To the Task at Hand: Thoughts on consecration of the community.

Matthew 5: 14-16

14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Romans 12: 1-2

12I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Today is Consecration Sunday.

The day we pledge our time, talents and treasure to JMPC, its missions and ministries for 2017.

Some will turn in Estimate of Giving cards.

Some will just make a mental note to give when possible.

Regardless, it is a time to consecrate not only our money but ourselves as disciples of Jesus.

But we are consecrating more than that.

We are consecration JMPC as an entity that will seek to do God’s will in the world in 2017.

So what does that look like?

This week I was reading Krista Tippet’s book Becoming Wise.

In it Tippet interviews Jewish physician Rachel Naomi Remen who recounts her Hasidic rabbi grandfather’s strange, mystical story of creation.

It reminded me somehow of our scripture readings this morning, though I did re-interpret the story a bit to fit my theology.

In the beginning, there was only God, the divine light, who was the source of life.

God created the universe using the divine light and gave it to humanity to tend.

But humanity broke the universe and the light was scattered and became hidden.

God sent more light into creation in the form of Jesus.

Jesus gave humanity “… the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby restore the innate wholeness of the world. … It’s the restoration of the world.”

Remen goes on to say something profound.

And this [restoration of the world] is, of course a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.

Why does this make me think of our scripture readings?

Because our scripture readings teach us it is what we do as a community that uses God’s light in a way that glorifies God and changes the world.

In Matthew, Jesus is talking to his disciples and followers.

In Romans, Paul is talking to the Roman church.

Neither are talking to them as individuals but as a community.

As the Interpreter’s Bible puts it in discussing Matthew:

The church is not an esoteric community of initiates. The community … is not an introverted secret society shielding itself from the world, but a city set on a hill whose authentic life cannot be concealed.

When we become disciples of Jesus, we are “re-born” with the capacity to shine the hidden light on the world around us.

To become a city on a hill inviting people into the presence of God.

To glorify God.

To transform our minds and world.

Today we consecrate ourselves to that task.

In Matthew, Jesus tells us all that together we are the light of the world.

But it is not our light.

Disciples are enlightened by God.

Our job is to shine God’s light on the world around us.

We are also a city on a hill.

Everyone can see it and wayward travelers will be drawn to it because of its expected hospitality.

These are metaphors that were used to describe Israel’s mission to the nations.

Now Jesus tell us to take up that task.

We are the new Israel.

Disciples are not lit up for their own benefit, but to shine God’s light on the world.

All for God’s glory, because it is God’s light that is shining.

Everything created needs light.

Plants can’t live without light.

And what is interesting, neither can we!

Human bodies do not function well in the dark.

Without exposure to light, our bodies don’t create Vitamin D.

Without Vitamin D, our bodies do not process calcium and we have weak hearts and weak bones.

If you want to have healthy bodies, you need to get out in the sun.

Lack of light makes us sick.

Seasonal affective disorder.

The treatment?

Find light!

It is good to be in the light.

But there are other things we like about light.

Without it, there is no color.

I was a big fan of the TV show Ghost Hunters.

One really funny thing about that show is that they always turn out the lights when its time to go hunt ghosts.

And we watch the entire ghost hunt through night vision lenses on the cameras.

Everything is black and white.

The colorless world they show us is supposed to be creepy.

And it is.

Because a world without color is unnatural!

It’s like that Moody Blues poem at the end of Days of Future Past:

Cold hearted orb that rules the night

Removes the colors from our sight

Red is grey and yellow, white

But we decide which is right

And which is an illusion

No light, no color, no guidance, nothing to rely on.

Pretty scary.

And so when we see a light, we go to it.

Back in Jesus day, when everyone lit their lamps as night fell, people in the wilderness could see a city on a hill for miles.

And it attracted travelers who sought hospitality.

Food.

Shelter.

Fellowship.

Jesus tells us we need to have the same effect on the world around us.

Beauty.

Guidance.

Nourishment.

Life.

That is what Jesus wants from us.

Here is a story I years ago week that says something about what that looks like.

Bill White of Paramont, CA tells this story.

During a Saturday afternoon community service day, I was walking down a narrow side street in the city of Compton, California, heading towards one of the worksites sponsored by a local church. It was towards the end of the work day, and volunteers were streaming out of the site, getting ready to head off to lunch after finishing a complete makeover of a local house.

I passed a married couple working in their own yard. They asked me what we were doing down the street. I replied that we represented a band of churches united in our desire to serve the city. After looking into my eyes, the husband nodded approvingly towards the renovated house down the street and said, “I love your heart. Where can I get a heart like yours?” I said, “We got our hearts from Jesus, and he would be glad to give you one like his, too.”

That’s light everyone can see.

And many will be attracted.

In the context of our mystical Hasidic story, this is how the world gets healed.

So now let’s look at Paul.

Paul tells us, all of us, that we need to present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is [our] spiritual worship.

To Paul that means we consecrate ourselves to live as God calls us to live.

To Paul the measure of that is Jesus Christ crucified.

Jesus chose to go to the cross because it was the will of God and also because it would redeem humanity.

Jesus did God’s will.

He loved us so much he died for us.

Jesus loved God and loved us.

When we love God and love each other, we live as Jesus lived and we glorify God.

That is our spiritual worship.

A new way of living is possible.

The Jesus way.

And God is pleased.

How does Paul describe this?

For that we need to go on to Romans 12: 9-21.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; …. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18…, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, … ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; … overcome evil with good.

And that requires a rewired, rebooted, transformed, renewed mind.

It also requires community.

Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber describes how this works regarding forgiveness.

In her interview with Tippett, she says it is hard to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Her recommendation is to ask other people to do it for us sometimes.

Bolz Weber teaches that it is the community that prays for and forgives those who seek us harm even when we can’t individually.

She says that this ability to shine God’s light is given in sufficient quantity to communities, not necessarily individuals.

I think she is right.

I might not be able to do all the things that Paul calls us to do, but the community can.

This is much like humanity in our ancient Jewish story.

Humanity, by coming together and reflecting the image and light of God, heals the world.

Humanity becomes the tool God uses for healing.

Now what does that have to do with us?

Two Sundays ago, we celebrated the first 50 years of John McMillan Presbyterian Church.

At the same time, we celebrated the beginning of the next 50 years.

Last Sunday we asked for the congregation’s commitment to the first of the next 50 years by pledging to fund it.

And we all agreed that we are all entitled to information, inspiration, and invitation.

Information that will tell us why JMPC needs our money.

Inspiration that encourages us by demonstrating that our money is changing people’s lives.

Invitation to make a choice to be a part of that.

In a few moments, we will put our estimate of giving cards into the offering plate, bless them and give thanks to God that we can make such a pledge and that God invites us to be part of God’s ministry.

So what are we supposed to do now?

We get to the task at hand.

We shine our light into the world.

We become a city on this hill.

We present ourselves to God as a means to God’s glorification.

And we change the way we think about ourselves and the world and the way we interact with it.

And when we do that, we will do our part in healing the world.

That sounds like a big task.

But like the old Hasidic story, we are not expected to do it all ourselves.

We are to do it as a part of a God sized effort that includes all the folks who are enlightened, committed and consecrated.

This is what it looks like.

At a meeting of Stated Clerks for the PCUSA Grayde Parsons, then the Stated Clerk for the denomination, asked this question:

Who does your church minister to?

Most of us thought about the number of members in or congregations.

He said, “No!”

The people we minster to are those who are touched by our ministries.

A church of 20 can impact hundreds.

JMPC ministers to more people than we can even imagine.

From Malawi to Mexico to South Carolina to Oklahoma, to Bethel Park, South Park and Peters Township.

I bet we reach well over a thousand different people every year.

And lives are changed.

We are the light of the world.

We are the city on the hill.

We are glorifying God.

We are renewing our minds, our community, our world.

We are disciples of Jesus Christ.

We are living the Jesus way.



Expectations

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEYbRFWE758

Mark 12: 41-44

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

2 Corinthians 9: 6-15

6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written,
‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
his righteousness endures for ever.’
10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Whenever I sit down with a couple whose marriage I am to perform, I talk with them about what causes the most conflict in a marriage.

There is a long list of typical things couples fight about, but no individual one of them is the most common.

What is the most common?

Failure to meet expectations.

One spouse expects this.

The other does that.

Conflict erupts.

Here is the problem.

You can’t be mad at your spouse for not being on time for dinner unless you have told your spouse what time dinner is.

This can all be avoided simply by talking about what each expects of the other and coming to an agreement on how those expectations can be satisfied.

Church pledging is like that in many ways.

There are expectations on all sides.

But we need to know what those expectations are.

So we need to talk about them and come to an agreement on how all the expectations can be met.

So let’s get started.

In a church pledge campaign, your congregation, your church community, is asking that you give some of your money to support its ministries and mission.

Trust me, it’s not something we enjoy doing.

In Europe, a church tax is a tax imposed on members of religious congregations in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Sweden, some parts of Switzerland and several other countries.

The individual churches get that money, so they don’t have to have pledge drives.

In the United States, that is not an option because the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits it.

So American churches have always needed a way to raise funds for their ministries.

Early methods of fundraising included renting or selling pew space.

How much would each of you p[ay for your chair?

The pot luck church suppers were born as were church socials, raffles and lotteries.

Maybe that was the beginning of Bingo!

Special collections were taken in support of foreign missions.

After World War II things changed.

There was a religious boom.

Why?

That is debated, but one reason was the Cold War.

In contrast to the atheism of communist nations, Americans were “God-believing church goers”.

The church was a place where the American Way of Life was lived.

The United States also entered an era of unprecedented affluence.

Church membership as a percentage of the total population grew from 49% in 1940 to 65% by 1960.

In 1957, 96% of Americans cited a specific religious affiliation.

People wanted a church.

So people just gave.

Church leaders really didn’t even have to ask!

The churches felt entitled to this income.

It was expected!

But then things changed.

Along came the 60’s.

Church attendance dropped.

Membership decreased.

People found other uses for their charitable money.

They wanted the money to do more than keep the lights on in the building, they wanted their money to change people’s lives.

To change the world.

And that is where we have remained.

We don’t just give our money to the church just because it is our church.

We want to know that it is doing something good.

We expect that it is doing something good.

Not just for our church, but for the world around us.

And I am OK with that.

Because I am part of that group.

So when I ask for money, I want to tell you why you should give some.

You are entitled to what Rev. Todd Outcalt calls the three “I”s.

Information.

Inspiration.

Invitation.

Many want information about what the church does with the money they give.

The article calls such folks “Information People”.

Nothing wrong with that.

Plenty of you here.

What do you want to know?

What is the budget?

What is the vision?

How much do I need to give to make the budget and further the vision?

Here are the answers to those questions at JMPC:

We have a budget that was approved by Session and received by the congregation.

That budget called for income of $392,000 for 2016.

That money goes to pay for the staff and the building and ground and funds our worship, education, fellowship and mission committees for their use in their ministries.

Information that is available at your request.

Where does that income come from?

Miscellaneous stuff.

“Unidentified offerings” from visitors and people who do not pledge but give regularly.

We have people help pay for our per capita contribution to our denomination which is around $32 per member.

And we have rental income for building use by outside groups.

These amount to around $15,000.

We also have memorial contributions and restricted gifts, but they do not go to budgeted items.

So that leaves $377,000.

Where does that come from?

You.

We have 460 members divided into 230 “giving units”.

A giving unit is a family that gives as one entity.

So to cover the budget, each giving unit must average $1,700 annually.

That’s $33 a week.

That’s $4.70 a day.

I have been known to spend that much on a cup of coffee.

I know that some in our congregation cannot afford even this.

I also know that some can afford a lot more, and have done so consistently for many years.

Which brings us to The Widow’s Mite.

Here is this woman who is giving everything she has, which is not much, to support the Temple.

Is Jesus saying that we are to give our last little bit of money to the church even if it means we won’t eat that day?

I don’t think so!

Jesus is doing simple math.

He is comparing that the proportion of what she gave to what she had and pointing out that it was a greater proportion than the rich folk.

She gave more, even though it had little impact of the Tempe budget.

Some give sacrificially.

Some don’t.

But everybody gives something.

The Widow is applauded by Jesus.

But he does not here criticize the “proportionately smaller” gifts of the well off.

The richer folk were going to keep the Temple operating, even when the amount was not as “big” as the Widow’s.

This is the way it worked then.

It is still the way it works.

This is information.

Outcalt describes the second group as “Inspiration People”.

These folks want to know that their money has been spent to change lives.

Nothing wrong with that.

There are plenty of such folks here.

What do they want to know?

They want a narrative budget that demonstrates where their money is being spent missionally.

They are less concerned about the budget than seeing that their money is being used to have an impact on people’s lives.

They want to hear stories about that impact.

They want their money to make a difference.

They want to know that their money can make difference in a particular way.

Here are the answers to those questions at JMPC:

We have provided a narrative budget that shows how the money was spent in 2015.

Worship: $188,604 – 43%

Education: $61,742 – 15%

Fellowship: $32,746 – 8%

Mission: $148, 802 – 34%

All these things further our vision to know, glorify and serve God!

You want stories?

The best story I have heard lately is that of Zach Smith two weeks ago.

What life changing experience did he have in his teens?

JMPC!

Did you hear Carol today?

We have received accolades from families who have spent nights with us and have called us angels for giving their kids food and shelter.

And what about the stories we heard last week at the 50TH anniversary worship service?

And the stories from former pastors.

Lots of stores about JMPC and its impact on people here in this congregation, in Western Pennsylvania, the United States, Malawi, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua.

We are changing people’s lives.

But you want to make sure your money is used in a way that supports your particular ministry or mission, right?

That is why are reorganizing ourselves into ministry teams.

Teams of like minded people pursuing their ministry and missional passions.

Join one.

Start one.

Make sure that part of what you give goes to your team!

That is what we are trying to do.

And when we do, look what happens!

Paul tells the Corinthians that when they give, they will be enriched because their gifts glorify God by way thanksgiving and obedience to the Gospel.

That is inspiration.

Last are the “Invitation People”.

I think that includes all of us.

If someone wants us to do something, we expect them to ask.

Politely.

And say please.

Nothing wrong with that.

We should all be in that group.

We tend to bristle when we are “told” to do something.

So we are not telling you what to do.

Like Paul, we are asking.

That is what Paul tells the Corinthians.

Paul is asking the Corinthians to support other communities of disciples.

The more you give, the more will be returned to you.

But it is by choice, not compulsion.

Paul says give cheerfully.

Without compulsion.

So today, we are asking that everyone – everyone – contribute to the ministries of JMPC.

Please.

We are looking for 100% participation.

Please.

Fill out the estimate of giving card with an annual amount that you can afford to give cheerfully,

If you can increase your pledge over 2016, great.

If you can keep it the same, OK.

If you have not been contributing, now is the time to start.

An amount that will glorify God with thanksgiving and obedience to the Gospel.

Then bring your card to church next week.

But we are asked to give something.

Even if all you can afford is $5 a week.

Please.

The rest of us who can afford it will make up the difference.

We are a community of people who are disciples of Jesus Christ and it is our mission to provide a way for our community and the communities around us to know, serve and glorify God.

It is our hope that our worship and fellowship and mission and education and our building can continue to bring us all closer God.

We can do that.

So there you have it.

Information.

Inspiration.

Invitation.

I am asking that we be all in.

Cheerfully.

Bountifully.

Thankfully.

Please.

Thank you.

Amen.

 



New Member’s Class

This Sunday at 9:45, the New Members class will take place in the Parlor. Anyone interested in exploring membership here at JMPC is invited. If you are interested, see you there. If you know someone who is interested, please pass this message along.



The Vineyard on the Hill; Thoughts on 50 years at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

John 15: 1-8

15‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

One of the problems we have when Jesus speaks in parables is that we are often unfamiliar with the context.

Today, Jesus describes his disciples as branches on a vine.

He describes the function of the branches as to produce fruit.

And he talks about cleaning and pruning and abiding and burning as part of that process.

And this is a bit hard for me to understand.

I am no gardener.

So the horticultural metaphor … well … I don’t get it.

And today Jesus talks about grape vines.

I know nothing about grapevines.

So to understand what Jesus wants me to understand, I did a bit of research.

As I read about vineyards, it reminded me about my back yard ivy.

I had spent several years planting ivy on our hillside and happily watched it spread, just as I wanted it to.

Then one spring, it all looked dead.

I asked a friend who does landscaping about it and he said that the deer had eaten most of the leaves.

So the long ivy vines looked dead.

His recommendation was to prune the ivy vines way back and start the process over.

If I trimmed them back, all the nourishment would remain in a smaller vine, and it would be able to grow its leaves back which would lead to more vine, more leaves…

You get the picture.

It would spread again.

It would bear fruit.

For the ivy to remain healthy, sometimes you need to prune.

Jesus is talking about the same thing in the context of discipleship.

But uses a grape vine as his illustration of a community of disciples.

Simply put, Jesus describes God as the planter and tender of a grape vine.

God is the farmer.

God planted Jesus by way of the incarnation.

Jesus is the vine.

From Jesus, disciples, or the church if you will, sprout.

They are the branches of the vine.

The branches receive their nourishment from God through the vine – Jesus.

The branches – us – then produce fruit.

Grapes in a grape vine.

Ivy leaves on an ivy vine.

Fruit production is the sign of a healthy plant.

The fruit is then used by the farmer for the farmer’s use.

Note that.

The fruit is not for the branches.

The fruit is for the farmer.

God.

When we disciples bear fruit, we bear it for God’s benefit.

For God’s glory.

Think of it this way.

Instead of a grape vine, where we think of picking the grapes and using them for our benefit – wine, jelly, juice – think of flowers.

Karen’s birthday was last week.

I bought her flowers.

They are still on our counter.

Every day she looks at them and smiles.

They are beautiful to her and reminds her that we love her and are glace she was born.

When we as disciples of Jesus bear their intended fruit, it is beautiful to God and reminds God that we love him and are glad God is there for us.

God is glorified.

So in the context of Jesus horticultural metaphor, a grape filled vine is a beautiful thing.

It is as God intended.

And God is glorified.

Note also that it is not the size of the vine that matters, it is its production of fruit.

And not necessarily the amount of fruit.

But the quality of the fruit.

And so God will work with the branches to make sure they are continually being nourished by their connection to the vine.

That requires the occasional pruning.

This was a metaphor that Jesus followers would have understood.

The Hebrew scriptures often described Israel as the vine God took out of Egypt and planted in the Promised Land.

But according to the prophets, that vine grew wild and its fruit had no value.

Jesus says that God had to plant a new vine.

And he was it.

Jesus says that God’s people need to abide in the vine.

The people have to abide in Jesus.

They need to be close to him so that they can be nourished and thrive and produce the intended fruit.

This happens because Jesus will be abiding in them.

Nourishing them.

God prunes us from time to time so that we can get more spiritual nourishment.

Pruning does not kill the branch.

It helps the branch produce more fruit.

It’s all good, right?

But there are hard words here, too.

Jesus says that some branches stop abiding in the vine.

They get cut off from the nourishment.

They die.

And so they are “thrown away”.

They are burned.

Does this mean such branches are destroyed?

Maybe not.

That would not be consistent with Jesus view that we are to preach the Gospel to non-disciples.

Even those who once were but have fallen away.

We are to bring them back into the community, if possible, according to Jesus.

So what about those burned branches?

It turns out that wood ash was used as a fertilizer in Jesus day.

The ashes neutralize the naturally acidic soil and so make it more suitable for growing grapes.

Better fruit production.

By bringing in those unconnected branches into the vine.

Back to the fruit.

So God plants the vine – Jesus – and Jesus sprouts the branches – us – so we can produce fruit.

Grape vines produce grapes.

Ivey vines produce leaves.

What is the fruit disciples are to produce?

For that we need to read a few more verses.

Listen to how Jesus interprets his vine metaphor.

9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

What is the fruit God wants from us?

Love.

Love comes from God to Jesus.

Love comes from Jesus to us.

Love returns to God from us.

A circle of love that does not end.

A community of faith.

Glorifying God.

And Jesus responded to God’s love by obeying God’s commands.

We are to respond to Jesus’ love of us by obeying his commands.

And his commands are to love God and love each other.

And when we do this we should experience the joy of the community God seeks.

And when we do, we learn that what Canadian Theologian Jean Vanier says is true:

There are times when together we discover that we make up a single body, that we belong to each other and that God has called us to be together as a source of life in each other.

Rev. Stephen Cooper says this:

[Such] love that is both the content and the aim of Christ’s Gospel continues to be active in those who understand that what we do [for each other] who are members of [Jesus’] family, [we do it for Jesus].

And then there is Rev. Sarah Henrich.

The gardeners’ s glory lies in the mutuality of love and abiding that bears fruit. This fruit is visible in loving Jesus and each other through the power of the holy spirit, who will be at home among the disciples.

And we have been doing that here at JMPC for 50 years!

In 1965 several folks from surrounding Presbyterian Churches concluded that God was calling them to plant a new Presbyterian Church here in Bethel Park.

A new vine in God’s vineyard.

They met at the William Penn School.

On October 2, 1966 the church was formally organized with a congregation of 148!

It must have been an exciting time.

You can ask Becky and Barrie Ann Troutman; Marge Smith and Debbie Evanovich; Betty Jolley; Mary Ellen Price; or Art and Alice Wargo.

They were there.

What happened next was 50 years of vine growth, branch sprouting and fruit production.

Much like a vineyard.

We have survived and thrived.

And we have produced good fruit.

What have we survived?

Denominational statements or decisions that were not popular with all of us.

Theological issues on which we might not agree.

Politics changes in our country that have caused disagreements among us.

Financial stress and distress.

Departures of beloved pastors.

Departures of dear friends.

The deaths of our great cloud of witnesses that has come here, been nourished here, loved here, and moved on into the church triumphant.

Yes, there have been differences among us.

When we talk about in what we believe.

But there is unity when we talk about in who we believe.

We believe in God.

In Jesus.

Christ crucified.

The cross.

God’s love for us as so strong he sent his only son to save us.

Jesus love for us that he chose to go to the cross in our place.

That is what we here at JMPC have always agreed on.

Any differences beyond that are mere stressors, but not dividers.

And like a good vine with fruitful branches, we have handled the stress.

Because we love one another.

And we have thrived.

We have born good fruit.

We have loved each other.

We have supported each other.

We have sacrificed for each other.

Even when we were under stress.

Even when we disagree.

And look at how we and our forebears have loved each other.

We have baptized scores of babies.

We have confirmed just as many.

We have celebrated dozens of weddings.

We have honored and buried too many of our members to count.

We have worshiped faithfully every Sunday for 50 years.

That’s 2,600 Sundays.

Probably more than 3,000 worship services.

And there have been two or more services on many of those weeks.

We have celebrated the Lord’s Supper faithfully.

And we have counseled those whose hearts and minds were confused or heavy.

We have taught our children well.

We have gathered for joyful fellowship.

We have added members.

We have built sanctuaries.

We have traveled the world for mission work.

We have made wonderful music.

We have shared delightful meals.

Literally thousands of people have come here, been nourished here, loved and been loved here.

And in doing these things we have known, glorified and served God.

Over the years we have grown.

Shrunk.

And grown back.

We have shared our resources whether we have had a lot or a little.

And we have abided in Jesus.

And we are still here.

And we will continue here.

Rev. Barbara Essex summarizes Jesus’ vineyard metaphor this way:

…Jesus takes the common everyday image of the vine and transforms it into a symbol of community, mission, and love. This community is characterized by interdependence, mutual respect, and the ongoing presence of Christ.

That’s us.

Because we abide in Jesus and he abides in us.

We are and will always be the vineyard on the hill.

Bearing good fruit for God.



I Believe in God: Thoughts on reciting the Apostles’ Creed

Deuteronomy 5: 1-7; 6: 4-9

5Moses convened all Israel, and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. 2The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. 4The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. 5(At that time I was standing between the Lord and you to declare to you the words of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:

6I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7you shall have no other gods before me.

64Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 6

11Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Go to PNC Park or Heinz Field or PPG Center or any college or high school sporting event and before the game starts, we hear those same words:

Will you please stand and join in the singing of our national anthem.

The Star Spangled Banner

Everyone stands and the music starts.

Some sing along, but many just listen.

They are not sure of the words.

Our national anthem is kind of interesting.

Have you ever read the words?

They are about a flag at a battle that took place during the War of 1812.

A bit of our history that we virtually ignore.

So it should be no surprise that many have trouble remembering the words.

They don’t mean anything to them

The Canadians sing their national anthem before their games, too.

O, Canada.

Have you ever read those words?

A song about loving and protecting Canada.

Much easier to understand and remember.

A couple years ago at a hockey game in Canada, a famous tenor started to sing the Canadian anthem.

About one third of the way into the first verse, he was drowned out by the spectators who who began singing along at the top of their lungs.

The tenor just stopped and listened.

It was really something.

It made all the sports shows.

I’m sure you can find it on YouTube.

The words have meaning to them and are easy to remember.

At church on Sunday we do something similar.

It is kind of like a Christian national anthem.

While we don’t do it at the beginning, we recite the Apostles’ Creed.

And like the Star Spangled Banner, we do it two different ways.

Some belt it out, knowing every word and meaning it!

Some read the words from the bulletin and look at it as some ancient and archaic mantra.

I think we all want to belt it out and mean every word.

We think it is important that when we say something we mean it.

So we want to understand what are we doing and what are we saying when we recite the Apostles’ Creed.

First a few historical facts.

The word “creed’ comes from the Latin “credo” which means belief.

So the Apostles’ Creed literally means what the Apostles believed.

Tradition had it that there are 12 sentences in the Creed.

Each sentence was recited by one Apostle at Pentecost.

There is no real evidence of that.

There is evidence that what the Creed says was, in fact, believed by the Apostles and part of what they taught.

Creeds like the Apostles’ Creed were around as early as 150 AD in Rome, in Eastern Europe and in North Africa.

The statements in the Apostles’ Creed were widely believed to be true.

These Apostolic lessons were put in the form of a Creed to summarize and standardize early faith statements.

The Creed answered a particular question.

What beliefs made a person distinctly Christian?

Affirming the Apostles’ Creed did the trick.

And so it was used initially as a baptismal confession.

It was presented to the person about to be baptized as a series of three questions.

Do you believe in God?

Do you believe in Jesus?

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

Affirmative answers identified you as Christian.

Even today with adult baptisms, and with baptized children at confirmation, we ask those same questions.

Affirmative answers identify us as Christian.

The Creed is part of who we are.

It defines us.

The Jews identified themselves in a similar way.

It was the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

This proclamation is in a sense a Jewish creed.

An identity.

Belief.

Alistair McGrath, in his book I Believe, Exploring the Apostles’ Creed says this about such faith statements:

…to believe is to belong. To become a Christian is to enter a community of faith whose existence stretches back to the upper room in which Jesus met with his disciples. By putting your faith in Jesus Christ you have become a member of his body, the church, which uses this creed to express its faith. By studying it, you are reminding yourself of the many men and women who have used it before you. It gives you a sense of history and perspective. It emphasizes that you are not the only person to put your trust in Jesus Christ. Think of how many others recited those words at their baptism down the centuries. Think of how many others have found in the Apostles’ Creed a statement of their personal faith. You share that faith, and you can share the same words that they have used to express it.

What does it mean to believe?

Justo Gonzales in his book The Apostles’ Creed for Today says this about the word “belief” in the Creed:

“What the Creed means is that we trust God, that we are willing to stake our lives on God, just as a child jumping off a ledge stakes her life on her father [who tells her he will catch her].”

  1. I. Packer in his book Affirming the Apostles’ Creed adds an important component to belief.

over and above believing certain truths about God, [we are] living in a relation of commitment to God in trust and union. When [we] say I believe in God, [we are] professing [our] conviction that God has invited [us] to this commitment and declaring that [we] have accepted this invitation.

We believe because we have been invited to believe.

When we recite the Creed we are declaring our acceptance of the invitation.

McGrath defines the full nature of our belief this way.

  • Assent.
    • There is a God
  • Trust.
    • I trust this God.
  • Commitment.
    • I belong to God.
  • Obedience.
    • I will follow God.

McGrath concludes that “[belief], then, is active, seeking to express itself in the way we live, not just the way we think.”

All three of these authors agree on one thing in particular.

We must do more that say we believe.

We must act like it.

Luke Timothy Johnson describes why:

In a world that celebrates individuality, [we] are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, [we] pledge [ourselves] to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, [we] use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, [we] claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, [we] accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter cultural act.

It is what makes us distinctly Christian.

The Creed has one more purpose.

Throughout the last two thousand years the Creed has been memorized by Christians so that they could tell someone what they believed.

It was an outline for missionaries and martyrs.

Used as first words of evangelism and last words at martyrdom.

When asked, “What is it you believe?”

They recited the Creed.

Those folks acted like they believed.

They could do those things because the assented, trusted, committed and obeyed.

But let’s confess that some of what we see in the Creed is a bit difficult to understand … maybe hard to believe.

Which is why I love this story Lutheran Pastor Nadia Boltz Weber tells.

A woman came to her and said she could not recite the Apostle’s Creed.

… I don’t know if I believe this. … I can’t say the Creed because I don’t know if I believe every line in the Creed. I’m like, oh, my God. Nobody believes every line of the Creed. But in a room of people for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?

Some might find that heretical, but I’m willing to say that some find it comforting.

What does that look like?

There is a church I have been to where in their recitation of the Creed they omit “He descended into hell.”

I don’t know why, but they don’t believe that.

I know people who have just can’t get their head’s around the “Resurrection of the body”.

Even Mary had trouble believing she was going to have a baby.

That is why we recite the Creed together as a community.

We all benefit from each other’s faith.

So what is the first thing in the Creed we say we believe in?

God.

This God is not just an idea that there is a higher power or some supreme being.

We are talking about the God we read about in Genesis.

The God of Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets.

That God has been called many names.

Elohim.

Yahweh.

Adonai.

The great “I AM”.

Father

Son

Holy Spirit

That God is Lord alone.

There is no other.

That is the God we proclaim when we recite the Apostles’ Creed.

And when we recite it we are being a bit subversive.

Proclaiming that we believe in an all-powerful God who creates and is in charge of all things, negates everyone who believe themselves to be “in charge”.

It reminds me of the day President Regan was shot.

I was in law school and many of us were watching the events on TV.

One of our courses was Constitutional law.

While Regan was in surgery, Secretary of State Alexander Haig told the press at the White House that he was “in charge”.

While there might have been a good reason for Haig to have said this, our immediate response at the law school was to shout:

“No you’re not!”

President Regan still was.

Or VP George Bush.

Haig was well down the list.

That is what the Constitution said, no matter what anyone thought.

When we recite the Creed we say that the God we believe in is in charge of all things.

And when someone else says, “I am in charge!”

We respond, “No you’re not!”

We believe in God and that God is in charge.

That is what we do here at JMPC.

We believe in that God.

The God of Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There is no other.

Believe it



Sacramentally Speaking: Thoughts on our symbols of God’s love.

Luke 22: 14-20

14When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Matthew 28: 18-20

18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Last week I conducted the wedding of my niece Krista and her now husband Steve.

As with every wedding they exchanged of ring.

It is an important part of the ceremony, right?

We recite vows and then put a ring on our beloved.

And there it stays.

I have mine on.

I know Karen has hers on.

I am willing to bet that all you married folks have your rings on and likely have not removed them very often since you wedding.

Rings at the wedding are important.

A couple years ago, I conducted the marriage of a couple who told me at the rehearsal that one of the rings was missing.

It had been in a box on their desk at home.

Both rings were there.

Now one was gone.

Their question?

“If we use a “fake” ring for the wedding, will he have to wear it forever?”

“If we get a new one, will you bless it?”

Rings are really important!

They are more than jewelry.

They have meaning.

Symbolic meaning.

The couple exchange rings as a symbol of their promise and commitment to each other.

Wedding rings are a visible sign to the world at large that these two are bound to and have taken vows of fidelity to another.

The rings remind the couple of their covenant vows.

The rings represent circles of love that have no end.

I offer this prayer just before the exchange of rings:

Gracious God, bless the rings that are exchanged by this couple, that they may be the visible sign and seal of the covenant vows they have made before you.

By wearing these rings may they always be reminded that they have become one with another in marriage.

So I tell them that the rings are a visible sign of an invisible truth.

The two who are married have become one flesh.

Seems sacramental.

But the exchange of rings is what I call a secular sacrament.

Why secular?

Because we in the PCUSA don’t consider the exchange of rings at a wedding, or the wedding itself, a sacrament.

We define a sacrament as a symbolic act instituted or established by Jesus that he commanded his disciples to continue or observe.

And there are only two.

Baptism and The Lord’s Supper.

These sacraments focus attention on the practices of faith in what God has done for us.

They are our symbolic testimonies of faith.

Symbols of what we believe.

And there are only have two.

First is Baptism.

In our scripture reading this morning, Christian baptism is something Jesus defined and ordered us to perform.

 [Baptize] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and [teach] them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Instituted and ordered.

So baptism is a sacrament.

The other sacrament is The Lord’s Supper.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus defined the meaning of the Last Supper and ordered us to continue.

 [Take] a loaf of bread, [give] thanks, [break] it and [share it] saying, “This is [Jesus] body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of [him].” And [then do] the same with the cup …, saying, “This cup that is poured out for [us] is the new covenant in [Jesus’] blood.

Instituted and ordered.

So the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament.

Catholic and Orthodox churches recognize five other acts as sacraments.

Marriage.

Ordination.

Anointing of the sick.

Confirmation.

Penance.

While these are important to us, they are not sacraments because nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus institute them, nor does he command them.

They are rites.

Rites that are for specific occasions such as marriage or ordination that take place during “occasional services.”

Not symbols of faith.

Not instituted nor commanded by Jesus.

So why did Jesus institute and command baptism and the Lord’s Supper?

How are they symbols of our faith?

Baptism first.

Listen again to the words we use in our ceremony.

Obeying the word of our Lord Jesus, and confident of his promises, we baptize those whom God has called.

In baptism God claims us and seals us to show that we belong to God.

God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.

By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ and joined in Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.

All those whom God calls.

Today God called a baby.

That we baptize a baby symbolizes to us our faith that God claims us as his own before we even know it.

But even when we baptize and adult who confesses faith and asks to be baptized, something we did recently, the water symbolizes our faith that in Jesus there is a cleansing of the soul from human brokenness.

As Jesus instructed we do it in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit which teaches God is a trinity.

We as a congregation vow to teach the child all about Jesus, because told us that that is how the faith is carried down through the generations.

The Lord’s Supper does much the same thing.

Jesus shared his last Passover with his disciples and gave them symbols of his mission.

Bread symbolizes his body.

Wine symbolizes his blood.

Both symbolize an act by Jesus creating a new covenant with God and for the forgiveness of sin.

And we are told to continue this symbolic act.

So we invite believers to the table.

We recite the words Jesus used to establish the custom.

And we pray a Great Prayer of thanksgiving that includes these words:

You are holy, O God of majesty,

and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.

In Jesus, born of Mary, your Word became flesh

and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

He lived as one of us, knowing joy and sorrow.

He healed the sick,

fed the hungry,

opened blind eyes,

broke bread with outcasts and sinners,

and proclaimed the good news of your kingdom to the poor and needy.

Dying on the cross,

he gave himself for the life of the world.

Rising from the grave,

he won for us victory over death.

Seated at your right hand,

he leads us to eternal life.

In this prayer, we proclaim our faith.

Both sacraments are to be done publicly, so that anyone who happens to be present can see them.

Such a person might be compelled to ask, “Why do you do this?”

At which point we can tell them.

Which is why we do it.

To teach others and remind us.

And all of this is what Jesus commanded us to do.

All this was important in Jesus’ day when few of his followers could read or write.

These symbols gave them a visible act that demonstrated what Jesus did.

Symbols that people could understand and explain.

These are still important today.

We do these things in public and then explain what we are doing and why.

We proclaim to the world in these acts what we believe to be true.

We are forgiven.

We are thankful.

We are obedient.

We belong to God.

So in a sense the wedding ring illustration still rings true.

When we wear the ring, we are reminded that we are loved.

When we wear the ring, we are reminded we belong to and are a part of another.

When we baptize, we are reminded that we belong to God.

When we come to the Lord’s table, we are reminded that we are loved and forgiven.

These sacraments are acts of reverence, homage, thanks and praise.

They are our testimony that we love God and God loves us.

Thanks be to God who has given us these symbols of our faith.