Monday, April 18, 2016

April 17, 2016 Sermon: "After Life"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 23
NT: Acts 9.36-43
After Life

            Jesus’ last words to his disciples in John were what?  "Feed my sheep." 
If last week’s story about Peter’s three acceptances of Jesus (after his three denials) began his redemption, this week’s story confirms it.  Because they start feeding the sheep.  In the time after Jesus’ resurrection, when the work of the church and the beginning of Christianity is left to the disciples alone, Peter picks up where Jesus left off.  If the outline of this story sounds familiar to you, it should.  The same thing happened to the disciples time and time again in Jesus’ day. 
A sick woman needs help.  She dies.  They aren’t ready to accept that fate.  If Jesus was still around, they would’ve sent for him just like Mary and Martha did when Lazarus was ill or when the father’s daughter died in their home.  But Jesus isn’t around anymore, so they send for Peter. 
Immediately, he goes to see her.  He prays over her body.  He commands her to get up.  If this story sounds familiar, it should.  You’ve heard many versions in the Gospels before.  She listens.  She lives.  Peter helps her stand.  Words spreads like wildfire, and it convinces many people of the power of Christianity. 
The point of the story, at least to me, is that life after death takes all forms.  Most often, we think about life after death as life with God, in heaven, or elsewhere, depending on how good (or not) we’ve been.  But there’s another kind of life after death it’s particularly important to remember during the Easter season.  Let me tell you what I’m talking about. 
Several years ago, out of the clear blue, we received a large check in the mail from a man in Connecticut whose mother was a member here at the church when he was a boy.  His name was Walter Eads.  His donation is what allowed us to add the bathrooms downstairs for us and our workcamp program.  I called him on the phone after we got that donation and asked him what had inspired him to do such a thing.  He said, “I was just sitting in my chair one day, thinking about days gone by in Ronceverte at the church, and God told me to help the church.  I was surprised about the amount he told me to give, but, oh well.” 
We kept in touch.  Tom Long’s uncle also knew him, and they kept in touch as well.  We sent him pictures of the bathrooms and church newsletters.  Then, on Easter of 2015, Mr. Eads died.  He died peacefully, and while he didn’t have family, he was surrounded by his church family in hospice care.  When he couldn’t drive to church anymore, someone from the church went and picked him up each week.  He lived a long and pleasing life, serving his community and sowing seeds of goodness from Washington State to West Virginia to Connecticut.
Then, on Easter of this year, the church received a letter in the mail from a law firm.  It was a big, thick, official-looking packet of information, sent to my attention.  I nearly didn’t open it, because I was afraid we were being sued…on Easter weekend of all times.  But I decided even if that were true I needed to know, so I opened it.  It was from a law firm in Connecticut charged with settling Mr. Eads’ estate, and it included a check with more zeros than I have ever seen.  With no instructions for use, other than to use as needed to God’s glory in Ronceverte. 
When we think of life after death, we usually think of our afterlife.  But what sort of life do we leave for others after we’ve gone?  That’s the kind of afterlife Jesus taught Peter and the disciples and was the reason they picked up his mantle and continued his work by healing Tabitha.  That’s the kind of afterlife Walter Eads exhibited in sharing his gifts. 
Walter is in good company with the saints who have come and gone, leaving behind a rich history of good works that inspire generations to come.  He’s in league with Tabitha, who continued to live on with the disciples because of her good works. 
This is still Easter.  The Easter season.  A season of life beyond death.  Not just the afterlife, but the life that keeps on living after you die.  Walter left resources.  Tabitha left an inspiration to serve.  Others leave unconditional love.  Others challenge us to be our best selves.  What will your legacy be?  Amen. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

April 10, 2016 Sermon: "Peter's Redemption"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: John 21.1-19
Peter’s Redemption

Kerry and I were out to dinner a few weeks ago, and I saw a gentleman from the side that I just knew was my friend Bob Bondurant, the retired Marshall University campus minister.  Bob’s the kind of guy you can see coming.  He wears pastel suits, big wire-rimmed glasses, has a great head of white hair, and always wears his championship ring won by Marshall on the football field when he was their chaplain.  Bob is retired now and lives in Huntington, so I was thrilled to see him in town unexpectedly. 
I walked over to Bob with a big smile on my face, put my hand on his shoulder, and said, “Well, look who came to town!  Howdy, Bob!” 
He turned around, and…it wasn’t Bob!  Bad hair, different glasses, no ring.  Bob always has a kind glimmer in his eye, and this guy’s eyes were saying that he thought I was crazy!  So then I had to try and quickly explain that I thought he was someone else…which is never comfortable.  Have you ever mistaken one person for another?  It’s embarrassing. 
The disciples know what it feels like.  They’ve mistaken Jesus several times.  Before his death, they pretended not to know him.  In fact, Peter denied him how many times?  Three times he denied him.  After his death, they failed to recognize him...twice.  First by the tomb and then in the locked house when Thomas asks to touch his wounds.  So today’s story on the lakeshore marks the third time Jesus appears post-resurrection to his anything-but-insurrection-ing crew.   
They’re out on the boat, fishing at night.  As the sun rises, a man on the shore calls out, “Any luck, boys?” 
“No,” they say.  Surely disgusted or ashamed with themselves for being found out.  But he gives them some advice. 
“Try over there.” 
They do, and the results astonish them.  They catch so many fish they can’t even keep up with the work!  That’s when they start wondering who the man on the shore is.  How did he know?  Why did he tell them?  Unless…it’s Jesus? 
Immediately, Peter does the strangest thing.  More awkward than mistaking a random guy for Bob Bondurant.  He’s on the boat, apparently just wearing his skivvies to fish, but when he realizes Jesus is on the beach, he throws on clothes, jumps in the water, and furiously swims to shore.
At Bible Study this week, we agreed that’s the most curious part of the story.  Why’s he fishing in his privies?  Well, apparently that was customary in that day, but I surely hope it doesn’t catch back on here at the river in Ronceverte. 
Why does he put on clothes and then jump in the water?  To show respect.  He knows where he’s going—to shore by Jesus’ side—and he wants to look respectable when he gets there, even if he’s soaking wet.  This is Peter’s redemption.  This is his chance to show that he won’t mistake Jesus ever again.  So when the opportunity presents itself, he takes it.  If you’ve ever let someone you love down, seriously, then you know how desperate Peter is to make things right. 
Eventually they all come back to shore and Jesus suggests they eat breakfast.  This is how we know Jesus was a Presbyterian; he always wanted to break bread together, no matter what time of day or where they happened to be. 
Then he gets down to business.  He asks Peter, “Do you love me?”
Peter says, “Of course I do.” 
“Then feed my sheep.”
A second time he asks, “Do you love me, Peter?”
Again he says, “Yes, of course I do.  You know that.” 
“Then tend my lambs.”
A third time Jesus asks the same question.  “Do you love me?”  Peter is hurt.  Why does Jesus need to ask him a third time? 
Because how many times did Peter deny Jesus before the crucifixion?  Three times.  How many times does Jesus appear post-resurrection to the disciples?  Three times.  And finally, how many times does Jesus ask Peter to proclaim his love?  Three times. 
Poetry?  Yes.  But also something much more.  Marching orders.  Peter’s redemption is also his calling.  He’s to spend the rest of his life fulfilling those marching orders.  And so are we.
            In this season of resurrection, it bears repeating what Jesus wants.  He wants us to pick up where he left off.  He wants us to do what he did.  He wants us to take care of those he cannot care for any longer. 

            “Feed my sheep.”  These are his final wishes, and we are charged with carrying them out.  Let there be no mistaking that.  Amen.    

Friday, April 8, 2016

April 3, 2016 Sermon: "What We're Known FOR"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Acts 5.27-32

            As a candidate for office, people often want to know my positions on issues.  Organizations even send me questionnaires in the mail and ask me to sign pledges not to raise taxes, not to take anyone’s guns, and not to infringe on the right to drink raw milk!  But recently a woman asked me my position on sin.  It was the easiest question I’d received in months. 
            “I’m against it,” I said…and sat down, because that was a running joke with my grandpa ET years ago. When I first began preaching, he would ask me if I took a position on sin. He would say, “Were you for it or against it?  You better be against it, at least in public!” 
As you all know, because you are gracious to endure my preaching week in and week out, I don’t preach on sin all that often.  Why is that?  Lots of reasons.  One, because it’s not interesting.  If you lose interest in church because the preacher takes the same position and says the same thing every week, then that’s on me.  Two, because sin is not the central theme of the Bible.  If you do a comparison of how many times the word sin is used, it’s way down on the list.  Three, and this is the one we’re focused on today as we celebrate Holy Humor Sunday, because I’m tired of Christians only speaking up for what they’re against.  We need to speak up in favor of things more often.  We need to be known for what we’re for, rather than just what we’re against. 
Today’s passage in Acts tells the story of the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection.  Now, the disciples had always been known by what they were against.  Right?  They were against feeding the five thousand, they were against healing lepers, they were against dining with tax collectors, and in Jesus’ final days on the road to Jerusalem, they were against him.  This marks their turning point. 
They’re arrested and imprisoned by the Sadducees, a group of religious leaders, for preaching the Good News.  That’s right.  For the first time, they were standing up for someone or something.  They were out  telling people that Jesus loved them, that they were all equal, that no one should be hungry, that the sick should be cared for, and the least of these should be greatest.  They were telling people what Christianity stood for.  And because of that, they’re arrested and thrown in prison.
They miraculously get out of jail thanks to an angel, who tells them to go right back into the middle of Jerusalem and preach the Good News again. Jesus loves you.  Feed the hungry.  Clothe the naked.  Care the widows and orphans. 
The Sadducees find out about it and are really peeved this time.  So they arrest them again and consider killing them.  Until one of their leaders says, “That’ll just make it worse.  Let them spread their Good News, no one will really do any of it, and they will die out on their own.”  They all agree, so that’s what they do. 
Fast forward over two thousand years later, and Christianity is still alive and well.  All of you got out of bed in West Virginia on a cold Sunday morning to gather together in a community and celebrate the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection thousands of years after his death and thousands of miles from his home.  They were wrong about us!  The Good News doesn’t die out!  It lives! 
Why?  Not because of what we’re against; but because of what we’re for!  Let’s be known by who we’re for--Jesus--and what we’re for--God’s gracious love!  Then we’ll be the kind of witnesses Acts calls the disciples.  Witnesses willing to laugh and love and risk and live.  Amen.