Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Saul and the Medium at Endor- 1 Samuel 28:3-25- by Mary Cory

This week we study the amazing story of Saul and the Medium at Endor. We see what happens to Saul when God's will is known but not followed.

Saul has been directed by God through Samuel. Time after time, Saul has let God down by not obeying His voice. Saul has not been the most dependable person in completing God's will. He has often left the job partially finished. How often have we done the same? We think we've done SOME of what we should do-- that's good enough.

With no one to turn to and an attack by the Philistines imminent, Saul visits a medium even though he knows he should “not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists” (Lev. 19:31). He asks that she call up Samuel from the grave so he can tell Saul what to do. Samuel's answer is simple: the Lord has turned away from you because you did not obey his voice. Saul and his sons will be killed in battle the next day.

God gave Saul so many opportunities to do His will but Saul always fell short. He tried to explain away his disobedience, but God knew his heart and knew he was only sorry because he had been caught. Have you confessed from your heart and not just because you have been caught? God gives us every opportunity for a fresh start. He is always there wanting us to complete His directives and follow His path for us.

Our Stepping Stones bible study is a wonderful way to discern God's path for us individually and as a church.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Different Eyes by Pastor Rebecca

Today we slogged through the strange and often ignored story of the seer Balaam and his faithful donkey. If you have not read this story for yourself already, I encourage you to do so. It is well worth the read.

This morning in worship and in the Bible Study we talked quite a bit about the paths that we choose as individuals and as congregations, and how we can get into a rut or commit to a plan that might not always be God's hope for us. We talked as well about how we need to be willing to be shocked by something (like a talking donkey) in order to make a change in direction.

We heard author Frederick Beauchner's reflections on this mysterious speaking donkey. He writes “whereas people as a rule see only what they expect to see and a little more, animals, innocent of expectations, see what is there. The next time the old mare looks up from her browsing and lets fly with an exultant whinny at the empty horizon, we might do well to consider at least the possibility that the horizon may not be quite as empty as we think.”

We also talked more in the Bible Study about another interesting way to read the story of Balaam, and I would like to share that here for those who were not able to join us:

Balaam was much more than a man with a donkey, he was a renowned ancient seer - a man with the ability to bless or curse with just a word from his mouth. He was also a Canaanite, not a part of the people of Israel who were on the move into the promised land. And yet he loved the Lord, the God of Israel, and spoke with God often. He declares to others that it is only the words of God that he is able to obey, nothing else.

King Balak, who has sent for him, has asked him to come and curse these Israelites so that they may not overcome the land. And all three of the times Balak's servants come Balaam refuses, even refusing gold and silver from the King. But after talking with God, the decide together that he should go and see the persistent King in person, though God reminded Balaam to only do what God told him to do.

Then we can jump right over the story of the Donkey and the Angel and start back up at the place where Balaam reaches the King and he is shown three times from different vistas the enormity of the people of Israel. Three times Balak tells him to curse these people. Three times Balaam prays and asks God for guidance. Three times at the direction of God Balaam blesses them again, showing his faithfulness to God.

This is interesting because the story of Balaam and his Donkey on the road, the anger of God, his violence against the animal and the intentions of the Angel to kill him seem totally out of place in the rest of the story.

A number of Biblical scholars have suggested that because Balaam was outside of the accepted community, even though he faithfully obeyed God, even though he brought blessings to the people of Israel, that people of faith became more and more uncomfortable with the strength and abilities of this outsider. This story could very well have been added later to discredit him as an UN-faithful, outsider.

This is an important aspect of discernment that we are called to keep in mind in our Stepping Stones journey together: are we willing to hear voices that come from outside our community? Will we hear the voice of God from our fellow Presbyterian brothers and sisters in Wabash Valley who are also engaged in a time of discernment? Will we hear the voice of God from other Christian traditions that our also seeking to do God's work in this place? Are there ways that we might be guided by other faiths in understanding who we are called to be? Are we willing to learn from others and acknowledge that others outside of our community may have faith to share and ways to help us change direction for the better.

This journey is getting more interesting for all of us as we continue to be engaged in God's word. Let us also be ready to be engaged in God's WORLD as we move ahead in prayer and discernment.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Balaam and the Donkey – Numbers 22:22-40 – By: Bill Lamie

As we reach the mid-point of our summer Bible Study, we continue to see that God makes his direct will be known in the most unbelievable ways.

In the case of Balaam, he not only is commanded by God via a nocturnal dream, but is “preached” to by his donkey, and then confronted by the Angel of the Lord with sword drawn. I think that most of us, when confronted in the same ways, would have sworn never to violate God’s commands ever again. Sign me up for Team GOD!

Balaam, on the other hand (who was considered the most influential soothsayer of his day), is the classic example of a person who knew the right way, but choose to reject it to pursue worldly lusts. God “used” Balaam for the good of Israel, saving the nation from extermination, even though He knew that Balaam was evil. Peter wrote in his New Testament letter about the “character of false teachers”, and uses the account of Balaam as an example. So did Balaam just not understand the meaning of God’s grace? Were the temptations too much for him to follow God’s will? Didn’t God give him every opportunity to follow?

How often are we tempted, distracted and misdirected in our lives, stepping off the path that God intends for us to follow? Do we need for God to send us a shocking sign that He is calling us? I believe that God is always there to lead us back on the right path if we stray, but we have to follow His lead.

Our summer Bible study is a gift that I am very thankful for. It is a wonderful way to learn of God’s calling within our own Sunnyside Church learning community.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Upside Down Blessings by Pastor Rebecca

This journey of discernment that we are on is not just about our own personal lives of faith, but also the life of our congregation.

One of the other things that my General Assembly committee did last week, that I am sure no other GA committee has done before, was to go on a field trip to visit with two local congregations who are growing both deep and wide in the Minneapolis area.

First we drove out to the suburbs to visit Christ Presbyterian Church, which has a total membership of over 5000, 9 pastors on staff and at least 1000 youth participating weekly in programs with a budget of 14 million dollars. As we walked into the building the 55 members of our committee were more than impressed with their beautiful facility and the thoughtful and perfectly timed presentation given to us by their pastor of over 20 years and two of his colleagues. They loved it. And I have to be honest that I enjoyed it as much as the rest of them. I honestly took pictures of their bulletin boards to be able to show Jamie when he is back from vacation, and I grabbed as many of their very glossy brochures in the lobby for each specialized ministry in which they are engaged as I could without looking too suspicious.

At the end of the presentation several people asked the pastor if they could go into the newly renovated sanctuary, and I was so pleased with his answer. He told them that they were welcome to go and check it out, but that it really is only a room…that the heart of who they are happens outside those walls. Clearly by almost anyone’s measure this congregation was blessed in their ministry.

Then we drove back into the city, to Kwanza Presbyterian Church in urban Minneapolis. As we drove into the neighborhood and up to the church, I could hear people in the bus around me commenting that this was going to be a totally different experience. We walked into the building over beautiful art that had been painted on the church sidewalks, past bulletin boards that needed quite a bit of updating, through the unairconditioned sanctuary into a small meeting room at the back. The pastor was a little late and he had no power point slides to show us, but he talked to us about the growth that they are experiencing and the ways that they are touching lives in the community. Of their 225 members 33 of them joined in the past year. Even though their annual giving is under 250,000 a year, they are engaged in compelling work in cooperation with other local organizations. This includes starting a women’s center for women trapped in the sex trades in cooperation with the University of Minnesota, and an urban community garden in the vacant lot next to the church in cooperation with the Science Museum of Minnesota.

He told us compelling stories about how their congregation was vital to their community. Certainly as well, maybe even more so as they struggle to help those who have been pushed to the very bottom of the community, this group of believers was blessed by God in their work together.

We have the same kind of complicated expectations when we think about what it means to be blessed as a congregation…blessed is the church with no typos in its newsletter, blessed is the church with the very charismatic pastor, blessed is the church with the most children in its Sunday school, blessed is the church with the most beautiful sanctuary, blessed is the church with the most organized committees.
It would be my hope that by using these words of Christ to discern God’s call for our congregation, we might try to count our blessings in unusual, maybe upside down ways.

I have shared that the work that I did at GA was unlike anything a committee of theirs had done before, and as we move forward in our work on this journey that we call our stepping stones you are going to hear that kind of thing a lot- that we want to go about being in ministry in different ways than we might have ever done before. That might make you a little anxious, and it probably should. I’ll remind you that Jesus was all about making people a little anxious and turning things on their heads…blessings and all.

As we count our blessings and seek new ways to be present in this community as a community, may we be merciful to one another, may we hunger for the call that God has for us, and may we trust in the presence of Christ to guide us on this journey.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Beatitudes-Matthew 5:1-16- by Larry Savage

What an excellent start we have made on our 10 bible passage journey. So far, we have seen: Moses challenged by God to bring the Israelites out of Egypt; Zechariah and Elizabeth blessed with the long awaited birth of a very special child “John the Baptist” who would precede Christ; and Jacob who would form the 12 tribes of Israel from which Christ would be nurtured.

Next we shift from the Old Testament to the New Testament and begin to see a subtle change. Matthew’s Beatitudes differ from Old Testament emphasis on: following Jewish law, living a moral life, and receiving blessings and prosperity in the present. The New Testament emphasis changes to God’s desire for us to have a “conversion of the heart”, receive blessings of the spirit, and take up the mission to be the salt and light of Christianity.

As I read these first lessons taught by Christ, I am struck by the profound vulnerability we must accept: to be open, thoughtful, flexible, courageous, respectful, and humble as we discern our next path.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Late Night Wrestling By Barb Wirt

Do you ever wake in the morning entangled in the bed sheets and clutching your pillow. Maybe, like Jacob, you've experienced some "Late Night Wrestling". Sometimes issues/problems that can be ignored during the day surface during the night when we're free of the activities and noise and activity.

Jacob is returning to face Esau, his estranged brother. With good reason he is fearful of what this meeting will be like. That trickster Jacob not only tricked his older brother into giving him his birthright, he also tricked his dying father who's sight was failing into giving him the Blessing that was really for Esau.
As he sleeps alone on the river bank he is challenged by an unidentified opponent. Was it Esau who had come out to over power him? Maybe it was a robber finding easy prey in this man sleeping alone.

The wrestling match continued through the night ending in a draw. Increasingly we sense that the unidentified opponent is actually God. Unable to overpower Jacob he dislocates his hip. Refusing to identify himself he never-the-less grants Jacob's request for a blessing - this took considerably more effort than the blessing he tricked his father into giving. God then changes Jacob's name to Israel - for he has struggled with God and prevailed. Jacob is left with a limp, but he has also received God's blessing.

As we talked in the Bible Study following church, we all face struggles, even the church struggles at times. Decisions to take out a mortgage and enclose the courtyard required some serious discussion/wrestling. Members felt that the decision was only made after everyone was encourage to have input- made to feel that they were part of the decision. The same was true of deciding to build The Triumph House. Both were bold steps.

Why did God choose to wrestle with Jacob? Maybe because that is a very one-on-one type of match.

It certainly put Jacob up front and personal with God.

Life is good at Sunnyside - The mortgage was paid off early. The Triumph House was blessed today.

So what is the challenge? That, my friends, is the question. What is God calling us to wrestle with now?

We have received God's blessing in the past! How is God waiting to bless us in the future?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Jacob Wrestles with An Angel- Genesis 32:22-32- By: Abbe Golden

Our stepping-stones journey takes us next to the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. I don’t usually associate wrestling with angels. Usually I think of angels as something peaceful and comforting. But this is a major struggle with Jacob ending up with his hip being put out of joint. So why did this wrestling match occur?

In the end Jacob states that he has seen God face to face, so there is no doubt that God has called Jacob. But why did Jacob wrestle all night? Was Jacob just another reluctant participant in following God’s will? Maybe. But the scriptures state that Jacob prevailed against the angel and for that the angel grants Jacob’s request to be blessed.

As we journey along with each other, at times. it may seem like we are in a wrestling match with God and perhaps even with each other. Let us prevail in finding God’s will and be blessed by God.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Waiting in Silence by Pastor Jamie

Last evening our family enjoyed a wonderful 3rd of July together.

About 9:30 we started a fire in our backyard and sat together in lawn chairs. Peter set off a few small fountains (fireworks.) We watched our neighbors shooting fireworks high into the air. It was relaxing and a lot of fun.

And it was loud!

At times it felt like the ground was shaking beneath us. The booms were loud and clear. Our dog Molly snuggled up close as the sounds made her nervous. We covered our ears and marveled at the noise as well as the beauty of the colors shooting high in the air.

In this morning's sermon as well as our Stepping Stones Bible Study afterwards, we reflected on the moment of worship when Zechariah entered the sanctuary of the temple to burn incense before God. He met an angel who brought the news that he and Elizabeth would finally have a baby--John the Baptist--in their advanced years.

Zechariah couldn't believe it. And so his voice was taken and he was mute for nine months.

Nine months of silence! Perhaps it was difficult. Perhaps it was wonderful. Perhaps Elizabeth enjoyed the quiet. Perhaps she was desperate for Zechariah to say something...anything.

But that silence and its ending brought forth the incredible news of the naming of the son who was promised. "His name is John," Zechariah declared. He would be the forerunner of the Messiah who would proclaim the mercy of God.

As we step on these stones toward the future of our church, this story encourages us to recognize these steps:

1. Prayer is the beginning. Zechariah, Elizabeth and the whole community prayed. They prayed for their whole lives. Their prayer was honored and answered. We are called to pray as individuals and a community for discernment, guidance and direction.

2. Silence is good. The 9 months of silence resulted in beautiful words and trust in God's guidance. While we may be tempted to jump forward to specific answers and vision for Sunnyside, it is healthy for us to take time to wait on the Lord, and listen to the voice of the Spirit as well as one another.

3. Trust that God will accomplish God's purposes. Nothing would stop God from accomplishing mercy and grace through Jesus Christ. Likewise, God will accomplish God's purpose through our church.

On this 4th of July evening, the noise will probably be louder than last night. I hope it will be a reminder to all of us to pause and be silent before God, listening to the still small voice of the Spirit and the loud boom of God's call.