Sunday, April 20, 2014 “New Creation”

Scripture Lesson: John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look* into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,* ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

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Sunday, April 13 “Do You See the Parade?”

Scripture Lesson: Luke 19:28-40

28 And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

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Sunday, April 6, 2013 “Hoping Against Hope”

Old Testament Reading: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty;1 walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram,2 but your name shall be Abraham,3 for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

New Testament Reading: Romans 4:13-25

13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness[a] of Sarah’s womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

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Sunday, March 30, 2014 “Snake on a Stick”

Old Testament Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze[a] serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

New Testament Reading: John 3:14-21

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world,[b] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

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Sunday, March 23, 2014 “Holy Water”

The Scripture (English Standard Version) says:

Old Testament Reading (Exodus 17: 1-7)
1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the name of the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

New Testament Reading (John 4: 5-15)
5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.[a]

7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.[b] The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

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Sunday, March 9, 2014 “The Real World” (Joshua 6: 1-16)

1 Now Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in. 2 Then the LORD said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. 3 March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. 4 Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. 5 When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in.” 6 So Joshua son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant of the LORD and have seven priests carry trumpets in front of it.” 7 And he ordered the people, “Advance! March around the city, with the armed guard going ahead of the ark of the LORD.” 8 When Joshua had spoken to the people, the seven priests carrying the seven trumpets before the LORD went forward, blowing their trumpets, and the ark of the LORD’s covenant followed them. 9 The armed guard marched ahead of the priests who blew the trumpets, and the rear guard followed the ark. All this time the trumpets were sounding. 10 But Joshua had commanded the people, “Do not give a war cry, do not raise your voices, do not say a word until the day I tell you to shout. Then shout!” 11 So he had the ark of the LORD carried around the city, circling it once. Then the people returned to camp and spent the night there. 12 Joshua got up early the next morning and the priests took up the ark of the LORD. 13 The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets went forward, marching before the ark of the LORD and blowing the trumpets. The armed men went ahead of them and the rear guard followed the ark of the LORD, while the trumpets kept sounding. 14 So on the second day they marched around the city once and returned to the camp. They did this for six days. 15 On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. 16 The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the people, “Shout! For the LORD has given you the city!

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Sunday, March 1, 2013 “Living at the End of the Beginning” (Mark 9:1 – 8)

Rev. Tom Wiles, preaching

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Sunday, February 23, 2014 “A Grace Place” (Acts 20:22-28; 32; 36-38)

The Text Says:

           The biblical text on our final Sunday together as pastor and people is St. Paul’s parting address to the Church at Ephesus. It is characterized by simplicity, pathos, and dignity. He reviews with them his past ministry, his present concerns and future dangers. Laid bare is the loving heart of a pastor, who’s fervent yet restrained devotion throbs in every line. It is personal but not egotistical, and soars without effort. This scripture testifies to a pastor’s compassion for his people, and theirs for him. “He knelt down and prayed with them and they all wept freely.” Here St. Paul was no cold dispenser of doctrine, but a warm, deeply caring servant of God. Paul gave the saints in Ephesus the best of his capabilities in being true to his calling. His firm conviction was that he was saying goodbye forever to those for whom he had truly cared and faithfully guided. Parting words should be like these, genuine and solemn, which are both present in the highest degree.

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The Preacher Says:

What a predicament! I’ve flat run outa Sundays! But not outa bees! But I’m neither the first nor the last preacher who finds myself in this spot. There’s a similar situation in the Book of Acts where the Apostle Paul gives his own farewell address to his beloved church in Ephesus. This is not the maligned Paul that the offended ones like to censure. Here is a warm pastor with time running out with his people. It is a touching scene where he reminded them of the past and all the things they’d experienced together. And how he always told them the truth and held nothing back. Then he turns toward the future.

There’s a natural sense of sorrow surrounding the scene as they watch the ship float into the harbor.  The numbers dictated that he’d never see some of them again. Paul called on God as his witness that he did the best he could.  And when it got down to the final nub, and there’s only one thing left to say to them. He said:  “I commend you to God.” More appropriate words were never uttered.

His first two words were “And now.”  For even final words have to be spoken: “And now … I commend you to God,” because everything we do at church has to do with God. We’re here because of God. We heal because of God. We love because “God first loved us.”  Paul didn’t refer them to Barnabas or Luke or Peter. “I commend you to God!” Who gathers all our diversity into one. Who’s the stack pole, around which every church should be structured. You can go to Brown and get an education. Or RISD and hone your skills as an artist. But you come to The Meeting House to get “recommended to God!”

There are the seniors among us who’ve been here a long time and teach us a lot about the faith. They may not have many more earthly miles to travel. But all of the old folks, whom I hold in highest regard, without whom this church wouldn’t be here: I commend you to God!

Our young people and students of differing shades and hues, including the rabble; some still drying from the waters of baptism, some with new families gazing down at the unknown years ahead of them, with some wonder and no little apprehension: “I commend you to God.” And bless you for your strategic role in this place.

There are those to whom the changing scenes of life have brought happiness and for others — sorrow: for whom the road to faith is hedged with doubts and frustrations and questions; for whom religion has been more of a barrier than a blessing: “I commend you to God!”

            How can I not brag on our marvelous choir? Holy Jesus! Bless their hearts! What an honor it’s been to work with Steve Martorella these years! One-of-a-kind. Thank you Steve. Thank you choir. I commend you to God! “O for a thousand tongues to sing,” wrote John Wesley. I only have one tongue, but if I had 1000, I would use every last one of them to commend all ya’ll to God.  Only God abides, all else is relative.  And we have that solid foundation upon which to stand as we part company.

Maybe Paul pulled this up from his familiarity in preaching about the cross. He used the same benediction as Jesus before he died: a word of commendation. “Into Thy hands I commend my Spirit!” Jesus commended himself to God! Paul commended the church to God!

And not just to God, but to “the word of God.” Not infallible or inerrant, but certainly “profitable for reproof, for instruction in righteousness.”  This has been the basis of our Sunday morning gatherings. People come to church because they wanta hear the stories of Jesus.  And “I love to tell the story!” They don’t come to worship to hear somebody’s opinion.  There is a genuine hunger everywhere I’ve been for a biblical word that makes sense, invigorates, and encourages.  Which is why every Sunday I have “commended you to the word.”  The first thing you see on our worship folder is an explanation of the day’s text. So you know something of what’s coming. Open it up and there’s a picture of it. Then we highlight it, sing it, read it, pray it, preach it and celebrate the word from God in it.

All of it is to “commend you to the Word.”  Not to beat you over the head with a Book.  Or dangle you over hell with a sacred text.  But a forthright attempt to offer sound guidance “for the living of these days.”“I commend you to the word.”  Because there is more that finds us in the Bible than any other literature.  All the drama of life and death and the hereafter; all the joys and sorrows we have in the scriptures. It never grows stale.  Or fails to heal us or bless us; rebuke us or inspire us. When people dedicate their babies, they read from the Bible.  When they get married, they wanta hear I Cor 13, the Apostle’s peon of love. When  dying day comes, they may call the funeral director, but at the memorial they read from the Bible!  “O grave where is thy victory? O death where is thy sting?” (I Cor. 15:55).  When we come and when we go, and all points in-between, we unapologetically read the scriptures.  When we’re up, when we’re down, when we’re warm, when we’re cold, when we’re young, when we’re old we read from the Bible.  Paul couldn’t’ve said it better:  “I commend you to God.  I commend you to the word.”

But not just any word.  “I commend you … to the word of his grace.”  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” Who wouldn’t want more of that?  Paul used his last opportunity to declare once more, with passion, his belief in the all‑encompassing grace of God. There’s nothing else like it. The thing I’ve loved best, to stand in this hallowed spot and proclaim the providence of God in Providence, RI.

The future is bright for ol’ First Church, because you have made this a grace-place, that dispenses the “wine of the gospel.” And not get bogged down with the “skins.” Here we traffic in compassion not guilt, hope not condemnation, acceptance not rejection, forgiveness not judgment. The ministries, gracing the poor, the facilities, gracing the person in the pew, the worship, gracing the stranger.  Do you realize how rare stuff like this is in a church?

Religion at its best is grace-based. So I’m gonna load on all the grace I can today. It is grace that shatters our discrepancies, grace that brings low our pretensions. Only grace can heal some wounds. No matter what mistakes you’ve made; no matter what others have done to you, God’s grace is offered to all of the undeserving. That’s what makes it grace. On this day of our parting, I wanted to remind you of “the word of his grace.”  And if it’s not for everybody then it’s for nobody.

Then Paul continues, it is grace “that is able to build you up.”  Not tear you down. Who needs to go to church and get a dose of how bad we are? Everybody’s used to hearing about what’s wrong with the church. Well there’s an awful lot that’s right about this one. And you’re the reason that is so. Where else but in church can you hear these days, that you are a person of value, created in the image of God, full of dignity and worth? A church worth-its-salt will build us up and “level every hill and make the crooked places straight;” strengthen the weak, and energize the defeated and help us to stand up to life.

A few weeks ago we talked about Moses standing in front of a burning bush. The bush didn’t know what else to do, cause it was set on fire by the Lord God!  And that same holy fire is what enabled the church to stand against Herod and Caesar and the “principalities and powers of darkness,” of corrupt culture and selfish society.  People come through these doors hungry for a loaf of bread; “God forbid that we give them a stone!” This church has enjoyed almost four centuries of illustrious history, but we don’t point to memory alone. There are many wonderful days of service ahead to look forward to.  The messenger said to the women at the empty tomb:  “He goes before you…” Let that “build you up!”

 Finally Paul ends with a “reading of the will.” Their “inheritance…among all those who are sanctified.”  His thoughts are soaring now.  He’s taken it to another level; far beyond this world. Farther than Ephesus or Jerusalem or Rome. Lying beyond the tears that fall when we part, is our “inheritance.”  There’s something in it for us!

The Apocalypse calls it, the “City of God, come down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband.” Where there will be “no more tears, no more parting, no more sadness.” Paul realized that the sands of time were ebbing for him. So he reminds them of the Capital “C” church invisible; and “a multitude that no one can number.”

This, is your inheritance! “Here and now dear friends, we are God’s children. What we shall be has not yet been disclosed” (I John 3:3). I confess that I’m too pre-occupied with moving-hell on this earth, to be thinking too much about sitting around in heaven someplace. But when it comes to leaving we think of God and we think of heaven. That is your inheritance. Wherever it is, whatever it’s like, it’s a good thought.  There’s not a better church in the world than this one, to be your last one.

Please indulge me one more story.  A church youth group was discussing how 9/11 affected their prayer life.  One young man said he’s not been able to pray since that day.  He figured many people in the planes and buildings were praying for God to spare them. But their prayers were not answered. So what’s the use in praying, if it doesn’t get what you want? Another youth said he can’t pray for a different reason. He assumed the terrorists were praying to Allah for courage to follow through with their dastardly deed. And their prayers were answered.  That’s counter-productive. So why bother to pray? Then a young artist allowed as how she’s still prays. She visualized both the victims and the perpetrators of 9/11, sitting around a table in heaven, trying to figure out what on earth happened that day. But the group leader had a world-view that was threatened by her graciousness. So he interrupted her and sternly declared the scene she described was not possible … because the terrorists are in hell. So often people use religion or ideology to end a discussion.

No doubt each of those responses can be found in most churches, in relation to not just September 11, but any quandary we face. Of those four attitudes, the one that prevails here is the perspective of the young artist.  Because that’s the way I visualize this unique gathering of God’s frail beings of light.  Those whose prayers were answered and those whose prayers were not answered, sitting around a table, trying to figure out what the heck happened.

That vision doesn’t end the discussion.  It continues one. Going on nine years now, it’s fallen to me to continue the discussion “in season, out of season.”  And trust something productive comes of it after I’m no longer in the picture. As me and Libby vacate the premises today, we will leave a big part of ourselves here.  I just thank the Lord for the blessed privilege of being your pastor. Now as I go, “I commend you to God!” And I commend God — to — you!

Providence Prayers: 2/23/14

In this historic city named for Thy Providence, we bless Thee O Lord for this congregation that also came to be under Thy divine guidance. After 376 years it’s still what makes the church meaningful, our burdens bearable, the future hopeful. Your grace makes heavy loads lighter, and turns houses into homes, sinners into saints, and common elements into messianic banquets.

If Christ could fashion from a cross a depiction of the truest love there is, what might God do with the cruelest hurts that invade our lives?  May this hour of worship allow us to be delivered from self‑promotion and petty distractions, that we might serve you better. When our desires outweigh our intelligence we pray for the common sense to have a realistic outlook. For unwise prayers that go unanswered, sparing us pain we never meet, for unwelcome new experiences through which we discover in ourselves capacities we never knew were there, for the scriptures that blaze with insight as our circumstances change, for the winsomeness of good friends and your mercy that holds us steady when everything around us feels like it’s coming loose… we give Thee thanks.

May the joy of your redemption fill our souls so that in the worst of times we’ll do the best of things. Bless all who are facing the complexities of life, anxious about events beyond their control, and too many we bring upon ourselves. Be with the incapacitated, held back from a life they would otherwise live.  And the bereaved, whose hearts, if not their bodies reside in the graveyard.

As we celebrate this special place, keep smiling, not only on this church’s past but also her future, as we build on our efforts to be a church, and not just a museum, thus making us worthy not only of the best of the name “Baptist,” but also “Christian.” Through Christ our Lord…




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Sunday, February 16, 2014 “You Can’t Go Home Again” (Gen. 3:22-24; Matt. 16:18)

The Text Says:

             Today’s scripture is taken from the 3rd Chapter of the Book of Genesis. The purpose of the stories is to account for, explain and interpret the present circumstances of human life; particularly its brokenness. The initial couple and all of their successors carry with them the memory of the way life could be or should be. But they face an uncertain future because of an imprudent past. It raises questions about human evil and suffering in moral terms, showing the consequences of disobeying God. Because they are us, it shouldn’t be difficult for contemporary saints to identify with the characters of the story; and thereby to better understand ourselves, our world, and God.  

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 The Preacher Says:

            Thomas Wolfe’s classic “You Can’t Go Home Again,” was published posthumously in 1940. In it he explores the changing American society, including the illusion of prosperity and the relentless passing of time that prevents us from ever going back home again. Going through some of my books last week that I need but never read, I came across one I forgot that I had. By my childhood hero, Coach Johnny Majors. “You Can Go Home Again.”  It’s about his move from Pittsburgh back to Knoxville in 1976, to rebuild the gridiron fortunes at The University of Tennessee.  He had his work cut out for him! Coach Majors’ title, like most books was to help it sell. You can go home again, but it won’t be like it was. Change and the passing of time guarantees that. “This time you’ll be going home!” That’s been a recurring refrain I’ve heard these past few weeks here in Rhode Island. Those who say that are happy for us. But this place has been home to us too. Home can be wherever you are, if you feel like you belong.

            Today’s biblical text is about our 1st home. In the 3rd Chapter of Genesis. The authors tell a story about God and creation; of people and their decisions, and the consequences of them. It’s a painful story about humanity losing our place; our home; and our innocence. It tells us things about ourselves we need to know; not only how we fail, but how we survive. That’s part of the story too. Adam and Eve didn’t die at the end of it. They went on and did the best they could with what they had, like everyone else has had to do since then.

            There is wisdom in not losing the meaning by taking it as historical fact. It becomes trivialized when literalized; but quite profound when viewed as a parable. Mythical knowledge resides in our bones before it’s in our brains; in the soul before it’s in the literature. The intimation that something’s amiss; that things as they are, aren’t what they ought to be. That we, as we are, aren’t what we’re meant to be. Eden provides the unreachable standard; a state of perfection without which, the imperfect wouldn’t bother us so much.

            Adam and Eve are us. Except they had it made in the shade. The idyllic garden was the perfect environment. It’s a reversal of Lennon’s lyrics, “Imagine.” Imagine there IS a heaven…not up in sky someplace, but a heaven on earth! Paradise, but not utopia, because people are in it! A peaceful garden with blue skies above, and clear water below.  No need for air conditioning or snow shovel. There’s plenty of everything. Plus, the added benefit of being tight-with-God! There was no fear. No shame. Nothing had ever been broken. No pain; nothing to hide and nothing to hide from.

            The first pair were like innocent children; complementing each other. And everything they needed was provided for them. It was all play and no work. The original welfare state. God meant well. But it backfired on him. Because we always find a way to blow it! Which is usually what happens when life is handed to us too easily. After they messed up, they tried to lay it on the serpent. But he didn’t have a leg to stand on! I know that’s bad, but when there’s nobody else to blame, only they else could be held accountable. Like Dennis the Menace, “Why do I always get blamed for the things I do?” Duh! Their punishment was permanent eviction. “God drove them out, to the east of the garden of Eden.”

            Some concept of a golden age, back there somewhere, out there, in here, is commonplace in the hearts and literature of most people. Genesis gives us the Hebrew version. God sets us up; we blow it; paradise is lost, and there’s no going back. Eden’s gate is closed. It is guarded by Cherubim, the traditional protectors of the holy. And a revolving sword of fire for good measure.  These severe security measures imply that somebody might wanta get back in. Who wouldn’t? God anticipated our hunger. But it’s irrevocable. No matter how badly we want it, we can’t go back home. All we can do is what they did, go forward. Or else stay stuck.

            So what does it mean to live on this side of Eden? It surely means we can’t re-create perfection in this life. Some of our deeds are so heinous they can never be rectified. So a revisionist history is very much in vogue today. Stemming from enormous guilt to somebody’s ancestors. There is a mean-spirited attempt to get even. Payback is due. Nobody is sure just who gets the proceeds, but some remuneration is involved. Whether its political correctness or political cash, there is a demand for reimbursement out there. They need to read Genesis 3. How can the holocaust? Or slavery? Or blaming somebody for the way they were born ever finally be remedied?  What will it take to satisfy the offended? We long to get back to that primeval garden.

            But there has to be a cut-off point. All the evil isms are not correctable, because of the 1st one. And that’s the problem in trying to get Eden back, it requires us to always be looking back. And there’s no future in that. If we could just discover where that ball of yarn got started, then maybe we could go back and remove the tangles. Meanwhile we dissipate our creative energies on stuff like that, which could otherwise brighten the present prospects for the future. We can’t roll history back any more than we can push toothpaste back into the tube! No matter how hard we try, there’ll always be more that we haven’t done. The gate is sealed. There’s an old Jewish saying, when everybody’s trying to fix everything.  “Be the best, but do it and relax.  And leave a little something for the Messiah.”

            There’s an interesting aspect to the story about the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, that flow from the Fertile Crescent into all the world. To the oriental mind, those rivers are the jewel of life; the elixir of the soul. That they originated in Eden speaks of God’s intention for all history was to be influenced by what went on there. But today’s world is a lot more complicated now than the simplicity of Edenic bliss. Because there’s so much more to influence us than a couple of rivers.

            Like this place has been here for nearly 400 years! Generations have come and gone. Each one makes its moves and sets the table for another that follows. Then it’s their turn to make the moves. By the time #36 arrived, there’s so much water already over the dam. I inherited things put here long before I came. The one who follows me will do the same. It’s not anybody’s privilege to make the opening moves. All we can do is come aboard and do the best we can with the pieces in place before we showed up. There’s so much behavior from the past that determines the present, it’s impossible to number them all. We’ve lost the garden.

            Eden is suspended in time. It has no connection to history. But I am connected to a huge network of living and dying before me. We’re all products of the knocks and boosts of centuries. We’ve lived way too long for innocence. Our ability to influence is limited by the ages. Neither our gifts nor our sins are entirely our own. Our rivers are the mighty Hudson and the muddy Mississippi. Because we’ve been evicted. We can’t go home again. The gate is shut.

            Maybe you noticed in the New Testament reading from Gospel of Matthew that Jesus spoke to Simon about a gate: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). Gates don’t move. They’re just there. To let somebody in or keep ‘em out. Jesus intends for his church to struggle against the “principalities and powers of this age.”  It is a good way to understand the church, which lives between the gates. Between the shut gate of Eden and the tottering gates of hell. There is no doubt about the outcome.  It is given to the followers of the Lord to know that “the gates of hell cannot stand.” To follow somebody assumes they’re going somewhere. It is the genius of Jesus that he kept pointing his followers forward.

            This is the digital age. I noticed an online advertisement online awhile back of a virtual mirror. Like your cell phone, it’s a touch screen mirror! It shows how the person would look, if they lost a lot of weight. Your head stays the same, but everything else is up for grabs. You can see what you’d look like if you lost 10, 20, 50 pounds, or more! Health organizations and psychologists make good use of them. It’s a great idea because it provides incentive to improve ourselves. Instead of thinking about all that candy you ate in the past to get where you are today, you can look into this nifty mirror and see what you can be if you work at it.   

            Isn’t that what Jesus did? He didn’t waste time with people whining about their hang-ups, or how they were mistreated. He just showed them what they could be like. He turned them away from gazing at some irrecoverable Eden and pointed them to the future. In the prayer he gave us as a model, the forward look is dominant, “Thy kingdom come.” We look for a day when his will shall be done on earth, as it is in his home.

            We can’t go home again. But then, we don’t need to. “In my father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.” Where there’s no cherubim to guard the entrance, and no fiery sword to intimidate. Amazing grace that God is willing to work through the mistakes we’ve made and calls the church to do the same. That is our story. It has everything humanly possible in it‑‑promise, failure, blame, guilt, healing, hope. That is what people are like and what God is like. He made us, and heals us and came among us — this side of Eden‑‑until he can bring us home. And if we, in our time, could move his kingdom just a smidgen further; resisting the gates of hell, then we — will not — have lived — – in vain.


Providence Prayers: (2/16/14)

            Gracious God, our Father, beneath whose eye and within whose patience our story is told, we thank Thee for the gift of faith that prompts our prayers of gratitude for generations past and generations to come. We are mindful that the fall of snow can hobble this city named after Thy Providence and anything that humbles us before the mystery of life and worshiping the works of our hands.

            We unite our hearts to pray for this church, facing a time of change with hope. Grant to our members a fresh doubt-scattering confidence that belongs to Thy people. We bless Thee for the life you have given us; for ways that have opened to us to learn and grow and trust; for friends who have imparted something noble of themselves to us; for special saints who have encouraged us at the vital junctures of our journey; for the wisdom of the written Word and the presence of the Living Word, and signs in the unlikeliest of places that you are on the premises. And as the passing years exact their toll on the outward self, we can come to this Meeting House and be renewed on the inside.

            We love our church home O Lord, and for her good, we offer to Thee our best. Center our far-ranging lives in Thy eternal love, that in whatever time or circumstance we may know and celebrate Thy presence. May our time together this morning make us more authentically human and more dependably serviceable to Thee. Through Christ our Lord…








Providence Prayers: (2/16/14)

            Gracious God, our Father, beneath whose eye and within whose patience our story is told, we thank Thee for the gift of faith that prompts our prayers of gratitude for generations past and generations to come. We are mindful that the fall of snow can hobble this city named after Thy Providence and anything that humbles us before the mystery of life and worshiping the works of our hands.

            We unite our hearts to pray for this church, facing a time of change with hope. Grant to our members a fresh doubt-scattering confidence that belongs to Thy people. We bless Thee for the life you have given us; for ways that have opened to us to learn and grow and trust; for friends who have imparted something noble of themselves to us; for special saints who have encouraged us at the vital junctures of our journey; for the wisdom of the written Word and the presence of the Living Word, and signs in the unlikeliest of places that you are on the premises. And as the passing years exact their toll on the outward self, we can come to this Meeting House and be renewed on the inside.

            We love our church home O Lord, and for her good, we offer to Thee our best. Center our far-ranging lives in Thy eternal love, that in whatever time or circumstance we may know and celebrate Thy presence. May our time together this morning make us more authentically human and more dependably serviceable to Thee. Thru Christ our Lord…

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Sunday, February 9, 2014 “Saving the Best for Last” (Luke 4:14-22)

The Text Says:

The church is in the Season of Epiphany. The text from the Gospel of Luke describes the first time Jesus preached in the local synagogue where he grew up. He started off well, but ended up riling the congregation and getting kicked out of church. Consequently he never went back to Nazareth again. Familiarity breeds contempt. It wasn’t that they didn’t know him. They just didn’t take to his debunking things familiar to them. And especially when he suggested their enemies were God’s friends. Sometimes when that happens things can turn violent. We still make the mistake of allowing our familiar traditions to come between us and God. Good tradition, however, is a means to epiphany, not a barrier to it.

Hear the sermon.

The Preacher Says:

  This Sunday finds #36 with a lot more yesterdays than tomorrows left at the Meeting House.  Last Sunday we saw how Jesus said goodbye in the Gospel of John.  Like “pouring molasses out of a fruit jar,” he took his sweet time, navigating through four whole chapters. Today we see how Jesus said goodbye in Luke. Jesus came back to his hometown, but word already leaked out about him to his neighbors.  So expectations were high; and at first “they marveled at his ability.” 

        Three forms of the popular messianic hopes of his time confront him: 1) To be a new Moses, would win-over the Pharisees; 2) To be a new David, would put the Zealots in his corner; and 3) To be like John the Baptist, would put the separatist Essene sect on his side. Guess which role Jesus claimed?None of the above. He was a square peg in a round hole. And couldn’t be squeezed into any of the preconceived notions. Instead of the popular expectation of a new King David, Jesus chose for himself, the Suffering Servant role of Isaiah 61. Except he took it a step further. Instead of the exclusivism they wanted to hear, Jesus believed God’s blessing was not just for Israel, but others too. It was so heretical, they “ran him out of church” and tried to push him over a cliff!

       But “He passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (4:30). That’s how Jesus leaves in Luke! An inauspicious beginning for a young preacher, to be sure.  So other preachers can take solace, knowing Jesus blew his trial sermon in Nazareth! As always, that depends on who you’re talking to. But apparently God liked it. And I know Luke did! Else why tell about it?

Luke’s Jesus is not heroic like John’s. From beginning to end, in the 4th Gospel, Jesus arrives with a flourish, does his thing with proficiency — getting born, growing up, teaching, healing, being crucified and resurrected.  And He does it all with a flair! Then he leaves. But Luke is low-key. It’s unusual that it’s not unusual. Heroic deeds are invariably exceptional. Champions do certain things. Sometimes they come out of nowhere.  But they always leave in style.

Oh we like for our heroes to look heroic and act heroic. That’s part of what it means to be a winner. Coach Carroll carried off on his players’ shoulders, doused in an ice cold Gator Aid victory lap! Mel Gibson as William Wallace in “Braveheart,” being tortured to death on the rack, crying out “Freedom!” with his last breath. Very impressive!  When Martin Luther King in Memphis TN said, “I’ve been to the mountain‑top, I’ve seen the Promised Land!” That’s been grabbing Hollywood headlines since 1968! And they still can’t let go of it.

          There’s none of that in Luke. Unlike in John, Jesus never left in style.  No big deal. He just left. His arrival? Heralded by angelic choruses.  But his departure was muted.  He took a few bedsheet angels and some buddies out to Bethany; blessed them and didn’t even finish the blessing; then he just wafted away! Outa sight! Luke’s gospel is like that. Jesus arrived with a bang and got banged-up. Then he left. He entered Jerusalem in a triumphal parade, and left a condemned failure. Unlike John’s Jesus, who even in failing, wins. Luke has no victorious “I’m the Christ.” Before Pilate it’s just a mild “If you say so.”  Whatever.           

          Luke has no planting a proud flag up Mt. Surubachi. Just an old rugged tree up Mt. Calvary. No “Don’t cry for me Argentina,” before thousands of spellbound admirers. Just that words “Today!” You will be with me in paradise” to a dying thief. No Nathan Hale “I regret that I only have one life to live for my country.” Just “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep  for yourselves,” to a handful of unnamed women. No gallant style! Because it’s not Luke’s intention to paint Jesus as a hero‑warrior. But as a servant-savior.  So Jesus didn’t do the things that other heroes did.  He did what only the Son of God can do.  With his unimpressive departures, Luke is more interested in what Jesus did before he left, than any style of leaving. It’s what Jesus said in the synagogue that Luke wants us to get: he isn’t rejected because he left. He left because he was rejected.

       Jesus was interested in health-care. There were “many lepers” in the days of Elisha the prophet. But only Naaman, a Syrian outsider got healed! Jesus was one of those “We reserve the right to accept everybody” guys. And that got him in a heap of trouble. But what really bowled them over was his repudiation of nationalism. So Jesus just lost the Zealots.  But he gained the world! The 1st thing any Messiah has to do is to get people to quit looking for one. Listen up Search Committee!

       Another thing about Luke’s disdain for heroic departures is his hesitation to record an end to the story.  Rather he calls our attention to what Jesus is doing next. Luke’s crucified Jesus doesn’t say, “It is finished.”  That’s John. He wraps it up with a valiant feeling of finality. Luke’s Jesus always has other places to go, other things to do. When the Nazarenes turned violent, he “passed through their midst and went on his way.”  Evidently they got out of his way! But Luke is more interested in the journey itself. Not just how it ends.  This society is so “end‑focused.” Dufusses speculate about the end of the world. How’s it gonna end? Nuclear war or asteroid?

         How will it end? Once the Super Bowl is over, everybody goes “big deal!” It’s over. Now we can go about our lives. Boomers talk about retirement, at the end of a career. Retirement didn’t even exist a few years ago!  But today our adult lives are shaped by sharp boundaries. There’s something about being 59 ½ today that didn’t use to be there.  We’re big on departures. We have role exits: kids grow up, and then depart, (hopefully!)  Some get married, and then depart. Some work awhile and then retire. Some come back and live in the basement! Can’t shake ‘em off! How it ends is not Luke’s concern.

        Luke’s Jesus never made a big deal about exits.  The way we leave matters, but it’s not as important as what happens before we leave and after we leave. In my own leaving, I’m more like Luke. Ya’ll know I care about you and hope good things continue to happen here. But when it’s time to let-go, you say goodbye, wish once another God‑speed, and vacate the premises. What won’t happen is holding on too long, which can cause a lot of relational damage.

         Notice what Jesus did before he left, for that is Luke’s real interest. Jesus’ best service, his wisest teaching, his inspiring act of forgiveness, he saved for last.  He was consistent throughout. In his first miracle at the wedding at Cana, he “Saved the best wine for last.” Experience teaches us that realistically, life will get harder. But hopefully, better and better.  

           Luke notes in these parting gestures of Jesus, that each time he left one place, it was to go to another place, with another task.  There comes a time to let go. It can be too soon, or it can be too late. But there’s wisdom in sensing that the time is now to try something else.  That’s what Jesus did in Luke. Nelson Mandela was released from prison at the age of 71. Instead of making up for lost time, he went on a world peace tour! And when South Africans needed a president, he’s the one they chose.          

    The day when Jesus preached in his hometown, Luke says “every eye in the synagogue was fixed upon him.” And within the hour they tried to waste him! But God had more for him to do. So Luke says he just left.  Nothing noteworthy as we think of notoriety. But what’s gripping is what he said in Nazareth before he left.  He said something radical, “Today!” “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The good news is for now and it’s for everybody or it’s for nobody. Those who think they’re God’s faves aren’t gonna like that.

          So Jesus walked away from the nay‑sayers. But not an away from as much as a going to.  That’s a good model for when you feel trapped. He went over to nearby Capernaum, and did “mighty works.”  He couldn’t do anything in Nazareth because they wouldn’t let him. I always thought Jesus can do anything!  That’s John’s Jesus. Not St. Luke; where even God is limited by our intolerance! So Jesus left his hometown behind, never to return, as far as we know; to arrive at another place where his gifts were appreciated and utilized.

           On the last evening of his earthly life, the emphasis is not how he left, but what did he do?  “He sat down at a table” with his buddy’s. Again, “Every eye was fixed upon him.” They didn’t know it, but we know it — within an hour, everything would disintegrate into arguments about “who’s the best?” So disappointing.  But then betrayal and denial and arrest and crucifixion. But watch what Luke says. “He went outside.”  A furor in Nazareth; “He passed through their midst.” Egotistical turmoil in Jerusalem. And Jesus “went outside.” Both places, he just leaves. Nothing heroic.

          But what he said in Jerusalem before he left was something we haven’t caught up with yet: “This is my body, broken for you.  The cup is a new covenant in my blood.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  Then “he went outside.”  But not before leaving them with something to remember. Where did he go?  He just “went outside to save the world. Again, nothing heroic! Just going outside is no big deal. But what went on before it and after it is huge!  And that will always be the measure of us. 

What makes these days hard is our shared experience these past 8 years. Just a blip in the overall longevity of this historic congregation. But that’s why “Today!” … we can laugh a little louder, cry a little softer, love a little stronger, because … we were friends! Nothing heroic, mind you. I’m just your pastor.

Providence Prayers: (2/9/14)

        We gather once again in this sacred spot for worship O Lord, to be reminded of the importance of the church and the great influence it can have on this life…and the next. Here the 2nd mile ethic calls us to grow in our faith; to be better tomorrow than we are today. And to stretch our hearts and dig a little deeper, try a little harder, lift a little higher, and give a little more.

            We pray for those who feel trapped and hindered from giving their best; for all who struggle against the structures of injustice; for those whose poverty is spiritual and those whose poverty is material. Grant us the courage to try to live like Jesus taught us. We pray for ourselves and our church in a time of transition and change.  May it be a time of centering, in‑gathering and continued growth, a time of focusing on the future while blessing the past. 

          If we are discouraged, make us useful again. Where pride distorts our self-estimate, remind us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. Stand beside the beds of pain where those we love suffer and fill the hearts of those who mourn with Thy healing Spirit. Be our anchor and our guide through all of life’s transitions.  Help us to entrust the future to you; and your grace, through Him who came to fulfill the law and the prophets…even  Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

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