10Jul

The Wedding Service for James Stepoli & Audrey Hardy - Thursday, July 5, 2018

On Thursday, July 5, I officiated the wedding of James Stepoli and Audrey Hardy at the West End Overlook, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Below is a podcast of the service and a couple of pictures from the wedding. If you're planning your wedding and need an officiant, please give me a call at 304-479-3402.

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6Jul

Friday’s Essay - Neighbors and Children

Below is an essay I sent to the Cove Presbyterian Church emailing list. You can find a recording of this essay on the Cove Presbyterian Podbean page or at the bottom of the page.  

If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Last Monday, I saw the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” And I’ll tell you, after seeing it, I realized that all the wonderful reviews it’s received are totally justified. Put another way, I believe it’s a fantastic film. Now, if you haven’t heard about it, it’s a documentary about Fred Rogers, the host of the children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” And even though it included some mention of his childhood, the filmmaker Morgan Neville focused on Fred Rogers’ pioneering work in children’s programming. Although I know this sounds like an overstatement, I’m not sure I could have enjoyed it more.

 

And that sort of surprised me, because I’ve got to admit, I went to the Cinemark theatre with some trepidations, because I really wasn’t a big fan of Mr. Rogers: not as a child of the sixties nor as a father in the first years of the new century. You see, for me, he was always, well, he was always too calm and too soft spoken and too patient. And let’s face it, for most American men, young and old, that generally equates to boring. Good night nurse, even “Sesame Street” had more action than “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I mean, even if I could survive without constant gun fights and explosions and coyotes running off cliffs, when I was a boy, the more visual stimulation I could force into my cortex the better. He was just too gentle and kind. At least that’s what I thought back then.

 

Of course, it wasn’t until I saw the movie that I realized that Mr. Rogers had attracted another kind of criticism. You see, in the last fifteen years or so, a whole group of people have blamed Fred Rogers for an attitude that they see among many folks who were raised with his show. For example, in an article from The Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Zaslow started his piece with this antidote:

Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to lift their grades to A’s. “They felt so entitled,” he recalls, “and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.”

And then he wrote, 

Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were “special” just for being whoever they were. He meant well, and he was a sterling role model in many ways. But what often got lost in his self-esteem-building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself. [“Blame It on Mr. Rogers: Why Young Adults Feel So Entitled,” The Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2007]

Now that’s what Jeffrey Zaslow wrote. And Jen Kim would agree. In her article on the Psychology Today website, she wrote,

I remember watching  Mr. Rogers and being enthralled by his vast cardigan collection. It's true; he did make me feel one of a kind. And if we are as special as he said, then why should we have to work so hard for anything, right? Thinking of myself as special has lead me to ten different jobs over two years, because I have been and still am searching for that dream job—the one that pays me what I want and lets me do what I want—the one that makes me feel really special. [“Mr. Rogers Lied to Us: Sorry, but you're actually not that special,” Psychology Today, posted January 11, 2010]

Now this kind of criticism is a lot different from feeling less than enthused by Mr. Rogers’ style.

 

And even though I can’t comment on the psychological impact of telling young children that they’re special rather than they can be special if they work really hard (or inherit a lot of money), I believe that in some very profound ways Mr. Rogers taught and teaches us all an awful lot about the nature of God. You see, maybe in this fallen and limited world within which we live a person’s value is measured by what they can do or say or accumulate, that’s not the way it is with God. Of course, that’s constantly challenged by those who associate salvation with either words or works or both. But that’s really not the one that Paul described when he wrote, 

Christ died for us at a time when we were helpless and sinful. No one is really willing to die for an honest person, though someone might be willing to die for a truly good person. But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful. But there is more! Now that God has accepted us because Christ sacrificed his life’s blood, we will also be kept safe from God’s anger. Even when we were God’s enemies, he made peace with us, because his Son died for us. Yet something even greater than friendship is ours. Now that we are at peace with God, we will be saved by his Son’s life. And in addition to everything else, we are happy because God sent our Lord Jesus Christ to make peace with us. [Romans 5:6-11, CEV]

You see, the love of God isn’t earned nor is it deserved. Rather it’s a gift given without strings. Something to which we can never aspire, but one that simply belongs to us.

 

And it’s also something that we can never lose. And I’ll tell you, that should be the best news of all. You see, if God’s love and grace is something that we’ve earned and that we deserve, then isn’t it also something we can unearn and undeserve? In other words, although on an exceptionally good day, I might do enough to get it and to get in, there’s no way on heaven or on earth that I’ll be able to keep it or to stay in. And that’s why I hold onto these words, also from Paul, with bloody fingernails:

What can we say about all this? If God is on our side, can anyone be against us? God did not keep back his own Son, but he gave him for us. If God did this, won’t he freely give us everything else? If God says his chosen ones are acceptable to him, can anyone bring charges against them? Or can anyone condemn them? No indeed! Christ died and was raised to life, and now he is at God’s right side, speaking to him for us. Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, suffering, and hard times, or hunger and nakedness, or danger and death? In everything we have won more than a victory because of Christ who loves us... I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord! [Romans 8:31-35, 37-39, CEV]

I guess you could say that, in God’s sight, we’re all indeed special.

 

And I’ll tell you, whatever a person might think about Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood, that’s one thing we can all see in the way this adult related to children. You see, it doesn’t really doesn’t matter whether or not you enjoyed the format, the message will always be powerful. And even though I don’t have the expertise or the arrogance to assume that I know whether or not telling a child that he’s special scars him for life, I can say that for God, we are all his special children, but not because of what we say or do. And that’s something we all received the moment we entered his neighborhood. You see, in a very real way, that 143-pound, Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh proclaimed the good news every time he crossed that threshold. And because of that, maybe this assessment is better than anything else I read:

 

For both [Martin Luther] King and [Fred] Rogers, in their different ways, it was possible to believe that love, embodied as justice and compassion, could change the world. King died for that conviction. Fred Rogers had to live for it till 2003, through a long life that saw the steady coarsening of U.S. culture, the further degeneration of mass media into a swamp of exploitation, and the gods of war unleashed with a vengeance. It all made him exceedingly sad. But, as his widow reports in the film, in his last days, dying of stomach cancer, Fred spoke often of “dying well,” by which he meant dying with his “hopes intact.” Just before he went into his final coma, thinking of the parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25, Rogers asked his wife, “Do you think I’m a sheep?”  If we had Protestant saints, Dietrich Bonhoeffer might be the first one, and Martin Luther King Jr. might be next. But after that could come Fred Rogers, the still, small voice of love and truth, crying out in the television wasteland. [“The saintliness of Fred Rogers,” U.S. Catholic, May 2018]

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5Jul

A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - Things Have Changed

Below is a new devotion I just left on the Cove Presbyterian Church prayer line. You can find a recording of this devotion at the end of the devotion or on the prayer line (1-304-748-7900). 

 
If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Romans 8:1-11

 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law - indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

 

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

 

Things Have Changed

 

In the past, God was a mystery, and our peace and hope was grounded in the answers that we could generate ourselves. I mean, even though the work of God was conveyed through stories and writings, the actual meaning was open to interpretation. And since many of those writings involved laws, it was natural to assume that our future would be determined by our ability to follow the rules and to obey the commandments. If we were successful, we could feel peace and hope. And we could feel that until we stumbled. Of course, grounding our future on our ability to keep the law wasn’t all that bad. You see, it put us in control, and there are few things that people enjoy more than being in control. Unfortunately, another human trait involves our proclivity to stumble. And when we stumble, any kind of law-related peace and hope goes out the window.

 

But that was then; this is now. You see, when God entered our time and space and he did it in a way that we can see, hear and touch, he ceases to be a mystery that we have to solve. In other words, he stops being a question that we have to answer or a truth we have to find. Instead, he finds us. And he redeems us. And he frees us. As a matter of fact, he even sends to us the Spirit so that we can have the ability to understand the finding and the redeeming and the freedom that he’s given. And now we can have peace trusting that we’re no longer lost. And we can have hope believing that, in the sight of God, we never were and never will be. You see, we can have new life, because right now, things have changed.

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4Jul

Refocusing Faith: A Study of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (Session 12 - Resurrection (15:1-58))

The purpose of this session is to consider the issue facing the Corinthian church. You can listen to the discussion at the bottom of this page.

 

1 Corinthians 15:1-58

 

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

 

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

 

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all. Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord. If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more; for some people have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

 

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

 

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

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4Jul

Refocusing Faith: A Study of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (Session 11 - Tongues (14:1-40))

The purpose of this session is to consider the issue facing the Corinthian church. You can listen to the discussion at the bottom of this page.

 

1 Corinthians 14:1-40

 

Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

 

Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound. If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church. Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive.

 

What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.

 

In the law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people; yet even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, “God is really among you.”

 

What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

 

Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?) Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.

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3Jul

Cove’s Celebration Service - Sunday, July 1, 2018

The members and friends of Cove gathered to worship on Sunday, July 1. This morning, we continued our series entitled Kingdom Living: The Sermon on the Mount. During these 20 services, we’ll look at what Jesus taught his disciples about Christian living, according to Matthew 5–7. And we’ll take those lessons and apply them to our own lives.  During this service, we looked at Matthew 5:21-26 and focused on how we might overcome anger.

During the announcements, we called our sister, Dar Johnson, who's recovering from surgery. The service began with the entry of the Word. Since this was also the Sunday before Independence Day, both the video and first hymn had a patriotic theme. We sang the hymn "My Country, 'tis of Thee.”  When we’d finished the song, we shared prayer concerns, prayed together and closed with the Lord’s Prayer and the Gloria Patri. As we collected the offering, Sue Willson sang "America the Beautiful."

 

We looked at Matthew 5:21-26 and focused on the responsibility Christians have to both the world and to God.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

 

The service ended when we sang the song “Anger,” by Laura Hackett Park. 

 

You can hear the entire service below:

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3Jul

Call to Dar Johnson

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3Jul

A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - Words Are Cheap

Below is a new devotion I just left on the Cove Presbyterian Church prayer line. You can find a recording of this devotion at the end of the devotion and on the prayer line (1-304-748-7900). 

 
If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Matthew 21:23-32

 

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

 

"What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

 

Words Are Cheap

 

You know, we put a huge emphasis on words now-a-days. For example, as we listen to our national leaders, promises seem more important than actions. And on a daily basis we’re asked to believe statements that sound wonderful but just aren’t true. It makes it really difficult to figure out what to believe. And sadly, this attitude has crept into faith. Otherwise honest and sincere Christian brothers and sisters have been taught that spiritual-sounding words are the same as dedicated action. I mean, they talk about all the truths they’ve accepted about and all the things they’ve promised to God. Of course, this all sounds wonderful, but when push comes to shove, their actions are the same as they were before the verbiage. In other words, they talk about rather than live out their new values. And when someone questions the connection between their words and work, not only do they become defensive, others who share this speak-first, act-later perspective on faith attack all those who are confused by the discrepancy, accusing them of hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. 

 

Of course, in his encounter with the chief priest and the elders, Jesus was crystal clear. Words are pretty much worthless unless accompanied by some kind of work. And promises mean absolutely nothing if they’re never translated into action. You see, what we say must reflect what we do, because left on their own, words really are cheap.

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1Jul

Sunday’s Sermon - Controlling Anger

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 1, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. This morning we started a new series entitled Kingdom Living: The Sermon on the Mount. During these 20 services, we’ll look at what Jesus taught his disciples about Christian living, according to Matthew 5–7. And we’ll take those lessons and apply them to our own lives. During this service, we looked at Matthew 5:21-26 and focused on how we might deal with our anger.

You can hear a podcast of the sermon at the end of this page.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

And so, here we go, week five in our series, based on the Sermon on the Mount, dealing with what we’re calling “Kingdom Living.” And during the first four weeks, we started by focusing on The Beatitudes that come right at the beginning of Matthew, chapter five. And we talked about how God was going to bless some folks that are often kind of ignored in our society as well as some others who’ve made the decision to live lives that have more to do with God and righteousness than riches and glory. And then last week, we looked at how Jesus said that we have a responsibility both to the world and to God, you know, how we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world and how we’re also expected to be good, moral and ethical men and women. You see, that’s what we owe the world around us and the God who loves and will save us. Now, that’s where we’ve been. And this morning, as we continue to move through the Sermon of the Mount, we’re going to talk about anger, and in particular why it’s a problem and how we might control some of its negative consequences. 

 

And I’ll tell you, I think it’s interesting that we’re dealing with this right before we celebrate Independence Day, and I’ll tell you why. Although I will always believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world and that God has been incredibly good to us over our history, in some very profound ways, I think we’re becoming an angry people. And you know, I don’t think it’s all that hard to see. For example, if you’ve spent any time on Facebook and Twitter or watched either Fox or MSNBC, man, I think you know exactly what I’m talking about. Democrats are angry with Republicans. Conservatives are angry at liberals. Supporters of the President are angry at those who disagree with his actions. Now that’s what I mean by anger. And it’s not just that folks disagree with one another, you know, like it use to be. I think everybody can benefit from a healthy debate over ideas and issues. But sadly, that doesn’t seem possible, because everybody is just so mad. And because of that, folks always seem ready to attack and to mock and to demonize, rather than to listen and to think and to grow. And that’s a shame. 

 

But maybe even worse than that, this anger is causing people to say and do terribly cruel and nasty things to their fellow citizens, folks that I guess they see as the enemy. And let me be clear right here and now, I don’t believe this is a monopoly held by one side of the political divide. Frankly, I think heckling an administration official at a restaurant is no better or worse than threatening a Congresswoman or calling a candidate for the Senate “wacky.” I just wonder how long it’ll be before we move from aggressive words to aggressive actions. 

 

Of course, I don’t want to suggest that anger is all that new and exciting. Man, folks have always gotten angry with at one another, sometimes about issues that are broadly political as well as things that are intensely personal. And we know that, because right here in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about anger before he dealt with stuff like immorality and prayer and forgiveness. I mean, right after, talking about how disciples have an obligation to be good, moral people, he said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” [Matthew 5:21-26, NRSV] Now that’s what he said; therefore, anger must have been a big deal for Christ.

 

And I’ll tell you, I think it should be a big deal for us too. But here’s the good news; if we look at what he taught, I believe Jesus did more than just highlight a problem; he offered us a solution. And that is really good. In other words, whether it’s the kind of anger we see among different groups in our country or the anger that we might have toward our kids or our spouses or our bosses, even toward our fellow Christian brothers and sisters, not only did Jesus give us a pretty good idea about why anger can be a real problem, he also offered some direction on how we might be able to deal with this feeling when it rears its ugly head.

 

For example, I think Jesus offers us some pretty good insight into why anger’s a problem. But I’ll tell you, I don’t think the real issue is about the emotion at all. Instead it involves what the emotion often leads us to do. And I believe that’s reflected in the way Jesus used the word “anger” in this passage as well as in other places in the Gospel of Matthew. You see, every time he talked about someone being angry, he always tied that emotion to some kind of action they ended up taking. For instance, a little bit later in Matthew, Jesus will tell a story about a slave who owed his owner a lot of money, which the owner forgave because the slave asked for mercy. But later that same slave wouldn’t forgive a fellow slave a little debt. Instead, he had his colleague thrown into jail. Well, when the master heard about it, this is what happened:  "Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt." [Matthew 18:32-34, NRSV] You see, it wasn’t just the emotion; it was what the emotion caused the master to do. And the same thing happened in another story, when the people of a particular city wouldn’t come to the king’s party. Jesus said, “But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” [Matthew 22:5-7, NRSV] You see, when Jesus talked about anger, he always tied the feeling with actions. 

 

And I think we see the same thing in the passage we just read. Whether it was murder or insulting a brother or sister by suggesting that they were “empty headed,” you know, that they had mush for brains (Now, that’s what the Greek word translated “insult” actually means), or even calling a another person “a fool,” something that Jesus himself did several times, feeling anger, experiencing wrath tends to lead to negative and destructive behavior. And that’s why anger’s a problem.

 

But Jesus didn’t just stop there. He also told us how we might deal with this feeling when it comes up. And I think it all has to do with two decisions we’re able to make. You see, first, we can decide to remember this: angry people generally do things that have pretty negative consequences. Now that’s just the way it is. There’s an old-school football coach who says that, if a player decides to go out with friends, nothing good happens after midnight. Well, I think the same can be said of a person who decides to express his anger in all it’s glory. You see, although I really don’t believe that we can choose be angry anymore that we can decide to be happy or to be sad or to be hurt, we sure as heck can decide what we’re going to do about it. In other words, right here, I have control; therefore, I don’t have to murder someone just because they said something that I don’t like. And I don’t have to call a person “brain dead” just because they expressed an opinion that I find irritating. And I don’t have a call a sixteen-year-old young lady a fool just because she’s about to disregard some sound, well-reasoned, profoundly rational advice and do something that her father thinks is crazy. Of course, I’m not talking about Maggie. I’m talking about the daughter of a friend of mine. Maggie always follows my sound, well-reasoned, profoundly rational advice. It’s the daughter of a friend, right? You believe me, don’t you? Well, be-that-as-it-may, let’s just say that when I’m in those kind of situations, I have control. I have a choice. 

 

And if I choose to let my anger take charge, then I’ll probably face some negative consequences. Of course, some of the consequences might be really big, you know, like Jesus said, and I’m talking about having to explain myself to God on Judgement Day or being dragged before the council, you know, the Sanhedrin, or finding myself dealing with the “hell of fire,” which is much worse than the hell of heat or the hell of humidity. Now that’s the big stuff. But I’ll tell you, those little consequences that follow anger, man, they aren’t great either, you know, like losing a job or jeopardizing a marriage or pushing away a friend or even dividing a church. Man, I think we all know that uncontrolled anger will lead us to say some things that can’t be taken back and to do some things that can’t be undone. Once a bridge is burned, it’s really hard to rebuild. You see, if we want to bring this emotion under some kind of control, I think it’s important to remember that folks who let their anger run wild usually do things that they regret later. We can remember, that’s one thing we can do.

 

And second, when we’re feeling anger bubbling up, we can make the intentional decision to resolve the situation before it has the opportunity to fester. In other words, given the negative consequences, it just doesn’t make sense to allow our anger to determine our actions. We just may need to take control, especially when we’re feeling hot under the collar. And I’ll tell you, that’s possible when we decide to shift our focus from ourselves and what we think and feel and want to the situation itself, even though that means considering what might be going on with other person. Of course, I know that’s hard. I mean, when I’m mad at someone, I want to focus on myself, you know, what was done to me and how that was unfair to me and why there’s no excuse for the irritation, even pain that this has caused to me. Man, I’m not sure there’s anything harder than trying to see something from another perspective when you’re really mad. 

 

And yet, that’s what Jesus told his disciples to do. I mean, just listen to what he said: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” [Matthew 18:15-17, NRSV] You see, he didn’t say go into a room and brood over what happened and then plot revenge. Instead, he said that we need to shift your focus from self to the situation and all the people involved. 

 

And the time to do it is now. It’s not tomorrow or the day after that or the day after that. And it’s not after you’ve done everything that was already on your calendar. And it’s not after the judge has already made his ruling and the bridge is already soggy ashes. After the horses have gone, that’s not the ideal time to close to barn door. Instead, we need to get this situation cleaned up right now. And if that means leaving the gift at the altar or finding the plaintiff before we go to trial, so be it. 

 

And I’ll tell you, according to Christ, when we find that person who’s pushed our buttons, it’s up to us, not him but me, to do what’s necessary to make the situation right. Remember how Jesus said, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.” [Matthew 5:23-25, NRSV] Well, the Greek word translated “be reconciled” actually means “appease.” In other words, the friendship that we can share with our Christian brothers and sisters and the unity that must be present within the Body of Christ, man, this stuff is so important, we might need to sacrifice a little bit ourselves to regain and to maintain it. And as it relates to the word translated “come to terms,” although the verb doesn’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament, Paul used the same word as a noun when he wrote, “Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women,” [Ephesians 6:7, NRSV] You see, this “coming to terms” business must be done with enthusiasm, regardless of who the accuser might be. I’m telling you, after remembering that unchecked anger leads to bad stuff, it’s up to us to solve whatever led to the anger in the first place and to do it as soon as we can. And that’s the second thing we can do.

 

Yesterday evening, I read an article that suggested that we, as a nation, might be moving toward something we haven’t seen since 1865, and I’m talking about civil war. The writer said that there’s just so much anger in our country that, depending on what might happen in the near future, a real conflict might arise. And sadly, that didn’t come as a surprise, at least not to me, because I’ve heard folks on both sides of the political divide suggest this same scenario, if certain things occur. Now, I pray they’re wrong, because I love America, and I want to pass on to my daughter a country that will be as good for her as it’s been for me. 

 

But you know, maybe this kind of conflict isn’t inevitable. I mean, maybe if we as Christians took these words of Christ seriously and maybe if we remembered that when anger becomes action, the consequences are often pretty bad and maybe if we decided to do whatever we can to defuse and resolve those angry situations, then maybe, just maybe our country will change. In fact, we just might see in American what Lincoln talked about in his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

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1Jul

The Wedding Service for Timothy Graham & Kateryna Semykina - Monday, June 29, 2018

On Monday, June 29, I officiated the wedding of Timothy Graham and Kateryna Semykina at the Westmoreland Country Club, in Export, Pennsylvania. Below is a podcast of the service. If you're planning your wedding and need an officiant, please give me a call at 304-479-3402.

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