Let us pray.

Blessed Epiphany to you!

The word Epiphany means to "make manifest" or reveal God's glory in Christ. We celebrate the journey of the wise men following the star to Jesus, who is the Light of the World, and our true hope and joy!

(see below for prayer and poem for Epiphany)


Lets reflect the truth that God is number one this Super Bowl Sunday - by bring 216 (for 2016) cans of soup for our Action Food Pantry. We begin this Sunday and go to Sunday, Feb. 7th - Super Bowl Sun. or what we like to refer to as Souper Bowl Sunday - as we demonstrate that supporting God's team of love and compassion is always produces a winner.
service in Peace Hall. 
So plan now to bring a favorite dish or dessert that reflects your own cultural heritage.
  Refresh begins again
 next Wednesday, Feb. 3rd, @ 6:30pm-8pm (you are welcome to bring a meal). 
Join us for a four week session learning about personality traits and why the way you are (and why those around you are the way they are)...and what kind of personality traits are found certain Biblical characters.
You are bound to have a number "epiphany moments".
Study will be lead by Dr. Alina Hernandez, professor of psychology at Cal Poly and Mount Sac., and by Pastor Thom.
Be sure to pick up a "personality inventory" sheet this Sunday (on back table) - fill it out and bring it next Wed.

The story is out; Jesus Christ, Light of the World has been born to dispel the darkness that covers its people. God’s glory appears in human form. Life on earth will never be the same again!

Father God, the star that led the Magi to the stable announced to the world that its Saviour was born. Today we live in a world that is still covered by darkness, and still needing to make that journey to the stable door. May our lives reflect your light day by day, as we seek to serve where you have placed us. That we might be the means through which others can encounter Jesus Christ. Amen

Arise, shine, for the Light of the World has come!
Darkness covers the earth and its people,
but the radiance of God's Light 
burns away its shadows,
illuminates the smallest corner,
and heralds in the start
of a new dawn,
where hearts no longer fear,
souls might be set free,
and sister shall follow brother,
nation shall follow nation,
and kings and princes bow down in awe
before the one who comes to reign.
Arise, shine, for the Light of the World has come!

May the light of Christ shine brightly in all of us!!!!

Pastor Thom

 "Why do we worship the way we do???"
This Sunday we will have a Narrative Holy Communion service - to help explain why we worship the way we do. You will find this approach to worship very enlightening and inspirational. 
Refreshments and fellowship will follow the service in the old Fellowship hall
 Rehearsals for the Christmas program continue this Sunday following worship in Peace Hall!
 Hope you are inspired by this devotional from Upper Room

The Upper Room daily devotional: Reaching toward Christ 


- Luke 6:19 (NRSV)

Today's Devotional

When I come to church, I immediately begin to search for God. As the scriptures are read and preached, I listen for what God will say to me. God always has a word for me. I love singing for Jesus and spending time in his presence. 

Sometimes I struggle to get past the thoughts, anxieties, and busyness in my mind and soul. Worship allows me to reconnect with my faith and be immersed in Christ’s presence. It’s almost as though I can touch him. I am healed from hurt, anxiety, fatigue, and hopelessness. I love life again. I love people. 

Through worship we can be renewed and inspired to serve Christ and proclaim the good news. We have a place, the church, and we have a time, during the worship service, when we can reach out to the Lord and be filled anew with faith, hope, and love.

Tatiana Menshova (Hrodna, Belarus)

Thought for the Day:

What is preventing me from meeting with the Lord today?

Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for always having a word to encourage us, time to be with us, and power to heal us. Amen.

Reaching toward Christ


In need of prayer? The Upper Room Living Prayer Center is a 7-day-a-week intercessory prayer ministry staffed by trained volunteers, call 1-800-251-2468 or visit The Living Prayer Center web site.

All in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

- Luke 6:19 (NRSV)

Today's Devotional

When I come to church, I immediately begin to search for God. As the scriptures are read and preached, I listen for what God will say to me. God always has a word for me. I love singing for Jesus and spending time in his presence. 

Sometimes I struggle to get past the thoughts, anxieties, and busyness in my mind and soul. Worship allows me to reconnect with my faith and be immersed in Christ’s presence. It’s almost as though I can touch him. I am healed from hurt, anxiety, fatigue, and hopelessness. I love life again. I love people. 

Through worship we can be renewed and inspired to serve Christ and proclaim the good news. We have a place, the church, and we have a time, during the worship service, when we can reach out to the Lord and be filled anew with faith, hope, and love.

Tatiana Menshova (Hrodna, Belarus)

Thought for the Day:

What is preventing me from meeting with the Lord today?

Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for always having a word to encourage us, time to be with us, and power to heal us. Amen.

Psalm 122  (reminds us all we need to be peacemakers!!)

I rejoiced when I heard them announce,
“The time of warfare is past.
No more will brother hate brother
or violence have its way.
No more will they drown out God’s silence
and shut their hearts to his song.”

Pray for peace in the cities
and harmony among the races.
May peace come to live on our streets
and justice within our walls.
With all my heart I will pray
that peace comes to live among us.
For the sake of all earth’s people,
I will do my utmost for peace.

Ezekiel  17:22-24
Psalms  92
II Corinthians  5:6-10,  14-17
Mark  4:26-34
“Those who are planted in the House of the Lord shall flourish and bear fruit.”
Let us pray.
We are told Jesus loved to share God’s message through the use of parables  -  stories with a twist, or sometimes just like riddles.  My son Nathaniel loved riddles growing up, and one of his favorites was this one  -  let’s see if you can solve it.  I know it drove me crazy until he gave me a hint.  “What is stronger than God, move evil than the devil, poor people have it, rich people don’t need it, and if you eat it you’ll die?”  What is it?  The line that threw me off was, “and if you eat it you’ll die.”  Well, the answer is “Nothing”.  Nothing is stronger than God, nothing is more evil than the devil, the poor have nothing and the rich don’t need nothing – and, of course, if you don’t eat nothing, you will die.
Perhaps the disciples thought they had to solve a riddle when Jesus asked them “What compares with the Kingdom of God.?”  What would you say?  Maybe a beautiful palace. Maybe a lovely garden.  Maybe a huge banquet table where everyone can sit down together in peace and all be nourished.  I think I would answer something like this, but of course, these answers miss the fact that this is a parable, which relies upon an element of surprise and a strange twist.  And in this regard, Jesus doesn’t disappoint does he?  A mustard seed?  What?  You can hardly ever see a mustard seed.  And yet, the results are very evident – beautiful yellow flowers that sometimes cover acre after acre in the fields.  I wonder if Jesus knew it really is a weed?  But, maybe that is his point, that which we often discount has the power to make a major difference – often we hear about having the faith of a mustard seed, but here Jesus compares the whole Kingdom of God to it and that it just happens once it has been sown, and continues to happen even when we sleep.  Our job seems to be to make sure we are planted, and then God will bring about the fruit.
Reminds me of what Martin Luther once said about this scripture text; “After I preach my Sermon on Sunday, when I return home, I drink my little glass of Wittenburg beer, and I just let the gospel run its course.”  Yes, I confess I have followed Luther’s example very closely in this regard for nearly 32 years.  But isn’t it true?  Isn’t God’s word not dependent upon my eloquence or how smart we are, rather, it is simply be being here, listening and being open to its message, that God’s word enters our hearts.  Isn’t this exactly The Holy Spirit at work?   And, isn’t our job to allow The Holy Spirit to do its thing by making sure we are here, and allow the word to be firmly planted into our lives.  Then, just as God promises us, we shall indeed flourish and bear fruit.
I remember when I was probably nine of ten, my uncle gave me sunflower seeds to enjoy at a baseball game and I asked him, can you plant these and would they turn into one of those giant flowers?  He reached into his pocket and pulled some sunflower seeds that looked similar and yet kinda different to the ones we were eating.  He said, “Plant these and see what happens.”  So the next day I went down to the local park, I had just the place in mind to plant these seeds.  I took a small pathway through the golf course since it had rained that night before and wanted to avoid huge puddles but still had to go through some pretty muddy spots.  Well, when I got to the park, I reached into my pocket, only to find out I had a hold in my pocket and the seeds were gone.  I was really disappointed.  Well, a month or so went by and it rained hard again, so I decided to take the same pathway through the golf course to the park – and as I approached, I noticed some large, green, leafy stocks, standing there along the path.  Lo and behold, there were my sunflower seeds, now growing up strong and tall, some even had flowers on them.  I’m sure some of the golfers had to wonder why would anyone plant sunflowers in a golf course – but I knew where they came from and not because of my well-intended plans, but more out of curiosity and the willingness to give it a try.  
Yes, we reap what we sow, sometimes without even knowing it.  But hopefully, we sow because we trust in God’s loving grace and faithfulness so then, we will reap the fruits that come from simply being ready to receive and believe in God’s good gifts – such as His word.  So relax this afternoon, maybe have a beer, let God’s word sink in and run its course.
 Blessed Epiphany to you all! 
May the light of Christ shine brightly and guide your path, so
you can follow in His ways of peace and love!

A Litany for Epiphany

What gifts do I bring to the Savior of all mankind?
What gifts do I have that are worthy
of the work of his hands,
the providence of his kingdom,
the beauty of his unfailing love for humankind?

I may bring mercy
when I am wronged.
I may bring love
when I am hated.
I may bring joy
where I find the downcast.
I may bring peace
where I find restlessness.
I may bring grace
when I am slighted.
I may bring patience
when I am working with others.
I may bring bread
when I see hunger.
I may bring gentleness
when I see the weight of the world
upon someone’s shoulders.
I may bring salvation
when I am truly present
with my neighbors.

For I was dead,
but now I am found.
For I was lost in shadows, but I have followed the light,
and I am alive,
in the flesh, asking every day
what child,
what man,
what Savior is this?

Glory be to God.



Second Sunday in Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14 
Psalm 147 
Ephesians 1; 3-14 
John chapter 1:1-18

"And their life she'll become like a watered garden. ...And they shall never languish again."

Let us pray

Merry Christmas!
Yes it is still Christmas according to the church calendar and the 12 days of Christmas isn't through until Tuesday when we observe epiphany.

So how do you make the Christmas spirit last all year long?
Or more importantly how do we keep and practice the message that Christ is 
ever near and that his light always outshines the darkness?

A few years ago youth group return from our annual snow trip in the mountains, we drove past Fontana and I asked them do you want to see the church I used to serve.
They all said yes so we took a quick detour and went past Gloria Dei Lutheran Church... and we also took time for lunch.
I hadn't been to the church for many years so I thought it would be fun to see it again.
But I had quite a surprise.... all along the side of the church next to the driveway to the back parking lot.... stood these beautiful large pine trees!
They really stood out and you could tell they didn't seem to fit in.
I said to myself "I don't remember these huge trees being here"... and all of a sudden it dawned on me they were my Christmas trees!
Yes every year I'd buy a live Christmas tree and then afterwards planned
them by the church.
When I had left they still hadn't amount to much but now some nearly 20 years later they are grown and flourished to the point of anyone driving by couldn't help but to notice them!
To be honest, when I planted them I really wasn't sure if they would last or not,
 but now to see them are so tall reinforced my faith that what we plant matters.
And is it the same thing true want to comes to what we are planting or investing in?
Whether that includes providing good examples of being faithful and caring Christians to our children or youth members... what we do really matters!
And even though we can't always see immediate results of our investments and our actions...they do have a lasting impact if we trust in God to bless them.
I know that sometimes we can't help but to wonder  what difference will it make... you might despair or lose hope.... and even feel like giving up... and yet God promises that the day will come when he'll return our grief and mourning into joy, our sorrow in the gladness. if we just continue to trust in him and to do his will.

I went for a walk in the hills above my house on New Year's Eve
I remember only a few weeks ago taking the same walk and everything looked dry and lifeless.
I thought I never seen it so dry and barren before and I wondered if anything could ever grow again..... but now on this walk the rain had turned everything into a lush green fields.... everything seemed alive again and so vibrant.
And suddenly there were four deer that appeared and enjoyed the green grass and they seemed so happy and content.
Isn't this exactly the cycle of how life works? Year after year we will encounter the dry and lifeless times followed by renewal enjoy and it reminds us
yes it is worth it to remain faithful, to keep doing whatever we can
and keep on trusting in our Lord who promises to always bless our actions.
That's what I found out when I discovered how my Christmas trees did indeed last for more than just one Christmas.
And now I can appreciate it a whole new way why Martin Luther said that if tomorrow would be his last day on earth he would plant a tree today. 
Let's plant.... let's invest.... let's be faithful in 2015 and keep on trusting in the life-giving source of Christ this new year and every day! 

Let us pray

In the latest through magazine it featured a story about a mother and her daughter looking at the beautiful nativity sets on display at the local gift shop.
The mother saw her daughter trying to read the small print on the box in which game, but knowing her daughter wasn't able to read yet, she offered some help in reading the label. But the little girl quickly said oh I know what it says "baby Jesus sold separately".

Today I can't help but to wonder if we haven't taken baby Jesus out of our Christmas celebrations....as if he isn't really there has a focus upon giving gifts to ourselves and try to make our Christmas the best one possible... for us!
Why do we do this?
Separate baby Jesus from the heart of Christmas ...and in the same way don't we also live our lives all too often as if Jesus some kind of separate entity just to be thought of on Christmas and Easter?
How do we keep Christ not just in Christmas...but within our daily lives?
In everything we do and say from Facebook to the football field to family gatherings to Starbucks?
For isn't the message of Christmas quite simply that Jesus is included ---at no extra charge!
Wherever you are Jesus is there as well for God chooses into our world...into in our lives....even to look just like one of us in order to let us know ....you don't have to be afraid 
I have come to set you free and give you lasting joy.
Growing up my mother began a tradition that she would make sure your extra good before Christmas.
One that would get us to help out has she needed for the holidays.
We had a manger scene on the mantle above our fireplace and next to the stable was a bowl of straw. She told us every time we did a good deed we could take a pinch of straw and place it in the manger so that baby Jesus would have a nice soft bed to lay on.
I guess it was her twist on the better be good for Santa message.
But I have to admit it worked, even if it was based on the principle of guilt.
I would go and shovel my neighbors walkway or help my father sell Christmas trees at the YMCA parking lot or help my grandmother wrap her Christmas presents... all to be able to put a little straw into the manger and make baby Jesus more comfortable on Christmas Eve.
And even though I question if you allergy of this practice today he still taught me a valuable lesson of living out my own faith and putting it into action....not just giving lip service to it but being a Christian meant practicing ask of kindness and truly caring every day!
Well I do remember one Christmas where there was still more straw in the bowl than in the manger on Christmas eve to which my mom scooped up the remainder of the straw and place to do the manger as she said "it's a good thing baby Jesus still comes with it we are good or not."
In one way her words cut us to the quick and yet in another way she send it up beautifully....baby Jesus still comes whether we deserve him or not. The gift of his love he is never sold separately but always included when ever we simply are willing to receive it.
And in order to receive it don't we need to show up and open our hearts?
Woody Allen one said the secret to life is just showing up and then being ready for whatever happens.
I am thankful for each of you for showing up tonight even if it is just because it's Christmas eve and it's what you do every year.
I'm even more thankful for those show up regularly to worship faithfully ...to help feed the hungry....to let those know who are going through dark times they are never alone.
They show up because they love the baby Jesus every day and want to let him know that he is included in their lives every day!
Is in that same spirit I encourage all of us to show up and demonstrate our love for Jesus in our acts of kindness...throughout the entire year and reveal to others that Jesus is always included...as he is born anew into our world....through us!
  Jesus is born anew 
  In me and in you!    Amen.

Read Psalm 103:8-13

[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.

- 1 Peter 2:24 (NRSV)

Today's Devotional

Years after the fact, realization of my failure as a mother slammed me like a charging elephant. My children’s father had abused them, and I — their mother — had failed to adequately protect them. Because of my negligence, my sons suffered immeasurable mental, spiritual, and physical pain — pain that I could not heal.

Disconsolate, I lived in unrelenting sorrow and self-loathing. I had left my children vulnerable. How could I have done that? I felt I did not deserve to live. But in one of my darkest moments, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart: “Jesus has already died for that; you should live.”And I knew it to be true. Long before I realized the extent of my sinfulness, Jesus died for all my sins, even this one. I could never make atonement, but Jesus already had.

Thankful for God’s abundant grace, I began the journey toward healing. Through counseling I learned more about abuse and the way it distorts reality. I combatted condemning thoughts by quoting scripture to remind myself that I am forgiven and deeply loved by God. I live — forgiven, accepted, and loved.

Grace Linwood-Michaels (Virginia)

Thought for the Day:

God wants us to live.

Prayer: Father of mercy, thank you for being more willing to forgive us than we are to forgive ourselves. In the name of Jesus, who heals our wounds. Amen.

Prayer Focus: Victims of abuse

Carry Them to Jesus


Suggested Bible Reading

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and take your mat and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"--he said to the paralytic-- "I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"

-Mark 2:1-12 (NRSV)


Today's Scripture

Then some people came, bringing to [Jesus] a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.

-Mark 2:3 (NRSV)



HOW many sermons have we heard about this paralytic and his four friends? We have made much of their camaraderie. But what if the four weren't the man's friends? What if they didn't know him very well -- or even at all? What if one of them just happened to see the paralyzed man, recruit three helpers, and carry the man to see Jesus because they believed something good might happen?

A worker in the school where my wife teaches told us about an 83-year-old woman living near us whom we did not know. This grandmother had reared her grandson from infancy and, in his forties, he had died of cancer. She was worried sick about being unable to pay the funeral bill.

I spoke with the funeral home staff, who agreed to reduce the amount owed by 25 percent if I could raise the rest within two weeks. I called some churches and organizations and told the story to a few friends, and God brought people to help. When I called the grandmother to tell her we had enough money to pay the bill, she could hardly speak. Later my wife and I went to the grandmother's home with the paid-in-full receipt. We stood on the porch, all of us in tears, as she kept hugging us. 

God calls us to be present even to the stranger. Were those men the paralytic's friends? Does it matter? 

Gene Cotton (TennesseeUSA)


Dear God, open our eyes to your needy world. Amen.

Thought for the Day


Find an organization in your area that helps the poor and offer your help.

Prayer Focus

Grandparents rearing grandchildren


The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

- James 5:16 (NRSV)

Today's Devotional

Our men’s Bible study had just ended, and as I was heading for the door I asked Timothy to pray for a concern I had. I thought he would respond by agreeing to pray as I requested, but at a later time. To my surprise he said, “Let’s pray now.”

It’s so easy to say, “I will pray for you” and then go off into our busy day with all of life’s distractions. I know at times I have forgotten or failed to follow through with my promise to pray for another’s concerns.

What a privilege it is to be able to pray for others, to call on the power of God to be focused on someone’s need! To go to the Lord on another’s behalf is truly a blessing.

I have never forgotten that moment with Timothy. Now, when someone asks me to pray for them, I say, “Let’s pray now.”

Rich Robertson (Texas, USA)

Thought for the Day:

Thought for the Day Praying for others is a privilege.

Prayer: All-knowing and ever-present God, thank you for the peace we receive when we come to you in prayer. Amen.

Prayer Focus: Men’s Bible studies

These prayers flow out of real-life experience, particularly of the frail elderly.

The father declared, “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!”

- Luke 15:24 (CEB)

Our daughter found a stray cat on our porch. Without asking permission, she fed him. Then the inevitable happened: Old Tom made himself at home. Soon his furry grey body and quiet purr became an important part of our lives. But he had not given up his street life; he would disappear for weeks at a time. Just when we decided he was gone for good, he would return — a torn and bloody skeleton of a cat.

The prodigal son had some of Old Tom in him. But so do we! While we enjoy the comfort of being part of God’s family, our independent nature at times gets us into trouble, and we end up spiritually — and sometimes even physically — starved and wounded. No matter how many times Old Tom wandered off, it was a day for rejoicing when someone shouted, “Guess who’s back!” Someone would pour him a bowl of milk, and someone else would prepare a warm bath.

Our scripture tells us that God’s welcome mat is always out, no matter how many times we stray. Imagine the cheering for us from heaven when someone shouts, “Guess who’s back!”

Madeline Peterson (Nebraska, USA)

Thought for the Day:

When we stray, God is waiting to welcome us home.

Prayer: Dear Lord, our willful nature causes us to stray from your loving care. Thank you for welcoming back your foolish, straying children. Amen.

Prayer Focus: Teenage runaways and their parents


Today's Devotional

“Mommy!” My daughter’s middle-of-the-night whimper drags me from my cocoon of sleep. She is up yet again with a flu bug that won’t leave her alone, even at two in the morning. Her cries awaken compassion in my sleepy heart, and I use my gentlest touch and my softest voice to make her comfortable again. I pull the comforter up, smoothing her hair with my hand. “Go to sleep now,” I whisper. “Everything’s all right.” She sighs contentedly and closes her eyes.

Back in my own bed, I remember a phrase: the mother heart of God. I have heard the phrase before, but tonight I understand it in a new way. It means I am not alone. I feel alone sometimes. When I am the one with the flu or when I wake up in the dark after a bad dream, I long for my mom’s presence and help. I still need her, even though I am 35 and have been gone from her house for many years. I think I will always need her special love and protection. It comforts me to think that, although my earthly mother is not at my bedside tonight, God listens for my cry. With the heart of a mother, God whispers, “Go back to sleep now. Everything’s all right. I’m here.”

Sara Matson (Minnesota, USA)

Thought for the Day:

God tends to us as a mother tends to her child.

Prayer: Help us to depend on you, dear God, as children depend on their mother. Amen.

Prayer Focus: Mothers

Read 2 Corinthians 9:6-15

God loves a cheerful giver.

Several years ago, just before Easter, my brother and I took a youth group to visit young children at a group home. After playing with the children, we moved into a large living room for refreshments. I could hardly wait for the finale my brother and I had planned. For each child we had brought a giant Easter basket full of eggs and candy. In the center of each basket was a large chocolate egg decorated with pink and green flowers and “Happy Easter” written in icing.

We passed out the baskets and watched the children’s faces. My smile grew bigger by the second. Then the four-year-old girl who had become my friend during the day came to me and offered me her chocolate egg. As I started to say, “You keep it, Sweetheart,” her housemother, who was behind her, motioned for me to take it. I gratefully accepted the little girl’s offering.

Later, the housemother explained, “The kids receive gifts all the time, but they seldom have the joy of giving.”

Like that little girl, we can all find great joy in giving to others the gifts, both large and small, that God has given to us.

Gene Symmonds (Indiana, USA)

Thought for the Day:

Being able to give as well as receive is a blessing.

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for giving to us so that we can give to others. Help us to be gracious recipients. Amen.

Prayer Focus: For opportunities to give.

Read John 11:21-27

Jesus said to [Martha], “I am the resurrection and the life.”

- John 11:25 (NIV)

Today's Devotional

Ever since my son, Steve, died in 2006, I have looked at Easter a little differently. The first Holy Week after his death was hard, but after some reflection, it took on new meaning. As I thought about this Lenten period, I started with Palm Sunday — a day of celebration. We are on top of the world. We are triumphant and joyful.

Often our lives follow the pattern of Holy Week. We have to go through the trials, the days of prayer and preparation, the Thursdays of betrayal and the washing of feet, the Fridays of death, and the Saturdays where God seems silent. We think the Sundays will never come, but they do! Praise God! There is new life — the power of resurrection to sustain us.

I am learning and making note of this process. Life will have more triumphs, more times for fervent prayer, more trials, more suffering, more heartbreak, more betrayal, more death, but also more Sundays when Christ’s triumph over death leads us forward into new life.

Barbara Troutz (Texas, USA)

Thought for the Day:

Any week can be Holy Week.

Prayer: Dear Father, thank you for bringing us into your presence through your Son, Jesus Christ. As he taught us, we pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”* Amen. *Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV).

Prayer Focus: Those who are grieving

2015 Easter Message from Jerusalem
“Who will roll away the stone?”
Mark 16:1-8
Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan
Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Easter Sunday, the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord, is really a feast of Jerusalem. All across the world today, Christians in western traditions are remembering our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, and when they do it they are thinking about Jerusalem. Whoever speaks of the resurrection naturally mentions Jerusalem, the city of resurrection.  Here in Jerusalem, after a long week of suffering and difficulty, after the cross, we rejoice with our sisters and brothers everywhere that Jesus is both crucified and risen. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the hope of the whole world, but especially here in Jerusalem we cling to the news of the resurrection as our hope, our strength, and our courage to face the challenges and obstacles in the Middle East today.  This is the only thing that has kept us in this Holy Land.
We notice in the Gospel text that it was three women who, after the pain and tears of Good Friday, went early to the tomb on Sunday morning, when the male disciples had escaped. After all, it is often the women who are present in the most difficult times – at childbirth, caring for the sick, nurturing the elderly and the dying. On this morning, it was women once again who came with both gentleness and strength to anoint the body of Jesus in the tomb. Although the sun was risen, the darkness of night and grief still covered them. As they approached the tomb, they faced a serious problem: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”If you visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (also known as the Church of the Resurrection), you can see very well what a concern this must have been for the women. In the Coptic and Syrian Orthodox areas you can see tombs which are similar to ones used in Jesus’ time. These tombs were meant for two or three persons, and the openings would have required a very large stone to close the entrance. This was exactly the worry of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome as they approached the tomb of Jesus: “The stone is too large, and we are just a few. The stone is stamped by a military order, and we have no authority. Who will roll away the stone for us?”This question remains for us today in the Middle East. Who will roll away the stone of extremism, of terror and violence, or the persecution of Christians and many ethnic and religious communities? Who will roll away the stones of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia? Who will roll away the stone of the ongoing occupation, of the separation barrier, of injustice? The obstacles are so large, and we are just a few. Who will roll away the stone for us?In this way, we can certainly identify with the women of that first Easter morning. Every day, we hear the terrible stories of Christians persecuted in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya. We see a wave of extremism which grows due to a power vacuum created by incorrect policies forced on the Middle East. We see people using the name of God to kill God’s people. We see shocking images which shake our bodies and silence us. Like the women who left the tomb and said nothing to anyone, we are at a loss for words. In the face of incredible obstacles and things we do not understand, we feel powerless and afraid. Who will roll away the stone for us?Of course, there are many who do have something to say about the Middle East today. Conferences are organized, articles are written, and everyone from politicians and pundits to theologians and television personalities are asking “How big is the stone? What shape is the stone? Who put the stone there?” There is much talk of solidarity from the world, but we worry that it is only talk, and by ourselves we cannot do much for our Christian brothers and sisters and others who are suffering persecution. I’m sure the people in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and Pakistan are asking different questions: “Who will end this? Who will stop the extremists? Who will speak up when God’s image is humiliated and desecrated in the human being? Who will rescue us?”At the same time, the stone of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now seems bigger than ever. Some say the stone should just sit while other more important issues are discussed. Some argue that finding a solution is impossible, that the stone will never be moved, that equal rights and a just peace are just a dream.
Who will roll away the stone? Many believe military power and might is the answer. But when did military action ever bring an end to conflict? When did guns ever bring real and lasting peace with justice? When did tanks and bombs bring life? The women on that first Easter morning did not bring any media with them to the tomb. They did not bring an expert or a strong man or an army to roll way the stone. They came to anoint the one they loved! But when they arrived, they were shocked and surprised, for the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
The stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back! This is the message which gives us hope today. We who are grieved for the present realities of the Middle East are like the women on that Easter morning, walking in the darkness of our grief, weighed down by fear. We come expecting to see the stone. We know well the reality of death, extremism, violence, and the denial of the rights of others in this world. There is no ignoring the occupation or the wall or the unjust policies which stand in our way. Who will roll away the stone for us?The Good News is that the living God has already rolled back the stone blocking our hearts and lives. The stone of the tomb, seen today as the forces of extremism, terror, and injustice, has already been moved aside by the power of the resurrection. These forces hold no power over us! The power of the risen Christ has cleared every obstacle lying between us and abundant life. The power of the risen Christ has rolled away every stone standing between us and the risen Lord. For this reason, we give no power to those who would kill the body, for we know they cannot kill the spirit of the people of the resurrection.
I join my voice with Patriarch Emeritus of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, who said, “Today is a time of martyria, a time of witness.” Martyria does not mean we offer ourselves up as lambs to the slaughter, but it does mean we willingly offer the martyrdom of our hearts and wills, as Christ offered himself on behalf of humanity, once and for all. As Archbishop Oscar Romero once said, “Not all’ says the Second Vatican Council, ‘will have the honor to give their blood physically, to be killed for the faith.’ However, God asks, of all those who believe in Him, a spirit of martyrdom, that is, we must die for our faith, even if the Lord does not grant us this honor.”
Therefore, this present very difficult situation in the Middle East must not be for us a time of groaning and despairing. Instead, in the midst of oppression, terror, and the boiling in the Middle East, we are to stand and ask ourselves, “How does the risen Lord motivate us to be a living witness?” After a long and dark Good Friday here in the Middle East and across the world, I point my sisters and brothers to 2 Corinthians 4:8-10: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”This is not a time to believe in the power of extremism or of those who want to harm the bodies of our brothers and sisters. Now is a time to believe in the power of resurrection, which is the power of embracing the other over denying the other. Christ risen is the power of goodness over evil, love over hate, light over darkness and life over death. Now is the time to be living witnesses to resurrection.One such living witness is Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church. After the killing of twenty-one Coptic Christians at the hands of terrorists in Libya, he proclaimed that now is not the time for revenge, saying, “We condemn these evil acts, but we forgive the perpetrators, as we have been forgiven.” He is a living witness to the power of resurrection over the power of death.Some would say these are stories of weakness. Some would say that the ones who forgive, the ones who show mercy, the ones who are a witness to the Gospel of love, leave nothing in their hands. Some would say it is easy to be a fatalist and throw everything on God. But the Good News of the resurrection is that love, mercy, and forgiveness are hallmarks of strength, not weakness. By his resurrection, Christ overcame evil, oppression, injustice and death, giving life to all. For “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27) and “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:19)Who will roll away the stone? The Middle East today does not need guns, or tanks, or extreme military might to counteract extreme political and pseudo-religious agendas. What the Middle East needs today is the power of love, mercy, and forgiveness. We need the kind of forgiveness displayed by a church which lost twenty-one of its baptized members. We need the kind of witness shown by the many fathers and mothers of the faith, on whose sacrifice the church has grown. We need the kind of love shown on the cross and at the empty tomb—a self-emptying, sacrificial love for the sake of the whole world. This is the love and hope we celebrate on Easter morning! And this sacrificial love, this living witness, is what will raise up the Middle East to a new day of peace, justice, freedom, and equal rights for all.Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb? In these last years and months, and especially in these last weeks, I know that many can identify with Mary, Salome, and Mary Magdalene. People all over the world see the situation here in the Middle East and are at a loss for words. Many of you here have been asking “Who will roll away the stone for us, Bishop?” And I admit, there are days when I am doubtful. There are days when the darkness seems too heavy and the stones too large. There are days of hopelessness which compel us to look only to the cross and the dying Jesus. There are days when Good Friday seems to last forever.But at this moment, I am telling my people to hold fast to the hope of the resurrection. We must always look to the empty tomb, trusting that because Christ is risen, God will never allow any stone to crush our spirit. Because Christ is risen, God will not allow the hearts of politicians and world leaders to remain cold as stone, caring only for their own interests and power. Because Christ is risen, God will not allow these peoples to be divided forever. Because the stone was already rolled back on that resurrection morning, we hold steadfast in the hope that God is at work even now, opening the eyes of the politicians, the churches, and the world—even as God has opened the tomb.The risen Lord is at work here in the Middle East and in the Christian community across the world. He has called us to be living witnesses to the power of resurrection! Therefore, I greet you with this two thousand year old greeting of Jerusalem:
Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!
Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!
Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!
Al Masih Qam!  Haqan Qam!
 المسيح قام             حقاً قامكل عام وأنتم وعائلاتكم بألف خير

4th Sunday in Lent
March 15th, 2015
Numbers  21:4-9
Psalms  107
Ephesians  2:1-10
John  3:14-21
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive with Christ.”
Let us pray.
Today in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d do something a little different and share some of the beautiful reflections, or really, poems, written by St. Patrick and those who followed after him in establishing the Church in Ireland.  As you have heard, the story of St. Patrick is one of forgiveness and deep love.  After being captured and sold into slavery, he was forced to leave his homeland in Scotland  – yes, St. Patrick was not Irish  –  and leave- his family behind.   But St. Patrick escaped, following God’s call to find a way back to his home and family.  But then, he received another call to return to his captors, in order to share the Gospel of Christ with them  -  he not only forgave them, but devoted his life, out of love, so that they would know the richness of God’s mercy and grace. 
I wonder how many times he quoted John 3:16 to them.  “God so loved the world  -  so loved you  -  that he gave his only son for you so you might live.”  In this respect, St. Patrick worked tirelessly to get rid of slavery  -  he appealed to the owner of slaves, once both of them had been baptized  -  to now see each other as family  - together, set free from sin, now only let Christ rule over our lives and follow his example of healing and showing kindness to all people.
The other thing known about St. Patrick and those who followed after him is how they were able to blend the pagan appreciation of nature with a newfound worship of the Creator of Creation.  The Celts believe that to know God was to know God’s creation and to know God’s creation was to know God.  St. Patrick emphasized that the eternal word of God was reflected in every plant and flower  -  which I suppose is why he is also known for explaining The Trinity as a shamrock.  
Let’s read together a beautiful poem that is simply identified as an early Celtic prayer:
The Morning is Yours
Celtic Prayer
Author Unknown
Almighty God creator the morning is yours, rising in the fullness,
the summer is yours, dipping into autumn,
eternity is yours dipping into time.
Vibrant grasses, the scent of flowers, the lichen on the rock,
the tang of seaweed,
all is yours.
Gladly we live in this garden of your creating.
So beautiful  -  think of it  -  how often do you deeply soak in the evidence of God all around us in nature  -  how often do we really hear the birds sing  -  or crickets chirp  -  how many times do we just walk past the amazing blossom or ignore the smells of flowers blooming?  -  lately, the wonderful jasmine or orange blossoms.
Here is another Irish prayer – again, author is unknown  -  but it was written in an ancient Celtic style  -  and like our gospel lesson for today, it suggests that  the light of God shines brightly as we do good deeds and show kindness.
Blessing of Light
Celtic Prayer
Author Unknown
May the blessing of the light be on you, light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine upon you, and warm your heart until it glows like a great fire and strangers may warm themselves, as well as friends.
And may the light shine out of the eyes of you, like a candle set in the window of the house, bidding the wanderer to come in out of the storm.
May the blessing of rain be upon your spirit, and wash it fair and clean and leave many a shining pool where the blue of heavens shine and sometimes a star.
May the blessing of earth be upon you, the great round earth.
May you ever have a kindly greeting for people as you’re going along the roads.
And now may God bless you and bless you kindly.
Showing hospitality just as God has shown us through His Son seems to be a common theme.  Which leads us to my favorite  -  now here is a wonderful vision of what heaven will be like, if I don’t say so myself.
The Banquet of Heaven
Tradition Irish 10th Century
Author Unknown
I would like to have the people of heaven in my own house with a vat of good cheer laid out for them.
I would like to have people from every corner of heaven.  I would like them to be cheerful in their drinking.  I would like to have Jesus, too.
Here amongst them.
I would like a great lake of beer for the Kings of Kings.
I would like to be watching heavens’ family drinking it through all eternity.
Now that one gets us into the mood for some green beer.
And finally, the one probably most familiar to us  -   a blessing for the road  -  and for meeting people out on the highway.
May the Road Rise to Meet You
Traditional Celtic Prayer
May the road rise up to meet you.  May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
May the rains fall softly upon your fields until we meet again.
I share these ancient Celtic prayers and poems for you to use again and again  - not just on St. Patrick’s Day, but through the year  -  to remind you of the awesome beauty of God’s creation, the joyous promise of abundant life, here and now and forever.  And to be grateful for God’s love given to us in Christ, who is our light and our salvation.
A Blessed St. Patrick’s Day to you.
3rd Sunday in Lent
March 8th, 2015
Exodus  20:1-17
Psalms  19
I Corinthians  1:18-25
John  2:13-22
“The fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever.”
Let us pray.
There’s a story about a man who comes to visit a local Church for the first time.  He pulls into the parking lot  -  only to encounter a fellow yelling at him  -  saying  -  “Hey, that’s my parking space  -  you are going to have to move your car.”  Okay.  The new visitor didn’t want to cause any problems so he graciously moved his car to another place.  Then, he comes into the Church and, you probably already know what happened  -  he sat down in an empty pew  -  only to have a couple come up from behind and tell him that he was sitting in their pew and he would have to move.  Again, he got back up and everywhere he started to head to, someone shook a finger at him indicating “Don’t take that place – it’s mine.”  Until, finally, he ended up in the front pew.  As the service began, something began to happen to the visitor in the front.  He began to change his appearance.  Someone called “What’s happening to him?”  -  and then suddenly, they recognized who it was, and, with his outstretched hands with nail prints in the center, he smiled at them and said  -  “I have come to remind  you, I have taken your place on the cross and I will always make room for you!”
Today’s gospel story challenges us to ask, are we the kind of Church that makes space for Jesus   -  and perhaps the place to begin is asking the question   -  Have we made room for Jesus in our hearts?  Or do we need to do some house cleaning?  What kind of clutter, or what kind of attitudes are not in line with making our hearts and our lives a place where Jesus would feel at home in?  I can’t help but to wonder if some of the problem is that we don’t take seriously our need to respect Jesus  -  to obey God’s commandments  -  to, in some ways, “fear” God in order that we are willing to be cleansed of all our idol worship so that we truly make our worship of God our first priority?  As our verse in the Psalm says, “The fear of the Lord is clean.” – rather odd, what does that mean?  Perhaps a healthy fear and respect makes us clean – and we learn that His commandments endure forever  -  and so does our need to obey them.
Isn’t this Lenten season a good time to ask ourselves – and our church community – what needs to be turned over and gotten rid of?  What would Jesus not be pleased about – and maybe even get angry about?  I know this is not the Jesus we like to picture  -  carrying a sheep  on his shoulders or with children all around him – no, this Jesus reveals himself in a way that reveals us to ourselves  -  and how all too often we only care about making sure no one takes our place – or how we are sure to get what we want.  Well, this Jesus demonstrates that this type of attitude is unacceptable – in fact, sinful. 
Yes, I suppose it would be nice to just have a little towelette to wash away our sins whenever we need to.  But that’s not how it works  -  and the Cross that Jesus bore in our place should remind us of that every day.  We need to confess our sins, be humbly repentant, and then have a true change of heart – to be more loving, accepting, showing genuine  hospitality in our homes, our Church, our lives and make our hearts a place where Jesus enters in and says, “Now this is the place where I not only feel welcome, but where I know I belong.”  Let’s clean our house so it can be a home for Jesus.
2nd Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2015
Genesis  17:1-7, 15-16
Psalms  22
Romans  4:13-25
Mark  8:31-38
“Let those who seek the Lord give praise, and your hearts will live forever.”
Let us pray.
According to baseball great, Yogi Berra, who is known for his wise sayings (and Aflac commercials), “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  This strange tidbit of wisdom seems to fit our gospel lesson for today and how we want to practice our Christianity.  As Jesus tells the disciples, the time has come to follow him even if it is by way of the cross.  Peter, speaking on behalf of the disciples says, heaven forbid, Jesus.  No, they want to have it both ways  -  they want to stick with Jesus while at the same time, they don’t want  any part of a cross or suffering.  And isn’t  the same thing true for us  -- we want to be seen as nice, good Christians, but want all the benefits and blessings that come from it, but not the challenge of being committed, which is required from those following Jesus all the way  -  even when it gets hard?
I remember a previous student once telling me, “Christianity is really wonderful and all, but I think it would be much more appealing to people if you got rid of, or at least downplayed, the cross thing  -  that is kinda depressing”.   And, he’s right.  The church would be more successful if we could market it more like Disneyland  -  all joy and happiness  -  Jesus will fulfill all your dreams!   Sadly, some of the churches that are growing are following this approach  -  but the problem arises when suddenly people encounter hardships, when they lose a loved one, or face illness or other crises  -  then this type of approach becomes shallow  -  no longer providing the foundation and hope to see them through these tough times, which is exactly why we need to preach and teach and bear witness to the cross and the Jesus who was willing to suffer, be rejected, and even be killed for our sake  -  for without that, there is no joy of resurrection  -  no hope for us that God intimately knows and shares in our sufferings and yet promises that if we remain faithful, if we are willing to follow Jesus and trust Him through the hard times, we too shall share in His victory.
I wonder how many have on their bucket list  -  to go and help the homeless, or visit those in nursing homes, or volunteer at a pet rescue shelter?  No, Jesus’ words to Peter and the disciples would probably not be the best to put on our church brochure  -  “If you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”  But Jesus says this no less than seven times in our gospels  -  so I have a hunch it’s kind of important.
One of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, for years, rejected Christianity essentially because of this notion  -   to have to deny oneself and follow Christ seemed way too extreme for him.  But then, one day, it dawned on him that it was exactly in doing this that he gained everything  -  that really it isn’t our life to begin with  -  it all comes from God and will return to God  -  so why not commit it to God right now?  He wrote, “This principle runs through all life, from top to bottom.  Give up yourself and you will find your real self, lose your life and you will save it.  Submit to death, death of your ambitions and the desire to just please yourself, and even the death of your whole body in the end, and you will find eternal life and joy now.  Keep nothing back, nothing that you have is really yours.  Nothing in you that has not died will be raised from the dead.  Look only to yourself and you will find in the end only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, greed and fear, which fools us into holding on to things for ourself.  But look for Christ, embrace Him and you will find Him and with Him, everything else is thrown in.”  Why is this  -  because Jesus chose the way of the cross  -  and asks us  - when we come to that fork in the road  -  we choose Him, above everything else, so that our hearts will indeed live forever  filled with true and lasting joy.





Jesus said: "I am the bread of life."




Let us pray.






On Sunday as I played the disciple Thomas in our wonderful production depicting the final days of Jesus' life leading up to Easter, I loved how the play began with Jesus taking the little boy's loaves of bread and fish and multiplying them, and then the boys, played by Jacob and Joshua, went out and shared their bread with all of us. It was delicious bread by the way--sourdough French roll, I believe.




Then as Thomas I went to the party up on the stage and lo and behold I received more bread and grapes--seconds then right after the party I went down to the place where Jesus gathered his disciples for his last Supper and guess what? I got more bread. You didn't know I was eating my way through the play, but it makes me think about how the bread always comes to me as a gift, blessed by Jesus, and it brought home the point of how Jesus gives to us so abundantly. His desire for us is to eat this bread so that we might have abundant life, life so full of love, hope and joy, it shall never end.  




And that's why, as I told the first communion students, my favorite word for Holy Communion is a Celebration.   We are here to celebrate the abundance of God's love, given to us in and through the love of Jesus. And yet, tonight and tomorrow, on Good Friday, we recall how in some ways Jesus gave away everything for us: His security, his own family's love, his health and well being, even his own life. He gave it all away, for us.




Our abundance meant security and sacrifice for him, and perhaps that is the key message of both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, that we need to make sure we don't take our abundance and all the gifts given to us by Jesus for granted, or even at times ignore and misuse them. At times don't we seem to think that the service of this abundance is ourselves, that we have earned what we have, and it's okay to hoard our abundance and not share it with others?  




But when we do that, are we not forgetting who Jesus is and the command he gives to us tonight, to wash each other's feet, to love the way He loves?




Did you hear about what happened at a church in Davidson, North Carolina?   Let me read the article to you.  




A new religious statue in the town of Davidson, North Carolina, is unlike anything you might see in church. The statue depicts Jesus as a vagrant sleeping on a park bench.   St Alban's Episcopal Church installed the homeless Jesus statue on its property in the middle of an upscale neighborhood filled with well-kept townhomes.  




Jesus is huddled under a blanket with his face and hands obscured; only the crucifixion wounds on his uncovered feet give him away. The reaction was immediate. Some loved it; some didn't.




"One woman from the neighborhood actually called police the first time she drove by. She thought it was an actual homeless person."  




That's right. Somebody called the cops on Jesus.




"Another neighbor, who lives a couple of doors down from the church, wrote a letter to the editor saying it "creeps him out."   Some neighbors feel that it's an insulting depiction of the son of God, and that what appears to be a hobo curled up on a bench demeans the neighborhood.




The bronze statue was purchased for $22,000 as a memorial for a parishioner, Kate McIntyre, who loved public art. The rector of this liberal, inclusive church is Rev. David Buck, a 65-year-old Baptist-turned-Episcopalian who seems not at all averse to the controversy, the double takes and the discussion the statue has provoked.  




"It gives authenticity to our church," he says. "This is a relatively affluent church, to be honest, and we need to remind ourselves that our faith expresses itself in active concern for the marginalized of society."




The sculpture is intended as a visual translation of the passage in the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus tells His disciples, "As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me." Moreover, Buck says, it's a good Bible lesson for those used to seeing Jesus depicted in traditional religious art as the Christ of glory, enthroned in finery.




"We believe that that's the kind of life Jesus had," Buck says. "He was, in essence, a homeless person."




The most high-profile installation of the bronze Jesus on a park bench will be on the Via della Conciliazione, the avenue leading to St. Peter's Basilica--if the city of Rome approves it. Schmalz traveled to the Vatican last November to present a miniature to the pope himself.




"He walked over to the sculpture, and it was just chilling because he touched the knee of the Jesus The Homeless sculpture, and closed his eyes and prayed." Schmalz says. "It was like, that's what he's doing throughout the whole world:   Pope Francis is reaching out to the marginalized.




Back at St. Alban's in Davidson, the rector reports that the Jesus the Homeless statue has earned more followers than detractors. It is now common, he says, to see people come, sit on the bench, rest their hand on the bronze feet and pray.




Jesus told us whenever you give to those who have little you give it to Me. So, whenever we share our bread it multiplies and we too experience even more abundance, not less. And isn't that how everything is with Jesus? He loses life as we gain ours, and yet in His giving of His life, God gives Him the resurrected life, the life without end, always and forever young.




So tonight as you take this bread and drink from this cup, let's do exactly what Jesus asked us to do. Remember Him, remember Him homeless, on a cross in pain, present in every person who suffers today, so that when we receive we truly do it with grateful hearts and hands ready to share, for with Jesus, as I found out on Sunday, there is always more than enough to fill our hearts.







EZEKIEL 37:1-14




ROMANS 8:6-11


JOHN 11:1-45






I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live."




 Let us pray




I remember that I was in the fourth grade and every so often we would have a movie day--really looked forward to it. But what was especially fun was how Ms. Anderson would let us run the film in reverse after the movie was over. It was wonderful to watch things that had disintegrated suddenly reconstructed; buildings that were destroyed now come back together, people knocked to the ground spring back to life. I always wondered wouldn't life be great if you could simply push a button and run it in reverse, and especially, the loved ones would return to you.




Reminds me of a funny bit that the comedian George Carlin did when he said he felt we should live our lives backwards. He said "I think it would be a great idea if God reversed things in life. To live backwards, you start off dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in a nursing home feeling better every day, and then you get kicked out for being too healthy. You enjoy your retirement and collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch on your first day. You work tor forty years until you are too young to work and you get ready for high school, you get to drink and party and just enjoy that time.  Then you go to primary school and you become a kid, and you get to play and have no responsibilities. Then you become a baby and get held a lot, and then you spend your last nine among then floating peacefully in luxury, in spa-like conditions. Central heating, room service on tap, and then you finish off as an act of love-making.




But seriously, today's gospel deals with the harsh reality of death and dying and the heartache of loss. And Jesus' reaction to all this is surprising to say the least. "This illness does not lead to death." Well, that's not what Mary and Martha and Lazarus experiences. He did die and they can't help but to wonder "Where were you, Jesus? If you can make the blind see, can't you heal your dear friend before it is too late?" Yes, it is all very puzzling. Even Jesus cries over the loss of his friend and seeing his friends hurt so....  But to Jesus isn't this all a part of life? Are not death and grieving natural rhythms in this over all harmony of what life, true life, is all about?




The key to everything is that Jesus is the resurrection. He has the power to not only reverse things, but transform everything, even death. This was his mission; this is the primary purpose of Jesus coming into the world, to unbind us all from our sin and the power of death. Also we might better know who God is and give Him all the glory and praise. And so isn't the question for us the same one Jesus asked Martha, "Do you believe that I am the resurrection, the way to abundant and eternal life?" And if we say like Martha, "Yes, I believe you are the one sent from God," then shouldn't everything be different? Then shouldn't we get up and get out of the darkness of fear, hate and pride, holding grudges, looking down on others, and all the other things that reflect death, not life?




Yes, even during Lent, we never stop being Easter people, people who walk in the light, who know how to live life now, set free to love; to be joyful, proclaiming death has no power over us. No, we may not be able to live our lives backwards, or push a button and go in reverse, but we have something even better. We are intimately connected by love to the One who has the power to be fully alive, both now and in the future. He has the power to say to us, "Come out, unbind and let us go." Set us free to stop being dead, even now, so we can truly give God all our praise, all our love.







In the love of Christ 

Pastor Thom Johnson 


The More I Understand, The Less I Know

John 3:1-21   

 This may sound contradictory to you, but I’ve discovered that the longer I stay in ministry, the less I understand about preaching. In fact, I know less about preaching today than I knew thirty-five years agowhen I was a seminary student. Back then, I Knew what constituted a good sermon; I knew the rules.And if I had any doubts, all I had to do was ask one of my homiletics professors.


Today, I'm not so sure they knew all that much. Why does a sermon "work" when, by all the “rules,” it ought to fall on its face and die? And why does a sermon not work when it has all the right stuff, just the right blend of humor and drama... and lasts less than twelve minutes? I just don't know.


Do you know what an oh-no moment is? It's that split second that occurs just before the latch catches on the car door when you've just noticed your keys dangling from the ignition. "Oh, no!" You see it, but it's too late to do anything about it.


For a pastor, it's getting half way through the sermon and seeing a sea of glazed eyes and nodding heads.Oh, yes, we can see you... and we can feel the boredom.


The fact is that sermons sometimes backfire, or roll over and play dead, or just limp off into well-deserved obscurity. On other occasions, however, they work and we don’t have a clue what happened!


Unfortunately, sometimes we just don’t “feel it.” We find ourselves telling the old, old story using old, old stories. We trot out every worn-out cliché we can remember--- tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree; he ain't heavy, he's my brother; Christ has no hands but our hands. And we pray that you nice folks sitting in the pews will suddenly develop temporary amnesia and forget that you've heard it all a million times before.


Then the service is mercifully over and we're standing in the doorway, preparing our excuses, "Well, everybody has an off day... I'll do better next week.”


And Joe Jones grabs your hand, and his eyes are all misty-looking, and he's having trouble getting his words out. Finally he manages to mumble, "You don't know what those words meant to me, pastor."


Right behind Joe is Sue Smith who says, "Pastor, I'm going in the hospital Tuesday for some surgery. After that sermon, I'm ready for anything that happens."


The more I understand how it works, the less I know WHY it works!


Late one night, a leader of the synagogue, a learned man named Nicodemus, came to visit Jesus. He said, "Teacher, we've seen you do some pretty impressive things, like turning ice water into Mogen David at that wedding reception. You really ought to be careful about doing things like that. The local wine-makers union registered a complaint about you, and they're a pretty influential group. Now, I think I understand most of what you've been saying in public. But what I want to know is, how do I get into the kingdom of God?


Now, Nicodemus had obviously been listening to Jesus. But the more he thought he understood, the less he actually knew. Outwardly, Nicodemus is the picture of confidence and self-assurance. The first words out of his mouth are: "Rabbi, WE KNOW..." But what exactly does Nicodemus know? He THINKS he knows the source of Jesus' power and the goal of his ministry. He THINKS he has God all figured out and nicely packaged in a neat little box. He THINKS he knows how God can and cannot act in the world.


He THINKS he knows all this. But something, maybe something he heard Jesus say or saw Jesus do, hashim confused and has caused him to question whetherhe really understands everything he THINKS he does.


Nicodemus comes in from the dark, seeking more light. "What do I have to do? He came to Jesus that night looking for a formula, a tried and tested set of rules to add to the church's already lengthy list of rules.


But Jesus responds with surprising image. "You want to get into the kingdom of heaven, Nicodemus? It's easy! All you have to do is be born from above."


This is where Nicodemus “doesn’t get it!” In allfairness, however, the Hebrew words for "again" and "from above" do sound a lot alike. And the two menwere probably speaking in low tones, maybe even whispering. So when Jesus said "born from above," Nicodemus thought he said, "born again."


"How is that possible?" Nicodemus asked. "How can an old man be born again? Is that some round-about way of saying it can't be done; that there's just no hope for an old codger like me; that too much water has passed under the bridge?"


"No, no," says Jesus, "I didn't say 'born again,' I said 'born from above.' If you want to get to heaven, you have to be born from above, from the Spirit." Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the kingdom is a gift given by God, unearned and unachieved. No set of rules, no formula, no activity is going to get you there.


"You must be born from above," Jesus says. The "you" here is in the plural, so what Jesus was really sayingwas, "Y'all must be born from above." Jesus was, after all, from SOUTHERN Galilee.


But many still misunderstand the meaning of this passage just as Nicodemus did (maybe even more so).They talk about this passage as the absolute essential passage for understanding the Christian faith;” they speak of it the way Nicodemus misunderstood it, rather than the way Jesus explained it. They tell you, "You must be born again," if you are to be savedIt’s almost as if they feel that, since Jesus said he didn't come to condemn the world, God must have appointed THEM to do it! Jesus said, "You must be born from above. What is born of flesh is flesh, but what is born of the spirit is spirit." God wants to give us a completespiritual renovation, a head-to-soul makeover.


But that isn’t so easy, is it? The fact is that, like Nicodemus, we’re a nation of pragmatistsWe want to know what we have to DO. Is there a technique that produces the best results? Is there a "Christianity for Dummies" book I can buy? How about a web site I can visit that has illustrated directions?


But that’s not the way it works... do you know what it's like to come in here on one of those Sundays when you didn't really want to be here, when your mind was somewhere else, and to be honest, maybe your heart was somewhere else, as well? Then, during the worship, in the singing, or the praying, or the communion... possibly even in the sermon, something gets hold of you, some mysterious force that somehow lifts a burden from your shoulders, or helps you understand something that had been puzzling you. And your step is a little lighter when you leave than it was when you walked in... That’s being touched from above.


I don't know as much about preaching as I used to. But I understand this much: preaching is more an expression of the Spirit of God than the imagination of the preacher. A sermon is a giftas much a gift to the preacher as it is to the congregation, and the name of the gift is grace.


So when you are present on those rare Sundays when a cool, refreshing breeze ripples across the congregation from the pulpit - instead of the normal output of hot air  cherish it. Where it came from,where's it’s going... who knows? Certainly not me. But when it happens, it's mysterious, it's amazing... itsgrace. AMEN


Okay, it's called a selfie, and it's all the rage these days.  It's when you take a picture of yourself--perhaps along with others and then post it on Face book or Tweeter.  At the Academy Awards the other night, the host, Ellen DeGeneres, took a selfie of her along with many other famous celebrities and it actually shut down Tweeter because so many wanted to share the photo with others.  Well, okay, I'm sure we won't have the same response, but instead of just talking about it, let's do it ourselves.  Let's do our own selfie, and show off the Ashes on our forehead (take picture, post it).  Now that should make anyone who sees this feel guilty, because they weren't here tonight.  Oh, wait, could that be exactly what Jesus is talking about, when he calls the Pharisees hypocrites for showing off how much better they thought they were than others?  Well, I think He is as he tells us to practice our faith out of our love for God and not to show off to others.
In some way, isn't this the whole point of Lent?  I like the fact they call it a selfie, because it's all about me.  See what I am doing; look at me, now cool I am.  Now don't get me wrong, I think selfies are fun and all, but I can't help but to wonder if it isn't a rather perfect metaphor for how we live today.  How we like to make ourselves the center of the universe?  Look at me and my life, it is better than yours.  Isn't so much energy spent on me that we tend to forget others and push God out of the picture?  Which is why we need Lent, which is why we need Ash Wednesday?  "Return to me" says the Lord "with your whole heart." 
Are not the ashes to remind us in no uncertain terms that our lives are just temporary, that we can't justify ourselves or make ourselves eternally significant without the very grace of God.  Isn't Lent and Ash Wednesday our opportunity to be completely honest and confess all the ways we give our hearts out to everything else but God?  First, we need to begin with the love that created us, that breathed life into us.  If we put God at the center of our world, then His love will mend our hearts, so that we give our hearts completely back to Him.  But doesn't it take remembering again and again, and why we need "holy reminders" like ashes, like a daily devotional booklet, like a bracelet across our wrists, all to remind us we need to depend upon God for our very lives, both now and forever.
And yet, the beauty of all this is that God wants to take a selfie with us.  Yes, God wants to be included in our lives, especially in what's important to us, our friends, our family, our daily habits, our struggles, our joys.  And that's why I love what it says on our bracelets, "I have called you by name, you are mine."  When you hear those words, what do you think of?  Baptism, of course, we have those words on our baptismal banner.  And yes, even on Ash Wednesday   it is time to remember our baptism.  That even as we confess our sins and death, we also affirm the love that promises us life. 
And so again this; year, I invite you, as you leave, to wipe away the ashes and then make the sign of your baptism with the water in the font, which we will move to the back of the church and invite you, if you wish, to do this during the final hymn tonight.    Because besides just ash and dust, isn't it also true that we are stardust, because of God's love that is stronger than death?  And that we have a God who is always eagerly waiting for our return, waiting to have our hearts fixed on Him, waiting to give us nothing less than life everlasting and our true self-hood  comes as we are embraced in His love.
  Take time to use the Lenten Devotional prepared by POP and Rock of the Foothills in LaVerne. Here are the first few devotions to get you started and once again an attachment for the entire booklet.
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March 5                                                  Isaiah 41: 10                                                                Philippians 4: 6-7      The theme of this year’s Lenten devotions is “be not afraid.” Be not afraid – that sounds ridiculous. How in the world can you not have some fear, what with wildfires and earthquakes, an uncertain economy, the threat of terrorism, accidents and sudden sickness? Life is full of scary things, and we’re told that we shouldn’t be afraid!? But that’s what the Bible says. Look at Isaiah 41:10 – “Do not fear.” Look at Philippians 4:6 – “Don’t worry about anything.” But words are cheap. How often, when something has been bothering you, haven’t well-meaning friends told you, “Don’t worry.” How are you supposed to turn the worry off?   It’s easier said than done. But God, through Isaiah says more than just, “Don’t be afraid.” He adds, “For I am with you.” Now that could help. If we can be sure that God, the Almighty Lord of all, will be with us, no matter what, then maybe “Fear not” is possible; maybe “Don’t worry” can be more than an empty platitude.  Still God did more than say some words, inspired though they may be. He acted. He lowered himself, became one of us, died for us—and rose, telling his followers, “I am with you always.” In other words, “He put His money where His mouth was.” He lived the same stressful life that we all do, and died the same death we all face—and He conquered! That’s why we can believe those words, and that’s the message of Lent, Good Friday, and Easter. And if you’re still not sure, read Romans 8:31-39, and when you get to verses 35-37, add in your own worries and problems. One final thought; don’t worry about worrying. He took care of that sin too    March 6                                                  Romans 8: 31-39 “31 What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, will He not also give us all things with Him? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34 who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”In 1937, the great Golden Gate Bridge was completed. It cost over $35 million to build and was completed in two phases: the first slowly and the second rapidly. In the first stage, no safety devices were used. As a result, twenty-three men fell to their deaths. However, for the final part of the project, a large safety net was used as a precaution. At least ten men fell into the net and were saved from certain death. Once the net was installed, production increased by 25%. Why? Because the men were assured of their security and they were free to wholeheartedly serve the project.Romans 8:31-39 may be the most comforting and encouraging passage in the entire Bible. These verses definitively declare that: security leads to stability and productivity. Paul offers three hopeful assurances: (1) There is no opposition (8:31-32); (2) there is no condemnation (8:33-34); and (3) there is no separation (8:35-39).In verses 31-32, we are sure, but not secure. These people believe that they have confirmed reservations in heaven.   But they are self-deceived. They are like the legalists of Christ’s day who mistakenly thought that God would accept them on the basis of their own good efforts. In verses 33-34, we are secure, but not sure. Such a person has trusted in Christ as Savior and is held firmly in the protective hand of God. But, when failure occurs and guilt comes in like a flood, or when mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion set in, such a person becomes confused by feelings.In verses 35-39, we are both sure and secure. This person has trusted in Christ and continues to affirm his/her security is based upon the promises of God’s Word. It is as if you were to ask me whose son I am. I would tell you I am the child of my parents and I have proof that would stand up in a court of law—a birth certificate. A piece of paper assures me that I am their son. God has given us a piece of paper—the inspired Word of God. It assures us that once we’ve trusted Christ, we are His. Our salvation is based upon a promise that cannot be broken. It comes from a God who cannot lie.I sincerely pray that you are both sure and secure. If not, I urge you to make sure you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior. Recognize that there is nothing you can do to escape the penalty of your own sin. Throw yourself on the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Trust in His death and resurrection for your sins. He will give you new life, immediate assurance, and eternal security.   March 7                                                                 Psalm 56: 3                                            Back in David’s time, he and others were fearful that their enemies were coming to do them physical harm. Fortunately, today, most of us don’t have that same fear. So what am I afraid of? Am I afraid of doing something wrong and then doing nothing? Am I afraid of moving from my comfort zone? Am I afraid of losing my loved ones, losing my job? Afraid how my children will behave as adults? I’ve been reading these devotions for decades and have never contributed to a single writing except for this year. What held me back? Why am I doing it now? Who cares why! Too much thought on the question “why” only leads to further negative thoughts.  To me the important point is to trust God; who relieved my fears and will move me further on this Divine Road. Do you want to join me? Put your trust in God and come along.      March 8                            Deuteronomy 31:6  Peter 5: 6-7      Be Not Afraid “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; He will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6) “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God so that He may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” (Peter 5:6-7) Our Lord’s Prayer is a pathway to keep us from missing out on the tremendous joy of love, friendship, family, and dealing with health issues, aging, and the loss of work or livelihood. We can live in the power God has given us and make a decision to deal with fear. God does not give us fear. From God we have the power to turn our needs and desires into action—not to be afraid. Life can bring us many tough times, yet we can stick it out as we ‘cast our anxieties on him and we know he cares for each of us.’    Sometimes when fear tries to direct my thoughts, I think of the hymn “He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got you and me brother in his hands. …” and even with disappointments and concerns, I know that God has a plan and I don’t have to figure everything out. I can stay positive because I believe and know that God is in control of my life.
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Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 119:1-8

I Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37


 "Happy are they who observe your decrees and seek you with all their hearts."


Let us pray.


Okay, in honor of this President's Day Sunday (and Valentine's Day Sunday), I thought I'd share some quotes by George Washington and by Abraham Lincoln, and I'd like to see if you can guess who said what. Oh, yeah, just to make it interesting, I'm going to throw in a few quotes from Martin Luther, too, since we are a Lutheran Church and all. Okay, let's see how you do.


Who said "In politics as in religion, my beliefs are simply and few. The leading one is this, which truly embraces all the rest; to be honest and be just, meddling as little as possible in the affairs of others where it does not concern us. If this maxim was adopted, wars would cease and our swords would be converted into tools to reap our harvests, which would be more peaceful and abundant."


Right answer: George Washington. Like the wisdom Jesus offers in today's gospel, this too seems like solid advice.


Okay, who said "My concern is not whether God is on my side, my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right."


Yes, Abraham Lincoln said that. Those who paid attention (and receive my emails) will remember this quote I sent out last Wednesday on the actual day of Lincoln's birthday. But it is a good challenge for us today to ask ourselves, and our leaders, are we concerned about being on God's side and following his commands of forgiveness, humble reconciliation and not prideful vengeance or the need to be right. Actually, Washington said something very similar, "Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do, then do it with all your strength.


Okay, who said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. It will either cease to exist or be united to serve the greater cause."


Yep, Abraham Lincoln again, who did all he could to keep the Union united. Perhaps his words would be useful in today's congress, and they also are in harmony with what St. Paul tells us in our second lesson, "For we are all God's servants, working together, whether you are in God's field or in God's building.'


Okay, who said this, in light of Valentine's Day, "Let the wife make the husband be glad to come home and let him make her sorry to see him leave."


Actually, the same fellow who said, "Who loves not women, wine and song remains a fool his whole life long."


Okay, the extra quote probably gives it away. Yes, Martin Luther said it. Luther actually had a lot to say about his Katie, at one point saying he would not trade all the riches in the world for her and that after Christ, no one deserves more credit for making Luther who he was. One quote that is practically identical for George Washington and Lincoln is how they felt the same about their mothers. Lincoln said, "All that I am or ever hope to me, I owe to my angel mother." While Washington said, "All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her."


Nice to see both paying such nice tributes to their moms. Not sure what Luther said about his mother, couldn't find anything specific, but I'm sure he was grateful for her, too.


Okay, who said, which is one of my favorite quotes, "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" Almost sounds like something Jesus said.


Right, Abraham Lincoln said this. He also said, "The only person who has the right to criticize someone else, is the one who has a heart to help.


Just like Jesus, the message is clear, we need to follow the example of forgiveness and compassion for others, for even to insult someone is to bring judgement upon yourself. Isn't it interesting how Lincoln and Washington, men we hold in such high regard, seem to uphold the values and principles Jesus declares as truths to live our lives by. Although both Washington and Lincoln are clear that the government should never be one specific religion, over and over against other religions, they both concur that the Bible offers both the wisdom and inspiration to govern our nation with both mercy and justice.


With this in mind, so who said, "The gracious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which the author of heaven itself has ordained."


Yes, George Washington.


Perhaps a good way to honor these great men on President's Day is to take time to read what Jesus has to say to us, to truly absorb his words and put its wisdom and truth into practice, just like Washington, Lincoln and Luther did. For them, we truly will make Heaven smile, and we will be on God's side, turning enemies into friends and promoting peace, unity and justice for all of God's children.













Isaiah 58:1-9


Psalm 112:1=9


I Corinthians 2:1-12


Matthew 5:13-20






"The light shines in the darkness for the upright, and the righteous are merciful and full of compassion." 




Let us pray.




One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons is the one where Peppermint Patty is talking to Charlie Brown, and says, "Guess what, Chuck?  The first day of school and I was sent to the principal's office for not being considerate of others.  I tell the principal it was your fault, Chuck." 


"My fault," responds Charlie Brown, "How could it be my fault?  I wasn't even there, why do you blame me?"


To which Peppermint Patty responds, "Well, Chuck you are my friend, right?  You should have been a better influence one me." 




Sounds reasonable?  Or is Peppermint Patty asking too much of Charlie Brown? 




Likewise, is Jesus expecting too much from us when He says, "You are the salt of the earth."  Or  "You are the light of the world."  Does that mean it's our fault if people are being inconsiderate to each other, or choosing darkness over the light of Christ?  Well, maybe it is, if they look to us and instead of seeing love and mercy, they witness prejudice or expressions that are judgmental and hateful?  How can others see the light of Christ, if by our actions we only reveal more darkness?  Yes, Jesus has high expectations of us, to be more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees.  Well, what we know about the Scribes and Pharisees that might not be too difficult, but Jesus is very serous about our responsibility to be a good influence to others, because isn't it true how else if not by our example can those around us see firsthand what it means to walk in the light of Christ?




To say this can't help but to recall the example of so many of the saints here at P.O.P., whose light has inspired me over and over again.  And again, it is such a treasure to walk out in the Memorial Garden and see their names.  I was moved to recall Pat and Sid Corpe and how they were such a bright, shining light when they stepped up to keep the food pantry going so that today, as we added our 275 cans of soup last Sunday, we can continue to provide hope and light to those struggling with the pain and darkness of being unemployed and being hungry.  I also fondly recall their shining example of love as they struggled to take care of each other.  Never once did I see them get depressed or seem overwhelmed, but instead they said over and over again, "It's all in God's hands." 




Take a moment and recall, who has been a shining light for you in the midst of your darkness?  Who has been the salt that has made your life more fulfilling and worth living?  If you can write them a note of thanks this week or give them a call, or maybe send them a Valentine O'Gram to say thanks to them, or let us honor thee memory of those who go before us in how we in truth can now be a shining light to others. 




So ask yourself, are you being the kind of influence you want to be to those around you?  Are you allowing the light of Christ to shine right through you in your actions and your words?  Just like the flashlight, doesn't it all begin from what is inside us and how well we are taking care of our soul or spirit--don't we need to take care to put in fresh batteries or receive the energy we need from the Holy Spirit, or how else can we shine forth?  How can we be fresh and vital to others? 




So, our checklist as Christians from Jesus is pretty simple.




  1. Keep your inner spirit always refreshed and full of the energy it needs from the Holy Spirit.
  2. Don't hide your light by feeling insecure, or don't distract others by turning off your light. 
  3. And always remain a little salty (Okay, you can take that any way you want).
  4. Be sure to teach others what it means to follow Christ, not just in our words, but in our actions. 




Yes, I suppose it is a lot to ask, but then, let's remember who is doing the asking and recall all that He has done for us, all out of love.




















ISRAEL 42:1-9




ACTS 1034-47


MATTHEW 3:13-17




"See, the former things have come to pass


and new things I now declare;


before they spring forth I tell you of them."




Let us pray.




The other day the difference between Southern California and Minnesota was 95 degrees.  The other difference was three feet of snow while in California we only had 3 inches of rain all year long.  In fact, last year was the driest year ever recorded. 




Yes, we are in the midst of a drought and we never should take the gift of water for granted.  Likewise, how many of us suffer from spiritual drought where one's life of faith seems dry or lifeless, when we feel unmotivated to practice what we believe, and sometimes wonder what difference does my commitment to Christ and to my church really make?  And I wonder if the problem again is the tendency to take both the church and God for granted, just like the gift of water.  We totally assume it will be there when we need it, that we can turn it on and off just like a faucet.  Well, the truth is, yes, God will also be there for us, but having hearts to both receive and share Him may in fact dry up and become hard and barren as a lifeless desert, which is why I'm always thankful that Baptism of Our Lord Sunday comes at the beginning of the New Year. 




For isn't affirmation of our baptism just the opportunity we need to once again be revived by the waters of baptism and truly appreciate being a child of God and realize just how exciting it is to share in the very mission of Christ, to be His servant and to light to each other and to the world.  I know, you are well familiar with my emphasis on the need to reaffirm our baptism on a daily basis, because it is the crucial key to living a life of faith that is vibrant and overflowing with joy and enthusiasm.  But I am not the only one who feels that way, in fact, Martin Luther expressed it even more radically and forcefully when he said, "Indeed, if I had the matter under my control, I would not want God to speak to me from heaven or to appear to me, but this is what I would want, and my daily prayers are directed to this end, that I might have the proper respect and true appreciation for the gift of baptism."  Wow, why would he say such a thing, I mean, it's just a little water sprinkled on our heads and a few words uttered out loud?




Well, just like water make plants become alive and grow, our very souls and spirits grow as we receive God's promise that we belong to Him and He is well pleased with us and nothing can change His love for us. 




This is so powerful.  After Jesus' baptism he had the strength to go into the wilderness and face all the devil could offer, because he had experienced the nourishment of God's Spirit and received the promise from God's Word.  And isn't this exactly what we need when we face our own wilderness?  When life becomes dry and lifeless, turn back to the fountain of your baptism.  Now be honest, how many of you are using your baptismal bowls and remembering your baptism everyday?  Which is why we offer something like Refresh, or other Bible Study groups and devotionals. 




I like what Bonnie Bowman said the other day that perhaps we should advertise "Refresh is our Spiritual Drought Buster," or maybe we should call it your "Weekly Spiritual Shower so You don't get stinky."  Likewise, Sunday worship is the very nourishment we need to remain ever growing so that when we face a life crises, the loss of a loved one, we realize we never do it alone.  We are God's beloved child and we belong to a family that truly cares. 




So as you make your New Year's resolutions, I encourage you to put one at the very top of:  Remember your baptism everyday.  Watch what happens, how life itself becomes more meaningful and joyful. 




No, baptism is not a one time event, it is something that takes our lives to grow into, a life-long process that enables us to grow ever closer to Christ, and to one another, because we all share the same baptism, the same Spirit, the same Lord, and the same mission of love as we begin a New Year.  Let's turn to the song sheet that has been handed out and affirm who we are, what we are about and that God is leading us into tomorrow by strengthening our sense of purpose and mission today.






Building on The Promise of Tomorrow




on the Promise of Tomorrow
Standing on your grace for us today
For your love has bid us come and follow
Precious Lord: light the path, lead the way


Verse 1 - Fellowship
We are your people, your family, your own
By water and Spirit begun
Lead us to love with the love that you have shown
Bind us together as one


Verse 2 - Mission
Open our eyes to the harvest, ripe and full
Darkness in need of your light
Send us to shine out to every darkened soul
Send us to waken the night!


Verse 3 - Discipleship
Feed us and lead us that by your grace we grow
Give us a heart that is true
Deepen our faith, and your will teach us to know
Build up our lives in you


Verse 4 - Service
All that we have, all we are, and hope to be
All this we offer to you
Make us your body, your hands, your voice, your feet
Willing your service to do


Verse 5 - Worship
O Lord, we long to be where your praise is heard
Come to us now in this place
Here ‘round your table, and spoken in your word
Blessing shines forth from your face 











Isaiah 11:1-10


Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19


Romans 15:4-13


Matthew 3:1-12






"I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me."




Let us pray.




So who was John the Baptist?  What better figure to discuss than just after celebrating the joy of baptism.




Well, the main thing we know about John the Baptist, besides liking water, is that he was forerunner for Jesus--The voice crying out to help us prepare for his coming.  He is the one who tells us to wake up and repent while there is still time.  Well, to help us better understand John the Baptist's role, we have a little song written by him that I want us to sing together in his honor, okay?  Messiah Christ is Coming to Town (to the tune of Santa Clause is coming to town.)




Messiah Christ is Coming to Town




Oh, you better watch out and listen to my cry


You better get ready, I'm telling you why;


Messiah Christ is coming to town.




He's not making any list,


Or checking it twice,


He already knows we're naughty, not nice.


Messiah Christ is coming to town.




That's why I'm out here crying


That's why I was sent


The whole world seems dying


It's time to wake up and repent.




So you better watch out and listen to my cry


You better get ready


I'm telling you why,


Messiah Christ is coming to town.




Okay, there you have it.  John's mission is to make sure we know what's coming; yet do we know what's coming?  Do we know what or who is coming and perhaps more importantly do we know when or how He is coming this Christmas?  We are told by John the Baptist that the one who is coming will baptize us by the Holy Spirit and fire.  Well, not sure if I saw any fire a few moments ago, but I certainly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Precious little Joann's face reveals to us once again the face of the one who is coming.  The face of a mere infant so that we are more apt, more ready to receive God, not as some heavenly old guy in the sky, but no, with a face that is easy to love.  And isn't that the wonderful mystery and joy of who is coming? 




Through the gift of the baby Jesus, we too shall be born anew, just as we proclaim the waters of baptism,  and that through His birth we receive all the gifts intended for us.  Gifts better than those you can get at Macys or Target.  Were you paying attention?  What part of the baptismal service comes directly from the words we heard in our Old Testament lesson?  Okay, who is awake out there?  Right, the verses in Isaiah serve to tell us what gifts that Joanna as well as all of us receive through our baptism.  The gift of wisdom and understanding, the gift of counsel and might, the gift of knowledge and fear (or what I think better translated as respect) for the Lord.  Gifts that come from the Spirit.  Yep, no doubt about it.  John the Baptist was right.  As we baptize in Jesus' name, we experience the gift and power of the Holy Spirit.  And isn't it the Spirit that teaches and guides us how to best prepare and receive Jesus as he comes to us?  For the answer is so simple we often miss it.  To receive Him as a child, be like a child.  For only as a child do we see His gift of love and only as a child is our hearts open enough to both receive and give His love.  Yes, John the Baptist is right. It's high time we learn to live out our baptism, to repent, forgive and be renewed as disciples of the one who is coming.  As William Sloan Coffin, pastor of Riverside Church in NYC, put it this way:




           "We have learned to soar through the air like birds, to swim through the sea

           like fish, to soar through space like comets.  It's now about time we learned   

           to walk on the earth as children of our God." 




Which means to live in harmony with each other, that we see Christ present in each other's face, that together we will be united in our song of hope and peace.  That just like Joanna and John the Baptist, we belong to God and can rejoice in his coming.
















Isaiah 2:15

 Psalm 122

 Romans 131:11-14

 Matthew 24:36-44



"Keep awake therefore for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming."


 Let us pray.


 Okay, I know most of you here probably heard this one before, but I can't resist sharing it again because it fits so well with our Advent theme and today's scripture lessons.


 The local pastors were standing by the side of the road holding up a sign that said, "The End is Near!  Turn yourself around before it is too late."  As cars passed by, they planned to hold up their sign and yell out their message.  The first driver saw them and he yelled out in response, "Oh, be quiet, you religious nuts!"  And he sped on, but then from around the curve, they heard a big splash.  One of the pastors looked at the other one and said,"Maybe we should change our sign to read, "Bridge out ahead" instead, what do you think?


 The message of Advent is "Be prepared--wake up--for the end is near."  Yet, today's gospel lesson leaves us with a rather disturbing image of Christ coming suddenly and taking one home to glory, while leaving the other behind.  Who wants to be left behind?  No one.  But I wonder if this message of Advent needs to be changed.  Instead of being motivated by fear and judgement, and to turn ourselves around before it is too late, that the message of Advent is to simply warn us that there are plenty of pitfalls that we need to watch out for, not only for how we prepare to celebrate another Christmas, but in general as we practice our faith on a daily basis.  And how do we receive Christ is he comes into our midst day in a day out?  Instead, isn't the session of Advent our wonderful opportunity to slow down, to light candles, to pray for peace, to read God's Word and essentially put ourselves in harmony with God's ways and be able to walk on His paths instead of our own? 


What does it mean to be in tune with God's ways?  I love the example given to us by the prophet Isaiah, "We shall beat our swords into ploughshares, our spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; they shall learn war no more." 


Rick Steves is the famous traveller's guide who is on every night with his commentary on places to visit throughout Europe, and I love watching his show.  He also happens to be a good Lutheran as well!  But he has recently completed a show on Israel and Palestine and had a preview that I watched last week on a special web cast.  And what I love about his approach is how crucial it is to see and appreciate people for who they are, that if we can see others as God's children, the path to peace begins.  And what I also love about Rick Steves is his optimism, his hopefulness, even in the midst of what seems to be a hopeless situation.  


A few years ago he also did a powerful show on Iran and showed to us a people who really wanted peace as much as we do.  I highly recommend going to his website and watching it as well as clips from his upcoming show about the Holy Land that will come out in April.  But to me, Rick Steves is a powerful example of an Advent prophet, someone who tells us never give up hope, never get tired of walking in the light of the Lord, because this is the path to peace and salvation.


I encourage you to follow what today's Psalm urges us, to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, to pray for unity and harmony through God's word and this might be exactly a way for us to become ready and turn ourselves around and follow God's ways. 


 I close with a poem called "Toward the Light" that encourages us to head toward the light this Christmas.


 Toward the Light

 By Ann Weems


Too often our answer

 to the darkness

 is not running to


 but running away.


We ought to know by now

 that we can't see

 where we are going

 in the dark.

 Running away is rampant

 Separation is stylish

 Separation from friends,

 from self,

 from God.

 Run away,

 don't talk about it,


 Run away and join the

 army of those who have already

 run away.


 When are we going to learn

 that Christmas Peace

 comes only when we turn

 and face the darkness?

 Only then will we

 be able to see

 the way forward

 in the Light of the world












Malachi 4:1-2

 Psalm 98

 II Thessalonians 3:6-13

 Luke 21:5-19


 "Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right!"


 Let us pray.


 "By your endurance, you will gain your souls."  Hey, Jesus, this sure doesn't sound like good Lutheran doctrine.  Hasn't Jesus heard about being justified by God's grace through faith?  Salvation is a gift, not something we earn by our endurance.  So, what's going on?  Does this mean that Jesus really wasn't a good Lutheran?  For that matter, even St. Paul, the one Luther used to develop and realize the principle of grace in today's second lessons, seems very concerned with doing good works.  He is pretty straight forward, "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat."  St. Paul urges that everyone should do their part, there's no room for laziness in the church community.  Everyone needs to work and earn their way, and to never get weary at doing what is right. 


So what is going on here?  Where is grace found in today's scripture readings?  Well, I must admit, even though these scripture readings make me uncomfortable, they do seem quite appropriate for Commitment Renewal Sunday, where we emphasis that our commitment and how we put our faith into action really matters.  Yes, everyone does have to do their part for the Lord's ministry to be successful and effective. 


But you all know this, and I was thinking this is probably my 19th Commitment Renewal Sunday with you, and so the whole notion of pledging one's allegiance to God by offering of our time, talent and treasures is old hat for you. But I wonder what would happen if I preached the sermon Jesus preached today.  You know, I confess that at times I have always wanted to be a hell and brimstone kind of preacher, just once, although it is truly out of character for a Lutheran pastor and especially for me who always emphasizes God's love and grace.  But what if I told you that your commitment to Christ may require you to forsake all the comforts of this life?  What if I proclaimed that you have to be ready to be persecuted, hated, perhaps even arrested and thrown in prison all because you signed that commitment renewal card?  What then?  Would you do it?  What if it meant being forsaken and betrayed by your family members or friends?


 If some of them would even want to put you to death, what would we say then?  Would you still sign your name to it or declare that Christ comes first in my life?  Maybe this is exactly what Jesus is getting at, that by our endurance, our willingness to be truly faithful, that we will discover how precious the gift of grace truly is.  Maybe then we'd realize that Jesus said "yes" to all these things for our sake, His commitment went all the way to the cross, that with Him grace comes at a price.  Not cheap grace, but a costly grace that in turn asks us to be just as dedicated and willing to pick up our cross for the sake of following Jesus.


 I don't know, at first when I read today's gospel lesson, I thought wow, Jesus must have been having a bad day to say such awful things to his disciples, to expect so much from them. Yet, now I think, well, Jesus himself didn't hold back on any of these things.  No, he endured it all for the sake of our souls. 


 Let's ponder that, let it truly sink in, as we renew our commitment to Christ.  Our action is simply in response to what Christ has done for us.


 May we simply look to the cross and then say, "I will never become weary in doing God's work.  No, it is always a joy to serve our Savior. 










 Job 19:23-27a

 Psalm 17:1-9

 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

  Luke 20:27-38


 "Now he is God, not of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are alive."


 Let us pray.


A man went to his lawyer and told him "My neighbor owes me $500 and he doesn't want to pay up.  What should I do?"

  "Do you have proof?" asked the lawyer.

  "Nope" replied the man.

  "Okay, then write a letter asking him for the $1,000 he owes you" said the lawyer. 

  "But it's only $500" replied the man.

  "Precisely.  That's what he will reply and we will have the roof we need to nail him." 


 The Sadducees were also looking for proof, but not really about what is life like after death.  No, they wanted to prove that Jesus was just a hoax, so they were determined to set up a trap, a trick question that nobody could really answer, and it was a whopper.  A woman married to seven brothers?  Come on, but they wanted to show how silly it is to believe in the resurrection and that if Jesus believed in it, then he too must be a lunatic, a false prophet.  But how does Jesus answer their riddle?  By showing how preposterous this question really is--marriage in an earthly institution, established to serve us here and now, but in the life that is to follow, everything is brand new.  You simply can't compare apples to oranges.  No, heaven is a whole new ball game and the reason Jesus says the Sadducees don't get this is because they have limited God to this life, and made him the God of the dead, not of the living.  Isn't that the whole point of the resurrection?  You can't die anymore; you are fully and abundantly alive. 


 Which reminds me of another story about how a little boy's cat died while he was at school, and the mother was very concerned about how to tell the boy about the cat dying.  So when he came home, his mother set him aside and gently said "Good ole Tiger has passed on and is now in heaven with God." 


To which the little boy responded, "What does God want with a dead cat?"


 And isn't this the point?  God isn't interested in that which is dead.  No, he is the God of the living, the one who makes all things new and declares to us even now we are "Children of the resurrection."  Now, isn't that a cool thing to say?  I think I'm going to put that on my business card.   "Hi, I am a child of the resurrection!"   Wow!  For isn't that in a nutshell what this whole being a Christian is all about?  We put our complete trust and even our lives into the hands of the Living God, because in His eyes we never die.  We shall always remain alive and vital.  And Jesus Himself is our proof.  He rose from the dead so we too live, which makes death nothing to fear. I think of that when we consider all the veterans who gave their lives for our sake, that even though in many cases they were so young, at least death is not the end.  No, the power of their sacrifice lives on, just as they do all because God is the God of the living, and in heaven there will be no more war, and no more fears shed over such a terrible loss.  Jesus himself ends the hopeless tragedy by being our eternal comfort, by opening the door to life everlasting once and for all.  That changes everything.  And why shouldn't we live today as if Jesus rose from the grave, yet, why shouldn't we live as children of the resurrection here and now?  Why shouldn't we live the way God sees us both now and forever, fully alive? 


To quote Dietrich Bonheoffer, who wrote this while he sat in a prison cell waiting for his death in Nazi Germany:


"I have discovered that it is only my living completely that one learns to have faith to completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself or act like it's all in our hands. No, we must throw ourselves completely into the arms of God and the arms of Christ upon the cross, as we share in God's sufferings we share in the hope of a true life and love like His, and His mercy and grace will lead us to God himself, who is the source of all life."


Yes, why shouldn't we be fully alive now?  Because we shall live forever, and I know my Redeemer lives.





















Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18


Psalm 149


Ephesians 1:11-23


Luke 7:20-31






"I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the Saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you ..."




Let us pray. 




All Saints Sunday is kind of a paradox.  On one hand it is a time to remember past Saints that have gone before us and now dwell in God's eternal Kingdom, and yet it is also a time to affirm that we all are saints here and now because of Christ living in us.  In both cases, isn't it all about relationships?  Not even death can end our relationships with our loved ones, and through Jesus' death we are united to him in sharing a new life and it all comes together at this table when we share in the feast without end.  So, in this Spirit, please join with me in a prayer written especially for this day and for this time of thanksgiving.  And when it comes time, please feel free to mention aloud those you would like to remember this day.  










It is nice to be remembered, isn't it, which is why our Memorial Garden is so meaningful as we look over those names out there and recall their examples of faithfulness and devotion for God.  And don't you wonder at times how will you be remembered once you leave this world and enter God's home?  What stories will be told about you as others see your brick?  Will your example of faith inspire others?  Will they say, "Wow, he really served Christ by how he served others!"? Or "Boy, remember how generous she was.  She gave her last penny to help the Lord's ministry at the church."  Yes, what will they say about you?  Will you be remembered the way you'd like to be?  Well, guess what?  Sainthood begins today, here and now. It is never too late to be one of those we remember as feeding and clothing the hungry, or welcoming the stranger or offering mercy and forgiveness to those who have gone astray.  No, you can begin today and carry forth a witness that will be remembered in how you care for the sick, visit the lonely, be there for each other in time of grief.




Jesus tells us quite clearly you will not only be remembered later, but be blessed now if you do these things.  Now, Jesus clarified being blessed isn't the same thing as being happy or satisfied now.  No, being blessed could mean being hated, excluded, and made fun of now.  But later on, because of your devotion to Christ, you will be joyful and experience God's own gratitude. No, you may not be remembered or honored now, but if you remain faithful to God, your example will live on.  Jesus himself promises us that, and backs up that promise with his own life, his death and suffering, his new life, which turns us all into Saints.




So, All Saints Day is indeed a paradox--if we live for Christ today, and not for ourselves, then our lives will live on as others recall our love for Christ.




Sainthood comes from being united to Christ, both now and forever.  And what better place then to be united to Christ then at this table, with this feast to strengthen us in our desire to be disciples for Christ.




I close with a poem by one who is remembered as a saint because of his legacy of love while he was alive, although for such a short time.  Mattie Stepanek only lived to be 15, became an ambassador for Muscular Dystrophy through his books and appearances and his heartfelt faith in the God who created him and was ready to welcome him home. One of his last poems is entitled Eternal Echoes.










Our life is an echo


of our spirit today,


of our essence


as it is caught between


our yesterday and our tomorrow.


It is the resounding


reality of who we are


as a result of


where we have been


and where we will be


for eternity.


                                      by Mattie Stepanek




Live for Christ today and you will be remembered and treasured as a Saint forever.















Jeremiah 31:31-34

 Psalm 47

 Romans 3:15-24

 John 8:31-37


 "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."


Let us pray.


 I love the story about a woman named Georgene Johnson.  At 55 she decided to enter her first race, a 10K race throughout a beautiful part of Cleveland in the fall.  She trained hard to get prepared for it and felt she was in the best shape she had been in for years.  On the day of the race she lined up with the other runners and off she went.  After about an hour or so she began to wonder, this sure is taking longer to get to the finish line than she thought, but she just followed the other runners and the scenery was beautiful.  After two hours she knew something wasn't right, and then she saw the sign, "only" 12 more miles to go!  What?  Turns out Georgene Johnson had lined up with the wrong group of runners, not the 10.K group where she belonged, but with the 26 mile group where she didn't belong. But she decided to just keep going, to do the best she could and see what would happen...  And she prayed, "God, give me strength."  Well, lo and behold, she finished the marathon in 4 hours and 4 minutes.  Afterwards when asked about it she replied, "Well, it isn't the race I trained for, and it wasn't the race I entered, but for better or worse, it was the race I was in."  


 Aren't her words so true for all of us?  The race we find ourselves in isn't always the one for which we had signed up.  And I wonder if this wasn't especially true for Martin Luther?  I mean, all he did was put some suggestions for reform up on the church door, and suddenly he found himself in a race he hadn't planned for.  And yet he hung in there and did his best to finish the race, and what kept him going?  The ever-present strength of God's grace. 


Today's Psalm, Psalm 47, was Luther's favorite.  I think that's why it is always included on Reformation Day.  In fact, he used this Psalm to inspire him to write A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.  God is our refuge, our fortress and strength.  He is always there to help us in trouble while we are running a race that turned out to be much more than what we had bargained for.  The Psalm was the one so many turned to give comfort and hope after 9/11.  And the basic message is one we need to hear over and over again, "Be still, then, and know I am God...I am with you.  I will be your stronghold." 


So how is your race going?  Getting tired yet?  Feel like you are running it alone?  Well, Luther felt the same way at times, and wasn't shy about saying so.  Yet in his honest confession, and in his most desperate moments, God would come to his aid through a spiritual father in the monastery, through the local Prince who protected him, and through a loving wife who often challenged him to keep going.  All these things were unexpected and signs of God's mercy.  When I lived in San Francisco. I participated in a race called Bay to Breakers, as it started in the downtown area by the bay and finished out by the sea through the Golden Gate Park.  It included going up a steep incline they called Heartbreak Hill.  And it more than broke your heart.  Well, after you go up and over it, you feel spent, and enter what they call the Panhandle, the entry way into Golden Gate Park.  Well, just as I was about to give up, suddenly two unexpected things happened.  First, all the houses along the Panhandle were simultaneously playing the famous Jackson Brown song, Running On Empty, which made me laugh and feel inspired, along with the people with water cheering and yelling, "You can do it!"  The second thing was the Chaplin I was working with at the time suddenly appeared from behind me.  He had given me my T-Shirt that said, "Run the good race and always persevere."  He just smiled and said   "I've got your back--Hey, I think I can smell the ocean."  That's all I needed.  I was able to keep going, sensing God's strength.


Reformation Day is our chance to declare A Mighty Fortress is Our God--an ever present help and refuge.  So we, like Luther, can affirm we are never alone, but are always completely embraced by God's grace and love.  So keep running, no matter what race you find yourself in, God is with us and cheering us on to the finish line.







Habakkuk 1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
II Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10
"Commit your way to the Lord, put your trust in the Lord and see what God will do."
Let us pray.
Martin Luther once preached on today's gospel and how the disciples just didn't get it.  They thought faith was a commodity, and so they foolish asked, "Increase our faith," while Jesus says size doesn't matter, it is all about what you do with it.  Luther said think of faith as a key that opens the door to God.  The size of the key doesn't matter.  It could be big or small, what matters is for us to use it and open the door so then God can act in our lives, and it will be God who moves the mountains.  We just need to trust in His power. 
Someone who was an example of faithfulness in my life was my Uncle Raymond Johnson, and I thought of him and felt his presence as his brick is right over there.  Isn't that what's so wonderful about this new Memorial Garden--taking time to remember our loved ones, seeing their names, affirming their love, rejoicing over their new life? 
Well, my uncle was also a Lutheran pastor.  In fact, he was the one who thirty years ago placed his hands upon my head and asked God's blessings upon me as I promised to fulfil my vows of ordination.  And Uncle Ray wasn't flashy.  He never needed much attention.  He simply did what God asked him to do, the epitome of a humble servant for God.  And his role model gives me insight into Jesus' words in our gospel today, which perhaps sounds rather puzzling at first.  Doesn't sound like grace or love, that the slave should simply do what he is commended to do.  There's no room for complaining or protesting according to Jesus.  They simply need to acknowledge that they are slaves, only doing what they are supposed to do." 
I know, sounds strange to our ears, but I wonder if it is because we have such a sense of entitlement.  We feel we've got the right to sit and get what we want and when we want it.  Nobody better tell us we need to drink or eat later, no way.  I deserve the very best, need to get my way because I am worth it.
But this was not Uncle Ray's attitude.  No, to him whatever came his way was just fine for him and considered it such a blessing. No, to him the only one who was entitled and worthy of special treatment was Jesus.  And yet, isn't this what makes Jesus' words so powerful that of anyone, He is the one who came to serve us, to kneel and wash our feet, to do God's bidding without complaint or saying "Hey, I'm the son of God, I deserve better.  No, Jesus is speaking to himself--my mission is simply to do what God asks of me.
The question for us then, are we willing to do what Jesus asks of us?  Or do we think we are too good, too busy, too tired...or go ahead and fill in the blank.  What is your excuse?  The disciples excuse was that their faith was too little.  But Jesus essentially says, "Excuses, excuses, excuses.  You got everything you need, because God gives it to you.  It's whether or not you decide to use it or put into practice, or simply trust and turn that key! 
That's what I learned from my Uncle Ray.  He was always willing to turn that key, always ready to humbly serve His God.  And why? Because he put God first, and that way no excuse was good enough to let him off the hook. 
And today, it seems rare to find Christians who live like Uncle Ray, although this garden is a testimony to many here, who did come plenty of Saturdays and gave hours to complete it.  No excuses, but rather a commitment of their love for God. I can't help but to wonder if my Uncle Ray was alive today and was preaching this sermon, he would call it like it is.  We worship ourselves, our time, and our sense of entitlement above God, instead of simply saying well, of course, Sunday Worship comes first, of course service and bible study is a priority above everything else, because that's what God expects and my number one desire is to do my Lord's bidding.  He alone deserves my utmost, He alone is my God and I do love Him above anything--yes, everything else.  I am the Lord your God, you shall love no other Gods before me.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind, soul and strength.  No excuses.
Sounds like crazy talk for our modern ears..."But Pastor, come on, get real."  Well, what could be more real than the word of God?  What could be more true when He tells us, no, orders us,
"Commit your way to the Lord, put your trust in Him and what God will do."













Daniel 10:10-14, 12:1-3


Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22


Revelation 12:7-12


Luke 10:17-20






"Bless the Lord, you angels, you mighty ones who do God's bidding, who obey the voice of God's word."




Let us pray.




So can anyone tell me who is Michael and all his Angels and if anyone says Mike Trent and the Anaheim Angels of Los Angles, well, I'm sure that's not who we are talking about.  No, today is Michael and All Angels Sunday.  Who here ever remembers hearing such a thing?  I know your thinking sounds pretty Catholic to me.  So again, who is Michael?  Not even St. Michael for that matter, just Michael.  How many remember the movie a while back called Michael starring John Travolta?  He was just an ordinary kind of guy who just wanted to do good and then when being threatened by evil forces we saw his true nature as suddenly these huge wings sprouted from his back. 




I really don't remember too much more about the movie than that, but yes, Michael is mentioned in the book of Daniel, our Old Testament lesson for today, very briefly, and he is described as the good prince and protector of the people.  Here he is not portrayed as an angel, but someone who will deliver us.  But then the author of Revelation picks up on this, as we heard in our second lesson, and Michael here is shown as the leader of the angels to fight against Satan and his angels.  And he is depicted as the one who slays the dragon or the ancient serpent, the Devil.  Now we suddenly remember all those statues we've seen, especially all throughout Europe and all those paintings that show this guy with a sword or a spear, killing a dragon, or cutting off the head of a snake.  Ah, you have seen what I'm talking about.  One of the favorite images of many artists, I guess because it is so dramatic, but that's good ol' Michael.  Well, now that we got that cleared up, what are we to make of Michael and all angels?  Surely, I mean what does it have to do with my life?  Well, I think of a story that the author Rob Bell tells in his new book, What We Talk about When We Talk about God.




And if you think this is a plug for coming on Wednesday night to our Refresh program and attend our wonderful Adult study where we are discussing this amazing book, well, you're absolutely right.  It is a plug and by golly, you need to take time and join us.  Okay, back to the story.




A few years ago I was speaking in the Boston and afterward a woman told me about the time she had been in the hospital for ongoing cancer treatment, lying in bed thinking that she wasn't going to make it.  She remembers being lower than she'd ever been before, filled with despair, wondering if she was going to die soon, when the night-shift nurse entered her room and began to lovingly care for her.  Throughout the night the nurse returned repeatedly, checking on her and calming her and reassuring her and speaking to her in a way that lifted her entire being and gave her hope.  In the morning she woke up feeling like a different person.  She then asked the morning nurse for the name of the woman who had been caring for her, giving a detailed description.




The nurse said that no one who fit that description worked on that floor of the hospital, not to mention the night before in this woman's room.




What do you do with that story? 




As a pastor, I've heard countless stories like this one over the years.   People sitting at their kitchen table, realizing that they don't have enough money to buy groceries, when the doorbell rings and they open the door to find their front porch filled with bags of food.  Really strange, odd, surreal sorts of stories.  Some of them can be attributed to basic coincidence, but over the years I've heard tons of them--and not just from really zealous religious people who carry large Bibles with their names engraved on the covers, but also from educated, somewhat cynical people with PhDs who own companies and have expertise in fields so technical I barely understand what it is they do all day.




Now some people hear a story about the woman in the hospital and immediately say, "Yes, of course!  That was an angel taking care of her!  They're all around us, watching over us and guiding us and protecting us."  And then they proceed to quote verses from the Bible while telling their angel stories. 




Others hear people responding like this and roll their eyes, dismissing it all as crazy talk that belongs in the same category as talk of demons and spirits and blind people suddenly seeing.  They are quick to point out that no one has any proof of such things and that it's superstitious ideas like these from earlier, mythological religion that, if left unchecked, lead to wars and ignorance and all sorts of really bad religious shows on cable television.




One says, "Of course she was an angel!"


The other says, equally emphatically, "Angels don't exist!"




I tell you this story about the woman in the hospital because when I talk about the God who is beyond all limits, I'm talking about the kind of intellectually honest faith that is open-minded enough to admit that some phenomena have no rational explanation.  To be closed-minded to anything that does not fit within predetermined and agreed-upon categories is to deny our very real experiences of the world.  We're here, this is real, subatomic particles travel all possible paths and then choose one when observed, and there is no precedent for such a thing.  This is not avoiding important things, like evidence and proof and logic; this is the honest acknowledgement that some events, experiences, and truths simply exist outside of those particular categories.  To believe that this is all there is and we are simply collections of neurons and atoms--that's being closed to anything beyond that particular size and scope of reality.




But to believe that there's more going on here, that there may be reality beyond what we can comprehend--that's something else.




That's being open. 




I think it is also what we call faith.  And isn't it faith that leads us to come and receive a prayer for healing?  Yes, it may be just some symbolic gesture, but then again who knows what power and hope is delivered through the laying on of hands, of submitting to God and say I trust in you to provide for my needs, and I really don't care if you use angels or medicine or both, as long as I sense you working in my life and my need for healing. 




Personally, I believe God uses us as His angels, to reach out and provide the care needed to heal and give hope.  In fact, as it declares in our Psalm, didn't we all fit the category of angels when we do God's bidding and obey the voice of God's word?  Yes, God uses us again and again and we are all a part of this wonderful mystery of how God accomplishes His will and purpose.   Sometimes, perhaps we don't have to be too concerned over who Michael is and if angels exist or not, but rather to affirm that with God, all things are possible. 




As Rob Bell puts it so well:




I believe God is with us,


around us,


beside us,


present with us in every moment.


The question then,


the art,


the task


the search


the challenge,




The invitation is for you and me to become more and more the kind of people who are aware of the divine presence, attuned to the spirit, present to the depths of each and every moment, seeing God in more and more and more people, places, and events, each and every day.




Now, you all have to get this book and come this Wednesday, right?  And that's why I am thankful for Michael and All Angels Sunday, that it might push us to be open, ready to receive angels in our midst, ready to experience and celebrate God for who God truly is.














Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
I Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10
"Have mercy upon me O God according to your steadfast love; in your great compassion blot out my offenses." 
Let us pray.
I don't know about you, but as I heard in today's first reading about Moses having a rather heated discussion with God about the fate of the people, we have this amazing verse and conclusion:  "And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that He planned to bring on his people."  What?  Can God do that? 
We usually don't think of this all powerful, eternal God changing His mind.  Yet, he does.  And why?  Because of his very nature.  God is a compassionate God.  It takes Him a lot to get angry, and He judges not on whether we deserve it, or whether his patience is at an end, no, he judges according to His steadfast love.  God may change His mind, but His love never changes.  And with love, isn't there always a better way?  Sometimes, at the minute things change for the better, like we saw this week with the whole dilemma of what to do regarding Syria.  Even though there are still a lot of details to be worked out, wasn't it a surprising change of events when Russia said it would back a proposal for Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons?  Who saw that coming? 
And isn't the same thing true when it comes to the parables Jesus told in our gospel lesson?  I mean, it seems utterly hopeless.  How can you find one sheep and in the wilderness?  Most likely it already has become dinner for the wolves.  Surely chances are pretty good that the sheep is history, but still the shepherd goes out looking for him.  And if that isn't crazy enough, he then leaves the other 99 unattended out in the wilderness.  Even as a kid I thought to myself this shepherd is out of his mind.  Why not just be content with the 99 you have safe and sound than risking it all for just for one sheep.  And we all thought it, didn't we?  If that one sheep is stupid enough or so easily distracted as to get lost, well, he probably deserves to die.  It's his own fault. 
Well, that's clearly what the religious leaders in Jesus day thought.  Sinners will always remain sinners.  Why bother with them?  Why not concentrate on the 99 who are easy to care for?  Well, this is why Jesus probably would be so scandalous to them.  I mean, how can there be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents versus those 99 who do what's right, always there for the potlucks and are such nice people.  Come on, Jesus, this is crazy talk, and also very offensive.  But does he stop?  No, he tells another crazy story about a woman who loses a coin and stays up all night looking for it and doesn't give up until she finds it.  And then what does she do?  She has a party to celebrate.  All her friends and neighbors come over to enjoy good food and drink.  And I know we've all thought it, she probably spent more on that party then what the lost coin was worth!  Craziness, and yet Jesus doesn't let up, and even rubs it into the Pharisees faces right in the midst of their grumbling.  Don't you see it?  God changes his mind.  God judges based on love and compassion and rejoices in the sinner who repents. 
Today I can't but wonder if we have lost some of the edge in these stories.  If they are lost, how truly scandalous and offensive they are.  Perhaps we need to put it into context, ask who is it that you feel is unworthy of God's love, who deserves to remain lost or are out in the fringes?  Maybe at times that is how you feel about yourself.  But the good news is that we have a shepherd who never gives up, calling out our name, who searches out the darkest places possible to shed the light of His saving grace.  Because Jesus knew and wants us to know that's how valuable we are to God, that's how valuable every single person is to God, whether they are in Covina or Syria. 
God's compassion knows no limits, not even to God.  God will find us and then let the party begin--as God declares, "Rejoice with me."










Proverbs 25:6-7
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1 7-14
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever...  so do not neglect to do good and share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God."
Jesus' lesson about humility reminds me of the T-shirt we gave to Bishop Nelson at his farewell luncheon--"I am proud to be a humble Lutheran."   No, it just doesn't seem too fitting to brag about being humble.  No, you just do it, you serve others and quickly do good and not to get the attention or praise of others, but simply because you want to please God and make him happy by both our actions and attitudes.  For doesn't Jesus remind us that in the end "all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted?"  And one thing is for sure, God sure does a good job at keeping us humble!  And yet, in our society today, isn't it all about getting ahead, trying to be first or the best, because don't we think we deserve it?  But again, isn't the truth that we undermine and run against God's way when we help out or share what God has given us only for our own personal gain?
I love the way comedienne Lily Tomlin puts it, "The trouble with the rat-race is that even is you win, you're still a rat."  Which takes us to today's theme, "Thank God for Work."  Yes, we have this wonderful irony of Labor Day, the day when no one works!  Well, I need to add a brief side note.  Since tomorrow is my birthday and it falls on Labor Day, which it did on the day I was born, so as my mother loves to remind me, she truly labored on Labor Day, but as she says, all her work was worth it when she got me.   Ahhh.  "Ok, got to keep humble."  But isn't it interesting how we call giving birth or going into labor, and it is hard work, isn't it?  I'm sure Stephanie would agree, but then comes Zoey and the work is worth it, isn't it?  And isn't this the beauty of doing God's work?   It always makes a difference, especially to God.
I remember once Mother Theresa was asked, "How do you measure the success of our work?"  She thought about it and gave the person asking the question a puzzled look and said, "I don't remember that the Lord ever spoke of success.  He spoke only of faithfulness in love. This is the only success that really counts." 
Being faithful, that's all that's required when it comes to the job description of being a disciple of Christ, yet being faithful means being willing, doesn't it?  It means saying, "Oh, God, here are my hands, let me do your work."
I heard our new Bishop of the ELCA say that the problem with the decrease in membership in the Lutheran church isn't with those who are not members or don't seem to be interested.  The problem is with those who are members and are not being faithful themselves in their commitment to Christ who have become uninterested and lazy and reflect that back to those who are watching and wondering if they want to come and be a part of the church.  The truth is we have a lot of work to do, but we do it simply by being faithful and because we want to please God. 
Isn't this the mission of the church?  To please God by how we invite and care for others, especially those who often feel left out?  It is our job to provide hospitality in a world that is way too often inhospitable and even down right mean and uncaring.  To Jesus, everyone who has become uninterested and lazy and reflect that back to those who are watching and wondering if they want to come and be a part of the church, the truth is we have a lot of work to do but we do it simply by being faithful and because we want to please God.  Isn't this the mission of the church?  To please God by how we invite and care for others, especially those who often feel left out?  It is our job to provide hospitality in a world that is way too often inhospitable, and even downright mean and uncaring.  To Jesus, everyone belongs at this table, which means we need to invite everyone to that font, and just like Zoey, have the chance to truly affirm they are a child of God; they truly belong at the banquet.  God intends the church to be one big party--a happy hour no one wants to miss!  Think about who you can invite, and think about how you can be faithful in wanting to attend God's party as well.  Yes, we have got some work to do, but it's God's work, and it is always worth it, and it sure makes God happy!
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May 20, 2019



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