“QUESTIONS” SERMON SERIES: WHO IS GOD?
Rev. Vivian L. Rodeffer
Sunday, February 26, 2023
SCRIPTURE 1 John 4: 7-1
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.
I remember the Sunday when a new family came to church for the very first time. A little girl, kind of the female version of Young Sheldon on TV, came striding up the center aisle looking all around her like she is searching for something. Maybe her mom or dad told her they were going to God’s house because finally, she looks at me and says “Where’s God? Isn’t God supposed to be here?” I could sense her disappointment.
During this season of Lent we will be exploring questions about faith. This first Sunday of Lent we begin with “Who is God?” People from time to time can’t help but wonder where is God? Or, who God is or if God even exists? And if you have ever wondered about this too, it is perfectly normal. It is normal and natural to have periods of questioning or doubt about who God is or if God even exists. Where is God?
You may have experienced something really bad, and you may very well ask,
- if there is a God, where was God when I needed Him?
- You may have lost a loved one before you were ready to say goodbye. Where were you God when I prayed for you to heal my loved one?
- You may know someone good who had something really bad happen to them.
- There may be something that you have really hoped and prayed for that just isn’t happening. Where is God? “I don’t seem to have seen much of God lately” you may be thinking.
Over the millenia that humans have existed on this planet people have attempted to answer these question “who and where and what is God” in many ways across cultures, places, and disciplines. Even a brief overview of world religions lifts up innumerable ways that the divine is understood and portrayed. And, if there was one clear answer, we would probably all believe the same thing! And we would no longer need the kind of faith that belief requires.
Today’s passage offers a very helpful way to think about God’s existence and nature. The passage starts with the obvious: “No one has ever seen God.” [v. 12a] But then it continues that even though we have not seen God we can know God. When we choose to love, that choice means we are “born of God and know God.” [v. 7] The passage continues by explaining “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”
The life of Jesus is the way that God’s love is made known to us. How we see God is through the life of Jesus. Of course, it is possible to love without believing in Jesus or never hearing the message that Jesus is God’s son. But with Jesus, something completely new and transformative happened – the creation of a new way of being human and a new community characterized by love – something much deeper than just a feel good emotion.
Just like we cannot prove God’s existence, we cannot prove Jesus is God’s son. However, biblical scholar Luke Johnson writes that after Jesus’ death on the cross, something happened. It is historical fact that a new community of people started who lived differently [Acts 4:32-36], a community born of love and characterized by love. And the community itself (the early church) described the something that happened as the resurrection of Jesus, God’s Son, from the dead. This new community and new way of being human points to the reality and character of a loving God as revealed in Jesus.
That community (now called the church) and that new way of being human continues to this day. The church’s continued existence and our participation in it, most especially our loving and being loved, are evidence of God’s existence. God, who was revealed in Jesus, is now present with us by the Spirit (v. 13) to continue this transformation in and by love.
This does not mean the church always gets it right. There are lots of people who follow Jesus but do not like the church because they have been hurt by people in it or have experienced the hypocrisy of people who claim to be Christian. They have a sense that if there is a God, God probably looks more like the love Jesus stood for than what they see happening in churches at times.
Our take away this morning is that as people who claim to be followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to be the evidence of God’s existence for others by loving them. We are to be “as [Jesus] is … in this world,” shaped and perfected by the love that we have receive from God.
This week I’d like us to think how we might share and show that love to others. There is so much in the world that can make us feel jaded, depressed, cynical, angry, etc. – what does it look like to instead to “abide in love,” to choose love as our dwelling place and home? Will you give it a try in these days ahead?
Let us pray:
Gracious God, Help us in this Lenten Season to allow your love to abide within our hearts so that we might be your presence for those to whom love is a stranger. Amen.
 Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament. Third Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2010), pp. 89-93.
Rev. Vivian L. Rodeffer
I Corinthians 3: 1-9
“So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything,
but only God who gives the growth” 1 Cor. 3:7
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people but rather as fleshly, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still fleshly. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not fleshly and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not all too human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and each will receive wages according to their own labor. 9 For we are God’s coworkers, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Well, we got the news today, what we have been wondering about and praying for and thinking about since my retirement was announced a few weeks ago. This morning the Staff Parish Committee shared with you the appointment of Rev. Kil Jae Park. As the weeks go by you will be learning more about your new pastor and he will be learning about you.
He and I had a wonderful chat the day after the appointment and look forward to speaking in person. His sister Rev. Grace Pak and I have worked on many worship projects together in past years. The church’s newly formed Welcoming Committee will be working on providing a warm and inviting beginning to his ministry among you. Just as Robb and I were warmly welcomed.
It just so happens that the lectionary passage assigned to this morning informs what we are experiencing now with this new appointment. And, what I and you have gone through on numerous occasions as United Methodists. If you are unfamiliar with the Methodist system of deploying clergy, it goes like this.
Methodist clergy are unlike, for example, Presbyterian ministers who are interviewed, hired and ordained at the specific church where they will serve. Methodist elders are ordained with the understanding that they are willing to serve anywhere in the entire annual conference–the group of 700 some churches throughout New Jersey and a few in Pennsylvania and New York.
The Bishop and the District Superintendents appoint clergy as needed to the various churches. Most of us have served various charges throughout the state and sometimes we serve Extension Ministries elsewhere as army chaplains, district superintendents, counselors, teachers and professors at Christian schools and seminaries, etc.
But every one of us pastors is always available to serve our annual conference at the Bishop and Cabinet’s beckoning. You can leave an appointment three ways currently, you can be moved, you can die, you can retire. I chose retirement because I am right at the mandatory age for Methodist Clergy to retire.
Here are some ways this morning’s passage ties in to what often happens in congregations when change takes place. It mainly has to do with the ways that people mistakenly understand the relationship between pastors and churches. I remember arriving at one new church appointment only to discover that some some have left because “we’ve already had one of those” meaning we’ve had a woman pastor, we don’t need another. I always wondered if they would leave a church that had a second man appointed because they “already have had one”? Don’t think so.
Somehow those persons overlooked that the church is a body of people. No one person or one pastor represents any particular body of Christ. And, God is active and alive in the process of the deployment of clergy. I know this for a fact having taken at least 60 pastors in to their new churches. Paul clearly states in this passage that he and a fellow apostle may have worked with the church “planting and watering” but it is God who causes the growth. It is God whose Holy Spirit enlivens the congregation for ministry.
Another thing that happens during appointment season is that people connect their membership in a church with the pastor instead of with the church. Every single one of us pastors who has served Caldwell United Methodist Church since 1893 was part of this body of believers. It is not uncommon that people will follow a pastor to a new church or refuse to accept a new pastor. It is nothing new. St. Paul experienced this in the earliest years of the Christian Church and in the passage you heard read earlier shared this:
“For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not fleshly and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not all too human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” 1 Cor. 3: 3-6
- Pastor Gyun planted and watered but God supplied the growth.
- Pastor Klein planted and watered but God supplied the growth.
- Pastor Markay planted and watered but God supplied the growth.
- Pastor Rodeffer planted and watered but God supplied the growth.
And why is that? It is because just like Paul and Apollos, pastors are merely implements in God’s hands. Preparing the soil of minds and hearts to receive God’s blessings and to thrive.
Pastors teach and preach, we share the sacraments of communion and baptism, we bury the dead and pray for the sick, we administrate and do more things than you can imagine. But we don’t cause your hearts to grow in the fruit of the spirit, God does that because as St. Paul puts it well, but you, you are the field! You are the field. The place where hearts and minds are cultivated by spiritual leaders and become God’s fields at harvest producing the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5: 22-23)
The central question this message lifts is “what’s next?” What’s next is up to you and your faithfulness to your church and your trust in God to cause to grow all that has been planted and watered within you. As I wrote in my retirement paragraph for the Greater New Jersey Conference website:” for the successes in my ministry I thank God, for the failures I take credit.” I know Who nurtures what we pastors plant and water.
Be kind to the new pastor. God has asked him to plant and water your fields. Be receptive and open to cultivation and receiving the many blessings he has to offer of experience and wisdom. Welcome Rev. Park warmly.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, Thank you for answering our prayers and sending us someone to plant and water the fields of our hearts. Keep him steady during this season of transition and eager to begin his work here at Caldwell United Methodist Church. Amen.
PASS THE SALT, TURN UP THE LIGHT
Rev. Vivian L. Rodeffer
Sunday, February 5, 2023
Matthew 5: 13-16
Salt and Light
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Jesus in his teaching makes it clear that we Christians, followers of Christ, are to make a difference in the world wherever we find ourselves. At home, at work, in school, retired, in the hospital, on the driving range. Wherever we find ourselves Jesus commands us to be salt and light. When we sit here or I stand here on Sunday mornings, this sounds pretty easy and not too difficult, doesn’t it? But it is a challenge to pass the salt and turm up the light for our world.
For our day and age maybe one of the most important challenges we have is to acknowlege the things that go against love and to promote the things that do. To address racism, the injustice of poverty, inequalities of housing and health care. And to do so in ways that do not judge, do not place blame, do not seek to free us from responsibility. Jesus clearly teaches that we followers of him are the salt, are the light, the cause agents of change in a hurting world.
Often we adopt the “ain’t it awful” attitude. We hear the stories on the evening news and then proclaim, “ain’t it awful.” Shaking our heads and that’s it. Not following up on why things are the “awful” way they are. A few years ago when I was a district superintendent for the churches on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River across from Philadelphia, I received a phone call one afternoon from one of my most distinguished African American pastors. A pastor who still serves on the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church.
On the phone call, this pastor, so elegant in the pulpit, could barely speak, could barely share what just happened to him. Here’s what happened. He had left his office at the church to walk across the street to a small mom and pop store to get a snack. Before he even got to go inside, two police officers got out of their cruiser, stopped him, put him against the wall of the store, and frisked him. All this happened in front of some of his flock who happened to be at the store as well, and then the officers took him to the station where he was eventually released after this ordeal.
When he asked WHY? The answer was that the area was under surveillance and they had just picked up a drug related call coming from the direction of the church. Then he appeared, a black man. So, obviously he must be the drug runner.
A week later he and I and some people from his church made an appointment to talk with the local police chief. We crowded into his office and expressed our dismay over what had happened and the humiliation that it caused and asked the chief to assure us this would be addressed. He agreed to our demands.
All of us here today and at home know that policing issues are still a problem to this very day and we must never stop speaking out and trying to promote change. To be salt and light, agents of change in a hurting world.
It doesn’t take much salt at all to change the flavor of a bad situation or institution; it doesn’t take much light at all to illuminate darkness. I was babysitting my grandson a few weeks ago and when we pulled up to their apartment building we could barely even make out the parking lot because they were having a power outage. Then it was difficult to go up the stairs to the third floor in total darkness. We felt our way up the steps. When we finally entered the apartment, one tiny votive candle in the kitchen lit the entire room. One candle flame can bring light to a lot of darkness.
One visit to a person no longer able to get out, one tutoring session for a chid heaving trouble with math, one flat tire changed for someone stranded along the road, one bag of groceries lifted and placed in someone’s trunk, one five dollar bill handed quietly to a person unable to pay for their food, one prayer lifted for a person struggling, you get the idea. As light for the world, we must be visible to those persons and situations in need. All around us, every day are a myriad of opportunities to be the candle that illumines another’s life. The light that brings hope and clarity to another stumbling in darkness.
The take away today is a the same time both simple and complex. Bear witness to the love of God today to someone who needs to experience the flavor of God’s Holy Spirit, bear witness to the love of God in our word who walks in darkness and needs your light for their path.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, Let us never hide our spiritual light or neglect to share it with those in need. And help us to use our saltiness to flavor the situations in our lives that require the ingredient of your own Holy Spirit. Amen.
FRESH START MESSAGE #4
“AN INVITATION TO INCLUDE”
Rev. Vivian L. Rodeffer
Sunday, January 29, 2023
Luke 19: 1-10
[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
It was a bold act for Jesus to call on Zacchaeus and choose him as host for a meal because in the ancient world, whom you had a meal with meant something. Even though Zacchaeus was Jewish by birth, his job as a tax collector led to his rejection by the community because tax collectors worked for the ruling Roman empire and so were seen in a very negative light. As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was seen as an even worse. However, Jesus did not give in to community pressure not to engage Zaccheus, an outcast. The community is upset at Jesus’ actions this scripture tells us they“grumble”. [v. 7]
The encounter with Jesus changes Zacchaeus. It not only offers him new life, “salvation,” but also offers him a restored relationship in the community. In seeing Zacchaeus as more than just a tax collector, in seeing him as a son of Abraham, Jesus sees him as a human being with worth in God’s eyes. This interaction leads to accountability and Zaccheus’ repentance, followed up with justice. Not only Zaccheus, but also the community is restored through these acts of reconciliation. A fresh start with Jesus has an impact on many. An important thing to remember.
Jesus says that he, “came to seek out and save the lost,” (v. 10). In the case of Zacchaeus, that was someone who was seen as a bully or traitor in the community. Often, Christians are comfortable with the idea that Jesus saves “the lost” who belong to certain categories (e.g., “poor,” “homeless”). But this passage challenges us to see understand “the lost” as including even those who have sinned against us, who have harmed our communities, or who we consider enemies. This radical inclusion of the “lost” or the “sinner” is not the same as accepting or condoning the harm they’ve committed, but it does mean extending hospitality, seeing them as people, as opening the door for repentance, justice, and reconciliation.
Think of a situation when you felt like you were not enough or not valued by those around you. [Pause.] Or think about an instance when you might have given into community pressure and not included someone. [Pause.] Let’s take a few moments to share. [Sharing.] Remember in this story, the community did not see Zaccheus, a tax collector, as worthy of hosting Jesus as a guest in his home.
In communities and in many congregations, there are various groups of people who, like tax collectors, have a reputation for doing injustices to the community. Whenever there is division along particular issues, this question might be answered differently depending on who is being asked!
Jesus invites us into fresh starts that will change us and that ultimately can restore the communities to which we belong. And Jesus offers all people relationship right where they are. Do you hear Jesus’ invitation in your life? Are most importantly are you willing to trust that Jesus invites others too? There is a Gordon Light song from a few year’s ago that sums up perfectly what Jesus is doing
Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still.
Let this be our song: no one stands alone.
Standing side by side, draw the circle, draw the circle wide...
God the still-point of the circle
Round you all creation turns
Nothing lost but held forever
in God's gracious arms
Let our hearts touch far horizons
So encompass great and small
Let our loving know no borders
Faithful to God's call
Let the dreams we dream be larger
Than we've ever dreamed before
Let the dream of Christ be in us
Open every door!
The Good News is that Jesus offers a fresh start to everyone today. As the body of Christ, our task is to “draw the circle wide” to invite others to see the fresh start God has in store for them.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, we know how it feels to be on the outside, and also how it feels to be a part of something that gives our life meaning. Help us be open and receptive to all whom Jesus loves so that the circle is made wider and wider and “the dream of Christ be in our hearts.” Amen.
Fresh Start? Or Same Old, Same Old?
A fresh start begins with living in awe and gratitude of God’s gifts.
Rev. Vivian L. Rodeffer
Sunday, January 22, 2023
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men with a skin disease approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? So where are the other nine? 18 Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
For the past two Sundays we have focussed on the promise that Jesus has the power to change lives through God’s grace. And that is where we will go today as well. Our own flaws can be overcome, and we can change the world in response to the change offered to us. A fresh start begins with living in awe and gratitude of God’s gifts.
In today’s scripture passage, there were ten lepers that were healed but only one returns to give praise. It is amazing of the ten persons who were healed, nine persons were not gracious enough to return and thank Jesus for this new start with health. We admire the one man who returned to thank Jesus. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
Jesus intentionally choose to travel through this region which is in between Samaria and Galilee. This would have been a region where lepers would have lived because it is outside the city. It is a borderland. Like other passages in Luke, Jesus is present with those are outcasts.
Jesus heals these ten lepers, however, only a priest could pronounce a person ritually “clean”. This is why Jesus requires the lepers to go show themselves (healed) to the priests. Being proclaimed “clean” would mean that they would once again be accepted into society and have a fresh start.
What might have been the reasons why only one leper returned? Was this Samaritan the only one who realized he was healed? When God is changing us and offering us a fresh start, do we even recognize it? Are we willing to accept it and give praise? Maybe the others were so focused on being named clean by the priests that they didn’t take the time to pause and give thanks for what Jesus had done.
For all the lepers, their healing was not a change that happened instantly; they had to follow Jesus’ instructions (to show themselves to the priests). As they did so, they were made clean. God invites us to be participants in our own experience of change. Although God is always the one who gives grace and healing, the degree to which we respond and engage with God affects our awareness and experience of it.
In December on the second Sunday of advent you were invited to write on a prayer dove something that you need to change in yourself to bring about peace. These are all the things that need fresh starts in your lives. When we took the Prayer Dove Christmas tree down yesterday, I kept the doves and read the many things that you offered prayers for to have a Fresh Start. Here is what you prayed for
- A fresh start for my family to stop fighting over petty issues
- A fresh start to make new friends among strangers
- A fresh start for weight loss
- A fresh start to be more tolerant
- A fresh start to be less fearful of the big changes in my life
- A fresh start to change focus in my spiritual life to walk with God
- A fresh start to put aside ego and defensiveness and be open and optimistic
- A fresh start to change my actions so that new beginnings might be possible
- A fresh start to heal relationships with those I have difficulty forgiving
- A fresh start to stop being negative and seeing the worst in people
- A fresh start by healing my past
- A fresh start to have the discipline to ignore or manage vices that take my time and energy.
Sometimes, change takes place over time. Sometimes so slowly that it can be an obstacle to our offering praise. Perhaps we get frustrated that our fresh starts, our healings, take longer than we’d hoped. Because they may not happen right away, we lose sight of the way change is happening slowly and over time, and we neglect to give God praise.
The leper who returned was not just healed but because of his gratitude, he made a connection with Jesus that offered him more than healing or ritual cleanliness – he was made whole. His healing was not just physical, his “faith has made [him] well,” (v. 19). How might we be missing out on greater wellness and wholeness because we are not taking the time to stop, connect with God, and show gratitude?
Your takeaway this morning is to think about the fresh start that you wrote on your prayer dove in December, remember to work on it with God’s help, and every day, in your prayers, with awe and praise, thank God. Remember today’s scripture story of the leper, the one out of ten, who came back to thank Jesus and received peace and wholeness for his life.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, You have given us so many fresh starts in our lives. Remind us to remember them and to give you thanks and praise. Amen
FRESH START: Week Two
UNDER THE WINGS
Rev. Vivian L. Rodeffer
Sunday, January 15, 2023
Luke 13: 31-35
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me,‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’
This is our second week of the New Year FRESH START sermon series. Messages to help us begin this new year with resolve, purpose and a fresh start for ourselves and our church. Today our focus is on change. We all here at Caldwell United Methodist have a change, a fresh start in our futures. The example for me is the fresh start of retirement, the example for you it will be the fresh start of a newly appointed pastor next July
What worked so well for me when I was brand new here ten years ago, was the welcoming vibes my family and I felt from the congregation.You all welcomed us so warmly and continued that welcome throughout the past ten years. I so appreciated hearing last week that Staff Parish Relations Chair Stephanie DeBruyne is forming a group that she is calling the Welcome Wagon to welcome the new pastor. You all get it!
Jesus in today’s scripture talks to the religious people of the time about how people of faith instead of welcoming God’s purpose/ fresh start have resisted God’s purpose/ fresh start. Many times God has offered a church community a fresh start, but they have resisted or refused (e.g., a new pastor, a change of music, use of technology, how we pray, whom we serve or how we serve)?
While the gospels and biblical interpretations often present the Pharisees in a negative light, here we can see that there were some Pharisees who were not hostile to Jesus’ fresh start. “Get away from here, Herod wants to kill you!” [v 31] They want him to play it safe but, like the other Pharisees and even many of Jesus’ own disciples, they do not get it. They do not understand why he would risk danger to himself for the sake of his purpose. Even though their intentions are good, they are still resisting the new thing Jesus is doing in his ministry of casting out demons and performing cures. Despite the real and present danger, Jesus persists even when it is not understood or accepted. How often do we get sidetracked from the new thing God is doing in and through us – sometimes even by well-intended people (whether that be others or ourselves)?
The animal illustrations in this scripture illustrate well what Jesus is teaching. He shows the extremes: a fox is dangerous, risky, a predator. A hen is protective, loving, and caring. [Pastor tells story of placing baby geese under a pair of her geese whose eggs did not hatch! How warm and soft it was under the geese, how they immediately accepted those goslings as their own.] In this text, Jesus calls Herod a fox. Herod is the type of person who kills those who oppose him, rather than risking change (fresh starts can feel threatening to those who dislike change!).
God, as shown in Jesus, is both redeemer and protector. In Jesus, we are offered a fresh start and freedom from the oppressor. Yet, in a fight between a fox and a hen, a fox is much more likely to win. Jesus once again defies expectations by choosing the gentle strength of a hen instead of the violent strength of a fox. This continues a pattern that has been established in the Gospel of Luke just prior to this text (Luke 13:18-30), where the lesser or apparently “smaller” turns out be greater (e.g., yeast, mustard seed, the least, and the last).
Jesus is lamenting over the city he loved and tried to minister to, but they refused him. Jerusalem is known for killing those who were sent by God (prophets, such as John the Baptist). This is another example of how humanity resists the change that God offers that will lead to salvation. Note: Jesus quotes Psalm 118:26 saying, “you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” This is also a reference to/foreshadowing of the Palm Sunday narratives when Jesus enters Jerusalem lauded as Messiah before later being crucified that week. Jesus knows, even at this point, that his purpose will lead him to and through both the praise and the rejection of the people. Nothing (neither others’ praise nor their rejection) will stop him from his ministry, the fresh start he has to offer the world.
As we end this morning, I’ll invite you to remember that whenever God offers a fresh start, God will offer strength from unexpected places, sometimes in ways that will not be recognized by the world or those around us. It may be in a personal relationship; it may be in conquering an addiction; it may be in attempting to solve a problem that has resisted solving.
Be ready for a fresh start here at Caldwell UMC; be open to God’s vision for the church; be mindful that openess to change, prayers for acceptance, and the outreach of being a welcoming congregation, will go far! Let us pray:
Gracious God, Thank you for fresh starts and for fresh infusions of the strength and energy that yor Holy Spirit inspires. Help us to embrace our future with a welcoming heart, a prayerful manor and a playful acceptance of the future. Amen
ARE YOU SURE YOU’RE UP FOR THIS?
Rev. Vivian L. Rodeffer
Sunday, January 8, 2023
TEXT: Mark 8: 27-38
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
This is the very beginning of a brand new year so let’s think for awhile about fresh starts–the kind of things we sometimes put into our New Year’s resolutions. And we all know that for a fresh start to be successful it takes resolve, willpower, changing the way we think about certain things and dedication to the practices like exercise or dieting or meditation or whatever that will help us attain the goal.
Have you ever had a time in your life when you were successful at a fresh start? Perhaps it was learning to cook as a young adult when you first moved away from home, or it was learning to build something by yourself. Maybe it was beginning a new relationship or retooling an existing one. Perhaps it was learning how to live a single life after the passing of a loved one? And at the very center of every fresh start is an attitude or perspective within us that has to be changed in in order to make room for doing something new or doing it differently.
Often difficult times necessitate a fresh start. A few chapters before today’s scripture reading, John the Baptist, who had come to prepare the way for the Messiah, was killed. A new leader was sought. While the religious people are trying to decide if this Jesus is that new leader, Jesus himself is giving them a fresh understanding of who the Messiah is and what he is supposed to do. It is not what they expected.
Disciple Peter especially could not comprehend a Messiah who would be rejected and suffer. No one of the time could imagine that Messiah would be rejected by the religious leaders, be put to death, and ultimately rise from the dead. This new kind of “suffering servant” Messiah was offering a very big picture “fresh start.” This was difficult for Peter to understand but it was God’s way of bringing about the fresh start needed by the world.
Jesus did not suffer just to become a victim. The purpose of his suffering was to lift others up, especially those on the margins, and to bring them to healing and fullness of life. Just listen to this passage from Mark 6:
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
Jesus was sent to suffer and to take risks and to associate with the downtrodden for the sake of the big picture, God-sized, fresh start. The gospel of Mark in our bibles is about expectations and who you are in Christ. The tone of the gospel is imperative–the time is now, for a new thing is happening. Jesus is announcing that to be is followers, people need to be willing “to take up their cross and follow him.”
This command is about following Jesus’ way of paying attention to those on the outside or on edge of society, it is about letting Jesus live in and through us, even when that is not easy to do, even when we risk losing popularity or we risk not being popular with the “in circle.” Taking up one’s cross, pointing to Jesus’ final sacrifice, leads to salvation. Our being willing to deny ourselves will mean that our lives will be lead in unity with Jesus.
Last night at the annual dinner for the West Essex First Aid Squad, I read something in the program written by Naomi Moylen that I felt spoke perfectly to what this scripture is about. She gave me permission to share it with you this morning. Naomi wrote:
“For all the [Squad] members I have worked and rode with for over forty years, the one constant that shines through is the desire to help those in pain….That desire to help patient and family was no more evident then thirty some years ago, on a Sunday morning as a friend and I were doing a transportation from a hospital to an area home. Along with the assistance of many of our members, this transportation was done every Sunday for almost two years. …This particular Sunday was our turn, and my friend and I were just passing St. Al’s in Caldwell when she said, that she felt awful that she was missing Mass. I started to laugh, and then said, “seriously, what are you thinking?” This is Mass. What you are doing is living the Mass. This is God’s work. How much more holy can you be then when you are able to put God’s work into action? Sitting in church? Doesn’t even come close. You are God’s hands and you are doing his work. This is truly living what you believe.”
I would say that this is what “take up your cross and follow me” is really about. “Truly living what you believe.”
As we close let’s think about how following Christ in this new year, how “truly living what we believe” might lead each of us to a fresh start in our faith. We all know that for a fresh start or a New Year’s resolution to be successful it takes resolve, willpower, changing the way we think about certain things and dedication.
How will each of us be open to carry the cross in our own lives and what will that look like? What will it look like for us to bear the cross in our families, in the neighborhoods where we live, in our schools, our places or work, the places where we gather? Can we resolve together as God’s people to make the effort that a fresh start for our faith calls for in this New Year?
Let us pray.
Gracious God, We are eternally grateful for a Savior and a faith that challenges us to be better selves, to grow a faith that brings a harvest of goodness and light to those less fortunate, those in dire need, and those for whom love is a stranger. Thank you for loving us and giving us a fresh start in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.