Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Working the Fields

Working the Fields
Matthew 9:35-10:7[1]
I’ve never worked in a field of corn or beans. I grew up in sorghum  and cotton country. So I don’t know what it’s like to work at de-tasseling a corn field or weeding a bean field. I have, however, had my share of manual labor. I spent many a day with my Order of the Arrow chapter cutting weeds at the Scout camp with a swing blade. And I had the blisters on my hands to show for it. I worked at a variety of Summer jobs during my education—including moving potted plants at a wholesale plant nursery, pulling parts at an auto salvage yard, and building and installing wooden playground equipment. I think what they all had in common with working the fields was that it was hard, hot, dusty work.
I don’t know if Jesus’ disciples had experience with working in fields. We know that some of them made their living by fishing with nets. They apparently worked at night, and I would think that hauling their nets could be back-breaking work. But I doubt that all of them had that kind of background. Nevertheless, I’m not sure they saw following Jesus as a path that would lead them to hard work. If they saw him as the Messiah, they may have thought that by joining with him they would have the privilege of ruling with him when he revealed himself. That’s a very different prospect from working the fields.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus clearly calls his disciples to work that he compares to that of a harvest. If you think de-tasseling is work, imagine what it would be like to spend the day cutting wheat and bundling it for gathering. The kind of harvest that took place in Jesus’ day was hard, hot, dusty work. You spent the day swinging a scythe, covered chaff from the wheat mixed with sweat. And you would work from sunup to sundown that way. There was nothing glamorous about that kind of work.
And yet, it’s clear that the work Jesus called his disciples to carry out was urgent. One reason is because the “harvest” they were to work had to do with people. And the people of Jesus’ day were, as Matthew’s gospel says, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). The disciples’ calling to work the fields was urgent because the people needed someone to point the way for them. They needed someone to help them trust that God was there for them to comfort and deliver them. They needed someone to give them hope that they wouldn’t always be suffering under the oppression of the powerful. And so Jesus sent his disciples to work the fields.
Another reason why it was urgent for them to work the harvest was because no one else was doing the job. Jesus says it this way, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). That might seem perfectly natural to our ears, but in Jesus’ day, it would have sounded strange. Jerusalem was a hive of religious activity with the priests and Levites who attended the worship at the temple. One estimate suggests there were as many as 18,000 priests in that day.[2] There may have been as many as another 30,000 Levites. Then there were the scribes and the Pharisees, who taught primarily in the synagogues scattered throughout Judea. It doesn’t sound much like “the laborers” were “few.”
But part of what was going on here was that Jesus was criticizing the religious professionals of his day. Remember that Matthew says that to Jesus the people were like “sheep without a shepherd.” This was very likely a not-so-veiled rebuke of the priests and Levites, as well as the scribes and the Pharisees. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus outlines the many ways in which the religious leaders of his day were leading the people astray, or were simply oppressing them. But Jesus wasn’t the first to make the observation that those who were supposed to be caring for the needs of the Jewish people had failed to do so. Prophets like Ezekiel had announced their failure centuries before. Despite the fact that there were many people working in the religious centers of Jesus’ day, he could still say that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
The solution to this problem was to “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38). While that might seem a rather safe thing to pray, I think Jesus must have known better. It may be easy to assume that we can pray this prayer without having it really affect us. But the truth of the matter is that if you pray this prayer from the heart, it’s not a “safe” prayer at all. It’s very likely that this prayer is one that will lead you to feel compelled to say, “Send me!” That’s exactly what happened with the disciples. In the very next verses Jesus sends them out to do the work of the Kingdom he had been doing.
We may be tempted to think, as Jesus’ disciples may have been, that the “harvest is small and the laborers are many.” After all, there are churches in just about every town and scattered throughout our cities. This part of the country seems to have more churches per capita than anywhere else. Just about everyone you run into around here seems to already have some affiliation with a church. And yet, just as Jesus intended for his disciples to be moved to work the fields by praying for the Lord to send laborers to the harvest, so we too are called to engage in the work of the Kingdom. We might wonder how we’re supposed to do that. The answer is in the Gospels—Jesus sets the example; he shows his own disciples how do work the field by giving them a role model to follow. And his example still stands as the best approach to serving and working for the Kingdom in our day. As we follow his example, we can join all the many laborers throughout the ages who have answered Jesus’ call to work the fields.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/18/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus.

Surrounded by Love

Surrounded by Love
Psalm 8; Matthew 28:20[1]
One of the blessings of information technology is that the world has become a much smaller place. We can learn about what is going on in around the country and even around the world almost as soon as it happens.  That can be a very good thing. It means that we get to see up close and personal how much of a resemblance we bear to our sisters and brothers in the human family.  One of the curses of information technology is that the world has become a much smaller place.  That means that we also get to see—up close and personal—all the cruelty and violence and hatred and injustice afflicting the human family.  In the face of overwhelming cruelty and violence and injustice, it can seem incredibly naïve to believe that God surrounds us continually with love!
On the surface of things, it would seem that the reality of our world contradicts the message of our Scripture lessons for today. In our reading from the Psalms, we find ourselves confronted with the majesty of the God who created all the heavens and the earth. And the more we understand about just how vast this cosmos really is, the more God’s majesty and power in creation is magnified. Even in the Psalmist’s day, a simple glance at the night sky led him to wonder, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4). And yet, despite the fact that the Psalmist frames his faith in the form of a question, we shouldn’t overlook the affirmation that lies behind it: God is mindful of us all; God does care for us, both deeply and continually.
The Psalmist had good reason to believe this. It was the heart of the essential affirmation of the Hebrew Bible: “I am the Lord God. I am merciful and very patient with my people. I show great love, and I can be trusted” (Exodus 34:6, CEV). It is the revelation God gave to Moses when he asked to see God’s glory. And it echoes like a refrain throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, because it is the truth that serves as the foundation for the faith that God loves us with a love that will never let us go. It may be difficult for us to grasp, but the truth of our Scripture lesson is that we are constantly surrounded by the love of the God who created all things.
In our lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, we see this truth reflected in a little different light. The risen Christ is giving his final instructions to his disciples.  And in the midst of it all, he gives them the promise “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20, Today’s NIV). Jesus promised his disciples that he would always be with them, no matter what. If you look at what happens to them in the course of their lives of service to Christ and his kingdom, we might wonder about that: imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks, and even martyrdom. But Jesus didn’t promise them that his presence would spare them from opposition in this world. He promised them that he would always be with them.
I guess I would have to say that I would expect the world to look a lot different if we’re to believe that we are always surrounded by God’s love, and that Jesus is always with us. We might think that a world in which we are all constantly and continually surrounded by God’s loving presence should bear a whole lot more evidence of peace and compassion and love!  This question has vexed the minds and hearts of believers throughout the centuries.  If God is so good and loving, why is there so much evil in the world?  And some of the best minds through the ages have diligently sought answers.  
But I’m not so sure that the answer is all that complicated. It seems to me that God’s presence in this world is no more complicated than giving and receiving compassion.  I would think it stands to reason that the way we experience God’s loving presence is in the small acts by which we share kindness and love with our fellow human beings. And I would say that when we open ourselves to our sisters and brothers all around us, we find that there is actually a great deal of love in the world—even in the midst of suffering and injustice.  Precisely in the midst of suffering and injustice.
I heard an interview several years ago with Sarah Shourd, one of a group of American hikers who were arrested and imprisoned in Iran, accused of spying for the U. S.[2] At first, she was alone, and she didn’t have any contact with anyone outside her cell.  During that time she said that all she did was cry and beat at the walls. What sustained her through her ordeal was the compassion of Iranian women who were her fellow prisoners.  When they heard Sarah crying, they would sing songs to her in English to comfort her. In the depths of Sarah’s despair, they would cry out to her in English, “We love you Sarah!”  There she was, surrounded by some of the worst human injustice and cruelty, and in the midst of all that suffering, the voice of compassion came to her, “we love you Sarah!”
I think for most of us, the reality of our world makes us tend to isolate ourselves from those around us.  We stay safely detached from everything and everyone in our world, walking around with earbuds, comfortable in our cars, withdrawing to our homes to engage with virtual reality over one kind of screen or another.  And it’s no wonder we look at our world and wonder, “Where is God?” On the other hand, when we open ourselves to those who are around us and allow ourselves to experience their suffering and share compassion and kindness with them, then we experience God’s loving presence in our own lives.  That’s when we discover the truth of the promise that, no matter what may come, we are always surrounded by God’s love.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/11/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Sarah Montague,  Interview with Sarah Shourd, “Hardtalk,” June 10, 2011; accessed at

One and the Same Spirit

One and the Same Spirit
1 Corinthians 12:3-13[1]
When you take a good look at the many different ways in which Christians practice their faith, you may wonder what all of them have in common. There are so many different approaches to living out the Christian faith. You don’t have to go any farther than Lincoln to see that. Some are traditional, some are definitely not. Some are conservative, some are middle of the road, and some are very liberal. Some don’t even have the word “church” on their sign! And many have removed any identification with a denomination like “Presbyterian” or “Methodist” or “Baptist” altogether from their name.
When you go beyond the confines of our culture, it can be even more challenging. As we look at the diversity in the Body of Christ around the world, it can leave us wondering whether there is anything that unites them in any meaningful way. Of course, some churches don’t want to be united with those who do things differently. They think “difference” means “heresy.” However, I would say that while the way believers worship and their understanding of the faith differs from one culture to another, there is a common thread of faith in all of them. I’ve worshipped with churches in Germany, Romania, Switzerland, Nicaragua, The Philippines, and Cameroon. Wherever people are able to comprehend a larger body of Christ, I have felt right at home.
I think one of the most important reasons why this has been true is because the Spirit of God is working in their midst. That’s part of what St. Paul has to say in our New Testament lesson for today. He says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). I think Paul makes it clear that different approaches to the faith are to be expected. These are the “varieties” he speaks of. Not everyone in every church everywhere is going to do everything exactly the same way. That’s not a problem, it’s a sign of health and vitality in the church!
Throughout his letters, the Apostle attributes all life in the church to the Spirit of God. When the church thrives, it is because the Spirit of God is working among us. When the church comes together in a way that unites believers from across cultural, political, national, and ethnic boundary lines, it is the work of the Spirit of God. When the members of a congregation like this one share in the serving one another and the world around us, it is because the Spirit of God has enabled us to do so. For St. Paul, every aspect of the church’s life and ministry comes from the Spirit of God.
The surprising element in all of this is the fact that God has chosen to accomplish this work through people like you and me. And to do this, he gives us the “gifts of the Spirit,” which St. Paul says are given to each person “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). In other words, every single person has some “gift” from the Spirit that is to be used for the benefit of the whole church. What that means is that for the church to thrive all the members of the body have to share the gifts they have been given. We may have a variety of gifts, but all of them come from the same Spirit and are meant to build up the body of Christ.
I think one major mistake people make when they look at the “gifts of the Spirit” is that they try to see where they fit into the lists of gifts mentioned in the Bible. But I don’t believe St. Paul ever intended for the lists of gifts he mentioned to be taken as the only possibilities. They are examples of the ways that the Spirit of God was working through people in the churches of his day. To be sure, some of those gifts are timeless. There will always be a need for teaching. There will always be room for generosity. There will always be a place for leadership. But I would say that your “spiritual gift” may not even be in any of the biblical lists. That may make it a little harder to discern how you fit into the body of Christ, but it also gives you the freedom to be the person God made you to be.
When I look at the way we approach our life together, I’m afraid many may consider this “spiritual” model for the success of the enterprise we call “Church” too ambiguous.  We’re much more comfortable with clearly laid out plans, exhaustive manuals of operations, and sound policies and procedures. As valuable as policies and procedures can be, they are not what gives life to the church of Jesus Christ! What gives life to the church is when we all put our “gifts of the Spirit” to work for “the common good” and “with the strength that God supplies” (1 Pet 4:11).
I think this is one of the lessons that the church has had to learn and re-learn over and over throughout the ages.  We can accomplish nothing of lasting value if we try to do it in our own strength, by our own talent, through our own wisdom. It is only as we carry out our service through the empowering presence of the Spirit that we can hope to truly build up the body of Christ and offer our service to the world around us.  I think if every individual in every church across this county took seriously the call to serve the body of Christ in this way, we would be astonished at the transformation that would result. To be sure, I believe it would look very different from anything we might imagine. And I’m also quite sure there would be far more diversity that we might like. But as we recognize the work of the Spirit in people putting their gifts into practice for the benefit of the church in wondrously varied ways, we will see that it is all the work of one and the same Spirit.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/4/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Telling Our Story

Telling our Story
Acts 1:6-14[1]
At Easter time, it’s common to see the phrase “It’s not about the Bunny.” As it turns out, that might not be entirely true. The image of a rabbit or a hare is an ancient one, and its original meaning is difficult to discern. But there is abundant evidence that the image of “three hares” was given Christian meaning as early as the 13th Century.[2] It was associated with the Trinity in many contexts. But the “Easter Bunny” originated in the German Lutheran churches as a counterpart to Nikolaus, who comes to bring gifts to children who have been good and lumps of coal to those who have not. The first reference to an Easter Bunny playing a similar role is found in the 17th century.
While the tradition of gift-giving at Easter as well as Christmas may have originated in the church, I think I would have to say that Easter is the celebration of our faith that death could not hold Jesus in the grave. Rather, God raised him up to new life as a demonstration that God is in the process of granting new life to us all. That is the true gift of Easter. And yet, as foundational as that is to our faith, I would have to say that the point of Easter is not just about the gift. It’s also about the astounding task that Jesus gave to all of those who follow him: to bear witness to the new life we have through his death and resurrection to the whole world.
The story that the book of Acts tells about the early church is a story of witness—the witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the new life that comes out of it. As soon as the church receives the power of the Spirit, they begin to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, from then on, they rarely mention the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection without adding, “We are witnesses of these things.” One of the amazing features of this story is that, despite all obstacles, against all odds, the early church’s witness to Jesus’ resurrection is a great success. It is natural to wonder what made the witness of the early church so successful. I think it was the fact that their message was demonstrated by their life.
The message of the early church was that Jesus had been raised from the dead by God, who vindicated Jesus’ claim to be our Savior.   They proclaimed to all who would listen that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a sign pointing us to God’s new creation that is already working to transform us all. They proclaimed that the resurrection validated Jesus’ claim to be the bearer of the kingdom of God, the realm of compassionate justice and joyful new life.  And they proclaimed the hope that, just as God has restored Jesus to life, so also God will restore all creation to life.  
But perhaps just as important a factor in the early church’s witness was that their message was backed up by their life.[3] They lived out the good news by their mutual acceptance of one another and by extending God’s gracious welcome to all. They sought God’s guidance in prayerful discernment by asking questions together and listening together for the answers. They lived out the joy of the resurrection in worship that opened their hearts and minds to a genuine experience of God. They shared their faith and their experience of God’s love with one another by sharing their testimony. They integrated the good news into every aspect of their lives through open and humble study. And they went out from their prayer and worship and study seeking to put into practice the compassion of God’s kingdom in every facet of life.
Some who study these matters would say that it was these practices that made the early church’s witness so powerful.  I think I might put it a little differently—what made them so successful was that their witness came out of the experience of being radically transformed in their own hearts and minds and lives.  They were bearing witness to that which they had experienced first hand!  One of the early Christian leaders put it this way: what they spoke about was “something which … we ourselves actually saw and heard: something which we had an opportunity to observe closely and even to hold in our hands” (1 John 1:1, Phillips).
This new way of living is the true gift of Easter. And it is a gift that is for everyone, everywhere. I’ve used the analogy of an immunization before to illustrate the power of this gift. Like a vaccination spreads protection against disease throughout the body, so Jesus’ death and resurrection spreads new life throughout the whole creation. Where the analogy breaks down is that a shot usually takes effect fairly quickly to protect us from illness. On the other hand, the new life Jesus “injected” into this world through his death and resurrection has been working to transform all things and all people for over 2000 years.
In part, that transformation is something only God can accomplish. And yet, one of the means God has chosen to carry out this work is through people like you and me. As we live out the faith, hope, love, and joy of the new life in our lives, we contribute to the spread of this healing power in our world. But at the end of the day, we also have to speak. We cannot carry out the task of bearing witnesses to the new life of Easter silently. We are called and commissioned and empowered by the Spirit to share the message of Easter with those we encounter. If the new life is truly a reality that makes a difference for us, we are charged with the task of telling our story to others. It can be that simple: as we tell our story, we too are witnesses to the new life that Easter brings to us all.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/28/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[3] Cf. William H. Willimon, Acts, 52; cf. also Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to Be Church: The
Book of Acts for a New Day.

Abiding Presence

Abiding Presence
John 14:15-21, Acts17:22-31[1]
    One of the questions that has occupied the attention of the human family, especially in the modern era, is one that haunts us: “Are we alone in the universe?” Some think that we are, or at least that there is a relatively small chance that other worlds capable of sustaining intelligent life exist. Others think that the probabilities based on the sheer number of galaxies in the universe demand that there are many planets out there with intelligent life. We may never know the answer to the question “Are we alone” viewed from this perspective.
But I wonder if the fact that this question has been framed almost exclusively from a scientific point of view has kept us from finding an answer. The message of Scripture is that we have never been truly “alone.” It’s the point of our faith in creation: a God beyond our understanding created all of the worlds that are and us along with them as an act of love. This means that by definition, this creator God seeks a relationship with us. Beyond that, it’s also the point of our faith that Jesus is “God-with-us.” The incarnation teaches us that God does not choose to leave us on our own to try to grope in the darkness for some kind of meaning to life. And the ongoing work of the Spirit in each of our lives reminds us constantly of God’s promise of his abiding presence with us.  
Our Scripture lessons for today reinforce this promise of God’s abiding presence. In St. Paul’s sermon to the Greeks in Athens, he uses the fact that they had a shrine dedicated to “an unknown God” as an opportunity to proclaim to them the God who must have seemed very strange to them: a God who is both exalted and yet intimately involved in the lives of ordinary people. Paul begins by insisting that this “unknown” God whom he wants to make known to them is “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). This must have seemed to be a strange God indeed, for the Greek deities were thought to be powerful, but they were hardly concerned about humanity.
But the “unknown” God whom Paul seeks to introduce to the people of Athens is a God who cares very much about all creation, humanity included.  In fact, the whole reason why this God created humanity was to have a relationship with them. The Apostle puts it this way: “he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, ... so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). The idea is that from the orderliness and beauty of nature, as well as from the mystery of their own experience, somehow people would be able to discern that behind it all stood a creator who loved them.
And to emphasize the point, he quoted one of their own poets: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  This was something that most people of his day and time very likely didn’t believe. They believed the “gods” lived on Mount Olympus, beyond their reach, but close enough to meddle in human affairs. But St. Paul presents the God of the Scriptures as one who is intimately involved in human life. As one contemporary observer puts it, we live in a “God-bathed world.”[2]  The God in whose presence we constantly live is the one who cares for and nurtures all creation.
Jesus offered the same message to his disciples in our Gospel lesson. In this section of John’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his followers for his imminent departure. Part of that preparation was a challenge, and part of it was assurance. The challenge was that those who follow him and who love him will “keep his commandments” (John 14:15). When we put his teachings into practice in our day-to-day living, then our love for God and for Jesus Christ truly define who we are. But this can seem to be an impossible challenge to those of us who realize that we are fallible mortals.
Fortunately, it’s not a do-it-yourself project. Jesus promised the disciples that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). The Spirit is with us always to help us fulfill our commitment to follow Jesus by putting his teachings into practice. Not only does Jesus promise to give them the “Spirit of Truth” who will live in them, he also promises that his presence will be with them as well. Then he makes what must have been an astonishing statement to a group of Jewish fishermen: when he comes to them they would know “that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn. 14:20). In other words, not only would they enjoy his continued presence in their lives. They would also share with him in the relationship he had with the Father. And that is a presence that abides with us constantly.
Jesus promised that through him we can enjoy the abiding presence of the Spirit. He is the one who makes it clear that our God is as close to us as the air we are breathing. The idea that we mortals could possibly have a relationship with the “Lord of heaven and earth” is one that is just as astonishing today as it was then. And yet it is entirely consistent with the witness of the Scriptures. The promise of the Spirit is that the breath of life fills us always. The promise of our Creator is that there is no place that is outside the realm of God’s loving care.  The promise of our resurrected Savior is that wherever we are, he is with us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love. We are never alone in the universe. Every moment of every day we enjoy the abiding presence of our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/21/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 61, 78, 90.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

In Jesus' Name

In Jesus’ Name
John 14:1-14[1]
Prayer is a puzzle to most of us, I think.  I’m not sure many of us even know why it is that we pray.  In this self-oriented culture of ours, some people pray as a form of sanctified wish-fulfillment.  They think they can put a prayer coin in the slot machine and have all their dreams come true—if they pray the right way. Then there are others who reject prayer altogether as a remnant from the days when people thought God was directly responsible for things like the weather.  They see it as just a mind game we’re playing with ourselves.  I think the solution to the problem of prayer lies somewhere in the middle between self-interest and cynicism.
Nowhere does the problem of prayer appear so acutely as in the promises that if we pray with enough faith, we will be granted “anything” we want. This is especially the case with praying “in Jesus’ name.” I think for most of us, “in Jesus’ name” has become just a way to end a prayer. But stories of the Apostles doing amazing things “in Jesus’ name” make us at least wonder if there’s something more to it than that. And the promises in John’s Gospel that if we ask anything “in Jesus’ name” it will be granted to us create the impression that praying “in Jesus’ name” is some kind of method for guaranteeing we’ll get the outcome we want. From that point of view, it sounds more like magic than prayer to me.
I think if we look at this promise in the light of its context, which is always a good idea when approaching the Bible, we’ll find a very different meaning to praying “in Jesus’ name.” Our lesson for today contains a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples concerning whether or not they truly believed that he was who he claimed to be and what he was doing was the Father’s will. Jesus provoked this discussion by saying, “If you know me, you will know my Father also” (John 14:7). That was a difficult thing for any Jewish person to comprehend in that day. I’m not sure it’s gotten any easier for us. I think Jesus recognized how difficult a challenge that is for faith, and he called his disciples to “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” on the basis of the works he had done (John 14:11).
It is this dialogue that leads up to the promise that the Father will grant them anything they ask in Jesus’ name. And yet, it’s important to note that the point of this passage is that if Jesus’ disciples believe in him they “will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12). I’m not sure which one poses a greater challenge for faith: really believing that Jesus is one with the Father, or really believing that that our faith will enable us to do “greater works” than he did! I think it’s challenging enough to hope that we could do the works that Jesus did. But to do “greater works”? I’m not sure I have that much faith.
It’s in that context that Jesus promised “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). I think Jesus probably knew that his disciples were having a hard enough time believing all that he had done. Most of his work with them involved helping them understand what he was doing, because it was not at all what they had expected. In that light, I would think he also knew that they felt overwhelmed by the statement that they would do “greater things” than Jesus had done.
I think that is the basis for Jesus’ promise, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:14). He was reassuring them that they could ask for the insight, the faith, the courage, and the strength to do the “greater things” that he promised them they would do. Think of it: how else could “the Father be glorified in the Son” than for Jesus to empower his disciples to continue to do the work he had begun. In a very real sense, the story of disciples’ ministry in the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament shows us how they did just that. What they did “in Jesus’ name” was to continue his work of bringing the peace and justice and freedom of God’s kingdom to those who needed it most.
Unfortunately, many believers have separated this verse from its context and turned it into a means for getting whatever they want. People who call themselves “Christian” pray for all kinds of things in Jesus’ name: from healing, to help making ends meet, to the perfect mate, to a house on an acreage, even to things like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. That’s what happens when you pick and choose verses from the Bible. Some of this is legitimate, especially when it involves meeting basic life needs. But there’s a big difference between what we need and what we want.
The lesson the Gospel has for us this week is that praying in Jesus’ name primarily involves praying for his work to be fulfilled through us. I want to repeat what I said last week: in all of this, I don’t think the lesson is that we shouldn’t pray for our needs or even at times our desires. What is more natural than to turn to our creator and redeemer to express the deepest desires of our hearts?  But Jesus’ approach to prayer suggests that the desires of our hearts ought to be shaped not by the values of our culture, or our own selfish interests, but by the principles of the kingdom—compassion, peace, justice, freedom, and new life.  I think when our prayers “in Jesus’ name” are shaped in this way, we will be praying for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done. When we do that, we can pray with the confidence that God will hear and answer in a way that best promotes his purposes in our world. When we do that, then we’re praying in Jesus’ name.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/14/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Knowing His Voice

Knowing His Voice
John 10:1-10[1]
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you for me to say that prayer is a vital part of the Christian life. A brief glance at any one of our worship bulletins reveals the importance of prayer. I teach our confirmation students that prayer is as simple as talking to God about what concerns you. But many of us know that a life of prayer as a part of practicing our faith is not always that simple. We have to contend with all kinds of challenges: especially the challenge of prayer that seems to go unanswered. Some of us have experienced prayers that have felt as if they have gone unanswered for years! I’m afraid I’d have to say that even though prayer is such an important part of our faith, many of us struggle with prayer.
Part of the problem with prayer is that we have to learn to sort out the competing voices in our world and even within ourselves. As I mentioned recently, one way to do that is to listen more attentively to the Scriptures. But the Scriptures don’t always address the matters that concern us in prayer: what job to take, or whether to commit to a relationship, or how to make ends meet, or what direction to take when a door closes. I think when it comes to the nuts and bolts of our prayers, we have to develop a kind of intuition or wisdom about prayer that only comes with practice—in many cases, years of practice. I think knowing God’s voice is something we all have to learn.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus describes the relationship we have with him as that of sheep with a “good shepherd.” In that day, many shepherds kept their sheep in a “sheepfold” where the sheep would be safe overnight. The next day, each shepherd would come to collect his flock, and only the sheep that belonged to him would follow him. Jesus puts it this way: “the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (Jn. 10:4). Later in the chapter, he makes an amazing statement: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (Jn. 10:14-15). Those who belong to Jesus know him in the same way that Jesus and the Father know each other. They know his voice and follow him.
Of course, that’s easier said than done.  Talk of hearing voices in a religious or spiritual context can make people think you’ve lost touch with reality.   And, of course, the claim that “God told me” has been used and abused in every conceivable way.  And yet, when it comes down to it, Jesus characterizes the relationship we have with him by saying: “I know my own and my own know me” and “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn. 10:27).  Those who know Jesus know his voice.
But then the real question we face here is how we can possibly “know his voice.” In my experience, one of the most difficult aspects of trying to do this is distinguishing our voice from God’s voice. For most of us our prayers consist of expressing our desires, our wishes, and our hopes to God. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. God invites us to do just that: to cast all our cares on him because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). But the problem is that many times we feel those hopes and wishes so deeply that they can become the sole focus of our attention. When that happens, it can be surprisingly easy to mistake the voice of our wants for the voice of God.
I think we all need some practical guidelines for what it means to listen for God’s voice in our prayers. One principle that I’ve heard all my life and that I find helpful is that God’s voice brings us peace. When our prayers are filled with urgency and worry, that’s a pretty good sign that we’ve gotten caught in our own desires. Another helpful principle is that when it comes down to it, God’s will for all of us really is no mystery: God intends for us to live in such a way that we love God with all our hearts and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. While that doesn’t constitute an obvious answer to every prayer, it does give us guidance in discerning whether the “answer” we think we hear is truly God’s voice.
It’s often said that God answers prayers in three ways: yes, no, or wait. But I’d have to say that my experience with prayer has been nowhere near that clear-cut. If you pay close attention to the Psalms and the Prophets, you find people of faith wrestling with God in prayer, anguishing over life’s twists and turns. Even Jesus was “deeply distressed” as he poured out his heart to God in the Garden of Gethsemane. I don’t think we can set his prayer in the context of a simple answer. In fact, in the end, Jesus had to give up his desire to be set free from the “cup” he was to drink and surrender his will to God’s will.
I think that’s the key to developing a life of prayer that sustains faith. When our prayers become dominated by our own desires, they can become an experience in constant disappointment. And so perhaps the most important lesson we have to learn as we develop the discipline of prayer is to surrender our own wants and desires. Again, it’s not that we cannot or should not pray for them, but when we let them dominate our prayers, we tend to do all the talking and not much listening. The more we can develop the kind of faith that enables us to present our requests to God and then entrust the outcome into his loving care, the more we will develop the wisdom and discernment it takes to know his voice.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/7/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Burning Hearts

Burning Hearts
Luke 24:13-35[1]
We Presbyterians love to do things “decently and in order.” He have policies for doing things “rightly” and some of us even believe that our churches will thrive if we just follow the right procedures. And so we set about planning the programs that we hope will accomplish that goal. This approach applies to all aspects of our life together as a community of faith. It even applies to the way we assume we convey our faith to our children. If we have a good confirmation program, then they will embrace the faith we seek to live by. But I think I would have to ask whether it was the program itself that made faith “stick” in our lives, or something more.
The problem is that you cannot “program” faith. Yes, we can teach the concepts of the faith according to a plan that takes into account where our children are in their various stages of development. But that only creates the opportunity for them to experience faith. In order for it to flourish and grow into a healthy and mature faith that will direct them throughout their lives, something more than a program has to take place. That’s true for all of us: in order for the seeds that have been planted in us to bear fruit in a life that is dedicated to God, the Spirit of God must work in our lives. I’m afraid, though, that kind of language makes us think we have to have some kind of special experience for it to “count.”
As we continue to make our way through the season of Easter, our Scripture readings seem to reinforce that impression. This week’s Gospel lesson certainly seems to describe an encounter that was anything but “normal.” Two disciples walking home are joined by the risen Christ. But they are “prevented” from recognizing him. And after pouring out their disappointed hopes, he proceeds to take them on a journey through the Scriptures to show that it was “necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things” (Lk 24:26). During a meal that bore a striking resemblance to the Last Supper, “their eyes were opened” and they recognized him, and then he vanished.
Again, this all sounds like something that only the privileged few ever get to experience. And yet, there’s something interesting about the way they describe their experience. They say it this way: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32). I would like to point out again that what struck them was something very ordinary: it was the fact that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” Jesus explained the meaning of the Scriptures to them (Lk 24:27). When you look at it that way, it’s not something out of reach after all. In fact, I would say it’s something we can experience in our lives as well.
I’m not going to begin with “Moses and all the prophets,” but the teaching of the Scriptures is that what happened on that first Easter changed everything, and it’s continuing to change everything and everyone. The promise of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ is that we too will be raised to a new life (Rom. 6:4), and when that happens, we will be “conformed to the image of Christ” (Rom. 8:29). That’s one reason why Easter is such good news: we all get to experience the new life of Jesus’ resurrection. Easter means that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor 15:22). It means that though we were all “dead,” we have been made “alive together with Christ” as a result of his resurrection (Eph. 2:4-6). The resurrection is not simply something that happened a long time ago to Jesus of Nazareth. The resurrection opens the door to God’s new creation that is already breaking into this world and transforming our lives.
Still, all of this sounds very spiritual, very extraordinary, very much out of reach for us common people. But the fact of the matter is that the means through which that happens in our lives are typically very “ordinary”—prayer, studying Scripture, worship, serving others. To be sure, it is God who makes these changes in our lives, but that tends happens as we go about the routines of our faith.  The unexpected thing about those routines is that as we practice them, we are opening our hearts for God to do his work in us. And when that happens, I think we would have to say it’s as if our hearts are “burning within us,” as those first disciple put it.
I think most of us can point to times in our lives when we would say that our hearts were burning. It may have been a moment in worship when the music or the Scripture or the sermon struck a chord with us. Or perhaps it was an experience of fresh insight during a time of personal prayer. Or we had a sense of God’s presence comforting and encouraging us during a time when we were struggling. Maybe it was the simple feeling of being truly alive we get when we help others in need. I think part of the challenge is to notice those experiences rather than chalking them up to just something “ordinary.”
It’s all too easy for us to overlook the genuine encounters we’ve had with God in our lives. It’s a lot easier to focus on the hardships we may have experienced in life. But the good news of Easter is that God is working in all of our lives constantly. Try as we may, we can’t program that. We do the best we can to plan our worship and study and service in this family of faith. But only God can touch our lives in such a way that it leaves us saying, “Were not our hearts burning?” And the good news of Jesus’ resurrection is that God is constantly working to make us people with burning hearts.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/30/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

We are Witnesses

We are Witnesses
Acts 2:22-32[1]
We Presbyterians get pretty nervous around words like “witness.” It reminds us of people who go door-to-door, rather too confidently professing their own faith and assuming those they are “visiting” are spiritually “lost.” When I was a Seminary Professor, a young lady came to my door one night to ask me, “If you died tonight, are you sure that you would go to Heaven”! Of course I was polite with her, but I found it ironical that someone who was just starting her faith journey presumed that I needed “saving.” At the time I had been serving the gospel in a wide variety of ways for over twenty years! I give her credit for her effort, but I think that’s the kind of “witness” that makes us cringe.
I would say part of our problem is that is the only model we have for what it means to bear witness to our faith. We assume we have to go door-to-door behaving in a way that is at least disrespectful and perhaps worse. From another point of view, we may think that only those who have had an exceptional spiritual journey actually have something that’s worth sharing. When we think that’s what “bearing witness” to the gospel means, we may assume that we don’t have much to say. Or at least we don’t think that what we have to say counts as bearing witness to the gospel. For whatever reason, we don’t feel comfortable with the idea that “we are witnesses” to the gospel.
When we look at our Scripture reading for today, at first glance we may think it confirms our hesitation. Our lesson from the Book of Acts is part of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. In this part of the sermon, he talks about “deeds of power, wonders, and signs” (Acts 2:22) that they saw Jesus perform in order to demonstrate that he truly was sent from God. He also speaks fairly confidently about God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge” demonstrated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. All of this makes it sound like his witness to the good news about Jesus is way out of our league. Surely he must have some kind of insight that we are not permitted to attain. When Peter says “we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32), he must be referring to a select group of Christians here.
But if you look at the passage a little more closely, Peter is doing something fairly common. He’s interpreting the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection in light of Scripture. In this case, it’s one of the Psalms. Peter quotes from Psalm 16 to make the point that it was God’s intention to raise Jesus from the dead all along. I think that makes sense, because Psalm 16 was a declaration of hope for anyone who trusted that their life was in God’s hands. The faith expressed in the Psalm was that nothing, not even death, could snatch them from the safety and joy they had in God’s presence.
In Peter’s case, the Psalm provided him with the language to bear witness to his experience that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead. More than that, it helped him to give words to his conviction that this was God’s plan all along. So from one point of view, you could say that Peter’s witness was rather ordinary. By that I mean that in his “witness” Peter was not claiming some supernatural revelation. He was simply sharing his own experience as he understood it in light of Scripture. He was bearing witness to what he had seen and heard. That’s really all any of us can do: share our experience as we understand it in light of Scripture.
Of course, Peter and the others whose witness serves as the basis for our New Testament did have some extraordinary experiences. Peter’s “witness” in our lesson for today is part of his sermon on the day of Pentecost. We know that what made Peter’s “witness” so effective that day was he was “filled with the Spirit.” And we would say that it was the Spirit who empowered the testimony of the all the Apostles. Most of us would be uncomfortable claiming that we are “filled with the Spirit.” I doubt that we would say that our words of witness to the gospel are empowered by the Spirit. But I think this is an example of how we tend to take ourselves for granted. The Scriptures tell us that the Spirit has been poured out on us all. The Spirit is working to empower every one of us in whatever we may do in service to God and one another. And that includes our “witness.” The Spirit is at work when we share our experience of Christ with others.
 I realize that, to many of us, our own faith journey may seem too “ordinary” for us to be able to “bear witness to the gospel.” It may seem like sharing our experience doesn’t count as a “witness” for Christ. But while our experiences may be similar, no two people have the same journey. That means each of us has insights into what it means to be a Christian that are unique. And it is our calling to share those experiences with those around us. They may seem insignificant to us, but we never really know what people are dealing with and how our words of encouragement might help them. Our very simple and ordinary “witness” might make all the difference in the world.
The truth of the matter is that “bearing witness to the gospel” is an entirely ordinary aspect of the Christian life. It’s as simple as telling the story of what you have seen and heard, as you understand it in light of Scripture. It’s as ordinary as talking about how God has worked in your life. The truth is we all have a story to tell, the story of our own faith journey. If nothing else, we all can relate to someone how we have experienced God’s love in our lives. Bearing witness to the gospel doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. As Peter said so long ago, “We all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/23/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

I Have Seen The Lord

I Have Seen the Lord
John 20:1-18[1]
One of the key principles of our faith is that we “live by faith and not by sight.” None of us has ever seen Jesus in person. None of us has seen anyone who has seen Jesus. We are centuries removed from those who actually heard him teach and saw him after he rose from the dead. That may pose a challenge for some of us. After all, we do tend to live by the mind-set that “seeing is believing.” Since we don’t have the privilege of seeing the events that serve as the basis for our faith it can be difficult at  times to maintain it. I think in those times we may wish we could have been there and seen and heard Jesus. We tell ourselves that it would have made it easier to for us to have faith.
Or would it? As a matter of fact, the Gospels remind us many times that the disciples struggled to understand and believe in Jesus. Yes, even the ones who were with him day and night, who heard his teaching, who saw the amazing things he did, struggled to believe what they were seeing and hearing. How often in the Gospels does Jesus say to them “O you of little faith!” Even after that first Easter morning, their faith was a work in progress. Peter and the others had to develop their faith through their life experiences, just as anyone does. Even Paul didn’t emerge from the Damascus road with a fully formed faith. He had to live out his faith in order to grow strong enough to serve as he did.
Our Gospel lesson provides an illustration of how difficult it was for Jesus’ original disciples to understand and believe what was going on. The Scripture tells us about three people at Jesus’ tomb: Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene. The first person is Peter, the one whose confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah Jesus said would be the foundation stone upon which he would build his church. But on that first Easter Peter’s faith was anything but rock solid. The story tells us that Peter rushed into the tomb, even though it was taboo. He saw the burial shroud, but didn’t understand. In John’s Gospel there were no angels telling Peter that Jesus had risen.
We presume the second person was John, although he’s not named anywhere in this Gospel other than “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He is the one on the basis of whose testimony the Gospel was written (John 21:24). Since he was younger than Peter, he arrived at the tomb first. But he hesitated to enter out of proper religious scruples. After Peter rushed in he also entered. And the Scripture tells us that John saw and believed. In this Gospel that is attributed to his testimony, he was the first to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. That makes sense. But all of the Gospels tell us that, despite whatever budding faith they had, the disciples were all hiding in the upper room behind locked doors that night!
The third person was Mary Magdalene. She’s at the tomb even though she was overcome with grief. It was she who saw the two angels at the tomb, but instead of joy I would say she was probably shocked at that sight. Even to her the angels said nothing about resurrection. In her grief and shock, when she saw Jesus, she didn’t even recognize him. Thinking he was the gardener, she asked him if he knew where they had taken the body. Jesus simply speaks her name, and Mary realizes it is he. In this Gospel, it is Jesus himself who directly communicates the good news of his resurrection—not to Peter or John, but to Mary! More than that, he commissions her to go to the others and tell them what has happened. And so she does: she returns and tells them “I have seen the Lord.”
I think many of us could wish we had been in her shoes. We may think how easy it would be for us to maintain our faith on difficult days if we had actually seen the risen Christ as she did. And yet, I would say that there are indications in Scripture that we do indeed see the Lord all the time. In one of the judgment scenes in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me” (Matt. 25:40, NCV). Wherever we see people suffering poverty, homelessness, abandonment, injustice, Jesus said we are seeing him. And more than that, our response to them is our response to him. We can ignore Jesus in the face of those who suffer, or we can serve him.
Which brings me to another way in which we see the Lord. The New Testament describes “spiritual gifts” of teaching, service, generosity, and hospitality as something that comes from the Spirit and embodies the risen Lord Jesus working through us.
In a similar way, the “fruit of the Spirit” represent the character of Jesus reproduced in the lives of ordinary believers like us. And so wherever we see these qualities put into practice, we are seeing the risen Lord Jesus carrying out his work through us.
These kinds of things aren’t spectacular. We might not think they would constitute something as lofty as seeing the risen Lord. But whenever we see people in need and respond by serving them in love, we have seen the Lord. Whenever we see ordinary believers like you and me putting compassion, kindness, generosity, and love into practice, we have seen the Lord. We might wish that we could have been there to experience that first Easter. But the truth of the matter is that those who are suffering among us represent no less real an experience of the risen Lord. And along with that, our service to anyone in any way is just as important a demonstration of Jesus’ continuing presence. In light of this, we need not think of our faith as less than that of the original disciples. Because, like Mary, all of us can say “I have seen the Lord.”

[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/16/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church.