Thursday, July 28, 2016

July 24, 2016 Sermon: "Why do you pray?"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Genesis 18.20-32
NT: Luke 11.1-13
Why do you pray?

                We’ve all been doing a lot of praying lately.  Today’s scriptures are about people praying as well.  This is not a regular sermon; I want to invite you for the next five minutes or so to think thoughtfully and truthfully about prayer.  Let’s begin with a question. 
Why do you pray?  Think about it for a minute.  Why do you pray?  What are your expectations of God when you pray?  Do you want a response?  Do you expect action?  Do you intend to persuade God?  Do you presume that you have information God doesn’t? 
                Truth be told, most of the time we pray we want something.  Not just something silly or frivolous.  Usually we want something good.  We want our loved ones to be well.  We want our family to be safe.  We want our jobs to be meaningful.   So we pray about it.  Right?  We ask God to protect those dear to us, to grant us peace, to provide mercy. 
                There’s an idea in our world: It doesn’t hurt to ask.  All they can do is say no.  Might as well ask for what you want.  Ask for a bigger budget.  Ask for a raise.   Ask for more.  You might not get as much as you want, but if you ask you’re more likely to get what you need.  Ask, because you know better, and you won’t get anything unless you ask.  Right?  Makes sense…in the world.  But not with God. 
                Abraham was concerned that God was going to destroy Sodom & Gomorrah while there were still good people there.  So he prays.  “Please don’t destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  There are still good people there.”
                And what does God say?  I would never destroy a city if there is even one good person there.  Abraham never had to ask.  It’s not as if his prayer was the key to saving Sodom and Gomorrah.  God already wanted to do that. 
                When you pray for a family member who is sick, asking God to grant them peace and healing, God wants exactly the same thing.  When you pray for a neighbor to get back on their feet, God wants exactly the same thing. 
                So if the point of prayer isn’t to change God’s mind, then whose mind does prayer change?  Ours.  When we pray as Jesus taught us in today’s scripture—first giving thanks to God, then for our own needs, then for our neighbors, and finally for forgiveness, prayer shapes us into the kind of people God intends for us to be.  It makes us humble enough to know our place in the world, and it also makes us humble enough to know that we can help be part of God’s plans.  We can make the kingdom come one prayer at a time, one small action at a time.    
                Why do you pray?  To praise God?  Sure.  To ask for what you need?  Sure.  To ask for what your loved ones need?  Sure.  To ask for forgiveness?  Sure.  But you don’t get it because you ask; you get it because God wants to give it to you, and your prayers make sure you are ready to receive the mercy God has already intended for you. 
                If a child asks for a fish, will he be given a snake?  Of course not.  If ten good people remain in Sodom & Gomorrah, will God wipe it off the map?  Absolutely not. 

                Don’t get it twisted about why you pray.  It’s not to change God’s mind.  It’s to shape our mind.  So say your prayers tonight.  Say your prayers tomorrow morning.  Say your prayers tomorrow afternoon.  Allow yourself to be shaped by God through your prayers.  Amen.  

July 17, 2016 Sermon; "Just Be"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Luke 10-38-42
"Just Be" 

                My niece and nephew in Florida really wanted to ride some new-fangled thing at the mall.  An animal ride or something.  But their parents said no.  “Too expensive.  Just like every other ride.  Not today.” 
That weekend they were staying with their grandparents, who didn’t know about the new ride at the mall and asked them, “What do you want to do today?”
                “Let’ go to the mall and ride the new animal!”  Which they did. 
                Grandparents took them home and parents asked, “What’d you do today?”
                “They took us to the mall, and we rode the new ride!” (kid’s laughter). 
                We all know that lesson.  If you don’t get the answer you want from one person, go to another.  Children have perfected this over many generations between parents and grandparents.  But we also do it with our co-workers and bosses and even with Bible stories.  Don’t like what one passage tells you?  Just find another with advice that’s easier to swallow. 
                For example, last week we read the Good Samaritan.  Lesson: Do everything you possibly can to help someone even if they’re your sworn enemy. 
                Immediately following that story comes the one we just ready today.  Lesson: Stop doing so much and relax a little. 
                Which is it?  Do everything you possibly can to help your neighbor…or sit back and relax?  Was Jesus that indecisive?  No, answer lies in verse 42. 
                In every situation, there’s an important thing about which we should be concerned, and it changes based on the situation.  When a man is dying on the road in front of you, the important thing is helping him survive.  Do everything you can.  Spare no expense or effort.  Help him! 
                Like today’s story, when you’ve had a long day…or week…or three weeks…and evening arrives, the important thing is to take a break and spend time together.  Stop worrying and running around and doing things.  Just be. 
                We don’t know exactly what’s going on that night.  Jesus is there with Mary and Martha, presumably with other disciples.  Perhaps they’re gathering for a meal, or just resting for the night, or preparing for worship.  All those options are good possibilities.  And Martha runs around like crazy making sure everything that needs to be done is done.  Most of us identify with her.  Because we’ve all dealt with people like Mary who just sit around when then the work needs to be done! 
                After the story of the Good Samaritan, you would expect Jesus to affirm Martha for leaving no stone unturned and working hard to be neighborly…especially while Mary just sits there.  Why doesn’t he?  Because sometimes the important thing is taking it easy. 
                Even though I am the preacher, many of you have been preaching that message to me the past few weeks!  Take it easy.  You can’t do it all at once.  You can’t take care of anyone if you don’t take care of yourself.  I finally got it Friday night.  The workcamp from Ohio gathered for their closing devotional, and they asked Kelsey and I to join them. 
                As we sat down, my mind raced with all the things I needed to do.  Like Martha.  But I just sat there, like Mary, and somewhere between the sitting and the listening and the Holy Spirit, I finally realized how important it is to stop doing things and just be. 
                In the social services world, it’s called self care.  Taking care of yourself so that you can take care of others.  It can mean something as simple as making quiet time, exercising, eating right, saying your prayers, or sleeping well.  Those of us who are Marthas aren’t very good at it.  Amen? 
                Today’s world is built on speed and activity and business.  We go go go, as if our life depends on it.  But Jesus reminds us that sometimes our life depends on slowing down. 

                Today is an important time to learn from the Marys of the world and just be.  Listen for God’s still small voice.  Allow the Spirit to recharge you.  Sit at Jesus’ feet.  Ride the new thing at the mall, or its adult equivalent, that is always on your mind.  There are lots if important things in the world.  There’s always plenty of work to do.  But this might just be time the most important thing for us to do is just be.  Amen.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

July 10, 2016 Sermon: "The $11 Letter"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Luke 10.25-37
The $11 Letter

            Parables are meant to shock.  To challenge.  To make you say hmmmm.  Which makes it hard when we’ve heard them all our lives, a hundred times.  Everybody knows the story of the good Samaritan.  And everybody knows what it means, right?  Be kind even to people you don’t know. 
            It’s even become part of our everyday language.  We talk about good Samaritans who found our wallet or helped us change a tire.  We love a good good Samaritan story, don’t we?  They make us feel good.  Deep down inside. 
            But parables…are meant to shock.  To disturb.  To push the boundaries.  What was so shocking about this parable was who did the good deed.  Jews hated Samaritans.  Samaritans hated Jews.  They viewed one another as less than human.  So Jesus tells a room full of Jews a story about a Samaritan who does a good thing.  Not only does he help the man dying on the road when the people you would expect to do that—the priest and the Levite refuse to—but he pays for the man to have shelter…and he goes even further saying he will pay any other bills the man incurs while he recovers.  And then there’s the real kicker.  Jesus asks the Jewish lawyer who wants to know who his neighbor is, “Who showed mercy?” 
            “The Samaritan.” 
            Jesus affirms that reply.  “Yes, be like him.”  Sometimes we’ve heard the story so many times the shock is lost on us.  Until we are in need of mercy, as we have been the last two-plus weeks.  And then we are reminded.    
You all could probably tell a few good Samaritan stories, couldn’t you?  People who you’d never seen before to help clean your house.  Old friends from days gone by who sent supplies or donations to help people.  Did you know we had a workcamp from NC that already comes twice a year but they came a third time on a day’s notice to do flood relief? I’ve got one more story for you. Some of you may have already heard it, but some things bear repeating. 
            One day this week I opened the mail and found a letter from a nine year old boy from Morgantown.  His name is Daishon Kelly.  I’ve never met him before.  His mom read some of my online updates on the flooding, shared them with him, and he decided to write me a letter.  (Pictured below.)  

            Now, I don’t cry often, because I’m the ugliest crier you’ve ever seen.  But that letter made me cry like a baby.  He included his $11 allowance, which he said was all he had.  It turns out that his life is full of challenges of his own.  His father died when he was very young.  He has a type of juvenile arthritis that sometimes makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning.  But when he saw pictures of flooding here in Greenbrier County, he took out his wallet, picked up his $11 allowance, and sent it to our church to help people who are hurting. 
            Is that a good Samaritan story?  You better believe it is.  But not for the reason you might think.  Did the boy show kindness and selflessness to people he didn’t know?  You bet he did.  But the real reason it’s a good Samaritan story is because he is the last person you would expect to send everything he had to help put this community back together.  He’s a nine year old child with $11 to his name, and I hear Jesus asking us, “Who showed mercy?”
            Daishon did. 

            “Yes, go and be like him.”  Parables are meant to shock.  To challenge.  To make you say hmmm.  The parable of the good Samaritan reminds us that what makes us good is what we are willing to do for those who can do nothing for us in return.  It teaches us that mercy is given.  It shows us that when someone inspires that kind of goodness, it grows…exponentially.  And a simple letter with $11 inside from a child we don’t even know becomes the cornerstone of rebuilding an entire community.  Amen?  Amen.  

July 3, 2016 Sermon: "A Tenacity to Live"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Galatians 5
A Tenacity to Live

I dare say this has been the most difficult 10-day stretch in Greenbrier County in mane generations.  I know this has been the most difficult 10-day stretch of ministry in my life.  Hundreds of homes destroyed, thousands damaged, families who had $70 in their bank account before the flood left trying to put their lives back together in three feet of mud, funerals of the deceased, stories about people hanging onto (or perching in) trees for hours to escape rushing and rising water.  Parts of our county look like war zones.  We are all tired and scarred and hurt. 
            At the same time, this has also been the most rewarding 10-day stretch of ministry of my life.  Kelsey has been here everyday doing flood relief and coordinating it for others.  We had lots of volunteers this week cleaning out homes, organizing supplies, and writing thank you notes to folks who sent us donations.  Churches from SC, VA, & NC who came here on workcamps in previous years sent donations.  Former members sent donations.  Presbyterian churches sent donations and supplies, and I want to thank Jane in particular for meeting those groups and making that happen.  The folks from Logan and Enslow Park in Huntington loaded trucks full of supplies and drove them here!  A couple who attended church here for two months during a medical rotation five years ago sent a large donation from Ohio.  Presbyterian Women of WV sent a donation.  Friends and neighbors and churches and civic groups from across the county came together like never before to help people get their lives back together.  College students came home to do cleanup.  Youth put on their boots and crawled under houses.  Elders got their hands dirty to help their fellow church members.  A workcamp from Indiana decided they would still make the journey to WV to work on flood relief!  Praise God for you.  We are so happy to have you here this week!  We ask for your patience this week.  Sometimes you will be asked to do things you don’t want to do; sometimes you will be asked to wait until we find the right project; and sometimes what you see will break your heart.  But it will be a good week, and we thank you for being here. 
            This week has been the worst of times and the best of times.  I don’t think you really understand that until you walk inside a flooded house, see the water line, trudge through the mud, smell the after-effects, and watch the heartbreak in a homeowner’s eyes.  It is gut- wrenching.  But it is also redeeming when you work with them step by step to show God’s love and clean up. 
            Some of you may have noticed the dead tree in the frontyard of the manse.  Everybody tells me how ugly it is.  Weston & Pat Guthrie stopped by this week, and poor Weston is in the throws of dementia, but even he looked at that tree and said, “Good Lord, what is wrong with that tree?  Did I plant that?” 
            The tree has been dying for years.  Last year, only part of it came back.  This year, none of it did.  It’s dead, rotten, decaying wood.  No leaves, no growth.  Anybody can look at it and see that.  But if you look closely, at the top of the trunk, a seedling has started to grow in the dead wood of the tree.  It has sprouted little leaves and lives!  Some people look at that tree and see how ugly it is on the whole.  I look at that little seedling perched atop the dead trunk and see a tenacity to live. 
            Isn’t that what our people have shown this week?  A tenacity to live!  And isn’t that how God works?  God makes a way out of no way and nurtures life in even the most unlikely places! 
            Our community looks a little bit like that dead tree right now.  On the outside, we look broken and scarred and hurt.  But like that little seedling, we have a tenacity to live!  We have a tenacity to help our neighbors!  We have a tenacity to share God’s love. 
            That’s what today’s passage from Galatians is all about. God intends for us to live together, serve one another, and love one another.  And to that end, God gives us freedom.      
When people talk about freedom, they usually talk about being able to do what they want to do.  That’s not how the Bible talks about freedom.  The Bible talks about freedom as an opportunity for either self-indulgence or service.  We choose service.  We choose love.  We choose life.  We choose God. 
I was talking to a man from Quinwood this week who told me about some folks in his community.  He said, “When you lose everything you have and you didn’t have much in the first place, then what do you have left?” 

A lot of folks have asked that question this week.  And the answer is that what you have left is hope.  If those of us who weren’t flooded can use the freedom God has given us to love, then we inspire hope in our hurting neighbors.  We serve as a reminder that God can always make a way, even when it looks like there is no way.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the seedling sitting atop a dead tree  in my yard when you leave today.  Amen.