Monday, January 25, 2016

Jan 24, 2016 Sermon: "God Will Give You More Than You Can Handle"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: 1 Cor 12.12-27
God Will Give You More Than You Can Handle

            Snowmageddon has changed everything this weekend.  Everything!  Even my sermon.  I’ll save what I had planned for next week.   
            Today, I just want to share something with you that I’ve been wrestling with for years.  It’s the saying, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”  Anyone ever said that to you?  And did it make you want to punch them in the face?  People say it out of genuine concern, I think, but I can’t think of a worse thing to say to a person going through trials and tribulation.  It patronizes their pain and belittles their experience. 
I know people who have more on their shoulders than anyone should.  People who just can’t catch a break.  People who just can’t get ahead.  People who never had a chance.  And I can’t believe that’s the way God wants it.  I’ve been wrestling with this for years, and in the middle of snowmageddon while using the snowblower, I finally found peace about it.  
            God will give you more than you can handle.  God will you give you and me and everyone who can’t catch a break more than we can handle.  How many times did you have to shovel your driveway these past two days, only to have it covered up again in a few hours?  I used the snowblower on our church parking lot, sidewalks, and street spots more times than I can count, and it just kept coming back.
 God gives us all more than we can handle sometimes.  It doesn’t mean we deserve the trials we face.  It doesn’t mean we’re lesser people.  It doesn’t mean God is teaching us a lesson we just can’t seem to learn.  It means we’re subject to the human condition, and we often are dealt a more difficult hand than we can handle…alone. 
I finally found a sense of peace about that idea yesterday, and it was because I saw what snowmageddon did to people.  It may have been too much for an elderly woman to handle, but the neighbor shoveled her walkway.  It may have been too much for the man without transportation to handle, but a friend took him to get groceries.  It may have been too much for even the man with a snowplow and a snowblower and a strong back to handle alone, but his wife made him a warm meal that kept him going all day. 

What I’m saying is that God does give us more than any one person can handle alone.  That’s why we have each other.  To handle together what we cannot handle alone.  Whether it’s snowmageddon or illness or trial or tribulation.   Life can be too much for all of us at times, but together, with God, we can face anything.  Amen.  

Jan 17, 2016 Sermon: "Spiritual Gifts"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 36.5-10
NT: 1 Cor 12.4-11
Spiritual Gifts

            Today’s passage led to a wonderful discussion in Bible Study this week.  Which reminds me, if you are ever available at 5pm on Thursday nights, come to Bible Study.  Instead of watching the 5 o’clock news or eating an early dinner or staying late at work, listen when God tugs on your heartstrings and makes a Bible Study group available.  You won’t regret it. 
            Our discussion this week immediately turned to the spiritual gifts we’ve seen in our lives in this church.  Sonnie Feamster, who was a gifted cook and loved to spread the Good News with her good food!  Sara Bethel, who inspired us all to be better witnesses.  Libby Wiseman, who always somehow knew exactly what people needed, without even having to ask. 
            And the list goes on.  We can look around this sanctuary today and see gifts galore.  If you want to get something done, call Barb Sweetwood.  If you want to see steadfast faith in action, look no further than Betty Ralston.  If someone does something for you and don’t know who it was, know it was probably Dot O’Dell.  If you need parenting advice in the modern age, call Mike & Alyson.  If you need a beautifully written letter, Linda Cochran is your woman.  If you find a stray animal or a person in need of love, call Kay Smith or Jane Gillespie.  If you have a problem with any kind of metal in any form, see Bill Ott, who will fix it and tell you’re your family’s genealogy.    I could go on and on with each person here today, who is gifted is so many ways.  But I fear I’ve embarrassed too many people already, so I’d like to ask you to think about your own gifts.  Let’s make a list.  Find a pen or pencil. 
            How many of you like to make lists?  I used to make fun of my grandfather, because he had so many lists he kept lists to keep track of his lists!  But now I make lists too.  We all become our ancestors at some point. 
Did you find something to write with?  If you’re thinking about how silly of an exercise this is, then perhaps you are the one who especially needs to do it.  Alright, ready?
            Since our Scripture is about gifts, make a list of your gifts.  The things you do, the things you love to do, the things you do well.  Start writing, and I’ll keep talking in case you need me to jog your memory.  Perhaps you drive well, and you’re willing to drive others.  Or you pray persistently for your family.  Or you can make people laugh.  Or you can fix things.  Or you can say what needs to be said when no one else will.  Write your gifts down.
            Now, you have a list of your gifts, right?  The things you’re good at.  The things you do well.  If you were honest with yourself and listed your gifts, it’s pretty impressive, huh?  You are all gifted and capable of remarkable things. 
            Now, set that list down for a minute.   We’ll come back to it, but set it down for now.  You’ve identified some of your gifts.  The things you’re good at.  But sometimes our greatest gifts are our greatest struggles. 
            For Paul in 1 Corinthians, there’s a difference between gifts and spiritual gifts.  Gifts are the things you do well.  Spiritual gifts are the things the Holy Spirit is doing in you, whether you’re good at them or not and whether you like them or not.
            My grandmother shared a story that speaks to this point powerfully.  She never liked praying publicly. Well, “never liked” is probably saying it too softly.  The thought of praying in front of other people made her heart flutter.  Most of us can identify with that feeling.  We are Presbyterians after all!  But then Rev. Graber grew very ill, and Marty Mandt, who was a leader here at the time, said they needed to pray more for Rev. Graber and the church.  And the Holy Spirit began to work on my grandmother.  She invited folks to a prayer meeting that met weekly here at the church for several years.  And when we ended Bible Study this week, she led us in prayer.  Sometimes our spiritual gifts are the things we least want to do, but the things God most needs us to do.   What is the Holy Spirit doing in you today?  Have you heard God’s whisper? 
            One of the most powerful parts of today‘s passage from 1 Corinthians is often one of the most overlooked.  We usually remember the familiar words that there are a variety of gifts but the same spirit; a variety of services but the same Lord; a variety of activities but the same God.  But without verse seven, the weight of those words is lost.  Verse seven says God gives us spiritual gifts for the common good. 
Pull out that list you made a few minutes ago.  It shows the things you’re good at, right?  Keep doing those things.  It gives you satisfaction to do them, and people around you count on you to do those things.  Without you using your gifts, it leaves a hole in your life and the life of the community. 

God also calls us to develop spiritual gifts that are not on our list.  Things we don’t think we’re good at…but things God needs to be done…and things the Holy Spirit can help us do.  Let all God’s gifted people, who are able to do all things God needs through the Holy Spirit, say, Amen!  

Monday, January 11, 2016

Jan 10, 2016 Sermon: "What does baptism teach us?"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 43.1-7
NT: Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
What does baptism teach us? 

            Several years ago, the youth group accused me of buying my sermons online.  They said I paid $5 for the decent ones, $20 for the really good ones, and $1 for the bad ones.  It’s not an altogether unheard of idea, because there actually are computer programs that will generate sermons for you and websites that will sell you sermons.  I happen to believe that is lazy and disingenuous.   So I write my own each week.  Sometimes they’re worth $1, and sometimes, I pray, they’re worth a little more. 
            But…the youth were onto something.  Let me make a confession.  I don’t steal sermons, but I do steal good sermon ideas.  All the time.  A better way of saying it is that the Holy Spirit inspires me when I read good sermons written by others.  Like this week, I read a fabulous sermon about Jesus’ baptism by William Sloane Coffin.  He begins by asking a simple question, which I ask of you, “What does baptism aim to teach us?” 
            He considers the various options.  It could teach us love.  God loves us no matter what.  It could teach us family.  When we’re baptized, we’re part of the family no matter what becomes of our life, if we become pope or pauper.  It could teach us forgiveness.  Baptism washes us clean of our sinfulness.  All those are true, he says, but he thinks baptism aims to teach us something more powerful: obedience. 
            In baptism, we’re taught obedience to God’s love--we follow God not out of fear but out of love, obedience to God’s family--we have to get along with one another whether like each other or not, and obedience to God’s forgiveness--we must forgive our debts and our debtors, ourselves and our enemies. 
            Baptism is an initiation of sorts.  Into a way of obedient living.  Obedience to God’s love.  That’s why in French Calvinist baptisms, the minister takes a child to be baptized in his arms and says, “Little child, for you Jesus Christ came. He struggled. He suffered. For you he endured the darkness of Gethsemane, the agony of Calvary. For you he triumphed over death. And you, little child, know nothing of all this. But thus is confirmed in the word of the Apostle, ‘We love God because God first loved us.’"
            Some of you, like me, are recovering Baptists, so you remember your baptism.  Others are tried and true Presbyterians and don’t remember yours since it was at such a young age.  Either way, today is a day to reflect on your baptism.  What has it taught you?  What is it teaching you? 
            John says he baptizes with water while Jesus baptizes with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  In other words, not everyone chooses to come be baptized by John.  Only some are obedient.  But no one can escape Jesus’ baptism.  It compels our obedience. 
            I think we’ve seen signs of Jesus’ burning baptism here at Ronceverte Presbyterian this year.  As well as signs of our obedience.  Since we’re having our congregational meeting today, it’s a good time to look back over 2015. 
If you look at the numbers, they were good.  We hosted 14 workcamps last year.  The most we ever hosted before was three.  Those 14 workcamps account for nearly 200 people who stayed at our church and did faith-based community service across the county.  Worship attendance was up about 5%.  Offerings were up 10%.  After decades of small losses each year, we’ve had three straight years of balanced budgets.  And last year, we had a significant budget surplus.  But the thing that tickled me most was that when the session discussed what to do in response to such good numbers, they said, “Let’s do more.”  Let’s do more mission.  Let’s support more local mission partners.  Let’s help out our Presbytery and our missionaries across the world. 
            Numbers are important, but I’ll take quality over quantity every day.  Especially in a small church.  We’re probably not ever going to be a large church or a trendy church or a wealthy church, but we can be a baptized, obedient church.  That’s all God needs us to be. 
            When Jesus came up out of the water, a voice came from heaven, saying "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."  According to the story, Jesus was 30 when that happened.  The last time we heard from him in Luke, he was 12.  Eighteen years had passed.  We don’t know what all happened in the interim, but we know that when he came up out of the water, baptized and obedient, God said, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”
            Each day you get up out of bed, the heavens open and the spirit descends on you like a dove and a voice from heaven says to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”  So don’t beat yourself up too badly, no matter what you’re going through today.  God is well pleased with you.  Once you understand that and put it into obedient practice, you’ve learned the basic truth of our existence: We love God because God first loved us.  Amen. 
relationships.  In battling illnesses.  In mourning.  God provides refuge especially for those who have fallen through the cracks.  Because God has experienced it in the person of the baby boy. 

            Today we celebrate the child’s epiphany.  His appearance to a world at war with itself, a world where good people fall through the cracks.  And we remember that God’s appearance illuminates all those shadows and all those cracks.  We do not know what awaits us this year, but we know that no matter what we face, God will be with us.  May God make an epiphany to you when you need God the most.  Amen.   

Jane 3, 2016 Sermon: "Rascals & Refugees"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 60.1-6
NT: Matthew 2.1-12
Rascals & Refugees 

            Does anyone here have a birthday that falls right after Christmas?  Bless your heart.  You get lost in the shuffle, don’t you?  But take heart; you’re in good company.  Between Christmas and New Year’s, poor old Epiphany always gets lost in the shuffle.  Epi-phi-what, you say?   Exactly. 
            Sort of like Clark Griswold’s “Jelly of the Month Club” certificate fell between the seats of the delivery driver’s van, Epiphany falls between the cracks most years.  It comes and goes without many people noticing.  If you have a fancy calendar, it will tell you that Epiphany falls on Jan 6…which is in the middle of the week this year…which means this year it would fall through the cracks…again.  So we’re focusing on Epiphany today. 
            Epiphany means appearance, as in the appearance of the sun at dawn or the appearance of God in this world.  It’s not hard to see, then, why we celebrate Epiphany now, when the son of God, the light of the world, is born to a broken world by the light of a bright star shining in the east.  Just like the magi, our job as followers of Christ is to witness.  See his light and tell everyone about it.  
            But as soon as he was born, his light was shadowed by a great darkness.  As today’s reading from Matthew told, King Herod tried to kill him.  Why?  Why did a little baby boy frighten him so?  For the same reason most men are scared; Herod felt threatened.  People said this child would one day be king.  Herod was king.  And everybody knows you can’t have two kings.  Something’s got to give. 
            Herod called together the star watchers to try and determine where the child was born.  He said he wanted to pay his respects, and if you believe that then you should be the general manager for the new Olive Garden going in Ronceverte this year.  For as much as you would like to believe an Olive Garden is coming to town, you know that’s not likely.  Doug Hylton is good, but we all have limits.  As much as people wanted to believe Herod would pay his respects, they knew better.  Herod wanted to find the child so he could kill him.
            The magi did as they were told and used their training as star watchers.  They found the child, paid their respects, and offered gifts.  But instead of sending word to Herod with the child’s location, they ran.  Never to return.  For they knew better. 
             When the time had come for a report from the magi, all Herod heard was crickets.  When he decided the magi betrayed him, he lost it.  He ordered his soldiers to kill every child in and around Bethlehem, where the magi had gone, to ensure that the one people said would be king would not live to see that day.  And they did. 
It was a slaughter, and I cannot begin to imagine what those families faced when their children were taken from them for no reason at all.  Herod was a merciless tyrant who would stop at nothing to preserve his own power, even if it meant slaughtering children.  Such evil makes me sick to my stomach. 
            But Mary and Joseph were not among the grieving families.  They didn’t have time.  Having been warned by an angel, they packed their things and hit the road with the baby boy.  They left the only home they had ever known, with an infant under threat of death, and traveled some 200 miles on foot headed for Egypt.  In so doing, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were refugees--forced from their homeland by political violence, seeking refuge from the kindness of strangers in a foreign land.  Eventually, Herod died and they returned to Israel, but not to Bethlehem.  They were still too scared.  Herod’s loyalists might still want to finish the job.  So they made their home with the baby in a new place, Nazareth. 
            Why am I telling you such a sad story amidst the afterglow of Christmas and the joy of the new year?  Because God knows what it’s like to be the one who falls through the cracks.  It happened to God’s son, and it happens to all of us at some point in our lives.  And even when our culture is rejoicing, perhaps especially when our culture is rejoicing, there are people living between the cracks.  People who need God’s love.      
Six weeks ago, there was much talk about refugees and whether or not our state and nation should accept them.  Unfortunately, that too has fallen through the cracks.  Fifty million people in the world today, half of whom are children, live as refugees without a homeland, much less a home.  We forget as quickly as we become outraged.  I simply remind you, on this Epiphany in the wake of Christmas, that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were once refugees fleeing a brutal dictator.  They survived thanks to the kindness of good strangers willing to help them. 
             Have you ever been at the mercy of strangers?  I have, and nothing is more humbling.  Receiving kindness from someone who owes you absolutely nothing may be the most powerful thing I’ve ever experienced.  It compels you to want to give it back to others.  That’s why Christians tell the Epiphany story every year at this time. 
            We may not be refugees, but we all know what it’s like to fall between the cracks.  In overwhelming debt.  In broken relationships.  In battling illnesses.  In mourning.  God provides refuge especially for those who have fallen through the cracks.  Because God has experienced it in the person of the baby boy. 
            Today we celebrate the child’s epiphany.  His appearance to a world at war with itself, a world where good people fall through the cracks.  And we remember that God’s appearance illuminates all those shadows and all those cracks.  We do not know what awaits us this year, but we know that no matter what we face, God will be with us.  May God make an epiphany to you when you need God the most.  Amen.