Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

July 2020

Where Do You Want To Go?

I don’t know of anyone who right now is not lamenting life in 2019. 2020 came in with a bang and changed everyone’s life. There is no one who has not been impacted by Coronavirus and social distancing and wearing masks and staying home. Most of us think about how things were before the world turned upside down and our very existence is something new and strange. if it were possible for us to do a do-over for this year I’m sure we would choose to do that - a do-over where 2020 happened and everything was the same as it were before.
But when we think back to last year, do you have a tendency to think about how much better things were and forget the issues that were going on. When we think back do we only think about the good - gathering together whenever and however we wanted, normal shopping, going to restaurants, school as it always was, worship and church activities as we were use to; do we think about the problems we were having then; issues we were dealing with, bills we needed to pay, decisions we needed to make….
The Hebrew people were dealing with the same conundrum. They didn’t care that life really wasn’t all that good back in Egypt, but they were ready to go back. Let’s remember the story. God began his people with Abraham, who had Isaac, who had Jacob. Then Jacob has 12 sons and through a series of events Jacob and his 12 sons and their families end up in Egypt. For about 400 years, the descendants of Jacob lived and flourished in Egypt and by then they were more Egyptian than they were Hebrew. They walked like an Egyptian, they talked, ate and even thought like an Egyptian. They dressed like Egyptian and as we see later in the desert they even became familiar with the Egyptian gods. Culturally they were Egyptian. Their other benefit was that when God established Jacob and his family in Egypt, he gave them the best land there. It was lush and green and the perfect valley to life and thrive. Until time passed and the Egyptians were in need of people to build storage houses for them and they see all these people living in the land of Goshen and the Egyptians seized them and made them slaves; slaves whose job was to build Egypt’s many storage buildings. It was a long hard struggle. They worked during the day and then had to care for themselves - care for their sheep, grow their crops, carry their water at night. Even the women were forced into slavery helping to make the bricks and the mortar while the men build the buildings. Elderly, young, everyone was made to work - 7 days a week of hard, hard work - there was no rest. They cried out to God for help and God sends them Moses, who made Pharaoh angry and that increased the work the Hebrews had to do. Now they had to provide their own straw to make the bricks - growing, harvesting, processing it to be usable. They were building, they are making bricks, they were trying to raise their sheep and their food and carry their own water and now grow and process hay for the bricks. Finally, Moses is able to free them from slavery and they are taken out into the desert where God promises them he is going to take them to a land of ‘milk and honey’ - the promised land.
But the way to the promised land was not easy. They were no longer in the lush valley of Goshen, but in a dry desert. There was no quick access to water or food. Even though they were hardy people from working as slaves, this desert experience was new and they didn’t have a clear vision of where they were going - only that God - a god they didn’t know very well and Moses, a leader they didn’t know very well - kept telling them that this land of milk and honey would be wonderful… And after a while of this new way of life - this life as a nomad, moving, pitching tents, eating this stuff that fell from the sky and depending on water holes that were few and far between…. It is not that they weren’t use to hard work, it is just that this wasn’t the kind of life they had been use to. It was different and they weren’t real fond of the change. Even though here in the desert they truly had everything they needed; everything was provided for them; there were no Egyptian taskmasters whipping them; forcing them to work harder and harder……

But new is hard; change is hard; and having to move in a direction you weren’t planning on is hard; when you are forced into a transition you hadn’t expected - or even a transition you had expected but it wasn’t quite what you wanted it to be, the tendency is to want ‘to go back’. Back to the way things were before; back to what you were comfortable with - even if the way things were wasn’t all that great…. The past just holds this allure of comfort because it is what we were familiar with. Even if this transition is going to take you somewhere better, you are still a little skeptical.
So the Hebrews began to grumble and complain and they ‘wanted to go back’ to their life in Egypt. And as they reminisced it was the enjoyable things they remembered - the fish they ate, the cucumbers and melons, and the onions and the garlic. They remembered pots of meat and sitting around fires…. They had forgotten the lashes from the whip and the hard work from sunup to sundown - and then the extra work to provide for themselves. The good ole days were just the good times - none of the bad. “We want to go back!” They shouted. “We want things the way they use to be….”
Familiar cry for all of us. Change is hard. Moving forward is hard. And yet that is always what God is asking us to do. He is always asking us to move. There is not one story in the bible where people are told to stay put. It is always, ‘pick up and go’; or this is the new covenant; the new way. Paul reminds us that God tells us we have to grow and learn and do new things and learn new ways.
Jesus respected the fact that there were people who wanted things to stay the same; who wanted the status quo; He didn’t think that is what they should do but he respected it. That is why when approaches the cripple at the pool of Siloam Jesus asked him - “Do you want to get well?” Now we think that should be a no-brainer. Of course we would want to get well. Of course we would want to be healed. Or would we. Remember this fella has been a cripple for most of his life. This is all he knows. He lays by the pool; he begs and receives money and food from those he begs from; this is the life he is used to. If he is healed, that will all change. He will have to find employment; people will treat him differently - some will accept him but there will be those who will shun him because they will suspect that it was ‘the evil one’ who did the healing. The Pharisees were most displeased with him because he was evidence of what Jesus could do. Jesus knew that if he is healed, this is going to be a whole new life for him and not necessarily an easy one. So before he heals the paralyzed man Jesus asks - “Do you want to be healed?” Do you want your life to change? Do you want to move in a new direction? The paralyzed man said “Yes” and immediately he was healed, he picked up his bed and walked into this new life. Do we wonder if sometime in the future this healed man is going to say, “I wish I was back there by the pool. All I had to do was lie there and people gave me money and food. I want to go back to being paralyzed….”
Because that is what we are when we get stuck in remembering only the good in the past; when we are afraid of changes, of transitions, of new directions, of following where God is taking us. The Apostle Paul says to us in the passage we read from Philippians - Forget what is behind and move straight toward what is ahead.” Even like the Hebrews when you don’t know what that straight ahead might be, even if the way is difficult, even if like the paralyzed man you don’t know what your life is going to be like - we as the people of God are called to go straight ahead. Without worry, without fear, knowing God is leading us in the way we should go - even if it is new, or hard, or different, or not what we expected.…
We don’t know where the world is going. We, just like the Hebrew people in the desert are stuck in this new way of doing and of living and at looking what is around us. We can get hung up on thinking things can return to the way they were, which let’s admit it is doubtful, or we can depend on God to lead us in the new direction he has for us as the church of Jesus Christ. We are learning to worship in a new way; we are learning how to be the church in a new way, we are learning we really do need to lean on God for peace in the face of everything around us that is ‘new’.

Don’t be paralyzed; don’t be like the Hebrews who wanted to go back to ‘the way things use to be’ just because that is the familiar and the easy. Just know that no matter what change may lay before us as the church; no matter how we may have to change and adapt; whatever transition we may be forced to face, remember the words of Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plan I have for you” declares the Lord “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Amen!

Cornelius

CORNELIUS

The 10th chapter of Acts which we read a portion of earlier, is one of the great turning points in the history of the early church. A month ago, we celebrated Pentecost which is considered the ‘birthday’ of the Christian church. The people that day who were filled with the Holy Spirit went and began teaching others about Jesus and those who believe began to gather themselves in house churches - to support one another, to learn and to worship together. Whenever the house church would get too large for the particular house they were in, they would split and form a new house church. In this way the church of Jesus Christ began to grow.
In the beginning, the church was made up only of Jews. At Pentecost it was Jews who heard the message and received the Holy Spirit, and it was to other Jews that they spread the message of Jesus. So this new church of Jesus Christ was made up solely of Jews. The Apostle Peter and Jesus’ brother James, along with several other of Jesus disciples became the leaders of the church and they took on the responsibility of making sure the church stayed true to the principles Jesus had laid out for his followers. These leaders were convinced that this new church was for Jews and only for Jews and in order for someone to become a member of Christ’s church, they would first have to become a Jew. This understanding of Christ’s church continued for many years as the church grew in Jerusalem and some of the surrounding areas.
The Apostle Peter felt that God had called him to a more missionary type work and so he began to travel north of Jerusalem teaching and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ - but only to Jews.
The book of Acts is a record of the history of the church as it began to grow and flourish during the first century. The beginning of Acts tells us of the ascension of Jesus, then we have the account of Pentecost and then follows stories of how the church spread first in Jerusalem, then to the surrounding areas, and eventually up through Asia Minor and to Rome by the Apostle Paul. The accounts in Acts kind of fluctuate between the happenings of Peter and of Paul as each understood their ministry and their calling to spread the knowledge of Christ. They continued to struggle with one another about who the Gospel was for - Peter felt that it was Jews only and Paul felt God had called him to deliver the message to the Gentiles. The story that begins in Acts 10 records the first first time a Gentile is going to receive the message of Jesus and become a part of the Church of Jesus Christ. This man was Cornelius and since he is such an important part of church history we need to learn about who he was.
Cornelius was a Roman centurion stationed at Caesarea, the headquarters of the Roman government in Palestine. Palestine was essentially what we would call Israel today and Caesarea was a city on the coast, a little southeast of Nazareth where Jesus was born. A centurion was the leader of roughly 100 soldiers. He had a good reputation in the army, was known to be courageous and loyal to Rome. So Cornelius had two strikes against him if you were a Jew. First of all he was not only a Roman soldier, but the leader of Roman soldiers and the Jews in Palestine hated these soldiers who occupied their land and made their life difficult and had taxed most of the Jews into poverty. And his second strike was that he was a Gentile - and Jews hated all Gentiles. A Gentile being simply anyone who is not a Jew.
But we also know that Cornelius was a God-fearer. This was the term for Roman soldiers who had become frustrated with the gods of Romans and had attached themselves to the Jewish God. They did not formally become part of the Jewish faith, but they believed in one God and the ethical principles of the Jewish religion. Cornelius then was a man who was seeking after the one true God. The account in Acts also tells us that Cornelius was a man who was, for a Roman soldier, uncharacteristically kind. He was charitable and had a love for his fellow man that was not often seen in the Romans. He was also a man of prayer, again an unusual description of these Romans who occupied the Jewish lands.
After Luke, the writer of Acts, introduces us to Cornelius, the story shifts back to the Apostle Peter. Remember Peter adamantly believed that God had no use for the Gentiles. The Gospel of Jesus was not to be wasted on sharing with Gentiles. In fact Peter would go out of his way to avoid any contact with Gentiles. Peter was on one of his missionary journeys to share the gospel with other Jews and he was staying with a man named Simon who was a tanner. Peter went up to the roof of Simon’s house to pray. The roofs of these Hebrew houses were flat and were used as a room in house and this was often the place where people would go for some time alone. While Peter was up there praying, he had a vision. In his vision, there was a great sheet being let down from heaven. This sheet was full of animals and he heard a voice saying, “Kill them and eat them”. Now remember Jews had strict dietary laws and they were not allowed to eat any meat except animals who chewed their cud and had cloven hooves. All other animals were forbidden. In this vision, were animals of all types - even the forbidden ones. Peter was shocked by the voice and said that he would never eat anything that Jewish law forbid. This same vision happened three times, each time Peter protesting that he would not eat the meat he as a Jew was not allowed to eat. But he came to understand that this vision was God’s way of telling him that Gentiles were OK - that Gentiles were OK to receive the Gospel. And it wasn’t like he was instantly changed, but the seed had been planted.
Now at the same time, Cornelius is at his home praying and he hears the voice of God telling him to send for the Apostle Peter to come to his house. So Cornelius did and two of Cornelius’ emissaries when to where Peter was staying and asked Peter to come with them. Peter did and he found himself at the door of Cornelius. Remember that Peter had no use for Gentiles, Peter had been taught his whole life not to associate with Gentiles, never to go into a Gentile home, that Gentiles were unworthy and unclean and at all cost were to be avoided. Even with the vision from God assuring him Gentiles were to receive the message, can you imagine how difficult it was for Peter to stand even in the doorway of a Gentile home? Cornellius respected this and met Peter at the door fully expecting Peter not to come in. But feeling that the spirit of God led him here, Peter went in to Cornelius’ house.
Once inside, Peter told Cornelius the story of Jesus and while they sat together, the Holy spirit came into Cornelius and Cornelius became the first Gentile to hear and receive the message of Jesus Christ and the first to receive the Holy Spirit. Cornelius then asked Peter to stay with him for several days so that he could learn more about Jesus. Peter baptized Cornelius and his whole family.
This was the power of the Holy Spirit at work. Peter who had despised Gentiles his whole life was given the courage by God’s Spirit to be led into a Gentile home and Cornelius, through the power of the Holy Spirit, became a believer.
Peter wasn’t the first person to struggle what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. While we don’t think about Jesus as someone who struggles with anything, the story we read from the Gospel of Matthew about the Syrophoenician woman is a story which helps Jesus realize that he was sent not only for the Jews, but for all people. In this story, the woman, called Syrophoenician because of the area she was from, comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her little daughter who was possessed with a demon. Jesus just ignores her but she persists in asking him to heal her daughter. He looks at her and says “I came just for the Jews and you are a
Gentile.” But she again begs him to help her little girl. Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the children’s (meaning the Jews) bread and give it to the dogs (referring to the Gentiles).” But even after this insult, she is not easily dismissed and says, “But even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.” Jesus stops and looks at her and says, “I have not seen such faith from anyone else” - meaning the Jews, who are the ones who should have had faith. In other words, Jesus sees that this woman’s faith as a Gentile is far greater than the Jews he has been preaching too.
Jesus began to understand the Gospel was for all people - the same lesson learned by Peter as he ministered to the Gentile Cornelius.
The church changed that day that Peter was able to put his past behind him and enter Cornelius’ house.
The church is in a period of change now. Change is hard – it was hard for Peter; it was even hard for Jesus.
This pandemic has forced us to look at church in a new way; forced us to look at worship in a new way. Forced us to see that the church of Jesus Christ will continue to do what Jesus needs us to do regardless of where or how we worship; regardless of a pandemic; regardless of social distancing or masks…
Just as Peter had to learn to see following Jesus in a new way; just as Jesus had to see his mission in a new way – we need to stop and spend so time considering what God is trying to teach us as the church; as those who follow Jesus. What is God trying to help us see as we work to be faithful to our call as the people of God and the church of Jesus Christ?


Amen!

For Such a Time as This

FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS

As you all know the denomination use to have a program entitled “For Such a Time As This”. Your pastor Catherine was a part of that program. I, too, was involved in the program for several years as a pastor mentor. The program worked to match seminary graduates into their first call in small, usually hard to fill, pulpits. The idea is that these graduates have been purposed by God for this time to provide a pastor for these particular pulpits - the graduates and the churches are matched by God specifically ‘for such a time as this’. Several years ago, at the Presbyterian Triennium, which is an every three year gathering of Presbyterian Youth at Purdue University - usually about 5000 Presbyterian Youth are there from all over the world - the theme was “For Such a Time As This” and the whole week was designed to help the youth understand that God was gifting them and God was training them for a specific purpose in the life of the church - whether it be now or sometime in their future. Those youth went away really understanding that God was grooming them ‘For Such a Time As This’ - they each had a purpose serving God and when that time came, they would realize what God had prepared them to do. “For Such a Time as This” is a widely used theme in all manner of church venues - and for good reason - because we all need to realize that God is grooming us and grooming the church for his purpose in his time.
“For Such a Time As This” comes from the story of Esther in the Old Testament and has become a catch phrase to help God’s people - us - understand that each of us has a purpose in the work and worship of God. And when we find ourselves in situations, when we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, when we find ourselves in times and places where we are called to stand up to the plate, whether we are comfortable with that or not, we come to understand that God has prepared us ‘for such a time as this’ and we are there to do work for God.
To understand the story of Esther lets get her into historical perspective. Let’s go all the way back to God’s people in the wilderness because that is where we are most familiar. God’s people spent 40 years wondering around the wilderness and God brought them into the promised land. Back then it was known as Cananaan, during Jesus’ time it was known as Palestine - today we would call it Israel. God’s people lived there a little over a thousand years - sometimes following the ways of God and more often straying away from God and worshipping the local idols. Eventually God got so frustrated trying to lead his people into what was best for them and best for God that God allowed Assyria to capture 10 of the tribes of Israel and scatter them all over the area around the Mediterranean Sea. Then God concentrated his efforts on the remaining 2 tribes, trying his best to help them and guide them but they also abandoned God and so God allows the Babylonians to come into Jerusalem and capture his remaining people and carry them off into Babylon where they lived in slavery. The story of Esther takes place after this Babylonian exile when most of God’s people were allowed to travel back to Jerusalem. There`was a small contingent of Jews who elected to stay in Babylon after the majority had returned home.
We open up with the king of Babylon, Xerxes, (although his name is recorded various different ways in different versions of the Bible) who has just hosted a party that has lasted months! The party consists of many of the powerful leaders of the nations around Babylon and the King needs to make sure that at all times he appears powerful. Any glimpse of weakness will alert these other powerful kings that perhaps they could come in and defeat Babylon. Remember that even though these guys are partying together, they are also sizing each other up and looking for that ‘edge’ in case the nations go to war with one another. So after many days of eating and drinking Xerxes wants to show off his queen who was a very beautiful woman. Her name was Vashti and Xerxes summoned her to come and parade in
front of all these drunk men in her scantily clad outfit. And she refused. Now, in our day and age of strong, independent women, we think “Good for her! Way to go!” but in the day and age of ancient Babylon, this was unheard of. No one in their right mind would refuse the king anything, but for a woman to refuse a man, especially the king, especially in public, was unthinkable. Xerxes has been embarrassed in front of all of these powerful leaders and Xerxes’ advisors quickly pointed out that this was unforgivable and he had better show his strength. Now Xerxes is conflicted because he does love Vashti - but he really doesn’t have a choice. Normally he would have her publicly executed to show people what happens when you defy the king, but because he cares for her he sends her away - which leaves the position of Queen of Babylon open…..
The solution to this problem of the empty Queen throne is to have a nationwide beauty contest. Almost like the story of Cinderella and her glass slipper when all the women wanted their foot to fit, all the women of Babylon wanted to be the Queen and began to apply for the contest. There was a man named Mordecai, who was a Jew, who worked in the palace of the king and he heard about the beauty contest. Mordecai had raised his niece, a girl named Hadessah (who we know by her Babylonian name of Esther) and she was very beautiful. So Mordecai encourages her to enter the contest, but Mordecai cautions her not to let anyone know of her Jewish heritage. The Jews, were 2nd class citizens and as a Jew Esther would have never been allowed to enter the contest.
After a year long elimination process, Esther won and she is now the Queen of Babylon and Xerxes is very pleased with her! Meanwhile, Xerxes has appointed Haman as the Prime Minister and while no one in Babylon likes the Jews, Haman had an unnatural hatred for the Jews. Haman, who feels he is quite important, declares himself such an important leader that everyone must bow to him as a god. Mordecai, being a good Jew and knows the first commandment, There shall be no gods before me, is not willing to bow before Haman which makes Haman crazy. So instead of just punishing Mordecai, Haman figures this is his opportunity to get rid of all the Jews. So Haman goes to Xerxes and asks Xerxes if he can kill all the jews and Xerxes says ‘sure’ and Haman begins his plan. Mordecai, who works in the palace, gets wind of the plan and knows he has to do something.
So he goes to Esther and tells her that she is in a position to do something about this. Well, Esther, is a little reluctant to do anything. She may be the Queen but this is a pretty ornamental office - her job is to do what the King asks her to do and to be available for him and she is only allowed to speak to the king when she is summoned. So Esther argues with Mordecai that there is nothing she can do. And Mordecai reminds her of two things - one is that she is a Jew and if Haman kills all the Jews then why does she think she is going to escape. She will get killed with all the other Jews. And he reminds her of the power and purpose of God. “Don’t you think, Esther, that God was behind all of this? Do you really think that you are here on your own? You think that maybe God has put you in this place so that you can do something about the extermination of all of your people? - maybe you are here ‘for such a time as this’.”
And Mordecai speaks to all of us. If we truly trust in God; if we truly understand our life as the people of God - then we need to remember that God is guiding and directing us in the way we should go so that we can be in places and in times to do what God needs done. When we find ourselves in a new place, in a new situation, a place or an event or a situation that we would have never chose for ourselves - maybe, just maybe, it is God saying, “I need you for such a time as this to do what I need done.” And we realize that God has given us the tools and the gifts and whatever else we may need to do whatever God lays before us.
Our world is a little strange right now. Our world is someplace new and different and confusing. Our world is restless and maybe that is part of God’s plan - to throw us off kilter a little bit, to make us think; to make us re-connect with him since let’s face it, God is about the only constant in our lives right now. Maybe God is preparing us as the church to be present as a witness ‘for such a time as this’…..
To make a long story short, Esther risks her life by approaching the King unsummoned and convinces Xerxes to cancel Haman’s genocide of the Jews - and she is able to save her people.
That is the point of this story - be willing to open yourself - as individuals and as a church - to the places you find yourself in and remember we are people of God, and we are here to do what He needs us to do - For Such a Time as we may find ourselves in.
Maybe God is grooming the church to be present in a whole new way in such a time as this.
Amen!