Sun City United Methodist Church
Thursday, December 14, 2017
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors
Acts 4:1-31
 
Sermon by Pastor Tom Rothhaar
 
You could ask it either way: "What makes a great church?" or "What makes a church great?" However you put it, I don't mean size or fame - I mean quality; I mean effectiveness; I mean being and doing what the Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be and do.
 
How would you define what makes a great church? Out of your own experience with churches, or thinking of churches you may have heard about, what would you say are the qualities which would set apart any of the hundreds of thousands of churches which dot the landscape of this country as being among the greatest?
 
As far as I can tell, there's one quality, more than any other, which makes a church great. When it's present in abundance, greatness comes naturally. When it's absent - or to the degree that it's absent - greatness is impossible. It's what gives life to all the other qualities. It's the glue that holds all other qualities together.
 
Let me illustrate the importance of that quality by telling you the story of what I consider to be one of the truly great churches - the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City.  Some of you may know about this church because of the CD's produced by the awesome Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. You may also know that it's a huge interracial church, with over 10,000 members.  Making music is only one of many, many things it does well. To cite just one example, it's life-changing ministry to prostitutes, drug addicts, and gang members in inner city New York has touched thousands of people who have never even been in the church building. This church isn't just great, it's mind-boggling! But forty years ago it was a different story. This is the way Pastor Jim Cymbala describes the church he arrived at in 1972:
 
I was struggling toward the climax of my not-too-polished sermon...when disaster struck. It was both pathetic and laughable all at once. The Brooklyn Tabernacle - this woeful church that my father-in-law had coaxed me into pastoring - consisted of a shabby two-story building in the middle of a downtown block on Atlantic Avenue. The sanctuary could hold fewer than two hundred people - not that we required anywhere near that capacity. The ceiling was low, the walls needed paint, the windows were dingy, and the bare wood floor hadn't been sealed in years. But there was no money for such improvements, let alone a luxury such as sir conditioning.

Carol, my faithful wife, was doing her best at the organ to create a worshipful atmosphere as I moved into my invitation, calling the fifteen people or so in front of me to maybe - just possibly - respond to the point of my message. Then someone shifted on a pew to my left...and C-R-A-C-K - just like that, the pew collapsed, dumping five people onto the floor!

My infant daughter thought it was the most exciting moment in her church life so far! I stopped preaching to give the people time to pick themselves off the floor and replace their lost dignity. All I could think to do was to nervously suggest that they move to another pew that seemed more stable.
 
Not a pretty picture! So how is it that, in just a few years, the Brooklyn Tabernacle moved from that near-death experience to being what it is today? What brought it back to life, and then moved it so far beyond mere survival that it is known around the world for its greatness?
 
Jim Cymbala will tell you that it's all due to one thing, and one thing only. That little church of fewer than twenty people, with a building falling down around them, decided to pray. They asked God to do a miracle in their midst; they believed God was going to do a miracle; and they trusted God to use them to bring that miracle about.
 
As desperate as their situation was, in some respects, the problems the Brooklyn Tabernacle faced in 1972 were not much different than those faced by the earliest Christian Church, back there in first century Jerusalem. That church, too, was struggling to get off the ground, facing some pretty daunting problems and difficulties, and knowing - as you heard in our Scripture reading for this morning - that they were being called to do ministry in a hostile environment. So they, too, decided to pray! They, too, asked God for a miracle, believed God was going to do a miracle, and trusted God to use them to bring that miracle about.
 
In my Bible, the section beginning with verse 23 is titled "The Believers' Prayer." The prayer concludes with these words: "Enable your servants to speak your word with boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (4:29-30). 
 
And what was it that happened? After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (4:31)
 
From there, the book of Acts, along with the rest of the New Testament, goes on to tell us how the whole Christian Church moved toward being what it is today. It tells us how, because of believers praying, ultimately it was not just the place where they were meeting that was shaken - it was the whole world! And it was not just Jerusalem that the word of God was spoken "with great boldness" - it was everywhere!
 
In other words, the reason the early church grew like it did - the reason it became such a powerful instrument in the hands of the Lord - is that people got together and prayed for that to happen.
 
Now, I want you to note something very important about the prayers of both the early church and the Brooklyn Tabernacle. It wasn't just the clergy or a few key leaders who did the praying - it was everybody! And it wasn't just one time that they prayed - it was continuously! In the case of the early church, they didn't have any clergy to depend on to do their praying for them. In the case of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, they had only one - and he was pretty overwhelmed. No, this was a responsibility everyone took on. And, once they took it on, they made it a foundation for everything they did and hoped to do.
 
It's important to note that these were not people with formal theological education. They were not certified prayer experts. They were not super spiritual types. Peter and John were the only ones who even stood out enough to be mentioned by name; and Luke says of them, When (the Jewish authorities) saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (4:13) The rest of the believers - the ones who gathered in prayer - were so much a part of the crowd that we don't even know who they were.
 
So both in Jerusalem and in Brooklyn, the folks doing the praying were common, ordinary people with a common commitment to Jesus as Lord, and a common desire to see God move in their midst.  It makes me wonder what might happen here if all of us were to have the same desire and do the same thing.
 
What do you suppose God might do with and through this church if every one of us were to begin praying every single day - specifically asking God to do something great here? What do you suppose might happen to our church and our ministry if we were to intentionally and consistently make prayer the foundation for everything we are and do? Maybe this old building would shake, too! Maybe the trustees would have to install extra reinforcement! We could be infused with a power like we've never before seen or experienced. This place could be the staging point for a new era of ministry far greater than we can even imagine!
 
I believe that's exactly what God wants for us and from us!
 
Not that God wants to duplicate here the church of first century Jerusalem, or even the Brooklyn Tabernacle - but God does want us, in our own unique way, to be great. God does want us to use prayer to tap into his power to do great things. God does want us to speak his word with boldness, and to be a place where miracles are expected and lives are turned around.
 
Greatness, you see, is not measured by size, nor even by any particular form of ministry. Greatness comes with effectively doing the unique ministry God wants done by a particular congregation, in the setting in which it is located, and with the people to whom it is called to minister.
 
I read recently about a church of over 7,000 members - the largest in its denomination - with a huge campus, magnificent buildings, and a budget of several million of dollars. The church has employed a church growth consultant to work with them, because they realize they're stagnating.  They're saying something's missing. They're no longer as effective as they know they need to be. They're doing their programmatic things - they're going through the motions of being a big church. But, at this point, they're not a great church, and they're coming to recognize that.
 
I don't know what that consultant is going to tell them, but I hope he reminds them that the key to strength and vitality in a church - the key to being great - is not restructuring or marketing; it's not organizational development or imaginative programming; it's not attracting more people or erecting more or bigger buildings. The key to strength and vitality and greatness is found in churches of all sizes, with all kinds of buildings - or with no buildings at all. The key is the kind of consistent, fervent, believing prayer which activates the Holy Spirit and releases the power of God.
 
I believe you and I have a responsibility to work together to build that kind of a great church right here. We have a responsibility to God...and we have a responsibility to the people God wants to reach through us - people who desperately need what a great, praying church has to offer.
 
Maybe you heard the story about a woman who brought a parrot so she would have some companionship. The pet store owner assured her that the parrot she was getting would sing and talk and would make great company. So she took him home, put him in a cage she had there, and waited for him to do his thing. When two days passed, and the parrot hadn't sung or talked at all, the woman went back to the pet store to complain. "It's probably the cage you have him it," the owner said. "Parrots like a lot of room. Why don't you buy this bigger cage and see if that doesn't do the trick." So she did. She took the new cage home, put the parrot in it, and waited for some action. After two more days, the parrot still had neither sung nor talked, and the woman was back at the pet store. "That's funny," said the owner, "but I'll tell you what - parrots love to have things to peck at and play with, colorful things that you can hang down from the top of the cage. Put some of those in there, and I'll bet that will perk him up." Two days later, she was back in the pet store - still no singing, still no talking. This time the owner suggested that she get a large mirror for the side of the cage. "Parrots like to look at themselves," he said. "It makes them think there's another parrot in there with them. If they don't have a mirror, they can get to feeling alone and depressed. That's probably why your bird isn't singing or talking. He needs a mirror." So the woman bought a mirror and put it in the cage; but that didn't help either. A couple of days later, she was back in the pet store, looking very sad. When the owner asked her how things were going, she said, "Not very well. My parrot died last night." "I'm so sorry to hear that," said the owner. "Tell me - did he ever say anything?" "Yes," she told him, "last night, just before he died, he spoke his first words. His voice was kind of weak; but I think what he said was, 'Doesn't that pet store have any food?" 
 
What the world needs from the church is not gadgets and gimmicks, but food that can feed the soul. Whether they even know it or not, what the people to whom we're called to minister most need is something much more than just beautiful buildings, or a wide array of interesting programs, or entertaining and enjoyable worship. All of that can draw people in; but, no matter how many people come, if they're not being spiritually fed in ways that change their lives, then the church falls short of greatness.
 
So where do we get that food? How do we make sure that we're providing it? It all comes back to making sure that everything we are and do is grounded in prayer.
 
Will you covenant with with me to be that kind of church? Will you commit, or recommit, yourself to daily prayer - specifically for this church and its ministry? Will you join with others in prayer - maybe by pairing with a prayer partner or forming a prayer group? Will you pray for God to guide us, empower us, and use us? Will you pray for a movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst? Will you be one of those ordinary people who becomes a part of something truly extraordinary? If enough of us are willing, there's just no telling what God might do!
 
 
John 10:1-16
 
Sermon by Rex S. Wignall

 

Introduction: Jesus’ Good Shepherd and Some Nagging Questions

I find the opening passage in John 10 to be both eloquent and puzzling.

·        Jesus speaks of Himself as The Good Shepherd, and but also as “the gate for the sheep.” Why does He speak of himself as two different “persons” fulfilling two different “roles?”

·        Jesus also makes the troubling statement that “all who came before me are thieves and bandits” (verse 8) what did He mean by that?

As we reflect on this beautiful but puzzling passage, I will address these questions. However, the main point today on this World Communion Sunday, comes from what John 10:16 records Jesus as saying:

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Over the years, writer and seminary teacher Leonard Sweet has done more than a half dozen different commentaries on this passage from John 10:1-18. He has investigated the background of the passage, its’ relationship to the preceding story in John 9, the rendering of key words in both Greek and Latin, and the nuances of meaning in the figures of speech Jesus used.

I agree with Dr. Sweet there is meaning for 21st century Christians in what Jesus says about himself as the “Good Shepherd” the “gate for the sheep” and especially this curious message about “other sheep that are not of this fold.”

Ironically, but not surprisingly, I found the clearest most relevant explanation of the deeper meaning of John 10 in the writing of a man who spent some of his youth and adult years caring for a flock of sheep. His name was Phillip Keller, and he wrote two books applying his experience caring for sheep on two of our best known Bible passages which speak of sheep and shepherds. His book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 is a beloved Christian classic. But his other book A Shepherd Looks at The Good Shepherd and His Sheep (Minneapolis, MN: Grayson, 1978) is deeper and more haunting in its theological reflection. This book is focused on what Jesus says about shepherds and sheep in John 10.  

To understand what Jesus is saying in The Gospel of John, we need to “shift gears” from a more literal to a more symbolic language that John uses.

I.             Jesus Speaks in Metaphors 

At the outset, I spoke about questions that we are left with from what Jesus says about shepherds and sheep in John 10. Here are two questions I raised:

·        Jesus speaks of Himself as “the Good Shepherd,” and but also as “the gate for the sheep.” Why does He speak of himself as two different “persons” fulfilling two different “roles?”

·        Jesus also makes the troubling statement that “all who came before me are thieves and bandits” (verse 8) what did He mean by that?

The answer to these questions lies in the figures of speech Jesus uses for himself. The Gospel of John has a series of “I am” statements to explain the various aspects of Jesus’ purpose and nature as our Lord and Savior. Some think everything Jesus said should be understood literally, but the “I am” statements in John challenge to that thinking. The seven “I am” statements are metaphors for the various roles Jesus fulfills as Lord and Savior. Here they are:

I am the bread of life…  (6:35)

I am the light of the world… (8:12)

I am the door of the sheep… (10:7)

I am the good shepherd… (10:14)

I am the resurrection and the life… (11:25)

I am the way, the truth and the life… (14:6)

I am the vine, you are the branches… (15:5)

In John 10, there are not one but two of the “I am” statements. The first is “I am the gate for the sheep” (verse 7) and the second is “I am the good shepherd” (verse 11).

Jesus is not one rather than the other – they are both figures of speech – metaphors that capture an aspect of how Jesus relates to and cares for God’s people. Here is a small portion of what Leonard Sweet says about the meaning of these two metaphors:

·        “I am the gate for the sheep” (v.7). This image of Jesus as an access point is similar to Jesus’ self-description in both 1:51 (the Son of Man as the ladder connecting heaven and earth) and 14:6 (Jesus as “the Way”)...

·        Jesus’ metaphor now focuses on his function as “the gate.” He is not only the means by which the sheep “come in and go out;” he is also the source of their salvation. Indeed, he is the only means by which the sheep “will be saved” (v.9). In John’s gospel salvation is always expressed as the purpose for which Jesus came into the world. [i]

·        In verses11-14, Jesus follows his claim to being a "good shepherd" by defining the first characteristic such a shepherding one bears: "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."

·        But there is another quality that defines a "good shepherd"… In verses 14-15, Jesus once again defines himself as the "good shepherd" but now declares that this title requires a unique three-step degree of familiarity Father-to-Son-to-flock. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, he asserts, because "I know my own and my own know me." But this special relationship between sheep and shepherd mirrors the same kind of commitment and knowledge that exists between Jesus and the Father "as the Father knows me and I know the Father."

  • All that the sheep "know" is their faith in the Good Shepherd's unfaltering love and compassion. This is "knowledge" only in that it is knowledge of faithfulness. [ii]

Let me ask you a question on this World Communion Sunday when we celebrate the world-wide fellowship of Christ. Is your faith “tribal” or “True”?

II.           Is Your Faith Tribal or True?

Let me explain why I ask this question. You and I have lived to see the world change dramatically in the past 50-60 years. At mid-Twentieth century, most of us were part of a white majority in America, and all other ethnic and racial groups were called “minorities.” As we entered the new millennium in the year 2000, emerging population trends and the shifting percentage of various ethnic groups tell us that before long whites will be in the minority.

Here we are in the second decade of a new century, and that time has come. We have had to adjust and “make room” for the diverse variety of people who are now Americans. Like so many of the 19th and early 20th century emigrants from across Europe, they faced the challenge of learning new customs, a new language, and learning to survive in a new land. It has not been easy for many of them, and they left behind their family and their native land.

When they first arrived here, many of them lived in “ethnic neighborhoods” where they could draw support and encouragement from others of their same culture. But eventually, most have ventured out of those ethnic enclaves to move more fluidly into the mainstream of America. But a “tribal” loyalty still has a pull among various groups, and among Christians in particular:

II.           Is Your Faith “Tribal” or “True”?

I ask, “Is you faith “tribal” or “True?”  What do I mean by “tribal?” According to the dictionary, “tribalism” is 1. The customs and beliefs of tribal life and society. Or 2. Strong loyalty to one’s own tribe, party, or group.

Before I came here in 2005, I was at Valley Christian Home, working among  a group of retired people in Hemet for six and half years. What I said to them in 2004 is still true. Here are some of the barriers that separate believers from one another:

·         We are settled into our patterns and traditions. Churches who proudly say “we are non-denominational” are just as settled into traditions and weekly patterns as other bodies. Years ago, I had regular fellowship with a group of Pentecostal Christians who were very proud of saying, “We don’t have bulletins and orders of worship, we just let the Holy Spirit lead us.” As a friend of mine observed of that same group, “Isn’t it curious that they have a predictable pattern that emerges at each worship service – the same praise songs, some of the very same ‘words of knowledge’ and the same people praying or speaking at the same time each service?

·         We have prejudices against people who are from a different racial or ethnic group than us. Among Methodists, the Colored Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal churches emerged because white Christians could not accept black Christians sitting with them to worship God! The same thing happened in Baptist churches, too. Until just a few decades ago, it was true that Sunday morning was the most segregated time of the week in America

·         [I noted in October 2004:] This past Friday, I joined several Lutheran pastors in a memorial service for a friend of mine. Pastor Magnus Egge, a retired Lutheran pastor who remembers the old days in the Midwest, was recalling how Christians in small towns were broken into different churches according to their native languages. In one larger town, Pastor Egge said, even the Catholics had one church for Polish people, and another for German Catholics and still another one for the French speaking Catholics! The Protestants were just as bad. Swedish Baptists, from which ValleyChristianHome descends, were separate from the English-speaking Baptists – and so it goes among the Lutherans and many other Christian fellowships.

·         Much more important are the differences in doctrine and belief that separate Christians from one another. Some find it very difficult to try to gather with people who do not speak of Jesus as the Son of God or their Lord and Savior, and do not think of the Bible as God’s Word.

Like it or not, each of us has some degree of “tribalism.” When you hear rap music blaring out of your grandson or great grandson’s car, you want to take a baseball bat and disable it. But you don’t – you just remember the smooth mellow sounds of Big Band music, and “replace” the rap music in your mind.

Speaking of music, in this church, we have a form of tribalism – we sing the great hymns of faith, composed mostly by men and women who have been dead and gone for at least 75 years. Many of you remember Jerry Mattson, who was a dear and beloved leader of this church for many years. In a meeting a few years ago, we were discussing the kinds of music that appeals to younger Christians who might be looking for a church.

I think it was Tom Rothhaar who was explaining to Jerry that many of the newly retiring “baby boomers” are more comfortable with contemporary worship and praise music. Jerry said something like this: “After I am dead and gone, you can sing all the praise music you want.”

We have “tribalism” in the church. There is a warmth that draws people in, but there is also a “tribalism” that makes a particular group of people feel welcome and “at home.” Let me re-phrase the question for you:

·        For the sake of Christ, can your faith reach beyond your “tribalism”?

III.          Reaching Beyond our Tribalism

In 2008 Clint Eastwood presented a film entitled “Gran Torino” that addresses the issue to how Americans get along with immigrants.

Gran Torino tells the story of Walt Kowalski, a retired auto worker whose wife has just died. While family and friends gather at his home after the funeral, we notice another gathering of Hmong immigrants at the house next door. At first impression Walt is the “grumpiest old man” – he hates the loneliness, he appears resentful of the “foreigners” moving in next door, and he rebuffs Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) in his attempts to fulfill his promise to Walt’s late wife to “look after him.”

Though Walt has two sons and grandchildren, he appears distant from his family, who seem more interested in what they will inherit when Walt dies. Son Mitch (Brian Haley) is the more attentive, calling his father regularly. When Mitch and his wife Karen (Geraldine Hughes) come to visit Walt on his birthday, it is evident that they intend to move him from his home as soon as they convince Walt he is a doddering old man.

Walt finally meets his Hmong neighbors when a gang which includes their son’s cousin Spider (Dua Moa) attacks son Thao (Bee Vang) and attempts to drag him off after he refuses to join them. In classic Clint Eastwood manner, Walt brings his Korean War M-1 and orders the gang members off his lawn. In the days that follow, Hmong family and friends shower the bewildered Walt with gifts of flowers and food – which his teenage neighbor Sue (Ahney Her) explains is a sign of their respect for him.

When the Hmong gang finally forces Thao to join them, his initiation is to steal Walt’s Gran Torino, a car he has kept in mint condition since personally building part of it on the 1972 assembly line at Ford motors. Thao fails in his attempt, driven from the garage at gunpoint by Walt, but Thao later returns to offer his services as retribution for dishonoring his neighbor.

Reluctant at first, Walt accepts Thao’s service, and Walt finds a series of jobs for him to do. Along with the work, he begins to mentor Thao, who is lacking a father figure in his life.

There is a dramatic turn in the story when Sue is attacked by the Hmong gang. Because of his care for his neighbors, and especially Sue, who has been the “bridge” between her family and Walt, he decides to seek vengeance for the attack on Sue. Walt wants the gang thugs put away in prison, and decides that only a violent attack on him that is witnessed by others will make that happen. Unarmed, but pretending to carry a concealed gun, Walt confronts the gang where he dies in a hail of their gunfire, and the police, alerted by Father Janovich, move in to arrest and jail the entire gang.

At Walt’s funeral, young Father Janovich tells how, despite Walt’s gruff manner, he has learned much from Walt, about love and sacrifice.

Knowing he was facing death, Walt had already written out instructions that his car, the Gran Torino, is to go to young Thao (and not his own sons or spoiled granddaughter). [iii]

The feature character, played by Eastwood, is a grumpy old man named Walt Kowalski. Walt, who is always gruff and often rude, undergoes a remarkable change in the course of the story.

Rex S. Wignall, October 4, 2015


[i] Leonard Sweet, Commentary on John 10:1-10, ChristianGlobe Networks, 0-000-1415

[ii] Leonard Sweet, Collected Works, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc. 1997, 0-000-1415

[iii] Summary notes by Rex Wignall on “Gran Torino” a 2008 film Directed by Clint Eastwood, Screenplay by Nick Schenk, story by Dave Johanssen.

 
Mark 10:17-31
 
 
 
Mark 10:46-52
 
Sermon by Soren Dockings
 

            One of the things that struck me most about the Bible Passage for today was how a blind man, Bartimaeus, sought out Jesus because he just knew that Jesus could help him. Here was a man who rose up against the crowd, who was moved in his very spirit. Here was this man who was not only physically blind, but his blindness extended beyond that. He had Blind Faith. O What a glorious blessing blind faith is. It is a kind of innocence that harkens back to our youth. Once upon a time, when everything was full of promise and wonder. A time when we had simple amazement in all things unknown.

            Earlier this year, while I was shopping at our local Dollar Tree store, I happened to come across some crosses with messages about love, peace and faith displayed on them. While I was in deep thought, trying to pick the best one out for my grandmother, a child came up to the selection of crosses.  He picked one up and his face lit up as he turned to his grandmother, asking if he could buy one for his dad. As his grandmother okay-ed the idea, I asked him which one he thought his dad would like. He picked the faith cross. Being already touched and deeply moved by this moment, I asked him when he was going to give the cross to his dad, and the little boy just looked at me, his little cross about faith in his hand, and a warming smile on his face, "Oh, Daddy is in Heaven," he stated as a matter of fact, "But I talk with him all the time, and some day I will see him again." This child had Blind Faith. But as many of us grow and learn, and are taught to seek answers, some of the innocence of youth are lost, much of the amazement and some of the joy leaves us.

            Perhaps some of that is true for many of us in our life of faith as well. What was once in the hands of God, have now become complications of our human mind. As we live life, we attempt to learn a lesson, and as event builds upon event, we become blind to true acts of God.  But we must remember the advice that Paul offers us in Romans 1:28-29 "And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness." So with faith, everything is possible, and yet without faith, every kind of evil is possible.  That is the curse that man has had on him since the time of Adam. We are all born with the possibility to do so much good, yet we all can also be capable of so much vile evil, as much of history can attest. Faith is believing in something as a truth, without the evidence to support the fact. Faith in God may be a burden to the human mind, but the love of God, and the trust that he will support us in our darkest moments far outweigh what in reality is a selfish burden. 

            As it says in Mark 8:12 "And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, 'Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.'" As we struggle with our faith, we ask God to send us a sign. Give me proof and then I will believe. Perhaps this sounds like some of us? I know this sounds like Doubting Thomas. But proof is not what faith is about. But let us take a moment to ponder upon the possibility of God giving us proof in Today's World. Do you think we would see this sign as a true message from God? Or, rather, would it be more likely we would question it and seek a reason behind the event? It has become the norm for our society to use reason and seek beyond face value, what once could have passed as a true miracle in another age, is now explained away with fact upon fact, and these once miracles, such as life itself, is explained away as a simple biological process or a series of unrelated events that combine mindlessly to cause said event, with no intelligence required to make the process complete.  

            Perhaps this is a burden of the human soul. Perhaps a symptom of sin causes us to doubt our faith. I like to view our doubts and concerns in a slightly different light. I choose to see them as a test of our faith. It is our journey through the shadow of the valley of doubt that makes the sunrise of our strengthened faith so much brighter when our journey is finished. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 "So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal."

            It seems odd that perhaps we all should wish to be blind, for us to close our eyes so that we can see with God's.  Faith requires a bit of blindness.  Perhaps we will never approach the level of blind faith that say the Centurion in Luke 7 does, who asked Jesus to heal his servant, stating that he too knows command, and if you command it Jesus, it will be done. Blind Faith is a blessing, the blind beggar had it and was blessed with sight.  Could you just imagine a blind world, full of faith? Glory indeed to the Father, Amen.

 
 
Mark 10:46-52
 
Sermon by Judy Love
 

A knight had  just gotten married and was returning home with his wife. They were crossing a lake in a boat, when suddenly a great storm arose. The knight was fearless, leaning back and relaxing as wind and water raged around them. But his wife became very much afraid because their situation seemed hopeless: The boat was small and the storm was big, and she just knew that at any moment they were going to be drowned. But the knight sat silently, calm and quiet, as if nothing was happening.

The woman was trembling and she said, “Are you not afraid ? This may be our last moment of life! It doesn’t seem that we will be able to reach the other shore. Only some miracle can save us; otherwise death is certain. Are you a stone to show no fear?

The knight laughed and took his sword out of its sheath. He leaned over and brought it close to his wife's  neck, so close that only a small gap was there between the sharp sword and her flesh.

He asked,” Are you afraid ?” She laughed and said,” Why should I be afraid ? If the sword is in your hands, I would have no fear because I know you love me.

The knight put the sword away and said, "That is my answer”. I know God Loves me, and the storm is in His hands.

This knight had great faith much like Bartimaeus-who, despite his physical blindness, still believed that Jesus would heal him. We celebrate their faith. But in our country today, we do not have to look far to find people who are spiritually blind. People who have either stopped calling on Jesus or who have never really trusted in the Lord.

As I was leaving the office one day this week, a member of the Menifee police force was in the parking lot sitting in his car, filling out reports. I took a moment to go over, introduce myself and respectfully thank him for the job all of our policemen do for us. We began to talk and he told me the full story behind the incident at the McDonalds last week. It seems that the woman who did the shooting, Amanda, was supposed to be making a 'neutral ground transfer' with her ex-husband of their two children. However, she really came there to kill him.

 

Why? Well, there were issues that the courts had already decided with which she was not agree and she decided to take justice into her own hands. How selfish Amanda was to not only kill another person, but to leave these children now without a father OR a mother. Amanda wasn't interested in Jesus or salvation or even obeying the ten commandants. She wasn't praying or reading her bible. She was angry, but worst of all Amanda was spiritually blind.

 

Now, you don't have to kill someone to be spiritually blind. But if you don't pray, if you don't read the Bible, if you don't help your neighbor...the list could go on and on...you have become spiritually blind.

 

Hardly a week goes by that we do not we read or hear on the news of another shooting in a school or theater or public venue. It's like the devil has declared war on the good people of America and is using troops of the spiritually blind to attack us.  

 

This past Thursday evening two administrative offices at the Banning High School were deliberately set on fire, resulting in almost $100,000 worth of damage. Now, whoever did this, youth or adult was almost certainly trying to send a message. I don't know what that was but the one that I picked up on was their spiritual blindness that allowed them to do this damage to their community.

 

Also last Thursday, an elderly couple in Lake Elsinore was car-jacked right on Grape Street, where the Wal-Mart is by a man and a woman. They were later caught, but this is just another example from hundreds right in our neighborhoods that show how spiritually bereft people are today. 

 

I'm going to say that looking out into our sanctuary today, there is no one here who is without care or who has no needs. Judy is worried about Al's upcoming surgery. Charlene is struggling to breathe, Essie is trying to work through her pain. Nancy is dealing with Lacy's Parkinson's, Alvin and Patty are concerned over her upcoming knee surgery. Jeannie is having to care for her sister who moved in. Jerry Smith is dealing with his mother's continuing dementia. Frank and Patty Horn are praying that his lymphoma does not return. Priscilla is concerned about Bobby's heart problems, Ed McDermott is worried about Shirley Malley's health outlook, Barbara Davis is so sick with vertigo she cannot get out of bed. Bob Hill is bruised and hurting from his recent fall.

 

I'm telling you about everyone I know of and there are many more in this room who have not shared their pain...physical or emotional. I think we need to take steps to help each other through prayer and thereby work toward erasing any traces of spiritual blindness here. See who is sitting beside you or in front of you. Look at the choir look into the East wing. Let's start our own cry to the Lord for help by asking for help for our neighbors right here. This next week, I would like to ask that the left side of the church (your left, my right) pray for the right side. The Right side pray for the East Wing, and the East Wing pray for the choir and the ushers. And you can all pray for Rex, Julian, Virginia, Soren and myself. I want to know that there is some fierce praying going on in this church for one another!

 

Now,  I'm not done. Bartimaeus asked for two things. He asked to be healed and Jesus answered him after calling him forward and seeing his true depth of faith. And we are going to pray for each other for healing. But Bartimaeus asked for a second thing. He called out to Jesus to Have mercy on him!

 

What are we doing when we ask God to have mercy on us?

 

In Hebrew it means Loving Kindness, in Greek it means compassion. Today in plain English I want us to cry out to God for his protection, provision, guidance, and his constant presence with us.

 

Do you believe in Evil? The Bible is full of stories about evil and people who do it from Cain and Abel to the crucifixion of Jesus himself. I can assure you that Evil is alive and well in the 21st century, right here in Sun City, at the McDonald's restaurant, on Grape Street in Lake Elsinore, at the high school in Banning. Evil cheers when we live for ourselves and forget our neighbors. Evil laughs when we blame, accuse or hurt one another. Evil encourages us to take care of our own feelings and not to be concerned about those of anyone else.

 

Evil will move in and establish roots when we do not tend our gardens. So, when you are praying this next week to be free of spiritual blindness, when you are praying for the people right next to you in this church to feel God's presence with them through their trials, do not forget to pray for evil to be choked off in your garden.

 

This is one time that it is okay for us all to ask for the death of something...the death of evil in our midst.

 

Now, the people who were following Jesus may have been sincere, or they may have just been wanting to catch a glimpse of the audacious young upstart from Galilee. Or, they may have been some of the temple priests who were hoping he would say or do something for which they could condemn him. We don't know because the bible doesn't say and because evil can appear as perfectly normal as a young mother with children pulling into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant.

 

But you can bet there was both spiritual blindness and evil in that crowd that day. Now, Bartimaeus didn't let that bother him. He did not let his physical blindness become a stumbling block to his faith. We, who have sight, (albeit it dim as we age) can't afford to let anything become a stumbling block to our faith.

 

When Ted and I took our vacation, one of the places we went to was San Jose to see the Winchester House. This is the 160 room mansion built at the behest of Sarah Winchester who believed that she was being haunted by the ghosts of everyone who had ever been killed by one of the Winchester rifles her family was famous for. This is a true story of a woman with so little, if any, faith in or love of God that she spent her entire life and fortune concentrating on confusing spirits with false walls, windows in the floors and stairs to the ceiling.  Not only was this woman very eccentric she was devastatingly spiritually blind.  

 

So, we all have our assignments for the next week and I want to know how it goes. I want you to come by or call and tell me if you feel better, more at peace, more comforted, more in touch with God from your week of praying for your neighbors here in church and shouting in your heart for God to have mercy on you. And may all of those prayers and pleas reach the ears of God a half hour before the devil even knows we asked!

 

Let us pray.        

_______________

 

Father, we thank you for the opportunity to come together today and ponder this story of Bartimaeus. We pray that with your help each person within the sound of my voice will find their true 'blind faith' in You. We ask that you open our spiritual eyes and let us see how easy it would be if we just trusted in your words and gave all of our troubles into your hands. Be patient with us Lord, for surely we will all one day come to you as blind Batimaeus did...asking for your healing touch. 

 

Amen.

 
 
Mark 10:35-45
Sermon by Pastor Tom Rothhaar
 
Throughout my 50 years of being a pastor, I've discovered that a lot is expected of clergy - including using some unique pipeline to God that is supposedly given to us at the time of ordination. Two of the heaviest responsibilities people have wanted to lay on me have to do with significant ceremonial events - they want me to keep babies from crying during infant baptisms and to keep rain from falling during outdoor weddings. In spite of the fact that I actually do have a pretty good record with regard to both baptisms and weddings, I like to think that those requests are made facetiously. But I'm not always sure. There does seem to be a prevailing assumption that ordained clergy have an extra does of spirituality, and that the more spiritual you are the more you can tap into some sort of "divine favor" and get God to make everything go your way. That's what one of my clergy colleagues calls "genie religion."
 
That reference comes, of course, from the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp. You probably remember that, whenever he wanted something, Aladdin and the magic lamp. You probably remember that, whenever he wanted something, Aladdin would rub the lamp and the Genie would pop up and grant his request. "Genie religion" assumes that God is always waiting to pop up at our behest and do the very same thing.
 
I suppose that kind of thinking represents a natural, and perhaps universal, human desire. Whether it's rubbing a magic lamp or saying just the right word in prayer, we've probably all thought about what it would be like to have our every wish granted. That desire goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, who didn't have a lamp, but who had a forbidden tree, and who gave into temptation when the serpent told them, "If you eat from this tree, you'll be like God and can have whatever you want."
 
It's that same human trait that we run into in our text for this morning. James and John are walking along the road with Jesus. They turn to him with a request: "We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." (v. 35)
 
That seems pretty brazen, doesn't it? But give them credit for one thing - they're being honest. They want Jesus to be their Genie, and they tell him so. They want him to use his divine connections to give them a special privilege. "Let one of us sit," they ask, "at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory." (v. 37) In other words, "When you win your final victory, Jesus, let us be right there to share the honor with you."
 
Jesus responds with a warning and a challenge: "You don't know what you're asking. Can you drink the cup [of suffering] I drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism [of fire] with which I am baptized?" (v. 38) In other words, "Are you able to follow me all the way to the Cross?"
 
James and John's confident replay is, "We can!" (v. 39) But the fact is that they don't know what they're asking. They don't know what it is they're agreeing to. And they certainly don't have a clear understanding of how it is God works in our lives.
 
These disciples think Jesus is a "Genie" - or maybe that Jesus is the lamp and God is the Genie. In either case, they expect the result of their request to be that they'll have done for them exactly what they want to have done. What they don't seem to understand is that Jesus did not come into our world to do for us what we want done; Jesus came here to do what God wants done! Furthermore, as much as God loves us and wants to bless us and care for us, God isn't sitting in heaven waiting to take our orders; God is acting in our lives according to his plan! And God's plan is, first of all, for him - God - to be the one to give the orders, and for us to be on the receiving end; and, secondly, for us to be less concerned about what we want or what is "due" us than we are about our sacrificing ourselves to do what God wants!

In this particular encounter with his disciples, Jesus is addressing this issue, and saying to them - and also to you and me:

"Discipleship is not something to take lightly. If you want to follow me - if you want the blessings that go with being my disciple - you need to also accept the responsibilities. You need to resist that all-too-human temptation to put your wants at the top of your agenda and, instead, align yourself with my agenda."
 
If you turn back in Mark's Gospel to the previous chapter - chapter 9 - you'll see that Jesus had to deal earlier with the same idea in a different context. Jesus and the twelve disciples had been on the road when he overheard them arguing with one another about who was the greatest. When they got back to Capernaum, he asked them about it. (v. 33) Then he bawled them out. "You've got the whole thing backward," he said. "Anyone who wants to be first or greatest must be willing to be last - to be a servant." (9:35)

Now, here in chapter 10, it's just a few verses and probably no more than a few days later when James and John demonstrate how little they heard . . . or understood . . . or accepted. Jesus had said, "Greatness is found in being a humble servant." Now they're saying, "Make us great by elevating us to the top."

I wonder if Mark, when he wrote his Gospel, didn't choose to put those two incidents close together for emphasis - so thath you and I can see how human those disciples were, and how much we are like them. So often we want our religion - we want God and Jesus - to do for us what we want done . . . when we want it done . . . the way we want it done. Yet Jesus wants us to see that he's our Savior, not when we try to "use" him, but when we follow him.

We're looking for a way to successfully get through our agendas . . . or to solve our problems . . . or to get some blessing we want and think we ought to have. And Jesus is saying, "I'm not here to do your bidding - I'M here to show you how to get right with God!"

Jesus, of course, does offer us gifts and blessing beyond anything we even know how to ask for. A personal relationship with God through Jesus opens us to incredible power and help - in every circumstance. But God is not a supernatural vending machine! And, when Jesus talks about gifts and blessings, he also talks about demands and expectations!

I want to point out something to you, in this connection, about the way in which this whole Gospel of Mark is constructed. There are 16 chapters. The first eight give us a picture of Jesus' ministry in Galilee. He's preaching and teaching . . . healing people . . . going off by himself from time to time to pray. And then at the end of chapter 8, Jesus predicts his death (v. 31) and proceeds from there to tell 'the crowd" and his disciples what it will cost to follow him. (vs. 34-35) From chapter 9 on, Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week - and challenging us to go there with him.
 
Read through the last half of Mark's Gospel, or through any of the other Gospels, and you'll never find Jesus saying to his disciples, "Why don't you guys just stay here in Galilee, where it's relatively safe and comfortable, while I go on up to Jerusalem to be crucified." He never says, "You fellows just take it easy while I suffer and die and am resurrected. And then, when I enter into my glory, you can come and enjoy it with me." Instead, he says, "If you want to be my disciples, you have to follow me all the way."

I'd like you to take out your hymnals and turn to #530. If you look down at the bottom of the page, you'll see that this hymn, "Are ye Able," is based on this text from Mark 10. The question it asks is, "How far are you willing to go with your discipleship? Are you willing to go so far as to give your life?"

     "Are ye able," said the Master,
          "to be crucified with me?"
     "Yea," the sturdy dreamers answered,
          "to the death we follow thee."
     Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine.
          Remold them; make us, like thee, divine.
     Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
          a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.

For me, this hymn will be forever linked with closing worship services at Youth Day at our United Methodist Annual Conference in Redlands during the days of Bishop Gerald Kennedy - repeating verse after verse as the bishop extended the invitation to follow Jesus. It's pretty heady stuff - and it's one of those hymns I'd always been able to sing with gusto. But then one year at Annual Conference we had a guest preacher who made us all see the hymn in a different light.
 
Joseph Sittler was, at the time, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago. I don't know whether it was his choice or someone else's, but we sang "Are Ye Able" just before he preached. We stood and sang, "Yes, we are able," just the way James and John said, "We are able." Then we sat down and waited for the message. Sittler walked to the podium, and the first words out of his mouth were, "You don't know what you're siging! 'Lord, we are able to be crucified with thee.' Do you know what that means?" Suddenly, those words had a different sound!

Did you ever notice that it's easier to sing some things than it is to say them? It's easier to sing about discipleship when we're with the church family here in worship than it is to say the same things when we're out there feeling alone in the world. And it's certainly always easier to sing the words than it is to live them out! But I'll tell you this, it isn't as easy for me to sing "Are ye Able" now as it once was, because I keep hearing Joe Sittler ask, "Do you know what that means? Do you have any idea what kind of a commitment that would be?" And, of course, that's what Jesus was saying to James and John: "Do you know what you're asking? Do you realize what would be required of you in order for that request of yours to be granted?"

I wonder if we shouldn't ask a question of that sort when people join the church? Too many churches are trying to sell themselves to the world by emphasizing only what they have to offer: helpful programs, entertaining sermons, inspiring music, easy access. And, of course, the church does have something of incomparable importance to offer to the world - the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. But I notice that when Jesus called disciples, he put an emphasis on responsibility - not just on what you're going to get out of it, but on what's expected of you.

Referring to the cost of being a disciple, he likened it to a building project. He said, "If you're going to build a tower, you don't start building until you've estimated the cost. Likewise, when you sign up to be a disciple, you don't do it without being realistic about what it's going to cost you." (Luke 14:28-30, 33)
 
The "bottom line" is that Jesus wants you and me to be his disciples. He wants us to use our gifts and our talents for him. He wants us to give him a fair share of our time, our energy, and our money. He wants us to live and work and witness for him every day of our lives. If that isn't what we have in mind - if, for us, discipleship means something less costly than that - then we don't have any business saying (or singing) that we're willing to be crucified with Jesus.

It's human nature for us to want ease and plenty. We want to be happy. We want things to go smoothly. We want to be successful. But Jesus didn't primarily come to give us that - at least not on our terms! Jesus is not the Genie! He didn't come to magically grant us what we want. Jesus came to give his life so that we can see what God is trying to do with our lives! Jesus wants to give us, not only eternal salvation, but gifts and blessings in this life greater than anything we would ever choose for ourselves. But he says it will cost us something. That's why he tell James and John - and you and me - "You must be prepared to drink the cup that I drink, and you must know the baptism with which I am baptized."

Whenever I see us soft-pedaling the demands of discipleship, I wonder if the whole church shouldn't take a cue from the Benedictine monastic order. When a man wishes to become a member of that order, he's accepted for a year on probation. During that year, the clothing he wore when he came in hangs in his room where he can see it every day. At any time, he can take off his monk's robe, retract his vows, and walk out - no questions asked. Only after he has been there a year are his old clothes finally taken away, because by then he knows the cost. By then he knows if his commitment is deep enough - if he can keep his promise and follow through on his vows.

The decisions and the challenges Jesus sets before all of us call for the same sort of resolute response. Jesus says: "Don't use me - follow me! Be my servant. Give me your whole life . . . and then you can enter into glory with me!"

We can be absolutely sure that Jesus doesn't ask us to go anywhere he's not been - and he promises to be with us all the way. The question is, are we willing to go all the way with him?