Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Aug 28, 2016 Sermon: "Table Manners"

Stephen Baldwin
Psalm 121
Luke 14.1, 7-14
Table Manners
What kind of table manners were expected of you as a child?  What table manners have you taught your children or grandchildren? 
Did you know Jesus took time to talk about table manners?  That’s what this passage is about.  Not table manners like which fork to use or outlawing all talk of religion and politics.  The table manners Jesus cares about are different.  He wants people to sit down together and break bread.  Especially if they are different from each other.  That’s a core value for Jesus.  Table manners. 
How many of you had sit-down dinners with your family as a kid or Sunday dinners at grandma’s?  That was a staple of life in the recent past, but how many of you still have nightly family dinners? 
I’ve been reading a lot about parenting--trying to prepare for something you can’t be prepared for--and I came across a great study this week titled, “What is the most important thing you can do with your kids?”  I thought the answer might be read to them, put their needs first, or play outside in God’s green earth like we’re doing today.  But the answer was, “Eat dinner with them.”  Table manners.  Maybe Jesus was onto something.  
            Why is having a family dinner so important?  It teaches children how to talk to people, and they learn more words from those conversations than they do reading.  Ten times more words at the dinner table than from a book.  And the more words they learn, the more quickly their brain develops.  In fact, students who had regular family dinners together score much higher on standardized tests than students who don’t, and family dinners are a better predictor of school success than homework, grades, and participation in sports. 
            Not to mention the nutritional benefits.  Regular family dinners lead to healthier eating habits, healthier people, and healthier families.  So stop by Wendy’s for a 50 cent Frosty on your lunch break--boy, that’s a great deal I can’t pass up--but save dinner time for family.
            Family dinners are also good soul food.  That time together reduces stress, makes kids feel more supported, and even lowers the chances of depression or suicidal thoughts.  Smoking, drinking, and acting out in other ways are also significantly diminished when families eat dinner together.  
            Why do table manners matter so much?  Because that’s the most time we spend together each day, and it gives us the chance to be involved in each other’s lives. 

            This is a good time of year to start new traditions as school begins and cooler weather sets in.  Consider having family dinners more often.  As Jesus said, “You will be blessed.”  Amen.   

Monday, August 22, 2016

Aug 21, 2016 Sermon: "God is _____."

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Deut. 4.24
NT: John 4.24, 1 John 1 .5, 1 John 4.5
God is _____. 

            Today we’re going to think about God’s character and characteristics. 
If I asked you take out a pew pencil and draw a picture of God on the bulletin, what would you draw?  Would you draw a person?  A spirit?  A nature scene?  The stars? 
            If I asked you to finish the sentence: God is              , what would you say?  God is all powerful, all knowing, all present?  God is large and in charge?  God is gracious and loving and kind? 
            If I asked you what makes God…God…what would you say?  
            Let me tell you a story that speaks to God’s character.  This week I attended the groundbreaking ceremony in Rainelle for the first of 50 new homes being built in the coming months and years.  The main group behind the project is Appalachian Service Project.  They do exactly what our workcamp program does…but on steroids.  They have tens of thousands of volunteers from across the country who will come to help rebuild. 
            The first house will be finished within six weeks.  And the folks who will live there are retired teachers who have been residents of Rainelle more than 30 years.  The husband spoke at the groundbreaking, and I thought he would talk about the flood or the community or the new house…but all he wanted to talk about…was God. 
            He started off by saying that God had been working on him for years.  His wife always wanted to go to church, but he never would.  She would say this or that was a blessing from God, but he didn’t believe in that.  Then came the flood, and their entire first floor was flooded.  People from all over came to help them.  He asked them why, and they said God sent them.  For the first time in his life, he believed it.  For the first time in his life, he said he got to know God, and it changed his life. 
            That got me thinking about God’s character.  What is God like?  What makes God…God?  That’s a tough question.  What makes God…God? 
            My grandpa would say the Bible answers that question.  There are four “God is…” statements in the Bible.  And those “God is” statements tell us what makes God…God. 
            Let’s hear them one more time.  John 4.24 says, “God is spirit.”  That means God is like the wind, God is like a breath of fresh air from heaven.  All around.  We may not always see God, but we always feel God.  After all, do you remember what gave life to the world according to Genesis?  A mighty wind blew over the face of the deep, creating all that we now see. 
Deuteronomy 4.24 says, “God is a devouring fire.”  That sounds sort of dire and depressing, doesn’t it?  Not if you think about it.  Because fire purifies.  We talked in Bible Study about how forestry workers do controlled burns.  Why?  Because hurtful plants get mixed in with the native, helpful plants…and the only way to purify the forest is to start over.  The native helpful plants come back and get a fresh new start at life.  That’s what happened to the man in Rainelle.  His life was turned upside down, but he has a new chance at a new life.  He tried to stay away from God for years, but he was consumed by God’s love.  
            Which brings us to 1 John 4.8, which says, “God is love.”  That’s a nice one, isn’t it?  We can get behind that.  But what does it mean?  When we say we love Ben Ellen donuts is that the same kind of love that God has for us?  Those donuts can’t be beat, but we’re talking about different kinds of love, aren’t we?  Human love is conditional, selective, on again off again.  Divine love is unconditional, all inclusive, and constant. 

            Finally, 1 John 1.5 says, “God is light.”  I am no scientist, but I do remember my junior high school teacher telling our class that the speed of light is constant.  Unlike sound, which travels over time, for example, from the pulpit to the back of the church, light travels constantly.  It is not delayed by anything.  Such is the character of God; God is immediately everywhere.  With those here recovering from devastation, with those in Louisana undergoing the same, and with little children in Syria who live in a warzone every day. 
            What is God’s character?  God is spirit, God is a devouring fire, God is love, and God is light.  Put it all together like your grandma’s favorite recipe, and what do you get?  A God that can never be separated from you.  You may relish in that assurance each morning when you wake up.  You may never give it a second thought.  You may, like the man in Rainelle, run from God as often as possible.  But if we can at least sketch a portrait of God’s character from the Bible’s clearest images, then we know that God always finds us.   Like the wind, God is always there.  Like a devouring fire, nothing can stop God.  Like a parent, God loves us completely.  Like light, God is always there. 

            Whether you’ve been coming to church your whole life or you’ve just started back, take time this week to think about God’s character.  What makes God…God…and savor it.  Savor every bit of it, because the more time you spend together, the deeper your relationship.  The deeper your relationship, the stronger your bond.  The stronger your bond, the more meaningful your life will be.  Amen.      

Aug 14, 2016 Sermon: "Finish the Race"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 5.1-7
NT: Hebrews 11.29-12.2
Finish the Race 

Have you been watching the Olympics this week?  What has been your favorite sport to watch? 
No matter if you like table tennis or swimming or basketball, boy oh boy it’s fun to watch, isn’t it?  Those athletes have such visible gifts from God, and it’s a thrill to see them do what they do so well.  Makes all us mere mortals feel pretty lame, but it’s still a joy to watch. 
It reminded me of the story of John Stephen Akhwari.  John was a long distance runner from the African nation of Tanzania in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.  He didn’t win a gold medal.  In fact, he didn’t even medal.  He came in last place, but his legend lives on.  Let me tell you his story. 
Halfway through the marathon, he was doing well, running in the middle of the pack.  Mexico City was at a much higher altitude than his village in Africa, so he started cramping.   Runners were jockeying for position, trying to get in front of one another and be in the proper position.  In the midst of a cramp, John’s foot got tangled up with someone else’s, and he fell.  He dislocated his knee and also fell directly on his shoulder.  Halfway through a marathon.  In the Olympics.  At that point, I would have called for the golf cart and gone home.  Happy to have made it that far.  How many of you are with me? 
But John got up and started running again.  He still had 13 miles to go.  When he finally made it to the stadium, night had almost fallen.  Only a few people were still in the stands.  The winner had finished well over an hour before.  But John refused to quit, and he kept running his race.  He crossed the finish line, and a reporter asked him why he kept going.  He said, “My country didn’t send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.” 
Hebrews teaches us the value of finishing the race.  None of us are perfect.  We’d all like to be in better shape.  Over the years, we’ve lost a step.  We replay in our minds certain parts of the race over and over, wishing we had done things differently.  But Hebrews reminds us that we have to run our race now. 
The whole idea hinges on what Hebrews means when it talks about two seemingly small but important words—faith and perfect. 
In Hebrews, faith does not mean belief in God or blind allegiance or hoping we get what we want.  Rather, faith means trusting in God’s promises.  Commit that to memory.  That’s important.  Faith means trusting in God’s promises. 
Now to our other important concept—perfection.  In Hebrews, perfect does not mean sinless or just right or wonderful.  God doesn’t expect us to be that kind of perfect.  If we forget that, watching the Olympics every four years reminds us.  Rather, perfect means complete.  Comes to an ending point.  Complete. 
So let’s put those two ideas together.  For Hebrews, running the race of life is about being faithful—trusting in God’s promises—until we’ve finished the race. 
Everybody here is running a race.  The people sitting to your right and your left are fighting battles you wouldn’t believe if they told you.  And because none of us are Olympic athletes, we get tired.  We yearn for God’s promises. We need to know that we won’t be left alone or abandoned.  We need to know that God is saving a place for us.  We need to know that we are loved and supported by God no matter how fast or how slow, how up or how down, how good or how bad, how difficult to how easy, how rocky or how smooth our race is. 

Running the race of life is about being faithful, trusting in God’s promises, until we’ve come to the finish line.  Amen.  

August 7, 2016 Sermon: "Making Room for God"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Genesis 15.1-6
NT: Luke 12.32-41
Making Room for God 

            Kerry and I have begun putting the nursery together for little Harrison.  As we started rearranging things, I wondered how long has it been since there was a nursery in this manse?  A while, for sure.  We’ve got a dresser, a bookshelf for books and toys and such, a chair, and Kerry has this great plan for artwork from family members. 
We only lack one big thing.  Kerry showed me pictures of 4 or 5 different cribs and asked me which one I liked.  I said, “Any of them.”  Apparently, that wasn’t the right answer. 
Making room for the nursery means making room.  That room had been an extra guest room, but it was mostly filled with things that just didn’t fit anywhere else or weren’t desired anymore.  Do you have any rooms like that in your home? 
I understand Ed preached about rooms like that last week.  Encouraging us not to build barns to store our stuff, but instead to find freedom in having less.  Anybody go home this week and try to clean out your stuff?  It’s a wonderful idea.  The mental image of an empty garage or an empty guest room is mighty powerful…but then you go to the garage or the guest room…and you start doing the work.  You quickly learn that it’s not as easy as it sounds, right?  I’ve been talking about having a yard sale for two years now.  Talking.  Haven’t had a yard sale yet. 
This week’s Bible reading builds upon last week’s.  Last week, Jesus told a parable urging his followers not to build barns to store their stuff.  This week, he tells them what they should do instead. 
            “Sell your possessions, and give alms.”  When we hear these words from Jesus, we assume he means he wants us to sell our houses, sell our cars, sell our clothes, and give it all to the poor.  And we say with Peter, “You’re just talking generally, right Jesus?  You’re not talking literally to me specifically, right Jesus?” 
            Of course he was talking to them.  Peter was trying to understand how Jesus’ teachings fit into their Jewish teachings on giving. 
            In Judaism, believers were expected to share their resources in a couple of important ways.  They were expected to give regular tithes to the temple, which was AT LEAST ten percent of what you had.  Not just what you made that year, but what you had.  That could include crops, money, precious oils, or even livestock.  If you think tithing is tough, think about giving 10% of everything you have to others each year. 
            Why did Jews have such a strict system of giving?  Because people needed the help.  Poverty was the rule then, not the exception.  Because having to give away 10% of your stuff each year made it easier to get in that routine than accumulate for a decade and then talk about having a yard sale for another couple years.  And finally, because when you help someone, you end up being the one who benefits.  You feel good about being able to help and live out God’s generosity in some small way.  Don’t you find that to be true? 
For example, this past week we had a workcamp come from Iowa.  They drove over 800 miles one way just to get here and do flood relief.  It was the first workcamp their church had ever taken.  During our closing service on Friday, they said, “We came expecting to change other people’s lives, but our lives were changed.”   In serving others, have you ever come to that realization?  Serving others is the reward in and of itself.  It is the way of our Lord.     
In researching almsgiving this week, I found something fascinating.  In several writings from Old Testament times, including the book of Tobit, believers were taught to help “all who practice righteousness.”  In other words, they qualified who deserved help. 
In Luke, Jesus puts no limitations on giving.  He doesn’t say only help those who help themselves.  He doesn’t say only help those who remember to say thank you.  He doesn’t say only help those who will in turn help others.  No limitations.  Why is that?  For Jesus, the reward is in giving.  You get much more out of helping someone, no matter the circumstance, than they get from you. 
In that spirit, I need you to come over to the manse and help me get rid of all our extra stuff!  You’ll get much more out of it than I will!  Just kidding.  We will be making room for Harrison in the coming months.  And as hard as it is, it’s also a tremendous blessing.  We’re making room for a blessing from God.  And that is exactly what Jesus teaches us all in today’s Bible story.  Those who share what they have to spare make room in their lives for a tremendous blessing from God, because the reward is in giving.