Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard

January 21st, 2018

Mark 1: 14-20

 

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Scripture:

“Let us now listen with our minds and our hearts to this ancient accounting from the gospel according to Mark, chapter one, verses 14 thru 20.”

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Sermon:

“Building A Team!”

It has come to my attention, more than once that the things that occur in our lives as children, have a real impact upon us as we grow to adulthood. Take for example what occurred for me when I was just entering the sixth grade after moving into a new community, in a new state when my father found it necessary to move us away from where I was brought up as a youngster, to a town closer to where he was working. As an adult, looking back, I am certain it was a solid decision at the time. But as a sixth grader, getting on a school bus and traveling to a school I had never been to, and being the ‘new kid’ in a classroom full of strangers was nothing but traumatic! Simple things occurred, like the morning role call, when the teacher badly mispronounced my name. How can you mess up a biblical name like Timothy? Or a good English name like Woodard? OK you got me there, the English spell it with two w’s, Woodward.

Hopefully, you are getting the idea, being new in a class room is really-hard when you are ten years old. One day the teacher made us say what nationality we were. No one had ever asked me that before, nor had it been discussed as a child as I was growing up. Kids were saying words like: Polish, Italian, German, English, Irish, and French. Came my turn I blurted out that I was American! The class erupted in laughter… at my expense of course. I cannot recall what occurred after that, but I know that I as a child, I was mortified! As an adult, I am kind of proud of my outburst! I am an American first, my background, my origin comes second! But, being ten years old in the sixth grade in a new school is not easy.

Oh, let me tell you about the day everyone wanted to play baseball during a long recess. I had never played any baseball. Two team captains were quickly chosen. They decided who went first by some type of ritual with a bat. As they alternated grasping the bat with their hands, the last one who could grasp it went first. All went well until I was the only one not chosen. Seems that whomever had to have me on their team, I was to be their handicap! The consensus was that the shy introverted dumb new kid surely couldn’t play ball well. Unfortunately, they were right. Finally, the deed was done, and I was on a team. God was merciful, I never did get my turn at bat that day… the rest of what occurred is a blur. One thing was for sure, the lot of us, were nothing but a rag-tag unimpressive group of kids, and the only unified team effort that day was trying to compensate for being stuck with me on their team!

You know the rest of the story. I survived and some how became an adult while in the U. S. Air Force somewhere between Boot-Camp and while serving in Thailand during the Vietnam war. South East Asia, in the sixties, had a way of sweating out of a guy, the nonsense of childhood things. It cost me many hours of therapy years later to put these things into their proper prospective. I was forty-three before I accepted my calling into ordained ministry and became a member of a new team. Of course, the team captain, was none other than Jesus himself! Most of you have heard that story before. While watching the movie: “Jesus of Nazareth” I came to believe that in the scene of the movie, the same scene described in this mornings scripture lesson that Jesus himself was inviting me to follow him and join his team. Which I have clearly done! In many ways radically different than that day I was ‘chosen’ to play on a ‘rag-tag’ baseball team.

Last week we discussed how Jesus entered his formal ministry by being Baptized by John the Baptist at the river Jordan. He was then lead by, driven perhaps, most certainly ‘compelled’ by the Holy Spirit to go out into the desert wilderness, where he was tested and ultimately prepared for his difficult journey into public ministry. Now today, Jesus appears, after his wilderness experience, ready to choose and to build his team. This team was meant to be trained by Jesus, to follow in his path, along the rugged journey of ministry, which Jesus was called to and destined to fulfill! So, let us take a few minutes to consider what type of a team he was pulling together. Was it just a rag-tag bunch of men he chooses! At first glance it clearly was. We know Jesus was being guided by the hand of God, and the Holy Spirit was upon him, so perhaps he was seeing in these men things which we, or others, could not yet see.

First, let us consider what we know about the men chosen that day. The author of this accounting from Mark tells us just the basics. “As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen.” /Mark 1:16/ “As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.” /Mark 1:19/ OK, we learn they were fishermen. These men were fishing upon the sea of Galilee. That’s it! We are told nothing else. From what we have learned about that time-period, we must assume that these were not rich men. Nor were they considered to be over achievers. They were just fishermen. This is how they carved out a living to support themselves and their families. Usually, we have learned, they would pool together to buy a boat. Perhaps they owed someone for the boat, we are not sure of that fact. But, we can assume, it was probably the only option they had, or they and their families would go without. There were no social charities or government subsidies to sustain them if they failed either. No, they were under the thumb of the Romans, living as a conquered nation. The Romans allowed the religious leaders to rule over these men and their families to help keep order. Therefore, we can assume, they were dirt poor.

Yet, their decision to follow Jesus, and join his team, was a major decision and it appears they made it without giving this much thought. Perhaps, in their situation, this was not as hard to do as we may surmise from our vantage point, as modern era Christians. Walking away from family responsibilities and duties seems almost irresponsible from our views from here. Yet, their situation was radically different than ours is today. In today’s society, in which we live, it would be irresponsible to walk away from our duties to our families and our responsibilities in our social setting. This is why, in our denomination, the larger church which we are a part of, we have committees like the one I serve on, called: The Committee on Church and Ministry. Within that committee structure, we work with individuals whom believe they have a call from God to serve in public ministry. It is a process of discernment. A process where we help individuals determine their “Calling.” We are all called by God, yet, not all of us are called to public ministry! There are many ways to answer our callings. And there are many ways to serve the ministry to which Jesus calls us to serve.

How do you and I make such a decision – to become a part of the team that serves the church – the church which Jesus himself started? Yes, that was an overly simplistic statement. But let us not get lost in the details of the many, many splits, chasms and such of the modern Christian Church. Let us keep this relatively simple. Jesus was pulling together a crew, a team, to help him start a movement meant to radically change how people were to understand their relationship with God. In the simplest understanding of this, Jesus, was starting a teaching, within his short three-year ministry, which was to revolutionize how God was to be understood! Clearly, there are many different and various understandings of how we, the people, are meant to interpret what he did. This is where we now find ourselves. We are one of the sub-groups of Christians who now believe in the ministry of Jesus in a certain way.

We are not an oppressed people, under the rule of a foreign power that has conquered us and driven us from our home land. In contrast, we are a part of a very powerful nation, which has tremendous influence and authority over many nations around the world. Therefore, as we look to how our callings need to be implemented, we must take these circumstances into account. Some of us are called to do radically important roles in our society, outside the walls of this our church. God bless you! Fulfill the roles to which you have been called by God, utilizing the gifts God has given you! Some of us are called to be good parents and good teachers and to care for ourselves along the way. This can be a full time calling, of which those called sometimes must make hard decisions to accomplish, with integrity, their roll, their tasks. With these thoughts in mind, we are given the tools of discernment necessary, or better stated: we are given the ability to judge and decide what is essential to clarify the work, the mission we must now accomplish!

In the story of the fisherman being called by Jesus, their choices were limited, and the risks were balanced with their speculation that this Jesus might be the new Messiah, the one who, like Moses, would free them from their oppressors! When we consider our calling, we must do likewise. We must ascertain what our callings are based on, taking into consideration who we are, and where we are in our journeys of life. Ordained, public ministry is not for everyone. Likewise, raising a child is not for everyone. Taking the lead in a social justice crusade that might get you thrown in jail is not for everyone! Timing is always a critical point in these types of choices and decisions. At age seventy, I probably would be a poor candidate to become an Olympic skier! Based on what I recently told you, regarding my skiing abilities, it is extremely unlikely I could reach that goal! Likewise, if you are over seventy, you probably are not the best candidate to go back to school to become an ordained minister, seeking to lead a local church like our own. Yet, a retired pastor like myself may feel called to continue serving well past their seventieth birthday!

For many, answering the call to serve in some capacity within their church can come at a very early stage in life, while others may come to serve during the twilight of their lives. One ought not to feel left out, if their current call is to fulfill some other role outside their church. Bearing in mind, there are many differing ways to serve the needs of one’s church; and various ways to answer God’s calling! Yet, others of us, may need to reconsider what we are still able to do and seriously consider how we can serve this our church! Maybe this is your time to stand up and pick up the mantle of ministry! One New Testament professor talks about the many different times of our lives in which God reaches out to us. “God in Jesus Christ comes to us in our most unexpected moments.” /Paul S. Berge/ This very well may be that unforeseen and unanticipated moment for you! Another theologian asks us a challenging question. “What would make you drop everything and pursue an entirely new life?” /David Lose/ Are you willing to answer that question?

Most of us are past sixth grad now. And we may not be trying to build a baseball team. Yet, this church needs a team of volunteers, whom work together for the common goals of this our church. Jesus the Christ, is our leader and thankfully, has left us a set of guidelines to live by. Our goal here is simple: To come together “as we continue to think openly, believe passionately, and serve boldly!”

May God always bless you! Amen.

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard

January 14th, 2018
1 Samuel 3: 1-10,

 

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Scripture:

Today, the scriptures take us back into the Old Testament, retelling the story of the boy Samuel. Let us now listen again to these words contained in First Samuel, chapter three, verses 1 thru 10.

3 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So, he went and lay down.
6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So, Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

“Having heard these words with our ears now let us listen to our hearts as we consider their meaning.”

Sermon:

“Listen for God’s Voice”

When I was a child I was trained to listen for the voices of my parents and my grandparents. They were the voices of authority and wisdom in my life. I am certain that many of you here today, can identify those voices from your childhood, voices which you listened to with an open mind and an open heart! Prayerfully, your parents are, or were, on your list. If not, I must pray that there were voices of those whom ‘did’ earn your respect and trust, as your journey into adulthood progressed. The other voice I have come to listen to is that of God’s. Learning to hear the voice of God is different that listening to the voices of our parents and other voices we have come to know and respect. Perhaps I need to clarify. The truth is… when I say I have heard God’s voice, I do not mean an audible or distinct voice… but a voice none the less.

Confused yet! Me too, sometimes. Discerning the voice of God in our lives can be difficult and challenging at times. Perhaps this has always been the case. One could easily come to this conclusion about the boy Samuel. In our scripture this morning we are led to believe, by the author of this passage that Samuel heard the voice of God. But, he did not recognize it. He therefore assumed it was the old priest Eli. A reasonable assumption as Eli was the only other person close enough to have called out to Samuel. If I hear voices in the night, there are only a few rational possibilities. Lois, my wife, is calling out to me or talking in her sleep or the television is still on! Of course, the non-rational possibilities are limitless!

Let us set this thought aside for a moment as I need to tell you about Reverend David Jenks. He was the Pastor Emeritus at the church I served in Middletown New York. He was younger than our Pastor Emeritus, Reverend Jim Allen. Pastor Jim, as we know, is almost one hundred and two. Pastor David was eighty when I met him. I did the Funeral service for him eight years later, he was eighty-eight. There are countless, numerous stories I could tell you about David. However, for the sake of time let me simply say we became close and together we did a lot of Ministry in the community in which we served. Oh, I forgot to mention, David never did fully retire. He was the chaplain at the local hospital in Middletown up until he had a bad stroke less than a year before his passing.

Those months after Pastor David’s stroke is what I need to tell you about. The stroke left him partially paralyzed and he lived out his days in a local nursing home. His wife, Sue, was not able to care for him at home. As is common among stroke victims his speech had been greatly affected. When he spoke, a nurse explained to me, he believed his words were audible and could be understood. Consequently, at times he seemed confused and perplexed, believing those around him were not listening to him. Unfortunately, most folks were not understanding him and only a small few of us knew what he was saying. That’s right, you heard me correctly, I could understand him when he spoke. We had a number of long conversations together. How is that possible you ask? I don’t fully understand it. Yet, I did comprehend and grasp what he was communicating to me. You see, David and I, we understood each other. We had talked in depth many times. I believe my heart, my spirit linked and joined with his in those conversations. I knew we were connecting and thereby communicating with each other. I knew this because of his loving smile and the sense of clarity through which he was acknowledging my responses in a positive way. There are books written about what I was experiencing. It is called the language of the heart!

No, I have never heard the audible voice of God. Yet, God has whispered in my ear many times. God has sent messengers to me whom have delivered ‘needed’ points of clarity now and then. When I pray I can feel the presence of God deep within me! That has come with the growing trust and respect for God’s role in my life, and I in response, to God’s holy will in the realm of humankind. Several members and friends of this congregation, have communicated to me, audibly, that you have experienced this presence, this closeness with God. Those whom have shared this with me… seem to have a sense of peace about themselves. If you have seen this in others, it is worthy of pursuing as it a ‘priceless’ gift.

No one knows for sure what type of voice Samuel heard that night. It took Eli to help him understand it was God who was calling out to him. Does it matter what God’s voice sounds like? Or is it the message of those encounters, the messages that touch our very souls and awakens our spirits? The important part of this conversation which Samuel had with God, was partially that it took old Eli to help him realize he was hearing God’s voice. We can easily conclude that Eli was acting as an interpreter for Samuel. Because of the old prophet Eli’s conversation with Samuel, this young lad was able to trust that the voice he heard in the night, was the voice of God. Through this interaction, and thus his conversation with God, Samuel was able to respond willingly to God’s call. This encounter with God developed into a strong relationship which changed his life and made a dramatic impact upon those he came to serve. The point of decision seems to hover around Samuels need to get clarity from Eli, a man whom he trusted and respected. The lesson for us is to stay open, to those whom have earned our respect and trust. They just may be the connection we need to understand God’s voice when it comes to us.

From the scripture that follows this passage, we learn how Samuel grows in wisdom and strength, and ultimately comes to replace Eli’s position in the community, which Samuel was then called to serve. The challenge for us this morning is to clarify, at least for ourselves, where we are in this story. Are we Samuel? Are we being called by God to do something new? Making the choice to recognize we are the ones being called to take on a new responsibility, this can be exciting, breathtaking and even spine-tingling. Prayerfully, if this is whom you relate to in this present time, you will have found the trusting voice, the elder statesperson who will mentor you and help you to understand how to connect to the ‘still speaking voice’ of God. What an exciting moment this can be for you! I fervently pray you will answer that call! Or are we Eli, having come to that point of transition and we are being instructed to help train the next student to take on the roles we once filled? At first this may be hard to accept, as we know we can do the needed tasks better than anyone. Understandable feelings, as in this role we have done many good things under God’s guidance. Letting go, and stepping back, thereby taking on a ‘new’ role can be very disconcerting and even uncomfortable. Yet, some of us must strive to align ourselves with the old prophet Eli. If we do not, the Samuel’s of our time; they may miss their calling because we were not willing to interpret God’s voice for them! Let us begin this process of choosing whom we identify with, by opening our hearts and allowing God to connect with our spirits, where we will be able to hear what God is now saying to us.

Every week I receive a writing called “Weekly Seeds” sponsored by the national office of our United Church of Christ. It is meant to aid and inspire pastors like myself in relevant ways to interpret our scripture lessons each week. Now and then I find myself really connecting to the words of the theologian whom wrote this week’s reflections. The Rev. Kathryn Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio. Here is one of her reflections on this passage we are using today. “Our Old Testament reading this week is a ‘call narrative.’ It is a story of a young lad who received a call from God. Perhaps we’re not called in’ exactly the same (dramatic) way, by a voice in the deepest night or by Jesus himself standing before us. Still, there’s a powerful connection between our call from God and who we are in the depths of our being, not only our gifts and talents but also our most profound inner life and reality.” Her reflections have most certainly enhanced the sermons of thousands of pastors’ numerous times. Through her writings she has touched tens of thousands of lives. Just as Rev. Matthews found it time to relinquish her position as Dean, in retirement or simply in a time of transition, she opened a door for someone new to accept their ‘call’ to do something new as well. This is the cycle of ministry – just as we all come to understand the cycle of life.

Cantor Naomi Hirsch speaks of a new day, a new time. “As we begin a new year, how can we be fully present to the roll calls we may hear? What does it mean to say, “I am here?” How shall we enter a new place?” (A new place in time, with new challenges and new opportunities.) This theologian from Yale University, gives us a true challenge as we wrap-up our discussion of the voice of God ‘calling out to Samuel’ and now to us. This is a good time for these reflections as we too, need to ascertain the voice of God in our midst. What better time could there be, then this, to consider our rolls in this our church? As we seek the voice of God’s will, and as we discern how to answer God’s call, to serve the people of God! For this is the time, as it is each year, when this church, and countless other churches have their annual meetings. A ritual among us churches who operate under the model of organization called ‘congregationalism’; first adapted out of the puritan movement. This whole concept of how we the people, we the congregation make the decisions that decide who and what this church is, and how this church is to operate. It was out of this Christian movement that the whole concept of Democracy was first embraced in what has become these United States.

How shall we listen for God’s voice during this time? Have we taken note of the art of listening with our hearts? Shall we keep the voice of God ‘central’ as we grapple with the ‘right choices’ for this congregation now? Shall we set a ‘good example’ for others to follow and an example of how to serve God out in our community, and in our own homes and in our neighborhoods? Let us first listen with our hearts – then answer with the love of God – thereby living into the Spirit of God’s ‘still speaking voice’! Amen.

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
January 7th, 2018
Mark 1: 1-13

 

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“Now It Begins”

Scripture:

“Today, we shall begin at the beginning of the story, as told in the first gospel written, the gospel according to Mark, chapter one, verses one thru thirteen.”

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

“This writing has set the stage for us, as we now consider how the ministry of the man Jesus began so long ago. From here we can begin again to enter into a new time and a new chapter in our lives, as individuals and as a church.”

 

Sermon:

The season of winter is surely upon us and our northern friends are assuredly feeling the full wrath of winters icy touch with winds of cold arctic air, with a brush of white snow and ice, in many areas. We must keep them in our prayers as these types of harsh conditions can be as life threatening as a named storm like Irma or Matthew. The weather has, however, invoked some past-memories for me of winters long past. As a child I remember the snow building up to my waist, on a regular basis, and the snow drifts and such which I could climb up upon and slide down with the aid of a simple piece of cardboard or a small plastic disk or tray.
Yes, there are several, and many more of these past and long forgotten winter storm stories which I can recall. Like the blizzard of 1978 in the Boston Massachusetts area. There was one of these harsh flare-ups, a blizzard actually, on a Monday, just after a bad storm had hit just a few days earlier, a Friday I believe. It was an insensitive, ruthless and dangerous storm. By mid-afternoon thousands of travelers had been stranded along the major routes around the Boston area. Over three feet of snow had fallen at a rapid rate stranding many in their cars as the travel slowed to a scrawl, then a stop. Cars ran out of gas and the governor had to declare a state of emergency. I had skipped work for fear of the storm.
I was stranded in my apartment for most of a week before the roads in Andover and Lawrence were opened. It took an army to clear the cars that were stranded on the highways. What a winter!

Not all winter memories are so traumatic. I remember being able to go sledding upon hard packed snows and some ice skating and a little bit of cross country skiing. Now skiing is a fascinating sport! My older sister took me skiing when I was in my early teens. That was the beginning of some fascinating adventures! Without even a lesson she took me up the ski lift to the top of a mountain in New Hampshire. It may have been Mount Snow or maybe not, I am unsure exactly, it was a long time ago! I am terrible at names of people, places and things! But, you all know that already! The only thing about that day of skiing with my older sister ‘Lois’, was she did not give me much instruction! Oh my, it just simple good luck I did not break a leg or worse! She just told me to head on down the slope and enjoy. What a thrill it was too, until I leaned the wrong way and went head over heal down the slope. But, I was young and the drama and thrill of it all kept me going. It was many years later before I took a couple lessons and started to have a more reasonable run down some slopes in Maine. Great memories.

All this talk of winter got into to my consciousness, and I found myself thinking about when I was a youth group leader, the year before I entered seminary. We had a small group of teens. A good group really. Well, that winter I helped them organize a ski trip into New Hampshire. My life was full, and I had not been skiing for well over ten years or more by that time. Well, that Saturday we got together, we met at the church, where it all began. Two car loads of teens arrived, and I rode with them and the Assistant Pastor, Elizabeth, came with us to give us the two chaperones we needed. Right off, I knew I was over my head so to speak. I was the only one who did not own my own skis and all the latest gear to go with them.
When we arrived at the resort I promptly ran off to rent my skis and such while they all headed for the slopes. They went up the gondolas before I got set up with my rented equipment. I remember that ‘gut feeling’ of being way out of my league. And I was!

I finally got on the gondola and headed up the mountain. It was way more than a hill! The assistant Pastor found me up there just kind of frozen in place unable to get myself headed down the trail. She saw that sheepish look of uncertainty in my eyes and she made a suggestion. “The best way to get back into skiing is just to push off down the slope and then quickly fall down. You do remember how to fall down don’t you Tim?” Well with her urging that is exactly what I did. I pushed off down the hill and after ten or fifteen yards I purposely feel down. There is a right and a wrong way to do that on skies, by the way. After I brushed myself off – the basics came back to me. By myself, now I began the rituals of the basic stuff, like remembering how to snow plow, a technic to slow your pace as you headed down the hill, and parallel skiing from, side to side, as I slowly skied down the slope. By the time I got down I was having a great time. I came down the mountain twice before I ran into the youth group. They were excited to see me upright on my skies and we then rode up the gondolas together.

Then it began. Taking me into the heart of my day and this accounting. My humanness overwhelmed me.

At the top of the slope these young vibrant and athletic young skiers, quickly picked out a trail and urged me to come with them. Feeling Over confident after my two slow runs down the beginners slope I accepted their invite. Everything was fine until we got around that second corner; it was then that I realized we were on one of the tougher trails… the field of what I call ‘moguls’ loomed and there was no way to avoid them. “Moguls are a series of bumps… formed when skiers push snow into mounds as they do sharp turns… Since skiing tends to be a series of linked turns, moguls form together to create a bump field. /Wikipedia/ I had no experience with this level of skiing and was getting very concerned. But there was no turning back. I was going fast and saw those near me fly over these mounds of snow. They handled them well… they were well experienced, and I was not. I made it over the first one. It was breath taking but when I hit the second one I was ill prepared and went flying, when I landed I tumbled and eventually found myself buried in a sea of snow. I think someone stopped to see if I survived but that was the last I saw of them for a while.

We all begin somewhere. My adventures with that youth group took on a different meaning after I survived the ski slopes. In our scripture lesson this morning the ministry of Jesus began at the river Jordan, with a wild evangelist named John the Baptist! What a beginning that was. If we ‘peel off’ the finery of the story teller, in the gospel of Mark, we will see a very rugged prophet living out in the wilderness. The Spirit of God was surely with him as he lived a harsh and weathered existence out by the river, proclaiming for all to hear, the coming of the kingdom of heaven. His message was simple. He was confronting the sins of humanity in this rugged setting, while warning everyone that they must repent their evil ways; repent their sinfulness and be baptized, be cleansed by him in the waters of the river… to prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah.
He clarified in his wild way that the One who was to come was mightier than he and would baptize them with the Holy Spirit of God!

This is how this first gospel writer from Mark introduces us to the man Jesus. You scholars among us, you may have noticed that Mark doesn’t bother to tell us the of birth stories of the baby Jesus, as contained in the later gospels of Matthew and Luke! No, Mark wanted to get right into the beginning of the ministry of this the Son of God, this the Son of humankind! Only from the later gospel accounts do we learn how Jesus was born of Mary, the virgin, in Bethlehem; and how Jesus was raised in Nazareth as the son of a carpenter named Joseph! No, Mark brings us to the Jordan and introduces us to John the Baptist as he prepares the way, just as the story teller prepares us for the dramatic entry and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus! Perhaps, at The Spirit’s urging he wrote with such flare to catch the attention of Twenty-First century Christians whom are traumatized by ‘reality shows, the science fiction and dramatic story telling such as the epic “Star Wars” and Lord of the Rings” Trilogies!

Not only does Jesus arrive at the river where John was, Jesus asks the Baptizer to Baptism him! John of course is shocked, telling Jesus he is not worthy! But Jesus insists! Wow! Mark sure knew how to get folks to listen to this drama unfold! Yes, this is a dramatic moment! This isn’t a cuddly birth narrative! Nor the poetic stories of the three kings, the Magi, whom were heaven laden and travel wiry, as they followed a star, and found the baby in a manger, in Bethlehem, where they presented his parents with their expensive gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh! No, those stories aren’t even recorded for readers such as us to even read about in the gospel of Mark! No, Mark keeps the dramatic pace of this narrative moving ever forward! Once Jesus is baptized we hear how the heavens are torn asunder! Then, then in sharp contrast there is a dove, representing the Living Spirit of the Almighty himself coming and sitting upon Jesus’ shoulders! What a dramatic beginning! Mark wanted to be sure everyone gets it! The ministry of Jesus was meant to change everything! Yet, the symbol of the dove was meant to temper that and let us know that this man Jesus – would represent the fullness of God’s Love – for all of humanity!

This was only the beginning of the story! Yet, Mark continues the drama as we hear that the Spirit of God drove Jesus out into the wilderness to prepare him for the work, the ministry of his calling! That’s how it began!

As modern-day Christians we need to take a moment… and just breath this all in! Even Jesus, and clearly John the Baptist, had to endure the harsh realities of the all too real world in which they found themselves in. Our northern friends are experiencing the arctic cold of a harsh winter. John and Jesus were experiencing the hardness of the dry arid air and the dusty, hot desert wilderness! Life can be tough, and our gospel writer knew this. And therefore, wanted to be sure we were able to read into this passage that these men were not part of a beautifully scripted birth narrative. But rather in real human sweat and toil… they were ready to roll up their sleeves and tackle the real troubles of the society, the world in which they were born into! With this as the backdrop: now it begins!

The work of ministry is now on the story tellers table – ready for the ‘listeners’ like you and me… to listen. Listen and be attentive, for it is in the challenges, the moguls and the rough places of life, it is here, where the ministries of Jesus and the religious leaders that the early disciples represented, this is where it began! The work of ministry for we the family of this church, is now on the table! The resetting of new goals – for the new year ahead, is now being displayed for all who have ears to hear! The terrain we travel upon lays in front of us; not behind us! (That which is left behind is now just a history lesson, from which things can perhaps be learned from.) The Spirit of God is stirring and the time to begin has arrived! How will the story teller whom writes about this our community tell the tale? Surely, the time of testing and preparation are upon us, as we reorganize and re-plan, perhaps re-shaping how this ministry, which we are all a part of, shall serve this community, while following the will of God! Surely, the angels of heaven, the Living Spirit of Christ, shall tend to our needs as we prepare ourselves for the journey ahead!

Amen

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
December 31st, 2017
Luke: 2: 22-40

 

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“The Promise is Presented!”

 Scripture:

“Hear now these words from the gospel according to Luke, chapter two, verses twenty-two thru forty.”

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

“May our hearts, as-well-as our ears be open to this reading of Jesus’ being presented at the temple, as was the custom.”

 

Sermon:

Wow! The Christmas celebration is over, the presents are all unwrapped, many of which have already been exchanged for that special something we really wanted, or now we have the right size for that sweater or blouse. Memories of Christmas Eve still linger, yet, we know that tonight is New Year’s Eve. The end of the year has arrived and after tonight and lingering slightly into tomorrow, the holiday season is over! Probably a good thing really. As I don’t think my unrestricted holiday eating habits are something I ought to take into next year! Yup, time to tighten the budget and cut down on candy, pies and cookies for a bit. At least until the next ‘special occasion’ comes up! Yes, it is time to begin thinking about the new year and consider the journey ahead of us. I am assuming you do know, that celebrating Christmas is not the same as living into the full meaning of Christmas. Hum… based on your blank expressions, perhaps you are not ready for that conversation yet. But, I cannot help but believe that some of you folks whom have a year or two on me, may have some clear understandings of that which I am implying.

In fact, our passage of scripture, from the gospel according to Luke, does seem to want us to reflect on the wisdom which comes from leading a long life. Many believe that this is the hidden message for us to consider as we are lead: to acknowledge the wisdom of age. Sure, the scripture passage is about Jesus being presented at the Temple. But isn’t there a lot more said about the old man named “Simeon ‘who’ came into the temple, guided by the Spirit”? /Luke 2:27/ It was Simeon whom was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation (the comfort and the relief and the support even) of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested ‘upon’ him.” /Luke 2: 25b/ Clearly, Simeon becomes the center of the reading and the presentation of Jesus becomes the backdrop. “It had been revealed to him (to Simeon) by the Holy Spirit that he (Simeon) would not see death before he (Simeon) had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” /Luke 2:26/ It was Simeon whom we now listen to… and the family and those gathered at the Temple that day… listened to! “Then Simeon blessed them and said to the baby Jesus’ mother Mary, “This child (the baby Jesus) is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed (resisted, and even challenged by some) so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” /Luke 2:34-35/ Surely, we must pause and look to the grace of age and the wisdom of life that Simeon had attained which assisted him as revealed in such a dramatic prophecy to the onlookers that day!

William Loader, from Murdoch University, a part of the Uniting Church in Australia, gives us his scholarly and mystical view on this topic. “Luke reflects the honoring of wise elderly people. Probably frail and able to achieve little that counts on the scale of the economic rationalists, ‘yet’ they are rich sources of wisdom.” Then this theologian goes on to challenge us Americanized Christians, by stating the obvious while then turning it into a question! “Congregations often have Simeon’s and Anna’s; ‘yet’ are they heard?” Let us not forget Anna, this prophet also comes center stage in our reading! “There was also a prophet, Anna… She was of a great age.” /Luke 2:36/ She apparently was living within the Temple and when she saw the baby Jesus she came over to the gathering. “At that moment, she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” /Luke 2:38/ She in her old age, and with great wisdom and perhaps some Spiritual inspiration, spoke regarding the child Jesus, regarding whom he was to become. Were those gathered around – willing to listen to this frail older woman – as she made such a declaration? Apparently enough remembered her words, to at least have been included in this scripture passage about all which had occurred while the baby Jesus was presented at the Temple.

Perhaps, as a society, we do not honor the collective wisdom of the elderly. “While television, radio, and print media champion the young as models of vision, vigor, and imagination, scripture portrays quite another story.” /Terry Thomas Primer – The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University/ I must agree with the author’s ‘intent’ for having written this statement. Not to say, I disagree with the description of our youth having vision, vigor, and imagination! On the contrary they do, and we need to keep acknowledging this and encouraging its growth within our younger generations. However, could it be… oftentimes, we barely offer tokenism, ‘minimal-effort’ to raising up the ‘wisdom’ of age and the visions of our older generations; visions which helped shape our society and our religious institutions for what they and we are accomplishing! Their vigor and tenacity – tis that which brought a country together – in the midst of several world crisis’ and war. Yes, at times ‘awards’ are presented to such as these. For those of us who were here on Christmas Eve, many of us had the opportunity to greet our own Pastor Emeritus, the Reverend Jim Allen. He is fast approaching the ripe old age of a hundred and two in March of 2018. Pastor Jim is aging rapidly now, and I will be visiting with him on a much-accelerated rate in the coming weeks. A great many of you surely remember when he was awarded the ‘Medal of Honor’ back just a short time ago. Yet, have we given due honor to folks such as this in our day-to-day debates and dialogs about the future of this and that in our culture, and here within our own church? Something for us to consider as this year ends, and we move into our uncharted future.

Let me digress for a bit as I share a memory and perhaps an insight or two about the age of retirement. Five years ago, I took an early retirement. It was quite an experience. I went into that time-period with my eyes closed to its realities. During those ensuing eleven months I lived through a lot of things. From the eyes ‘of my time of retirement’ I learned a lot about my life, and I learned how I would need to adjust my understanding of retirement; as it was not what I expected. The first thing that occurred was a dramatic change in how I saw myself! I no longer saw myself as a pastor, but as a retired man trying to find his way to a radical change in lifestyle. Some of which was very well received. I went to church with my wife; we sat in the third row back from the pulpit and I was not leading worship. That was very special, and I do long for the time when I shall once again assume the role of ‘husband’ rather than ‘pastor’ while worshipping on Sunday mornings.

Yet, there were many other things going on for me that I had to grapple with as a retired pastor.

I cried every Sunday, while listening to the pastor and by singing along with the choir, always conscious of my loving wife at my side. That was how Sunday’s began. During the week I did devote more time to exercise and self-care. Now, I must admit that part of retirement was very rewarding! I strived to read more, and I volunteered in a support activity I truly love and respect. After a bit, I began to find the freedom of choice within each day, to be very gratifying. This got me through the first six months, then it all changed. I began to feel empty and unneeded. I was having an identity crisis. My salvation came from belonging to a support group and a large men’s fellowship group at the church where I was attending. Each had its purpose and thankfully I was still teachable. It was from the men’s group that I got the guidance to grapple with my retirement issue. One man finally said it plainly, clearly summing up what many were trying to pass on to me: “Tim” he said. “You think you have a financial problem. You, do not. You do need to accept the realities within the economic realm you find yourself in. But, your real issue is learning, for yourself, what you will do with your God given talents – which are contained in what is referred to as your ‘intellect’ and ‘brain’. And equally important, you need to find out how to use and express your deep heart felt love of people and God.” “That” he said “is where your identity resides”! Find these things and you will find yourself and your future in this world, as you continue redirecting your energies, in these golden years.”

What wonderful wisdom this older man passed on to me. Clearly, he was telling me the journey, to a fulfilled retirement, comes with some personal struggles and adjustments. Staying with this line of thought for just a moment longer, I came across this writing: Beth Jackson-Jordan wrote these words, while in Texas, at ‘The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University’. “Many older adults find they are as busy in retirement as they were earlier in life. Though their schedules are full, they may struggle to find a satisfying purpose for this stage of life. How can congregations help us, in our later years, hear a special calling from God?”

As we draw ‘to a close’ our discussions for the year 2017, we must again draw from our scripture lesson. We are told how “The child (Jesus) grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” /Luke 2:40/ Maybe this is what we must due as we grow older. “Perhaps the description of Jesus “growing” and “increasing” might encourage us to keep growing and increasing in our wisdom and in divine and human favor.” /Brian Stoffregen/ Where is it written that growing ends at age 21, or 35, or even 50? Better yet, why do we think that our value to society begins to fade after we reach retirement, whether it be at age 65 or 70 or even 80, or 90 or even 101? Consequently, we must consider how the baby Jesus and the elder prophets at the Temple, both Simeon and Anna, came together. The child on the one hand just beginning his early journey, and Anna and Simeon, clearly greeting the knowledge that their lives had come to completion through the presentation of this child of God, the Messiah, the baby born of Mary, named Jesus. The baby Jesus and his family were greeting the future with humility and dignity; the elders were celebrating their end through their witness to Jesus’ identity as the “Son of God!’

Let us humbly let the year 2017 come to rest as we embrace the new opportunities which this new year, the year 2018 shall bring to us, one and all! Amen.