On Sunday, November 5, 2017 Riviera United Church of Christ dedicated our newly acquired hand bells. The newly formed RUCC Hand Bell choir made their debut performance during our service offertory, playing “Joyful Peal” by M. Bedford.
I simply love this time of the year! Seasons are changing, and our northern friends are coming home for the winter! Florida becomes one of the more popular spots, as hurricane seasons comes to an end and the humidity drops, just a bit, and days grow shorter and the nights cooler! There are other seasons which we all experience as well. We move from our adolescent youth into adulthood, where we take on a full range of mature responsibilities. Living here in Florida, many of us are retired and enjoying the twilight of our years. Each of the seasons of our lives give us different perspectives and priorities. Our relationship with our Creator God takes on different meanings as well!
Whether it be winter, spring, summer or fall, our relationship with God, needs to be one of our priorities in life! There are no vacations from this responsibility! We might want to consider reflecting on the simple basics of a good relationship as we view our current connection with God. Are we remembering to strike up a conversation every morning? It is a good way to start the day. Some of us like to acknowledge God’s presence as we begin our daily rituals. I was told, the busier we are, the more important it is to take time to pray and connect-up with God! During the day, are we remembering to be grateful in the midst a particularly stressful moment? Really, this is when we need to remember that God loves us and is there with us, no matter what is happening! When evening comes are you still finding a quite space to take time to reflect with God about your day? It is a great time to discuss the things that went right and those things you may need to go back and correct. It is amazing how clear this becomes, if we take the time to discuss everything with God, giving thanks and asking for forgiveness, whatever the case may be.
“Hear now this parable from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter twenty-five, verses one thru thirteen.”
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.
3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.
8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
“Allow this parable, which is attributed to the teachings of Jesus, to open your minds to a deeper understanding of this intended teaching.”
As we begin reflecting on what Jesus is saying to us through this parable, about ten bridesmaids, we can make several obvious observations. First, the bridesmaids represent ourselves, you and me. Second, the bridegroom is Jesus, the Son of God. Third, the banquet we are invited to is: our invitation to be received into the kingdom of heaven. Taking these points as the ‘clear’ parallel meanings from this parable – we can now begin to ask some questions we ‘need’ to come to grips with. Bear in mind, if these are the references of which Jesus was/is leading us to, it is crucial we grab hold of the direction this analogy is taking us. We need to take this very seriously. Clearly, for most of us whom are seeking the promises of God, we sure want to know how to respond to this invitation properly!
Most of us, when invited to something special, we want to attend, especially if we believe it to be important. Getting accepted into heaven is important to a lot of us! Is it ‘not’ something you desire for you and your loved ones? And if this is indeed an objective one longs for, surely, we do not want to be caught ‘off guard’ and be negligent, remiss or indifferent in our responsibilities to be prepared when the time comes. What would your understanding be, regarding the time about which we need to be prepared for? Surely, Jesus is not truly speaking of a wedding, this reference is just the parable’s illustration of the hidden meaning; as this is what we have come to understand about the parables of Jesus. Consequently, as a result, we need to be prepared for that ultimate time… that moment in our journey when we are standing at the gates of heaven… praying that our invitations to enter are still valid!
This brings us to the question. You know what the question is; but there is a secondary question: are you willing to do what it takes to be prepared? Also, are you willing to continue to stay prepared indefinitely? This is crucial for us to answer! Why? Because, no one, no one still of this world, knows the answer! How do we prepare for an event, of which, we do not know when it will take place!?
Imagine, if you can, being invited to participate in a prestigious celebration of your life’s accomplishments! Yet, you are unsure of the moments in your life where you have done things worthy of praise! Then, you find out that everyone you know and everyone you associate with have received the same invitation. Now what do you do? Clearly, not everyone will receive the same recognition! Or will they! You simply do not know; at best, you are not sure. The invitation tells you the date and time have yet to be announced. So, there is still time you muse, and as you ponder and reflect on this you begin to think, well maybe there are still some things I can do to firm up my list of accomplishments. If this were so, would you not immediately begin to take the action necessary to accomplish this. Surely you would, if you thought the ultimate reward or prize was of great value.
If you are invited to a pot luck dinner you bring your appetite and your favorite casserole, salad or desert to share with other guests. If you are invited to participate in a ‘Spelling Bee’ you would study hard and try to expand your knowledge of words and the rules by which they are pronounced and spelled. Likewise, if you expect to be invited into a prestigious college you would study ‘really-hard’ to keep your grades as high as possible. But, having received an invitation to heaven itself – just how do you prepare yourself for such an event as this! Excellent question. If you are not asking the question of yourself… or are not prepared to follow the directions and examples given to you… well then, the doors to heaven may not open to you when your appointed time arrives! Have you given this serious thought? Eternity lasts a long time. You may want to consider how and where you want to spend it!
One theologian named Greg Carey speaks of why some of us are struggling with this parable. “Our discomfort with the parable of the virgins likely arises from self-awareness. Most of us know ourselves as wise in some contexts and foolish in others.” /Greg Carey/ You may or may not have someone you are willing to confide in, someone you can talk with about everything you know about yourself. Many find it very useful to do so. It seems to be a way of gaining a better perspective of different elements, or opinions you keep grappling with on your own. But somehow you have not been able to come to grips with this. We all have situations, which ultimately come up along the way, that we need to deal with. You may be concerned with your relationship with God. You may be stuck in finding the right action to take to resolve it. Don’t stay bogged down. Reach out for help. Talk to a friend or a spiritual adviser. Talk to me. Talk to someone! Talk to God in prayer!
We each have an opinion or at least a cloudy understanding of what we believe heaven is or at perhaps what we have come to pray that it is. No one that I have talked with has ever been there. Yes, we have heard wonderful stories of a few people whom tell us that in a near death experience, they were in heaven just long enough to disclose to us some very tantalizing things. Thought provoking and intriguing to say the least! I could probably fill an hour, or more, simply telling you about some of the more interesting insights others have given me about this. Perhaps, you have someone whom has shared such an accounting with you. Indeed, I myself have had some moments along the way where I believe I was in the presence of my understanding of God. It was awe-inspiring. It was peaceful. It was a moment of ultimate peace. I had a sense of being safe and loved. A day later I was rushing to go somewhere, I forget where now, and I fell flat on the ground in a hotel parking lot and split open my chin! No, I am not in heaven yet, the journey of life is all too real!
We, you and me, we are not the first to grapple with this tug-of-war between life and the after-life and the promise it brings. A writer from what is considered the Geneva Notes, (which come from the Geneva Bible, it is the Bible with marginal notes authored by John Calvin, John Knox, Miles Coverdale, and many other leaders of the Reformation. These notes were written between the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century A.D.) /ABOVE INTRODUCTION FROM L. L. BROWN PUBLISHING/ These notes often give interesting and sight full insights into the thoughts of great theologians from our historical past. One such writing gives us a view of the author’s opinion about our conflict with this parable we are wrestling with this morning. “We must desire strength from God’s hand which may serve us as a torch while we walk through this darkness, to bring us to our desired end: otherwise, if we become slothful and negligent because we are weary of our pains and travail, we shall be kept from entering the doors.” /Geneva Notes/ A deep though provoking statement, to be sure. Another way to say this might be to… simple speak of our need to seek out God’s help through prayer and meditation. We ought not get lazy or complacent about this either. Nor can we allow ourselves the luxury of taking an attitude of defeat and giving up on ourselves because of the sometimes harshness of life’s realities! Most Christians and people of all faiths, believe there is a life after-death, a heaven of some sort! Of which we ought to be willing to take positive steps toward making certain – we will be ready when the time comes, and the doors are opened!
“So, Pastor,” you may be thinking, “just what am I to do to be certain I will be ready when the time comes.” Good question, as none of us wish to miss the opportunity to secure our invitation. Some theologians would harp on our willingness to give it all away. Thereby, literally take what Jesus has taught us through our gospel lessons. Jesus once told a rich man that he must sell all his possessions and give everything to the poor. Another time “Jesus says, those on their way to heaven will be decided by what they gave away, whether they fed the poor, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. Whether they shared what they had.” /David Henson/ This simplistic and literal approach will give you heart-burn and a big case of guilt! So, what was Jesus trying so ‘diligently’ to tell us about getting to heaven! In this parable he was clearly telling us we need to be prepared for we do not know when it shall be our turn, our time to accept God’s invitation into heaven.
The ultimate answer to this riddle is just outside our grasp. Yet, Jesus and the teachings of Jesus, have given us many, many clues! We talk about various and different aspects of this every Sunday. The critics of Jesus always were looking for him to give them the ultimate answer, yet he did not! He gave answers that are only heard by people of faith. People like you and me who are willing to open our hearts to the true love of God in all areas of our lives! Jesus simplified the 613 commands, laws by which the Israelites were taught to obey. Jesus broke down the misunderstood, the misread understandings of God’s love and compassion! The answer lies in accepting all of that which Jesus taught. Not one simple parable or one powerful statement. We need to look to the full story of Jesus and all that he was about! Not just one ‘sound bite’ that can then be put into every headline seen around the world!
Getting into heaven, it is like preparing for any dinner party or special event. It is like preparing to put together a church budget or a stewardship campaign. There are many elements that need to go into it. These things are all encompassing and take a lot of preparation. Getting to heaven takes a lifetime of lessons. It takes practice and hard work to be a good follower of Jesus. It takes a willingness to put in the effort! God will judge us based on the sincere effort we put into this; not our ability to figure out the ultimate trick or password to get into heaven! Having the right attitude, the right level of humility, and gratitude for the love of God, these are the keys to unlocking the doorway to the ultimate mysteries of heaven itself!
Matthew 23: 1-12 November 5th, 2017 Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Hear now these words of scripture, as Jesus spoke to the crowds, taken from the gospel account according to Matthew, chapter 23, verses 1-12.”
23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
“Allow these words to enter into your heart, as-well-as your ears; as together, we seek out their meaning for us modern Christians.”
“Look to Christ for Leadership!”
In today’s world there are all types of people in leadership roles. Some of these leaders are strong and some are weak. Others are creative, inspirational and dynamic; while others are ineffective, callous and arrogant. Because of the diversity of leaders throughout the world, within the time-period in which we live, we as a people are facing some hard facts and hard choices! The world we live in has more than its share of urgent situations. Therefore, we have many challenges that are facing us as individuals and as a society. If we are to move forward as a nation, as a community and as a church, we shall need to focus on the quality of leadership we are supporting. What examples shall we leave for the next generations, our grandchildren and our great grandchildren, to follow. We can get started by focusing on how we support the concepts of leadership here in our church.
Thankfully, we as a church have been blessed with good lay leadership. Since I have been your Pastor, beginning four years ago this week, the importance of lay leadership has never been more important. In the history of this faith community, I am the first “part time” Pastor “called” to fill your ‘long term’ pastoral position. This unique halftime pastoral covenant between RUCC and myself has elevated the importance of all of you, the worshipers, the members and friends of this faith fellowship. All, here gathered, constitute the congregation of this our church. This has elevated everyone’s opportunities to become active in the day to day roles and workings of this our local church. In so doing, we are invited to follow the teachings and examples set for us by Jesus. By following this ‘calling’ we are fully embracing the roles of a disciple, a follower of Christ!
There are a multitude of ways to become more involved in a ministry. And no, not everyone need to aspire to be the moderator of this fellowship. Yet, many are needed in a large range of leadership functions. Starting with simply things like helping with coffee hour or participating in helping in the church office. If you are wanting to get more involved talk with someone who is currently serving on one of our five ministry teams. If you do not know what those are ask someone to explain them to you. Ministries take on different roles: Christian Education, Outreach, Operations, Resources and Spiritual. Have you considered signing up to be a worship leader, or to bring in some snacks for our time of fellowship after church? Are you willing to participate in the music ministry of this church or get involved in the Compassion team? We need someone to do simple, yet vital things like sweep and vacuum floors, take out the trash once a week. Or maybe you are computer savvy and willing to help with some of the technical needs of putting together our weekly bulletin, or helping to manage the slides on display every Sunday… on these two screens we all look to throughout our worship service. Or maybe you want to increase your financial support, so we can finally hire a new sexton, a janitor and start looking for an Administrative Assistant to run our church office. This church is only as strong as you are willing to help it be.
For the past twenty-three years, I have been an ordained Christian Pastor. During these years I have worked with various volunteer leaders in seven different church settings; when I add on the four years I was in training and then when I served as an Interim Pastor. My point is: there are some basic qualities that good leaders have, of which I have been fortunate enough to have witnessed. (And conversely, I have witnessed some less than adequate leadership skills as well.) Here in our church, it is imperative that we all remember whom we are called to serve and what our ultimate purpose is. These are basic guidelines for any level of leadership from the top position of our national government – to the simplest leadership tasks here within our humble church, here in Palm Bay Florida. As we begin to consider what it takes to step-up and take the lead in getting needed things accomplished, let’s first take a closer look at our morning’s scripture lesson. Here we can seek out some clues and see if we can learn something from these words attributed to Jesus’ teachings. We will perhaps learn what are the qualities we might want to consider as we contemplate what roles we as individuals might fill, within the structure of our society and even here in our own church.
Jesus begins by talking about those that are in leadership roles within the structure of Judaism during that time-period. In verse three Jesus tells us: “do whatever they teach you and follow it;” (Jesus is referring to the Pharisees.) “but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Pretty strong criticism coming from Jesus of these religious leaders. First, he says to listen to them as they are teaching the lessons passed onto to them in scripture from Moses, yet stops there and says to us “but do not do as they do!” Sounds like Jesus is saying that the Pharisees do not walk like they talk, which makes them hypocrites! Ouch! This is certainly not a trait we want in anyone who takes on any level of leadership role around our church! Praise God there are none of these in our fellowship! Clearly, Jesus is telling us it is good to teach good things, but the teacher needs to follow the same teachings in their own daily tasks of life, thus setting a good example for others to follow. It is kind of like telling a child not to litter the streets with candy wrappers, instructing them instead to pick up any trash or junk already discarded and dispose of it properly; but then turn around and toss our empty coffee cup into the street or the neighbors bushes!
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” /Matthew 23:4/ Here Jesus is again pointing out what those who lead, teach or instruct others ought not do. If you want to set a good example for others to follow, you must work alongside of those you are asking to do a task. When the operation committee asks us to gather on a Saturday morning to beautify our church grounds, their leadership is always present, helping to get things done while instructing others on the things which need to get done. That is good leadership!
Of course, we all know: the ultimate uniqueness of church leaders begins with being volunteers. As volunteers one must accept the fact there are no pay checks with your name on it. However, being a volunteer whom has the joy of seeing his or her committee or ministry flourish, the rewards are unlimited! And the harsh reality for the vast-majority-of churches in our society is that without volunteers most churches would be forced to close their doors! This is clearly not a situation we wish to find ourselves in. Therefore, it is important that we set realistic goals and realistic expectations of and for all our leaders, at every level of our church structure. If we can learn how to do this in our church, maybe we can learn how to do the same in other settings within the community, the social system and nation in which we live!
Not wanting to leave anyone out of this discussion, let me point out that every task, every responsibility that requires a person’s attention and subsequent action is important. And let me reassure you, everyone is seen and observed by someone. Even if you think you are not in leadership, simply because you were not elected to a post or given a title, let me assure you someone is going to follow your example, your lead; whether it be a positive or a negative. It is important that we all realize that everyone needs a leader, a mentor or at least some one to look up to. Who is it – that is looking to you… for that role in their lives?
In our scripture this morning it is Jesus whom is being observed. What kind of leader was Jesus? Leadership qualities: Practice what you preach. Walk like you talk. Have integrity. Have a willingness to see a project through to the end. Be committed to the common cause. Leaders need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and work alongside those who follow their instructions. What leadership skills did the Israelites expect of their long-expected Messiah, the promised Savior whom prophets foretold?
A savior to rescue them from the hands of their oppressors? Was he to be a conquering king or a spiritual leader? From way back there in biblical times, some of these questions had answers which really confused folks. But from our vantage point here in the Twenty-First Century we know Jesus was coming to show us the way and teach us, through his example how to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. He was showing us the way to heaven and teaching us the will of God. Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself for our salvation. Thankfully, this is not always asked of us modern Christians. Yet, committing to help and become part of a team, to get things done, is something it seems Jesus would want of us.
We must realize that God will look-into our hearts and see where and to whom or what our allegiances, our loyalties and commitments are. Our doctrines may be well written and taught, which is good, but we shall be judged based on how we truly live our lives. One cannot teach one thing and do another. Nor can we ask others to do tasks we ourselves are not ready and willing to do also. Let us pray that none of us become like the corrupted Pharisees and religious leaders whom Jesus spoke of in our lesson this morning. Let us ‘keep it simple’, let us look to Jesus for leadership, taking one task at a time. Doing it well and reaching out through ‘our example’ to teach the next generation what it takes to get the job done.