Sunday’s Sermon - Victory Over Religion

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 6, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. This is the fifth message in a series entitled "Victory: A New Life Awakens." In this sermon, we talked about Jesus's victory over religion. You can hear a podcast of the sermon at the end of this sermon. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

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.


Well, this morning we’re on the fifth message in this series dealing with how, through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ was not only victorious, he also opened the possibility of a new kind of life for us. And during the first message, we talked about his victory over sin, which freed us from it’s power and gives us the possibility of living for God. And then we looked at his victory over temptation, which offers us a guide on how we can deal with the temptations and testing we face in life. Next, we considered his victory over our expectations, which opens the possibility of hearing God speak to us from unlikely people and in surprising ways. And then last week, we focused on how Jesus defeated the values that shaped his culture and those that also shape ours which makes it possible for us to live lives directed by a kind of morality the world will probably never understand. Now that’s where we’ve been over the last few weeks. 


And this week, our focus is on Jesus’s victory over religion. Of course, I think that probably sounds a little strange to some of y’all. I mean, if you went over to the library and checked out a book entitled, “Religions of the World” or maybe, if you have a little bit more computer savvy and googled the word “religions”, you can bet they’ll be a section dealing with Christianity, right? And I know back when I was in school, I always looked forward to those religious holidays that we celebrate, you know, like Christmas and Easter and if you’re a Druid, Halloween. And outside of that old Dana Carvey character from Saturday Night Live, a person we’d call religious is probably one who’s spiritual and dedicated and sincere; now that’s what the words “religion” and “religious” mean to me. And even though, for some folks, religions and religious people are associated with stuffiness and duplicity and a little bit of intolerance, the word “religion” itself is actually pretty positive. For example, just listen to how it’s defined in the Oxford University Dictionary: “religion>noun 1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.” Now, I don’t know about y’all, but that really doesn’t sound all that bad, and certainly not something that Jesus would literally defeat. As a matter of fact, I think we’d probably all be better off if we were a little more pro-religion and less sacrilegious.


But I’ll tell you, how we feel about the word and how we compare it to the work of Christ, well, I think it really depends on how we define it and maybe more important, what it might lead a person to do. In fact, even if we use the Oxford definition, I think there are three things that can be said of most religions, realities that we often accept but that Jesus actually challenged in his teachings and by his life. 


For example, first, I think when you get right down to it, most religions are really about us. And that’s sort of what we saw in that second part of the definition we looked at a little while ago, you know, how a religion is “a particular system of faith and worship.” You see, that’s often what religion can become, and I’m talking about all religions, including Christianity. A particular system of faith and worship established by whom? By us. You see, it can become nothing more than a structure, an order, an outline that we sort of developed ourselves and of course within which we feel comfortable. In other words, often it reflects what we want, what we want to get in this lifetime and what we want others to receive as well. And because of that, it’s often grounded in what we think, you know, what we think God is actually like and what we think about how he blesses those of us who are on his good side and what we think God should do about all those folks who, let’s face it, just aren’t able to cut the mustard or make the grade. But maybe most important of all, we can use our religion to establish exactly what we’re suppose to do and how we’re suppose to do it. And often, what we say is God’s way is actually our way. I mean, let’s get real, for a lot of very sincere folks, there’s only one right way to worship. And there’s only one right way to approach folks with the good news. And of course, there’s only one right way to guarantee that you’re going to heaven. And what is that way? Man, it’s our way, right? I mean, dah. You see, often we’re the ones who write the doctrines and develop the structure. And that’s probably why we’re often so resist to change. And that’s how religion can really be all about us. That’s one. 


And second, it can also be about rules, you know, establishing the right laws and commandments that take in the ideas we want to believe and the folks we want to include and of course, that shut out all that stuff and those people we just don’t like. And I’ll tell you, if you compare different religions, man, they all have doctrines and explanations on things like how a person can find God, because let’s face it, there’s nothing worse for the universe than a lost God; lucky he has us. And they all have rules on how a person can please God, you know, how we can get on his good side. Because wouldn’t it be awful if, after finding him, we really ticked him off. And I’ll tell you, they all laws dealing with the kind of people who are on the inside versus all the folks who aren’t. And what’s amazing is that most of those who are on the outs don’t know it until we tell them. I mean, they’re just bepopping their way through life, going without the meat, and cursing the bread, until we tell them that they’re going to Hell if they don’t straighten up and fly right. You see, often religion can be reduced to a whole bunch of rules. And that’s two.


And third, because of that, it really comes down to work, at least on our part. In other words, these religious systems we’ve created, well they not only tell us what we need to do, but also how we need to do it. Of course, I know a lot of Christians don’t like to think that our religion is about working. Instead they’d like to say it has to do with faith, you know, what a person believes. And although that sounds great, if I take faith and reduce it to set of steps or laws, then it’s really not about trust at all. I mean, if I say, “To have faith, you have to do these three things and pray this prayer and say these words and make these promises”, that sounds like the same kind of approach a supervisor may take with her staff or a parent may take his daughter. In other words, to me, it sounds like telling someone how to do his or her job. And I’ll tell, you if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s probably a duck. You see, regardless of the spiritual-sounding words we might use, often religion focuses on work, right along with rules and us. 


And I’ll tell you, it’s that kind of religion that Jesus crushed in his teachings and in his life. For example, he certainly shifted the emphasis away from humanity when he said, “God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them!” [John 3:16-17, CEV]. And then, a little later he said, “You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last. Then my Father will give you whatever you ask for in my name. So I command you to love each other.” [John 15:16-17, CEV] You see, for Jesus, it’s really not all about us, what we think and what we want. 


And he certainly moved folks from trusting a bunch of doctrines and laws, you know what I mean, from assuming that by themselves, they can follow all the rules to get right with God. I mean, just remember what he said after telling the rich young man what he needed to do in order to be assured of eternal life and then after watching him walk away because he just wasn’t going to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor. According to the Evangelist Matthew, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘It’s terribly hard for rich people to get into the kingdom of heaven! In fact, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s kingdom.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly surprised and asked, ‘How can anyone ever be saved?’ Jesus looked straight at them and said, ‘There are some things that people cannot do, but God can do anything.’” [Matthew 19:23-26, CEV] 


I’ll tell you, for Jesus, it wasn’t ultimately about our following the rules. As a matter of fact, too much emphasis on detained laws and minute doctrine can actually screw us up. I mean, for him, that’s exactly what happened to the Pharisees, the most religious people of his day. To one of these guys for whom no rule was too small, “...the Lord said to him: ‘You Pharisees clean the outside of cups and dishes, but on the inside you are greedy and evil. You fools! Didn’t God make both the outside and the inside? If you would only give what you have to the poor, everything you do would please God. You Pharisees are in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your gardens, such as mint and rue. But you cheat people, and you don’t love God. You should be fair and kind to others and still give a tenth to God. You Pharisees are in for trouble! You love the front seats in the meeting places, and you like to be greeted with honor in the market. But you are in for trouble! You are like unmarked graves that people walk on without even knowing it.’” [Luke 11:39-44, CEV] You see, for Jesus, it’s not about us and it’s not about rules and it’s not about work. Instead, it’s about something else. 


And even though I think you can describe it with several different words, this morning I’m going to use the word relationship. You see, once we get past ourselves and our rules and our work, then we’ll be able to understand something we may have never noticed before. You see, once we lay aside our religion, then and only then we’ll be able to enter a genuine and growing relationship with God. And take it to the bank, this new relationship has three characteristics that just aren’t present in your typical, garden variety religion. 


For example, first, our relationship with God is grounded on (drum roll) God. I mean, dah. In fact, it’s grounded on the one we talked about this fall and winter when we looked at The Apostles Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.” Just like Jesus taught, our relationship starts not with us, but with God. That’s one. 


And second, this relationship isn’t about rules that we have to follow. It’s about the love that God has already shown. I’ll tell you, it’s like Paul wrote to the Romans: “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 8:37-39, CEV] And then he said to the Ephesians: “But God was merciful! We were dead because of our sins, but God loved us so much that he made us alive with Christ, and God’s wonderful kindness is what saves you. God raised us from death to life with Christ Jesus, and he has given us a place beside Christ in heaven. God did this so that in the future world he could show how truly good and kind he is to us because of what Christ Jesus has done.” [Ephesians 2:4-7, CEV] Now this is the love of God, and even though it may take a back seat to rules and law in a lot of religions, it’s the very foundation of our relationship with God. And that’s two.


And third, this wonderful relationship isn’t something we have to work to receive. It isn’t something that we earn through our words and promises. And it isn’t a wage we get as a result of our work. Instead, it’s a gift to which we can respond. You see, it’s something we already have, but it can’t mean much until we trust that it’s there. And I’ll tell you that’s really want faith is. It’s simply trusting God. Or, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said, “Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we cannot see. It was their faith that made our ancestors pleasing to God. Because of our faith, we know that the world was made at God’s command. We also know that what can be seen was made out of what cannot be seen.” [Hebrews 11:1-3, CEV] You see, we can respond to God’s initiative by trusting in him. But that’s not all we can do. We can also respond by doing some of the things he called us to do. As John wrote, “God is love, and anyone who doesn’t love others has never known him. God showed his love for us when he sent his only Son into the world to give us life. Real love isn’t our love for God, but his love for us. God sent his Son to be the sacrifice by which our sins are forgiven. Dear friends, since God loved us this much, we must love each other.” [1 John 4:8-11, CEV] God loves us, and so we can respond by loving each other. That’s also how we can respond to the relationship that God has given. And that’s three. 


Now having said all this, I think we still should be loving and kind when folks talk about their religion. I mean, until we get to know them, we can’t understand what they actually mean when they use the word. But if, as they describe it, we hear a focus on us and a lot rules and the importance of work, you know, doing stuff in order to get something from God, then maybe with all the gentleness and compassion we can muster, we might want to remind them that Jesus won a victory over religion. And in it’s place, he brought to us a relationship that’s all about God and that’s grounded in his love and that offers us the chance to respond. 



Refocusing Faith: A Study of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (Session 3 – Doing the Work We’ve Been Given (3:5–4:21))

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 3:5–4:21


What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.


For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.


Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.


Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”


So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.


Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God. I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, “Nothing beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.


For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.


I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me.


For this reason I sent you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church. But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power. What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?



Friday’s Essay - Effective Evangelism

Below is an essay I sent to the Cove Presbyterian Church emailing list. You can find a recording of this essay at the bottom of the page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. 

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


A couple of weeks ago, a group from Cove attended an Evangelism Workshop over at First/Westminster Presbyterian Church in Steubenville. And I’ll tell you, they were excited about what they heard and learned. Of course that's not surprising in and of itself. Not only was the presenter Rev. Jason Elliot, a gifted young minister, but evangelism is an exciting topic. And that’s to be expected; my goodness, it's what the church has been called to do, to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ within its community. And that my friends is exciting.


But even though evangelism is an important topic for the church, I think a lot of Christians are a little fuzzy about what evangelism actually means. For example, a lot of believers assume that evangelism has to do with emotions. It has to do with how they feel. Sadly, they make the same assumption about faith. For example, you're an effective evangelism when you experience and convey joy all the time, you know, when you're able to smile in the face of adversity and you can feel happy even though the world around you is falling apart. You see, they assume that evangelism is about feelings. Unfortunately, though, this perspective generally leads to frustration and disappointment. It may even result in a little bit of shame, because emotions are impossible to control. They seem to have a life of their own, you know, instinctive reactions to what’s occurring. Therefore, to feel happy or the feel joy may not be possible to control. And for that reason, when Christians try to control what they feel, either they fail and feel frustrated or they learn to fake emotions that they’re not actually experiencing. They might even assume that they lack the necessary faith to be an evangelist at all.


And personally, I think that's a shame, because neither faith nor evangelism are about feelings. Instead it's about three things over which we do have control. In other words, it's about sharing the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ and the inspiration the Holy Spirit through three things that we can shape ourselves. And when people see these reflected in who we are, the gospel of Christ becomes real in a very personal and genuine way.


For example, first, I believe evangelism is effectively done through the work we do. In other words, we bare witness to Jesus Christ by following his example. And to do that, there are some things that are important to remember. You see, when Jesus was doing his work, he responded to the needs that he faced. I mean, when he encountered the sick, he healed them. When he encountered people possessed by demons, he cast them out. And when he was dealing with a crowd that was hungry, he fed them. Now that’s what Jesus did, and I’ll tell you, I think that's what evangelism is all about, addressing the real and genuine needs that we encounter. And to do that, we need to be aware of and sensitive to those needs. In other words, we’re not following the example of Christ when we address needs that aren't there. But it's also important for us to recognize what we're capable of doing. God has called congregations together and given them certain talents and abilities. And he is situated those congregations in communities where they might addressed concerns. Congregations and individuals need to understand the gifts they have in order to address the needs. Therefore, one way that we can be effective evangelists is through the work we do.


And second, it's also through the words that we use. Now traditionally, this has been what Christians generally think of as evangelism. In fact, we've limited it to going out and preaching the gospel. And although that's certainly true, the words that we use can convey the truth we believe in ways that go beyond just preaching. As a matter of fact, they may be more effective when they're not preaching down to folks but rather talking with them. You see, we become evangelists when we speak words of kindness, especially to folks who aren't accustomed to hearing kindness. And we do evangelism when we encourage those who may be discouraged. And we do evangelism when we speak plainly, without a lot of spiritual-sounding jargon. I’m telling you, the words we use in conversation and in worship can have a major impact on the people around us. But it's important that we be both consistent and honest. It does us no good if what we say on Sunday morning is different than what we might say on Monday afternoon. It also undermines the truth when we choose to make promises for God that we have no right to make. Evangelism, sharing the good news, can certainly be effectively done through the words we use. That's number two.


And finally we can be effective evangelists by the attitudes that we show. And you know, when you think about it, those Christian attitudes really reflect what love is all about. I mean consider Paul's definition of love; it's really about attitude. It's about being patient and kind. It's about not being boastful and arrogant and rude. It's about treating one another with dignity and with respect. If those values are reflected in our attitudes, then I believe we're effective in sharing the message of Jesus. And although emotions may be beyond our control, we certainly can control our attitudes. We can choose to be open. We can choose to be inclusive. And we can choose to allow the truth to undermine our unreasonable prejudices. Evangelism is really about the attitudes we show, and that's number three.


 Now evangelism is crucial for the church. In fact, it's the job that we've been called to do. And if we can move past the idea that it involves what we feel and recognize that evangelism is done by the work that we do and the language that we use and the attitudes that we show, we’ll become effective evangelists, effective communicators of God's grace.



A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - But We’re Not Perfect

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. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

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 6:25-34


"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you - you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.


But We’re Not Perfect


If we were perfect people, we wouldn’t worry. You see, if we were perfect, we’d be able to trust God completely; therefore, we’d be comfortable regardless of what might be happening in our lives. And if we were perfect, we’d be able to brush off set-backs both great and small as momentary distractions, unrelated to the glories that await just around the corner. And if we were perfect, we’d be able to smile in the midst of problems and pain, despair and disappointments, and the smile would be genuine, if we were perfect.


But, of course, we’re not, we’re not perfect. And even though some folks seem to believe that if they pretend hard enough or convince others of an absolute confidence that’s impossible for human beings, no one is able to be comfortable at all times. And no one can just brush off trials and trouble. And no one can smile when things happen that test both their faith and endurance. I mean, even if we force a grin and fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, we’re never going to fool God, because he knows. He knows our limitations. And he knows our humanity. And he knows that limited humans can’t choose their emotions, only their actions. And so, when our stress goes up and our confidence wavers, we can accept that unlike birds and flowers, we’re probably going to worry. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t also trust that God still love us and that Jesus still saves us and the Spirit is still with us and will guide us into the future, which is pretty good news for folks who are definitely less than perfect.



Cove’s Celebration Service - Sunday, April 29, 2018

Below is the podcast of the worship service I led in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia on Sunday, April 29.


Sunday’s Sermon - Christ’s Victory Over Culture

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, April 29, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. This is the fourth message in a series entitled "Victory: A New Life Awakens." In this sermon, we talked about Jesus's victory over cultural values. You can hear a podcast at the end of this sermon. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

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.


Now as I hope most of y’all know, since the Sunday after Easter, we’ve been looking at how Jesus, through his life, death and resurrection, won victories over six different powers that can really control us. And because he won these victories, we have the possibility of living new and different kinds of lives. For example, in the first message, we talked about how, on the cross, Jesus defeated sin, breaking its power over us and offering us the opportunity to live a life focused on God. And two weeks ago, we looked at how Jesus stood toe to toe with the devil and overcame his temptations, giving us an example we can follow when we feel as though our faith is also being put to the test. And then last week, we had a really special service, focusing on how Jesus was victorious over popular expectations. And so, with the help of three people from the Striplight Theatre right across the street, we had a service that presented the good news of Jesus in an unexpected way. Now, that’s what we’re done over the last three weeks, and if you want to hear either the messages or the entire services, just go to The Cove Community blog. The address is right in your bulletin. 


And this morning, we’re going to continue this series by considering how Jesus won a victory over culture, and in particular, the values that were often encouraged within his society and also within ours. And I’ll tell you, I think it’s appropriate that we’re doing this on the Sunday when we’re recognizing the Girl Scouts that meet in our church every Tuesday evening. In other words, I think it works out well that they’re here this morning, and I’ll tell you why. Right at the beginning of the service we heard the Girl Scouts give their pledge: “On my honor, I will try: To serve God and my country, To help people at all times, And to live by the Girl Scout Law.” Now that’s what they said. And yesterday, I looked up the Girl Scout Law: “I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, and responsible for what I say and do, and to respect myself and others, respect authority, use resources wisely, make the world a better place, and be a sister to every Girl Scout.” In other words, the Girl Scouts are grounded on these principles, on these values. That’s really what they’re all about. 


And when you think about it, they sure seem to be a lot different from the values promoted within our society, you know, within our culture. I mean, being honest and fair and respecting yourself and others and making the entire world a better place, well, these aren’t exactly the kind values that our culture emphasizes, now is it? Now it may have been different in the past, but I think we’d be pretty hard pressed to make the case that they’re the things we most value today. For example, I think we’re more about self-sufficiency than any kind of trust and cooperation. Let’s face it, as a country and as a congregation and even as individual American Christians, man, I think most folks believe we should be able to get it done without the help of others. And those who can and do, they’re the ones that get our praise and respect. People should be self-sufficient; that’s one thing we value. Just like we want immediate gratification. I mean, we’re kind of like Wednesday in the movie The Addams Family. She asks Uncle Festor to pass the salt. And Morticia, says to her daughter, “What’s the magic word?” And Wednesday says, “Now.” Man, that’s kind of world in which we live, isn’t it? Lord, give me patience, and give it to be now. Immediate gratification is something else we value. Just like we value material success. The one who dies with the most toys wins, right? Of course, I recognize that we Christians don’t like to recognize that this cultural value affects us. My goodness, we’ve given everything to God, or so we say, and I’m talking about our lives and our hearts and of course our kids. And even though I know it sounds spiritual as all get out, what does giving God this stuff really mean and how do you actually do it? I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a whole lot easier giving God my life or my heart or my daughter, knowing that he probably isn’t going to collect anytime soon, than actually giving him my car or my television or my cell phone, and I haven’t even mentioned what Jesus said to the rich young man: “If you want to be perfect, go sell everything you own! Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come and be my follower.” [Matthew 19:21, CEV] Man, let’s get real; not only are we not going to do that, I’m sure that, given a little time, we can come up with all kinds of spiritual sounding reasons why we shouldn’t. But I know for me, the real reason I’m not boxing up my television and taking it to Goodwill is that I just plain value material success. And along with self-sufficiency and immediate gratification, I think these are three values held by folks shaped by our culture.


But of course, they’re not values promoted by Jesus, and in this way, he continues to be victorious over culture. And even though I think you can point to a whole lot of specific values shown by Christ, for me, they seem to come down to three that were listed by the Apostle Paul and that sort to cover what Jesus taught and how he lived. Just listen to what Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, “When we were children, we thought and reasoned as children do. But when we grew up, we quit our childish ways. Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see him face to face. We don’t know everything, but then we will, just as God completely understands us. For now there are faith, hope, and love. But of these three, the greatest is love.” [1 Corinthians 13:11-13, CEV] Now that’s what Paul wrote, and I think those three values kind of sum-up what Jesus taught and how he lived. 


For example, he certainly taught about the importance faith, and I’m talking about trusting and believing. I mean, just listen to what Jesus said to his disciples right before the crucifixion: “In a loud voice Jesus said: Everyone who has faith in me also has faith in the one who sent me. And everyone who has seen me has seen the one who sent me. I am the light that has come into the world. No one who has faith in me will stay in the dark.” [John 12:44-46, CEV] And a little later, “Have faith in me when I say that the Father is one with me and that I am one with the Father. Or else have faith in me simply because of the things I do. I tell you for certain that if you have faith in me, you will do the same things that I am doing. You will do even greater things, now that I am going back to the Father. Ask me, and I will do whatever you ask. This way the Son will bring honor to the Father.” [John 14:11-13, CEV] Jesus valued faith. 


And as to hope, by his life, Jesus fulfilled the hopes of the people. Let me give you a couple of examples. When he entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey with all the crowds and palms, right there, he fulfilled the hope expressed by Zechariah, when he wrote, “Everyone in Jerusalem, celebrate and shout! Your king has won a victory, and he is coming to you. He is humble and rides on a donkey; he comes on the colt of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9, CEV] And when he died on the cross to free us from the power of sin, he did what Isaiah hoped would happen, when he wrote, “He was wounded and crushed because of our sins; by taking our punishment, he made us completely well. All of us were like sheep that had wandered off. We had each gone our own way, but the Lord gave him the punishment we deserved. ...He was condemned to death without a fair trial. Who could have imagined what would happen to him? His life was taken away because of the sinful things my people had done. ...The Lord will reward him with honor and power for sacrificing his life. Others thought he was a sinner, but he suffered for our sins and asked God to forgive us.” [Isaiah 53:5-6, 8, 12, CEV] You see, Jesus’s whole life was about hope. 


And love, I’m telling you, love is everywhere in his teachings. Sometimes it’s a command, like when he said, “My children, I will be with you for a little while longer. Then you will look for me, but you won’t find me. I tell you just as I told the people, ‘You cannot go where I am going.’ But I am giving you a new command. You must love each other, just as I have loved you. If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples.” [John 13:33-35, CEV] And sometimes it’s in a prayer, like when he prayed, “I have honored my followers in the same way that you honored me, in order that they may be one with each other, just as we are one. I am one with them, and you are one with me, so that they may become completely one. Then this world’s people will know that you sent me. They will know that you love my followers as much as you love me.” [John 17:22-23, CEV] I’ll tell you, if you wanted to summarize the values that shaped what Jesus taught and did, I think you couldn’t get much better than the words faith, hope and love.


And even though they aren’t exactly principles that our culture seems to value most, remember Jesus is greater than our culture. And he established a new set of values. And because of that, we can claim them in our own lives. And we can do it right now. I mean, first, we can decide to live lives of faith, trusting that God loved us before he laid the foundations of the universe and that he holds our destinies in his gracious and loving hands and that right this minute, he’s present with us, flowing through and around us all the time. But more than that, we can also become the kind of people whom others trust, and I’m talking about folks who are honest and sincere and authentic in both our words and work. In other words, we can live faith-directed lives. That’s one. 


And second, through what we say and do, we can also reflect hope. You see, we can take a step away from the fear and dread that seems to have infested our society. And instead, we can look toward the future with confidence and peace, trusting that God is still in control. And then we can share the reason for our hope with those who’ve bought into the negativity that seems to be everywhere. Simply put, we can start living hope-filled lives. And that’s two. 


And third, we can decide that love, and I’m talking about intentional, practical love, we can decide that love is going to be our guide. And we’re going to direct it to God with all our heart, mind, and strength and we’re going to love others with the same intensity with which we love ourselves. And even though plenty of our friends and neighbors won’t understand and maybe they’ll even accuse us of being weak or naive, we can decide to live love-oriented lives. And that’s three.


Now, I doubt that our culture is going to change a whole lot in the near future. Personally, I believe Americans will probably always value self-sufficiency and immediate gratification and material success. That’s just the way it is and probably will continue to be. But you know, that doesn’t have to apply to us, because remember, Jesus was victorious over all human cultures and all those things that they value. And for that reason, we can I’ve new lives by claiming for ourselves those ideas that he valued and we can begin to live lives that are faith-directed and hope-filled and love-oriented.


Two Ridges Presbyterian Church Worship Service - Sunday, April 29, 2018

Below is the podcast of the worship service I led in Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio on Sunday, April 29.


Sunday’s Sermon - Relax and Remain

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, April 29, in Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio. You can hear a podcast of the sermon at the end of this sermon. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

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.

John 15:1-8


“I am the true vine, and my father is the one who cultivates the vine. Every branch in me which doesn’t bear fruit, he removes. And every one that bears fruit, he prunes so that it might bear more fruit. Already you yourselves are pruned through the word which I spoke to you. Remain in me, and I am in you. Just as the branch isn’t about to bear fruit by itself unless it might remain in the vine, thus neither can you unless you might remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I’m in him, he bears much fruit, because apart from me, you aren’t able to bear anything. Unless a person might remain in me, then it’s thrown out like a branch and it withers, and they gather them together and throw them into the fire and they’re burned. Unless you might remain in me and my word might remain in you, then whatever you might want ask and it will happen for you. In this my father is glorified, so that you might bear much fruit and might become my disciples.”


Relax and Remain


Well, of course, as everyone knows in two weeks it’ll be Mother’s Day. Which means, not only do I have to buy something nice for my mom, I also have to get something for Debbie, even though we all know she’s not my mother. For some reason, I’m responsible. And I’ll tell you, if I don’t buy her a gift, or worse, say something smart like, “You’re not my mother;” well, I just may need to find somewhere else to stay on the thirteenth.


Of course, with Mothers Day, I think we can all expect to see a lot of pictures of mothers and children. And in most of the picture, the mothers and the kids will be smiling and laughing and happy. And they’ll all be relaxed, sharing some quality time together, just plain enjoying one another’s company. Now they’re the kind of pictures that make you say, “Well, isn’t that nice.”


Of course, I think we all know that’s not what motherhood is really about and it certainly doesn’t reflect the relationship all mothers have with they’re kids. For example, a couple of weeks ago I was in Robinson. And I couldn’t help notice some of the mothers, dragging their kids through the mall; man, they looked like they’ve been in combat. I’m telling you, they were anything but relaxed. But you know, that shouldn’t they be a surprise. I mean, and I say this from experience, it takes a whole lot of strength to endure the little fit that’s going to happen every time you try to walk by Claire’s or Build-a-bear or any place that sells either French fries or ice cream without going in. My gosh, the nonstop begging can knock a couple of years off your life. And when you add to it, the chasing when she tries to make a break for it or the searching when she decides, without your knowledge, to play hid-and-seek in the leisure wear, motherhood isn’t all grins and giggles, now is it.


But I think, it’s kind of interesting, all that stuff about children in the mall, I really think it can apply to us, God’s children, as we sort of sashay through life. I mean, think about it, when it comes to acting up and acting out, a three-year-old has nothing on a lot of modern Christians, now do they? I mean, let’s face it, if they’re not fired up about something the government is doing or not doing, which frankly may or may not have an basis in fact, man, they’re worried. For people who talk about faith all the time, a lot of Christians seem to have worrying pretty much down pat. I mean, my goodness, they worry about everything. They worry about the state of the world and our country. They worry about the future of church and their own congregations. But I’ll tell you, most of all, they worry about how folks stand with respect to God. And even if it really doesn’t have to do with them directly, it sure involves other people. Are my friends or my children or my spouse saved? Have they done enough to earn a little bit of salvation? Are they going to heaven when they die? Man, I hear people worrying about that kind of stuff all the time. And so even if what a lot of Christians do isn’t exactly like a four-year-tantrum, it’s still pretty irritating, at least it would be for me if I were God.


And in terms of wandering, good night nurse, believers wander around all over the place. They wander from one part of the country to another. They wander from job to job to job. And in their relationships, there’s a lot a wandering there as well, even in their relationship with God. In other words, the position God and Christ hold in their lives change with the season and weather. For example, if I asked Christians about their most important relationships, I believe God and Jesus would probably be number one, or at the very least in the top five. Now that sounds great, right? But get real, when you look at their priorities and the amount of time spent actually working on this relationship that’s so important, well, that’s going to depend on whether the kids are in a Sunday soccer league or whether the weather is really nice or whether the Steelers or Browns kick off at 1:00 or 4:00. And I haven’t even said a word about how they spend their money. But God is still the top priority; give me a break. In their relationship with him, these folks are wandering. You know, just like worry sort of keeps them in an emotion tizzy, a lot of Christians wander every bit as much as a three-year-old who takes off in Macy’s. And I’m telling you, with that much energy spent on this kind of stuff, it’s no wonder that not only do congregations shift their focus from evangelism to survival but that a lot of believers seem to drift from church to church, looking for a place where they feel comfortable, not challenged, but comfortable, which probably means they’re looking for a place where they’ll never hear anything they don’t already believe. But when you think about it, that’s really not comfortable; that’s stagnant, but that’s what they do. And I think it’s sad.


But you know, even sadder than that, when you get right down to it, it’s all so unnecessary and counterproductive. For example, it’s really amazing; when you look at the passage we just read, you know, about how Jesus is the true vine, you’re going to see that there’s really only two things the branches, in other words, two things we’re expected to do, and I’ll tell you, they have nothing to do with worrying and wandering.


I mean, just think about the image, Jesus is the vine and we’re the branches. Well, I think the first thing we can say is that the branches should just, plain relax; they should take a “chill pill” and simply trust that God is in control. You see, the branches are in the vine, but not because they’ve decided to be or because they’re more deserving that other twigs. Man, at the beginning, they’ve not even connected because they’re productive, because, according to Jesus, some don’t produce any fruit at all. No, there’s a connection between ourselves and Christ, that’s established by God; therefore, it’s something we don’t need to worry about. And through that connection, through that relationship we receive all we need to become everything that we were created to be. And again, it’s something that we didn’t earn nor do we deserve, but praise the Lord, we have it anyway. And if that’s not good enough, consider what God, the father, is doing for us. Man, he’s cultivating, he’s pruning, he’s cleansing us so that we can be successful. You see, he comes to us, not us to him, and he works with us so that we can be everything we’re able to be, because he wants the vine to be lush and productive. And as branches, maybe one of the most important thing we can do is put the worry and the drama aside and receive the nourishment from the root and feel the care of the gardener. You see, relaxing, that’s the first thing we’re expected to do.


And second, we’re also told to remain in the vine. In other words, we can make the decision that we’re going to stop all the spiritual wandering and simply live and dwell, endure and continue in the Jesus. You see, we can do whatever it takes to remain in our relationship with Christ. And you know, that may mean that we’re going to have to trust that he really is who he said he was and that when push comes to shove, he’s in control. I mean, do y’all realize that God has lead you right here, at this time, and is challenging you to remain close to him, even if that’s not particularly comfortable nor does it fit with our priorities right this minute? You see, I think faith that Christ knows what he’s doing is a big part of remaining in him. And so is the willingness to listen with a mind that’s really open to God. You see, God speaks to us in a lot of ways. He speaks when we read his word and when we kneel in prayer. He speaks through sermons and studies. Man, he speaks when we’re alone in a room or surrounded by Christians brothers and sisters. I’ll tell you, God is speaking all over the place, but that doesn’t do us much good if we’re not listening. You know, I can almost guarantee that if you want to feel close to Jesus and if you want to see your relationship with him become stronger and deeper, make the decision to turn off the television for just a little while so that you have more time to read the Bible and pray and then move worship and time with other believers a little higher on your priority list even if that means sacrificing some, not all, but some of the stuff that may have actually become a little more important to you than God. You see, we can focus our attention on Jesus Christ rather than obsessing on ourselves and what we like, because not only will God prune us, but he’s going to handle the dead wood and he doesn’t need our help at all. No wonder he said that if our goal is to remain and abide in the vine, whatever we might ask to help us do just that will happen. You see, along with relaxing, we’re told to remain in Christ.


And when we do, according to what Jesus said, we can be certain of the results. Remember, he said, “Already you yourselves are pruned through the word which I spoke to you,” and a little later, “The one who remains in me and I’m in him, he bears much fruit, because apart from me, you aren’t able to bear anything.” I’m telling you, bearing fruit is a given if we relax and remain in him. And what fruit is he talking about? Well, based on what he’s already said in chapters thirteen and fourteen, I think it has to do with one word: love. You see, we bear fruit when we love God and love one another. And the more we relax, trusting that God is in control, and the more we appreciate and enjoy and strengthen his presence in our lives, the more love will just flow from us, love for the one who’s done for us everything as well as the ones he’s led into our lives. Frankly, not bearing fruit is impossible for the one who relaxes and remains in Christ.


A couple of weeks ago, Debbie decided to take Maggie shopping as I was working on my sermon. Well, at around 2:00, I got a call from a mother, whom I’m guessing, wasn’t smiling and happy and relaxed. It seems as though they’d had a little battle over how much money could be spent at Pink. And to show how desperate Debbie actually was, he called me and asked me to talk with Maggie, which I did. Shopping, ain’t it great. And although I doubt God will become so frustrated that he’ll call me for the same sort of thing anytime soon, I do believe that through our worrying and wandering, we can be just as irritating. But you know, that doesn’t have to be the case, because right here and now, we can relax by trusting God and we can remain close to Christ. And if we do, I think our father in heaven will be just as happy as all the folks in those pictures we’ll see on Mothers Day.



A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - We, Not Me

Below is the podcast of a new devotion I just left on the Cove Presbyterian Church prayer line. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

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 6:7-15


"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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.


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


We, Not Me


When we approach God, I think we generally use either first person, singular or third person in our prayers. I mean, think about it, often I focus on either me or he, she, it, or them. For example, I might ask God to heal me or him. And I might ask God to forgiven me or her. I might even ask him to bless me or them, because my focus is generally on how God might either deal with me or those whom I see as separate from me. 


And I’ll tell you, that’s why I find what Christ said about praying so interesting. I mean, in the prayer he taught his disciples, he used first person, plural. In other words, he talked in terms of we and us and our. You see, he put us within the group for whom we praying. It’s not for them, over there, apart from who we are. Nor is it strictly personal, you know, me and God. Rather we’re asking that God give us our daily bread, you know, the amount of bread we all need to live. And we’re appealing to God so that our sins might be forgiven and that we forgive the wrongs done to us. And we praying that we, all of us, that we be protected from the tempting and testing of the evil one. You see, in what Christ taught about prayer, he challenges us to move beyond the isolation of both me and mine, them and theirs so that we can begin to consider what we share and how God might help us and why it’s important to think that we’re part of a community, one in which we share common joys and fears. Simply put, Jesus challenges us to think in terms of we, not just me or them.



The Wedding Service for Bill Wison & Sue Zarzeczny - Saturday, April 28, 2018

On Saturday, April 28, I officiated the wedding of Bill Wison and Sue Zarzeczny in the Angora Garden in White Oak, Pennsyvania. 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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