Monday, February 24, 2020

On the Way


On the Way
Matthew 17:1-9[1]
It’s no secret that there are many different views of what the Christian faith is all about. That’s why there are so many different kinds of churches. One area where this is most apparent concerns how one becomes a Christian. There are many who insist that a person must experience a dramatic, perhaps even emotional, change like the one St. Paul had on the Damascus road. Those who embrace this viewpoint will typically ask you if you can point to a specific date when you were “saved.” If you can’t, you’re not a Christian in their eyes. There are many people out there who would say that whole branches of churches are full of people who aren’t truly Christian because their commitment to faith in Jesus didn’t happen this way.
On the other hand, I would have to say that the spiritual guides I’ve found to be most reliable speak of becoming a Christian as a process that lasts a lifetime. They understand faith more as a journey than a one-time commitment. And, in fact, when Jesus called his disciples to deny themselves and follow him, in Luke’s version he says “take up your cross daily” (Lk. 9:23). That certainly points to more than a one-time commitment. I think the truth of the matter is that different people have different experiences with faith. The important thing is to keep faith growing.
Our gospel lesson for today recounts one of the steps in the faith journey of Jesus’ own disciples. We might be tempted to think that, since they walked and talked and ate and drank with him, they had everything they needed in the way of faith right from the start. But if you read the gospels carefully, you find that they were on their own faith journey. In some of their earliest encounters with Jesus, we find the apostles asking themselves “who is this man” who did and said the things he did. At times they tried to fit him into the box of their idea of what a “Messiah” was supposed to be. There were, however, a number of times when it seemed that the “light came on” for them. They got a clear glimpse of Jesus, and began to have an understanding of who he was and what he was about.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is one step in that journey. Peter, James, and John literally got quite an “eyeful,” seeing Jesus’ physical appearance actually changed and seeing Moses and Elijah speaking with him. I don’t think they understood what was happening at the time. Peter even wanted to “camp out” on the mountain. Later, they remembered this experience as a kind of “preview” of Jesus’ resurrection. Even though they were amazed and baffled by it, the transfiguration was a major step on their way to faith in Jesus.
As hard as it may be for us to grasp, the gospels show that Jesus’ own disciples didn’t fully understand who he was and what he was about until after he had risen from the dead. He warned them that he would be rejected and killed, and their faith wasn’t strong enough to even hear his words. He warned them that they also would suffer for his sake, and that they would all abandon him. But I doubt they could even process what they were hearing at the time. They were on their own faith journey, and it was one that would lead them their failure to stand by him, and to witness his death on the cross. But it would also lead them to become eyewitnesses of his resurrection!
These days, even many of us who profess that faith is a journey have a strange view of how that takes place. We seem to think that once you’ve completed confirmation class you’ve learned everything you need. We view Christian education, Bible Study, and Sunday School as primarily for children. But life teaches us that faith doesn’t work that way. Faith isn’t something that you learn as a child and then tuck away in a keepsake box somewhere. It’s a journey that lasts our whole lives. We never stop needing to continue to learn what it means to follow Jesus. We never stop needing to grow in our faith. Like Jesus’ own disciples, we often have “high points” in our faith journey. They are steps that help us grow stronger in faith as we are “on the way.”
I think it’s entirely appropriate for us to call those high points “conversions.” In fact, I would say that it’s probably more the norm to have numerous “conversions.” I would say that I’ve had a number of “conversions” throughout my life, and I’m grateful for them all. Each time my faith and my commitment grew stronger. Those who study faith development have even identified multiple “stages” of faith. I don’t know how helpful it is to try to “peg” yourself or someone else in one of those stages. I think the point is that we’re all on a journey: a journey that 2 Peter calls “growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).
Like Jesus’ disciples, we’re all on the way to faith—continually. Sometimes the growth we experience on that journey just comes to us “out of the blue.” I would say that more often, we make progress on our journey of faith by practicing it. Even if it means “going through the motions” until we reach the next level, that’s often how we reach a breakthrough. If we’re all “on the way,” that means we have to recognize that none of us has “arrived.” We all still have room to grow in our faith. But more than that, we’re all “on the way” together. That’s why we meet for Bible Study, and fellowship, and worship: because we can encourage each other as we all grow together in our faith, just like Jesus’ own disciples did.


[1] ©2020 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/28/2020 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

The Rule of Love


The Rule of Love
Matthew 5:21-30[1]
I think many of us have a “love-hate” relationship with rules. We love rules when they protect our rights. We especially love rules when we see someone else violating a rule that we think is important. But if a rule may be too “confining” to us, we can rather easily toss it aside. After all, “Rules were made to be broken,” right? And the funny thing is that our selective approach to “keeping” the rules seems perfectly logical. Traffic laws are, I think, a perfect case in point. If someone else is “riding our tail,” or “cuts us off,” or is exceeding the speed limit (at least more than we are), we can become positively indignant. But we barely notice when we break the same rules!
Many Christians have this same approach to the “rules” in Scripture. We have our favorite commandments, the ones that we scrupulously observe. The ones we think everybody ought to follow. And we all have those commandments that we tend to “overlook.” We get scandalized by people who break the Bible’s teachings that we think define what a “good Christian” should do. But when it comes to the precepts we ignore, we find all kinds of reasons to justify why it’s perfectly fine for us to do so. It’s a rather fickle approach to “following the instructions of the Lord” (Ps. 119:1, NLT).
Jesus took a very different approach to the rules. To him, they were commands from God, the very “word of God,” and therefore to be fulfilled. In fact, in last week’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we heard him say that he had come not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. And he went on to emphasize this by saying, “truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). Jesus clearly did not advocate ignoring the teachings of Scripture that we have come to think of as obsolete!
There is, however, a difference about the way Jesus approached the commands of Scripture. The manner of fulfilling them that he advocated was very different from many in his day. He did not approve of the shallow legalism that enabled people to “pick and choose” randomly which commands they would follow and which they would ignore. In fact, he regularly raked the religious leaders over the coals for “straining a gnat but swallowing a camel” (Matt 23:24) by doing things like meticulously tithing even the herbs from their garden but ignoring justice and mercy. This picking and choosing on a whim is not the integrity God desires.
What distinguished Jesus’ approach to the commands was that he insisted that true obedience comes from the heart. He emphasized that what is most important is not just your actions, but your motivations. In our reading from the gospel of Matthew for today, Jesus gave concrete examples of what this means. It means that we not only don’t kill as the commandment said, we also try to make peace with others rather than holding a grudge. For Jesus, keeping the commands means that we not only avoid cheating on our spouses, we also relate to others with pure motives rather than using them to satisfy our own desires. Jesus taught us to follow not simply the “letter of the law,” but also the “spirit of the law.”
St. Augustine, one of the leaders of the ancient church, said it this way: “Love, and do what you will.”[2] In the context, Augustine says that only love can determine the quality of one’s actions. It seems likely, then, that he is thinking about the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In this respect he is following the example of Jesus and the Apostles, who spoke with one voice in teaching that loving others fulfills the whole law. Every command that God could desire us to follow is summarized in that one command: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 
Based on this, I think we can say that the way for us to “follow the instructions of the Lord” as people of integrity is to practice the rule of love. This is different from the “love” that we associate with infatuation. This kind of love is what you do when you really care enough about another human being to set your needs and wants and expectations aside. It’s what you do when you simply give yourself to others. Whether it’s feeding the hungry, or clothing the poor, or comforting the sick and dying—or just listening enough to others to really hear them—to love another person means to give of yourself without thinking about “what am I going to get out of this?” This kind of love treats others as “friends” in the truest sense of the word. This kind of love expresses itself in actions that seek what is best for others. This is the rule of love that the Bible teaches us to practice.
When we consider the “rules” of Scripture, they can be overwhelming to us. There are 613 commands in the Torah alone! I would say that Jesus’ approach to the commands of Scripture both makes it easier and harder for us. It’s easier, because instead of 613 “rules,” we just need to remember one: the rule of love. If our actions are consistent with loving others truly, then we don’t have to worry. But Jesus also makes it harder. The external rules of the law are such that you can “check them off.” No murder. Check. No stealing. Check. And so on. But you can never “check off” the rule of love. It will take our whole lives to learn what it means to “follow the instructions of the Lord” by practicing the rule of love.


[1] © 2020 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/16/2020 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Augustine, Ten Homilies on the first Epistle of John, 7.8 (on 1 John 4:4–12); https://ccel.org/s/schaff/npnf107/cache/npnf107.pdf (p.862).

Monday, February 10, 2020

As If


As If
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20[1]
If you’re familiar with the twelve-step movement, you’ll know that one of the principles for recovering a healthy pattern of living is called “acting as if.” In many cases, the way we feel or even our own thoughts are unreliable guides to healthy living. How many of us have skipped exercising because we just didn’t “feel” like it? Or how many of us have rationalized getting a second plate of food? The recovery movement recognizes that sometimes we have to take the actions we know to be right, establishing habits that are healthy, whether we “feel” like it or not. And when you “act as if” in this way, often your feelings and thoughts will follow your actions.
By contrast, “acting as if” is not a healthy way to approach spirituality. In fact, I would say that some of the worst atrocities committed in the name of God throughout history have been perpetrated by those who were “acting as if” they were devout believers. I think of the Salem witch trials in the early days of this country. Or the crusades, where the motto “God wills it” referred to the slaughter of Muslim men, women and children. And those simply seeking to wield power over communities and even nations have not hesitated to “act as if” they were motivated solely by their devotion to God. “Acting as if” has no place in the life of faith.
In our lesson from Isaiah for today, the prophet rebukes the people for “acting as if” they were sincerely devoted to God. They went through all the right “motions” of seeking God, but their actions betrayed their true motives: it was all about themselves and their own interests (Isa. 58:3). In fact, the prophet scolds them for thinking their “worship” of God was consistent with things like abusing their workers (very likely by withholding their rightful pay), quarreling and violence, and treating others with contempt and vicious gossip (Isa. 58:3-4, 9). This kind of “worship” of God was only a tragic form of “acting as if.”
But the prophet warned them that kind of spirituality is worse than a sham. Not only were they fooling themselves, more than that they were taking the Lord’s name in vain! In fact, when the prophets speak about the people blaspheming God’s name, it had nothing whatsoever to do with uttering any curse phrases. Rather, it was the fact that they claimed to be a people devoted to God, but their actions contradicted God’s explicit truth. They were “taking the Lord’s name in vain” because others would judge the character of God by the character of those who claimed to be his people. When we “talk the talk” but don’t “walk the walk,” we not only fool ourselves, we dishonor God.
The kind of spirituality that God has always sought is one that originates with our hearts being aligned with God’s ways. And it takes shape in actions that relieve human suffering in the real world. In our lesson from Isaiah, the prophet defines what this looks like in specific terms: they were to restore justice to the powerless, they were to feed the hungry, they were to show mercy to the destitute, they were to provide clothing for the naked, and they were to break every chain that kept the “outcasts” bound in misery and remove every burden that crushed the poor. In many ways and through many voices the Bible insists that those who truly know God will love others by practicing this kind of justice and mercy toward all, most especially the least and the last and the left out.
There’s another important word in our scripture readings for today: “unless.” Jesus said “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). I like the way the Good News Bible puts it: “you will be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven only if you are more faithful … in doing what God requires” (TEV). In other words, a true relationship with God will show itself in consistently living according to God’s character, God’s truth, and God’s ways. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to speak about what that looks like in a way similar to the prophet. He doesn’t just warn against harmful actions, but also harmful attitudes. For Jesus as well, merely acting “as if” doesn’t cut it!
In fact, the Bible reserves its harshest warnings of judgment for those who merely put on a show of being faithful to God. There has always been a temptation to wrap oneself in the external appearance of being spiritual. And the temptation has been to judge one’s relationship with God based on these outward trappings of religion. But merely going through the motions without a heart that is truly devoted to God and God’s ways is not only dishonest, it also dishonors God. Throughout history, leaders of all stripes have engaged in this kind of mockery of what is truly right in God’s sight. And throughout history, God’s prophets have consistently called them out for their hypocrisy.
There is no room for “acting as if” in the Christian life. In truth, however, we all do it to some extent. But one of the hard lessons of Isaiah is that when the worship of God does not lead us to respect and restore the dignity and well-being of our brothers and sisters in the human family, it is not the worship of God! Sharing the love we have received from God is the only criterion for evaluating the genuineness of our faith according to Scripture. If our faith is real, we will continue to work at loving God enough to love others—even our “enemies.” If it’s real, we will not be content with “acting as if,” we will take practical steps to put love into action.


[1] © Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/9/2020 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

What is Right?


What is Right?
Micah 6:6-8[1]
There was a time when, if asked the question, “What is right?” most people would give a similar answer. Love God and others. Go to church. Take care of your family. Work hard at your job. Pay your bills. Help out those who are in need. Live by the “golden rule.” There might be variations in the details, but the main outlines would have been the same. I don’t believe everyone actually did those things, they just all pretty much agreed on the “correct answer.” In part because of that contradiction between what we said and what we did, there came a time when it seemed at all notions of “right” and “wrong” were simply tossed out the window. There were no clear answers.
I think we have returned to a time when people will give you a definite answer to the question, “What is right?” Unfortunately, that answer might flagrantly contradict the answer of the person sitting right next to you. We’re convinced that we know what’s right, but we certainly do not all agree on what that looks like. I think part of the problem is that in the time when there were no clear answers, “truth” was replaced with “spin.” Everybody has their own perspective on what constitutes right and wrong. And we tend to listen to those voices in our culture that agree with our already-made-up minds. I would say we still have a great deal of confusion about what’s right.
Our lesson from the book of the prophet Micah for today contains a bold assertion: God has already made clear what is right and what is wrong. I like the way the CEV translates it: “The Lord God has told us what is right and what he demands: ‘See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God’” (Mic. 6:8). “Right” is defined by justice, or seeing that all people have an equal chance to live life the way God intends. “Right” is defined by mercy, which is genuine compassion for others put into practice. And “Right” is defined by obeying God. On the surface, it might seem clear. Unfortunately, we don’t all agree on what this means when you put it in action.
It’s unfortunate, because when we debate about what practicing justice, mercy, and obedience look like in real life, we are missing the clear witness of Scripture. From Moses to Micah to Matthew, the witness of the Bible makes clear that God wants our undivided loyalty, and wants us to treat one another with kindness. When we recognize that foundational teaching of Scripture, we discover the “truth that sets us free.” These “demands” of the Lord (as Micah calls them) aren’t meant to restrict us, but rather to enable us to find fulfillment in life. And we find that fulfillment when we support what is just for all people, when we treat others with love and kindness, and when we recognize that we are not the masters of our own fate, but rather we belong to God.  
Essentially, this verse from the book of the prophet Micah is an eloquent summary of the truth that saturates the Bible. There are other summaries: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5); and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). The prophet Isaiah said this: “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:16-17). The Psalmist says this way of life is demonstrated in “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart” (Ps. 15:2). And, of course Jesus said it in the “golden rule”: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). 
In all of these summaries, the same message comes through clearly. It’s the message that we find true freedom when we surrender our will to the will of God. It’s the message that we find what we’re looking for in life when we give ourselves away in kindness and compassion for others, rather than trying to take as much as we can get for ourselves. It’s the message that the only way we can guarantee our ability to thrive in this world is if we ensure that all people are treated justly and fairly.
Sadly, many of us would rather debate what all of this “really means” than act upon it with the choices we make in life. This is just my opinion, but I find the more elaborate the effort to justify one’s actions, the farther one strays from these fundamental truths handed down to us for generations. It’s not hard to see that many in our day prefer to take a different path than the one laid out in Scripture: living for themselves and their own selfish desires, treating others as a means to attain what they want from them, placing themselves firmly on the throne of their lives. It doesn’t seem that they care much about what the Bible clearly defines as “Right.” Many of us much prefer to follow our own desires.
Of course, life choices are rarely clear-cut. We often struggle to know what is right. We may work hard to justify following our own desires. And unfortunately, many of us really don’t seem to have time to be too concerned about others. But as I have shared before, there are some clear benchmarks that can guide us. “What would Jesus do?” is not just a sentimental cliché, it’s a very practical question. Another guide is that if what we are contemplating is inconsistent with love for God and love for others, then we’re probably headed in the wrong direction. Life’s choices are often difficult, but we can at least make a good faith effort to follow the clear teaching of the Bible about what is right: to treat others fairly, to practice kindness, and to walk humbly with God.


[1] ©2020 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/2/2020 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Deep Darkness


Deep Darkness
Isaiah 9:1-7; Matthew 4:12-23[1]
Most of us who have any experience with life know that hardship comes to us all. We all have our share of suffering. It may appear that some are spared that common lot of humanity, but the reality is that everyone carries some kind of burden. But there is one kind of suffering many of us have never known: systemic injustice. That’s what people experience when they don’t have opportunities, or they aren’t treated fairly, or their rights as human beings are denied them. And it happens not because of anything they have done wrong, but simply because of who they are: their gender, their race, their ethnic background, their faith. I think it may be difficult, if not impossible, for many of us even to imagine what that’s like. I know it is for me.
But make no mistake about it: there is oppression all around us. Working people who simply don’t make enough money live in their cars with their families, or in worse conditions out of sight of most of us. Young women are abducted and made into slaves by human traffickers. Students whose whole lives are ahead of them become convinced that they have nothing to live for, in part because of the constant pressure. And people who don’t happen to be of European descent are judged to be suspicious and even dangerous by those of us who are, simply because of the color of their skin or the country of their origin, not based on the quality of their character. We live in a land of deep darkness!
The prophet Isaiah spoke of Judea as a “land of deep darkness.” His people faced threats all around them—most immediately from the northern kingdom of Israel and their allies in Syria. But more significantly at home their leaders—kings and priests and prophets alike—ignored God’s justice and ruled the people based on their own self-interest. And the end result was that the people lived under the yoke of oppression. They lived in a world where might made right. The wealthy and powerful were the ones who called the shots. On a whim they could have anyone thrown into prison without any kind of fair trial. Rather than looking forward to their “day in court,” the most likely outcome was that would simply be forgotten, left to rot and die. They lived in a land of deep darkness.
But Isaiah did not face this darkness with the resignation of despair. He saw a light on the horizon. He knew that God is above all faithful to his people. He also believed that God had promised to send one who would lift the burden of oppression and the yoke of bondage from his people, just as God had once before done for the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt. Unfortunately, in our day we have missed the point of this promise. Like many Christians before us, we cannot read this passage without thinking of Christmas, and the birth of Jesus. Now I will be among the first to agree that Isaiah’s beautiful poetry is a fitting description of Jesus and his ministry. But speaking 700 years before Jesus was born, it’s unlikely that Isaiah was thinking in the first place about Jesus. He had in mind someone who would deliver the Jewish people from the oppression they suffered in his day. He was looking for light that would help those living in darkness at that time.
While we may not be able to know whom Isaiah had in mind when he first spoke these words, we can certainly know what he had in mind. The “light” that Isaiah saw shining in his land of deep darkness was the coming true peace and true justice to his people. They would be delivered from their oppressors and set free from their chains. And the end result would be that they could live and thrive and rejoice like people gathering an abundant harvest. They would live without the fear of violence or the fear of injustice or the fear of the heartless cruelty that could at any moment strip them of all they held dear. They would be free. And the hope of that freedom was a light shining for them in the midst of the deep darkness they had endured.
Again, I have to say that many of us cannot even begin to imagine living in this situation. And yet, right now, right here in this community, there are people who live in that kind of darkness. As hard as it is to admit it, a part of the story of the founding of our society is about violence and systematic injustice that persists to this day. [2] Many believed they had a God-given right to take the land from the nations who were here before us. They justified that blatant injustice with an ideology that they were “savages.” And that ideology was applied to Africans who were enslaved against their will. And to people of other ethnic backgrounds who came to this land seeking freedom. And in our time we see it in the way we can still assume that those who are different from us are suspicious and possibly dangerous. Whether we see it or not, whether we want to admit it or not, we still live in a land of deep darkness
What does our faith offer us in the face of such overwhelming suffering? The light of hope. We have the hope that one day God’s name will be hallowed on earth as it is in heaven and God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven and God’s “fair, merciful, and loving” purpose will be done on earth as it is in heaven! And that means a day when all cruelty is undone and all violence is banished and all injustice is removed. In the face of the darkness that can be very deep indeed for many in our world today, we have the hope that “the zeal of the Lord of hosts” will continue to bring light into our world, until there is no more darkness. But in order for us to experience God’s freedom and light, we have to first acknowledge the darkness that still affects those whose voices we have long ignored.


[1] © 2020 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/26/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Among other sources, these thoughts are in part based on an interview of Brian Stevenson by Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” January 20, 2020.

New Things


New Things
Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9[1]
  There’s something special about new things. In these weeks after Christmas many of us are enjoying new things. We may be sporting new coats or jackets. That’s a fun thing when the weather turns cold. Some of us may be wearing new outfits. It’s nice to have a new outfit to wear. Others of us may be playing with new “toys,” whether our toys are video games, or electronics, or sporting gear, or crafting supplies, or even perhaps new books! There is something undeniably special about new things. The feel, the smell, just the notion of something new can be uplifting. But, of course, as with all things, that “new” feel will fade eventually. The new things we’re enjoying today will become “old” things tomorrow.
  Newness can take on different forms than just the “things” we use. We may have plans to do something we’ve never done before this year, to make that trip that’s always been on our “bucket list.” We may be embarking on a new venture in our lives. New directions can be frightening and exciting at the same time. We get used to familiar routines, and getting out of our “comfort zones” can be a challenge. But once we take the step, we may find entirely new ways to thrive that we may never have even been able to imagine before we took that new step. I think one of the truly rewarding aspects of the Christian life is that, if we stay open to the future, God is always doing something new.
  Our Scripture lessons for today addressed two communities among whom God was doing something new. In our lesson from Isaiah, the prophet was addressing people who desperately needed something new in their lives. They had been ripped away from their home by the conquering Babylonians. Everything familiar had been taken from them. They were stuck in a place that was strange and seemed very far away from God. Their greatest challenge was maintaining their faith in that difficult situation.  One of the Psalmists sums up their dilemma well: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). In their minds, the past was where their lives lay, and the past was gone for good.
  In a situation where they all felt like refugees, the Lord spoke through the prophet to change their focus.  The people of Israel had been worrying about the seemingly impossible task of restoring what they had in the past. But through the Servant, the Lord God commissioned them to something new, something much bigger than they had imagined. He said that simply rebuilding the fallen house of Israel was “too small a thing.” Instead, God was sending them to be “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). They had been worried about how to rebuild their former lives, and the Lord was calling them to build a living sanctuary for him among the all the “foreigners” of the world! I’m quite sure they had more than a few doubts about this “new thing” the Lord promised through the prophet that he would do among them. Perhaps that’s one reason why Isaiah reminded them constantly that the Lord ruled over all things, and that he would accomplish this seemingly impossible task through them.
  I think the people St. Paul addressed in Corinth had some similar doubts. The Apostle had started the church in Corinth, but after he moved on they became confused about how they were supposed to live their lives together in Christian community. They were divided, and the factions were pulling the congregation in very different directions. Ironically, the situation at Corinth came about from the fact that the mission of shining a light to the nations was well underway, and it was causing some big problems! One of their challenges was how Christians with many differences could live together in one community of faith. I would imagine they saw that task as next to impossible. 
  But the Apostle began his instructions to them with the assurance that they already had everything they needed. He reminded them that all they did was built on “the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:4).  He told them that they had already been fully equipped by the Spirit to carry out their work: “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind ... so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1 Cor. 1:5, 7). And just in case they had any lingering doubts, Paul encouraged them that God who is always faithful would strengthen them to the end (1 Cor. 1:8).
  We are living through a time of sweeping changes: changes in culture, in family structures, in our economy, and also in the church. Many of us may feel like the people of Israel: we may feel like refugees living in a strange land! All that may have been familiar to us was in the past, and we may find ourselves grieving that the past is gone. Others of us may see ourselves more like the people at Corinth. We may be eager for the future to come, so eager that we’re not willing to practice patience and understanding toward sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers who may seem to be “dragging their feet.” We may be thinking that it’s impossible to forge a true community from people who have so many differences in the way they look at life.
  I think in both cases, the challenge of our Scriptures for today is to re-direct our focus toward the “new things” God is doing among us. Instead of wringing our hands about the way church “used to be,” I would say that we must always be open to the possibility that our God is calling us on to something new, something bigger than we can imagine. That means having the courage to let go of the past and letting God lead us into the future he has planned for us. At the same time, instead of getting stuck in frustration that things aren’t changing fast enough, I think it’s important to remember that the Spirit has fully equipped us with everything we need to carry out our mission. As we do so, Scripture reminds us that our faithful God will complete the “new things” he is doing among us.


[1] ©2020 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/19/2020 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.