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May 23 - "Wind and Fire” - Rev. Michael Plank
May 9 - "Saviors of the People” - Rev. Michael Plank
May 2 - “Fear vs. Love” - Rev. Michael Plank
5th Sunday of Easter
May 2, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“Fear vs. Love”
Text: 1 John 4:18 “…But perfect love drives out fear…”
Scripture Lessons: 1 John 4:7-21
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that God’s love drives out fear to the end that hearers will find courage in hardship and will pursue God’s love in their own lives and communities.
Prayer for Illumination: Gracious and merciful God, you know what we desperately need to hear. Open our minds and our hearts to hear it. We pray this in your name. Amen.
John 4:7-21: This epistle was written to encourage a church that was facing challenge. There were those among them who insisted that Jesus was not human, but only divine. The author writes of Christ’s perfect humanity. Listen for God’s Word.
I remember reading about Stephen King’s writing process when he wrote the book ’Salem’s Lot, which is his vampire story. He wrote about how what he wanted to express was fear: not the fear that comes from understanding consequences or from knowing the terrible implications of something, but the kind of fear we experienced as children when we thought there was a monster in the closet: an unavoidable, unexplainable, irrational, gut-wrenching dread.
The summer after my junior year of college, four friends and I signed a lease to rent a house together. The lease began in June, but they would all be gone for the Summer, so I lived in the house by myself for about 10 weeks. That was great, and I really enjoyed it. Except for one night. It was late and I had been reading in the living room. Around midnight I decided to lock up the house and go to bed. As I was walking to the back door, I passed the steps leading down to the basement. I’m sure it was just my book brushing against my pants, but right as I passed the stairs I heard a scrape, and as I turned my head (I’m sure it was just a reflection in the window of the door down on the basement landing), it looked like I saw a flash of movement dart down the stairs.
I froze. Shivers ran from my lower back up my spine and down my legs into my toes. I was caught in a dilemma. I obviously had to check the basement, but I had nothing to use as a ghoul-weapon. I could go upstairs and get something, but what if it followed me?! Everything logical and rational in my brain told me I was being ridiculous, there was no way there was something in the house. I was too old to believe in ghosts or monsters. But I had seen and heard something. After weighing my options, I balled up my fists, turned on all the lights and walked down the steps. I searched every room, closet, cabinet, nook, and cranny in that basement, always looking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t surprised, with an icy knot in my stomach the whole time. I didn’t find anything, and I’m sure my book and a reflection were to blame for the whole debacle, but it was a restless night.
Fear is a powerful thing and it can override everything in us that would explain to us what is actually happening. Fear can distort the truth and drive us crazy. Anyone who has spent sleepless nights worrying about a loved one who is late coming home or who is in trouble knows this all too well. In Frank Herbert’s renowned science fiction novel Dune, characters encourage each other by saying “Fear is the mind-killer.” How true that can be. Fear has its place, to be sure. Fear keeps us safe and often helps us to make wise decisions. But fear can easily get out of control and run amok in our thoughts, consuming us and even crippling us.
And unfortunately it does not always take the shape of that spine-chilling irrational fear that is so easily recognizable. Fear can sneak its way into our discourse, into our decision making, and into our beliefs. When beliefs are challenged, people use fear to coerce a change in opinion. Or if they don’t, those whose opinions change may change them out of fear of ridicule or ostracism if they do not change.
First John was written to a church facing crisis. There were those in that community of faith who were preaching that Jesus did not truly come to earth in human form, but was here in Spiritual form only. His death, therefore, could not have happened, because a spirit cannot die or suffer physical torment, which means that Jesus did not die for the sins of the world, or to save the world from its sins. The debate between those who held that view and those who believed that Jesus was both fully human and fully god – which is the stance the Church would take at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 – was a fierce one. It caused division and pain and resentment in a church that was already on the margins of society.
Christians in the Roman empire were probably not being actively persecuted in wide numbers at the time of the writing of 1 John, but it would have been only a year or two after the widespread persecution of Christians under Domitian, and only twenty or thirty years after the unimaginable carnage of the persecution under Nero. The Church was far from the stable and powerful entity it would become a few centuries later. And with tragedy that fresh in their minds, I would bet that the fear of persecution only heightened the already existing turmoil within the community of faith.
Fear has that ability. It can affect seemingly unrelated issues and make them so much worse. It is perhaps one of the more powerful of human experiences, and one that is at the root of so much that is evil. For example, I’d argue that most of the so-called “Seven Deadly Sins,” can be traced to fear. Gluttony comes from a fear that the pleasures are limited and must be enjoyed to the fullest in the short time available. Greed comes from a fear of scarcity. Sloth – the state of wasting all of one’s gifts and talents and living in a state of listlessness and melancholy – is often the result of a fear of failure: a fear that one will try, but not succeed. Envy is the fear that others will have more than we do – a fear of scarcity not unlike greed, or a fear that we will be judged for being different. Pride is the fear that we will only be valued by our accomplishments or importance. Vanity comes from the fear that we will only be valued by our looks.
And violence and hatred throughout history have often been founded upon fear. The holocaust, one of the most reprehensible, despicable, and terrifying acts of genocide the world has ever seen, was founded upon a fear of others. The Nazi high command spread the message that Jews, homosexuals, Romani (often referred to as gypsies), Poles, Slavic people, people with mental or physical disabilities, and anyone who did not fit the Aryan standard – especially those of African or Asian descent – were not only inferior, but dangerous. They were to blame for the defeat of Germany in World War I, they were to blame for the economic and social problems Germany faced, and worst of all, if they were to intermarry and have children with the German people, they would weaken the human race so irreversibly that it would cease to exist. The fear that was fostered led to the murder of nearly 17 million people. To put that into perspective, at the time that was almost one percent of the world’s population. Eight people out of every thousand alive in the 1940s would die in the systematic killing perpetrated by the Nazis.
Fear has been the root of oppression and racism in this country: from slavery to the Jim Crow laws of the South, to riots in the 1960s, to bullying in our schools and workplaces today. Fear of others has led to horrors and tragedies the world over. But faced with the fear of persecution, of difference, of disagreement, of schism, John writes to the community of faith and says to them “God is love… There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:16, 18).
Great thinkers and writers for centuries have said that the opposite of fear is not bravery. Bravery is recognizing fear for what it is, but not allowing it to cripple what you know to be the Truth. The opposite of fear is love. And the power of love is such that not even fear can stand in its way.
Now “perfect love,” as John calls it: divine love, Christ-like love, is no small accomplishment. John goes on to say “If anyone says ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (v. 20). Perfect love is a challenge.
Perfect love includes people we disagree with. It includes people who vote differently from us, who think differently from us, who value things we don’t value and who don’t value things we hold dear. I’m not saying here that we should excuse abuses or that we should all believe the same thing. Far from it. But surely we can draw boundaries that keep out behaviors rather than people. Surely, we can recognize that we too have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Surely, we can recognize that if God’s perfect love is big enough to include even us, than it might also include those we would cast out. These divisions come from fear: fear that anything other than our own ideas would be a slippery slope leading to damnation, and fear that if we step out of line from whatever our party is, we will be ostracized.
But perfect love is real. It exists. And we know this because it’s there for us. That’s why we can find a welcome here despite everything. That’s why the Easter miracle stirs something in us even when we may not even feel like we can love ourselves, let alone someone else. That’s why Christmas Eve is so magical. All of it, because God’s perfect love is real. And that love drives out fear. That love is like a perpetual motion machine where the more you give, the more you get. It’s like a flywheel where as you push it more and more, it takes less and less to keep it going.
And when we find that perfect love, and when we can nurture it, and tend it, and fan it into a flame, the possibilities are endless. Love drives out fear. The love that is God, the love incarnate that was Jesus, taught us that we were loved and it teaches us how to love one another. And in loving one another, we experience God. John says “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in [that person]” (v. 16). We may never on earth see Jesus face-to-face, but by demonstrating God’s love to others we will be filled with God’s very essence.
We will experience heaven on earth. We will feel like the angels. We will be consumed by the glory of God. We will see the true wonder of God’s creation and marvel at our place in it. We will hear the heavenly chorus, and we will be powerless to do anything but join it with songs sung at the top of our lungs as we revel in God’s perfect love. Amen.
April 25 - “Back From the Grave” - Rev. Michael Plank
4th Sunday of Easter
April 25th, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
Text: Acts 4:10: “…Know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.”
Scripture Lesson: Acts 4:5-20
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that nothing, not even the grave, could destroy Jesus, to the end that hearers will be assured that it is God, and God alone, who determines their value.
Prayer for Illumination: God of all people, there are so many things that we allow to come between you and us, that threaten to drown out your Word to us. Strip those things away, open our ears and our minds, and speak to us this morning. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Acts 4:5-20: The church that began in the days and months following Jesus’ death was opposed by authorities from the beginning. Listen for God’s Word as the apostles are brought to trial for healing in Christ’s name.
Partway through the fall semester of my junior year in high school, my family moved from a far suburb of Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska. And so in mid-November, I started as a new kid at Westside High School. I remember the knots in my stomach as I walked into my homeroom on that first day, not knowing anyone. But for the most part, kids were nice to me, and by the end of the year I had made some really great friends.
But there was one kid – Carl – who picked on me. Nothing crazy, nothing like the intense cyber bullying that happens consequence-free today, but he went out of his way to give me a hard time. He’d shove me and make fun of me and laugh at me with his friends. But he was a year ahead of me, and so for my last year of school he was gone.
In April of my senior year, I got a job at a lawn and garden store. A week or two into my work, I was unloading some bags of topsoil as one of the landscaping crews came in, and who should be working with them but Carl. I saw him and he saw me, and he gave me a very polite, very non-malicious head nod as he passed. But oh man, my stomach knotted up. I wasn’t afraid of him anymore, but I did want some revenge. I wanted to make him look like an idiot in front of his landscaping buddies. I wanted to yell at him. I wanted to fight him. Seeing this kid who had been so mean to me interact with me as if nothing had ever happened was almost too much to bear. I stewed every time I saw him until I left that job.
I can still remember in my gut what that feeling felt like. And so I can only imagine what Peter and John must have felt when they found themselves face to face again with good old Annas and Caiphas, high priests of the Temple who were instrumental in Jesus’ death.
It had been some months since the trial and crucifixion and resurrection, some months since people had shouted for blood, and Jesus’ screams had echoed over the hills outside the city. Pentecost had come. The followers of Jesus had grown from 20 or so to a hundred, and then several hundred, and then a few thousand.
And one day, Peter and John, who had been there from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, went to the Temple. Beggars would set up shop every day outside the Temple to ask for charity from the faithful who came to pray, and one particular beggar had secured a place right by the gate – prime real estate. He had been born without the ability to move his legs. They were crooked and atrophied from a lifetime of disuse. He was there, with his deformed legs, right by the gate, every day. You couldn’t miss him. Everyone knew who he was.
And when Peter and John walked by, he asked them for money, as he always did. But Peter had a different idea. Peter looked him in the eye and said “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6). And suddenly those crooked legs straightened out, the skinny sticks attached to the man’s hips leapt to life as they were wrapped in new muscle. And he stood up, able to walk for the first time in his life. He ran and jumped, shouted and sang, as he danced into the Temple and praised God. And people were amazed. Everyone recognized him, but they’d never seen him like this before. And so word spread quickly that a miracle had occurred.
But, as so often happens in Scripture when miracles occur, trouble follows. People asked what had happened and so Peter and John had started to preach about Jesus – which was a long way from the official party line preached in the Temple. So they were arrested and held in jail until the leadership could convene and hear their case the next day. After a night on a cold, hard floor, Peter and John were brought into the courtroom, and who should be sitting behind the bench but Annas and Caiphas. These were the same men who had ordered Jesus’ arrest. The same men who had false witnesses lie about him. The same who had had him beaten. The same who had brought him to Pilate and urged Pilate to execute him. The same who had riled up the people and incited them to demand crucifixion. Their eyes met Peter’s and he was livid.
They questioned him and said, “by what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7). They didn’t even give Peter the dignity of acknowledging that they had seen him before. Peter would have had a hard time stomaching the insult if they had wronged him personally and then ignored it, but he had been working on forgiveness: forgive a sinner seventy times seven times, Jesus had said. But this was different, because they hadn’t wronged Peter, they had wronged the person in Peter’s life whom he loved the most.
They had decided among themselves that this Jesus did not have a life that was worth anything more than a few pieces of silver. They had decided that his life could be bought and sold as if he were a goat or a pigeon. And so they hadn’t batted an eye as they rigged the trial, abused him, handed him over to thugs, laughed as he was tortured, and toasted each other when he died. And so when Peter responded, it must have been with righteous anger that he said, “Know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed” (v. 10).
The priests were angry. They thought they were done with all this Jesus nonsense. They thought they had crushed this infatuation with the carpenter. There had been rumors that he had come back, but there were always rumors after they put down rebellions; always rumors that the leader had faked his own death, or was hiding out somewhere, just waiting to return. Ridiculous.
But now, here was something they couldn’t ignore. A man whom everyone knew as crippled, now every knew as a walker, runner, and dancer. No one could explain how, but no one could deny it either. And these ignorant fishermen wouldn’t shut up about it being their long-lost carpenter who had somehow been responsible for the healing. So they did the only thing they could do, and they ordered Peter and John to never again speak or preach the name of Jesus. To stamp out this so-called movement once and for all.
And they were shocked when, standing in chains, vulnerable to the full power of the law, Peter and John said no. They threatened torture, but still Peter and John refused to stop talking about Jesus. Exile, but still no. Execution, still no. And finally, with all the people watching, they told them never to do it again and let them go.
And everyone saw their weakness. And everyone saw their defeat. And everyone saw that they had failed, yet again, to destroy Jesus. He was back from the grave. Maybe not in body, although word was he had done that too, but certainly in power and in spirit. The high priests had done everything in their power to crush him. They had discredited him, tortured him, killed him, and buried him. And when people still talked about him, they forbid word from spreading. But it wasn’t enough. Because if death couldn’t destroy Jesus, then nothing could.
The priests thought what people forever have thought, that if you say or do a particular set of things to a person you can control them. That you can make the world accept the value that you place on their life. That you can change people’s minds so that everyone sees the person as poorly as you do. But they were wrong. Because people do not define a person’s worth. Only God does that.
And no matter how completely the priests were done with Jesus, God wasn’t done with him. No matter how they tried to box him in, God was unbinding him. No matter how deeply they tried to bury him, God was raising from the dead. They couldn’t define Jesus’ worth, because only God can do that.
The same was true for Peter and John – ignorant nobodies from backwater towns. And the same is true for you. No matter who has told you that you don’t matter. No matter who has told you not to make a scene. No matter who has told you to just quiet down and know your place, God’s not done with you yet.
And if God’s not done with you, no scandal can discredit you. If God’s not done with you, no opposition can stand against you. If God’s not done with you, no torture can break you. If God’s not done with you, no PR campaign can strip away your supporters. If God’s not done with you, not even the grave can hold you, because when God wants you to have the victory, you will have it. You will be surrounded by the power and glory of God and if God is for us, who can be against us? Amen.
April 18 - “14 Days ” - Elder Michael Barron
Prayer of Illumination: O Lord our God, your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Give us grace to receive your truth in faith and love, that we may be obedient to your will and live always for your glory, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
Introduction to text: We remain in Eastertide and are about a week after the resurrection. Our Scripture today comes after the walk to Emmaus and upon their return to Jerusalem they met up with the disciples…