Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

The Ascension 2019


Let us say together the Apostle’s Creed (recite the creed). The creed was written in order to give people a concise understanding of the faith - short enough that people could memorize it but comprehensive enough that everything that essentially we need to know and believe to follow God is included. There were no Bibles available for people to look at so they needed a way to get the facts about the faith. Originally it was a baptismal creed - those adults being baptized would learn it in question and answer form and then recited it at their baptism.
So let’s think about this creed and what the early church fathers felt was import an for us to know…..
First that God created heaven and earth - short and sweet and essential for us to believe. The last paragraph gives us some one sentence essentials - The Holy Spirit, that regardless of tradition, or denomination, we are all one church in Jesus Christ, that we are all part of the communion of believers - living or dead, that our sins are forgiven, that we will be bodily resurrected and will live forever. The middle paragraph, the longest one, tells us what we need to know about Jesus - the basics. That Jesus was the son of God, that his birth was a miracle, that he was crucified and died, that he rose from the dead and that he ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of the God the father almighty.
And that last little section is what we need to talk about today - he ascended into heaven…..
Today is referred to as Ascension Sunday. Today however is not the actual day of the ascension, but the Sunday right after that event. A little over 40 days ago, we recognized the death of Jesus and his resurrection. Jesus remained on earth for 40 days after the resurrection, spending time with the disciples - teaching them and encouraging them in the role they were going to have to fulfill as the Apostles of Jesus. We had our Christ Candle burning in the sanctuary and our cross with the white cloth to remind us of the special presence of Jesus during these 40 days. During these 40 days Jesus was also trying to prepare the disciples for the fact that he was going away - for good this time.
We see our common number 40 as the ascension was 40 days after the resurrection. So actual Ascension Day is always on a Thursday -the Resurrection is always on a Sunday so reason follows that 40 days later is always a Thursday. So last Thursday, a few days ago, is the day about 2000 years ago, that Jesus ascends into heaven. A miraculous and wondrous event. And of course you need to hear my annual rant about how we as the church should be making a bigger deal about commemorating this important day in the life of Jesus; this important day in helping us understand all what Jesus has done for his people. We make a big deal about his birth; we make a big deal about his death and resurrection; Christmas we celebrate God came to earth in the form of a human named Jesus so that he could take on our sin for us. We make a big deal about his death and resurrection celebrating Easter Sunday where we remember how he suffered and died on the cross to forgive our sin; he rose from the dead to give us eternal life ---- but without the ascension we never make it to live with God. We would remain here on earth just as we have been talking about for the last 40 days. Jesus spent the 40 days after the resurrection on earth. But through his ascension where he rises to sit at the right hand of the Father, we too, get to go and spend eternity with God. The ascension is the completion of the work of Jesus which insures our eternal life in the presence of God - and that should be a big deal!!
So This is Ascension Sunday - the day set aside to recognize that essential section of the Apostle’s Creed - that Jesus ascended into heaven. On the 40th day after the resurrection, Thursday, 3 days ago, Jesus gathered the disciples on a mountaintop, and told them that this was it. That this was the moment he was leaving - he told them not to worry. He was going to heaven, but he was going to send his spirit back and the spirit would live in them and give them the power they needed to do the job God had assigned them. Their job was to go out into the world and teach everyone what he had taught them. The disciples were to take everything that Jesus had taught them and now teach it to the rest of ‘the world’. Go back to Jerusalem, and wait. When the time is right my spirit will come to you. Which by the way we will celebrate next Sunday - as we remember the event known as Pentecost. Don’t forget to wear red!
So as the disciples are standing there on that mountain, they watch as Jesus literally, physically, ascends through the clouds and on to heaven. They just stood there mesmerized. Can you imagine? They stood there long enough staring up in the sky that an angel came and said, “Don’t just stand there looking up into heaven!” Go! Do what Jesus said! Go back to Jerusalem and wait for the spirit Jesus will send you. Off they went, singing and praising God and they did what Jesus told them - they went back to the upper room and waited expectantly for whatever this spirit might be!

In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul says that the good news of the cross is foolishness for those who don't believe, but for followers of Christ it represents the power of God. In other words, the stories that are so much a part of who we are, just seem silly to unbelievers, almost like fairy tales. The stories that are essential to our faith; the stories that teach us and
instruct us about God are pretty unbelievable to those who are not part of the church. Think about the Biblical happenings
from an outsiders view point; from someone who didn't grow up with Moses and David and Joshua as part of their basic teachings; who don’t have faith in who God is and what God is capable of doing. We have a guy being swallowed by a fish? How about Elijah riding to heaven in a chariot of fire? We have Jacob wrestling all night with an angel. Doesn’t sound like something that is very real. Yet these preposterous accounts are integral to our faith and our understanding of God. And from a practical, scientific, believability viewpoint, even the life of Jesus is just as absurd; dead people rising from the dead, multiplying food, disease healing. An outsider would just shake their head and say "You believe what?". To someone not grounded in our faith, it just seems like foolishness - just like the Apostle Paul says. But as believers we understand that God’s work is all about miraculous happenings; incidents that are hard to believe. Jesus was born of a virgin. His ministry began with the voice of God calling out from heaven. Jesus spends three years healing people, raising people from the dead - performing miracles. He then gets killed and unbelievably raises from the dead and comes back to life. And today, we celebrate another in the strange but true stories of Jesus - his ascension.
Picture the disciples as they watch Jesus bodily ascend into the heaven. Another of the wondrous, hard to believe moments in the scriptures. It is hard to explain a man bodily rising up into the sky all on his own. But sometimes I think this directive of Jesus to go out and do his work is sometimes harder to believe than the amazing hard to believe miracles and events; harder to believe that this amazing moment of watching Jesus ascend into heaven.. Sometimes it is easier to believe Moses really parted the Red Sea than to believe Jesus really expects us to do what he did. Maybe we fit in here with the unbelievers the Apostle Paul talks about when he mentions that the stories are folly to unbelievers. It is so hard for us to really think that Jesus wants us to share the Gospel and to teach the good news to the world? Are you thinking “Surely that doesn’t mean me?”
But the answer is, Yes – it does. For we have to grasp the understanding that we here in this congregation are the chosen people of God – chosen not only for Salvation, but chosen to be set apart for the express purpose to be agents of God in this world. That is what this story is truly all about. Reminding us that Jesus’ ascension was not only the completion of his work for our salvation, but the beginning of our work as God’s people. Unbelievable to think God wants
us to do the work of Jesus.
Jesus makes one more statement before he flies into the sky – He said, “This is going to seem like an awesome responsibility. This is going to seem like an overwhelming task. But don’t worry. I’ll be there for you.” And this is what he says to us. Jesus says, “I expect you to do this. To carry my message to the world. – But don’t worry. I will equip you. I will give you what you need. You don’t have to do it on your own.” And so for us the first step is believing that first and foremost we are supposed to go out and teach those who don’t know about Christ the things he taught and secondly – and most important – Jesus really will help you do it.
The secret to being able to fulfill our responsibility is faith in the
living power of Jesus. Jesus may have bodily ascended into heaven but he promised he would give us the power necessary to do what he asked us to do. This is not folly, this is not a fairy tale, this is not just some inspiring speech, this is not for someone else, but real power to do the work of Jesus for each and every one of you – you, the chosen people of God. We cannot just be recipients of salvation; we cannot be spectators as others heed Jesus’ words – this is not an option. It is the will and direction of God for us. Go and teach the world what it means to be a believer in Christ. Believe that and believe in the power Jesus will give you to do it.
Today we celebrate the ascension! We celebrate the ascension as people who have found the stories of the Bible to be true, to be reliable and to reveal to us who God is and who we are. The result of that ascension is our everlasting life with God and the challenge to live as if we really believe we receive everything we need to do God’s work. Christ has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God!

Many Branches


Listen to these 2 selected verses from the famous Frank Sinatra classic: “My Way” -
Regrets I've had a few, But then again too few to mention, I did what I had to do, And saw it through without exemption, I planned each charted course, Each careful step along the byway, And more, much more than this, I did it my way, For what is a man, what has he got, If not himself then he has not, To say the things he truly feels, And not the words of one who kneels, The record shows I took the blows, And did it my way.
There is a good part of us that hear these words and think, ‘Yea’! “That’s right” “That’s what we have to do” “Great song” “Great inspiration”. “Good for him” “We all need to be more like that!” That is the message we get from the world around us - we gotta take care of ourselves. Pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps. It is up to you to make something of yourselves……. And on and on. The message is just as Frank Sinatra teaches us - what we admire, what we strive for, is to be strong enough to stand up for ourselves and do it “MY way”.
And today as we hear the message of Jesus, the words are exactly the opposite. We are not to do it My Way - but to do it Jesus’ way. We are not to be independent and on our own and “You gotta take care of yourselves cause no one else will”…….. We, as the children of God are to be connected to the vine and we are to have an attitude, not of independence, but of dependence.
As we continue to look at these 40 days of instruction from Jesus as he gives the disciples, and us, these final directions of how to live we get some great word of encouragement and a word to remember to depend on him..…
If you remember from last week, Jesus has met the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples had traveled back home and back to their fishing jobs. This particular morning as they were done fishing Jesus greets them on the beach with a great breakfast of fish and bread. So they all sit down together, they eat their breakfast and begin to talk. Scripture tells us that after Peter denied he was a follower of Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter carried with him some heavy guilt. He had denied his Lord. He kept stressing over how he could have done this - he was a failure - he had failed Jesus. This weighed heavy on Peter…..
We’ve all been there. We have done something - multiple things - and we carry this guilt around with us. Guilt can be paralyzing. Regrets can incapacitate us. Feeling guilty can limit our ability to live for God; to work for God as he desires; Guilt and regret can destroy our relationships; it can even separate us from God.
Jesus knows that he has to deal with this before Peter is going to be able to live up to what Jesus needs Peter to do. Peter is going to become the leader of this new church; Peter is going to be the leader of the disciples as they gather together to do the work that God wants them to do… And Peter will not be able to do any of this if he carries around this guilt from his night of publicly denying his Lord Jesus. So as they sit around this campfire on this morning on the beach, eating their fish and breaking their bread, Jesus lets Peter know that he is forgiven; that his mistakes of the past are just that - past mistakes; that God has forgiven him - that God has forgotten these missteps and now Peter can get on. That is the gist of that familiar conversation between Jesus and Peter: “Peter, do you love me?” - Feed my sheep. “Peter, do you love me?” - Feed my lambs. “Peter, do you love me?” - Take care of my sheep. Three denials - and three times Jesus assures Peter that all is well and that the roadblocks are clear and that Peter can get on with the business of what Jesus is asking Peter to do.
The morning together continues as Jesus then takes Peter and says, “Let’s go for a walk” and together they go down the beach. The disciple John is a little jealous that Jesus is spending so much time with Peter - and keep in mind that it is John who is writing this account of what is
happening this morning on the beach. Peter and Jesus begin walking down the beach as Jesus is giving Peter some further instructions and some further encouragement and further information about what is going to happen. John, writing this account, throws in this little sentence that says in affect - I was the one who sat by Jesus at the last supper and I heard him say that someone was going to deny him and Peter denied him and I didn’t…….. Peter then, walking along with Jesus looks back at John, who is following them, says “What about him?”
Doesn’t that sound like us? How many times to we get caught up in what everyone else is doing, or has done, or didn’t do, or did 10 years ago? How often are we held back from doing what God wants us to do because we are worried about what someone else has been called to do and it is different than what we have been asked to do and what they have to do is easier, more fun, less time consuming, brings more recognition, than what I have to do. I want to do what they have to do…….
We also read today a passage from Exodus. This passage comes from that wilderness journey which is a story that God gave us so that we can learn about our journey to become better at being God’s people. In this particular passage, Moses is up on top of Mt. Sinai receiving the 10 commandments and receiving a lot of other information as God lines out exactly how he wants his people to live. In all these instructions are the design for the tabernacle - the place where God wants his people to gather and worship. God very specifically orders particular objects to be a part of the worship space. And then God tells Moses, I am going to give particular people each a specific talent so that they will be able to craft these distinct pieces that I want in my tabernacle. And so in this passage of Exodus we actually get to read the names of these individuals God has chosen and gifted to craft these items that will be know as the ‘furniture’ of God’s sanctuary. This is important to notice - no where does it say, “God went to these fellas and asked them if they would like to be the ones to perform these tasks.” God just simply says - these are the ones I am going to tell they will do this! But notice as well that God gives them to skills they need to do what God has told them to do!
As Jesus walks along the beach with Peter, he tells Peter “The time is coming where you are no longer going to make your own decisions. The time is coming where you will be lead where you do not want to go.” In other words, God has chosen Peter to lead his church and there is little Peter can do about it. This is what Peter is to do now…..
And Peter is not to worry about what John is going to be called to do and John is not to worry about the fact that Peter sinned greatly.
Traditionally in the church lectionary - the list of sermons that are suggested for each Sunday - this Sunday is always the Sunday where we are to remember the words of Jesus - I am the vine and you are the branches…… I am the boss and you are the disciples. You job is to do what I call you to do. You job is not to worry about the other branches on the vine; your job is not to want to do what she or he is doing; you job is not to judge whether so and so is able to or good enough to do what God has called them to do; your job is not to do it your way.
Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Staying connected to me means that I will always give you whatever you need to do what I have called you to do; gifted you to do; you don’t have to do it your way or worrying about doing it your way cause as long as you stay connected, it will be fine…….”
Sounds good; sounds challenging; but practically what does that mean for me?
It is simple, well it sounds simple but since we are people that think we have to do it My Way it can be kind of a struggle. We have to spend time, every day, walking with Jesus. Just like Peter did that day on the beach. And what that looks like in your own life you have to work out. It means that sometime during the day you find a moment - even if it is only 5 minutes (and I know you are busy but all of us can find 5 minutes for God….) Find some time each day to just sit quietly and ask Jesus to guide you. Not prayer so much, just ask Jesus what he wants you to do and sit quietly…
And what you will realize is that it is not about doing it “My Way”, it is not about worrying about guilt and regrets, it is not about what anyone else is doing, it is about living the life God has for me. And it is remembering that as long as I stay connected to Jesus, as long as I remember I am a branch connected to the vine, It will be OK. Amen!

Following the Direction of Jesus


The 23rd Psalm is probably the best known, most loved, most quoted portion of Scripture. We talked about it last week and I want to continue using this Psalm as we think about Jesus’ direction for our lives. This Psalm is so familiar that people who seldom if ever read a Bible or go to church can often still quote a portion of this Psalm. (Read Psalm 23) This Psalm is so often requested at death-beds and funerals, we too often associate the 23rd Psalm with death and dying. But the Psalm is really for the living. It speaks to us in our daily lives as we try to just get through our days and to be faithful to what Jesus wants us to do.
Roy Campanella, the baseball player, was in a bad car accident years ago that left him a semi invalid. In his autobiography he talks about the many nights he cried himself to sleep, about the pain that racked his body and his sinking into deep depression. He writes:
All my life whenever I was in trouble, I had turned to God for help. I remembered my Bible and asked the nurse to the get the one from the drawer in the night table. I opened it to the 23rd Psalm: `Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.'
"From that moment on", he wrote, "I was on my way back. I knew I was going to make it!"
There are hundreds and thousands of testimonies like this - of how people have found in this simple Psalm the comfort, strength, and the assurance that they are going to make it! I'm sure many of you can tell your own stories about what this psalm has meant to you. Psalm 23 not only gives comfort to the dying, it also gives courage, strength, and hope to those of us who are alive and often struggling.
One of the things we realize, though, is that the 23rd Psalm is steeped in the language and customs of shepherding and sheep in Palestine back in Bible times. If we don't know anything about the customs of shepherds and the unique relationship between the shepherd and the sheep, then much of what this Psalm has to say simply passes us by. The sheep put their total trust, their whole life in the direction of the shepherd.
As we continue through this season of Easter we are looking at all of those appearances of Jesus to his disciples as he tries to give them last minute instructions before he leaves them to go sit at the right hand of the Father. Jesus wants to make sure that these disciples understand who they are and what they are to do - and the appearance of Jesus we will talk about today is about Jesus reminding the disciples who they are - they are Followers of Jesus! About who we are - followers of Jesus.
We are still in this 40 day period between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Up til now the disciples have been locked in that upper room but apparently they have left Jerusalem and gone back to their home in Galilee and they have gone back to work - they were fishermen so they are fishing. Most fishermen on the Sea of Galilee fished during the night - this is when they caught the most fish. But on this particular night, they have been fishing all night and they have not caught anything. Morning comes and the disciples are pretty disgusted - as we can well imagine. You work all night long and find you have accomplished nothing - you are pretty disheartened So here they are in the boat, feeling down and probably fussing
when they hear a voice coming from the shore - “Hey! Throw your net on the other side! There are fish on the other side!” The disciples weren’t sure who was giving them this direction but they did it and they caught so many fish they could barely get the net back into the boat. As they were working to get these fish into the boat, Peter looks up at the fella on the beach who had given them this advice and he realized it was Jesus!
Following the direction of Jesus made all the difference as those fishermen tried to catch those fish…
So let’s go back for a minute to our 23rd Psalm, especially verse 4 which says “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Did you know that the Shadow of Death was an actual place?It is a valley, or a mountain pass, that got its name from shepherds because of its steep sides and sheer rock walls. But is was a pass that enabled the shepherds to lead their sheep from one mountain pasture to another. However it was a terrifying place for skittish, defenseless, fearful sheep: for in the steep cliffs on both sides of the valley there were numerous caves and rocks and crevices that were perfect hiding place for animals of prey - and for people who meant harm to passing travelers. Sounds would echo and amplify in the valley, making it even more terrifying for the sheep.
The Psalm starts with this great picture of the shepherd - he is making me lie down in green pastures and then he leads be by still waters and now he has led the sheep into the Valley of the Shadow of death….
What is this saying to us. We know that we are the sheep and that Jesus is the shepherd - so for us what is this Valley of the Shadow of Death? It is those terrifying, dark, lonely, frightening times in life -- times of sickness, tragedy, emotional stress, tension, economic disaster, loneliness, when the Good Shepherd may seem far away. But we see here in the Psalm that it is the Good Shepherd who leads the sheep into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. That doesn’t make any sense. We have been good sheep. We have followed our Shepherd and now we find ourselves in this dark place…
But we must remember that the shepherd has a purpose: The shepherd takes the sheep from pastures that are now eaten up and barren, where food is scarce and the land is parched, to new lush, green meadows. But to get there, the shepherd and the sheep have to pass through the valley. The sheep don't understand this. The sheep cannot comprehend the purposes of the shepherd. All that the sheep experience are the frightening, terrifying surroundings But the shepherd knows the way. And the sheep have learned to trust the shepherd.
Following the direction of Jesus may mean that we find ourselves in this frightening, uncomfortable Valley of the Shadow of Death And that can be a terrifying experience for us. At that time is it is good to recall how the Good Shepherd is leading us to green pastures where he will restore our souls. To remember that he is preparing a table for me -
a table that contains the bread of heaven and the wine of everlasting and abundant joy..
That is where the disciples are as well. Following the direction of Jesus they certainly caught
a great number of fish….. but in the not so distant future following the direction of Jesus is going to turn their life into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Their life will be filled with danger and difficulty and hard decisions and eventually martyrdom.
But what gave the disciples the courage and the resolve to follow where Jesus leads them was remembering this Psalm; remembering how the Good Shepherd is leading us and we as his followers know that if we follow in the direction of Jesus; if we remember the love and care of the shepherd we will end in the house of the Lord forever.
Following the direction of the shepherd when you are in the valley of the shadow of death is a frightening experience, but imagine trying to walk through that valley alone….…
Listen and know that he is leading us to a better place.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for you, O Lord, are with me. Your rod and
your staff comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my
life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

Substitute Shepherds


This is a very special Sunday - for several reasons. We know it is Mother’s Day - but over the years it has also had several other designations. Years ago in England, this was known as “Mothering Day.” On ‘Mothering Day’ everyone would go to their ‘Mother Church’. In most communities in England, there would be one large parish church and then many smaller churches in the more rural communities that were formed from this large parish church. On ‘mothering day’, everyone would come to the large parish church and worship together - they would go to the Mother Church.
Another Mother’s Day tradition was to allow young girls who were servants in the large English manor houses to go home and visit their mother on this day. These young servant girls were as young as 12 and 13 and no other day during the year would have the opportunity to go and see their families. On ‘Mothering Day” they were given a day off and could go home to visit for the whole day.
On our Presbyterian church calendar, instead of Mother’s Day this is known as Christian Family Day which then led to Christian Family Week to not only recognize our traditional families - but also to recognize that we are all in the church part of the family of God. We as the church are God’s family - the family of Christians.
Thus Christian family day and Christian family week.
Also, in Reformed Churches, this is known as Shepherd Sunday. A day to explore Jesus’ role as our shepherd - the analogy of Jesus’ role that is found throughout all the Bible. And as we spend this season of Easter with Jesus’ final words to his disciples and to us - Jesus reminds us of that picture of himself as our Shepherd.
If you think about it the concept of Mother’s Day and of Shepherding Sunday tie in together. If you think about it, it is easy to compare the nature of a good mother with the nature of the good Shepherd.
Being a shepherd was the primary occupation of the people of God in ancient Palestine. God’s people easily understood what a good shepherds was like. Shepherds would take their flocks out every morning and make sure they were in good pasture and had still water to drink. Each evening, the good shepherd would take their flock to a public corral, or a boxed canyon, where several shepherds would bring their sheep. There would be only one entrance and the shepherds would like down in front if this opening to protect the sheep inside. The good shepherd provided a safe haven for his sheep.
There is a story of a mother who took her four year old son to the grocery store. A rather brave thing to do because she knew he was not a good child in the grocery store and this trip proved to be no exception. He acted up horribly. She fussed at him and threatened him. - “Just wait until I get you home!” but her son didn’t slow down a bit. Exasperated by the time she was leaving the store she was still fussing at her son as they walked out the front door of the store which had all those quarter machines with all the toys and gumballs. Of course her son wanted something from the machines and the exhausted mother said “No!”. She went and got the van and brought it up to the front of the store to load in the groceries when her son ran right back to the machines. She loaded the groceries and walked over to collect her disobedient son and he grabbed onto the gumball machine. She was pulling him away and he was holding on for dear life when all of a sudden the rack of machines went crashing and toys and gumballs went everywhere. Several checkers from the store and the manager came running and a crowd started to form and the young boy realized that maybe he had gone too far this time and he was in real trouble. And immediately he went to the only safe haven he knew - he ran and grabbed on to his mother’s legs for dear life. The same Mom who had fussed at him and threatened him and had promised to ground him for life - but he knew this was his safe place.

Sheep knew they were safe at night with the good shepherd guarding their paddock and we know that we are safe in a savior that loves us. Just as our mother’s arms were the safe haven for us, as the good shepherd was the safe haven for the sheep, Jesus promises to be the safe haven for us. We see the nature of Jesus in what we learned from the nature of our mothers.
When you learn about these shepherds who were so faithful to their sheep it is amazing how well the shepherds knew their sheep. After the shepherd guarded the sheep all night, each shepherd who had put their sheep into this communal area, would simply call his sheep and his sheep would come out from the group and follow him. The sheep knew their shepherd’s voice and would always follow the correct shepherd, even from that jumbled mess of sheep that congregated together in that pen overnight.
I had a friend who had 6 children - they were stair step children, each exactly 2 years apart. When the youngest was about 8, she started taking them to the store with her and she would give them each a buggy and a list, and they would fan out through the store and each would do their part of the shopping. Her name was Sue and she had a distinctive whistle, and when it was time to go, she would go to the front of the store and whistle and soon you would see 6 kids with 6 buggies appearing and they would all go through the line!
Here is another mother who teaches us about our relationship with Jesus - because Jesus’ voice is forever calling us - through his words in the bible, through his words in the church, through family and through members of our Christian family we learn to discern Jesus’ voice, just like the sheep know the shepherd and Sue’s children knew her whistle. We learn the voice of our savior as he calls us all to him.
As time passed in the history of the area of the Palestine, as the people moved from a nation of shepherds to a more cosmopolitan nation - with people moving to the city and away from the countryside - as their religion became centralized in Jerusalem the concern became not about a loving and trusting God, but about ‘proper practice of religion’. How one worshiped and acted and dressed became the major concern and the shepherds who still lived outside in the ‘country’ became looked down upon. The shepherd lifestyle out in those country pastures was such they could not abide by all the cleanliness and purity laws and the ‘proper’ conduct of religion.
Because of their work and their location, shepherds could not conform to all the ‘rules’ so they became the ones who were looked down on - they were ritually unclean and so by Jesus’ time shepherd were seen as one of the lowest classes of society. The orthodox people were taught to stay away from the shepherds because they couldn’t meticulously keep all the details of the ceremonial law. People avoided shepherds. People looked down on shepherds.
Yet this is who Jesus identified himself with. Just as a mother will not think twice about embarrassing herself to rescue a child from a situation, just as a mother goes against the grain of society to protect her child, just as a mother will go without in order to buy needed items for her children, just as a good mother cares not about her own social status to ensure her children’s future - Jesus, the good shepherd, cared not about himself. Jesus was willing to talk to the shepherds, and the lepers and the prostitutes and the tax collectors even though it ruined his own social status - the religious leaders made a point of asking Jesus why he would associate with such as them - the tax payers and the sinners.
Jesus, the good shepherd, does more than just be a safe haven, or to simply call his sheep together or to physically care for all his sheep. Jesus, the good shepherd, cares for his sheep without regard for himself at all - he doesn’t care what people think of him or how they view him. Just as good mothers don’t care about their own life - it is the life of their children that is important.
We think about our own mothers and the sacrifices they made for us - and in seeing what our mother’s have done for us, we came to understand better what the good shepherd has done for us.
Without regard for his own life, he gave his life for us. He will always lead us to green pastures and still waters, he will always restore our souls. He will always be the safe haven when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
So it doesn’t matter by which name we call this Sunday - mother’s day or mothering day or Christian family day or Shepherd Sunday - they all teach us what our Lord, the good shepherd, in his loving and nurturing way - the love like a good mother - the love that cares for us. We remember our mothers gave a good part of their life for us, and Jesus gave his whole life that we may be a part of the family of God - that we would be the sheep of his pasture. Amen.

Ask Me For Anything

“Ask Me For Anything”

We continue to be in the Season of Easter - the church season that lasts from Jesus’ resurrection until the day of Jesus’ ascension into heaven which is 40 days after the Resurrection. During these 40 days Jesus remains on earth, teaching his disciples and trying to get them ready to begin their work as the disciples and apostles and evangelists for the church. During this season we recognize the presence of Jesus on earth with our Christ Candle, and we try to talk about these last concepts Jesus is trying to get us to understand before he ascends to the right hand of the Father. This season is also a time set aside to talk about this early church in its very beginnings as it struggles to form and get organized and do what Jesus instructed the church to do - which was to go into the world and teach people what Jesus has taught them. We in the church today are still given that purpose - Jesus is still charging us to “Go into the world and teach others what Jesus has taught us!” So in order to do this, we are tasked with learning what Jesus has taught us.
So Jesus is gathered with his disciples and he is trying to tell them that shortly he will be leaving them and they will have to do the work on their own. The disciples are confused about why Jesus has to leave - Why can’t he just stay with them like he is? Jesus says, “I can’t - I’m going to ‘prepare a room or some versions say ‘a mansion’ for you” So Jesus is assuring these disciples - and us for that matter - that after we get done doing this work that Jesus has given us to do, we are assured that we will get to be with Jesus for all eternity. It is Jesus’ way of reminding the disciples that doing what Jesus wants them to do - doing what Jesus really wants us to do - is going to be tough. But to keep their eye on the prize - eternity with Jesus in a mansion in heaven - whatever that may be. Jesus is just assuring us that the grief we will experience here doing Jesus’ work will be trumped by what is to come.
So Jesus continues by saying, “You guys have been with me for 3 years and you have seen what I have done.” So what has Jesus done? There is a great line in the new “Bible Movie” where Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus what they are going to do and Jesus answers, “Change the world”. And that is pretty much what Jesus wants us to do - change the world. Sounds pretty easy doesn’t it. No big deal - Jesus says to us - “Change the world” and we just shake our heads and say that is impossible and go on doing what we have been doing…..
But Jesus’ continues: If you
really believe in me - heart, soul, mind and strength - really believe in him Jesus says we can do even greater things than Jesus did. So Jesus keeps moving the bar up - first we just had to do what he did and now we have to do greater things than Jesus….. Just keeps getting harder and harder…… And Jesus says: “Think this is impossible? Ask me for anything and I will give it to you”.
“Ask me for
anything” and I will give it to you.” Think about that. Ask me for anything…”
And Jesus is saying this as a matter of fact - No big deal. Ask me…….
This is probably one of the most misused and misunderstood verses in scripture. Have you on heard someone say, “Well I prayed for whatever and God didn’t come through. It didn’t happen…” and then that person feels that asking is useless….
The story we read about Stephen from the book of Acts may help us better understand what this passage - this idea of Jesus’ promising that we can ask for anting - is all about.
The entire book of Acts is the story of the growth of the church from the time of Jesus’ ascension into heaven until the death of the Apostle Paul. The church started with 121 people and began to grow quickly. There were growing pains; there were problems - but they continued to work together and work the kinks out and attempt to be what they understood God wanted them to be. Remember these were house churches. They kept their numbers around 20 - 25 and when they grew past that some would go and begin a new house church. They worshipped together, they ‘broke bread’ together - which means they celebrated the Lord’s Supper and they sheared meals together. They

prayed together and studied together. And as they became established, they begin to do mission in their communities. Each house church had a leader who was called an elder and they had deacons - the job of the deacon was to carry out the mission of the church.
They saw their first mission as the care of widows. So the deacons in the church would go each day to each home of each person in the church, collect food and then distribute the food to the widows and whoever else needed food. The book of Acts even lifts up certain men who were deacons and talked about the good work they were doing. One of these first deacons who stood out was a man named Stephen. But Stephen not only worked to distribute goods to the widows and poor, he also took seriously Jesus’ words to tell people what Jesus had taught. So Stephen would talk to people in the streets of Jerusalem as he went out to do the mission work. He would tell them about salvation in Jesus. And of course the Jewish authorities heard about this and promptly had Stephen arrested.
At his trial, Stephen gave a wonderful speech about how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. We have it recorded in Acts 7 - take some time to read it! The speech hit the mark with the Jewish leaders and you know what happens when someone hears the truth but they don’t really want to hear it - the solution is to get rid of the messenger. So they take Stephen out to the edge of town and promptly begin to stone him to death.
It is Stephen’s reaction to his stoning that is so remarkable. He looked up to heaven and ‘saw Jesus’. Now whether we believe he actually saw Jesus or whether the Holy Spirit just lets Stephen know he has done the right thing and that God is with him - doesn’t really matter. But we know that at that moment Stephen receives the message Jesus had given to his disciples earlier - I’ve gone to prepare a place for you and it is ready for you when you get here.
So I want to you be Stephen for a moment You know and believe Jesus’ words “Ask me for anything and I will give it to you.” As you are being stoned to death, what are you going to ask for? And you believe without a shadow of a doubt Jesus will do whatever you ask….. (pause)
Stephen asked for 2 things: first was for Jesus to receive his Spirit. Not ‘save me’ or ‘make it not hurt’, or ‘make all these crazy people drop dead’. Just ‘Jesus, I’m going to die and I ask you to receive my spirit.’ And the second thing Stephen asked for “Forgive them Jesus. They just don’t understand.” And what do we know for sure - Jesus did what Stephen asked. How do we know? Because Jesus promised, “Ask me for anything and I will do it.”
What we often miss in reading this passage from Jesus is what Jesus says before he says, “Ask me for anything” because he puts a stipulation on it - he says “If it glorifies God, I will give you whatever I ask of you.”
And think about how God was glorified by what Stephen did. Stephen didn’t whine or cry or beg. Stephen didn’t get angry or call the Religious Leaders names. Stephen simply glorified God by offering himself to God and calling on God to forgive those who were persecuting him. What a witness. Stephen so believes in the promises of God he knows without a shadow of a doubt that this temporary pain will end with eternal life with Jesus. And he figures that if he can go out influencing others about the power of Jesus then that is what he will do.
What Jesus is teaching us by those words “Ask me for anything” is that in doing the work of God, in doing what Jesus has asked us to do, in being willing to be a witness in the face of persecution or more likely people thinking we are ‘goody, goody’ or ‘Bible bangers’ or ‘religious nuts’ Jesus will be there to use that witness to move others. Stephen’s persecution and death had a huge impact on the early church - not in scaring people away from the church, but showing people how important faith and commitment to Jesus Christ was.
And that is what we are charged to do. Our passage from Peter today says, You are a people called by God to show others the goodness of God. And this is when Jesus says to you, “If you feel overwhelmed or inadequate to do this job, just ask me and I guarantee I will help you.” Amen