Music, Worship, Pentecost
Answering the Call
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
May 27, 2018
Trinity Presbyterian Church
In 1990 I returned to the church where I grew up to become an associate minister of fellowship activities. Included among those activities was the youth group. Being good Congregationalists and following our history stemming from the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, our youth groups were called Pilgrim Fellowship, or PF for short. I gathered the kids who were the elected leaders of the group for the purpose of creating their calendar of activities for the year. As we plotted their major activities one by one I was amusingly amazed and somewhat shocked. In essence, we could have overlaid their calendar to the annual calendar from when I was in Pilgrim Fellowship some fifteen years earlier.
They were doing all the same things! I asked them, “Why are you doing all the same things?” “Tradition!” they answered almost in unison. When they were little kids growing up watching the church activities of the youth group, they aspired to be just like us. Except they weren’t. That’s when I told them where all their traditions came from. Our youth group invented the Easter breakfast fundraiser. Our generation created the PF Variety Show. If they wanted to be like us, I suggested they start being original and forge ahead with their own path. Some of the old stuff they were doing still drew a crowd, though a lot of the activities were becoming pretty stale over the years. In short, they were trapped in a history of precedent and were recycling through old, worn out activities from which the Holy Spirit had moved on long before.
Clara Barton, who administered health care to the sick and wounded from Civil War battlefields and later founded the American Red Cross, epitomized growth and change in her leadership. She once said, “I have an almost complete disregard for precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.” Of course, this is Memorial Day weekend, a time when we Americans have set aside since the terrible days of the Civil War to especially honor those who’ve fallen serving our country. Memorial Day truly and rightly embodies the sacrifices of those in the past who’ve given their all to protect our freedoms, our values, our way of life. So, we honor the actions of those heroes. At the same time we look at history and honor the fallen, we cannot get stuck in the musty precedents of the past that, as Clara Barton alluded to, might hold us back from declaring a bold new future.
Barton would have found common ground with one of my favorite historical figures, Union General Ulysses S. Grant. In 1864, Grant took command of the Army of the Potomac and engaged the brilliant and masterful General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Their first battle against each other, the Battle of the Wilderness fought in early May 1864, was a seesaw affair that was difficult to determine because of the thick woods that shrouded the movements of the two armies. During one moment when Lee’s army seemed to be threatening both flanks of the Union forces, a worried general approached Grant and said, “… this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experiences; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan [river] and cut us off completely….” General Grant came to his feet and though usually not too emotional, became rather expressive. “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land in our rear and both flanks at the same time. Go back to your command and try and think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” To gain victory, Grant needed to inspire a new way forward rather than risk defeat through those worn out by resting on precedent thinking.
Last week we celebrated Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit as a gift from the Father to the church. The Holy Spirit epitomizes the holy voice of the church to proclaim the gospel, the good news to the world. The Holy Spirit represents the glory of God moving on from the dangers of precedent thinking, from those traditions that trap us in the past and don’t allow us to move forward with the Spirit of God. Just like my youth group from 1990, it is easy for churches to be dying in the precedent of old thinking while the Holy Spirit keeps moving down the road picking up believers who are willing to travel with it.
The prophet Isaiah, from today’s scripture reading, had what only can be described as a really big Spirit of God moment. He was in the temple. Imagine the same scene in our sanctuary. There, in all glory, was the Lord of hosts “… and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings …” flying about and proclaiming “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The sound of their voices was so powerful “… the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” Again, imagine this happening in our sanctuary. Now, we would have two choices. The safe way forward would be the temptation to fall back on precedent and research whether or not the Lord of hosts and the seraphim received a building use permit from Session. After all, the Municipality of Anchorage building code people and the fire marshal might take issue with shaking the building and filling it with smoke.
Yet, instead of precedent, we can follow the lead of Isaiah. It is the way of true confession. “Woe is me!” he cried, “I am ruined, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” And through true confession, the Lord finds us a new way forward where we no longer rest on tired precedent and instead join the Holy Spirit toward a glorious future. Lutheran Pastor Donald Moldstad commented on this passage and wrote: “The bright glory of God exposes the filth and sinfulness of the prophet. The glory of God in his law exposes our filth and sinfulness.”
Then comes the moment of God’s grace. God gladly hears and instantly rectifies Isaiah’s plight. “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’” God doesn’t mess around with grace. Rev. Moldstad reminds us that once King David confessed his sin, the prophet Nathan instantly absolved him. Jesus similarly and lovingly bestows immediate grace upon the Apostle Peter. And how quickly did the grace of God turn around the Apostle Paul one day on the road to Damascus? The self-described “chief among sinners” was directly brought into grace.
The summer of 1945, shortly after World War II ended in Europe, a memorial service was held at the Holy Trinity Church, London for a war hero who happened to be a German national. The service was broadcast via the BBC, which seems remarkable due to the likely hard feelings for the Germans that understandably persevered in Great Briton so soon after the war. Nevertheless, the service was dedicated to the Christian martyrdom of German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom I choose to specifically remember in this sermon on Memorial Day weekend. Dietrich’s seminal work, “The Cost of Discipleship,” pushes against precedent thinking created by many Christian churches, which he would describe as “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace,” he wrote, “means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost!” He goes on to condemn church and society so caught up in the precedent of receiving the benefits of a no cost grace, and then going back to selfish sinful lives, and refusing to participate in any kind of work in discipleship. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Isaiah received real grace, because he genuinely confessed and asked forgiveness of his sins and when the seraph touched his lips with the white-hot coal he proclaimed to Isaiah, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” In the 1970s there was a theological movement in Wesleyan circles called “orthopathy” which combines two Greek words “ortho” meaning “right” and “pathos” meaning “feeling.” According to Henry Knight, orthopathy moves us beyond the mere movements of religious ritual and practice that we often perform out of precedent, because somebody told us we had to and because we’ve always done it that way before. “We need not only right beliefs and practices,” Knight writes, “we need a right heart; we need not only to think and do what is faithful, we need to be faithful persons. To put it differently, orthopathy does not primarily refer to a warm heart, but to a heart formed, governed and motivated by love.”
I believe Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put orthopathy in the category of the more desired “costly grace” which means we’re actually living the faith and not just merely practicing the rituals. He defines costly grace to be “… the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God.”
Bonhoeffer lived the costliness of his discipleship. Just before the war started, friends in America invited him to get away from Germany and come teach at Union Theological Seminary. He was scarcely here three weeks and feeling very unsettled and realized God was calling him to challenge the Nazis on his home turf. He knew he could not abandon Germany to the Nazis and so he boarded a ship and returned to his homeland to take a stand against evil. Ultimately, he realized the depth of the Nazi evil in Germany, and joined the German resistance, and assisted in the failed plot to kill Adolph Hitler. Because of that, the Nazis, who already had him imprisoned on other lesser charges, executed Dietrich just three weeks before the war ended at Flossenburg prison camp on Sunday, April 8, shortly after delivering worship services for the other prisoners incarcerated with him.
Isaiah was in the temple. He could have, the day God came to him, chosen the easy path of being busy and distracted following all the expected religious practices and rituals set by precedent. In that case, God may have moved on to search for another worthy prophet with a right heart and a willing faithfulness. Yet, Isaiah took the harder road and did his part. He candidly recognized he was unclean and sinful and, in that state, he couldn’t possess a genuine relationship with the Lord. Upon his confession, he immediately received God’s grace. Then, and only then, was he able to hear the voice of the Lord’s truth calling to him. Do we get that? Isaiah doesn’t hear the Lord’s voice until he received grace. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” When Isaiah confessed, he gave up himself, he died to himself, and lived for God, which allowed him to answer the call, “Here am I, send me!”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Like Isaiah, Dietrich chose the path of costly grace and set his own life aside for the sake of the Lord calling him. He did not expect Divine grace for free. He did not garner God’s presence in his life through the precedents of past rituals that were made cheap and less meaningful through watered down church practices and routines. He confessed and gave his life to God and when the call came he responded, “Here am I, send me.” On this Memorial Day, let us remember the likes of his martyrdom for the Lord. And, whenever possible, strive to live the legacy of true discipleship for Christ in and through our living. Amen.
Growing Deep Spiritual Roots
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
May 13, 2018
Trinity Presbyterian Church
It had to be about fourth grade when a rambunctious friend from church suggested we play hooky from Sunday School. His name was JJ and he was a year or two older than me, but we knew each other well through common church activities. I wasn’t so sure, but trusted JJ knew what he was doing. The Congregational church where we grew up had about 3,000 members with two services on Sunday mornings. The Sunday School classes were crammed full of kids as our Baby Boomer generation dominated the scene. With all that activity, JJ and I figured we’d never be missed. We snuck down to the youth room of the church, which was typically empty during the worship and Sunday School hour. There we drank soda pop from the youth vending machine – a nickel for a twelve-ounce glass bottle in those days – and we played table football with that little folded paper triangle. Two young boys having the time of their lives and nobody the wiser.
Nevertheless, my Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Watson, knew my mom well. After all, together they taught our class in second grade two years earlier. Mrs. Watson saw my mom after the service and asked if I was alright. Of course, my mom didn’t know what she was talking about until Mrs. Watson revealed I hadn’t attended class. Mom had moved on from teaching to singing in the choir, so she had been in the worship service in the sanctuary. Well, of course, mom confronted me about my behavior. I didn’t get disciplined in the traditional sense, though my mom and I had some long discussions about responsibilities and proper choices and whom I should follow and whom I should avoid. She didn’t suggest JJ was a terrible boy, though she offered that he maybe didn’t always have great ideas and that I should be more discerning.
So, when I read the Psalm for today I thought of my mom and I thought of that incident. I’m sure there are a lot of other incidents in my life where I strayed from the path of the righteous, yet for some reason in the preparation for this message, the Spirit reminded me of that particular time. Anyway, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on that law day and night.” Both my mom and dad worked hard to steer their kids toward a spiritual relationship with God and to learn to trust God working in our lives. They, the World War II generation who themselves grew up watching various evils grip the world, knew it would be too easy for their kids to “… walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take ….”
Therefore, it was also about fourth grade when I asked my mom about prayer and I wondered did she ever really talk with God and if so, what did God say to her? Well, she took me seriously and we had a lengthy conversation about how prayer sometimes worked for her. She also acknowledged how prayer might work differently for others. She told me a story about when she was growing up and she prayed to God about something and received a very clear answer. She described it as something between a voice and a feeling. Nonetheless, she heeded the spiritual guidance given her and described to me an immediate sense of peace. She also told me that over time she was able to understand more clearly why God gave her the answer that she received, which in turn increased her sense of peace.
This sermon represents the third of three in a series on prayer. The first one spoke to the theme in 1 John chapter 4 where God is simply described as love and how love casts out fear and when we pray to the God of love, fear becomes vanquished. Then, last week, we examined prayer as being an act of obedience and how obedience to God grants us peace, because obedience simply means we can rest the control of our lives into the arms of perfect love. Today, we look at how prayer keeps us grounded in the Lord because, as it is written, “That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.” Just as the trees near the water grow strong, well nourished roots, we have access to a personal relationship with God and to each other. Right now, we are all surrounded by other believers, holy saints, Godly mentors, and Divine accountability partners who help support us throughout our growing spiritual lives.
About a hundred years ago, a girl named Agnes was growing up in a fairly prosperous family and life was good until her father suddenly died when she was eight years old. Christian author Eric Metaxas describes that the family went from a relative life of ease to poverty. “To pay the bills,” he writes, “Agnes’s mother took in sewing, but Agnes recalled that even facing hard times, her mother continued to look after the needs of the poor and sick in the neighborhood. Agnes observed her mother each week bringing food to the home of a poor woman and even cleaning her house. She also took care of another woman whose body was covered in sores, and when a poor widow died, she took the woman’s children into her own family. She was the model for the young girl who would one day become Mother Teresa.” Today, Mother’s Day, we can think of Mother Theresa’s mother and ponder how our simple acts of living, serving, loving, and praying may influence and nourish the spiritual roots of the children of God around us. We’ll never know how the faithful lives we live today will model the example for our potential saints of tomorrow.
Surely my mom and dad both taught me to pray and helped me build a spiritual life. As I developed this message, I’ve discovered that fourth grade was a seminal year for me, because that’s also the time when I first announced to my mom my interest in becoming a church pastor. But it was more than just my parents who made sure to expose us kids to a lot of different growing experiences. By the time I reached junior high, I was sent to summer church camps. There I was met by some important people of prayer. A young counselor barely out of high school named Dave, who is now a medical doctor in Virginia, watched over a cabin full of eighth grade boys. Never mind we had the whole camp singing and worshiping in the beautiful chapel in the pine woods and around the camp fire at night. That wasn’t enough for Dave. Before bedtime, he gathered us boys and taught us more and prayed with us and invited us to pray. Through that experience I became confident enough to sometimes pray before the whole camp, which astounded my older sister.
In high school church camp, I remember asking Pastor Jack, a very spiritual man, to help me with prayer and perhaps even learn better how to pray. He spent time with me using scripture to support the idea that God approves of prayers with some organization and, with the Lord’s prayer being an example, he described how we can use a couple of words as acronyms to help us shape our prayers. We’ve heard these before. We can take the word PRAY and break it down to praise, repent, another (meaning praying for others), and yourself (meaning praying for yourself). The other word is ACTS which stands for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Over the years and even after becoming ordained, whenever I saw him, Pastor Jack gave me so much more than that small discourse on prayer.
Of course, the years of church ministry and military chaplaincy have been periods of personal spiritual growth and sometimes spiritual challenge. Pastors, lay people, chaplains, and soldiers have sought my prayer support and, yes, many times provided me with prayer encouragement. I believe, in my own imperfect way, I’ve had the opportunity to model my faith for others. Certainly, I know that to this very day others, and many people right here today, continue to be faithful role models for my further spiritual development. So, I feel compelled by the Spirit to share how special the prayer life here at Trinity Presbyterian Church has been and continues to be for me. Mary and I have served five church pastor positions, all of them wonderful in their own way, and still we are pleasantly astounded with the wonderful prayer life here at Trinity. You are the most prayerful bunch a pastor could hope for. Your ministry of prayer ministers to us and just speaking for myself, I sorely need what you have to offer.
Some minutes ago, I mentioned having first felt the tug toward pastoral ministry as early as the fourth grade. The call became stronger through junior high and high school. I somewhat naively imagined what we were experiencing in youth group and especially at church camp, with all the loving fellowship and faithful prayer, that those experiences are what serving a church would be like. Well, not really. Yet, forty some years later here we are and to my personal delight, you guys are really close to those ideals. Mary and I have watched you launch into prayer over big joys and concerns and what some might consider to be little things. That’s it! Let’s acknowledge and invite God into every facet of life. I have a close friend outside of this church, a believer in God, though he doesn’t think God gets involved in the small stuff. I just want to shake him awake. It’s in the small stuff, in the very atoms and molecules, where God works everyday to make really big things happen.
So, I thank you, faithful people of Trinity, and I thank you for praying the big things and the small things and all things. I thank you for having a really meaningful Wednesday evening prayer ministry that gathers at 6:30 in the Ralph Weeks Room (shameless advertisement for a wonderful event). We know we’re not perfect, yet our mutual growing spiritual life together helps us to embrace the very first word of all the Psalms. The Hebrew word is “esher”, which conveys the idea of happiness or contentment. And from our version read today we hear “esher” translated into English as “Blessed”. We are blessed when we pray. We are happy when we pray together. We are contented when we rest our lives in the hands of the Lord. “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night…. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.” Keep praying, folks. Keep praying big things and small. For in such spiritual activity we obediently, and with the support of ministering to each other, enter in life that the God of love has to offer. Amen.
Praying to Love, Praying Away Fear
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
April 29, 2018
Trinity Presbyterian Church
I was working the late shift at McDonalds the summer of 1977 and the other members of the crew decided it would be fun if we all went out after we closed the store. They decided we were going to go to this new-fangled thing called a disco. Heck, I was 18 and in Wisconsin in those days that was old enough to go out on the town and so I joined them. I can’t say I ever particularly liked discos and, in truth, the adventure was less than memorable. Nevertheless, the party broke up around midnight and I headed home. When I got there past midnight, my parents were waiting for me at the door in their pajamas with their arms folded across their chests. Oh, dang! Well, we had a long conversation about trust, and being 18 didn’t give me any excuse for staying out so late, and, oh by the way, that car I was driving didn’t belong to me, and I’m actually kind of getting nervous just telling this story. The biggest wound, of course, was that I let my parents down and it would take good actions over time to repair the lost trust.
I got to thinking about that story when putting together the message for today from the famous passage about love in the epistle from John. The people of the ancient world experienced a constant and steady supply of broken trust. Monarchs and emperors failed them. Cultural superstitions failed them. Their pagan religions and the gods that accompanied those institutions failed them. You see, in 1 John, something extraordinary is said for the very first time in the bible and perhaps in history. It is something we Christians almost take for granted, which is too bad, because it epitomizes an importance of huge magnitude. The statement is made twice in verses eight and sixteen. “God is love.” For the first time in history, people were hearing about a divine presence they could trust, from a God who would provide promising actions over time. And the biggest action embodied the assurance and implementation of love.
The Rev. Stephen Carlson rightly observes the people in the ancient world viewed their various gods with suspicion and sometimes dread. “[T]he gods are vindictive, petty” he writes when merely considering “The Odyssey” written by Greek poet Homer. “They are deceitful. They play favorites. They make a sport out of interfering in human lives.” In short, they weren’t trusted and any prayers, observances, or offerings made to them likely represented a way to keep them at arm’s length. The worship of the gods was a way to appease them from doing anymore harm to an already difficult and frightening life. And maybe, if things worked out just right, maybe a god or goddess, it was believed, might show some favor upon the lives of the downtrodden people of the earth. Even “the Greek philosopher Socrates,” according to Rev. Carlson, “did not encourage his students to read these stories. He thought that the gods in Greek poetry were immoral and unworthy of respect.”
We can see, then, how astounding the words “God is love” from 1 John would have been to the ears of the ancient world. Inferred in that, of course, comes a whole lot more. God can be trusted. God won’t let us down. God forgives us. John further drives home the point in verse 18, which greatly contrasts the living, loving God with the mischievous and to be feared fantasy gods of the ancient world. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” This message today represents the first of three in a series on prayer. I was fully ready to depart from the lectionary, yet when I saw this passage I thought what a perfect place to start. God is love. Love drives out fear. Prayer invites relationship with God; prayer invites love. Love drives out fear.
Fear epitomizes the enemy, does it not? We’ve all heard this before, yet it’s always worth repeating, the bible shares some version of the phrase “do not be afraid” 365 times throughout its pages. That tells us how aware of our fears the God of love is and how passionately the Lord pursues us to rescue us from dread, anxiety, and worry. Vance K. Jackson, a Christian motivational speaker and who identifies himself as “servant, husband, son” shares several thoughts on the damage fear can do to our lives and the Christian response to defeat it. “If you allow fear to remain active in your life,” Jackson proclaims, “it will take hold of your thoughts, paralyze your forward momentum and suffocate your God-Given Destiny. Through Christ, God has given us Power to overcome every obstacle the enemy attempts to set in our way.” What’s happening here? What’s Vance Jackson saying? If we want to be lifted in the power of love and vanquish the threat of fear, then get into a relationship with God. Start the relationship with prayer. Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy, “For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and self-discipline.” How could we possibly receive those gifts of power, love, and self-discipline if we are not praying and not living in relationship with the Lord?
We can also be reminded from Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.” Fear represents the real prison in life. Paul proclaimed freedom in Christ even when he was locked up behind bars, while supposedly free people walking the streets outside his prison cell suffered the oppression of being trapped in their fears. Vance Jackson reminds us that Christ sets us free and to, “Be released from the yoke of bondage and be free in Christ completely.” Vance then shares this intriguing picture of how fear, if we let it, can disrupt our destinies. “Fear will cause you to implement new ideas in an old way. God wants you to implement, the new ideas that He has given you, His Way. You cannot put new wine, (new ideas, new businesses, new revelation) into old bottles – an old framework. Allow God to reshape your mind and renew your vessel to execute His Ideas, His Way.” And he introduces the desired means by which we can allow God to become the executive director of our lives: “Sometimes fear can cause us to be complacent, in fear of not excelling or thriving. Fear will plateau your potential. Pray and sit before God so that He can give you a new perspective on what to execute His Way.” Pray and sit before God.
I’m going to share with you a couple of amazing stories found in the memoirs of Edward Bender, a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II who flew missions over Europe and eventually taken prisoner by the Germans after he was forced to bail out over enemy territory. Being a devout Missouri Synod Lutheran, Bender attended the Protestant worship services at the prisoner of war camp and he heard these two testimonies of God’s providence that juxtaposes moments of terrifying fear with the loving power of life and hope:
I was the navigator of a B-24 that had been damaged by a FW-190 in a fighter attack, and our plane was on its own as we attempted to return to England. When our pilot saw that he couldn’t keep the plane in the air, he gave the “bail out” order at an altitude of about 4,000 feet. My parachute wouldn’t open, but I fell on a large straw stack. My only injury was a sprained ankle that I got in the process of getting down to the ground off the stack.
Pretty amazing, huh? Now try this one for size:
My plane blew up at 25,000 feet and I “came to” to find myself prone on a section of wing that was falling horizontally through the air like a “falling leaf.” I looked around and discovered a parachute pack only an arms-length away. Being careful not to disturb the balance of the wing, I managed to reach the pack. While attaching it to my harness, I saw it had my name stenciled on the cover! I then rolled off the wing, pulled the ripcord, and landed in the main street of a small town.
Do you ever feel like your parachute isn’t opening, or that you’re floating aimlessly on the precarious and fleeting safety of a piece of wing heading toward ultimate destruction? Turn to God in prayer and find the Lord dispelling fear and working miracles in your life. James tells us, “The prayer of the righteous [person] is powerful and effective.” It doesn’t have to be fancy or poetic. Just genuine. Back in 1990 I had accepted a new position at a church in Wisconsin and Mary and I were out driving around to find a place to rent. We drove through a busy intersection and a person ran a red light and smashed into the back of our small van which caused it to begin spinning counterclockwise and the forces of physics were really too much and it completely rolled over. It sounded like being inside a big metal drum and most of the windows shattered from the many impacts. I also remember another sound. It was Mary saying a prayer. “Oh God! Oh, God! Oh God!” Now, I know my wife very well. She’s a very spiritual person. This was not just some vain platitude. She just wanted to make sure the relationship was alright if it was our time to go. Most of you know her well enough by now that if you heard the intensity and inflection of her voice you would realize that it truly was a genuine prayer. Simple, yes. Not a lot of time for fancy and poetic. I also remember thinking while rolling upside down to right-side up, “God, listen to her prayer, but don’t take us yet. We’re still good.” All in all, we came out of that mostly unscathed.
Prayers, simple or fancy, rough or poetic, embody the center of our relationship with God. Our reading from John’s letter today reminds us God initiates the relationship, always reaching out to us, “We love, because he first loved us.” Our prayers acknowledge God’s persistent calling love into our lives. Our prayers are our part in meeting God in our daily walk. Our prayers admit, even on the most foundational levels, that we’re willing to participate in the Divine plan happening in the moment. John also tells us about that plan in that “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” The resultant effect of prayer, of loving God, of having fear cast out of our lives, means we cannot help but to break down barriers and connect with the people around us in meaningful ways. Rev. Edward Markquart put it beautifully, “God commands us to love one another in these ways. It is like God commanding fish to swim. It is like commanding birds to fly. It is like God commanding daffodils to be beautiful. When God commands us to love as God loves, God is simply commanding us to be the kind of people that we were created to be in the first place.”
Rev. Stephen Carlson shares a good reminder when he said, “We forget that God’s love is not obvious to everybody.” In a sense, then, by connecting to the loving God through our prayers our relationship with the Lord morphs from words to action. Our lives become a living prayer around our brothers and sisters in this world and because we live in the light of God’s love, we can be bearers of that love and, in turn, vanquishers of fear and anxiety. “That is the way of the gospel,” writes Carlson, “We are bearers of the message that God is for you, God is with you, God cares for you, and, yes, God loves you.”
It all begins with prayer, and sustained with prayer, and grown with prayer. It has to be, because to learn to love as God loves us is really hard work and demands a lot of interaction through prayer, because new fears and anxieties will surely crop up. God’s kind of love is the kind that can scare people who are too timid yet reward all who enter therein. It’s the kind of love that is willing to penetrate into dark places where the gospel is needed most. Jesus alludes to this when he said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” These are all places of fear and “perfect love drives out fear” and perfect love is willing to go to the hard places. Love wins and fear loses when it goes to the hard place inhabited by an enemy and makes a friend. Love wins and fear loses when it goes to comfort our sisters and brothers who might be in pain, even when the only thing we can do is just sit with them. Love wins and fear loses when we set aside our personal agendas and work together for the body of Christ, the gospel, and allow God to make great things happen. And it all begins, and continues, and finishes with prayer, because we’re open to the eternal relationship with God. And God is love. Amen.
Choosing a Place
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
April 15, 2018
Trinity Presbyterian Church
More than two years ago I traveled to the Pentagon to visit the Secretary of Defense Office of Military Professionalism. I was sent there with a small team to learn a lot and help the Alaska National Guard begin rebuilding from a troubled past. There we met some extraordinary people who possessed a high degree of intelligence, wisdom, and drive. They were also endowed with compassionate hearts driven by the necessity to ensure our entire military, everywhere around the world, maintained a highly moral and ethical environment. About a dozen people from all branches of service and a variety of ranks represented the group. Among them was an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel named Kevin Basik.
Kevin represents one of the most positive and driven people I’ve ever met. He was a graduate of the Air Force Academy and earned a PhD. He worked really hard to be personally accountable in just about everything in life. One of his personal projects is to not take his wife and kids for granted and therefore, he commits himself to being very intentional, in every minute he spends and every action he considers, about his relationship with her and his entire family. In that way, all of us Alaskans found him to be a little scary. Kevin has now gone on to retire and teach at the Air Force Academy. Recently he gave a talk on leadership and I’ve shamelessly borrowed and built on some of his thinking. He tells us leadership needs to be confident, competent, and committed. (I add two more “Cs” – courage and character, but that’s a different story.) In his talk, Kevin mentions an extremely valuable attribute in leaders embodies the ability to make good choices.
He used the following story set in Richmond, Virginia after the close of the Civil War. (There are various interpretations of this story making it somewhat of an American myth, yet I like Kevin’s version and go with it this morning.) The setting was St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on a warm June Sunday in 1865, right after the Civil War ended. Toward the end of the service it was time to celebrate holy communion. The church had both white and black congregants, though they sat separately and the whites took communion first. On that particular Sunday morning, as the story goes, a well dressed elderly African American gentleman walked forward and knelt at the communion rail and waited alone before the white congregants had even started. There followed several moments of awkward silence and the body of the church didn’t know what to do. Then, an elderly white man with snow white hair and beard stood up near the front right side of the church and walked toward the center aisle. At that moment, all waited to see his choice. Would he turn to the left and walk out in protest, or would he turn to the right and take communion. As it so happened, he turned to the right and knelt not far from the African American gentleman and they were served communion. The elderly white gentleman was Robert E. Lee, formerly commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Kevin Basik told that story to underscore the point that on any given day, at any given time, every one of us will be presented with moral and ethical choices. By turning one way we can choose to ignore or even work against right actions and behavior. Or, turning another way we can choose the right and make a stand against amoral and unethical conduct. In many instances, choosing the right path embodies the need for courage, because it also may well mean working against the strong currents of popular culture and cast a person in very unfavorable circumstances within the general population.
The verses from first John read earlier speak to the way God gives Christian believers the heart to be leaders in this world with confidence, competence, and commitment. It all starts with the lavish love from God upon which our lives as believers are built. John emphasizes the special relationship with God and how he owns us as a parent to “teknoi,” the Greek word John uses which means “little children.” On a few occasions over the years I’ve climbed some of our beautiful Chugach mountains overlooking the fine city of Anchorage. The city is very clear from the mountaintops and on a nice sunny day one can see little tiny dots of traffic moving about, watch tiny airplanes filled with people take off from the airport, and see many tiny houses and buildings where we live and work. There is no sound from the city up there. Just evidence we are nothing but tiny specks. We are even tinier specks when compared to the whole state, the whole country, the whole world, the whole galaxy, and the whole universe. John could have said, “Dear friends, we are tiny specks of God.” But he didn’t. He revealed we are God’s “teknoi” – little children. Pastor Edward Markquart wrote: “By naming us his children, this shows that God loves us. God loves us immensely and knows our vulnerability, our helplessness, our childishness, our foolishness, and is patient with us because we are his little children.” We are not mere specks.
Because we are God’s children and God knows us and we know God, then John goes on to say, “All who have hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” Therefore, we don’t just belong to God as little children, we also belong to God in word, action, and deed. “Everyone who sins breaks the law;” continues John, “in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” When we are in Christ and when Jesus lives in us, the conditions then are set for us to choose well. At the end of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” both the hero and the villain make it to a room full of chalices where presumably one of them is the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. A well-worn and centuries old knight from the middle ages named Sir Richard is present and still guarding the chalice room. He warns the newcomers that if they drink from the cup of Christ they will live, yet if they choose the wrong one they will surely die. The villain greedily grabs what he thinks is the right cup, dips it in water and drinks from it. Soon, he realizes his mistake and within seconds he dies an agonizing death and turns to dust whereby Sir Richard dourly declares, “He chose poorly.” In and through Christ we are equipped to not sin and when we face those moral and ethical choices in life, we are also able to choose well. As John so surely concludes, “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”
On April fourth we commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I remember I was with my older sisters when we heard the news and it was a somber day. Dr. King lived these words we hear from the epistle written by John. First, he accepted being one of God’s loved children and furthermore lived the dream of sharing that love in a way that was truly transformative for an entire generation. Throughout the years of his ministry he faced way too many moments being confronted by the choices of standing up for and doing what is morally and ethically right when threats of bodily harm came to him and his family, and crosses were burned on his lawn, and violence and vandalism were ever present. Yet he never wavered, never shrank, and chose the memorable path to move an entire society in a better direction. He was not led astray. He was righteous, because he was right. He courageously followed his calling in Christ.
Today, in the gospel reading from Luke, Jesus once again appears as the risen Christ to his disciples. His post Easter message to them, resonates for us even two thousand years later. He’s here with us, because he loves us. He’s here with us, because he desires us to be righteous in his love. He’s here with us, to instill the spiritual courage needed to make the good choices when confronting the evils and challenges of this world. His disciples took the message and fearlessly established his loving church in a world bent on death and destruction. And here we are centuries later continuing his legacy of resurrected life and love through this body of Christ. Yet hinted in the words from 1 John this morning, that it’s not enough to just be called the church, to be called Christian, or to claim some shallow sense of believing in the love of Jesus.
Nowhere is this pointed out so clearly as by the 1994 genocide of about 850,000 people in Rwanda. The Rev. Dr. Guy Sayles posed the disturbing truth in a sermon when he asked, “… how such brutality could have occurred in ‘the most Christianized country in Africa.’” Indeed, Rwanda is ninety percent Christian. Sayles cites theologian and ethicist, David Gushee who points out: "The presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self-identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical garb and regalia, all of the structures of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and Bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees - they guarantee nothing." Then Sayles asks why that might be and offers these three thoughts: “Because not everyone who claims to be Christian has yielded to Jesus' command that ‘we love our neighbors as ourselves’ and has not understood the lesson of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: Everyone is my neighbor. Because we can never be sure of the motivations that bring people to worship, we are here for more reasons than we know, probably for more reasons than we can imagine. Because Christian people are influenced, not just by Jesus Christ, but by social, economic and political systems and by assumptions, ideas, loyalties and feelings that are at odds with the gospel.” He then boils down those three thoughts to this one simple notion: “In other words, it cannot be assumed that Christians are actually following Jesus.”
The message from 1 John ought to remind us that God, through the great love lavished upon us from the Father, desires to keep molding and shaping and creating us to be more and more like Jesus. That is easier to do when we become “teknoi” – little children – who are willing to be formed and fashioned by the example of loving parents. Jesus told his followers to become like little children, to be vulnerable to the wonder and awe of God’s ever-present surprising love that creates amazing daily miracles. Why are any of us even here in worship if we do not believe at some level that Jesus is working to make our lives more authentic? I believe we’re here together today because the power of Christ has worked in our lives in many little ways and some big ways to be the person God created us to be in order that we might well join him on the fabulous journey of love and, as John wrote in his letter, “… we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
There’s a highly acclaimed video series entitled “I Am Second” where people, sometimes celebrities and sometimes not, testify about how God changed their lives through Christ. One depicts a woman who used to identify with all the wrong choices in a life of prostitution. Now, as a child of Christ, Annie Lobert no longer identifies with the life of brokenness and abuse, but a whole person, a child loved by God. Once upon a time, she had been abused by her father and then her boyfriend and “… yearned inside for the power to exact revenge over men. Money to have nice things. To be someone important. It over rode any caution in her life and within a short time she was selling her body, gaining the money she thought she thought was her answer to a better life.” Can you just hear the words from 1 John now? “Dear children, do not let anyone [including yourself] lead you astray.” For Annie Lobert being led astray “… was a lie. The money instead went to her violent pimp and for many years her world descended into a hell filled with prostitution, cancer, drug addiction and no future. Yet when she cried out to God in her darkest and most dangerous moment, hope arrived to give her a second chance.” When she cried out she finally made a good and righteous choice that saved her life. “The one who does what is right is righteous, just as [Jesus] is righteous.”
God turned Annie Lobert’s life completely around, from her living hell to a life filled with love and lived in grace. She is “teknoi” – God’s little child – with the one who fills his mansion in heaven with all of us broken children who belong to the loving, eternal presence of the one who will reach to the farthest depths and the most desperate places to find his lost sheep – “teknoi” – we, the little children. We always have a home with God when we make it our choice – to choose Christ – to have an eternal place with Jesus. Amen.
A Dose of Reality
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
February 11, 2017
Trinity Presbyterian Church
In his classic work “The Republic,” Plato describes a cave in which prisoners are chained to a wall and they are facing a blank wall on the opposite side of the cave. Because of their chains, the only thing they can see is that blank wall in front of them and that is their reality. (Are you with me so far?) Now, Plato described light being emitted from a fire lit behind the chained prisoners and objects and shapes are passed in front of the flames to create various and probably crazy shadows on the blank wall. Sort of like shadow puppets. Again, to the prisoners, the shadowy scenes on the wall represent their only reality. Yet, in fact, as we all know, shadows represent only vague images of reality. Plato’s imagery has simply become known as the psychic prison. It was Plato’s way of defining the way most people trod through life. The cave represents the world and its inhabitants are the prisoners. The chains epitomize ignorance, which means they prevent the prisoners from the freedom to explore other viewpoints in order to discover the truth.
The Apostle Paul would have probably agreed with Plato in the fact that people are prisoners to viewing and believing a whole pattern of shadowy lies versus the truth. He described the culprit as “the god of this age” who places veils before our eyes to prevent us from seeing the light of the truth brought to us from Jesus Christ. He warned the Corinthians about “preaching ourselves” and unbelievers ignoring the reality of the light of Christ right in our midst, because “… they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Even we believers get caught up in the veritable maze of veils. The details of preaching ourselves. We’re always interested in someone’s pedigree, so that we can try and figure them out. Where are they from? Oh, California. Well, that explains a lot. What do they do to contribute to the planet earth and society? Oh, you’re a politician. Well, I guess I may have some trust issues with you, then. In what part of town do you live? Oh, nothing good can come from there. When we collect our facts based on veiled assumptions, we’ll forever struggle getting to the truth, because our facts, like the shadows on the wall, will be wrong.
The god of this age loves that. It keeps us in the dark. We don’t see the truth. We don’t love one another. We get deceived in that maze of veils that keeps out the light and become prisoner to a whole bunch of little tyrannies that, like Plato’s story about the cave tells us, become our reality, become our truth, that catch us in various traps. In the later 1960s my dad’s mom was ready to downsize and move to an apartment. This is the German side of my family. Grandma Koch went on a trip and my dad and all our family and his brother, Don, and all his family descended on Grandma Koch’s house to clean it out and get her ready to move. Both my grandma, Edna, and her husband, Herman, he died some years before the big move, were born in the late 1800s, had old world values, and raised kids through the depression. Therefore, they kept stuff on the assumption that someday everything might be needed. Long story short, when we cleaned out her house, we accumulated enough junk to fill three dump truck loads. My dad took Super 8 movie footage of the junk pile and we were told to never show grandma the film in case she saw something in the massive pile and suddenly miss it. Even at my young age I was starting to get the picture. In a sense, my grandmother’s full life had so many shadows on the wall, so many veils in the maze, that even when many of them were removed, she didn’t really miss the ones departed. She lived another ten years and none of us ever heard her complain she was missing something from the stuff at her former house.
Sadly, the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree. Six years ago when we moved my parents out of their big house, a lot of stuff had to be hauled away. And, even more sadly, if I want to spare my kids from that same fate, I have some work to do. More so, I’m not unlike everyone else in that my life is cluttered with erroneous facts that deliver to me false truths. My daily struggle too often embodies breaking the chains of ignorance and ripping down the maze of veils in order to seek the light of truth the way God has designed it.
So it is that we examine the gospel story today in which Jesus selected three disciples for a field trip; Peter, James, and John, each cluttered with their own sets of flawed facts leading to their own inaccurate understandings of the truth. Together the four of them ascended a high mountain where they were all alone. At the top of this holy place Jesus was transfigured before them in what is described as a brightly lit splendor. Going back to Paul’s metaphor, all the veils blocking the light of God’s truth were removed for those three young disciples. Plato’s allegory of shadows was gone. This was the unfettered reality of God. Then the two biggest heavyweights of the Jewish faith, Moses and Elijah, appeared next to Jesus and talked with him.
Finally, Peter couldn’t help himself any longer. In this beautiful, unveiled moment of purely Divine truth without deceptive shadows, Peter felt the need to control the situation. For whatever reason, and I won’t try and speculate on what might have been going through his mind, but this scene before him didn’t fit with his version of the truth, so he tried to contain it. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” His logic is sound in human terms. You see, if we can just build a little house for Jesus, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah, then we’ll know their address and where they live and we can come visit anytime we need help. There, before Peter, God was trying to display the awesomeness of holy truth and Peter was trying to shove God into a definable box that fit his inadequate perception. A recent hit song by Christian artist Natalie Grant shares these thoughts: “I tried to fit you in the walls inside my mind; I try to keep you safely in between the lines; I try to put you in the box that I've designed; I try to pull you down so we are eye to eye. When did I forget that you've always been the king of the world?” We’re not that different today. We, like Peter, want to fit God into our list of definable pedigree attributes. Who are you? What do you do for a living? Where do you live? When we work to fit God into our lives, then we’re, as Paul wrote, preaching to ourselves. Yet, when we turn our lives over to the light, the glory of God, then we’re finally preaching the gospel.
After Peter’s poor suggestion, a cloud came over them and a voice came out of the cloud and declared, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” In other words, Peter, your idea does not represent the gospel message, because guess what, you, and James, and John, are going to follow Jesus back down this mountain, from this glorious moment, into the realities of the world. This time, hopefully, with eyes on the true light and less on shadows and not covered in veils from the god of this world.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve enjoyed being sort of a do-it-yourself personality. I still do a little light maintenance on my truck and I do a lot of repairs and remodeling around the house. When I go camping I’m not afraid to bring along my big toolbox and even some cordless power tools, which have all come in handy from time to time. All these years of doing it myself, I’ve discovered one really important thing. Having the right tool for the job makes all the difference in the world. Over time, I’ve bought a lot of tools and I feel very comfortable they’ve all paid for themselves compared to me having to hire someone to do the work. It is simply helpful to be properly equipped.
Certainly, when the disciples came down the mountain after their experience with the transfiguration of Jesus, they were hopefully better equipped to minister to the world. Right after the transfiguration, the Gospel of Mark tells of them immediately encountering the other nine disciples surrounded by a crowd. A man had brought his son to them with the hope they would cast out a demon causing his son to not be able to speak. The man implored the help of Jesus, because his disciples could not meet the task at hand. Because of the light of Christ, the tools of faith were at their disposal, yet the god of this world still veiled their eyes and they could not bring God’s healing to the boy. Take a look at the picture on the front of your bulletin. It is a painting by Raphael and biblical scholar Frederick Grant points out, “… Mark brings this story of Jesus’ response to human need into close connection with the transfiguration narrative. The contrast between Jesus seen in glory and the impotence of the nine disciples at the foot of the mountain is very marked.”
“O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” These hard words from Jesus come in response to the inability of the disciples drive out the demon in the boy. Sometimes when we hear words like those from Jesus it causes us to wonder, if our faith will ever be up to the task. Can we really respond to the world the way Jesus wants us to? In John chapter 12 he even tells his followers that we can do greater things than him because he goes to the Father. Yet, when Peter attempted to walk on water his faith faltered and Jesus had to save him. And Thomas didn’t have the faith to believe unless he saw the resurrected Lord with his own eyes and felt with his fingers the wounds on his hands and side.
Sometimes when I go to the store to get the latest and greatest tool to help me with a project I can’t just pick it up and go to the cashier, because it is protected behind a glass case to prevent theft. In order to get it, I have to ask for help. We have to ask God for help to increase our faith. Jesus asked the father of the boy possessed by a demon, “How long has he been like this?” “From Childhood,” the boy’s father answered, “It has thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” The next words from Jesus are fabulous. “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” Quickly the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” And then Jesus cast out the demon.
Remember, all this immediately follows the transfiguration; it follows Peter trying to contain God, it follows the unveiled glory of God’s presence, and it shows, in a mighty way, the power of God is not just for the mountaintops and good times of this world. It’s also for the valleys and the hopeless moments that need healing, and grace, and love. The power of God is uncontained everywhere. Shortly after the healing and in private, the disciples approached Jesus and ask them why they couldn’t cast out the demon. “This kind can come out only by prayer,” answered the master. We have to ask to get access to the tools. We have to seek in order to find. We have to knock for the door to be opened. The power of prayer destroys the veils of the god of this world. The power of prayer moves us from shadowy untruths to the bright light of God’s great truth. The power of prayer frees us to live the gospel and instead of preaching ourselves, prayer conducts our lives to the good news of Christ. The power of prayer reveals Divine truth and helps us overcome our unbelief. We possess no greater calling than to become useful instruments of God’s reality, God’s light, and God’s authentic presence among the broken places in this world. Simply put, let each of us allow God to use us to demonstrate real Divine presence among the people of this world. Amen.