The Message: Gospel-worthy Living; Philippians 1:20-30

Sermon:       Gospel Worthy
Scripture:    Philippians 1.20-30
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:              September 24, 2017

You may listen to the Message by clicking here.

Let me set this morning’s message up with this:  It’s not about me!  Repeat that together, “It’s not about me!” That’s correct, it’s not about just you because it’s about us!  So, is this about “you?” “No, it’s not about me!”  Good!

not about me

Last week we began considering the book of Philippians and noted straightaway individual words in a letter are never wasted.  We focused on the first three verses of Paul’s greeting to the church in Philippi he penned while he was a prisoner in Caesar’s prison under the supervision of the Imperial Guard.

Do you remember what Paul’s words were?

From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to the saints (i.e. set apart ones) in Christ Jesus in Philippi.

Paul is reminding the church who Paul and Timothy work for and who their ultimate responsibility is invested in: Christ Jesus. This is a theme he repeats throughout the letter as Paul is trying to remind the church that there are many opinions and theologies floating around in the Church, and regardless of what people think of him or Timothy, they are bondservants of the Lord and not the people.  This realization frees up Paul and his colleagues because they are not going to take to heart personal attacks on their faith, character or work. You see, they know all too well it’s not about “me!”

Today, we are picking up a little later in chapter one after Paul has acknowledged there may be some divisions in the church because of rival gospels being shared.  One version of the gospel circulating there says you must follow Jewish customs of circumcision and the likes in order to be a Christian while another rival group says those Jewish customs are not necessary. Paul also says how there are some preachers and teachers in the church who preach Christ for selfish gain as well as preachers and teachers who teach for the genuine purpose of proclaiming the Good News. At this point, Paul declares it doesn’t matter if Christ is preached with pure or impure motives but that Jesus the Christ is proclaimed in every single way possible![1]  Paul trusts the Holy Spirit will work the motives and the Truth to the surface just as long as Jesus is proclaimed. This is where we pick up today.  Turn to Philippians 1:20-30.  We will be focusing on verses 27 and look at the Christian propensity of keeping spiritual score.  Hear the Word of the Lord!

Philippians 1:20-30

20It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.

21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better;24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith,26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

27Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,28and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. [2]

The key sentence for us is verse 20 which is the fuse that blows this text up.  It is where Paul declares that it is his expectation and hope to speak with all boldness that Christ will be exalted and lifted up. It’s all about Christ and not about Paul. This is all that matters to Paul and Timothy. Sure, he would rather rest from his earthly labors and struggles and be at One with the exalted Christ in glory but Paul knows his call is not about his wish dreams and desires; his life is all about what God wants from him to accomplish for the Gospel’s sake, even if it means he must go through human suffering and discomfort to get it done. After all, in Paul’s mind, why should his life be any different from the suffering Jesus’ went through? He knows it’s not about “me.”

Built upon his appeal to exalt Christ, Paul then shifts focus and directs his appeal to the members of the church; in other words, Paul is speaking to you and me.  Slide your finger to verses 27 and 28. Let’s drill down a bit. Let me give you a very literal reading of these verses:

Only, live and act like a citizen whose behavior is congruous with the Gospel of Christ Jesus; whether I’m physically there or not, I will hear how you are not giving up a single inch in your reflection of the very spiritual nature of Jesus, a community that is synchronized and dancing to the same spiritual tune with a singularly pulsing Jesus-centered life; and don’t be scared of those in the church and world who set themselves up to oppose you.[3]

Paul has just given us the definition of a Gospel-worthy life. We often think a life worthy of the Gospel means exhibiting certain our moral or ethical behaviors to the world; it’s interesting to note that Paul is telling us that Gospel-worthy living does involve the displaying of certain behaviors but they are not the ones the Christians tend to focus upon. We Christian-types like to look at the bottom line behavior of folks:  Are they good or bad? Are they moral, immoral or amoral?  Are they ethical or unethical?  We like to measure Gospel-worthy living with a pietistic scorecard with points added or deducted based on our “good Christian behavior.” We tend to make it all about “me” and how “I” behave or misbehave.

Let’s say you cuss in front of your children or grandchildren, you deduct two points on your spiritual scorecard.  If you lust after someone, that’s an automatic deduct of 25 points!  Give a street person a manna bag with water and basic provisions, however, you get 10 points added and if you actually stop and speak with that homeless person making him or her feel like a real human being, you get a bonus +15 points!  At the end of the day, God tallies up the score and then places it in a heavenly Excel spreadsheet so at the time of death, God can average out your cumulative spiritual score. This kind of spiritual thinking makes our faith “all about me” instead of our allegiance to God. Friends, so many Christians do this and all it results in is a mass expression of missing the point through self-focused musings.

For Paul and Timothy, a Gospel-worthy life is not one based on personal moral do’s and don’ts per se. Lest we forget, Paul is writing to a community, a group.  We read his words at home by ourselves and think he’s writing to “me;” never mind the “you” in our text is plural and not singular! Gospel-worthy living is less about personal behavior as it is about a communal expression of the Spirit of Jesus Christ to the world. So, what does Gospel-worthy living look like? Verses 27 and 28 hold the key.

To begin with, a spiritual community’s life is Gospel-worthy, it’s living a life worthy of the Gospel, when it’s lived congruently with the type of community Jesus was trying to establish.  What type of community is that like?  Jesus developed an upside-down community where the poor are blessed and the rich are humbled. It’s a community where those in power give it up and enable those from the margins to get to the front of the line.  It’s when a community seeks to work together helping a person change from the inside out in order to make the entire community stronger and more spiritually fit.  It’s when a community tells one another, “I’m sorry and I love you” as opposed to “I’ll never forgive you and I hate you.”  A Gospel-worthy life is expressed when the community turns its gaze from within itself to the dying world outside her boundaries. It’s a community where people move from being tight-fisted to one knowing that everything it has is God’s and is a gift from God. It’s a community that speaks Truth in Love. It’s a community that measures success not in size or numbers but in its reliance on Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, a spiritual community’s life is seen as a life worthy of the Gospel, i.e. Gospel-worthy, when it refuses to give up a single inch in its reflection of the very spiritual nature of Jesus. The waves of the world and Western culture batter the church of Jesus to the point where the Church acts like it is more in retreat than it is advancing. The Church is more likely to adapt to culture than insisting the culture adapt to the Gospel-worthy life of Jesus Christ. For the sake of being seeker or user-friendly, the Church has lost the meaning of sanctuary, i.e. a place that is safe and is instead being morphed into place where the cut-throat ways of the corporate world with alliances, cliques, secret deals are being made to the exclusion of other members. On the contrary, a Gospel-worthy life is one that reflects the spiritual nature of Jesus in community but sadly that is a nature that can only be assumed through hard work, effort and sacrifice. It means reading your Bible which most Christians in the Church don’t do.  It’s means serving others even when it’s not convenient. It means learning with others what it means to a spiritual change agent in the world in lieu of trying to figure it out on one’s own. It means a community that is not hasty but seeks to listen to the needs of the broken around them.

Third, a Gospel-worthy community is one that works together in spiritual and relational synchronicity towards a singular purpose of being more like Jesus.  It’s not a Church that promotes programs but one that provides ministry opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world. Churches today seem to compete against one another as opposed to being unified in a singular purpose of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst. Instead of the Church of Jesus Christ acting as the Light on the Hill in our world, it has contented itself to simply becoming singular fireflies that only come out one season of the year and occasionally flash light for those who happen to see it. A Gospel-worthy community puts Jesus first, in the center, at the top!

Finally, a life worthy of the Gospel is a life in community that is expressed when the Church lives without fear. What can the world do that God cannot overwhelm or overcome? The Church doesn’t have to fear the State removing the 10 commandments at the courthouse because it has taught and planted those commandments in the heart of her members. The Church does not have to live in fear of being marginalized by society, the news, or other cultures; a Gospel-worthy Church will always be attacked and humiliated by people in the larger world. If Jesus’ own family thought at one time he was crazy we can guarantee our neighbors, the news, and the politicos will think we are, too! Personally, I am all too happy to be seen as an iconoclast!

Beloved, personal piety is important – please don’t misunderstand me; but personal piety for the sake of personal piety is spiritual narcissism. It’s only when I take my spiritual giftedness and add it to yours, and yours, and yours that we become One in Christ Jesus. The question before us is what each of us is individually bringing to the larger community called First Presbyterian that highlights to our neighborhood, DeLand, Volusia County and beyond that we are a Gospel-worthy community? Gospel-worthy living is more about how to live in community being a Light on the Hill than it is being a sporadic, flickering firefly that comes and goes.

This is what Paul was getting at in our text today.  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 Philippians 1.15-18.

[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] This my personal translation.

The Message: Who Do We Work For?, Philippians 1.1-8

Sermon:           Who Do We Work For?
Scripture:        Philippians 1.1-8
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                 September 17, 2017

You may listen to the Sermon by clicking here.

One of my favorite paintings is the one of the Apostle Paul by Dutch painter Rembrandt. Paul is sitting in his cell and the room is lit by soft candlelight. He is pushed back slightly from his desk slouched over a bit while his right hand, dangling at his side, holds a pen.  His white hair frames a kind but beleaguered face that is full of lines of wisdom and sadness.  Hanging behind him in the corner is a small sword. I love this picture because it shows Paul as a vulnerable and real human being as opposed to the fiery Apostle that went around stirring everyone up.

rembrandt-paul-at-writing-desk-854x1019x72

It’s a picture of an old man whose face shows the wear and tear of what a life in ministry can produce. Paul, at an age where he cannot do much more, is pictured writing his love letters to the churches he helped establish.[1]
This morning, we are going to begin a series of messages that will take us through one of the most loving and tender books in the Bible as we tarry in Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi. This is a church located just miles from the Aegean Sea in today’s Greece.  Located on the ancient Egnation Way that connected Italy in the west to modern-day Istanbul on the east, it was a merchant town of about 10,000 people located about 800 miles due east of Rome.

Paul is presumably writing from his jail cell in Rome while he waits to face the Caesar about the charges leveled against him. He writes the church in Philippi for several reasons.

First, the Philippian church was a generous church. They were the only church in the day that sent Paul gifts to support his ministry. Not only did they send financial gifts, but they sent a member of the church to Rome to help care for Paul’s needs whose name was Epaphroditus. Paul’s letter to the Philippians was a thank you letter for the gifts and for sending their friend to him.

A second reason for the letter was to address an issue that may have been burning below the surface in the Philippian church and that issue dealt with the tension between unity in Christ and divisiveness in the church.

Can you imagine that happening in a church?

We are not exactly certain what the divisiveness was but many conjectures that it was a result of some unhealthy preaching and teaching that was going on that was contradicting Paul’s views of who Jesus is.

A third possible reason for this loving letter is that Paul senses there are those in the church who are actively working against him and the letter is his way of reminding the Philippians how special they are to him and his ministry.[2]  Let’s listen to the opening verses of Philippians from verses 1 – 8. Hear the Word of the Lord!

Philippians 1:1-8

1.1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. [3]

In the midst of our digital age, our culture has lost its ability to write well; we write in snippets with a cultural shorthand as opposed to sitting down and writing a well thought out letter.  It takes time to write a thoughtful letter and its time most of us fail to invest in. Even handwriting is being excluded from many students in elementary education as the students are taught to type instead! In Paul’s day, however, he had all the time he needed to write and writing a letter followed certain forms.  Today we are looking at the very opening of Paul’s letter.

The letter opens with who the writer is along with his or her title.  Next, the recipient of the letter is mentioned and then it concludes with a greeting of some sort.  Paul follows this form perfectly but he adds a spiritual twist to it.

Letters in antiquity were generally sent under the name of one person but this is the one letter of Paul’s where he includes Timothy as an equal colleague.  Not only that, he indicates that their title is “servants of Christ.” They were servants of Christ but the original texts describe them as “slaves for Christ.”  There is no doubt as to whom they work and labor for in their ministry.  It’s not for the Philippian church any more than it was for the Ephesian church; as leaders of the flock, Paul and Timothy were conscripted by Jesus for a purpose. Who do they work for? Jesus. Who do they work with?  The church.

Sadly today, we have subconsciously turned that around in our thinking.  Today, who do the pastors work for?  The members of the Church.  Who do they work with? Hopefully, Jesus. This is something pastors of all Christian traditions must face daily. It is so easy to confuse the demands of church busy-ness with the edict of Christ to go, tell, baptize and make disciples of the nations, or at least, in the neighborhood.  When pastors and their congregations forget who works for whom, ministry becomes compromised.

One of my favorite writers is Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas. His words are full of grit and hardship wafting up from the mores and dales of his native land in Wales.  Here is part of a poem called, The Minister.

…The (Church) choose their pastors as they chose their horses
For hard work. But the last one died
Sooner than they expected; nothing sinister,
You understand, but just the natural
Breaking of the heart beneath a load
Unfit for horses. ‘Ay, he’s a good ‘un,’
Job Davies had said, and Job was a master
Hand at choosing a nag or a pastor.

And Job was right, but he forgot,
They all forgot that even a pastor
Is a man first and a minister after,
Although he wears the sober armour
Of God, and wields the fiery tongue
Of God, and listens to the voice
Of God, the voice no others listen to;
The voice that is the well-kept secret
Of man, like Santa Claus,
Or where baby came from;
The secret waiting to be told
When we are older and can stand the truth.[4]

“Patrick and Michael, slaves of Jesus Christ, to all the saints, i.e. holy ones, in the church of DeLand!” Like Paul, Michael’s call, my call, is to be the slave and servant of Christ with you, the members of this incredible church First Presbyterian Church. As a result, we will not always say or do what you want us to say or do as we are slaves of Christ and not of the congregation.  Our preaching may pinch at times because we cannot help it; the Gospel, Jesus, demands a response and change from those who encounter it.  The temptation is for pastors and preachers to cave into congregational peer pressure so we don’t offend the big givers or make people mad.  Yes, there is a place for tact but tact cannot invalidate or contradict whom we work for: Jesus.

One example of this is how I have chosen to respond to the whole Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.  There were members of the church who left because I did not stand up and condemn the Supreme Court’s ruling. “You’re not taking a Christian stand!” I was told. It is during moments like this Michael and I are forced to remember, we are slaves and servants of Christ and not of influential congregational members. The people who left did so because they were not able to see I was a slave of Christ.

In my attempts to be true as a servant of Christ with the people in the church, I have equally offended all sides of this issue. You see, one of the ordination vows Michael and I made was to promise to work for the unity of the church. When I was told to preach against gay marriage, I was being asked to split a congregation; you see, we have several gay members and visitors and if I condemn them, how does that advance the Kingdom of Grace?  On the other hand, when asked to perform a gay wedding, I replied to the sweet couple that frankly, I could not do it because it would split the congregation. Ironically, it is the same reason I use for both sides of the issue! I am, Michael is, a slave and servant of Christ and we are working with you in making ministry happen. Our goal is to mobilize each of us in this room to be active, vibrant movers and shakers in the Kingdom of Heaven in and through this place. This is a theme Paul develops in his letter to the Philippians.

Beloved, who do you work for? You see, not only is Michael and I slaves and servants of Jesus Christ, but all who call upon that wonderful Name becomes a slave and servant of Jesus Christ. That simple reality requires all of us to ponder and decide where our ultimate allegiance is; is it to Christian fundamentalism or liberalism? Is it a board or to the Body of Christ?  Is it to my class, Bible study, opinion or political affiliation? Or is it to Jesus? Our allegiance is not to a cause; our allegiance is to the God-Who-Comes-Down in the person of the Nazarene.  Beloved, we are all bondservants of the Christ to be in ministry with others. Who do you work for, beloved?

I close with another poem by R.S. Thomas. It’s entitled The Country Clergy. Let the words wash over you like a warm washcloth on your face helping you to wake up.  It reads…

I see them working in old rectories
By the sun’s light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. The left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten.  God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.[5]

Who do you work for, beloved? 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 Acts 16.

[2] See Craddock.

[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] R. S. Thomas. Collected Poems 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix, 1993), 42-43.

[5] Ibid., 82

Have you ever felt like you are staring at the back of God’s head? (Feeling forgotten by God), Psalm 13

Sermon:        Have you ever felt like you are staring at the back of God’s head?
Scripture:     Psalm 13
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:              July 2, 2017, Communion

You may listen to the sermon here:

This morning’s preaching text is printed in your bulletin. I encourage you to read it from your devotional Bible later today and note the differences in how it is presented.[1] Today we will read Psalm 13 from Peterson’s The Message.  Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Psalm 13, The Message

1-2 Long enough, God—ic-ma173-icon-holy-seraphim-sarov-deathyou’ve ignored me long enough.
I’ve looked at the back of your head
long enough. Long enough
I’ve carried this ton of trouble,
lived with a stomach full of pain.
Long enough my arrogant enemies
have looked down their noses at me.

3-4 Take a good look at me, God, my God;
I want to look life in the eye,
So no enemy can get the best of me
or laugh when I fall on my face.

5-6 I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—I’m celebrating your rescue.
I’m singing at the top of my lungs,
I’m so full of answered prayers.[2]

“Long enough, God, long enough!”  Have you ever uttered that flavor of a prayer beforeGod?

Long enough, God, you’re ignoring me!

Long enough, God, people are speaking all kinds of lies about me at work!

Long enough, God, I’m tired of the gossip spoken about me and my family all the time!

Long enough, God, I’m anxious about not being able to pay my bills on time!

Long enough, God, my body cannot go through any more tests, procedures, or pain anymore!

Long enough, God, the anguish of my beloved’s death bitingly stings my soul to the point of no relief.

Long enough, God…hey God, are you even listening to me?

Long enough, God, are you even there?

Long enough, God, I’m tired of staring at the back of your head; turn around and look me in the eye face-to-face!

All of us at one time or another has had, is, or will have these types of prayers escape our lips.  It doesn’t mean we are faith-less people or bad people; feelings of abandonment by the Ultimate Source of Life is endemic to our human condition. Even Atheists and Agnostics, those who don’t believe in any Higher Power or those who do not know what Higher Power to be in relationship with at all will at some point in their life encounter one of Life’s realities, drop their hands, droop their shoulders, and lift their faces heavenward and cry, “Long enough, God.  This is too much for me to bear!  If you’re out there, I’m talking to you so this is a good opportunity to prove yourself to me!”  Today’s psalm is a song of lament, a prayer of beseeching God’s presence and care when life feels overwhelming.  It’s in the Scriptures because it’s a universal cry that even the biggest, roughest, toughest spiritual giants among us have even prayed. I love what the great Reformer, John Calvin wrote about the psalms. He says, “The Psalms are an anatomy of all parts of the soul.”[3]  Oh what comfort that brings us!

There’s comfort as a person of faith to be able to approach the Lord so honestly with raw fear and emotion in times of uncertainty in our life. There’s comfort knowing that God is big enough to absorb those flashes of doubt in what is normally a solid faith in our life. There’s comfort in the fact that like the psalmist, there are those moments we feel we are looking at God’s backside and are desperate for Him to turn around and look at us; just imagine what it is like for those who don’t even think or consider God is in the same room; at least we see God’s backside!

The psalmist is pouring their heart out to God to please take notice of them, acknowledge them, and rescue them.  He or she is demanding that God pay attention to their plight. But then there is a shift in the song and prayer. At the very end of the lament the worshipper cries with celebratory tones in verses 5 and 6:

I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—
I’m celebrating your rescue.
I’m singing at the top of my lungs,
I’m so full of answered prayers.

I like to refer to this as the “even though but still aspect” of a follower’s spiritual journey. This aspect is all throughout the Bible, too.  For example, Even though I failed my exam, I still know that you are in control of my life!  Even though the bank account is almost overdrawn, I still thank you for providing for me out of your provisions from only you know where that will see me through.  Even though the chemo stings and the radiation burns or causes me gross fatigue, I still know Whose I am and will not waiver.  Even though the shadows of depression are overwhelming me, I still know that you have been to the depths of that hell yourself in Jesus and I get the privilege of feeling the depth of feeling you feel.  The psalmist, even though in the waves of those most desperate times and situations, still knows that God is bigger than any obstacle or problem he or she will ever face. We must note that the psalmist does not say how God specifically answers their prayers but only that they are answered.  We do not know if the psalmist got what they wanted from their prayers or whether God granted them what they needed in their prayers; all we know is that the psalmist, even though in the moans and deepest cries for help, they still had confidence and assurance the Lord is in the process of answering those prayers.

Beloved, what are the “Even though but still” moments in your life right now? Think about a moment. Think to yourself of a dire or less than positive situation you are in now and turn it into a prayer. Pray, “even though such-and-such is happening, I still know in the end you will look at me in the eyes and answer my prayer according to your glorious riches and purposes!”

How can you or I even dare think we can pray to God like that? We dare to pray and believe it because our Jesus prayed the same thing in Gethsemane and on the Cross. “Even though I am scared to death, I still pray not my will but Thine be done!”  “Even though they have beat me, spit on me, and taunt me, I still believe you will not hold this against them.”

How can you or I even dare think in those moments when we feel God has turned his back on us God will still answer our prayer and make good on His promise to restore our lives and restore the light in our eyes to look at life again? Because even though, while we were yet sinners and alienated from God and one another, God still came down to live, walk, and to die among us in Jesus Christ.

We know that in the middle of our doubts, Jesus sits at the Table of God and says, “Beloved, even though battered by life, come and sit with me now.”

We know that when we feel the Lord has his back to us, he smiles lovingly and says, “Beloved, my back was turned just a moment to prepare your meal and banquet that we may dine together and celebrate the Light in your Life! I didn’t leave; I was getting something prepared just for you!”

I invite you to eat of the Lord’s Table this day, my friends. Come scared and leave assured. Come broken and leave being whole. Come with your doubts and leave with assurance.  Listen to the Christ as he says to you, “Silly one, come up here and sit next to me and tell me what’s going on in your day; I want to hear it from you.”

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, 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, for example, how the NRSV translates it: How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord,  because he has dealt bountifully with me.
[2] The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson.
[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Preface on the introduction of Community.

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.

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.

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.