“Taking a Step toward Peace!”

Isaiah 2:1-5, November 18th, 2018

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard


 

 

“Hear now a reading from the Old Testament, found in the book of Isaiah, chapter two, verses one through five.”

Isaiah 2:1-5

1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.  2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”  For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

“Having heard this prophesy from the Prophet Isaiah let us now open our hearts in anticipation of this message which is contained within it.” 

 

“Taking a Step toward Peace!”

On this Thanksgiving Sunday, your pastor ought to have picked a scripture like Psalm 100, to help us all get into the spirit of thankfulness.   “Make a joyful noise to all the earth.  Worship with gladness; come into the presence of the Holy One, with singing.  Know that our God is with us.  It is by the hands of the Creator by which we are, and therefore we belong to the maker of all the earth.  Enter the gates of paradise with thanksgiving, praising God with all your hearts.  Give thanks, blessing the name of the one who watches over us.  For God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever and ever to all generations.” /Psalm 100 adapted/ Amen.

Let us begin this Thanksgiving week by reflecting upon thankful celebrations not that long past.  When we consider the age of the Psalms and words of the Prophet Isaiah, our current human life spans are but a blink of the eye.  Therefore, when we look back into our childhood memories, they really were not that long ago.  As a child we all have some memories.  Let us raise up those precious few moments when our hearts were filled with thankfulness and joy.  How many of us can remember waking up to the fabulous aromas of that Thanksgiving turkey as it begins to heat up and cook in the oven?  When mom or was grandma or aunt Helen or Uncle Ted who came bringing that freshly baked pumpkin pie or was a pecan pie? Sometimes it was freshly baked apple pie!  As the family, the friends came together there was a sense of thankfulness that everyone was home.  Even cousin Johnny got a leave from his post in some far-off place to be home!  What blessed memories come if we allow them into our hearts once more.

I do know that memories fade and present times invade those precious spaces in our hearts.  The horrific accounts of innocent members of loving families shot down, murdered while they worshipped.  Sweeping infernos of flames overtaking whole communities.  Our hearts go out to those whose lives have been so dramatically altered forever.  Now how do we prepare for our Thanksgiving feast this season?  Many of us are involved in providing fresh turkeys to families in need, others of us may be donating to a soup kitchen that will serve huge numbers of needy folks across the county this Thanksgiving.  Perhaps, invitations to those who live alone will be extended by others that can add a plate at their own tables.  So, so many possible ways we can make someone’s life a bit more thankful as we share with others this season.

What we cannot do, as we prepare to enjoy our time of thanksgiving this year, we cannot forget those whom have suffered losses.  We cannot forget the homeless or the hungry; the migrant, the immigrants who have left their homeland because things have become hopeless there… do to wars, famine and devastated economies.  Each with their own sad stories to tell; and for far too many… their tale of woe has not yet reached a peaceful ending.  The least we can do, is remember them in our devotions and in our prayers.  Even in our own country, areas of California have been wiped away, whole communities burned to the ground with death tolls still rising.  The survivors, they are now homeless having lost everything they possessed.  It is the words of the prophet Isaiah to which they must turn.  Praying for the visions of restoration and wellbeing.  They, like the families living without a homeland, they are lost and need the hope that Isaiah proclaims!

Their prayers are enhanced by the words of Isaiah.  “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”  /Isaiah 2:2/ Meaning of course that the kingdom of God will be established in a high place where all nations would eagerly seek to come together as one!  What a hopeful vision!  Can you look through the dark skies?  Can you see past the harsh borders of isolated countries, whom have forgotten the visions of the Prophets of old?  Can you see beyond the flames of destruction?  Let us look beyond the ragging Blizzards of a northern winter or a torturing dangerous trip along a roadway engulfed in a Santa Ana wind, in the midst an out of control fire storm!  Let us look with hope to a future vision of peace.

Theologians, Progressive Pastors and even Evangelical Conservative Christians will proclaim writings containing words such as these spoken by Pastor Ben Cremer.  “We all see dark places we long to see light invade.  We turn on the news, talk to our coworkers, and look at our family.  We do not have to look far to find the dark corners of our life in desperate need of light.”  All Christians, at every end of the theological compass, we all seek the Light of God to overcome the shadows of darkness that plaque our country sides far and near!  This is true even if we misunderstand each other in the doing!  Christianity speaks of the coming light of God in the form of God’s mercy and grace portrayed in the image of the chosen one, the Messiah!  Other world religions, not Christian, yet, God fearing people like ourselves whom also long for the light of God!  They also see the dark shadow of evil that is hanging over humanity and they too long for the Light of God to overcome it!

The prophetic vision of Isaiah is a powerful one!  “Nations, shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” /Isaiah 2:4/ One theologian approaches these words in this way: “This vision of weapons of war turned into agricultural tools, images of death-dealing turned into food-producing is a promise for ‘the days to come.’  Biblical visions in both testaments come to us from the future, longing to shape the days in which we are living.” /Barbara Lundblad/ This vision blows the tops off the foolish words of all the dictatorial self-proclaimed egotists that think their understanding of humanity is better than the wisdom of the ages going back to the beginning of time!

If we are to find peace, we must begin with ourselves.  Peace shall begin when we commence to allow the love of God to fill every aspect of who we are and what we hope to be.  No one can help others find peace until we ourselves experience it.  Peace is a gift which we all are offered.  All we need do is open our hearts to find where God has placed it!  Isaiah, he was at peace as he proclaimed the vision which God put into his heart. Yes, he saw the plight of his people and yes, he saw the darkness of hatred, and all the other verbs which describe the evil which resides where the light of God does not exist.  Yet, he endeavored to continue to write and give the hope of God’s vision to those he served.  The writing we read today is that vision.  Let’s us lift it up once again, asking God to bless these words and helping humanity to keep persisting and living into their meaning.

As we look all around us, taking in the human nature of all humanity, let us not be discouraged.  Rather, let us continue to look to all the good which has been brought to bear in a world, a world so filled with the dark side of our nature as humans.  I look to this church and we the people in it, as-well-as all those whom have been a part of this fellowship over the years; many whom have passed on into Heavens gates, and others whom have moved out of the area.  Let us look to their examples, many of whom did great things to propel this church ever forward to where it is today.  With these thoughts in mind, let us continue to be the church that God has envisioned it to be!  Let us continue to look for the good in all things and all people.  Let us look for the hand of God in the community, the country, and the world we live in.  Remembering always, that peace comes from God, thus as we strengthen our personal relationships with our Creator, so also, shall we strengthen our contribution to a world that sorely needs the peaceful hand of God.

Looking forward into the week ahead, let us live in a way, a way in which when the next generation looks back at us, we will have left them some good examples to follow.  Perhaps some of us will cook a turkey or something specially that someone else will remember with joy many years from now.  How we choose to mark the celebration of a good harvest, big or small, let us be ever mindful that those around us are watching.  May they see our acts of kindness and compassion as-well-as our faith in God’s faithfulness.  Maybe they will remember how you taught them to take the core, the pit out of a fig, replacing it with peanut butter before rolling it in powdered sugar. Then offering them as snacks while the turkey cooks to that perfectly desired point.  Perhaps it will be the bowl of walnuts you left for guests to crack and pick at, that sparks a fond memory.  Maybe, it will be the canned yams or the sweet potatoes they enjoyed or the eggnog they indulged in.  Whatever the memory, plant some good ones.  That may be the memory which helps them in a tumultuous, a turbulent holiday in the future yet to be.

I want to leave you with these uplifting words from a theologian I truly enjoy.  “One of the important aspects of looking forward to something better is to look at ourselves. The good news is that the light of God, God’s gracious presence, means we can choose to be the kind of people who are essentially living light, living out of a spirit of kindness and generosity and compassion.” /Alan Brehm/ Thanksgiving without God – it just is not possible.  Consequently, let us all be sure we bow our heads in prayer as we consume whatever we call a Thanksgiving meal, even if it is beans and hotdogs!  Let us give thanks for all that we are fortunate to have.  May we always remember to pray for those whom are less fortunate and to offer a hand when the opportunity presents itself.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Amen.

 

 

“You are Welcome Here!”

Mark 12:38-44, November 11th, 2018

Sermon by pastor Tim Woodard


 

Read Statement of Faith

“Hear now these words of scripture from the gospel of Mark, chapter twelve, verse thirty-eight thru verse forty-four.”

Mark 12:38-44

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”

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

“Having heard this ancient writing with our ears, let us now open our hearts to these words of Jesus, as we seek their meaning for us in the Twenty-First Century.”

 

“You are Welcome here!”

Today, is stewardship Sunday.  A day when the members of this congregation, this faith fellowship, are asked to make a promise, a faith promise.  Now, if you are a visitor, please, do not feel obligated to fill out a faith promise card.  Today, we simply want you to feel welcome here!  Pray with us, worship with us, put something in the collection plate, or not.  Our prayer is that you will find what you are seeking during this sacred hour and that you will want to come back next Sunday and continue your journey of faith here with us.  Most everyone recognizes that before any one of us can make a faith promise, we will need a time of reflection.  Believing in the sacredness of worship is a good place to start.  Coming to believe that God has invited you to become part of this faith fellowship happens over a span of time.  Time is an elusive thing, and each one us experience the passing of time differently.  So, let us begin this time by feeling welcome here.  Let us relax and consider what this thing stewardship is all about.

For those whom have made this church, The Riviera United Church of Christ, their home church, we have some responsibilities.  How we accept them, our obligations, and how we act upon these commitments is up to each one of us personally.  Stewardship, any act of stewardship… is an act of faith.  Perhaps some of you are not sure about making this your church home, but you enjoy the music or some other aspect of our fellowship.  Possibly you are just coming for the coffee, the cookies and the fellowship after church.  If this describes you, please know: we welcome you here.  We pray that you will be nourished and fed.  For those of us whom have become part of the living – breathing aspects of this community, we feel a sense of love and admiration, gratitude even for all that this church represents to us.  When you reach this level of peace and joy in being a part of this fellowship then your acts of stewardship become second nature.

Wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome here.

True stewardship is an act of grace.  Through God’s grace, kindness, and charity, combined with your thankfulness, these have become part of your character.  There is a good chance you have made Christ, the example of the Christ figure, something or someone, you look up to.  You have come to view God as a friend whom you have come to know through the teachings of the man Jesus.  You feel empowered and refreshed by the breath of God through the Living Spirit of the Divine.  You feel compelled by an urge to give back out of gratitude.  You do not ask how much is enough?  You ask what more can I do?  You do not wait for someone to urge you to increase your giving.  Rather, you give for the joy of giving.  You give because you can and because you care!  That is what the heart of stewardship is all about.  Today, is just an opportunity for each one of us to be reminded that our church, needs our gifts of time, the gifts of our talent and our gifts of financial support.  Each one of us must decide what we are able and willing to give.

I have chosen today’s scripture passage, one of my favorites, because it speaks to the true nature of what it means to be charitable and offers the purest understanding of the quality of giving.  As we look upon this lesson, we need to look to see ourselves in this writing.  If you are open with yourself, you may see a reflection of various types of giving that you identify with.  Perhaps you see too few choices and that is also understandable, for Jesus made this observation a really long time ago.  Things have changed.  Yet, human nature has not!  Some people go on television to announce their gifts of charity.  In of itself this is not a bad thing.  Another’s act of charity may help others to see how they can offer assistance as well.  Most of us do follow the examples of others.  So, in of itself, making public an act of giving is not a bad thing.  If, however, we do this to gain recognition or to sensationalize how good we have become, well, that smacks of egotism and is not healthy for you and goes against the nature of charitable giving.  In our scripture today, Jesus clearly speaks against this sort of flagrant flaunting of one’s abundance.

Jesus does, however, lift up the humble gift from a poor widow.  Her gift was small, certainly in contrast to the wealthy whom Jesus observed offering their gifts.  Take note here, Jesus did not condemn or criticize all those whom were able to give abundantly.  Rather, he was contrasting how the poor widow was giving out of her poverty not out of her abundance.  Jesus is making a point for us to consider.  Her gift was ‘in essence’ all that she had.  Just to play with this thought for a moment, consider what would happen if everyone in this room did that.  Meaning we would follow her example literally and give everything to our church!  (I know, that is hard to grasp!)  Let’s break that down a bit and make it more feasible.  Consider this: If everyone who currently gives ten dollars each week would give say… five more, what a difference that would make.  You might need to give up stopping at your favorite coffee shop or at least give up a snack or two each week.  If you give twenty-five dollars a week and were to give ten more, you might need to cut back a bit on your spending habits to keep within your budget.

Let’s take that right up the scale of giving.  If the folks who give a hundred dollars a week increased their giving in the same manner… and so on what a difference it would make!  If everyone gave just a bit more than what they have been giving, we could manage our needs more effectively!  Such a shift would give us the ability to consider hiring a sexton to clean our church every week.  (Giving our volunteers a rest before we burn them all out!)   There would be no more deficit spending!  (Our finance and stewardship committee members could get some needed rest as well!)  We could perhaps hire an office administrator to help manage needed administrative functions.  (This would take off some of the burdens we have placed upon the backs of a select few of our fellowship.)  We perhaps may even reach a point where we could consider such things as a paid leader of Christian Education!  (Imagine having someone dedicated to reaching out to the children living within a few miles of this church!)  And a pay raise for our employees!  (They sure deserve it!)  There might even be funds left for us to be more deliberate in our outreach efforts – helping more people in our community.  We could even start putting a bit aside thereby having a prudent reserve for unforeseen emergences.  An old finance manager, at my home church where I was ordained, once said: “churches don’t really have a money problem, but we do struggle to keep our members and friends aware of the needs of this their church.”

Of course, we know Jesus was simply trying to make a point about what it means to give from our hearts.  Imagine giving, simply because we know it is the right thing to do!  That’s what the poor widow was doing.  She didn’t give much, just a couple small coins, like a penny.  But, for her it was all she had.  She virtually gave everything to the collection box at the synagogue that day!  Why did she do it?  Jesus didn’t tell us.  But we can make some assumptions.  No one expected her to give that day.  Yet she did anyhow!  No one was banging on her door telling her to give to the church (because they knew she had virtually nothing,) but she did.  Was it because she wanted to show her gratitude for life itself, and to the community that offered her a place to worship?  Was it because she believed it was God’s temple and God’s work to which she gave?  Reasonable assumptions but we will never know for sure.  We are simply left with what we can assume, which was that Jesus’ words were clearly pointing to her as an example.  Through her action we are able to see and hear what heart felt charity, heartfelt giving, selfless giving is all about!

Stewardship for this church means our management of the resources we have, to operate this facility, and to employ those needed so that we, as a faith community, might be a church which serves the people of God.  This includes educating others about the Christian message.  Teaching our children, thereby, not allowing the connection from generation to generation to be lost.  It means employing a Pastor with recognized credentials and training to assist this ministry.  It means finding a way to get things done utilizing the time, the skills and talents of this community to get the work done, relying on the financial gifts from members and friends to facilitate those things that must be purchased or paid for.  Our tradition of worship causes us to want music, so we employ a Music Director and an accompanist to lead and play music; this takes financial support.

My friends, only you know what resources you have which you are able and or willing to share… keeping this ministry healthy.  Rich or poor or somewhere in between there are ways which your gifts can make a real difference.  Jesus is telling us to give from our hearts like the poor widow!  Most of us here are proud of the openness, the all inclusiveness of this our fellowship.  We seek to offer an extravagant welcome to all!  We are proud to be able to say we do not discriminate based on race, creed or color, nor do we sort out the rich from the poor.  You are welcomed here!  We don’t care if you come from Harvard or from jail, you are welcome here!  We neither care if you are gay or straight, handicapped or disabled.  You are welcome here!  Most of us are very open to whatever it is that our visitors bring as they become part of this community.  We especially welcome whatever their uniqueness adds to our fellowship.  You are welcome here!

Amen.

“Healing Begins with Acceptance”

2 Kings 5:1-14, November 4th, 2018

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard


 

“Hear now a reading from the Old Testament, found in the second book of Kings, chapter five, verses one through fourteen.”

2 Kings 5:1-14

5 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram.

The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.  2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.  3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  He would cure him of his leprosy.”  4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.

5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”  7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”  8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.  10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!  12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?  Could I not wash in them, and be clean?”  He turned and went away in a rage.  13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

“Having heard this accounting of the healing of Naaman, a great commander of an army, open your hearts to accept the message contained within it.” 

 

“Healing Begins with Acceptance”

A week ago, Saturday, was a bitter sweet day.  As volunteers set up for our third annual “Trunk or Treat” in our church parking lot – in another community – a place of worship was turned upside down!  Woefully, tragedy struck at the heart of a synagogue in Pittsburgh.  Our “Trunk or Treat” was a joyful event attracting several hundred children and their parents.

In contrast, a prayer vigil was set up in the community where the synagogue tragedy occurred.  The vigil was supported by a community which came together contrasting the appalling tragedy.  Our hearts go out to the families and the greater community of those struck down by an act of hatred.  Sanctuaries are not meant to be a place where the innocent are slaughtered.  Rather a place of sanctity and worship, where thoughts of reaching out to neighborhood children is cultivated… not decimated.

We find ourselves asking “Where do we go from here?”  We pray.  We show respect for the fallen.  We mourn for the loss of life.  We struggle with the conflicting hatred… verses the love of God taught at churches, synagogues and mosques.  The violence, hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitic plague that hangs over our great nation, it hurts.  We strive to teach the love and salvation of Christ to those we serve, and we make every effort to live in the light and example of Christ in the communities where we reside.

Jesus is our example of God’s unconditional love.  In the short earthly ministry of Jesus, he crossed many social barriers extending the love of his Father in Heaven to all the children of the world!  It is in and through his teachings by which we are called to minister.  Let us pray we all turn to the ‘God of our understanding’ as we seek out the answers to overcoming this current struggle in our society.

This morning our reading has thrust us into the human riddle of healing which only begins with acceptance.  Naaman the commander of an army came down with leprosy, something he was forced to accept.  Acceptance is the first step toward healing.  As we look to the larger question here in our own time, we also must first accept the truth of what is happening in our society.  At the same time, we must condemn these acts of violence, which are played out upon the innocent!  Once we acknowledge things for what they are – we can then begin working together, to make real changes to curb this epidemic which has spread within our communities!

Looking back, many can remember seeing the plume from the 911 attacks in New York City.  We will never forget!  As the weeks went by, together, with my colleagues, we continued to teach the truths that our faith traditions taught.  We looked to the examples and teachings of Jesus, the very heart of the Christian movement!  Jesus did not allow persecution or hatred, to stop him from proclaiming the love of God to everyone, no matter who they were or where they came from!  To this end, we vowed to encourage others to walk the walk of a faithful people, always putting God and the teachings of God first in our lives, in our churches, in our homes and in our communities.  We were reminded, God walks with us, feeling our pain and will always be with us, now and forever more.  With this said, we learned that life must continue to go on.  We encouraged folks to move through their pain, carry it even, and get back to living.

When I first preached on today’s lesson, a few years back, we were led to see, Naaman’s struggle, his learned humility.   We came to understand how this mighty warrior, was humbled into accepting the instructions of the Prophet Elishia.  Today, we need to focus more on his act of acceptance as we seek to learn all that we can from this account.  Becoming humble was a major event for Naaman, yet, he first was forced to accept a few things before he could move forward.

Let us consider our plight.  How can we, a people of faith, come to accept that there are confused souls, complicated misguided folks, who could come to believe and think that a group of elderly worshippers – were their enemies?  Who can help us grasp this dilemma?  Naaman, he had not been accustomed to turning to others for personal help.  Because of his competency and skills as a warrior and leader, he was unaccustomed to having a lowly servant give him advice.  Naaman simply didn’t understand… he needed to be guided.  Likewise, many of us have never looked into the eyes of another, seeing the hatred there, nor have we understood how it came to be.  Even if we have, we may not understand what has brought them to their current state of rage.  We may never know.  Yet, there are trained professionals whom have studied human nature and worked with people who have lost their way.  In our society we call them phycologists and mental health workers and such.  Back in the time of Naaman prophets like Elisha were ultimately the social workers, the case workers whom people turned to when political power and influence was not working.  Let us be reminded that it was Naaman’s wife’s maid servant that suggested Elisha could help him.

Naaman needed to travel across and beyond the borders of his influence, and he needed permission from his king.  After receiving it he put together some of his wealth to pay for the healing he so desperately needed.  He had not yet, come to understand that the price he would need to pay would be a radical transformation of his understanding of the order of things, as he understood them to be.  In a parallel plane, we whom live in this modern society need to find radically different methods of understanding the order of our society.  To do so, we will need to look differently upon human nature and how it is nourished and cultivated.  Naaman saw the world from the eyes of a conquering warrior.

Elisha saw the world as the dominion of the Divine and he understood the need for a transformation in nature of Naaman’s being.  Who among us is ready to be made over in the image God has envisioned for us?  This is not as easy as it may seem to some; nor as insurmountable as others may try to make it appear.  Naaman made the first step when he traveled over the borders of Israel.  Elisha then pushed him to yet another level of acceptance and change.

As we consider how hard it was for Naaman to accept the words of the Prophet Elishia, we must prepare ourselves to begin accepting the changes that seem to be needed in our lives and in our society.  We need to begin to try to understand how we got to where we are.  We need to look to the other side of every argument and principle which we grasp as holy, seeing why others view things so differently.  Naaman was a warrior and he had fought his way through many violent battles to get his standing, his place in society.  To seek healing, he had to take off his armor and set it aside to follow the pathway which Elishia directed him to take.  When he did so, he was transformed and was healed!  We need to look to the root of the current wave of violence, hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitic attitudes which are now blotting out the light of God!  We need to be willing to set aside our current biases to see more deeply!  We need to look for the answers and recognize that broken systems and misguided beliefs, at many levels of our society, need to be transformed.  And most importantly, we need to accept our role in it!

We represent the likes of Elisha in the time-period of Naaman.  We need to see the world order through the eyes of God!  We are called to accept our role, our place in the transformation that needs to occur.  We do not support one side verses another, we support the vision, the transforming power of God’s unconditional love and compassion, fueled by God’s grace and mercy.

Let us be reminded, as a church, we have a shared Vision: “We exist to experience and share Christ’s unconditional love by Thinking Openly, Believing Passionately and Serving Boldly.” Our Mission and Ministry statement begins by proclaiming we are: “To spread the good news through word and deed that God loves us and calls us to love one another.”

Amen.

 

 

“Prayer will change you!”

Matthew: 6:5-15, October 28th, 2018

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard


 

 

“Hear now these words taken from the gospel according to Matthew, chapter six, verse five thru fifteen.” 

Matthew 6:5-15

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  11 Give us this day our daily bread.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.  14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

“Having heard these ancient words attributed to Jesus, let us now open our hearts to their intended meaning.”

 

“Prayer will change you!”

Prayer is an art form which many have cultivated and practice well.  At the church in Vero Beach, where Lois and I went during my short eleven-month retirement six years ago, the senior pastor was and is one whom I look to for guidance.  When he prays in front of a group, one feel uplifted as he connects the words and sentences.  He seems to remember to bring together all the necessary points which one would expect from a pastor.  Over the course of my years in ministry, I have heard a lot of pastors offer up a prayer.  Some are good at it, truly effective, first-class, and then there are the rest of us.  Some create a space for prayer, before they begin: “hold hands, take a deep breath, shake off the tension in your shoulders, close your eyes, lift-up your arms to heaven.”  There are so many ways, various and different ways to set the mood.  The rest of us just say “let us now pray!”

Perhaps, we all need a role model or two.  Our Regional Conference Minister, the Reverend Raymond Hargrove, does an excellent job when he leads a group in prayer.  He gets a lot of practice as his ministry keeps him moving around from Jacksonville to Key West.  Now my Dad, he had no formal training in the art of prayer, but he practiced a lot!  I know, because I was there with my brothers and sisters to listen to those prayers.  Breakfast, lunch or dinner, he prayed.  At restaurants… he prayed.  Visiting at your house… he prayed!  Yup, he liked to pray.  Long prayers too!   My wife sometimes thinks I pray too long.  My Dad, he held the record in this department and I am not trying to catch up with him!

Our scripture reading is meant to remind us that Jesus taught his disciples how to pray.  Jesus uses what we know as “The lord’s Prayer” as he instructs the early disciples on how to pray.  Therefore, we must open our hearts to embrace the fullness of this prayer and what prayer is meant to offer us, as we speak with God in community and in private.  In our scripture, Jesus was with his early disciples and he was teaching them the correct way to pray.  Which translates into “there are wrong methods of praying!  Most of us have learned that prayer is a conversation with God.  With the aim of having and being in conversation with God, there needs to be at least two involved in the prayer!  Prayer needs God and you, or God and me, or God and us, involved in the conversation!  Prayer is not about impressing others who are part of this conversation, whether it is around the kitchen table or at a large banquet or even in front of a wedding party of five hundred people!  Nope!  Pray is not for the purpose of impressing others.  It does however, need to be directed toward our Deity, our God, by whatever name or reference one might use.

There are a couple of other things that many are confused about regarding prayer.  Prayer is not a time when you ask God to ‘fix’ a lottery so that you are the winner!  No, that’s a selfish prayer and it just isn’t practical either.  If God answered all of our selfish prayers… well consider this… there could be roughly three hundred million winners every time there is a lottery.  This would make the winnings of say a one point six-billion-dollar jackpot, equal less than five dollars and thirty-four cents per person.  No, praying for things like lotteries and winning at the casino, are not selfless prayers.  God is just going to answer you, “No child I shall not grant that prayer!”  Prayers are meant to be more constructive than this.  So, what does make a good prayer?  Let me give you a few examples of prayers that have become well known as timeless and meaningful prayers.

The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, a protestant theologian, is a great example of a prayer that asks for several things.  Yet, none of which pertains to selfish monetary or material things.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right, If I surrender to Your will, So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next.  Amen.

A prayer of this caliber clearly draws us into the realm of a heart felt prayer that is asking of God, noble and honorable things: grace, acceptance, serenity, courage, wisdom.  And as it continues we hear the writer speak of how these will enhance his life: living and enjoying life on life’s terms.  Doing so with trust in God, celebrating the belief that all shall be well as the writer anticipates being with his Creator after mortal life ends.  A prayer such as this can change how we view the realities of life itself, giving those that embrace its meaning renewed and inspiring hope and peace.

There are prayers of petition, asking from God for something on behalf of another.  There are so many ways to organize and structure a prayer, yet the most important aspect is its sincerity and its relevance to the life of the one praying and or those whom are being prayed for.  It is not important if your prayer is eloquent and someday gets published and displayed in the biggest cathedral or Temple in all of Christendom.  A child that sees her mom in distress and breaks down crying pleading to God that her mommy will feel better and smile again is far more vital than a prayer written by a team of Cardinals in the Vatican.

Consider this example.  A small group of older members, of a small and struggling church, get together every week to pray for their church.  While together they share about their lives within the church, bringing up memories of special occasions and of loved ones long past.  Their time of prayer together gives them new hope, new inspiration and renewed vitality.  Pray is a vital link to the Holy One and the energy, the very power of the universe.  When one prays with faith their hearts are opened to new possibilities.  When two or more pray together the influence of the prayer, in their lives and the lives they interact with, is exponentially increased.

Bowing one’s head while praying is a sign of humility.  The closing of our eyes helps us to focus on the ensuing conversation.  Folding our hands together or holding someone else’s, helps eliminate distraction and aids us as we center on the moment at hand.  Being able to relax and allow the presence of the unseen God to permeate throughout our essence… is a goal any faithful believer would like to achieve.  Few ever gain this level of intimacy with the Almighty Spirit of the Universe.  This is perhaps why most theologians never speak of prayer in these terms.  Yet, when one studies the documented archives of historic prayers, it would be hard to believe that many have not felt uplifted by the Spirit of the Holy One on numerous occasions.

Turning yet to another example, let us look to the Psalms.  They are a great source of poetic prayer.  Psalm 91 is an example of how the Psalmist structured prayer.  From it there is a great deal for all of us ‘beginners’ and ‘new comers’, to the art of prayer, to grasp.  Yes, we can learn quite a bit from reading and studying the Psalms.  “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” /Psalm 91:2/ The Psalmist goes on to speak ‘of’ and to ‘how’ this simple prayer can change our understanding of life… all around us.  Taking just these two phrases, we can allow them to point us in the right direction, as we form our words of prayer to ‘acknowledge’ our faith and our ‘belief’ in God as our refuge, our shelter and our protection from the often-times harsh realities of life!  Yes, it is good to speak of our trust and faith when talking with God!  Just as we would acknowledge a confidence and dependence on a friend or a loved one, whom we turn to for feedback, in our conversations throughout the journeys of life.

Jesus was well educated in the words of the Old Testament and most certainly the Psalms.  It is not surprising that he would lift-up a prayer like this prayer, which we now call the Lord’s Prayer.  He was giving instruction on private prayer, yet this prayer is often used in community prayer time.  When done in public, prayer needs to be said with humility not with a desire to be praised for one’s piety!  Private prayer needs these same virtues and needs to draw on sincerity and be spoken with a bit of modesty.  Yet, it needs to be open and honest and said with a willingness to allow God to be a part of the dialog.  Remembering that Jesus will indeed forgive your debts, your trespasses and your sins, if you rise from prayer ready to change your behavior and seek to follow God’s will; in all areas of your life!

So where do we, where do you go from here?  Well if you are still undecided and are not sure if personal prayer is for you… let me explain it this way.  If you were looking to connect to the internet or post a picture on Facebook or communicate with people via social media around the world, you would welcome the gift of a computer.  If you are already doing this, then you probably cannot imagine life without a cell phone and the power of a computer, which will ultimately connect you to a vast communications network!  This is how folks, whom have learned how to use personal prayer to enhance their relationship with the ultimate power and Spirit of God, feel about those who have not tapped into this ultimate communications network!  And the cost is only your time and your willingness to believe that God is listening and responding to your prayers!  So, go ahead and give it a try!  God has already given you the gift which allows you to connect with the ‘essence’ of the Living Spirit and the very ‘heart’ of God, directly!  Don’t lose the connection.

If your prayers seem to be falling on deaf ears, consider ‘altering your prayer’ as you continue to pray; and don’t forget to listen for God’s response.  Listen with your heart as-well-as your mind; do not rely only on hearing with your ears.   God is listening, and God will change you and alter your understanding of the world around you.  Hang on to the phrase: “thy will, not mine be done.”

Amen.