, and the sacrifice of the animal enacted the giving of life itself back to God.  Jesus, the Lamb living in the midst of us wolves, was at the same time offering himself freely to God in a way that represented us all.  There is no one who cannot understand the love that steps in for another, that takes the fall for somebody else, that steps in front of the moving bus to push a child out of the way, that gives its last piece of bread to someone else who is hungry, too.  Anyone, anywhere can understand that.

It isn’t for us to do anything but bear witness to that self-giving love as we have known it, and to do it in the most direct and simple ways that we can.  Kathleen Norris speaks of the need for that direct approach in her book Amazing Grace where she says,

“When I began attending church again after twenty years away, I felt bombarded by the vocabulary of the Christian church.  Words such as ‘Christ,’ ‘heresy,’ ‘repentance,’ and ‘salvation’ seemed dauntingly abstract to me, even threatening.”[1]

She goes on to talk about what she calls “rebuilding” her “religious vocabulary”.  So far, so good.  But then one day she was on a book tour, giving a reading from the book where she said this, and afterward a woman came up to her.

“‘I don’t mean to be offensive,’ she said, ‘but I just don’t understand how you can get so much comfort from a religion whose language does so much harm.’”

Norris continues,

“I had spent too many years outside the Christian religion to be offended by her comment.  I know very well that faith can seem strange, and even impenetrable, to those who do not share it.  I understood all too well where that question was coming from.  But how to respond, there and then, to this woman’s evident bafflement, and even anguish?  I took a deep breath, and blessed clarity came.  …Look, I said to her, as a rush of words came to me.  As far as I’m concerned, this religion has saved my life, my husband’s life, and our marriage.  So it’s not comfort that I’m talking about here but salvation.”[2]

            “Look!” said John the Baptist long ago.  “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” [John 1:36]  “Look,” said Kathleen Norris to the woman whom she met on her book tour.  “Come and see,” [John 1:39] Jesus invited long ago.  “Come and see,” he invites today.

            Hey!  Look!  There he goes!



[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 2.

[2] Ibid., 4.

Souper Bowl of Caring
Category: News
Tags: www.pacsphx.org www.tacklehunger.org

Youth Group will be collecting non-perishable food donations before and after both services on Feb 2nd.  Help us tackle hunger.  PACS (Phoenixville Area Community Services) will be our local community beneficiary.  

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