323) Wisdom from Mother Teresa (1910-1997)

People are often unreasonable and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway. 
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.
If you are honest, people may cheat you.  Be honest anyway.
If you find happiness, people may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough.  Give your best anyway.
For you see, in the end, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.
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There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work.
This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in– that we do it to God, to Christ.
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One of the greatest diseases is to be nobody to anybody.
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Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think is a much
greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.
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Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.
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Because we cannot see Christ, we cannot express our love to Him in person.  But our neighbor we can see,
and we can do for him or her what we would love to do for Jesus if He were visible.
Let us be open to God so that He can use us.  Let us put love into our actions, beginning in the family,
in the neighborhood, in the street.  It is difficult, but there is where the work begins.
We are co-workers with Christ, a fruit bearing branch of the vine.
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Love begins by taking care of the closest ones– the ones at home.
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I am like a little pencil in God’s hand.  He does the thinking.  He does the writing.
The pencil has only to allowed to be used.
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Matthew 25:31-40  —  (Jesus said),  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
    “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
    “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Matthew 22:35-40  —  One of them, an expert in the law, tested (Jesus) with this question:  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 
 
Romans 12:10  —  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honor one another above yourselves.  
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Deliver me, O Jesus, from the desire to be extolled… honored…  praised… preferred… consulted… approved… popular;
And deliver me, O Jesus, from the fear of being humiliated… despised… forgotten… rebuked… wronged… ridiculed…  suspected.
–Mother Teresa, A Simple Path
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322) Keeping an Open Mind (part two)

     (…continued)  I like to read stories of people who kept an open mind, changed their mind, and were converted; people who for years did not believe in the Christian message, but then, for whatever reason, did come to faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, risen from the dead.  The difference in their attitude before and after their conversion is often the same difference that we see in the text between Peter and the rest of the disciples.  For years, these people are like the disciples in verse eleven.  Christianity, the Bible, the story of Christ’s resurrection, and the hope of eternal life, all “seem like nonsense to them,” not even worthy of the time and effort required to look into it all.  Then one day, like Peter, they decide to be more open-minded, take a look for themselves, and then come to believe in Jesus.

     This may not happen all at once.  It is not as simple as Peter running over and finding the tomb empty, or like the unmistakable appearances of Jesus that would come to the disciples later.  But just as Peter ran to take a look at what he could, there are places one can look today:  things to read, people to ask, and, testimonies of people who for years did not believe, and then believed.  There can be many obstacles to belief, not the least of which is the firm belief that what is dead stays dead.  Being a Christian does indeed all come down to what we are told in Luke 24, which says that what is dead doesn’t necessarily stay dead; not if God has something else in mind.  One should keep an open mind about such an important matter.  If Christ was raised from the dead, then the Christian message is true, and all of our other questions will find their answer in Christ.  But if Christ has not been raised, then as the apostle Paul said, we, of all people are most to be pitied.  Paul himself was one who had a most incredible conversion experience.  He came to believe in Jesus after being struck blind as he was being confronted by the living Christ, whose followers Paul had been persecuting.  

     Blaise Pascal had an interesting conversion from atheism to faith in Christ.  Pascal was born into an upper class family in France in 1623.  His father was an attorney who was intensely interested in his children’s education.  He hired tutors for the personal education of each child, giving them every opportunity to learn.  He had decided he would start by focusing on languages and then later go on mathematics, so as to not confuse the two.  Blaise was a gifted child and learned his language lessons so well that, even before the math lessons began, he taught himself geometry by the age of 12.  By the age of 16 he had written a book on geometry that attracted the attention of the world’s top mathematicians.  At the age of 19, he invented a mechanical calculating machine, the principles of which remained in use for 300 years.  In the field of physics, he discovered a principle known as Pascal’s Law, which is the foundation of modern hydraulics.  Blaise Pascal was a very smart man, and for 31 years he considered himself too smart to believe in any sort of religion.

     But then, bored with success, accomplishment, pleasure, and life in general, Pascal began to apply his powerful intellect to the spiritual questions that he had thus far ignored.  Over the course of several months he, with an open mind, took another look at the claims of the Bible which he had earlier dismissed as nonsense.  While his intellect brought him to a certain point at which his objections to faith became over-ruled, he later described how it was that the spirit of God had come upon him and overwhelmed him, and he became a believer.  At the time of his death at the age of 39, he was working on an intellectual defense of the Christian faith.  He did not live to bring it anywhere near completion, but his many scraps of notes were assembled together in a book called Pensees (French for ‘thoughts’), and that book has become a philosophical and religious classic. 

     This matter of the bodily resurrection from the dead was at first a problem to Pascal’s scientific mind and a barrier to his coming to faith.  But he worked through this problem, and later, in the notes for his planned book, he wrote this regarding atheists:  

“What grounds have they for saying that no one can rise from the dead?  Which is more difficult, to be born or to rise again?  Which is more impossible, that what has never been shall come to be, or that what has been alive, should be made alive once more?  Why should we think it easy for a life to come into existence, but impossible to come back?  It is simply past experience that makes the one look easy, and it is only lack of experience that makes us find the other impossible.”  

We are alive now by whatever means it was that made us alive.  Why should we think it not possible for whoever gave us life in the first place to give us life again?

     In the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead we hear what we do not usually hear.  We hear the story of a dead body being raised from the dead, and the life and soul and spirit put back into it.  ‘But why should that seem so impossible?’, asked Blaise Pascal, one of the smartest people who ever lived.  And with his mind thus opened to that possibility, and with what he had come to know and love about Jesus, Pascal became a Christian.

     Blaise Pascal opens our mind to the possibility of resurrection.  Pascal, a scientist himself, helps us to think beyond the narrow-minded confines of believing only in what the scientists can see and measure.  Pascal became convinced that there is much more to reality than just that.

Blaise Pascal Quotes

In faith, there is enough light for those who want to believe and shadows to blind those who don’t.

 –Blaise Pascal

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Luke 24:36-39  —  While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them,  “Peace be with you.”  They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.  He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?  Look at my hands and my feet.  It is I myself!  Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

 Luke 24:45-46  —  Then Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.  He told them, “This is what is written:  The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day…”

II Peter 1:16  —  We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 

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God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob (and not the god of the philosophers and the scholars):

I will not forget Thy Word.  Amen.  –Blaise Pascal  (1623-1662)

321) Keeping An Open Mind (part one)

     I once knew an old Swede named Karl.  Karl was a good man, friendly, active in the church, and always willing to help out in the community.  But Karl, like everyone else, had his faults.  Everyone who knew Karl knew that he was of 100% Swedish descent and proud of it, and if you were not also a full-blooded Swede that was just too bad for you, because according to Karl, Swedes were the best and the smartest.  So Karl wasn’t all that impressed with me, a young, just out of seminary, full-blooded German.  But at least I was not a Norwegian.  Norwegians were the lowest on Karl’s list.  Such prejudice was the main fault of this otherwise good man.  Our church was a merger of an old Norwegian church and an old Swedish church, and Karl was quick to vote no on anything he thought that the Norwegians might be in favor of.  And you better be careful want kind of jokes you tell around Karl.  If it was a laugh on the Norwegians, he would laugh louder than anyone; but if the joke was on the Swedes he would take it personally, and you would get a dirty look from Karl.

     I remember one particular joke that I told Karl.  I remember it because Karl did not know how to react to this one.  The joke was about an old Swedish farmer who walked into the County Sheriff’s office one day and told him there had been a bad car accident near his farm the previous week.  “Last week!,” said the sheriff, “You should have come to tell me about this sooner.  Was anyone hurt?”  “Well, yes,” said the old Swede, “three Norwegians were killed, and so I just buried them.”  “What?,” said the sheriff, “You buried them?  Are you sure they were dead?”  “Well,” said the old Swede, “one of them kept saying he wasn’t dead, but you know how those Norwegians can tell lies, so yes, I buried them all.”  Karl wasn’t sure if he should laugh or give me a dirty look.  He knew I was making fun of the Swede, but Karl believed the Swedish farmer had made a good point about Norwegians.

     The old Swede in the joke had a firm and solid belief that Norwegians always told lies, and so even if a Norwegian was telling him that he wasn’t dead, that stubborn Swede was not about to believe him.  That is what can happen when you are so close-minded that you are not even open to any new information that could possibly change your beliefs.  We should always be willing to keep an open mind.

     It is rather outrageous to believe that a decayed or cremated body can live again.  It certainly doesn’t look that way.  Many people do not believe that is possible and will not even look at the evidence.  Just like Karl had a firm belief that Norwegians never told the truth, there are many people who have the firm belief that dead bodies cannot live again.  It does seem scientifically preposterous to believe in life after death, and many people are not open minded enough to even consider the prospect.

     In Luke 24 there is the story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Several women had gone to visit the tomb of Jesus and were told by an angel that Jesus was not there, but had been raised from the dead.  They ran and told this to the disciples, but the disciples immediately dismissed the report as nonsense.  They had a firm and solid belief that dead people stay dead, and so, says verse eleven, they did not believe the women.  Only Peter kept an open mind to the possibility that the women were telling the truth, and so, says verse 12, he got up and ran to the tomb.  And though he did not yet see the risen Lord, and though he did not, like the women, hear from the angels, he did see that the tomb was empty, and was left “wondering to himself what had happened.”  He did not, like the other disciples, dismiss the story out of hand.  He had seen enough from Jesus to keep his mind open to any possibility.  But he did not yet know what to make of it all.  Before long, however, he and all the disciples, would see the risen Jesus in person, and would put their faith in him (Luke 24:36-49).

     Think about this.  It is not a recent scientific discovery that dead people stay dead.  The situation is not that today we are smart and sophisticated, and people in the ancient Israel were stupid and gullible and would believe anything.  They knew that the dead stayed dead, and so the disciples did not right away believe that Jesus had risen from the dead– not until they saw him alive.  It was no easier for them than for us to believe that a dead body can live again.  Yet, they came to such a strong faith in the resurrection of Jesus and their own eternal life with Jesus that they all risked, and in most cases, gave their lives to proclaim that truth to others.  (continued…)

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Mark 10:27  —  Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Luke 24:5b-6a  —  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”

Luke 24:12  —   Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb.  Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

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Give me an open mind, O God, a mind ready to receive and to welcome such new light of knowledge as it is your will to reveal to me.  Let not the past ever be so dear to me as to set a limit to the future.  Give me courage to change my mind, when that is needed.  Let me be tolerant to the thoughts of others and hospitable to such light as may come to me through them.  Amen.  –John Baillie

320) Jay Leno and Me (part two)

     (…continued)  Let’s apply this (from part one) to another setting.  Imagine yourself at the doctor’s office.  Your doctor is a good doctor, but a rather bland and boring person.  He never smiles, doesn’t have time for a joke, and he always has the same dull look on his face.  One day he says to you in his most boring and uninspiring voice, “The tests came back and the cancer is gone.  You are going to be okay.”  At that moment will you be thinking about what a dull personality that man has and how you need to find a doctor with a little more zip?  Or, will you walk out of there thanking that doctor, and praising the Lord that you are all right?  What matters there is the content of the message.  You were listening close for that message you needed to hear, the message that you would be okay.  What you hear in church is more like that kind of message than like an entertaining routine by a stand up comedian.

     As I said, what we hear in church is out of an old script, and someone might reply, “Yes, I hear you, and God’s Word is good news, but I already know it.  Does one really need to go to church every week to hear the same old thing over and over?”  There are a couple responses to that.  First of all, weekly worship is what the Bible commands.  The third commandment says “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy;” Jesus himself worshiped at the synagogue every week ‘as was his custom’ Luke tells us; and, there are many other places in the Bible where that ongoing, regular contact with God’s word is commanded.

     The second response is the practical reason that makes the Biblical command necessary.  As in all of God’s commandments and laws, God commands it because it is good and necessary for us.  “Faith comes by hearing,” says Romans chapter ten, and if we keep ourselves within hearing distance of where God’s Word is read and proclaimed, the Holy Spirit will take care of the rest and we will be all right.  In I Corinthians 2 Paul described how the Holy Spirit works through his words, unpolished and imperfect as they are, to reveal to us the power of God, in order to work faith in our hearts.  The third commandment says ‘remember,’ because if we don’t make it a point to take the time to remember, we are surely going to forget God.  It happens to folks all the time.  Without that ongoing contact with God’s Word, people tend to forget all about God, and faith will, in time, whither and die.

    Robert Coles spent his life teaching at Harvard, and wrote more than twenty books; good books, down to earth books, books about the connections between his area of expertise, psychology, and, my main interest, religion.  Robert Coles is an intellectual, but one time Coles wrote an article about how much he has learned from an old, uneducated, black tenant farmer in Alabama, a man named Joshua Travis.  The professor Coles interviewed the farmer Joshua one time for a book he was doing, and then kept in touch with him over the years.  Joshua Travis always had time to sit and visit, but Coles was always in a hurry.  One time Joshua said to him:  “You know, Mr. Coles, you can get yourself going so fast that you lose your way.  Jesus told us he’s ‘the way,’ but if we forget that, we can starting thinking we’re the way, and that is what you call being lost.  Don’t you get lost, Mr. Coles, with all your being so busy.”

     So for once, Professor Coles forgot about his busy schedule and sat down for an unhurried visit with Joshua Travis.  Joshua said, “You know, it is only a short time that God put us here on this earth, and we can’t be expected to remember every day why we are here and be thinking about Jesus all the time– only once in while.  I get busy around here too, and mostly my mind is on the weather, and my land, and the crops.  I’ve got a lot to think about.  But come Sunday, I do go to church to pay my respects to Jesus, because I’ll bet you one thing– no one’s fooling him, including Joshua Travis.  Do you think He’s going to be fooled if I just show up in church every once in a while when I need a good soaking rain, or to ask for the price of cotton to go up, or the price of fertilizer to go down?  No, sir, God is not mocked, and he is not fooled by any of us down here just showing up, saying we are ready to pray and be good, when all we want is a few favors.”

     Both men were quiet for a minute, and then Joshua said, “So every Sunday I go to church, and I thank God for another week of strength to be working my burden, and I thank Jesus Christ Almighty for the chance to do it.  And I will work my burden until Jesus says enough is enough and its time to come home…”  (Harvard Diary, page 44f)

     I don’t think Joshua Travis got paid anything for that conversation, but there is more wisdom in those few words to Robert Coles, than in anything you will get from Jay Leno on March 12th for $75.  Every once in a while it is good to ask what it is we are doing in church every week, and why we need to do it, and there it is from Joshua Travis; we go to worship to remember God, as we remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
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It is sometimes said in baseball that a pitcher is only as good as his last game.  I have often felt that as a preacher; that I am only as good as my last sermon.   But the effectiveness of God’s Word is not dependent on me or on my feelings about my self-worth or ‘performance,’  but on God; and God is faithful, using that spoken word to accomplish his purpose, as the preacher Isaiah has proclaimed…
Isaiah 55:3…10-11   —   (The Lord says), Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.  I will make an everlasting covenant with you…  As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.  
1 Corinthians 2:4-5  —    My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. 
Exodus 20:8  —  Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 
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A PRAYER FOR THE CHURCH by Martin Luther:
Almighty and everlasting God, we pray first for the spiritual kingdom and the blessed Gospel ministry.  Give us devout and faithful preachers who will bring forth the treasure of your divine Word in its truth and purity.  Graciously guard us against heresies and divisions.  Look not upon our great ingratitude, for which we have long ago deserved that you should withdraw your Word from us.  Do not chastise us as severely as we deserve.  Let other calamities befall us, rather than deprive us of your precious Word.  Give to us thankful hearts that we may love your Word, prize it highly, hear it with reverence, and improve our lives accordingly.  May we not only understand your Word, but also meet its requirements by our deeds, live in accordance with it, and daily increase in faith and good works.  Amen.

319) Jay Leno and Me (part one)

From sermon / March 2011

     On March 12th, Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show, will be performing at Mystic Lake Casino near Shakopee.  Tickets for the show are $75.  Think about that.  In many ways, what I do for a living is the exact same thing as what Jay Leno does.  He, and I, stand up in front of a group of people and talk.  It is as simple as that.  We both, of course, have other things to do besides that, but pastors are called primarily to preach and teach, getting up ahead of people and talking; the same as Jay Leno.  Now I have never attempted it, but even if I did, I don’t think I could get a gig like that at Mystic Lake Casino for that kind of money.  I know Leno doesn’t get to keep all $75 of every ticket sold, but I am sure a good share of it goes into his pocket.  After all, he makes $30 million a year, and that has to come from somewhere.  Most preachers earn less than that.

     I do have to admit, though, it is simply a matter of supply and demand.  There is only one Jay Leno, whereas preachers are a dime a dozen.  Jay Leno is one of a kind because he truly is such an excellent speaker– his timing is great, he interacts well with people in the audience, he is great off the cuff, and he has good material, some of which is a bit too crude for me, but really funny stuff, right out of today’s news.  His material is always fresh and current and has to do with what is happening right now.

     But like all preachers, I am always using old material, out a 2,000 year old script, preaching on words and stories you’ve all heard dozens of times before.  “Hey, have you heard the one about how Jesus walked on water?”  Of course you have.  It was a great miracle, to be sure, and there are important lessons to be learned from it; but you know the story, and you’ve heard all the lessons.  And I’ll be the first to admit that my sermon delivery is anything but smooth and polished.  I always have to have my notes ahead of me and my posture can be a little stiff, whereas Leno is such a natural that he gives the impression that he is making it all up as he goes.

    However, as a preacher of God’s Word, I have something that Jay Leno doesn’t have.  I have a message that matters.  Preachers are a dime a dozen because what we do is not dependent on who we are, or on what skills we have, or on how brilliant we are, or on how polished our delivery is.  What we do, and what we have to proclaim is a message from outside of ourselves, from God; and unlike anything you will hear on the Tonight Show or the Late Show or from Larry the Cable Guy or on Saturday Night Live, unlike any of those entertainment options, what you get from one who proclaims God’s Word is a message that matters, and it matters for all eternity.

     My wife and I used to watch the opening monologue on the Tonight Show almost every night.  These days, however, neither of us can stay awake even through the entire 10:00 news, so we hardly ever see the Tonight Show anymore.  And do you know what?  It hasn’t mattered!  We don’t miss it, and we are no worse off because we never see it.  Hearing Johnny Carson’s jokes, and then Jay Leno’s jokes, four or five nights a week made us laugh for a few minutes, but then that was it.  Missing it has not changed our lives at all.

     But if you were to take the Bible away from me, that old script that I read each day and preach out of each Sunday; if you were to take that away from me, I would be lost.  Without that Word of God, and the hope and the promises and the love of God there revealed, I would be hopeless, and you would too.  There is much in my past that I regret and am ashamed of, things that I should have done differently, should have said, or, should not have said.  Do you have any such regrets?  God’s Word tells us that Jesus Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and we need that.  And this is a dangerous and sad world, and there is much to fear, much to worry about.  I see my little grandchildren, and I am afraid for them.  I’m on the downhill side of my life now, but they have to put up with this wicked world for a long time yet, and I fear for them.  But the Bible says in 366 different places, “Fear not.”  “Fear not, for God is with you.”  “Cast your cares upon God, for he cares about you.”  Even though we may now suffer for a little while, Peter tells us, the Lord will be with us, and will sustain us, and will make us strong, firm, and steadfast, if not here, then in his eternal home, where he will set us on our feet again.  Therefore, even in the face of awful death, that death of a loved one that can shatter our lives like nothing else, even then we have a word, an old familiar word:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life…”  Not perish.  Have everlasting life.  That is a hope that can sustain you no matter what.  You take that away, and we are lost.

    With this in mind, look at what Paul says in I Corinthians 2.  I will be paraphrasing a bit, and using words from a few translations, but this is the gist of Paul’s message in those verses:  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words, or in excellence of speech, or in profound wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  My speech was not polished, and it was without enticing words, but it was with a demonstration of the Holy Spirit and of God’s power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom and skill, but on the power of God.”

     What Paul is saying is that we must focus on the message, and not on the messenger.  What matters in worship is the content of the message.  Church is not Mystic Lake where what matters is the name and the fame and the skill of the celebrity delivering the message.  The church is God’s house, and it is the one place in your life each week that you will hear a word from the Lord, a word that matters, a word that you must not ignore.  (continued…)
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1 Corinthians 2:1-5   —   When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.   For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.   I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.   My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.   
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TWO PRAYERS FOR PREACHERS by Martin Luther:
 
Dear God, I have begun to preach and teach your people.  It is a difficult task.  If it offends here and there, may there be no harm done.  Since you have commanded me to preach your Word, I will not cease to do so.  If it fails, it fails for you.  If it succeeds, it succeeds for you.  Amen.
 
Lord, what you do not do remains undone.  If you will not help, I will gladly give it up.  The cause is not mine.  Therefore, I seek no glory in it.  I will cheerfully be your mask and disguise if only you will do the work.  Amen. 

318) Pie in the Sky When You Die (part two)

   (…continued)  Years ago I visited an elderly lady named Hilda in a nursing home.  In her last days she would often be heard singing the old hymn I’m but a Stranger Here, Heaven is My Home.  She would sing that hymn over and over again, from memory, even though it had not been in her church’s hymnals for over 50 years (perhaps because the hymnal editors weren’t interested in such ‘pie in the sky’ religion).  Hilda’s time here on this earth was nearing the end, and the promise of that heavenly home was all she had left.  So she would go on and on, singing those great old words to sustain her faith and her hope.  She’d sing:

I’M BUT A STRANGER HERE

Lyrics by Thomas R. Taylor, 1836; Music by Arthur S. Sullivan, 1872.  Hear it at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arEgXc8VnR0

I’m but a stranger here, Heav’n is my home;
Earth is a desert drear, Heav’n is my home.
Danger and sorrow stand round me on every hand;
Heav’n is my fatherland, Heav’n is my home.

What though the tempest rage, Heav’n is my home;
Short is my pilgrimage, Heav’n is my home;
Time’s cold and wild wintry blast soon shall be over past;
I shall reach home at last, Heav’n is my home.

There at my Savior’s side Heav’n is my home;
I shall be glorified, Heav’n is my home.
There are the good and blest, those I loved most and best;
There, too, I soon shall rest, Heav’n is my home.

Therefore I murmur not, Heaven is my home;
Whatever my earthly lot, Heaven is my home;
And I shall surely stand, there at my Lord’s right hand.
Heav’n is my fatherland, Heav’n is my home.

     The words of this great hymn reflect a Biblical approach to life.  This perspective is very different from the usual philosophy these days, a far cry from the ‘I only live once so I have a right to be happy’ attitude.  That attitude usually ends up spreading far more misery than happiness.  The hymn teaches us to take an eternal view of things, enabling us to better handle life’s temporary setbacks and disappointments.  The long view gives us the courage to simply do what is right, whether or not it makes us happy for our few short years here.  One need not be so desperate to get it all and have it all this time around.  Instead, one can say, “This job, this marriage, this ruined health, this life, (or whatever) isn’t what I had in mind… but I am just a stranger here, heaven is my home.”

     There is an interesting connection between the stories of Joe Hill and Hilda.  The song about ‘pie in the sky when you die’ was popular during the Great Depression.  Hilda was a young wife and mother at that time, and a Christian.  Unlike those Christians Joe Hill sang about, Hilda was well know in the area for being one who would always give a meal to a hobo, even though she had her own family to feed.  Her farmhouse was along a road where many hobos traveled, and many would stop in and ask for a meal.  None were refused by Hilda, because Hilda believed in Jesus, and Jesus had something to say about helping out those in need.  Joe Hill wrote that song as a slam against Christians, and I do not doubt that some of the people he encountered were just as he described.  There is truth in the charge that some Christians are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.  But most Christians are not like that.  Look around whenever there is trouble, and usually you will see Christians and Christian organizations helping those in need.  The Lord who prepared our heavenly home is the same Lord who created this world and has given us this life, and He told us to take care of each other while we are here.  It is often those who have a lively hope for the world to come, that are the best at helping others in this world, doing so out of gratitude and obedience to God who provides for us in both worlds.  Hobos Joe Hill and Utah Phillips were probably fed on more than one occasion by those very Christian people they ridiculed in their music, people like Hilda.

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     Joe Hill’s reference to the Salvation Army as the “the ‘starvation’ army” is quite unfair.  They, better than anyone else, do feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give shelter to the homeless.  The Salvation Army members give their lives for the well being of others, as do many Christians in many denominations.  

     I am reminded of a comic strip.  First frame:  Two people are complaining about the church.  “What a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites,” they say, “Church people are intolerant, self-serving, and are always asking for money.” Second frame:  The same two people are standing by the open door of an empty refrigerator, saying, “We are out of food, what do we do now?”  Third frame:  Both say together, “I know, let’s go to the food shelf at the church.  They always have plenty to give us.”

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     John Wesley worked tirelessly well into his 80’s.  When he was younger he had an interest in art, but throughout his life Wesley’s work as an evangelist left him no time for hobbies.  Once, a friend was telling him about some interesting things he had seen at an art gallery.  Wesley responded, “I too have a relish for those things, but ahh, there is another world.”

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Psalm 23:6  —   Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and then, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Hebrews 11:1  —  Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

Hebrews 11:13, 16  —  All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised;they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…  They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

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While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyelids close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgment throne,
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
–Augustus Toplady

317) Pie in the Sky When You Die (part one)

     Years ago there was a great emphasis on heaven in the church’s preaching, praying, and singing.  In the last few decades there has been a movement toward an increased focus on the church being active in the world right now, and that is good.  Unfortunately, along with that focus on the here and now, there has been a diminishing emphasis on the eternal promises of God.  Lutheran theologian and seminary professor Gerhard Forde placed some of the blame for this neglect on a protest song that came out of the labor movement of the early 1900’s.  The song was The Slave and the Preacher, also known as Pie in the Sky.  This song was written by a hobo named Joe Hill.  Hill was a Swedish immigrant who, along with many others at the time, could not find work that paid enough to survive, and so he became active in the labor movement.  The song is critical of those preachers who told protesting laborers to just be quiet about low wages and all the injustices in this life because everything would be better in the afterlife.  However, those fine preachers would not even give a starving man a sandwich.

Joe Hill  (1879-1915)

THE SLAVE AND THE PREACHER  (PIE IN THE SKY)

Original lyrics by Joe Hill, 1911.  These lyrics (and recording) are by Utah Phillips, who like Joe Hill, was a hobo for a time and then a social reformer  (1935-2008).  The tune is from an old Gospel hymn “In the Sweet By and By.”  Hear it at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8qoB1XwtHM

Long-haired preachers come out every night
To tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when asked how about something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet:

REFRAIN:
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
That’s a lie

And the starvation army they play
They sing and they clap and they pray
‘Till they get all your coin on the drum
Then they’ll tell you when you’re on the bum:… REFRAIN

Holy Rollers and jumpers come out
They holler, they jump, Lord, they shout
Give your money to Jesus they say
He will cure all troubles today… REFRAIN

If you fight hard for children and wife
Try to get something good in this life
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell
When you die you will sure go to hell… REFRAIN

Well, you will eat, bye and bye
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry
Chop some wood, it’ll do you good
You will eat in the sweet bye and bye… REFRAIN

     Gerhard Forde said that the phrase ‘pie in the sky when you die’ has become a way to scoff at this central hope of the Christian faith, dismissing it with contempt for its ‘other worldly’ emphasis.  Actually, Christians have a long and rich heritage of working for a fair and just society, along with providing for the poor.  Those preachers who opposed such work for social justice in the early 1900’s were wrong.  Furthermore, the failure of some Christians does not disprove the truth of the Christian message, and it is unwise to disregard the central hope of the Christian faith in such a casual way.  But the criticism stuck and it remains a way to sneer at this hope that is so central to our faith. 

    There are even Christians who will do such sneering at God’s eternal promises, as did a student in one of Professor Forde’s classes.  Dr. Forde was talking about this Biblical hope of our wonderful home in heaven, and the student decided to challenge him.  This young man, fresh out of college and eager to display his intellectual sophistication said, “Dr. Forde, isn’t all this talk about heaven just wishing for ‘pie in the sky when you die’?”  The old professor looked at him with a puzzled look on his face, was quiet for a few moments, and then he said simply, “Well, young man, what’s the matter?  Don’t you like pie?”

     God does promise us a better life after our time on this earth has ended, and that is our ultimate hope as Christians.   If someone wants to call that ‘pie in the sky when you die’ it is all right with me.   I like pie, and I trust that I will like whatever God has prepared for me.  I also know that after I am dead I am not going to have much else going for me.  I know of no other valid offer on the table, so if someone is going to be handing out pie at that time, I want to be in line.  We need not be intimidated when our faith in this eternal hope is ridiculed.  This hope of eternal life is what we rejoice in most of all. 

     Many Christians have been intimidated by this ‘pie in the sky’ scoffing, and there has been a retreat in recent years from bold proclamation of our eternal hope.  Many have thought it is somehow unrefined, naive, or even selfish, to get too excited about such a hope.  I am not ashamed to be excited about this.  My time here in this brief little life seems to be going by faster and faster, and I am now a lot closer to my end than to my beginning.  We are here such a short time, so I am very happy to put my faith in such an eternal promise.  How could anyone think of such a hope as beneath them, especially when it is offered to them by the Lord God Almighty who made them, and this world, in the first place?  (continued…)

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Romans 10:9  —   If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 

Micah 6:8  —  He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Matthew 25:34-36…40  —  (Jesus said),  “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…’  Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

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O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Soon bears us all away;
We fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Out God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last,
And our eternal home.

–Isaac Watts 

316) When God is Absent (part three)

     (continued…)  The two previous meditations have made the point that while God is absent we are being tested.  We are expected to remain faithful while we wait for that time when the Lord will return and be with us in person as he was with the disciples.  In the meantime, Jesus said, we should keep the faith and live lives of obedience; and, we should keep in touch with God in the ways he has provided and commanded– worship, prayer, the sacraments, and the reading of his Word.

     However, we may get impatient in our waiting and begin to resent God’s absence.  We might even demand a sign of his presence, saying to the Lord, “God, I am going to say my prayers now and then I will wait and see if you are going to do as I ask, and by that I will know if you are really there.”  Many prayers have been said in this way.

    When we pray like that we must realize that we are putting God to the test.  And it may seem to us, at times, that God does not pass the test we have set up for him.  We might end up waiting for a God who does not seem to come through for us.  It might seem clear to us that God was not there with the answer to our prayer that we wanted, or the healing that we expected, or the guidance that we needed.

     In Luke 4:12 when Jesus was being tempted by the devil, Jesus made it very clear that we should not put the Lord our God to the test.  Rather, we should understand that it is God who may putting us to the test, even in our praying.  Maybe it is God who is waiting for something from us.  Maybe God is waiting to see if we will grow stronger in adversity.  Maybe God is waiting for us to appreciate all the blessings he has already given to us before answering our prayers for more.  Maybe God is waiting to see if we will keep the faith even when disappointed.  Maybe God is waiting to see if we will obey him even when being obedient is difficult and painful.  Maybe God is waiting to see if we will keep paying attention to him even when we do not get what we so desperately want.  In his absence, perhaps God is waiting to see how we will respond to the test.  In all the parables and verses referred to in the two previous meditations there is, when the Master returns, an accounting, a day of reckoning.  On that day we will be the ones who will accountable to God.  We must remember that before it is too late.

    For the next little while Jesus will not be with us in the flesh.  If we remain faithful, we will one day see him.  In the meantime we are being tested by that absence.  Of course, God is not totally absent from our lives.  He is present in his Word, and we can know that presence if we will sit still and hear it, and then, in that Word, God will work saving faith in our hearts.  Then, when Jesus comes again, we will be ready to receive him in faith and hope and love.
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Luke 4:12   —   Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 
 
James 1:12   —   Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.  
 
Psalm 26:2   —   Test me, O Lord, and try me, examine my heart and mind.
 
Isaiah 45:9, 11, 12, 15, 22  —  The Lord said:  “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker…  Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’…  Do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands?  It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it.  My own hands stretched out the heavens…”
Isaiah said:  “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel.”
The Lord said:  “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God and there is no other.
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    Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards; give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.  Amen.   
–St. Thomas Aquinas

315) When God is Absent (part two)

     (…continued)  It must have been wonderful to be with Jesus when he was here in person.  From his own voice the disciples received comfort and guidance.  With their own eyes, the disciples saw Jesus work his miracles of healing.  
     Think about what it would be like if Jesus made the rounds in your neighborhood as he did in Galilee.  Imagine Jesus going up to a woman in a wheelchair at the grocery store and telling her to get up and walk, and and then seeing her get up.  Imagine Jesus going to the hospital and clearing out the cancer ward, sending everyone home cured, healthy, and strong.  Picture Jesus coming to a funeral at your church, like he did in the village of Nain, raising the deceased man up out of the casket and restoring him to his family, alive and well.  Jesus might even stop at the cemetery and raise from the dead someone already buried, like when he raised Lazarus.  I believe that if Jesus was here doing all of that right now, a lot of people would pay more attention to him.  And I believe that if Jesus was going to be at your church, in person, this Sunday morning, every single member would be there, and not just the 25-30% of the members which is the average attendance in most churches these days.
    But Jesus isn’t doing any of those miracles now in person, and he’s not making any personal appearances.  Jesus did do all those miracles, and it is all in the Bible for us to read about and respond to his invitation to believe it and be saved.  But Jesus is not here now.  He is absent.  And absence often results in unbelief and disobedience and failure.  When the Master leaves, there is a test, and we often fail that test.  Some folks will even forget all about the Master and ignore him completely. Just like in the parables of Jesus, they will act as if the Master is never coming back.  But Christ is coming again.  He said so himself, and the whole New Testament proclaims it.  Jesus said over and over again, “Watch and be ready.”
    Think for a moment about how you respond when you hear the words, ‘Christ is coming again?’  How does that make you feel?  Is that second coming of Jesus something you look forward to in hope, or, is it something that you find frightening?  What if you learned that Christ was returning to end this world on the day after tomorrow?  Would you hear that as good news or bad news?  Would you look forward to what Jesus has to say to you?  Would you expect to be greeted as an old familiar friend, someone you had just been talking to that morning?  Or would you worry that he might want to ask you where you’ve been and why he hasn’t heard much from you?  ‘Watch and be ready!,’ Jesus often said.  Do not be caught not paying attention.  Do not be caught living as though there is no Master.  Do not forget about your Master, your Lord, and your Creator.  Do not be caught ignoring Jesus.  You will be someday meet him.  If Jesus does not come to end the world in your lifetime, you will meet him when the world ends for you in your death.
    My brother and I enjoyed our freedom that week that our parents were on vacation.  But as their return date drew closer, I found myself dreading the time we would have to face Dad and tell him that we did not do anything.  I did not look forward to seeing him because it wasn’t all ‘busy work’ that he gave us to do.  Much of it had to be done, and now it would have to be done by him alone since school was starting.  We started feeling bad those last few days before they returned, but still not bad enough to do anything about it.  We were having fun and so we just kept goofing around right up until their return.  When they came back, we welcomed them home and asked about their trip.  Then Dad asked how the work went, and we had to admit that we had done nothing.  Dad’s deep disappointment in his two capable, but irresponsible sons made us ashamed of ourselves.  So ashamed, in fact, that it never happened again.  There were other chances, other vacations, other times when we were home alone, and other job lists.  Never again did we want to see that look of disappointment and feel that shame, and we never had to.  From then on we would always get the work done.  And then we did not have to dread, but instead could look forward to our parent’s return; because then, with pride, we could show them that we had done even more than what was expected.
    Absence of authority is a test.  The good servant, the good student, and the good son can be trusted to do the right thing even when the boss is absent.  In John chapter 20, not long before Jesus left the disciples, Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me you have believed; Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  Can we be trusted to keep the faith, to live as Jesus wants us to live, to hear his word and speak to him in prayer, even while he is gone and we cannot see him?  If so, we can indeed look forward to his return, even if it would be the day after tomorrow.  
     Near the end of his life, Paul wrote to Timothy, “The time has come for my departure.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  Paul did not dread the prospect of facing his Lord.  Rather, it says, he ‘longed for his appearing.’  We also can look forward to, even ‘long for’ that appearing.  (continued…)
(Some material in this and the previous meditation is from William Willimon, Preaching to Strangers, pp. 101-111;  Willimon there gives credit to Bernard B. Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 205-216)
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II Timothy 4:7-8   —   I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day– and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.  

John 20:29  —  Then Jesus told (Thomas), “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”   

Mark 13:36-37  —  (Jesus said), “If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.   What I say to you, I say to everyone:  ‘Watch!’”
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Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
                                                                                                                                                                               
Book of Common Prayer

314) When God is Absent (part one)

     It was the summer after my graduation from high school.  My brother John and I were driving milk truck for my dad.  My father and mother were going on vacation for a week.  My younger brother and sister were going along.  John and I would stay at home and do the milk routes.  Along with doing the routes, dad gave us a long list of other things that needed to be done.  His idea was that we would be kept so busy that we would not have any time to get into trouble.  John and I had other ideas.  As soon as they left, we were on the phone making plans with our friends; plans that my parents would not approve of and that left little time for work.  We did get the milk picked up and hauled to the creamery every day, but that was all we got done.  All week we did not do one other thing on that list of work dad had given us.  This was our first taste of total freedom from parental control and we weren’t about to waste any of it doing dad’s busy work.
     In Mark 13 there is a parable of Jesus that describes a similar situation.  In the first part of the chapter Jesus is talking about what it will be like when the world ends.  Then Jesus says (v. 32f), “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard!  Be on alert!  You do not know when that time will come.  It is like a man (perhaps a father) going away on a journey.  He leaves his house (and probably his business) and puts his servants in charge (or perhaps his sons) each with his assigned task.”  Then he has to trust them; but he does tell them to keep watch, because they do not know when he will return.  So “if he comes back suddenly,” Jesus says, “don’t let him find you sleeping,” or, out running around with your friends and neglecting your tasks.
    This parable of Jesus and my story from my youth are both stories of what happens when the boss is absent, and in both stories this absence becomes a time of testing.  Whenever the boss or the father or the owner or the teacher is absent, even for a few minutes, it becomes an occasion for a testing of the servants or the students or the employees or the sons.
     You know how it goes in school.  Mrs. Hanson says to her students, “Now class, I am going down the hall to the principal’s office for just a few minutes.  I hope I can trust each of you to act like little ladies and gentlemen, and not like maniacs as you did last week when I left the room.  You each have some spelling words to study and I hope I can trust you to do that and be quiet.”
     Absence of authority is a test.  The return of that person in authority is the occasion for an accounting, for judgment, and perhaps for punishment.  When Mrs. Hanson returns she hears loud noises coming from her classroom.  She enters the room and says, “Jimmy, what are you doing on top of my desk?  Larry, get that hamster out of the aquarium!  Susie, get back to your chair!  All right, I’ve had enough.  Nobody goes outside for recess today!”  Absence of authority is a test, and failing the test will mean trouble.
     An employee who works only when she is being watched is a worthless employee, and may not have her job very long.  A student that behaves and works only when the teacher is hovering over him is an irresponsible student, and in the end will not get much out of school.  And a son who does not do the work when his father is not around is a disappointment to that father.
     The New Testament is very concerned about this problem of absence.  In Matthew 24 Jesus says: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant?  Blessed is that servant whom his master will find hard at work.  But a wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed’ and begins to beat the other servants and get drunk.  His master will come on a day he does not expect him and that servant will be punished.”  In a parable in Matthew 25 Jesus said, “For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one…  then he went away…  After a long time, that master returned, and he settled accounts with those servants.”  In Mark 12, Jesus says, “A man planted a garden, set a hedge around it, and let it out to tenants; and then he went to another country.”  And again, from Mark 13:  “It’s like a man going away; he leaves his house in charge of his servants, each with his assigned task.”  Jesus is very concerned about this problem of absence.
      When we go to church we hear stories of the time when Jesus was right here on this earth, and then we hear that he returned to his heavenly Father, and then we also hear about the promise of Jesus that he is coming again.  And we then proclaim our faith in that story when we recite the Apostle’s Creed.   Jesus was here, “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…”  Jesus was here!  But now he is not here, because he “ascended into heaven,” and is now “seated at the right hand of the Father.”  But then we also say, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  Jesus has been here in the flesh.  Now he is not here in the flesh.  He is absent for a time.  But he is coming again.  In the meantime, how will you act in his absence?  Will you remember him?  Will you obey him?  Will you pay attention to him, to his Word, and to his commands?  Will you be ready for him when he returns?  While he is absent we are being tested.  In Mark chapter 13 Jesus said he was coming again, and he said, “Watch!  Be on guard!  Be ready!”  (continued…)
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Mark 13:34-35a   —   (Jesus said,) “It is like a man going away:  He leaves his servants in charge of his house, each with his assigned task, and he tells the one at the door to keep watch.  Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know when the master of the house will come back….”
 
Mark 12:1   —   (Jesus said), then began to speak to them in parables:  “A man planted a vineyard.  He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the wine-press and built a watchtower.  Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey…”
 
Mark 13:36-37   —   (Jesus said), “If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.   What I say to you, I say to everyone:  ‘Watch!’”
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O Heavenly Father, in whom we live and move and have our being, we humbly pray that you so guide and govern us by the Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our daily life we may never forget you, but remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.        
Church of Ireland Prayer Book