Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Statement of Faith

Note: Yesterday I was introduced to my new Presbytery of membership, Florida. My Statement of Faith was included in the meeting packet. I am following the example of others and publishing my Statement of Faith online.

I believe in God; the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one eternal God in three Persons.

God created humankind good in his image. However, the freely chosen disobedience of our forebears brought sin into creation. We have inherited this sinful nature, and we are not fit company for a perfect God.
But in his grace, God always would preserve a remnant of humankind, for example appointing Abraham and Sarah to found a new nation, Israel, dedicated to God and the Law.

At the appointed time, God sent to the whole world a Savior, his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary, to accept the consequences of our sin and give us the opportunity, through faith, of enjoying eternal life with God.

Jesus Christ is the King of all creation, through whom all things have been made, and who holds everything together. Jesus is also my personal Lord and Savior. Salvation depends upon God-given grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered and died in order to take upon himself God’s wrath for our sin. His death fulfilled the Scriptural prophecy that an innocent would die to cover the sins of others. If we believe in Christ, his shed blood covers our sins in God’s sight, making us righteous in his eyes.

Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ leads to our sanctification, in which we are able to more strongly resist sin and become better conformed to the image of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit. While we can never earn our salvation through works, nonetheless good works are pleasing to God and a transformed life is evidence of our salvation.

Jesus will also come again for the final judgment of humankind. We await his second coming with hope that he will make all things new. But we are also urgently called to reach the unsaved with the Gospel before that time.
Scripture is the Word of God written under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit. It is infallible in every way intended by the Holy Spirit, working through the human writers of Scripture. Further, the written Word is as essential for our faith as is the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. God has condescended to us limited human beings by providing us with the Word written and the Word incarnate. Further, we understand each Word in light of the other (meaning we understand the Bible in the light of Christ, and we understand Christ in light of the Bible.)

Among the marks of the church are to proclaim the Gospel for the salvation of humankind and to faithfully administer the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Baptism, whoever is baptized enters the covenant community, which has a sacred responsibility to nurture the newly baptized in the Christian faith. In the Lord’s Supper, believers share in the real presence of Jesus Christ if they partake in true faith.

The church is also called upon to reflect the light of Christ to the world, by demonstrating the love of Christ in its internal affairs, and sharing the love of Christ with the world just as Christ did; by feeding the hungry, uplifting the poor, and aiding the sick. Believers display their gratitude to God for the gifts of grace by serving and loving others as Jesus Christ showed us to do.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ministry After An Unsuccessful Call, Part 5

I am now going to address the search process in finding a new call. I think most of what I will write can apply to anyone searching for a call. However, my particular experience this time around has clarified a few things for me, and I hope they will be helpful for anyone seeking a new call.

What kind of church do you look for? First, cast as wide a net as possible. I looked in every state. Maybe for some that is not possible, but if it is at all possible, do it! In this market it's very hard to find a new call, at least if your last one ended badly.

Look at every size of church, too. You may need to serve a church part-time and do something else at the same time (but even with a part time call you can still get those vital benefits for your family, assuming you have one). Or look for a yoked call. But don't automatically think that a church of under 100 members cannot afford a full time pastor. Many cannot, of course, but some can. If you see a church you think may be a match, contact their PNC. If you progress in your discussions, you may discover that the church has a lot of financial resources. I interviewed with three very small congregations that had wisely saved and invested their resources over time and could support a full time pastor with a family. But I would never have found that out if I had simply looked at their CIF and not dug further.

Finances are not everything by a long shot. Consider theological and social compatibility. Prepare to have some of your expectations surprised. Here I am, a native of New York City, serving in a small town in the Deep South ... and it feels like a great fit! Some churches are just good places, and some are just not good places, wherever they might be located.

(to be continued)

Sermon on Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011

“The Journey to Salvation” (Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Matthew 28:1-10)
April 24, 2011 (Resurrection/Easter Sunday)
Rev. John B. Erthein, Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church

I am not normally an early riser, but on this sacred occasion, I am glad to be one. Here we are, experiencing in some sense what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary experienced on that Easter morning two thousand years ago. The sun is peeking over the horizon. Night is over; the day has begun. We are at a place of death, and yet this is also a place to celebrate life.

I need to tell you that my message has been inspired by the sermon given on Easter morning by Charles Spurgeon over 100 years ago. It is not a word for word imitation, but I think the direction he went in reflects what is meaningful about this time.

Since we begin this morning in the cemetery, I want to extend an invitation to you to visit the tomb of Jesus. Do you know that people will travel hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles to visit the grave of a famous writer, or actor, or statesman. Some people do that because of their unique accomplishments or fine character. If you have ever done that, consider who lay in the tomb, 2,000 years ago. He was the greatest man who ever lived, the man with the most genius, the most holiness, the most love who walked on this planet. Come and visit the tomb of Jesus, of the most amazing man who ever lived.

Come to the tomb of Jesus because it is the tomb of your best friend. Remmber what the Jews said of Mary: “she goes to his grave to weep there.” Many of you, most of you, have visited the final resting place of a dear friend, someone known from childhood, and you have placed flowers on the grave. Most of you have come to the cemetery at some point and paid homage to a mother or father, to grandparents, to a sibling. You have watered the ground with your tears. So come to the tomb of Jesus, where your best friend lay. Come to the tomb of your brother. Come to the tomb of your dearest relative, for Jesus is your husband. If we belong to the church, we are part of the very bride of Christ. Do does not the sentiment of love draw you to Jesus’ tomb, for here slept one who was loved above all others. Come to the tomb of Jesus, where your best friend lay.

Come to the tomb of Jesus for the angels invite you. “Come, see the place where the Lord lay.” As you stand before the tomb, are you perhaps held back by fear? Does the darkness of the tomb cause you anxiety? Are you afraid of being swallowed up by the gloom? Certainly, we are not naturally inclined to enter tombs, or vaults, or catacombs. These are not normally places for joyous people. There is often the foul stench of corruption. Diseases can breed in dead flesh.

But the angels also tell us to fear not. The angels themselves had entered the tomb. They saw what was there, and they beckon to us to enter. For in this tomb there is no smell of corruption. The air is fresh and dry. Jesus’ body was not left in death; he did not see corruption: bacteria and worms did not begin to break down his body before he rose from the dead and left his burial place. He arose, as perfect as when he was laid there. So come, and see where the Lord’s body lay.

You are also encouraged to come to the tomb because it is a quiet place. How often do you take some quiet time for yourself to be with God? There is always so much to do, places to go, people to see, tasks to accomplish. And there is so much noise from the various machines that surround us and the various entertainments we seek out. Game boys, I PODs, smart phones, stereos, computer games, dvd players … the list goes on and on. But we can come to the tomb of Jesus, where all is quiet and still, and where holiness resides. In this sweet resting spot, you will find refreshment for your soul.

So let us imagine that we have entered the tomb. What do we notice about as we examine our surroundings? First, notice that this is a costly tomb. It is not a common grave; it is not a shallow hole dug by a spade for a poor man; it is not the mass grave of paupers. No, it is a solid structure, excavated from a hillside. It is the sort of tomb that would belong to a prominent man. So how would it happen that Jesus would lie there? Jesus was born in humble circumstances, and in his life he accumulated no possessions. He wore no fine clothes. Gold jewelry did not adorn him. He was not a property owner. His body was abused by the Roman soldiers and broken on the cross. Truly, he was “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” But at the moment he finished his greatest undertaking, it is as God said (as Spurgeon writes), “No more shall this body be disgraced; if it is to sleep, let it slumber in an honorable grave; if it is to rest, let nobles bury it; let Joseph, the councilor, and Nicodemus, the man of the Sanhedrin, be present at the funeral. Let the body be embalmed by with precious spices, let it have honor; it has had enough of contumely, and shame, and reproach, and buffeting; let it now be treated with respect.” Jesus would be treated with honor and respect by his Father, now that his earthly work was done.

But, though it is a costly grave, it is also a borrowed one. At the top of the tomb’s entrance is the inscription “Sacred to the memory of Joseph of Arimathea.” Joseph thought he had to give up his specially prepared burial place forever. But it was but temporarily occupied by Jesus, so Joseph had the amazing privilege of owning a tomb once occupied by his Lord.

And in a general sense, it was fitting for Jesus to have a borrowed tomb. It showed that, as his sins were borrowed sins, so his grave was a borrowed grave. Christ had committed no offenses of his own, so he took on our offenses. He had never transgressed against God’s Law, so he accepted our transgressions as his own. He never did anything wrong, but he took my sins and your sins upon him, if you are believers. Just as the sins of others were imputed to him, so too the grave of another was imputed to him.

But let us also note that while this was a borrowed tomb, it was not a used tomb. It had been newly constructed for Joseph of Arimathea, and never used before. Christopher Ness says “when Christ was born, he lay in a virgin’s womb, and when he died, he was placed in a virgin tomb; he slept where no one had slept before. The reason was that no one could say that another person rose, for there had been no other body. Nor could one say that Jesus arose because he touched the bones of an old prophet buried there (which is what happened to Elisha). Christ touched no prophet’s bones. He took his rest in a new chamber.

Now I ask you to consider the proper feelings you would have on this occasion, meaning being in the tomb of Christ. Certainly, the sight of the tomb should fill one with sorrow. Jesus had lay in the tomb because he had suffered and died in the most agonizing way. He suffered and died in the most agonizing way because of our sin. It was our sin that drove Jesus to the cross and drove the nails into his hands and feet. It was our crimes that plunged the spear into his heart. When we consider the body that was laid in the tomb, when we behold its bloody wounds and scars and bruises and broken bones, how can we not feel sorrow for this man who suffered so, and suffered not on his own account, but on ours. “Ah, you my sins, my cruel sins, his chief tormentors were, each of my crimes became a nail, and unbelief a spear. Alas, and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?” It is an occasion to weep when we think that our Lord gave his life for our own. Spurgeon tells of a friend of his who saw a small boy break through the surface of an icy pond and fall into the freezing water, about to drown. His friend jumped onto the ice, pulled the boy from the water, and cried out “I have him, he is safe.” But when he threw the boy to the safe shore, the man himself broke through the ice, and was lost. And so it was with Jesus. My soul was drowning. From heaven Jesus could see my soul sinking into the depths of hell; and so he plunged in: “He sank beneath his heavy woes, to raise me to a crown; there’s n’er a gift his hand bestows, but cost his heart a groan.” So we may indeed regret our sin, since it slay Jesus.

But sadness must not be our only emotion. When we approach the tomb, we can react with great joy, because the tomb is empty! Death could not contain Jesus. Your sin slay him, but his righteousness restored him. He burst its bonds and trampled it underfoot. That is wonderful news, for it gives hope to us all. Come, and visit the empty tomb, and learn about the faith we have in Jesus Christ.

What may we learn from the tomb? There are three things. First, the empty tomb shows Christ’s divinity. While the faithful dead shall rise at the general resurrection, the leader of the faithful rose in a different way. They will rise by imparted power. Jesus rose by his own power. Death could not contain Jesus for he was God incarnate. The best proof of Christ’s divinity is his incredible resurrection when he rose from the grave by the glory of his Father. Our Jesus is God. Our friend and brother has God’s infinite power.

Second, the empty tomb shows our acquittal. If Jesus had not paid our debt, he would not have risen from the grave. He would lie lifeless in the tomb to this very moment had he had not canceled our entire debt, and satisfied divine vengeance. Is that not an overwhelming thought? In his going free I see my own release. As a justified man, I know I have no more sins against me in God’s book. If I could see God’s balance sheet, I would see every debt of mine has been receipted and canceled. And so can you, if you have but faith in Christ.

Finally, most importantly, the empty tomb shows the power of the resurrection. Death is no longer something to be feared. Some of the most powerful and wealthiest people who have ever lived have feared death when they saw it approaching. Queen Elizabeth I said she would trade an empire for just one more hour. When the liner “Baltic” sank in the 19th century, a wealthy man implored a life boat to come for him, offering his entire fortune. But because of the resurrection, we need not have that fear. We can know that our bodies will die, and decay, and possibly be scattered all over the world in their atomic components. But when the trumpet of the Lord sounds, all will come back together and live as a perfected body. We will be whole, and real, more than we ever have been in the past. And the faithful will spend a glorious eternity with the One who was resurrected before us. So come to the empty tomb this morning, because that is the journey to salvation.

To God be the glory, great things he has done. Amen.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ministry After an Unsuccessful Call, Part 4

OK, if you have been in prayer about and feel that God is still calling you to the ministry, it comes time to prepare and circulate your PIF. How do you address what happened at your last church?

I think you should be honest about it, saying things did not work out and explaining why you think it was the case. Also, let prospective PNCs and COMs know what you think you have learned and can learn from the experience.

And when I say "be honest," don't afraid to list your accomplishments, either! There is something worthwhile in even the worst calls. I was able to affirm some good things about the ministry I did at my last church.

If at all possible, get some references who experienced your situation first hand and have stood by you. I was incredibly blessed by the support I received from some congregation leaders. That made a big difference. I was just as blessed to have the church's previous pastor on my side. He most graciously served as a reference for me and helped out a lot. He lasted longer than I did at our mutual church, but he encountered some awful situations, some of which I also experienced. I was amazed that some of the very same people, and the very same tactics, used against me were also used against him. It made me feel both sick and relieved ... sick, because my colleague went through some really hard times, but also relieved, because I could understand it was not really about me, but about the congregation.

I have found that nost PNCs, COMs and EPs appreciate honesty and self-reflection from a pastor, so they will not automatically rule you out because your last call ended badly. However, I also must state that the EP and COM of ONE Presbytery treated me very poorly, as if I were a prisoner before the parole board, rather than a colleague in ministry. If you want to know more, email me privately. I would counsel anyone who has had a difficult last call, AND is theologically and politically conservative, to avoid that particular Presbytery. I just experience its culture as very negative.

This was not entirely an issue of ideology, because I have had excellent conversations and relationships with colleagues all over the map. But, whether liberal or conservative, there are folks in the system who exercise control and domination, and behave most ungraciously. Beware of that wherever you go.

Sermon on Palm/Passion Sunday, 2011

“Journeying to the Cross” (Matthew 27:11-54)
April 17, 2011 (Palm/Passion Sunday)
Rev. John B. Erthein, Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church

This Sunday is called both Palm and Passion Sunday. From my experience, Palm Sunday is more often celebrated. It is an occasion of rejoicing, as Jesus is received with rapture in Jerusalem. Palm fronds are often handed out at worship to mark the occasion.

But I believe it is vital to remember this is also Passion Sunday, and because there will not be a Holy Week service at this church (although I encourage you to attend the Maundy Thursday Service at the Red Bay Community Churches), I am concentrating on Jesus’ Passion today. Before we can reach the heights of Easter and the celebration of the Resurrection, I believe we should spend a little time in the depths of the passion, and the somber commemoration of Christ’s Passion.

In a way, what happened to Jesus was not all that unusual. Think of what happens to a criminal defendant accused of a capital crime in this day and age. The accused is brought before a judge and jury. If convicted by the jury, he is led away. He may be sentenced to death for a capital crime. Now, in our system of justice, someone awaiting execution has a long time to wait, especially if he appeals his conviction or sentence. It easily takes more than ten years for a sentenced execution to occur. That may be a good thing, whatever your opinion of the death penalty, because sometimes evidence will turn up that casts doubt on the conviction, or even completely exonerates the accused.

But if that does not happen; if the conviction and evidence are affirmed; if the appeals are exhausted; then comes to day of execution. In Hollywood movies there is usually the condemned man’s final journey down death row to the place of execution, followed by the execution itself, which is usually over in a few minutes.

Something along these lines happened to Jesus, except that it was much, much worse. He received no trial by jury. Instead, he was tried by a brutal, cynical and yet nervous governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Pilate was not stupid. He could see that Jesus was likely innocent of the charges against him. In the account from Matthew, Pilate’s wife warned him she had a dream that showed Jesus was innocent. And yet Pilate did nothing more than wash his hands of Jesus, turning him over to the enraged crowd’s conception of “justice.” Pilate imagines that he somehow is avoiding the responsibility for what he knows will happen to Jesus. But of course we know that is not true. We know that Pilate has the power to order Jesus released, but he will not do so. Like a politician, he does something and then tries to evade accountability for his action. But he is accountable before the bar of history, and more importantly, before the throne of Almighty God. And so are we. All of us must decide what to do with this Jesus. Pilate made his choice. He rejected Jesus and sent him to the cross. We can do that as well. We can turn away from him. We can, by our indifference to him, contribute to his crucifixion. You see, while the physical event of the crucifixion took place at a particular time, all sins that have ever been committed or ever will be committed spiritually contribute to the crucifixion. So there is no other choice. Either embrace Jesus or send him away to the crucifixion.

The crowd referred to in this Gospel narrative had that choice as well. What they say is chillingly significant. “Let his blood be on us and on our children.” Because they demanded the death of an innocent man, his blood would be upon them. It is not necessarily the case, however, that his blood would be on their children. They are assuming that any fault for their actions will carry over to their children. That was not an uncommon belief at the time. But I believe Jesus himself refuted that idea when he healed the blind man, something I preached about two weeks ago. While the disciples asked if he was born blind because of his sin of that of his parents, Jesus quickly disabused them of that notion. But what does it say about the spiritual confusion and corruption of this crowd that they can say such a thing, clamoring the death of a man who they did not know was guilty, willing to have his blood counted against them and their children?

In any case, Jesus has been condemned and will begin the final journey to the cross. He has been handed over to the Roman soldiers and is mercilessly flogged by them. The scourging by the Romans was incredibly cruel, with bits of bone tied to the multi-stranded whip. Frequently men died from shock after such horrible agony. I mention this to underscore that we cannot begin to realize the pain Jesus went through because of our sins and for our sake. As it was prophesied in Isaiah 53:5: “he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities …”

Jesus is marched up to Golgotha, stumbling under the burden of his cross, until Simon is forced to carry it. Jesus was offered an awful concoction to drink … wine mixed with gall. Jesus was probably very thirsty, but such a drink was undrinkable. And then he was nailed to the cross, a slow and unspeakably agonizing form of execution. The Romans did not care about “humane” methods of execution for common criminals. In crucifixion, the wrists would be roped or nailed (in Jesus’ case nailed) to the cross. The torso would sag of its own weight, making it difficult to breathe. Involuntary movements by the legs to aid breathing caused increasing pain in the feet. This continued until total exhaustion resulted in asphyxiation. The dying process could last for days. In Jesus’ case it lasted for three hours … still a horrifying ordeal.

The very sky turned dark as this was happening. From noon until 3 pm, the sky was an unnatural black. G. Campbell Morgan believes that this mysterious, unnatural darkness came from Satan himself. In John’s Gospel it is written that Jesus is “the light of the world.” And so the darkness tries to smother the light, and even succeeds for three hours. A physical darkness and spiritual darkness grip the land and the hearts of the people. And in the midst of this darkness, Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is suffering not only in body, but in spirit. The darkness of evil has penetrated him in his inmost being, and he feels not the love and care of his Father. That is the worst thing about the crucifixion … that Jesus Christ felt the agony of separation from his Father. And I believe the Father felt his Son’s agony, and yet let the divine plan play out to the end. He did not comfort his Son at that time, for it was not the time for it.

Can you imagine that? As Jesus ended his journey on the cross, he died in desolation and abandonment. He could not be comforted. Those of us who are parents can perhaps understand the sadness of this situation at least a little, for who among us would not want to comfort his or her suffering child? Who among us has not experienced the tears of our children as something that rends our hearts? And that from us sinful people! How much more was the compassionate grief of God the Father as his Son approached his death, swallowed up in darkness.

And my friends, how is it that this darkness came to be? How is it that the sun hid his face from our world for those three hours? How is it that Jesus was convicted unjustly, abandoned, humiliated, abused, and executed in agony? It is because of the sin of mankind. Sin allowed Satan a foothold into creation, corrupting everything, including us. And so Jesus came to bring the light into a sin-darkened world. And at Golgotha, it seemed as if the darkness had swallowed up the light.

I saw the movie 2012 (about end of the world) last January. I thought it was quite good, especially in its dramatic special effects. But one thing I remember above all else is a line spoken by the movie’s American President, who told a fearful people, as the world was approaching its end, that “we step into the darkness together.”

“We step into the darkness together.” That is the fate of sinful mankind, to step into the darkness together … to be eternally separated from the light. And it is truly no more than we deserve. I have been talking about death row inmates and Jesus being judged and condemned by sinful man. But in reality, we stand before the dock. We are not spectators in this great drama of judgment; we are the leading participants.

We can be thankful, however, that our judge is not Pontius Pilate. We can be thankful that our judge is not the Council of the Sanhedrin. We can be thankful that our judge is not a fickle mob. Our judge is the very One who suffered, but not in vain. He suffered for our sake. Jesus, the spotless lamb of God, shed his blood for us. This man without sin became sin for all of us, so that we might shed our sins. This man who is eternal tasted the second death for us, the darkness of separation from God, so that we may still live in the light for eternity.

Will you remember and reflect upon what Jesus suffered for your sake? Will you consider how the light allowed the darkness to overwhelm it so that you might live in the light and not go into the darkness forever? Will you rededicate your whole life to the One who gave his life to you? In the Name of Him who came to save us from our sins. Amen.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sermon Preached On April 10, 2011

OK, now I am caught up!

“Journeying from Death to Life” (Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:17-45)
April 10, 2011 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)
Rev. John B. Erthein, Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church

One of my favorite TV shows as a kid was Star Trek, when the original series had gone into re-runs. In college I grew to love Star Trek, The Next Generation. Both of those shows began with the immortal words, “Space, the Final Frontier.” I want to talk about “the Final Frontier” today, but I do not see Space as being that final frontier. Instead, I would say death is the real final frontier. It stands before us like an impregnable wall, through which we cannot see. And all of us are heading to that wall, and we all will pass through at some point, but it is a one way trip from which we cannot return.

The nation of Israel had passed through that wall. Israel was dead: smashed beyond repair. Israel, chosen by God working through Abraham and Sarah; rescued from bondage in Egypt by God working through Moses; built into a mighty kingdom by God working through David and Solomon. Through the repeated sin of the people, by their willful turning away from the One who had brought them into being, Israel had weakened, dividing into two separate kingdoms (one still called Israel, the other was called Judah). Both kingdoms eventually fell to Babylon. In 597 BC, the Babylonians had exiled Judah’s king Jehoiachin, along with thousands of the kingdom’s leading citizens. One of these citizens was the prophet Ezekiel.

The pattern in the exiled kingdoms and Israel and Judah was for prophets to appear during a time of national crisis. Their purpose was to chastise the people for their falling away from God, to warn them of God’s judgment, but also to share with them God’s continuing love for them and his promises of restoration. This is shown in an unforgettable manner in the reading from Ezekiel 37: the Valley of the Dry Bones. That is the perfect image of lifelessness. I would imagine dry bones in a desert, the bones bleached white by the sun. There would be no possibility of mistaking something alive for something dead in this case. This valley of dry bones represented Israel as irretrievably dead.

But God was not finished with Israel. In spite of the sin that lead to Israel’s death, becoming a field of bleached bones, God would fulfill his covenant with his people. God sent Ezekiel a thrilling vision of life returning in stages. First, the Spirit of God, the bones would be knit back together and covered with muscles, sinews and flesh. Then God would breathe life back into those bodies. Israel would live again!

It is vital to remember how Israel would be brought back to life, and for what purpose. These bones did not sew themselves back together. They did not will the muscles and sinews and flesh to come back to them. The bodies did not will themselves to breathe again. It was purely the grace and the power and the will of God that brought them back to life.
Israel plays a key role in God’s plan of salvation for people of faith. Jesus would come as the Messiah of Israel, born in the bosom of her people. Jesus came for the Jews first, but also for the Gentiles. And just as God in the Old Testament brought life out of death for Israel, so Jesus would bring life out of death for people from every nation who would trust and believe in him. Jesus demonstrated this promise in his raising of Lazarus from the dead.

The Gospels record Jesus as performing many signs and wonders … such as turning water into wine, feeding thousands of people with a handful of loaves and fishes, and healing the sick and demon-possessed. But the raising of Lazarus represents the most powerful of all Jesus’ acts, for he is bringing back a man from behind the impregnable wall of death. Indeed, it seems as if Jesus delayed his visit to Lazarus for the purpose of demonstrating his power in this manner. Had he arrived earlier, Lazarus would have been alive. Jesus could have saved him from dying, of course, but the ultimate power of God would be shown in doing the impossible … bringing back Lazarus from the dead.

Now, there was no doubt whatsoever that Lazarus was dead. He had laid in the tomb for days. There was no possibility of his being merely unconscious or even in a coma. Lazarus was as dead as Charlie Sheen’s sense of dignity. Even by modern standards his case was hopeless. What I mean is that, thanks to modern medicine, it is sometimes possible to resuscitate a person whose heart has stopped. A person’s body may have ceased functioning for several minutes, but the person might still be revived. But after three or four days? Modern science is nowhere nearer to bringing back someone from death after such a span of time.

So what Jesus did was simply extraordinary, not only in his time, but in ours. He demonstrated the awesome power of God, a power that overrules everything in creation, including death itself. Indeed, Jesus overrode death’s oppressive power by merely speaking his words. Nothing, ultimately, can stand against the Word of God.

Jesus demonstrated something else, which is just as important. Recall his reaction to the pain and sorrow of Mary and Martha. Jesus himself was shaken and saddened in his spirit. Because of Jesus being one with the Father, his reaction shows the personality of God. Death and sorrow and mourning and pain are not pleasing to God. And that gives us such an insight into the heart of God. Instead of a distant ruler who is like a marble statue, God is like a parent who grieves the pain and suffering of his children.

How does this apply to us today? The field of dry bones was a vision of Ezekiel’s. The resurrection of Lazarus was an actual supernatural event in a specific time and place. But both of these incidents point to a larger reality. This is the spiritual reality that our souls are as dead as those dry bones, and as dead as a body decaying in a tomb for four days. The images of death in Scripture mirror our spiritual deadness.

Now, what is a major characteristic of being dead? You cannot move. You cannot feel. You cannot think. You can do absolutely nothing for yourself. Indeed, if the atheists are right and there is no God, when you are dead you are not aware of being dead. You are completely helpless and totally ignorant of your true estate. Just as a dead man cannot bring himself back to life, so you cannot possibly bring yourselves back to spiritual life. Spiritually dead people are not fit to be in God’s company, and so the eternal destination of the spiritually dead is Hell itself. And that is the death we should fear … not physical death, which we are all fated to taste, but rather the spiritual death of eternal separation from God in the Lake of Fire, which has been prepared from before the beginning of time for the devil and his angels (as described in Revelation). This is horrible, dreadful, awful knowledge.

But this awful knowledge helps us to truly appreciate the incredible character of God. We know that God is all-powerful … he brought the universe into being by simply speaking it into being. The Scriptures bear witness to the incredible miracles he performed in both testaments. Imagine the pure, raw power that he exercised to overrule nature and cause the seas to be parted; for manna to fall from heaven; for men to survive a fiery furnace; for Jesus to walk on water and calm a storm. In his time on this earth, mankind has made great strides in the power he can exercise, from exploring the cells of our bodies, to splitting the atoms, to blasting off above earth’s atmosphere. And yet nothing we have accomplished or could accomplish with all of our efforts can match the limitless power of God.

But God is amazing not just for his power, but for his faithfulness and love. God keeps his promises and his covenants. God remained faithful to his covenant with Israel, even when times looked darkest. God had a plan and purpose for Israel that did not waver. Thank God he was more faithful than the people of the covenant! Thank God he preserved a remnant of mankind to serve as a light to the nations. Thank God that he even brought Israel back into being after the deadliest attempt to wipe out the Jewish people in the Holocaust! God remains faithful, and his faithfulness will transcend even the worst acts of human depravity and vile wickedness.

And as for God’s love, just look to Jesus. Fully human, fully God. He was moved by suffering and pain. Such things are not part of God’s perfect plan for his creation. And so through Jesus Christ, God has given sinful mankind a pathway to salvation, truly a journey from life to death. And all one must do to receive the benefits of God’s power, of his faithfulness, and of his love, is to accept the offer of the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

You all may have already done that. But if anyone is not certain of his relationship with Jesus Christ or his eternal destiny, if your heart is questioning and your conscience is troubled, maybe that is the prompting of God’s Holy Spirit. You can be certain of your journey from death to life by asking Jesus to forgive your sins, and confessing him as Lord and Savior. If you have never done so, will you do so today? Pray silently with me if you are so moved:

Lord Jesus, I know I have sinned and fallen short of your Father’s glory. I repent of my sins and ask for the Father’s forgiveness through you. I humbly ask that you enter my heart, quicken my soul, and lead me from this day forward. In your most blessed and precious name I pray. Amen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sermon Preached on April 3, 2011

Note: while following the lectionary, I chose to preach just on the Gospel passage because of its great length.

“Journeying by Sight” (John 9:1-41)
April 3, 2011 Fourth Sunday in Lent)
Rev. John B. Erthein, Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church

I cannot imagine, in fact I would not want to imagine, what it would be like to be blind. I don’t know whether it’s worse to have become blind at some point in one’s life, or to have been born blind. Sight is one of God’s great gifts. One of the things that gives me the greatest pleasure is to gaze upon a beautiful sunset, like the ones you get here, watching the orange and red sky through the branches of the pine trees. That is the sort of occasion that makes me thank God for his gifts.

But not everyone can appreciate the beauty of nature in this way. Not everyone can gaze upon the face of his beloved or on his children, either. It is too hard to imagine, I think. But it is not too hard for us to feel that this is wrong, that this is a bad thing. And that is a natural reaction to misfortune of this sort, where someone is suffering or is disadvantaged in some way. We may look for some kind of explanation for misfortunes such as blindness.

And this accounts for some of the reaction to a man’s blindness in this passage from John’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples encounter a man who was blind from birth. Almost immediately, the disciples ask him “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples’ question reflected the assumption, common to the Judaism at the time, that suffering could always be traced to a specific sin. The underlying concern was not to charge God from perpetrating evil upon innocent people. Thus, if something bad happened to you, it must have been directly your fault: cause and effect. Someone sinned, even if it was this man while he was in the womb (after all, he was born blind, so he must have sinned before birth. Some rabbis actually taught this.)

Notice how Jesus responds. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Thus, the proper response to a person’s misfortune is not to speculate as to the cause of his infirmity. Nor is it to defend God’s honor. It is to manifest the works of God in that person. Sometimes, for reasons that are not always clear to us, God allows affliction to impact people, so that we would respond according to his will, that these unfortunate people might experience God’s mercy, grace and healing. Jesus did so supernaturally, as he could. He made a kind of poultice with his saliva and some mud. Placed over the blind man’s eyes, this mixture gave him sight.

Now, we cannot of course duplicate Jesus’ supernatural acts. But we can commit acts of healing and grace and mercy. I think medical care is something God has given to us, for example, something that can and should be used for healing and not destruction. God also gives his people the desire and capability and the responsibility to care for others. We can follow Jesus’ example in that way.

However, we know that not everyone follows Jesus’ example, either in this age or during his time on earth. And this leads me to consider another way of considering blindness. Blindness is not always physical. It can be spiritual. This miracle is one of several that take place in the physical world while serving as a sign pointing to a deeper, spiritual meaning. And so in this extraordinary chapter of John’s Gospel we witness how one man’s physical and spiritual eyes are opened, but how the spiritual eyes of some others remain tightly shut.

Consider the formerly blind man’s spiritual growth. In verse 11, the first time he is asked about what happened, how he was cured of his blindness, he refers to Jesus as “the man called Jesus.” Now, that is a phrase pretty much the whole world could affirm, because Jesus was an historical figure. Hardly anyone denies that he existed. In verse 17, after being questioned again, this time by the Pharisees, the man calls Jesus a “prophet.” That is a word of honor, showing a special connection between God and Jesus. Fewer people in the world see Jesus this way … Islam is one religion that affirms Jesus as a prophet, albeit not as the Son of the living God. But by verse 38, the man has come to believe that Jesus is truly the “Son of Man” and thus fell down and worshiped him. The title “Son of Man” had a special resonance in first century Judaism. It was a messianic title that referred back to the mysterious, human-divine figure of “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14, one who will be given rule over all of the nations of the earth forever. So for this formerly blind man to call Jesus by this title shows that his spiritual eyes were indeed finally and completely opened.

One would imagine that the evidence of this miracle would have convinced everyone who had heard of it. The blind man had been well known in his community as a beggar. Jesus healed his sight and thus lifted him from his lowly estate. But not everyone would be so enthusiastic about what Jesus had done. Some of the Pharisees were aggravated. Note that it was not all of the Pharisees … but certainly a significant number objected to what Jesus had done. These said “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath” (Jn 9:16. ESV). Jesus performed his work of healing on the Sabbath. Now, in fairness, the Pharisees might not have objected if Jesus had simply spoken words of healing or waved his hand. But Jesus took clay and kneaded it into mud. The problem was that kneading bread, and thus by extension clay, was one of 39 classes of work forbidden on the Sabbath. In their zeal to keep God’s commandments, including the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy, religious instructors had erected more and more regulations and prohibitions. These extra rules represented fences around the sacred law. But Jesus is showing that some in the religious leadership defended the fences so strongly that they forgot about the true Law of God, which called upon the people to love God and one another. The religious leaders had credentials and authority, and yet they were blinded to the love of God as shown in Jesus Christ. And this made them cling to a very narrow, legalistic and negative kind of religion.

I think that warning is just as important today as it was then. Indeed, it has been important throughout the history of the church. I believe the main reason for the Reformation was that the established church at the time, which was of course the Roman Catholic Church, had become choked by rules and regulations and traditions that served as barriers between people and Jesus Christ. The Bible, the written Word of God, was forbidden to most people. How could people have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ if they did not know who he truly was?

But before any of us are tempted to condemn the Catholic Church for some of its past practices, we should consider our own Presbyterian Church today. In my experience, we care a lot about credentials and formality. Whether a pastor has fulfilled the educational requirements we expect, and whether the right forms have been filled out and the right boxes are checked, seems to matter more than whether the pastor has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and whether the pastor believes and affirms that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God. Maybe I am wrong about how widespread this is: I hope I am. But it is what I have sensed over these years in seminary and then in ministry.

I think the danger exists in every church to exalt tradition and various rules and procedures over an encounter with Jesus Christ. And whoever falls into the trap is truly walking blind through life. And that is tragic. If a person’s eyes of faith are shut, what beauty is that person missing in life! None of the traditions or procedures or policy manuals can make up for that!

As followers of Christ, we are called upon to reach out to those who lack something in life, who are deprived of something vital. Perhaps a person is disadvantaged materially or bodily. We should ask ourselves how we can be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. Or the person may lack something spiritually. That person may belong to a church or not. It doesn’t really matter if he does not know Jesus Christ. So ask yourself how you can reach that person with the Gospel.

As we journey together, it is my hope that we will strive to seek and serve those who are hurting, those who are bodily deprived and also spiritually deprived. That is, I believe, exactly the work to which Christ calls us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ministry After an Unsuccessful Call, Part 3

If you feel your call to ministry is affirmed by God even after an unsuccessful call, it is still important to reflect upon what happened and what lessons can be drawn from the negative experience. For me, as I sank deeper into the morass of my last call (but before I resigned/was fired), I came to realize that dealing with conflict was one of my biggest weaknesses. I don't like conflict and prefer to wait it out by ignoring it. I especially hate it if I am part of the conflict in some way. But hating it doesn't make it go away. Conflict is inevitable in relationships, including the pastoral relationship. Many churches are in conflict today for a variety of reasons.

So, I will strive for opportunities to learn about ministering to congregations that experience conflict. I don't perceive a lot of conflict in my current call, but appropriate continuing education (such as interim pastor training, which many experienced pastors have recommended to me as being helpful in installed positions, as well) can still strengthen me as a pastor to this congregation and, by God's grace, in all areas of ministry and life.

Having said that, I want to make an important distinction. While my experience at my last call pointed to my need for growth in the area of dealing with conflict (or, even better, transcending conflict), I do not believe that my call would have succeeded even with that extra preparation. Something very disturbing to me was that after I had taken some helpful continuing education (basically career counseling and discernment), and when things seemed to be getting better at the church (rising worship attendance; more involvement by families with young children in the life of the church; even a stabilizing financial situation), THAT is when the boom came down on me. I think the accouncement that we were expecting our third child had something to do with that as well.

Sometimes, my friends, you can try to improve your ministry skills until the cows come home, but if you do not have a congregation that is willing to consider how THEY can change and grow, it really won't matter. And as far as I am concerned, that is part of what happened in my last call. Knowing when to shake the dust from your feet while still acknowledging your own shortcomings is an important skill in ministry.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sermon Preached on March 26, 2011

If I remember, I am going to post my sermons from now on. I have been preaching from the Lectionary for Lent and it has been going so well I may continue to do so. Anyway, here is the first sermon I can share with you, from March 26:

“Refreshment On the Journey” (Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-26)
March 27, 2011 (Second Sunday in Lent)
Rev. John B. Erthein, Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church

I think everyone here has been a journeys of various kinds, including a long distance journey. What is that like? Well, that is especially present in my mind because my family and I were on a long journey recently. After many hours of driving, you find you need a certain amount of refreshment. It may be just to get out of your car and stretch your legs for a few minutes, or to get a meal. After an especially long stretch, you might stop for the night at a motel, to be refreshed by a good night’s sleep.

The amazing thing about traveling in America is that you can take for granted the opportunities for refreshment. If you stay on a major highway, there will always be convenience stores and rest stops and restaurants and hotels within easy reach.

But what if that were not the case? What if you couldn’t know that refreshment was always within reach? You could be on a rural road in the dark of night, driving and driving, and nothing appears. No convenience stores. No diners. No motels. No chance for refreshment. Maybe you feel lost and you wonder what will happen. You may become fearful, frustrated and impatient with where you are.

This was the situation of the Israelites in Exodus 17. They are on their way to the Promised Land, but it is taking an awfully long time. They are worried about their refreshment, and beyond that, perhaps even their very survival. And so they “quarrel” with Moses and demand something to drink. They are even, as Moses said, “testing” the Lord. This was true even though they had frequently experienced the Lord’s favor, benefitting from his awesome power. They had experienced the plagues God sent to make Pharaoh release them. They experienced the miraculous parting of the sea which allowed them to escape Pharaoh’s army. They even benefitted from God’s previous miraculous provision of both water (the Lord made bitter water sweet at Marah(15:25, 27) and food (quail and manna, chapter 16:13-19).

But they still acted in fear and impatience. They doubted God’s care for them and his provision for them. They thought about what they momentarily lacked, rather than God’s long term care for them. And I think that is a part of the human condition. We have needs and desires. Many of us have experienced the incredible blessings of God in our lives. When I was at the Acts 16:5 conference, Stanley Ott, the founder of the Acts 16:5 Initiative, asked everyone to write down a blessing they had experienced in the last 24 hours. And you know what? It was easy for everyone to think of at least one blessing. It might have been enjoying a good cup of coffee, or smelling the pine needles, or hugging one of your children. Every day God pours out his blessings. But how often do we remember that? How much time do we spend thanking God for his blessings as opposed to asking him for something, or even feeling aggrieved about something we are missing in our lives?

Fortunately for the Israelites, and for us, our God is a gracious God. Despite their ungrateful complaining, God gave the Israelites more water. And he never abandoned his covenant with them. They did make it to the Promised Land, although there were other times of deprivation and even harsh discipline from God. Our own journeys through life are not always easy, either, but the Lord does provide for his people, materially and spiritually, both in this life and in the life to come. Refreshment takes more than one form.

This brings us to the passage from John’s Gospel, which is Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. There is a great deal going on in this passage. What I find especially important is that, while these words were set down nearly 2,000 years … a long time ago and in a very different culture … they contain timeless lessons, just as relevant to us in this day and in this place.

We see that Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman with a particular reputation. This is extraordinary on three levels. First, as someone considered a “rabbi,” it would be nearly unheard of for Jesus to speak to a woman. Women did not count in Israel’s religious life at the time. Second, this woman was a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans despised each other. Jews considered Samaritans ritually (and therefore spiritually) unclean. They were to be avoided at all costs. They were considered like lepers. Yet here was Jesus, Messiah of Israel, deliberately going into their territory and spaking to one of them … even asking her for a drink of water! And finally, this person was not just a woman, and not just a Samaritan woman … she was a Samaritan woman with a dicey reputation. She had been married five times and was involved with a man not even her husband! She was an outcast among outcasts. To be seen with one such as her would raise questions in many people’s minds. But there he was, talking to her.

And more than talking to her, he made her an offer. It was the offer of the ultimate refreshment, the living, unending water of eternal life. In the verses following the reading from John, it is reported that the Samaritan woman told her people about Jesus, and that many of them believed because of their testimony.

I think these two scriptures are so important, because they tell us some central truths about God’s provision and care for us. First, God does not bless us based on our righteousness. While God had chosen the Israelites to be his special people, they had not always distinguished themselves as good and faithful followers. Second, in Jesus Christ, God graciously expanded the availability of his “living water.” It is available to everyone, regardless of their background, their gender, or their manner of life.

Therefore, if we are followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to avoid these two pitfalls. We are not to be arrogant, imagining that we are better than other people, that we somehow have more righteousness. Remember, God elects people not because of their character, but in spite of it. Also remember that there are no secrets from God. You may be able to put on a good front before others, but God knows what is in your heart and he knows what you do behind closed doors! There was a movie made in the late 1990s called The Truman Show, starring Jim Carey. He played a man whose entire life was a reality show. Nothing he did from waking up to going to sleep was hidden from his audience, thanks to hidden cameras placed absolutely everywhere. Well, we are the stars of our own reality show, our very lives. And God in heaven is watching us, 24 hours per day.

But while we are called to avoid an unseemly pride in ourselves, we must also never fall into the trap of imagining that we are sinners who cannot be redeemed. Whatever you have done in your life, it is not enough to fend off God. I always say that God’s love and grace and mercy are strong enough to redeem the vilest criminal. If Jeffrey Dahmer or Timothy McVeigh came to faith in Jesus Christ, then they too would be saved. So never think God’s grace is unavailable to you. His living water is there for you.

And what is the nature of this water? Think of water in general. Certainly, we need it to live. Our bodies would die without water. And so it is with the living water of Jesus Christ. We cannot live eternally without it. Without Jesus Christ, our souls would perish.

But water does not just serve to ensure our survival. It is something that refreshes us. When the days get hot and humid here, and those days are coming soon, if you get all sweaty and uncomfortable and your throat is parched and you feel totally grungy … oh, the sweet relief of water. Hot water for a bath or shower, cold water to drink. It feels good. And that is one of the blessings God gives us. Now, I am not always sure of Joel Osteen’s theology, but I do like one of his phrases: “your best life now.” If you have Jesus in your heart, you will indeed experience “your best life now.” That does mean your life will never have setbacks, though. But with the living water of Jesus flowing through you, you can transcend the difficult times. Paul writes in Romans 5:1-5:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith, into this grace in which we stand, and in which we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

So, I hope you will open your hearts to receive the living water of Jesus Christ, for that will truly refresh you on your journey through life. Amen.

Ministry After An Unsuccessful Call: Part 2

Now I want to write about how one deals with his or her internal life after an unsuccessful call. If there was a blessing in what happened in my case, it was having some time out of the pulpit and church office, so I could try to process what happened, how I felt and what it all meant.

I think it is inevitable that a pastor in that situation would be dealing with a lot of different feelings: anger, resentment, self-reproach, relief, fear and hope. I am sure there are others. I know I was relieved to be gone from the church I had served because of the emotional toll of the last few months. But I was also angry at a number of people in the church for what I saw as their failures as Christian disciples. I also was angry at myself for what I saw as my failures as a Christian leader. I looked forward with some hope to a new start. But I also feared that in the ugly job climate (high general unemployment and over four candidates for each open pastoral vacancy in the PC(USA)), a pastor with my record would perhaps never receive a call, or at least not one in which I could support my family.

And there was the awful possibility lurking in my mind that I should not be a pastor, obviously I am not cut out for it. Leaving a call on bad terms should prompt some self-reflection.

Taking time in prayer helps. So does talking with trusted friends and colleagues. Talking professionally with someone can help as well. The key is to discern whether you still feel God's call on your life to be a pastor. Over time, I was able to affirm that in my heart. I guess it is because I continue to care about many of the people I've ministered to, I because God has not released me from the call to preach the Gospel. I will confess I have sometimes wished God had called me to do something else, like being a park ranger or something!

Ministry After an Unsuccessful Call (Part 1)

I am not sure how this is going to look over time. But I want to set down some thoughts about my recent experiences in ministry that might be helpful for others who confront (or could confront) a similar situation: continuing ministry after a call ends badly.

Let me state right up fron that when I refer to a call that ends "badly," I am not referring to it ending because of pastoral misconduct, either of the sexual or financial type. I am referring to what many call a "bad fit," where the pastor and congregation turn out not to be suited for one another. Now, there is no such thing as a "perfect" fit, because there are no perfect pastors and congregations! But there can be a "good" fit, where pastor and parishioners grow in faith and love of God and one another over time. Then there is the "bad fit," where this seemingly does not happen. That is what happened in my case. I left my last call before three years were up. A good portion of the congregation wanted me gone, and after a few months of uncertainty and conflict, I had become angry, frustrated and emotionally exhausted, so I was quite ready to leave. From the perspective of some or many in the congregation, I was not doing the work their pastor should have done. From my perspective, the congregation (or some people in it) was not acting as a Christian congregation should have. I left with a severance agreement which allowed me to make ends meet for a few months, and by God's grace I received another call before all of our resources were exhausted (it was a near thing, though!).

Ideally, a discerning pastor, PNC and Presbytery Committee on Ministry will prevent a bad match from happening at all. But that is not always the case. Wishful thinking can get in the way. Overlooking yellow or red flags, or putting a ludicrously positive spin on negative developments, can deceive otherwise sensible and well meaning people into entering a toxic relationship.

(I feel I should pause for a moment and affirm that what I write is from the perspective of a pastor. I hope my words will be helpful for other pastors. If what I write is also helpful for others, praise God for that! But I am writing primarily as a Pastor to Pastors.)

Anyway, many pastoral calls seem to end badly nowadays. I wonder if that is an increasing trend. In my previous Presbytery, Lake Erie, there is a good atmosphere of collegiality. I had the impression pastors of different perspectives got along pretty well and liked one another. So this is not a "bad" Presbytery in which to minister. However, in my three years (and a few months) of membership in Lake Erie, there were four other calls that ended on bad terms ... if a severance agreement is publicized, you can be pretty sure that the call has ended badly. In addition, one another pastor left a congregation in difficult circumstances but by God's grace had another call lined up and could make a relatively smooth transition. Plus some other pastors left their calls in ways that surprised their congregations.

This is, mind you, in a Presbytery with a generally good atmosphere (or at least it seemed good to me).

Anyway, a call ends badly. What do you, as the pastor, do after that?