Maundy Thursday Reflections: Matthew 26:31-25

Sermon:          Maundy Thursday Reflections
Text:                Matthew 26:30-36
Preacher:       Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:       First Pres DeLand
Date:               April 13, 2017, Maundy Thursday

For the last two months, we as a congregation have been looking earnestly at what it means to be called by God.  We learned that our primary call is to love the Lord our God with everything in us.  We are then to turn that love outward in expressions of grace and care to those sisters and brothers about us whether we know them or not.  Well, Maundy Thursday is like a semester final to see how well they both learned and lived out their call; tonight, we witness how well the first twelve disciples did in their test as to knowing what their calls were.  Tonight, we see that when the tires of their discipleship hit the hard realities of life’s road, they each failed miserably.

Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Triduum – the three days leading up to Easter morning – is a disciple’s final exam in Christ-followership.  It is our exam on whether or not we fully understand and grasp God’s call upon our lives.  The question looms before us:  Will you or I do any better than the Twelve?

Having just finished reinterpreting the Passover meal, Jesus takes the disciples to a place adjacent to Jerusalem and the Temple.  There on the top of the Mount of Olives, Jesus looks across the Kedron Valley to look at Jerusalem softly glowing in the night’s light. The disciples are confused at all that is going on and they are totally clueless as to what is about to happen next. Gazing west towards Jerusalem, Jesus comes right out and paints the picture.

31Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” 33Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” 34Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” 35Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.[1]

Those of us from the South listen to Peter and we slowly shake our heads and say with provincial sarcasm, “Bless your heart.”  We realize that Peter, ironically, is committing the very same sin as Judas committed as well as the sin our first parents in the Garden of Eden did:  He is guilty of hubris.  You know, hubris.  The prideful knowledge that one has when he or she knows better than everyone else around them.  Adam and Eve tried to eat of the fruit of knowledge because they wanted to know what God knows.  It was a classic fail.

Then there’s Judas. Judas, one of Jesus’ Twelve who believed he knew how Jesus should act and behave more than Jesus did himself and sold Jesus out to the authorities for thirty coins. Again, it was a classic fail.

Now Peter.  Peter raises himself above the other disciples and boldly declares in verse 32, “Even if THEY desert you, I will never desert you!” Dear Peter. He keeps piling it up on himself when in verse 35 he blurts out, “I will not deny you!”  I don’t think Peter was trying to throw the other disciples under the bus by inferring he was better than they; rather, it appears Peter had an overstated understanding of his own sense call with Jesus.  I think he believed, like many of us do if we are honest, that he “got” Jesus and what Jesus was and is all about. In his mind, he has figured out what it means to follow Jesus. Perhaps it is because Jesus called him The Rock of the Church; maybe it was because Peter was one of the Fab Four[2] key disciples Jesus always called upon.  Sweet Peter. He felt so confident in his walk and relationship with Jesus. Sadly, like those before him, Peter’s answer and subsequent actions both italicized and bolded the indicia of his hubris.  It, too, was a classic fail.

Peter and the other disciples failed the test that night.  When presented with their call to love the Lord God at all costs, they turned tail and ran for their own lives. They all denied him.  I have no doubt Peter and the others have ringing in the back of their minds Jesus’ words from an earlier Story when Jesus shared, “The one that denies me before others shall be denied before the angels of God.”[3]

Beloved, tonight reminds us that we have failed, are failing, and will fail the exam, the test as well.  Tonight, is the night Jesus asks you and me at the Table: Whom or what do you follow?  Before we proudly exclaim like Peter, “Of course it’s you, Lord!”, perhaps we need to hold our tongues and be honest with ourselves, with one another, and most importantly, with God. We know what our call is.  We know who it is we are to follow and love. Yet each of us in our own ways in the specific circumstances of our lives has denied him, too.  Just like Adam and Eve, Judas, and Peter before us, we fail classically at it as well.

Beloved, as we make our way through the Triduum, let us prayerfully reflect whether or not we take our calls seriously. Let us prayerfully reflect if Jesus is the core of your life and mine or is Jesus and our life in Christ a simple add-on.

Let the Spirit speak to each of us. 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.

[1] Matthew 26:31-35, NRSV.
[2] I.e. Peter, Andrew, James and John Zebedee.
[3] See Luke 12.9.

The Message: Live!, Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Where is God in our spiritually dry moments?)

Sermon:          Live! (Where is God in our spiritually dry moments?)
Scripture:       Ezekiel 37:1-14
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:               April 2, 2017, Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

This morning’s scripture is one of the classical Biblical texts that conjures up vivid scenes in its writing.  The prophet Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, is given vivid stories and word pictures that convey God’s words to the people scattered in exile.  Exile from the Promised Land occurred when the people of Israel wanted an earthly king like all the other nations in lieu of God being their King; the problem was that once the kings got in place, the nation of Israel began to hit the skids because of corrupt leadership that split the nation into the northern nation of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.  Once the nation was split, they were easy pickings for Persian and Egyptian armies. The Hebrews were scattered and most were taken as exile slaves in what it today’s Iraq.

Ezekiel writes to a people who have lost hope.  They have been overrun and swallowed up into a culture that is not their own, a culture that does not share its same values, ways of life, or understanding of living and worshipping the Divine. As a distinct people of God with their own nation, they were dead.  We pick up in our colorful Story with words of hope and promise from God; indeed, some believe these are the first allusions to resurrection life in the Hebrew scriptures.  As you listen, listen for the three parts of the Story: The prophecy; the reshaping of the people; and the Spirit being breathed upon them giving new life and identity. Listen to the Word of the Lord.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

 37.1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.[1]

You know what time of year it is?  It is the time of year when people are starting to feel tired.  Spring breaks are over and teachers, professors, and students are grinding it out to get through the end of the school year. Youth sports is at a fever pitch as the cheer teams, cross country and track teams, baseball, volleyball, softball and lacrosse teams are trying to wind up the season.  Parents are exhausted from hauling carpools from one part of the county or state to the other. College football teams are winding up Spring training before they leave for the summer. Snowbirds are packing up their things and are preparing to head back north for reasons unbeknownst to me.  The Church year is winding down and teachers and volunteers are pooped. But Easter is coming and so we must press on forward. These activities are not bad things in and of themselves but can they can leave us feeling tired.  These are the everyday things that can cause us to become tired.  Add to these activities those items you and I cannot control and we begin to feel like a valley of dry bones in our souls.

Last weekend two Stetson students felt so burdened and emotionally dry and spent they took their own lives.

A four-year-old child died in his bed making a parent’s worst nightmare become true.

A sister saint of this church died during her operation.

Marriages are under strain and the phantom of infidelity overshadows relationships.

Diagnoses of life-changing or life-threatening medical conditions intrude into easygoing, carefree routines and our lives are brought up short as though we have been hit in the gut. These are things that have just happened this week in our community.

My soul’s bones feel parched.  Bleached.  Dried out.

Can you relate?

Ezekiel’s vision is a comfort for those of us who are languishing in a spiritual, emotional, physical, or social desert.  They are comforting words to those of us who are struggling to get through the day at a time of year the heat of life begins to sap our strength away.  The comfort is that God will not only hold us together and reconstitute our broken frames but God breathes the same Creative breath and Spirit into us that God breathed at Creation.  God’s breath brings life to our parched and dried out lives.

But how?  I want to know how God does this when everything feels so dry. And as I was standing in the valley of the dry bones of my soul this week, I began to see how God pulls it off. I can tell you how it happened for me but the reality is that you must experience it and figure it out for yourself.  You see, God will reveal and deliver the living, recreating breath when the moments of your life seem to be the driest and darkest; the dry bones will live when we relax, sit still and then receive the love of God through the Spirit. Let’s break that down a bit.

God reveals himself to us not just when things are bad but God fully discloses himself when bad things have turned even worse.  Ezekiel didn’t see corpses in his vision but he saw a condition that was beyond that of death:  He saw the blanched bones of a nation bleached white in the scorching heat.  There were no bodies but bone remnants that had already been picked over by the birds and rotted by weather. In other words, the very hope of the nation of Israel was one step away from being dried up and blown away into total non-existence.  And this is the environment God uses to reveal himself and recreate life from apparent total despair.

Beloved, the words of comfort for our soul’s dry bones is that when all not only seems dead and gone but our very broken soul’s existence feels it is about to be blown away in the dust, that is the environment God shows his divine power most clearly.  It is when we know there is nothing left to do, no one left to count on that we begin to resign ourselves to the inevitability that we cannot do it on our own;  it’s then and only then we have we made the necessary room for the dynamic power of God to show up.  It’s only when there is no more left to us that we create room and space for God to be God.  When everything in life seems to go our way, we are more prone to miss the Presence of the Holy in our lives because of the lack of problems and hardship.  God is surely there in those bright, good times but we are too busy with the bright good times to notice.  It’s only when the valley is empty, where the wind is hot, and the soul is like a dried, bleached bone left in the sun that we are brought to a place of reliance on the re-creative breath of the Spirit.

It’s in the valley of the dry bones of our spirit and soul that the environment is set for us to receive the extravagant love of God.  It is for the love of his covenant people Israel that God wants to restore their spirit and bring them back to life.  It is for the love of his people that God goes to the most barren, dry, hot, parched places and breathes new life into them.  His breath is life!  He tells them to, “Live!”, and that command initiates from the Lord’s love of the people.

Today, we have a tangible example of how God restores our souls.  The Table set before us was given under the direst condition: The very death of the Son of God. It was only when the earthly Jesus totally surrendered all to God that he could say to you and me, “This is my body and my blood which is for you.”  It’s only in Jesus’ darkest hour, in humanity’s most tragic moment, that the Love of God could be seen and experienced so dramatically and brightly.

Is your soul bone dry?  Are there moments when you wonder if God is even around or even cares?  If so, those are the moments you are to pay attention.  Those are the moments God will use to re-form us, reshape us, re-ligament us and re-create us. God will do it in the shared expression of love those placed in our lives who will demonstrate it to us.

The Table reminds us God is most clearly present and visible when life seems to be at its worst and most desperate; it demands that we remember that God is most clearly present in sacrificial love.  When there is darkness, look for the light of Love and there my beloved, you will see dry bones live.

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

© 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.

The Message – A Series on Call #6: So, Get on With It!, Ephesians 5:6-16

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

Sermon:       Series on Call #6: So, Get on With It!
Scripture:    Ephesians 5:6-16
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:     First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:             March 26, 2017

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

This morning, we are culminating our six-week walk through the issue of God’s call on our lives and upon the church.  We have been studying Mark Labberton’s book, Called[1]. The Our scripture this morning is the culmination of Paul’s arguments in his Ephesian letter that God has proven his radical love for us in and through Jesus Christ, and as such, our lives need to be reflecting that fact. This is where the rubber hits the road with our understanding, pursuit and living out our call and vocation by God both as a church and as individual disciples.

Our scripture reading is from Ephesians 5.6-16 and we are going to hear it from a different version than we normally hear the scripture read in worship.  Presbyterian pastor, scholar, and new church planter Eugene Peterson wrote a translation of the Bible his parishioners in Maryland could better understand by using modern vernacular. The result is the Message version of the Bible. I have put it in your bulletin so we can all follow along. Listen, Church, to what the Spirit says each of us.

Ephesians 5:6-16

6-7 Don’t let yourselves get taken in by religious smooth talk. God gets furious with people who are full of religious sales talk but want nothing to do with him. Don’t even hang around people like that.

8-10 You groped your way through that murk once, but no longer. You’re out in the open now. The bright light of Christ makes your way plain. So no more stumbling around. Get on with it! The good, the right, the true—these are the actions appropriate for daylight hours. Figure out what will please Christ, and then do it.

11-16 Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness. Expose these things for the sham they are. It’s a scandal when people waste their lives on things they must do in the darkness where no one will see. Rip the cover off those frauds and see how attractive they look in the light of Christ.

Wake up from your sleep,
Climb out of your coffins;
Christ will show you the light!

So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times!

The first place to begin is with a simple statement that simply says, “I am a Christian.”  When we make that public statement, it is more than making a statement of what we believe; on the contrary, it’s a dramatic statement on who we are and who it is we follow.  Our life with God is first and foremost a life of following Jesus. Just as Labberton reminds us in the book, Called, Jesus does not tell people to “believe me” but he says to “follow me.”[2]  Our walk with God is first about following Jesus in relationship.  To say that we are a Christian is a radical cultural, social, political and spiritual statement. It is a total breaking with the past and reorienting our lives around God’s call or vocation for us.  Our call and vocation do not emerge from what we believe; on the contrary, it develops and emerges based upon Whose we are and Who it is we follow and have relationship with in this life.

“I am a Christian.”  Say that out loud with me, “I am a Christian.” When you and I say that sentence, we are making a declaration about the orientation of our entire life. It’s a life-altering statement to make but do we realize it when we say it?  As Paul writes in our scripture today,

8-10 You groped your way through that murk once, but no longer. You’re out in the open now. The bright light of Christ makes your way plain. So no more stumbling around. Get on with it! The good, the right, the true—these are the actions appropriate for daylight hours. Figure out what will please Christ, and then do it.

The power of our individual calls, as well as a call as a church, stems from the basic statement, “I am a Christian.”  Everything changes! Our values and priorities. Our relationship with God and with how we relate to others.  Our sense of ethics and what is just as well as what is not. Our habits, how we spend and invest our resources in time, talent and finances.  Everything changes when we say, “I am a Christian.”

But does it really when the rubber hits the road?

Discovering our call requires two actions. First, we are called to focus on what Labberton describes as First Things. Once we focus on the First Things, then and only then, do each of us individually and as a congregation, focus on what he refers to as the Next Things.[3]

Hopefully, by now you know what First Things are since we have been journeying with our series on call for the last six weeks.  The First Thing both in a congregation’s and a Christian’s life is to be in love with God through Jesus Christ. We are no longer fumbling around in the murkiness but we are walking boldly in the Light of God. We know who we are because we know Whose we are and that makes being a Christian such a radical thing, unlike the way the world see Christians today.  Why is Pope Francis such a controversial Pope to the entrenched order of the Catholic See?  It’s because Pope Francis is living his love out like Jesus did and many in the world who want to follow a Catholic religion are being shown by the Pope what it means to live a Christian faith stemming from loving Jesus first! Emerging from our first love, we then begin looking at the Next Things of our calls.

Next Things emerge from the tended fields of our love of God whereby the intersection of our life’s events, jobs, marriages, singleness, friendships, school, advocacy work or just plain life circumstances all come together allowing us to share that love of God with others.  Pope Francis’ call is expressed through his love of Jesus which happens to be the Pope of the worldwide Catholic Church.  His call is that being Pope-ish means being like Jesus.  My call, for example, bubbles up from my passion for God and need of God’s love and then it is expressed through the expression of my love for people, my sensitivities, my gifts of leadership and rhetoric.

Your call is expressed through the First Thing of loving the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Your secondary call is expressed through the Next Thing of your unique combination of gifts and graces as they express your love of God in Christ to others in your particular context.

So think with me out loud.  Your primary call is to what? “Love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.”  What’s your Next Thing?  Your personal sense of call arises from the grounding of loving God first and then is expressed to loving others with your particular passions, gifts, graces, context and life circumstances.  So, what’s your next thing?  Can you identify it yet?  If so, like Paul says, then let’s get on with it!

But our calls are not just about what we personally do.  Our calls are grounded in the community of God called the Church. The community of the church gives locus, shape, and impetus for our personal calls to be used. As such, what is this church’s call for the future?  What are we here for anyway?  Would there be a hole left in the community with the absence of First Pres DeLand? Would anyone notice we did not exist?

My friends, this is why we have been spending so much time this Lenten season addressing the issue of call.  It’s an issue that forces us to name our loyalties in this life: Is our loyalty to God or are our loyalties to our own personal passions, interests or “wish dreams” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls them? Am I as a Christian using my gifts and graces to make me feel good or are my gifts and graces being used as a basis to share my passionate love of God with others around me?  Is it about “me” or is it about “us”?

Following Easter, my friends, we are going to have two gatherings as a church to hear what you are discerning God telling us to get about doing in our life together and in life with our community.  God wants you and me to thrive and to live and not just simply to get along, survive and get by.  But doing so means focusing on our first love which is Jesus.  Doing so means looking forward not backward, heavenward, not inward, and towards a purpose and not a guess.  The whole purpose of meeting in small groups is to explore our love of God and to learn about God’s call for you in this place at this time.  Hopefully, by the time we gather in our congregational gatherings later in April, we have been discerning who God is calling us to be and are able to share with what you are feeling God is calling us to do as a church as we move forward.  After all, we make a mockery of Lent, Holy Week and Easter if we don’t, as Paul reminds us this morning, get on with it.

The Holy Spirit give understanding to these words. 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]Mark Labberton. Called. The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014).
[2] Ibid., 71.
[3] See 87-88.

Series on Call #5: Are you a settler or a wanderer? Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14

Sermon:          Are you a Settler or a Wanderer?
Scripture:       Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                March 19, 2017

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

As we continue our study of call today, the first thing we need to remind ourselves is that the American Church will only begin living out its call in the world when it realizes that to be a Christian today means to be living in a community of exile.  This goes against everything we have been told growing up in this country.  We have been taught to believe that we were founded as a Christian country and our values stem from the Judeo-Christian ethic (whatever that means).  I would suggest that we are instead a nation founded upon and living in the world with Christianity-ish values.[1]

If we use our primary call, as Labberton suggests, to love the Lord our God, and then in turn, love our neighbors as ourselves, then we must admit we are falling far short of that stated American mythology that we are a Christian nation. We have used the concept of Manifest Destiny to justify that as American Christians, we are living in the Promised Land just as the Jews of the first generation after Moses inherited Canaan.  The problem is, human nature, or if you prefer, our sin nature, gets in the way.  The Jews that captured Canaan had a difficult time remembering the Laws of God and their failure to live in God’s way got them sent into exile.  They altered their call of God to love Him and others into a patchwork quilt of religious, social and cultural beliefs that benefitted themselves at the expense of loving God or neighbor.

We have done the same thing in our own country.  We took the 15th-century notion of a Doctrine of Discovery instituted by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 and canonized it into American law by our Supreme Court in 1823.  Pope Alexander’s bull stated that land inhabited by non-Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed and exploited by Christian conquerors. It stated that the Christian religion should be expanded at all costs and that all “barbarous nations” be brought to the faith.  If the newly conquered nations and people did not submit to the faith, they could, with the clear conscience of those conquering the new lands, be executed and their native land taken away.  Our nation codified the Doctrine of Discovery with the Johnson and McIntosh case of 1823 when Chief Court Justice John Marshall wrote the unanimous opinion that “The principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to new world lands.”[2]

Oh my.

I don’t know about you but that does not sound like a nation founded on Christian values to me; these are the same Christian values that enslaved other people, denigrated women and exploited child labor. This sounds nothing like a nation founded on the primary call to love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself as Jesus taught. To that end, I would say that our country, indeed American Christianity is living in exile from any Promised Land we think God has bestowed upon us.  We are a people living in exile.

This is where we find the prophet Jeremiah in today’s text.  He is speaking to those who forsook their love of God and neighbor, their very first call, by chasing other gods and taking respite in an undisciplined life and culture that took them away from the Promised Land and placed them amid enemy territory.  Our scripture today are words of encouragement to those Jews in exile that though they are living in exile now, the time will come when God will bring them back home.  Our text today has God through Jeremiah reminding them how to live their lives in an exiled land.  Let’s listen to the Word of the Lord and see if we can figure out how it applies to where we are today in 21st century American Christendom.

Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14

29.1 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

8For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.10For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.[3]

Beloved, we live in a land where false prophets and diviners among us are preaching that bigger is better, the most powerful are the most important, people get what they deserve, and that we are not our brother or sister’s keeper.  These are the ones who declare that accumulation of stuff is our American birthright and that our Constitutional right for our pursuit of happiness overrides the basic Gospel Story of Jesus who pursued relationship with God and others at the cost of his life. American Christianity has built her churches to look like and emulate shopping malls where one can feed from a smorgasbord of programs and services that fit one’s tastes; indeed, we use consumeristic jargon to describe how we church shop, hop, and plop looking for the perfect community. We are, my friends, a community of faith living in exile from God’s understanding of the Promised Land.  As Labberton reminds us, our culture has “Groomed us to think optimistically about our lives and future.  Our faith today is seen as a means to fulfill this dream.”  He goes on to make the bold statement, “Christians are virtually indistinguishable from anyone else in culture.”[4]

Again: oh my.

In our study of our call, both as a Church and as individuals, it is vital for us to know where we live.  If we think we live in the Promised Land, we develop a whole set of questions and mindsets with which to see the world.  If we acknowledge we live in exile, then we relate with the world, culture, neighbor and God in an entirely different way. We are reminded that the Church cannot live out its vocation of loving God with all we have and loving others with all we have if we do not know where we live.  “The gift of exilic living is that it exposes believers to the school of authentic faith.”[5]  In other words, if we are living our faith as though we are foreigners in a foreign land, then the expression of our faith gets amplified both in the lives of our neighbor and in the life of any local church.

Our exilic faith forces us to see the world as it really is, including the church’s place in the world, and it challenges our Promised Land faith of abundance and forces us to drink from the culture’s cow trampled streams; in other words, it reminds us our calls are real and costly and they demand that we get out of our comfort zones and places of safety both as a church and as individual Christ-Followers.  For the Jews in Babylon, life was not about overcoming, overtaking and dominating the Babylonians; on the contrary, their life was to be lived in obedience to their primary call of God which is to love God and to love others on God’s behalf in the midst of their Babylonian life.

Why is it important to know where we live as a Church?  It is important because our spiritual life develops as a direct result of the context we find ourselves in; if the context is changed from Promised Land to living in Exile, then our spiritual lives will need to respond to life’s changing cultural conditions and develop new spiritual practices that emanate from that context.[6]  Knowing where we live means we know how to best live out our call in the midst of living as strangers in a strange land.

This past week, our Cuba mission team reported on their experiences from their visit there a month ago.  They described how time seems to have been frozen in the late 1940’s and ‘50’s because of the revolution. Vintage cars roll along the streets.  Beautiful old buildings are deteriorating from neglect.  The churches which have been kept silent for decades have had to learn to live and express its faith and call within a hostile climate whereby a Christian is persecuted at worst or kept down in the lower economic classes at best.  It was the same way when I visited the churches of Eastern Germany before the Berlin Wall came down: The Church had to move underground to survive.  It was costly and risky to live out one’s faith in God and in Jesus. How, my friends, does our culture, our society, demand that we adapt and change how we live and express our faith today? Then again, has that question even popped up on our spiritual radar screens?

The great quote my generation learned came from the lips of the late Judy Garland.  “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.”  We live in a post-Christian nation and world friends.  The Church’s voice has been muted and the transforming message of the life-changing gospel is earnestly being repressed as being out of touch, irrelevant, or a joke; sadly, the Church’s lap is where much of that blame is placed.  The church can continue to live as though it is still living in a nostalgic yesterday that never really existed or it can recognize and embrace its primary call from God which is to be an ardent, dynamic community of disciples who are being obedient and loving towards the Lord and to a world around us even though it may not want or even recognize their need for that love. The church in America may be in decline and dying as scholars say but the Good News of new life in Christ cannot be vanquished.  The challenge of our call today is to rise up to that challenge and declare the Good News.

Just as Jeremiah instructed the exiled Jews to get on with living their life in a strange land, so we are called to live as bright, aromatic, multicolored lives of faith where we are right now.  It may not be popular.  It may not be well-received.  It may not be easy and neither might we see any success from our efforts.  Our call demands that we be the enfleshed Christ in the world we find ourselves.  It’s like Dr. Labberton says, God’s strategy is to use unexpected people to embody unexpected love.[7] The question is whether we are or are we simply pretending to do so?  The Holy Spirit add understanding to these words.  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] See Inventing a Christian America by Steven K. Green (Oxford, 2015) at https://www.amazon.com/Inventing-Christian-America-Religious-Founding/dp/0190230975/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489855649&sr=8-1&keywords=Inventing+a+Christian+America+by+Steven+K.+Green.
[2] I first learned of the Doctrine of Discovery in Brian McLaren’s book, The Great Spiritual Migration. How the world’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian.   Please see https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/imperial-rivalries/resources/doctrine-discovery-1493.
[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] Mark Labberton.  Called. The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 52-53.
[5] Ibid. 56.
[6] 57.
[7] 59.

Series on Call #2: The Responsibilities of an Ambassador, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Sermon:       Series on Call #2:  The Responsibilities of an Ambassador
Scripture:    2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:     First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:             February 26, 2017, Transfiguration Sunday

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

This morning we are continuing in our series on what it means to be called by God. Using Mark Labberton’s book entitled Called, we are meandering our way through Lent exploring God’s call upon us.  If you are reading the book, today’s message is focusing on his chapter 2, “We are called to flourish.” Continue reading “Series on Call #2: The Responsibilities of an Ambassador, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21”

Series on Call: What’s All the Fuss About Having a Call?, Matthew 4.18-23

Sermon:          Series on Our Calling:  #1:  What’s all the fuss about call?
Scripture:
       Matthew 4.18-23
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                February 19, 2017

You may listen to the message bly clicking here.

Continue reading “Series on Call: What’s All the Fuss About Having a Call?, Matthew 4.18-23”

The Message: Be the Light! Unpacking the Beatitudes

You may listen to the Sermon by clicking here.

Sermon:         Be the Light 
Text:                Matthew 5:13-20
Preacher:       Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:       First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, FL
Date:               January 5, 2017, Epiphany 5, Communion Sunday

Years ago when I was avidly backpacking, I carried with me a light that was the envy of everyone I met on the trail.  Instead of using batteries, my little lantern burned off another energy source which at first blush sounds crazy.  You see, I used to pack with a calcium carbide lantern.  It’s the same little lantern miners use.

Unlike batteries which get used up or a gas fuel source that would run out, a calcium carbide lantern worked on just two ingredients: Little rocks of calcium carbide and water.  You place a few pieces of calcium carbide in the bottom of the lantern and then just add water.  The mixture produces a gas which emits at the top of the lantern and once lit, burns for hours. I didn’t have to worry about batteries or kerosene; all I needed were my rocks and some water. Whoever would have thought the phrase, “Just add water” would generate fire and light?

Today’s text from Matthew’s Beatitudes describes what it means for you and me, this church, to be light.  Being light is synonymous with the theologically loaded word “righteous.”  Just as unlikely that a mineral mixed with water produces light, so the concept of what it means for us to be righteous is not immediately recognizable at first glance; as rocks and water create fire, righteousness is not made up of what we think it is either.

Turn in your Bible to Matthew 5:13. Jesus is up on a hillside above the seaport village of Capernaum located at the 12 o’clock position on the Sea of Galilee. We read last week the series of “Blessed ares…” and today we are picking up right where that left off.  Let’s refresh our memory with the “Blessed ares…”.

Jesus begins his sermon in chapter five by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger after righteousness…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who are persecuted for showing righteousness…blessed are those when you are reviled because of me.”  Now, let’s listen to what Jesus says next.  Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Light is a big deal for the Jews. They would have heard Jesus’ words and reflect back on the text in Isaiah 49.6 that says, “I will make you (O Israel) as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”  Isaiah the prophet was reminding those Jews held in exile’s captivity that they would be restored to Jerusalem; furthermore, it is through them the world would come to see and learn about the Lord God.  They were to be lighting up the Lord of Hosts so that all could believe and live in the unity, grace, gaze and care of God’s provision.

Sadly, that didn’t happen.

What happened was when the Exiles got back to Jerusalem, they took the notion of being a light to the nations and codified it into a list of do’s and don’ts. They said that to be a real believer, one had to do right things; what Jesus is saying today is that they got it wrong; what Jesus is stressing is that in order to be the light of the world, his followers would have to live out from the right way of viewing and understanding life.

The Jewish religious leaders felt that doing the right things – a very will-full and intellectual matter – made one righteous, i.e. made one right with God.  Jesus, on the other hand, was stressing that being made right with God is not about mental assent to do the right things; on the contrary, Jesus was stressing that in order for his followers to be the light to the world and to the nations, they are to live the right way as guided by their heart.

For the religious leaders, living righteously was a matter of personally following the Law for their personal piety’s sake and because the Law demanded it.

For Jesus and his followers, living righteously was a matter of humbly living out the “Blessed ares…” in relation to God and to one another; this is what it means to be righteous. Righteousness, or right living before God, requires the intellect for action but righteousness’ birthing ground is in a person’s heart.  Lest we forget, the people in Jesus’ day believed that God resided within a person in their heart as opposed to their head. Righteousness describes how a person sees and lives out their life in a God-oriented direction as opposed to doing “the right things.” Righteousness is way and attitude towards living life; it’s not about moral checklists.  Righteousness describes who a person is and to Whom a person belongs more than it describes what a person does or does not do. Our actions of what we do or do not do stem from who we are in our heart and core. The soil our actions are grown in is either self-righteous or is light-generating righteousness.  Jesus prefers the latter.

Being the light of the world means we humbly live poor in spirit; that we are in touch with the suffering in the world; that we are not driven to gain power or to have power over others; it means we desire to cultivate a relationship with God in our heart; being righteous means that we are merciful and kind to others; being the light, being righteous demands that we keep our hearts swept clean for God’s presence and trust God to hold us close even though the world reacts against us because the light reflects a different quality of life to the world that people would rather ignore. Jesus’ very life and progression to the Cross and his crucifixion are an example of what righteousness means; His very life and death are a reflection of the Beatitude’s “Blessed ares…”

He is telling us that our very life, our very difficulties, our triumphs are to be a reflection of the “Blessed ares…”  This, my beloved, is what Jesus means when he says our righteousness needs to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  Entering the Kingdom of Heaven is not about doing right things; entering the Kingdom of Heaven is about living rightly with our hearts calibrated to Jesus and to the “Blessed ares…” just as Jesus’ heart was.  Righteousness is more than doing good; righteousness means living well and humbly from the depth of one’s heart out of gratitude for God and for the desire of sharing that Light of God with others.

The scribes and Pharisees were living self-righteously for their benefit; Jesus tells you and me to live out the “Blessed ares…” in order to be the light source for others to learn about God’s righteousness. It’s either self-righteousness for my salvation or other-directed-righteousness for the declaration of salvation for others.  The Law was not meant to be some high-level Trigonometry test we have to pass in order to get from here to heaven.  The Law was originally designed to show people how to cultivate a humble heart so as to live right with God and with our neighbor. Oh my, haven’t we messed that up over the last several hundred years!

The Pharisees and Scribes believed righteousness meant living separated from “those type of people” like the leper, the prostitute, the unclean and the ordinary.  Jesus understood righteousness to mean living one’s life emanating the love, grace and glory of God in the very midst of the ordinary people, the unclean, the prostitute and the leper. Christ-following lives are lived in the midst of the world’s daily grind and as such, appear as bright lights of hope in the face of other people’s despair or are a fragrant sweet smelling breeze that comes from out of nowhere to revive the tired and fainthearted.

Preparing ourselves to receive this powerful meal means we pause and ask ourselves: Does my spiritual life show that I am simply punching a check-list of what I am supposed to do, or, does my Christ-following life reflect a righteousness that is attempting to live into the “Blessed ares…”? Remember: Righteousness is not for the self; righteousness is the light of God’s face shared with others.  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor and Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, FL
724 North Woodland Boulevard
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 in DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

All scripture is from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.