Wading Across the (New) River, Joshua 1.1-9

Sermon:        Wading Across the (New) River Together
Scripture:     Joshua 1.1-9
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale
Date:              November 19, 2017

I just graduated high school when the love of my life broke up with me. I must have moped around for a good while because many of my good friends just shook their head at me and said, “Wrisley, get over it! Just go and ask someone out for crying out loud!”

So, I did.

She was a pretty girl. A blind date someone set me up on.  I go to her house and knock on the door and the potentially new Mrs. Wrisley opened it up and began snickering at me as I handed her a flower in a vase. Now I can say for all guys out there, this is not the greeting one wants to have on a blind date! I looked at her quizzically and said, “What are you laughing at!?”  She composed herself and said, “Oh I’m sorry; you’re just so, so short; I thought you’d be taller!”  I put on a fake smile and looked at her 6’ 2” foot-tall frame and thought to myself, “Just shoot me now.”

I take her to a nice dinner and a movie at this large mall in Atlanta called Phipps Plaza. As we were about to go down the escalator she paused and said, “Let me go first and you go behind me; you will look taller.”  Fake smile again. Going down I thought to myself, “Wonder if anyone would notice if I just pushed her just a little bit?”  Don’t worry.  I didn’t. I didn’t know much about the dating scene at the time but one thing I did know: She was NOT going to be the future Mrs. Wrisley!

So here we are – you and me. This date has been arranged and we’ve agreed to meet. The door has opened up and now we are staring facing one another. I look at you and see you’re a beautiful expression of the Bride of Christ and you may be looking at me going, “He’s so, so short! I thought he’d be taller!”  I hope not. The last time I heard that, the date did not go so well.

New beginnings can be awkward at first. Will we like each other?  Will we speak the needed love languages to one another? We may ponder, “Can I trust this person to stand beside me through thick and thin?”  All of these are natural questions for us to have of one another. Well, this morning’s scripture Story is one that paints a picture of a new leader taking the reins of a community and this new leader follows in the shadow of someone who had some mighty large shoes to fill!

Turn in your Bible to Joshua 1.1-9.  Our Story is picking up immediately after the great leader, Moses, has died.  Moses.  The Moses. The “I’m going to get in the face of Pharaoh Moses.”  The parting of the Red Sea Moses.  The beholding the Holy One in the burning bush Moses.  The Moses who led this loosely knit band of Hebrews through the desert for forty years and has brought the people to what is today’s Jordan on the eastern side of the Jordan river just north of today’s Dead Sea. Now God immediately taps Joshua on the shoulder and says, “Ok son, you’re it.”

“Me?” we can hear Joshua mutter. And God’s answer is “Yup, you.”  Our scripture this morning is God’s answer to Joshua’s questions of “You want me to do what, God?”  Hear the Word of the Lord!

Joshua 1.1-9

1After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, 2“My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. 3Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses.4From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory. 5No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. 6Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.7Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. 8This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. 9I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”[1]

Did you notice what God does and does not tell Joshua?

God does not tell Joshua to go on retreat and think about it.  God does not tell Joshua to form a committee and talk about it. God does not tell Joshua to rehash the last forty years of history – all the good and all the bad and tragedy they’ve gone through in the past. God tells Joshua and the people pretty much the same thing Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 28 at the Great Commission.  The first word out of Jesus’ mouth is, “Go!”  It seems that God’s strategy is pretty basic and consistent throughout history. God tells the leaders and the people to get up and go. So, let’s briefly look at what God is telling Joshua and Hebrews. He gives them two commands and a promise.

The first command he gives Joshua, as well as the people, is to go forth but be strong and courageous!  God says this in rapid-fire staccato fashion three times in three verses. For Joshua, he must be wondering if he will be able to pull it off. He wonders, “Will I have the moxie and giftedness to provide for this community as Moses did? Will God provide mighty wonders and signs through me as he did with Moses?  Will God make good on his promises to the people through little old me?  And God replies, “be strong and courageous for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go!”

Yet, the community of Hebrews had their own issues going on, too! They were wondering, “Can Joshua pull it off like Moses did?”  They are also wondering, “Will God perform signs and wonders through this guy Joshua like Moses did when we got into dire straits in the wilderness?”  They wonder if God will accompany them as they march west into the Land of Canaan or will they have to venture on their own. And God replies, “be strong and courageous for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go!”

Let’s face it:  there are haunting realities in the past of this community of faith that have been difficult for you, the members of First Pres. The numbers if the church pews here have, like the Hebrews going through the desert, have been thinned over the years. The remnant who are left wonder if this short, stocky guy can pull it off! As your possible new pastoral leader, I shake in my boots with regards to that history as well, your expectations, and the opportunities before this church; I know that I will have to earn my trust from you and to prove my commitment the cause and God’s Missio Dei, God’s mission, through this place. Each of us come with our own hopes, fears, and dreams. But here we are today.  God telling me, God asking you, to walk with one another and together wade into the river crossing to the other side. And what does God say to you and me? “Be strong and courageous for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go!”

Yet, there is another command God gives Joshua and the people. God says, “Act in accordance with the Law…Do not turn from it to the right or to the left…and meditate on day and night.”  This command is not a command demanding that we drop everything and return to some form of spiritual or theological fundamentalism; God’s command is one that is reminding Joshua and his community to be laser-focused on the one necessary thing: The way of life grounded and grown in the soil of God as opposed to the soil of culture or personal self-interest.  You see, God knows all too well how the people felt that they knew better than God with how to relate with one another and to the world.  They heard Moses talk about the Ten Suggestions as opposed to the Ten Commandments and by confusing what they heard, they made a pluperfect mess of things.  Even Aaron, who was a good enough guy as far as it goes, felt the need to give into the pressure of the people and let them make a golden calf while Moses was taking a long time up on the mountain with the Lord.  The Law of God is not to be some lugubrious weight to carry in order to be loved by God; the Law is meant to be the way for the people and her leadership to keep laser-focused on God’s love relationship with them.

I love how verse 8 says, “You shall meditate on it day and night.”  With all the new popularity of meditation these days, we think it to mean to enter into a Zennish form of no mind or Buddhist Nirvana. The Hebrew word for meditation is the same word that is used to describe a lion standing guard over her prey while making guttural roaring noises.  For us, the connotation of meditation is that we are to stand guard over the laws and ways of God and do all we can to keep them safe.  It means reading them.  It means studying them.  It means ruminating over them like a cow chews her cud over and over and over again.  For Christ-Followers, that ultimate commandment is to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And where do we go to become bathed in that message?  The scriptures! My prayer is that we will become a congregation of who falls in love with Scripture all over again so that we will learn how to be the hands and feet of Christ in this broken and hurting world! It’s a call our early Reformers cried out in the 16th Century; the cried, “Ad fontes!” – Return to the Source, the spring of life found in the Scriptures!

The first command God gives Joshua and the people is this: Be strong and courageous; no fear for I am with you wherever you go!  The second command God give Joshua and the people:  Keep focused on my Scriptures and let them become a part of who you are!  And it’s at this point we come to the promise in our Story.

Note with me verse three. The way it is written should cause us pause because this verse is clearly the promise God has waiting for the called community and for First Pres Fort Lauderdale.  It reads, “Every place the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised Moses.”  Hear that again:  Every place the sole of your foot will tread upon (that’s future tense), I have already given you as I promised Moses (that’s past tense).  Can you hear what God is promising?  He’s telling Joshua and the misfit Hebrews to wade across the river to the other side and claim all God has had waiting for them!  The deal is to be strong and courageous and keep focused on God’s ways and plans!  If we do that, it will be like finding a ruby under every rock in a North Carolina mountain stream! All we have to do is go and start flipping over some rocks!

Beloved, I humbly come before you today. I’m definitely no Moses and not a Joshua either.  I’m just a short stocky guy who rides a Hog who loves Jesus and is passionate about telling others about him.  Why are Kelly and I here today with you?  Because like you, we are standing on the banks of the Jordan, or in this case, the New River, and we look across wondering what God has waiting for us over there.  It will require us to step out together in faith. It will require us to trust one another and display courage and strength.  It will require us to focus on the ways and character of God through the scriptures as opposed to the cacophony of the surrounding culture.  Kelly and I are here today saying we are willing to make the sacrifice to get wet and wade across the river you.  Now it’s up to you.  Personally, I hope we will cross that river together and claim the promises of ministry that God already has waiting for us.  And all of God’s people say, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, 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: Empty is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing, Philippians 2.1-11

Sermon:        Empty is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing
Scripture:     Philippians 2.1-13
Preacher:      Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:       First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:              October 1, 2017, World Communion Sunday

You may listen to the sermon here.

We’ve just come through a tumultuous time in Florida with the onslaught of Hurricane Irma. For the week leading up to the landfall, it seems like everyone put their life on hold and began prepping for what might happen.  Normally sane people began to do insane things like fighting over toilet paper and peanut butter at Publix while others began to brandish weapons at a nearby gas station because someone cut in front of them in line. Lowes and Home Depot became madhouses as folks were stocking up on batteries, water, plywood, and generators.

IMG_2374

A scarcity of supplies and empty shelves soon became the norm.  I cut my study leave short to drive back from north Georgia to secure the house.  When I arrived Tuesday night a week before the storm hit, there were already gas lines as I passed through Astor and Barberville; even though I had been on the road for over eight hours the first thing I did when I got to DeLand is find a gas station with the shortest line and filled up. I immediately left RaceTrac and went to Publix to pick up some supplies and you would have thought it was Toys R Us on Christmas Eve! Water: out. Prepared whole chickens: Out. Vegetables: Going fast.  Milk: scarce. Beer and wine: thinning out. Ice: forget it. Charcoal: Out. In fact, I took a picture of the charcoal aisle at Publix with its linear feet of massive but empty shelves and put it on Instagram only to have CNN pick it up and run it on the news!  Scarcity was leading to desperation and hoarding.

Yet, there are other types of emptiness, too.  There is financial emptiness when we simply do not have or feel we have enough to get by.  We see how everyone else around us is doing and they seem to be doing fine so why can’t I be as well?  It’s not fair! Why should my bank accounts be empty when everyone else’s seem so full?  A feeling of financial emptiness can create resentment towards others in the community. Financial emptiness can cause one to focus on what he or she does not have instead of what they’ve already got. It’s like the old Cheryl Crow song, Soak Up the Sun, where she sings:

I don’t have digital
I don’t have diddly squat
It’s not having what you want
It’s wanting what you’ve got.

Then there is emotional emptiness, too.  It’s an emptiness that feels heavy and dark. It’s an emptiness that feels there is not enough in this whole world to slake its thirst and craving for something but that “something” evades them.  It’s an emptiness that unwittingly sucks the energy from other people around us.  It’s an emptiness that masks itself in sadness, irritability, anger or passive aggressiveness.

There also is relational emptiness. We look around us and it seems like everyone else is a couple.  Everyone else has friends.  Everyone else has a support system. Everyone, that is, except me. This emptiness manifests itself in a person feeling victimized, jealous, hurt, spiteful, or just deeply depressed and isolated.

Finally, there is spiritual emptiness.  Spiritual emptiness is seen in people who love the things and ways of culture for themselves as opposed to gaining life through a community in sacrifice. Spiritual emptiness is seen in our propensity for libertine living because we are searching for something, indeed, Something, to fill this gaping void in our souls. This is an emptiness that causes people to become selfish, greedy, and prideful. This is an emptiness which causes a person to lead a life that’s “all about me” versus “it’s really about us.” It’s an emptiness that abuses people, enslaves people, and wipes out the Imago Dei, the very Image of God, in others and our environment.  This is the emptiness Paul is describing in today’s text.  It’s also an emptiness that Paul points to as possible Easter-moment, a time when rebirth can occur.

This morning we are continuing our study of Philippians with what is thought to be one of the earliest credos or corporate statements of faith in the early Church.  Paul is addressing some unspecified problems going on in the Philippian church and we begin to see what those issues are revolving around in our text today.  We will be reading from The Message Bible and the text is printed in your bulletin wrap for your convenience.  Listen to the Word of the Lord from Philippians 2.1-11.

2.1-4 If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!  Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father. [1]

It appears there were some in the Philippian church who were in fact spiritually empty because they were too full of themselves.  These church folks were concerned about their understanding of Jesus over and against your understanding of Jesus. They were pushing themselves up the ladder of influence and notoriety to become the power players swaying to shape other Christian’s views and loyalty.  They wanted the power.  They wanted to control and be in charge.  They would accomplish this even to the point of disparaging the founder of their local Church, Paul himself and Paul would not fall for their baiting tactics.

What does Paul do?  Paul describes the spiritual emptiness that must take place to be full of the power and presence of God and he looks to Jesus as the example to do it.  Paul reminds them Jesus had equal status with God but he “set aside the privileges of deity and became human.” And as our text reminds us, “It was a very humbling process.”  The original language describes this setting aside his deity as a total emptying of himself – a pouring out.[2] Imagine a pitcher of water being drained to the dregs.  This is what the Eternal Christ did!  He emptied himself of being God to become fully human which in turn enables you and me to become fully re-engaged in a relationship with God the Father again!

Christ Jesus emptied himself of Divine privileges in order that our fallen humanity could regain ours. Christ humbled himself so that you and I could be lifted up. God became a bona fide human being like you and me so as to completely relate with what we feel, think, believe, and experience in order to redeem those feelings, thoughts, and experiences we have.

Church, God emptied himself so that you and I, indeed, this whole wonderful creation, could become full of God.  Jesus emptied himself so that we could become filled. Yet, there is one thing necessary before this can happen.  We must follow the Christ’s example.

Each one of us must pour our inner self out in order to become full of Holy Spirit and Christ. We are being called to pour out our self-importance.  We are being called to kill our overfed egos.  We are being called to empty out any sense of entitlement from deep within us and refill ourselves with love for God and neighbor.  We are called to set aside any privileges we think we have or are owed and run straight to the back of the line and push and encourage others to go first.  It’s only when we are empty of ourselves, wish dreams, lusts, drives for power and success that we become available vessels of love and grace for the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Beloved, Jesus emptied himself, poured himself out for you and for me.  The question for you and I is what exactly each of us need to pour out in our own lives that is getting in the way and displacing the infilling of the Holy Spirit of Christ in our hearts and souls.  What is occupying our spirits and souls that is displacing room for Jesus?

This morning is Worldwide Communion Sunday, a day when Christians around the world from all traditions empty themselves of their dogma and traditions and become truly one in Christ and one with the whole Church.  As you prepare to receive the meal, be asking our Lord what you need to purge in our life – feelings, behaviors, or experiences – that are getting in the way of your infilling of the Holy Spirit.  Come to the Table empty.  Leave the Table full of Christ. 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 Message, (Colorado Springs: NavPress).

[2] The Greek term Paul uses is kenosis.

Sermon #2 on Mission: When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Stay on Point!, Matthew 10:24-39.

Sermon #2 on Mission:  When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Stay on Point!, Matthew 10:24-39.

Sermon:        When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Stay on Point
Scripture:    Matthew 10:24-39
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:     First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:          June 25, 2017, 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 7

Last week we began looking at the second major sermon in Matthew’s Gospel as we started delving into Jesus’ focus on mission.  We noted how Jesus called out twelve Apostles who then received their marching orders from Jesus to go out to preach and heal.  We particularly noted why mission matters to Christ, what the first step is in any form of mission we undertake, and we looked at the overall purpose of mission in God’s eyes.  Today, we are continuing along in the same sermon Jesus was giving last week but as you see today, the focus has shifted to what you and I can expect in undertaking mission in the world.  Listen to the Word of the Lord.

Matthew 10:24-39

 24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.[1]

There is so much meat in this text that it would appear to be an overstuffed sandwich! There are so many “hot topics” Jesus raises from God’s Providence, human fear to cross-bearing! You would think it easy to make our lection a shorter reading but as I dug into it, I realized Jesus’ words must be taken as a whole unit. Why? Because Jesus wants his disciples to know that when the going gets tough (and it most definitely will), then the tough are called to stay on point.

It’s a little different from our colloquial saying that says when the going gets tough the tough get going. When the going gets tough and the tough get going, we hear it as a call to gather up strength from whatever source you can and keep on going forward no matter what. If you were running a marathon and at mile 16 I yell at you, “Hey Martha, when the going gets tough, the tough get going!” you would hear that as a personal encouragement to reach down inside yourself and pull some more up the bottom. This in and of itself is not a bad thing to do per se but this is not what Jesus was trying to get his disciples to understand.  You see, when the tough get going they could change their direction and go the other way or take an alternate way and path they were originally taking. Contrary to this Jesus is telling the disciples that when the going gets tough, the disciples are to stay focused and on point. As a racehorse has blinders on to prevent them seeing the neighboring horses immediately on their left and right, the blinders help the horse not to become distracted and stay focused on the course they are running because they are running for a purpose and have a goal to succeed.

Today’s scripture outlines how Jesus wants his disciples to stay focused and on point.  Let’s briefly look at the two blinders Jesus uses to keep the disciples focused and then we will identify the goal Jesus wants us to achieve in our mission.

Blinder number one: Verses 24 – 31 have Jesus reminding the disciples that they are not going to experience anything different than Jesus himself has experienced. Jesus reminds them as he was called names and maligned and so will the disciples.  We see this clearly in Matthew a few chapters ahead when the religious officials tell people Jesus is really Beelzbul, i.e. Satan, God’s arch-enemy.[2]

There is an interesting word-play with the name Beelzbul.  In antiquity, names meant something. So for example, my name Patrick means ‘the one who is noble’ and I would try to live into that name’s meaning.  Beelzbul refers to Satan, God’s enemy, but it also means, ‘god of the dung heap.’ So the theological literalists of his day would be calling Jesus Satan or comparing him to Satan, while others who simply did not take Jesus seriously derisively called him this to infer he was the god, lord of the dung pile. Consequently, Jesus was seen as a threat at worst or not taken seriously as a joke at best. He’s either Satan or lord of the piles.  Either way, people will hear and see his message as a threat and/or a joke.

Jesus is reminding you and me that our life of mission will have the same effects his did in both positive and negative ways.  The disciples will preach and they will heal but Jesus is reminding us that we are to remember that people will take the gospel message as a threat or they will see it, and us (the Church), as a joke. We see this happening today all over America. It is because of this fact, disciples are to remember the intentional loving care of God for them. He is telling them you will be treated as I am treated, i.e. with contempt or disdain, but you will also be cared for by the all-encompassing Providential Care of God!  Does not the Father in heaven care for the sparrow?  Does not the Father in heaven know how many hairs are on top of our heads? The answer is yes, most definitely, but keep shouting the message from the rooftops anyway! You’ll be treated as I am treated but stay on point and tell the Story openly for all to hear!  There’s the first horse blinder keeping our eyes focused ahead.

The second blinder offered to keep our goal in sight is found in verses 34 – 39.  It’s the blinder that reminds us that being a disciple takes hard work and we are to expect that fact. American Christianity has become Joel Osteened to the point that we believe once we follow Jesus, we can sit back and expect the material blessing faucet to be turned on over us. Our lives of discipleship will be happy, easy, and our lives will be overwhelmed with material prosperity. Jesus is saying that is a bunch of hooey.

He’s reminding the disciples that their work will disrupt and cause problems in the most basic and most important aspect of their very social structure: It’s going to threaten Jewish family loyalty. The old ways of believing God will bless you if you behave correctly are being replaced with Jesus’ words of God’s desire for us to live lovingly and justly with each other.  It’s not that Jesus wants families and the social structure of the Jewish community ripped apart; Jesus is simply stating the reality of what will happen.

The status quo, the peaceable way things are, is to be overturned. When the ethic and character of God expressed through love and justice is introduced, people, systems, groups, churches, and social structures get uncomfortable. We like it when the boat isn’t rocked. Yet, Jesus is reminding us that the status quo of judging others for their sexual orientation and not seeing them as a child of God makes a mockery of the power of the Cross. He is reminding us that the status quo of our nation’s tendency to overlook the poor because it affects our personal bottom line is unethical. He is reminding us that the oft-used excuse that it’s too hard to change the social structures to care for the least of these just will not cut it anymore. Jesus is reminding us that the message of love and justice is hard.  We will be maligned.  We will be taunted.  We will be accused of being out of touch. We are to keep our race blinders on and keep moving toward the goal of his message: Reconciliation, love, and justice.

Blinder one keeping us focused: When the going gets tough, the tough are reminded that we are experiencing what Jesus did and God has our backs. Blinder two keeping us focused:  When the going gets tough, we are not to be surprised when the world pushes back against the message of Christ.  So what is the goal these blinders are directing us toward down that race track?

Verses 32 and 33 say, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Our goal is that when the going gets tough, the tough stay on point, they stay on focus and that means to acknowledge, affirm, and show allegiance to Jesus and his way of reconciliation, love, and justice.  We deny Jesus when we fail to reconcile with our kids, spouse, neighbors, coworkers, or fellow Republicans, Democrats and Independents across the political aisle. We deny Jesus when we fail to show love to the invisible ones among us. We deny Jesus when we fall back solely with a ‘what’s in for me” mindset and fail to execute biblical ethics and justice for our neighbor.

When the going gets tough, the tough keep on point and purpose. Jesus isn’t asking you or me to do anything he has not done himself. It’s not easy but God is in control. It’s not easy because demonstrating love, reconciliation and justice make everyone uncomfortable. Our text today leaves us a question to wrestle with this week: In my life, in this church’s life, am I, are we, staying on point and acknowledging the Christ or are we denying him before the Father and the world? Let’s remember Jesus’ words that those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for his sake will find it.

Let’s pray.

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

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

[1] The 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 12:24, 27.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 9:35-10:8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Bruner, 448.

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

The Trinity and the Law of Three

The Trinity and the Law of Three

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

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] The Message by Eugene Peterson.

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

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

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

[5] Ibid., 15-17.

[6] Rohr, 70.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 7:54-60

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did Jesus get hurt?”

“Did anyone stand up for him?”

“Who turned him into the religious officials?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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