A Message on Missions: Am I Player or a Spectator?

Sermon:           A Message on Missions: Am I Player or a Spectator
Scripture:        Matthew 9:35-10:8
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                June 18, 2017, Proper 6/Ordinary 11/Pentecost

At the recent Presbytery meeting, Dr. Hunter Farrell, Director of the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, began his presentation by showing a slide of a college-aged student on missions. She was an attractive young woman sitting on the ground and she was surrounded by children of color presumably from Africa.  Her arm was extended out with her cell phone in hand and was smiling for the camera but all the bedraggled children in the photo with her looked puzzled and confused.  The only one smiling in the picture was the young woman.missions_trip--selfie

Dr. Farrell went on to say that the Church, particularly the Presbyterian Church and other Mainline denominations, were once known for the power and impact of their mission endeavors. He said, “Whereas there was a time we were known for building universities, schools and hospitals, the church’s mission seems to fulfill the needs of the missionary as opposed to the ones for whom the mission is to be done. We’ve exchanged meaningful mission for mission selfie experiences that last for a fleeting moment.  Sure, they make us feel good but is our work making a meaningful impact in the long term?”[1]

I’m grateful First Pres DeLand still has the notion of strategic mission impact the Presbyterian Church was known for!  Yesterday, 17 members of our church family got back from a ministry with a community in Nicaragua we have had a relationship with for over twenty years! We launched the House Next Door decades ago to meet the social and emotional needs of the working poor in this part of Volusia County.  Dr. Hugh Ash and members of this church began Hugh Ash Manor fifty years ago which has served thousands of modestly-incomed older adults with affordable housing.  We need to be proud of what God has done with, in, and through us as a church but we are here today as a new generation of disciples in this congregation and we have some decisions to make.  Shall we continue with our legacy of making strategic mission decisions that make a lasting impact or will we revert to what so many churches in our country are doing today and participate in projects that only give us quaint mission selfies?

Turn in your Bible to Matthew 9:35. We will read verses 35 through 10:8.  Dale Bruner, Professor of New Testament at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington reminds us that our text today begins a new section in Matthew’s gospel.  The first major section was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount beginning in chapter 4 which instructs the Church, i.e. you and me, on how to live a God in-Spirited life.  Chapters 8 and 9 give us examples on how Jesus lives those values out through several healing stories which lead to today’s section which begins what we could call a sermon of the biblical doctrine of mission and evangelism.[2]  Our text today provides answers to these three questions:  Why does mission matter? What is the first step in doing missions? What is the goal of mission? Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Matthew 9:35-10:8

35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10.1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.[3]

Why does mission matter to God? Jesus’ style of ministry was by way of a walkabout. In other words, he was a peripatetic, i.e. someone who walks and talks and thinks about deep issues while they are walking out amongst the people. How all of us in ministry need to remember that Jesus did not own a desk!  The reason mission matters to God is right here in the first few verses of our text. Verse 36 reminds us that as Jesus walked around, he saw the people and had a broken heart for them.  The religious and social systems of their day had failed them and Jesus’ heart broke.  They were trying to make it through life without any direction, solace, purpose, and hope. Matthew reminds us that they are like sheep without a shepherd with no one willing or wanting to care, protect and feed them spiritually, socially or politically.

Why does mission matter?  Because Jesus has a broken heart for the people.  He has compassion for them which for Matthew meant Jesus’ very gut was turning over in pain for them.  We forget that our word “compassion” literally means to “suffer with” another.  Why does mission matter?  It’s because God in Christ is suffering with the people.

Dr. Bruner has an interesting insight on this. He writes, “Mission is not motivated by Jesus’ disgust for people because they are such sinners…mission is motivated by the (more) appealing fact that Jesus (has) compassion for hapless people.”[4] We do mission not because people are pagan sinners but first and foremost because as disciples we are to viscerally feel their pain and to respond to it.  Why does mission matter?  Because broken and lost people matter to Jesus and they are to matter to us as well.

This leads us to the second question from our text:  What is the first step in doing missions? Verses 37 and 38 have Jesus making a poignant observation:  The harvest, i.e. the depth of need and suffering is great but the day laborers are few.  The first step in missions is not to go but it is to stop and to pray.  It seems counterintuitive as we see a need and want to immediately go and deal with it.  But Jesus sets the right order in place.  Jesus says, “Ask the Lord of the harvest to thrust out day laborers to glean the harvest!”

First, note that the harvest is already out there to be had.  God has already done the planting, watering, fertilizing and growing. The harvest is waiting for someone to go and work in it. Second, it is God who sends out the workers. A precise reading of verse 38 is that we are to pray for God to “thrust out” workers into the harvest. God does the sending of workers.  God is the one who casts out day laborers into the world’s harvest.

Why is that important?  Because it reminds us that mission is a Spirit-instigated and driven reality; it’s not something we simply sign up to go do and feel good about it; it is something that God initiates and literally casts us out into!  Friends, this is why the first movement of mission in the church is to pray.

Prayer is the first thing we do because we are to ask God which part of the field we are to do mission in ourselves. Our temptation is to try to take on the whole harvest as a church and do it all but this isn’t realistic; there is simply too much out there to do.  So we pray that God will show us which part of the field we are to work and harvest. God knows our personal and collective gifts and graces and when we start with prayer, we are asking God to first choose which part of the field we are to harvest and then based on that particular field, choose the day laborers who are gifted and graced to accomplish the ministry outlined for us. We pray so that our mission and ministry is not guilty of low aim whereby we have mission-selfie opportunities but that we dare to dream God-sized dreams to be change agents in the field we are called to work!

Why is mission important?  Because Jesus’ heart is breaking for people. What’s the first task of mission?  Pray the Lord of the harvest will send the right people to the right mission at the right time. This leads us to the third vital question our text raises.

What is the goal of mission? Matthew 10:1 says that Jesus gave them authority over the unclean spirits as well as the ability to cure people. The goal of mission is for you and me, this very church, to be the extension of Jesus’ authoritative Presence in the world exposing brokenness where there is pain, challenging unjust social policies and mores when there is oppression, and earnestly seek reconciliation and wholeness where there is tension, bigotry, and discord. As the extension of Jesus in the world, we are to unmask consumeristic idolatry, we are to heal prejudice, and we are to demonstrate to others outside the church community what living in the unity of the Spirit of the Lord looks and acts like. Unlike mission selfies that shine the light on us, our missional outreach is to shine a light on others and what God is doing in their lives.

Here’s a question for you trivia buffs: What is the only publicly held and owned team in the NFL? The Green Bay Packers!  It is not owned by a family or a corporate sponsor but by the fans of the Packers themselves! So, when in January 2012, The Green Bay Packers were to play the New York Giants for a Divisional Playoff game at Lambeau Field after a night of nearly a foot of snowfall, the fans who had an investment in the team came to shovel out all the tons snow in the stands and on the field.  They City workers did not do it. A private company did not do it. The fans who owned and had stock in the team did it!  At 4:30 in the morning of the game, nearly 1,300 people showed up in the subfreezing temperatures to wait for the privilege to blow, shovel, and clean the stadium from tons of snow. On that day, the spectators became the players on the field. It was the spectators who made the game possible in the first place![5]

Today’s scripture is Jesus’ way of telling you and me that we are not to be spectators of the mission of the church, we are to be the actual players.  Mission isn’t for just a few or for the professional ministers; mission is the way ordinary disciples are called to be the authoritative Presence of Christ in the world. You may not know the mission you are to accomplish.  You may not know if you are the one who is even the person to do what you think you are to do. You may not believe you’re qualified to go and cast out the spirits of this world and cure others and reunite spiritually lost sheep to God and to others. And do you know what?  That is okay.  It’s God’s job to reveal the field of harvest we are to reap. It’s God job to choose, select and then dispatch the workers into fields to do ministry.

And why does God do it? Because people matter to Jesus and he has a broken heart for them. And what are we to do about it?  We are to pray for workers who will go to the fields God has chosen for us to tend and reap.

First Pres is in a position to make new and exciting strategic investment in God’s harvest field, beloved, just as we have in decades past but God needs our help. Jesus needs all of us in this church to pray the Spirit will identify the mission field we are to work in and then reveal those among us who will be the authoritative Presence of God in seeing that mission through. If you are willing to pray that the Lord of the Harvest will do that through us, I invite you to stand right now. Let us pray.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley,org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] Dr. Hunter Farrell at a plenary presentation for the June meeting of the Central Florida Presbytery, Wycliffe Bible Translators Discovery Center on June 7, 2017.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook. Matthew 1 -12, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 445ff.

[3] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[4] Bruner, 448.

[5] “Packers fans wait hours for chance to shovel Lambeau Field,” by Alex Morrell, Green Bay Press-Gazette, January 13, 2012. Accessed on 6/14/2017 from http://content.usatoday.com/communities/thehuddle/post/2012/01/packers-fans-wait-hours-for-chance-to-shovel-lambeau-field/1.

The Trinity and the Law of Three

The Trinity and the Law of Three

Sermon:          The Trinity and Law of Three
Scripture:       Genesis 1.1-5
Preacher:       Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:               June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

Today on the church calendar we are taking the time to pause and celebrate Trinity Sunday. Following immediately last Sunday’s Pentecost celebration, Trinity Sunday is a day we remember the character and type of God we love and serve. The Trinity has been much debated by scholars and religious greats for 2,000 years and I do not kid myself into thinking I have anything important to add.  Yet, I want us to think critically on the Trinity and today’s scripture passage will provide us the foundation from which to look at the oft-ignored Trinity of God.

This morning’s scripture is a timeless old passage many people have heard before. I am speaking of the first description of Creation in our Bible. This morning, the lectionary has us reading through the entire week of Creation which goes into chapter two of Genesis but I will be reading simply the first five verses of Genesis 1.

1:1-2 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. 3-5 God spoke: “Light!”
And light appeared.
God saw that light was good
and separated light from dark.
God named the light Day,
he named the dark Night.
It was evening, it was morning—
Day One.[1]

The Creation.  I am choosing to only read the first five verses because the Creation Story itself gets people thinking about all sorts of things, some of which are not too helpful. Engaged discussion on the Creation has often brought disagreements between fellow Christians as well as derision from those outside the Church. Why is this?

Well, we tend to look at life through binary lenses and we bring those binary lenses into our reading of Scripture.  For example, a binary way of looking at the world sees things as either this way or that way. Complex issues are reduced to either black or white; now I don’t know too many people whose lives are as simple as black or white.  I imagine everyone here would say that his or her life has many different shades of gray in them!  So, with the Creation accounts, our human tendency is to assume one of two positions as we read this Story.  On one hand, we read the Story from a pre-critical point of view and understand that the earth is only between 6 and 10,000 years old according to the biblical accounts of Creation and the history of humankind in the Bible. Pre-critical readers understand that each day of creation was a literal day and it took God six full days to create the universe and humankind.[2]

On the other hand, others will read this Story from a second point of view called a critical reading of the Story.  They are going to point to the sciences of geology and biology and argue that the world is really 4.5 billion years old. They are going to see the comparison and contrasts with the Hebrew telling of creation with other ancient creation narratives from other cultures.  A critical reader will hold that the Hebrews took elements of the ancient Sumerian story of Gilgamesh and rewrote it in a way that highlighted the Jewish understanding of a monotheistic God.

Consequently, when we look at the world through binary lenses, our faith and intellect are forced to choose between this way of understanding Creation (i.e. six literal days) or that way of understanding of Creation (i.e. the Hebrews co-opting another culture’s narrative). Binary thinking often posits two sides against the other.  Either “I’m right and you’re wrong” or “you’re wrong and I’m right!”  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a third way to approach the scriptures? There is.

You see, a third way of hearing our text today is simply taking what the pre-critical and critical reader say for what they describe.  Together, pre-critical reading leads to a critical reading that ultimately delivers us to a third, post-critical way of reading Scripture; post-critical reading also called a literary reading of the text, is simply looking at what the Scripture says about God’s relationship to His creation and to people.  A third way of approaching scripture does not bog itself down into the minutia as to whether or not the world is 6,000 years old or 4.5 billion years old.  A literary reader may find it interesting that the Hebrews may have taken passages of her Creation Story from the Gilgamesh narrative.  But what the third way of reading scripture does is to force us to intellectually, spiritually and emotionally reflect on how this creative God and this Story is active in our lives this very moment. It reads the Bible as it is at face value.  This third way of approaching Scripture opens up new understandings and possibilities for ministry!

Are you still not sure about the challenges of looking at the world through binary, black and white lenses?  Look at our country’s election this past year.  Look at the recent election in Great Britain this week!  It was the Labor party over and against the Conservative party.  It was the Democrats over and against the Republicans. The binary way thinking and looking at the world and values has shut down Washington as opposing sides of Congress draw lines against each other.  Today’s elected officials seem to have forgotten how the Founding Fathers understood that American Democracy would only work when both sides could come together and compromise thereby creating a fresh, new way forward. The political term we use is a bipartisan stance worked out through a compromise which can only occur when there is an engaged relationship with the other.[3] The authors of our Constitution seemed to understand either/or thinking would not make our country great.  They assumed our leaders would be virtuous enough, humble enough to come together in a relationship and honorably move forward with an as yet undiscovered new way through a dilemma.

It’s at this point I want to remind us that as Christ-followers, we do not look at the world through binary lenses.  Our Christian faith is built upon a ternary understanding of God and the universe; our view of the world is built upon the Law of Three, i.e. the Trinity. Sadly though, many Christian profess Trinitarian thinking but live a functional binary spiritual relationship with God focusing solely upon God the Father and God the Son, Jesus to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps they focus on God the Father and God the Holy Spirit but cut Jesus out as being superfluous. Somehow, we forget the way forward is made possible by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit moves us from dualistic thinking of this or that to a both-and-even-more possibility!

We see this in today’s scripture. It was not just God the Father who created the heavens and earth.  The scripture says “God” created, breathed life in the universe.  In Genesis 1.26, the scripture relates that on the sixth day of creation, “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  Here is one of the first overt references to the Trinitarian Godhead. God did not say, “Let me make humankind in MY image” but instead, “Let’s make people in OUR image.”  And like our text today indicates, it’s the Father and Son manifest in Holy Spirit who broods, floats, relaxes and hovers over the chaos and bringing form and life from a previously empty state of being.

Scholar and Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault, says that in this way, the third force, i.e. the Holy Spirit, acts as a midwife for the Father and Son. It acts on the desires of the fullness of God to bring into life something brand new.[4]

The Law of Three and the Trinity is a dynamic process that brings birth, growth, and change.  The interplay and relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit are generative in that together they create something new, a fourth previously unseen way forward! Their interplay at Creation brought forth the universe and all life.  It is inherent in the Law of Three to spin its collective energy outward in ever-widening circles of artistic, creative newness.

The Reverend Bourgeault gives us examples.  When a seed, the earth, and the sun come together, a fourth item is created called a sprout.  When flour, water, and a fire’s heat is added, a fourth is created called bread.  When a plaintiff, a defendant, and a Judge come together, a fourth way is created called a resolution.  When a ship’s sails, keel and helmsman work in synchronicity, a ship’s course is created and sustained.[5] When a proton, a neutron, and electron have interplay, a fourth entity called an atom is formed.[6]  When God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit dance together, light emerges and creation is formed. The Law of Three means the whole Christian notion of Trinity is not some ancient theological abstract; on the contrary, when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit spins and dances and encounters a church or a person, a fourth way forward presents itself through new life, new energy, or a possibility for new ministry to be born![7]

This past Christmas season, I was sitting on our patio watching a fire in the pit.  There were two logs left and their light grew dim and the crackling sounds were no longer heard.  I’ve learned through years of camping about the law of three.  I’ve seen many fires that dwindle down to two pieces of wood and the fire begins to die out.  What is needed is a third log tossed at an angle onto the two and energy is formed and new flames burst up, more heat is generated, and the crackles and pops begin again.  It’s the Law of Three.[8]

Christian mystics believe the whole universe is held together by the Trinitarian dance of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  They believe that we need to become re-enchanted with the mysterious Law of Three and the Trinity in order to apply it to all aspects of our lives new options for ministry, for reconciliation, and for healing will reveal themselves to us.

Politically, it reminds us to work together for compromise so that we can generate a fourth new totally unforeseen way that’s beyond liberal and conservative that is indeed called just.

Environmentally, it reminds us to move beyond either believing in climate change or denying climate change whereby we can come together and create a fourth way forward that meets humanity’s needs while ensuring our planet will be available for future generations.

Spiritually, it means we suspend reading our Bibles pre-critically or critically and instead look at what God is actually trying to get across to us in the scripture. Spiritually it means we cease and desist saying some people are more deserving of God’s love while saying certain others are not worthy of grace at all; instead we are called to intentionally express that love of God in ways we never imagined! Spiritually, it means that Christianity’s opposing sides need to work together and generate a fourth winsome and gracious expression of God’s presence in ministry to people who have fallen through the cracks or pushed to the margins because of our own infighting.

Beloved, thanks for hanging in there with me through this very thought-full subject.  My prayer is that as each of us leaves today, we will be thinking about the Trinity in brand new ways. Specifically, I want us to leave and ask ourselves how the Triune God is working in your life this very day? What new thing, new ministry, new relationship is the creative expression of God trying to have you display? What new fourth way forward is God’s Trinity and the Law of three churning up in you?  Let’s pray.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The Message by Eugene Peterson.

[2] Please see http://www.icr.org/article/how-old-earth-according-bible/ accessed on 6/9/2017.

[3] Richard Rohr, with Mike Morrell. The Divine Dance.  The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2016), 93.

[4] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three. Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity (Boston: Shambhala, 2013), 45

[5] Ibid., 15-17.

[6] Rohr, 70.

[7] Bourgeault says, “The interweaving of the three produces a fourth in a new dimension…The first and most important point is that linking the Trinity to the Law of Three adds predicative capacity. It explains why the inherent dynamism that Bruteau calls agape love must create new worlds; why it cannot remain locked up with a great intra-Trinitarian circulation.” Bourgeault, 89.

[8] Retired firefighter and church member, Walter Kahr, reminded me that when learning how to put out fires, firemen and firewomen are told that a fire is made up of three parts: Material, Oxygen, and a heat source. When approaching a fire, the goal is to separate one of these three from the other two.

How to Glorify God in the Tough Times; Acts 7:54-60

stephenSermon:        How to Glorify God in the Tough Times
Scripture:     Acts 7:54-60
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:             May 14, 2017, Fifth Sunday of Easter

For us to have a deeper appreciation of our scripture Story today, it’s vital for us to know a little about the overall scene. Our Story begins back in Acts 6.  The Church at this point was still located in Jerusalem and the first scene in Acts 6 introduces the necessity and ordination of the first seven deacons who were charged to tend to the everyday care of members of the church while the Apostles were devoted to healing and preaching. One deacon stands out above the others and that is Stephen who is described as full of grace and power.

Stephen began to display wonders and signs among the people and a group of Jews related to the Jews of the Diaspora, in other words, the scattering of Jews after the exile, were among them.  They began challenging Stephen and his teaching saying that he was speaking blasphemous things about God and the Temple. This group began to spread rumors about Stephen and the message of Christ and planted false witnesses in the crowd to stir things up. The crowds grabbed Stephen and took him by force to the Jewish religious council, the Sanhedrin, and demanded Stephen be punished.

The High Priest asked Stephen if he was indeed speaking blasphemy against God and the Temple and this begins Stephen’s long biblical and historical defense of God’s interactions with the people of Israel beginning with Abraham and the Patriarchs to Moses and the Tent of Meeting God used to travel around in with the Hebrews in the wilderness. Stephen lectured the religious leaders on the fact that God does not dwell in houses made by human hands but that God created, dwelt and lived anywhere God felt like it. The Jewish prophets spoke on God’s behalf but people refused to listen.  Then Stephen goes and puts his foot in it. He declares, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in your heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do…They killed those who foretold the Righteous One (i.e. Jesus), and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.  You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

This was the trigger that exploded the religious leaders and crowd’s sensibilities.  It’s at this point we pick up in our scripture today which marks the end of the Jerusalem narrative of the church and begins to move the Christian Story out into the larger world. Also, as emerging church leader Stephen dies, a new leader is introduced who would, ironically, pick up Stephen’s arguments with the Greek-thinking Jews and forever change the course of Church history. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Acts 7:54-60

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.[1]

Mob mentality.  It’s a scary thing to be caught up in one.  I was an R.A. in college and remember how Georgia Southern’s campus exploded with unrest during the American hostage crisis in Iran back in the early 1980s.  One hot afternoon, mobs of people began moving en masse from all the dorms and usually well-collected and mannered people were shouting epithets and rage dragging an Ayatollah’s effigy behind a car. The students used it as an excuse to pour out their stress and rage with liberal amounts of cheap beer. It does not take a lot to cause a mob scene.  All it takes is a little stress mixed in with some righteous indignation, a bit of boredom, and sprinkled with a few well-placed instigators. It does not take long for a crowd to turn into a toxic mess of vented anger.

Stephen, very much like Jesus before him, was caught up in the swirling pot of political, military, economic, cultural and religious turmoil. The Jews were afraid of the Romans.  The Romans kept a wary eye on their Jewish citizens. The Jewish religious leaders were pitted against the Romans who saw Caesar as a god and then there were people like Jesus, followed by Stephen, who declared that the Messiah and Righteous One was already in their midst. There were political and religious splinter groups all vying for control and the undercurrent of distrust and cultural hatred of “the other” was laying the foundation for a brutal war that would break out some thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death. It sounds all too familiar with our world today.

Did you know that there are 15 countries in the world today that still use lapidation as a form of capital punishment? Lapidation is simply a sanitized way of being stoned to death. Today the accused has his, or in most cases her[2], hands and feet tied and they are placed into a hole buried up to their shoulders. Rocks are thrown first by the witnesses to the alleged crime and then by the rest of the crowd until the person is dead. You see, this way everyone in the community gets to exact the sentence on the guilty one without anyone knowing whose stone it was that actually killed the person. This way your conscience is assuaged because you can say, “It was not my stone that killed them!”  Death by stoning is a horrible, barbaric way to die.[3] Yet, in our Story today, amid this horror, Stephen kept his wits about him.

Stephen shows us how we can glorify God in the direst of situations.  He shows you and me how to keep our head in a world that is all too cultivated for mob mentalities. He does this by glorifying God and this glorifying of God has three distinct parts.

First, Stephen in the midst of the mob and frenzy never took his eyes off the Lord. He stayed true to his convictions and pointed to the power of God displayed by Jesus Christ.  In the midst of the evil swirling about him at his kangaroo court, Stephen saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. He kept his eyes on Jesus.

Some have wondered why Jesus was standing and not sitting at the right hand of God in a place of magisterial splendor.  Many believe Stephen saw Jesus standing at the Father’s side because he was about to rush in himself as Stephen’s advocate; Stephen saw Jesus ready to run to his aid.

The second aspect of glorifying God is that even during the moment when the rocks began hitting him, Stephen committed himself to the Christ. Stephen had the long view.  He knew his physical life was only one aspect of living and he realized that through Jesus’ resurrection our life continues in the presence of the Almighty in ways we cannot imagine.  During his pain, amid his crisis, Stephen not only kept his eyes on God but he committed himself to God’s Spirit and cause when he cried, “Lord, receive my spirit.”

This leads us to the third aspect of glorifying God and if we are honest, it may be the most difficult for us to do.  Rocks were pounding him and his last recorded words are, “Do not hold this sin against them.”  It’s so much easier for us to keep our focus on God and to commit ourselves to God than it is to forgive those who are causing us pain in our life.  Stephen’s last words were words of forgiveness to those who were killing him. Stephen was demonstrating the highest expression of agape love and that was his intentional, volitional letting go of any hate or contempt he might have felt.  They say the greatest act of love is to give one’s life for someone else. That may be very true but for the clear majority of us, the greatest act of love we can express is love through the forgiveness of those who have hurt us the most. It’s in the act of forgiving someone else that we are giving them life back – a life that perhaps they did not even know they lost.  Remember that Stephen’s words of forgiveness and release were uttered within earshot of a young man who needed to hear those words whose name was Saul! When we forgive others, we are de-clogging our spiritual arteries by letting the cleansing Spirit of God spread out in our own lives that give us new hope and freedom that withholding forgiveness prevents.

Beloved, what in this life is overwhelming you? What are the mobs of life that are pelting you with rocks? Is it a relationship that has turned south or is abusive?  Is it a job or work conditions that feel unbearable?  Is it an illness that is robbing you of health, financial resources, and hope?  Is it a traumatic event in your life that has crippled you emotionally?  Whatever it is for you, just look to Stephen.

In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were at their worst, he never took his eyes off Jesus.  In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were at their worst, he once again entrusted himself to God.  In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were the worst and as his life was ebbing away, he prayed for the pardon of the ones who were causing him pain.  This, my friends, is how we glorify God even when the world feels as though it has aligned itself against us.

What is overwhelming you right now, my friends? Keep your eyes on Jesus!

What are the rocks of life which are about to knock you unconscious? Even if you do not understand why it is happening to you, once again, commit yourself to God.

Who is it that is killing your spirit because you are still harboring resentment and hatred towards them for what they have done or did not do?  Show them the love that only can emerge from forgiveness because when we let them free of their debt, we become free ourselves!

This week, let’s all be more conscious of glorifying God even when life makes it difficult to do so.  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2]Please see https://mic.com/articles/68431/women-around-the-world-are-being-stoned-to-death-do-you-know-the-facts#.uGpMR6zTx. Accessed on 5/12/2017.
[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoning. Accessed on 5/12/2017.

Abundant Life and Our Habit of Following the Stranger’s Voice, John 10:1-10

Sermon:          Our Habit of Following the Stranger’s Voice
Scripture:        John 10:1-10
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                May 7, 2017, The Fourth Sunday of Easter; Communion

 Turn in your Bible to John 10.  Let me set up the scene while you’re getting there.  In order for chapter 10 to make any sense, we need to know what’s going on in the chapter before it.  You see, when placed together, chapters 9 and 10 create a drama in three distinct acts.[1]

Act One is from verses 9.1-12.  It’s a Story whereby a man who was born blind was healed with a little of Jesus’ spit that was rubbed on his eyes.  Miraculously, the man was able to see for the very first time in his life and the crowd was going crazy over it.

Act Two is from verses 9.13-41.  This part of the Story reminds us that no good deed ever goes unpunished.  You see, Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath which was considered a violation of the Law Code for doing any work on God’s day.  The healed blind man was brought before the Pharisees and religious leaders and was demanded to explain what happened. Sadly, the Pharisees and others did not like the man’s explanation and called for the healed blind man’s parents to come and testify. The parents, who did not want any problems with the religious officials appeared before the court and said, “Hey, he’s of legal age and isn’t our responsibility so take it up with him!  We had nothing to do with his healing!”  So, the religious officials call the healed blind man back to appear before the court, who by this time was pretty much over having the best day of his life ruined by the religious buzzkills.  He finally told the Pharisees, “If this man, i.e. Jesus, was not from God, he could do nothing.”  Well, the Pharisees got upset for being schooled by the illiterate healed blind man and kicked him out of the community.

Act Three is where we pick up today.  Jesus hears the healed blind man has been excommunicated for giving God the glory for the healing and seeks him out. Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” and the man declares, “I believe it’s you, Jesus!”  Some Pharisees heard this and confronted Jesus about it and he tells them, “This blind man sees and yet you who are the keepers of the Law are blind as bats about the Ways of God and your sin remains!”  This is where we pick up in the Story today.  Remember, Jesus is speaking to the religious officials in our Story. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

John 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”  6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.[2]

Some of you may not know but I married a twin. I first asked Kelly’s twin sister Kathy out on a date and she shot me down as she was already dating somebody; graciously, however, she suggested I meet her twin sister when she arrived for the next quarter in a few weeks. It was the proverbial love at first sight, at least for her! Ha! Me, too! It was only after we started dating that I learned there are certain challenges when dating a twin.  For example, it was hard for me to tell the two of them apart on the telephone whenever I called. I thought I recognized Kelly’s voice from her sister, Kathy’s, but there were a few times in the early stages of our relationship Kathy led me on a time or two.  It was only after getting to know Kelly and spending time with her that I was able to discern the subtle nuances of each of their voices.

Beloved, this is what Jesus is telling us today. This is what he was telling the Pharisees centuries ago. The religious officials who were to be shepherding the people with the Words and Ways of God corrupted the message ever so subtly. Over the centuries, they transformed God’s covenant of loving relationship with the chosen people into a relationship conditioned on proper spiritual and physical behaviors. The Pharisees made God’s Word to mean that if you do certain things and behave in a certain way, then you can have a relationship with God. Jesus turned what they said upside down. Jesus proclaimed that if you have a meaningful relationship God, then a person’s behaviors will naturally fall into place.

Hence, the fact the blind man was healed on the Sabbath was a violation of behavior that there should not be any work on the Sabbath because it pollutes the day’s holiness; Jesus, on the other hand, declared that the healing of a broken man and restoring him to health and relationship with God’s community will prompt the healed man to live a God-honoring life. It’s here that Jesus goes and really stirs the proverbial pudding raising the ire of the Pharisees.  Aristotle’s first rule of rhetoric is to know your audience before speaking to them and Jesus had his audience nailed.  He was speaking to the supposed shepherds of the flock of David. He was speaking to those who were entrusted by God with the care of the Jewish people.

We miss the shock value of Jesus’ words today that were clearly heard by the Pharisees because they knew their Hebrew scriptures. As Jesus spoke, I must believe the Pharisees had churning around in the back of their mind the words of God spoken by Ezekiel. The prophet Ezekiel some 600 years earlier wrote in Ezekiel 34 the following condemnation from God to the religious leaders of his day.  God declares,

1The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals…10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

It’s at this point Jesus begins speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd, the gate to a place of safety and the caretaker of the Sheep.  Jesus was announcing that from now on, the voice the sheep will hear is a voice of love and grace, a voice of concern and care, and a voice of protection and solace. It would be a voice of comfort and not a voice of burden.  It would be a voice correction and not a voice of retribution.  It would be a voice of grace and not a voice seeking personal gain.  Jesus’ words were the equivalent of a rhetorical slap across the face of those religious leaders in charge because they knew the rest of Ezekiel 34 where God declares,

15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

If we are honest, we will admit it is often hard for us to discern the stranger’s, the thief’s voice, from the voice of the Shepherd who wants to care for us.  On one hand, we hear the stranger’s subtle voice because our lives have been inundated by the din of our world; on the other hand, we hear the subtle voice of the thief within the church itself. Like the times of both Ezekiel and of Jesus, some things just don’t change.

The voices of the culture wooing us away from abundant life are many.

There’s the voice of, “If it feels good, do it.”

There’s the voice of, “Bigger is better.”

There’s the voice of, “The more you have, the happier you are.”

There’s the voice of, “My way is the best way” which is similar to the voice that says, “If it does not harm anyone else then what’s the problem?”

There’s the voice of, “The product and result are more important than the people who are involved in the process.”

But the church also declares strange, thieving voices that compete with the words of the Good Shepherd.  There are elements in the church that have reimagined the voices of the Pharisees like the voice of the Prosperity Gospel that declares God will abundantly bless you with physical and tangible blessings if you have enough faith.  These are the ones who forget that Jesus was born surrounded by manure, was homeless, and who did not own a thing other than his clothes.

There’s the strange, thieving voice in the church that says if you don’t believe like I believe or do what I do then you’re not a real Christian at best or you’re going to hell at worst. These are the ones who obviously have not read our Story about the Good Shepherd today.[3]

There’s the strange, thieving voice in the church that dares to lift the so-called charismatic gifts above the supreme charismatic gift all Christ-followers are to demonstrate and that is self-sacrificing, intentional, inconvenient agape love.[4]

There’s the thieving, strange voice in some churches that tell you that it’s okay to believe whatever you want to believe about Jesus but who ignore the Lord’s words in today’s scripture whereby Jesus says he is the gatekeeper and caretaker of the sheep. Jesus is not a way but the Way. How God works that out, I don’t know as that is God’s work. I believe the demise of the American church began decades ago when we ceased to unequivocally declare loud and clear that Jesus is the gate and that whoever enters through that gate will be made healthy and whole.

The Good News of our Story is that Jesus comes to give us abundant life.  We tend to think of abundant life as that when God pours blessings upon blessings in our life like the Kia Soul commercial that has it compared to a Nissan and both are filled with Skittles and the Kia has so much more room to hold more!  Friends, our understanding of abundant life is too westernized, too Americanized.  We think abundant life is about more and more when it really is about less and less.

Abundant life is the embracing of the simple gifts of life that God provides.  UCC pastor, Dr. Shannon Michael Pater says that throughout John’s gospel, Jesus outlines the abundant life in clear but simple ways. He is the water of life (4.14); he is the bread of life (6.35); he is the light of the world (9.5); and today he is the gate, gatekeeper, and shepherd.  Living abundant life is about the simple basics of drinking water from the Spring of Living Water.  Living an abundant life means breaking and eating the body of the Lord Jesus Christ in a community of fellow believers manifesting the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Living abundantly means sunbathing (pun intended) in the Light of the World so that in turn we as Christ-Followers will shine it upon others.

This morning, we come to the Table provided for and prepared by Christ to remind us what abundant living truly is. Abundant life is simple. Abundant life is sacrificial. Abundant life is life-giving to others.  As we come this morning, let’s ask ourselves which voices we are listening to in the world. Today, let’s make the commitment to earnestly listen for the Shepherd’s voice. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume 2) (Kindle Location 16078). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.  Article by Shannon Michael Pater.
[2] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[3] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Locations 16105-16107). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. Ibid.
[4] See 1 Corinthians 13 en toto. Speaking in tongues is fine but Paul insists that love trumps it in the gifts department.

Sermon preached by our Youth Elder, Turn Left, Luke 19:1-10, on Youth Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon:       Turn Left
Text:              Luke 19.1-10
Preacher:     R.J. Chapman, Elder
Location:     First Pres DeLand, FL
Date:             April 23, 2017, Youth Sunday

*This sermon is written by one of First Pres’ Elders who prepared this for delivery on Youth Sunday at the church.  Mr. Chapman is 17 years old and is a senior at University High School.

So this summer I had the pleasure of going to Presbyterian Youth Triennium in Indiana. It was a wonderful experience and besides growing me in my faith, I reflected on everything I had learned at our church over my 12 years of attending.

First Pres is accepting of all who walk through our doors and we would like to send them on their way having shown them the love and hospitality of God, and whereby they carry that message out into the world. At the end of the week this idea was highlighted when the speaker Tony De la Rosa gave a speech saying all that he had done to set up the event, everything the PCUSA is doing in the world, and all the help he had along the way. But he also shared his own personal story, when his own faith and character were doubted by those in the church.

As I listened to this kind, caring, faithful, and biblically knowledgeable man, I could not understand why he would be treated with doubt. He then shared why… He is gay. Which takes us to our scripture for today. Turn in your bibles to Luke 19 4-10 of Zacchaeus. Jesus on his journey through Jericho did a lot, made the blind see, healed the sick, cast out demons which is all well and good no one would get mad at you for that but then there’s Zacchaeus. He was short, the highest paid person in the area thanks to taxing trade on spice and perfume, mind you that’s without cheating people out of their money. Zacchaeus tried to see Jesus as he passed by. Listen to the Word of the Lord.

Luke 19:1-10

“So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came by he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.” Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Now, something I learned while preparing this sermon is the name “Zacchaeus” is Hebrew word for pure or innocent. We know the man Zacchaeus was far from that as he was a terribly selfish person. So then why call him Zacchaeus? Well, he was pure, he had been made new by the Lord, all his past transgressions and mistakes were washed away by Jesus. He was no longer the selfish narcissistic man he was before, God opened his eyes and he devoted himself to the Lord.

Now when I was getting ready to get on the plane to go to Indiana I felt like I knew what I was doing, I’m going to be cool up there I’ve got all these new friends it’ll probably just be a church service and then I’ll go hang out with the guys. That’s pretty selfish, right? Granted I didn’t know what to expect but thinking I’d just hang out all day and not do anything is pretty self-centered. When I got there after going through the endless fields of corn and soybeans the first day I was struck with the power of God in that place. Just the amount of people there, then seeing them fill a whole auditorium to praise the Lord together, having my soul renewed with beautiful music and impactful sermons from preachers I had never seen before… and then that first night, I got lost… very, very lost.

I was trying to go back to my dorm after meeting with our small groups I was out for about 2 hours by myself in a foreign place with no one to help me. Now you’re probably thinking how could you possibly get lost, just follow the flow of people, well that’s exactly what I did. I turned left trying to avoid the kids who had climbed a tree to look for their friends and ended up missing my friends who were waiting for me a short distance away. I chatted with some nice guys from New Jersey on my walk and as we were about to part ways one guy asked me “what floor are you on” I respond “the 7th”. He replied “Are you messing with me right now? There are only 3 floors”.

After getting over the initial panic and frantic phone calls to try and get back to my room before curfew I realized very quickly, I had everything wrong. We all must make that realization at some point and I feel like God has a pretty good formula on when to give us a little shove when we need it. A while ago I was driving home from a tuba lesson and I took the front entrance to my neighborhood. This entrance just so happens to have a mosque off to the left of it, now normally I would’ve driven right by but something in my head just said: “turn left”. Now, this isn’t some glorious temple structure with a gold dome for a roof, it’s a three-story office building they bought out, none the less I was terrified. I had never been to a mosque before didn’t know barely anything about the religion didn’t know what to do. I left my shoes at the door and walked up the stairwell to what kind of welcome I didn’t know. As soon as I walked in I was met by a man named ray, he invited me to pray with him for his brother I law who was in a terrible car accident. Ray showed me his faith, offered me a warm meal and met all my ignorance with love and compassion, making the experience that much more humbling and humiliating.

Zacchaeus’s magical shove was climbing the fig tree and getting called out by Jesus. But you want to know the funny part about when stuff like that happens, God always shows us some love and hopes we do the same. Jesus sat down with Zacchaeus after that huge public embarrassment and told him he still loved him and wanted him to follow him.

Thanks to a staff member named Diane, who coincidentally lived in the same dorm as me and was also lost, I’m not still wandering aimlessly in Indiana.

Thanks to Ray I made some new friends learned a little bit and gained some humility.

And thanks to Mr. De La Rosa of the PCUSA Mission Board who is doing the Lord’s work all around the world.

God always needs to take us out of our comfort zone, he calls us to love everyone because it’s not easy, it’s hard, but he never leaves our side, he will always be there to help us in the end and show us his love and strength. It’s about us learning to meet people where they are just as God does, not involving our personal belief except for our faith in God, just going into a situation like a scared short tax collector or a frantic teenager calling his momma. If Ray or any number of people were to stroll through those doors right now, could you talk to them, not even about faith but make him feel welcome in our church, have a simple conversation, could you do it like ray did for me.

Go make that left turn, climb the fig tree, have your Dian show you the way back home and do Gods work in the world. So I invite you this week to do exactly that, get out of your comfort zone with Christ, don’t climb a fig tree necessarily or fly to Indiana and get lost, but it could be something as simple as making a left turn, getting out of your car to give a homeless person a manna bag instead of just looking the other way. Be safe, but do something that will put you in a situation where you will have no other option but to throw yourself at the Lord and listen. Make good on that promise you make to every child Baptized in the church and extend it to everyone in the world, Christian or not. If you think someone could use the love of God in their life, don’t force it down their throat but make it known through your actions. You could be the hands and feet of the Lord in someone’s life, carrying the good news of the gospel and the love of God to them in what could be their darkest hour. All it could take is just a simple left turn. I am grateful to have a church that taught and modeled for me acceptance, and I think others are, too.

Mr. R.J. Chapman, Elder
First Pres DeLand
725 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, FL 32720
http://www.fpcdeland.org

The Easter Message: No Fear, Go, Tell and See!, Matthew 28:1-10

Sermon:          Go and Live!
Scripture:       Matthew 28.1-10
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:               April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday, Year A

You may listen to the message by clicking here.

Our scripture this morning is one of the most detailed accounts of Easter morning that we have.  Each of the four Gospels has their own slant on the day and Matthew’s is one that invites us into the Story and sends us back out on a journey.  If you are able, please stand and listen to the Gospel words for this incredible day from Matthew 28:1-10.

Matthew 28:1-10

28.1 After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”[1]

Good morning my friends.  He is risen! (He is risen, indeed!)  You can do better than that, can’t you?  He is risen! (He is risen, indeed!) Matthew’s version of Easter morning includes all sorts lightening and earthquakes – which are all ancient writing techniques used to indicate that something supernatural is going on and as hearers of the story, we are to pause and listen.[2]  The last earthquake in Matthew’s Story was upon Jesus’ death.  Now there is more rumbling and quaking but this time it is the Roman guards watching at the tomb!  They were shaking and their faces looked like dead men. Matthew is using irony to paint the picture that those who are alive act like they’re dead and the dead one in the tomb is alive!

This morning, I want to briefly highlight four commands used in our brief narrative that capture the Easter message: No fear; go; tell; and see.

The joy of Easter is found in the command that both the Angel and Jesus declare:  No fear! The good news of Easter is that all those things that cause us fear in this world have been vanquished by the resurrection! If the worst thing that can happen in this life is to die then Easter serves as the reminder that death has been taken off the table!  Easter is the day we celebrate the full-circling of God who being born a person like you and me, lived like you and me, who died like you and me but who unlike you and I has been raised to new life! The gap between heaven and earth has been bridged and that bridging of time and space by the resurrected Jesus means our lives take on new meaning this very day!

Did you notice what Jesus’ first word was to the two women?  Jesus approaches them and in nuances our English Bibles do not convey, he walks up and simply says, “Hi!”  It is the same greeting you and I would use to meet someone we know on the street on the way to lunch.  He simply says, “Hi, Mary.”  What a wonderfully down-to-earth human greeting! There is no fear conveyed in his greeting.  There is no condemnation in his greeting.  There is no pretense or power being lorded over the women in the greeting.  He simply, calmly greets them, “Hi.”

The last word Jesus spoke while alive in Matthew was his cry from the Cross to God when he exclaimed, “Why? Why have you forsaken me, God?!”  Now the “why” has been answered through the journey of death and now Jesus’ first word from the grave is a warm, very kind and unassuming, “Hi.” Jesus’ fear has been vanquished; what fears do we have that need vanquishing, beloved?  Jesus invites you and me this Easter to move from the “why” of fear to bask in the gentle “hi!” from God![3]

The second command both Jesus and the angel issue is to go. We typically think Jesus and the angel immediately tell the women to go out into all the nations and declare the resurrection but that comes later in Matthew’s Story.  At this point in Matthew’s Story, the command to go is aimed to simply go to the current Christian community.  They are to go and tell all the ones who turned tail and ran nights ago when the arrest went down. Yes, the angel invited them to “come and see” where he lay and prove to themselves he was not there!  Their proof was an empty tomb but they were not to stay there and ponder it all.  They were not to stay there and marvel at the rock rolled away or make fun of the Roman soldiers who now acted like scared children instead of the fearsome power Caesar’s army.  They were to go and to get on with it.

The third command was to tell! They were to go to the other members of the current faith community and tell them what they had seen. They are told to go and declare, “He is risen!” (He is risen, indeed!) to the scattered community of believers who have lost hope in a better future.  They are to go and tell the other Christ-followers that the Story is not over but is still alive.  They are to go to the other disciples and declare that Jesus is indeed who and what he said he was! People are reconnected to God in ways they haven’t been since before the Garden of Eden disaster.  They are to go and exclaim that death is not the final word in our lives and that there is a Holy One who is above and beyond our time and place Who indeed holds the whole wide world in His hands!  They are to go and tell the disciples that there is purpose in this life of ours and that purpose is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and that we are to be the gracious ambassadors of Jesus’ love to the world.  They were to declare that each of us are God’s agent of change in the world and that the Christian community is called to be God’s presence where we live, work, and play.

The final command is that we are not only to go and tell but that we are to see for ourselves what the women have experienced.  We can hear their story, believe or disbelieve their story, but the fact is, unless we go to Galilee and see for ourselves, the women’s announcement is nothing but an idle tale of someone else’s experience. Like Peter, James, John, Andrew and the others, we too must hit the road and go discover Jesus for our own.  We can hear the stories.  We can believe or disbelieve the stories; yet, unless we go and take that long walk to Galilee and go looking for the risen Christ, we will not know if the women’s tales are true or not.  As biblical scholar Dale Brunner comments, “Only faith, that is to say, only a walk to Galilee, will let us see Jesus.”[4]

Let’s be honest: It’s easy to feel the Presence of the Risen Christ in church on Easter Sunday or Christmas; it’s a whole lot harder when you’re sitting in the divorce court or in a funeral home’s casket display room. It’s a lot harder walking to your car from a doctor’s visit being told you need to tests run because something looks suspicious.  Yet it is only when we walk through the uneven and potholed roads of our life that we are given the chance to see and experience the power of the Risen Christ in action. We can hear others tell the Story but it is only when we begin walking and experiencing our mundane, everyday existence that we will meet the power of Christ in our own life.

I can tell you not to fear death but unless you walk to Galilee, you cannot learn to be fearless yourself.

I can tell you how in the darkest places of my depression I am able to feel the tears of God and transform my depression into a gift but unless you walk to your own Galilee and experience the tears of God for yourself, you cannot be transformed from the inside out.

I can tell you about a peace that overwhelms you in life’s hard battles but unless you walk to Galilee, you cannot accept my word for yourself, nor the angel’s or Mary’s words for that matter.

Church, do you remember how on Maundy Thursday at the Last Supper Jesus told Peter and the others that on that very night, the shepherd will be struck and the sheep will be scattered and how all of them would become deserters of him?[5]  Today, Jesus is commanding the women to go and do what the men failed to do, i.e. follow him.  It was the women who were the apostles to the apostles and were given the task to gather up all the scattered and lost sheep, those Christ-following disciples who went into hiding in order to reconstitute and re-birth the community of believers.  Well, churches on Easter are like the first disciples going to Galilee to see Jesus for themselves. All of the scattered and missing members and guests have come home!  And, it’s wonderful!

The words of the angel, “He is risen!” have brought you here one more time to experience the Christ. The invitation from Mary to us has been accepted. Now it’s up to each of us to leave this day as a reconstituted community of Christ-Followers and tell others the wonderful news, “He is risen!” (He is risen, indeed!)

Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2] See Matthew 27:46. Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. A Commentary. Volume 2, The Church Book. Matthew 13-28 revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 786.
[3] Ibid., 795
[4] Ibid., 793.
[5] Matthew 26:31.

Reflection on the third of Jesus’ Seven Last Words: Woman, behold your son…Behold your mother. – John 19:26, 27

Message:      Good Friday Reflection on John 19.26, 27
Text:              When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved    standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!”  Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
Preacher:    Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:     First Pres DeLand
Date:            April 14, 2017, Good Friday

Mother Mary, Aunt Mary, and his Anam Cara or soul friend, Mary Magdalene, were standing off some ways from the bloody spectacle of three crucified men. With them was Jesus’ best friend and soul brother, John Zebedee, who appears to have fled Gethsemane the night before at the arrest and ran to the safety and comfort of those who are closest to Jesus – his family and his closest soul sister.  I can’t imagine they slept well that night because of the shock and fear enveloping them.  No doubt, John was pumped for details about all that happened in the Garden hours earlier.

“Did Jesus get hurt?”

“Did anyone stand up for him?”

“Who turned him into the religious officials?”

I can picture John, all shook up, afraid and in the dark about everything that’s happened trying to answer their interrogations.  By this time in the afternoon, their worst fears were becoming reality:  Jesus had been given a death sentence.

So those who had the most intimate emotional connection with Jesus went to see what was happening.  It’s not a sight any parent would want to see of their child.  It’s not a scene best friends would care to witness but the four of them came anyway.  They had to come and see for themselves.  Numb with shock, they stumbled to Golgotha to see with their own eyes what they have heard rumors about from others. This is what they saw.

Three crosses are placed near one another with Jesus impaled on the middle one.  The three men were bloodied, sweaty and struggling to get enough energy to push up on a small board with their nailed feet so they could lift themselves up to breath.  Carrion fowl already smelled the blood and were patiently waiting their turn to swoop down onto the bodies.  Soldiers were using Jesus clothes as barter for their gambling habit under Jesus’ gaze. They could see pieces of skin dangling up under his arms from the beating he received from the Roman whips tipped with bone and rock as he received 39 lashes. The air was full of moaning, crying, taunting and cruel laughter.  In a word, horrific.

And then the unexpected happens.  Head lowered in pain and exhaustion, Jesus lifts his eyes and sees the ones he loves. His heart is stirred.  Love begins swelling up from his gut and tears of relief and joy blur his vision. You see, his mother, Aunt Mary, Mary Magdalene and John believed themselves helpless watching from a distance; after all, what could they do except watch it all unfold?  What they neglected to understand was their simple presence with Jesus on the Cross was their way of saying, “Jesus, we love you” and it was a message Jesus received loud and clear.  During the Son of Man’s darkest hour, he sees that the ones he loves have not forgotten him and their love for him transcended their fears for their own personal safety. In Jesus’ mind, four broken, scared people who dared to join him at the Cross were enough to inspire him, enough to give him hope that all was not done in vain. And there, during the final moments of his life, he once again shows love to others.

“Momma, John is my soul brother and he is now your son.  John, this is my mother and from now she’s your momma.  Take care of her.”

Now it was finished. He could let go now. He has taken care of the last untended detail.  Like a good boy, he is making sure his mother is cared for. And Mary in her own simple way of being present with her son at his death is also taking care of him. He would hold on to that memory to get him through the rest of the day.  Would only our presence tonight do the same thing.  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor and Teaching Elder
First Pres DeLand
724 North Woodland Avenue
DeLand, FL 32720
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.  All rights reserved.