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Nov. 29 - “The Two Minute Warning” - Elder Mike Barron
First Sunday of Advent
November 29th, 2020
Elder Mike Barron
Hudson Falls, NY
“The Two Minute Warning”
FOCUS: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13: 32, 34)
This is of course football season. Being a fan and former player, I felt the need to make some sort of reference to football at some point in the year regarding football. The “Two Minute Warning” has softened a bit in the age of television broadcasts and new penalty violations and endless “time out” stalls, nevertheless – it still has meaning.
The “Two Minute Warning” was sounded as a type of alarm that told the crowd, “If you’re team is leading by more than 10 points, you might want to head to the car and beat the traffic out of the stadium.” The two minute warning also told the coaches, “If you’re behind, time to pull out your best play now,” and it told the team members, “If you’ve begun to fade or daze, you best get your head back in the game…you’ve only got two minutes left!”
Remembering back when we could attend events, there are people who like to dance at weddings, bars, or school, you receive a similar sense of urgency from the DJ’s “last dance,” reminder – meaning it may be time to get that last dance in, or build up the courage to ask the one you’ve been waiting all night to ask. (There is also the opportunity to head to the car and beat the traffic!)
On this, the first Sunday of Advent, we also are receiving our “Two Minute Warning.” The word “ADVENT” comes from the Latin “Adventus,” meaning “coming.” It’s a season the Church used to focus not only on the forthcoming Incarnation of God in Christ, but also a time when “warnings” are ushered through the Scriptures that give us a chance to – for lack of a better phrase “get our head in the game.”
The lesson for Mark is about the return of Jesus. It’s about the “second coming” of Christ to bring final judgment on humanity and to usher in the final revelation of the Kingdom of God. Much has been made over the “end times.” There have been over centuries people who have made predictions about when this would or will occur. Who are we to make these types of predictions?
The second Coming of Christ is a central theme that runs throughout our Judeo-Christian story. The Old Testament prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles, and certainly the Books of Daniel and Revelation have all pointed to a kind of cataclysmic day when the world as we know it will pass away and the perfect and completed Kingdom of God will be ushered in.
My guess is if you were to visit today – Areas of the ancient world or even some of our inner cities in the US – many people living in these places might say – that from all appearances, history as we know it, is coming to a close.
But our lesson is clear, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (vv. 32)
So, what then is the purpose of Jesus telling His followers about this last day? He goes on: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake.” (vv. 34-35a)
Jesus’ word was not designated to prompt one so much to fear as it was to action. A two-minute warning does not say the game is “over,” it announces now is the time to really play!
What Jesus tries to prod out of us is the primary duty of the servant is to care for the house in a way that – if the Master were to return today, or a thousand years from now, he would be pleased to find the good stewardship of the servants lived out.
What does that call on you and me to do? Well, if this is true, if this world, our lives, are gifts from God, entrusted to us, simply –it matters deeply to God that we believe in Him and obey Him; that we proclaim Him in word and deed. It matters that we take seriously the call to follow Jesus- because He was at the core of His teaching. It matters how we treat this world of ours, because God calls us to care for His creation. It matters – deeply how we treat one another – how we live with our families, spouses, children, friends; how we care for our colleagues; and how we treat strangers, the hungry, the homeless – the lonely.
The two minute warnings we find throughout Scripture tell us that things matter very much to God. This means that we should live in what I will call a “heavenly way.” C.S. Lewis once said, “Aim at heaven, and you get earth thrown in, aim at earth and in the end, you get nothing.” When we aim only “at earth,” when all I am is wrapped up in myself, my world, my issues, and my needs, I’ve lost the meaning of Christ’s call.
But when we aim at heaven, life here takes on an entirely different meaning. We begin to see ourselves as servants to God – preparing for His return. We should live in a constant awareness, that each minute is an opportunity, a gift – to receive or to give – to live in a way that says I believe in more than what I see on earth. I believe there is something bigger, someone better, more powerful than any darkness we humans can devise. It says I believe that someone is Jesus and He has come, He is here, and He is coming again!
To make sure you understand – I believe Jesus’ teaching on this point has much more to do with how we live than ”when” this will happen. I feel certain that the second Coming of Christ is not designated as a way of jerking the carpet out from under inconsistent and imperfect Christians. No, in a sense, I believe Jesus holds this before us as a reminder of who we are called to be and how we are to live in relationship with God and one another.
Let’s not let the headlines drive us to despair. Mother Teresa often reminded her sisters that Christians were not called to be successful, but they were called to be faithful. The call of Jesus is not to be perfect, it’s not even to have success as the world may measure it; it is, instead to be faithful – to live in a heavenly way in all times – whether they be the end times or not. All Christ asks of us is that we let Him come – let “Advent” happen – in our hearts. In doing so, we are empowered to live with our God, our world, and our fellow humans in a way that will not cause us to be afraid or worried or even surprised at the Master’s return- but overjoyed.
There is a set of commercials that start to run at various times of the year that focus on “Pass it on.” The one I’m about to describe is based on a true story. “This poignant moment in a concert hall reminds us how even the most embarrassing situations can be turned around with a little patience and encouragement.”
The scene opens with two parents wondering where their little boy is. Next you see the crowd talking amongst themselves – then to the backstage door that says no public access. Back to the parents looking around the hall…no one else paying attention. Then you hear the one finger playing of “Twinkle, twinkle, Little Star,” by this little boy on stage. As he starts playing people start to quiet down, others just ignore, a shot to the parents that look mortified.
In walks the pianist. He is a tall figure with a look that would kill on his face. Instead of scolding the boy, he leans over him and whispers in the boy’s ear, “Keep going. Don’t quit. Keep on playing.” The crowd now quiets down and pays attention. Together they make a simple song into this beautiful concerto with runs and trills.
That, my sisters and brothers, is one picture of Jesus. I don’t know, maybe for some of you listening, it does appear we are living at the end of time. Perhaps your own personal world may be coming apart and you are at a loss as to how to go on. Jesus bids you to “live heavenly.”
As the dawn of Advent breaks once again this day, as we turn our hearts toward the coming of Jesus, may we pause, take a deep breath, and “aim at heaven.” Can we perhaps commit ourselves, again, to the hope that in Christ, life makes sense – even in the darkest of times?
By God’s grace, may this Advent open our eyes to the wonderful hope and joy for us in the coming of Jesus. He has come. And his “two minute warning” is merely a reminder to live knowing that He is here…whispering, “Don’t quit. I am right here. Keep playing… I love you…I am right…here.” Amen.
Nov. 15 - “Why Are We Here? ” - Elder Mike Barron
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 15th, 2020
Elder Mike Barron
Hudson Falls, NY
“Why Are We Here?”
Preached on 11.15.20 at First Presbyterian Church of Hudson Falls
Focus: “Jesus said, ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another tow, to another one, to each according to his ability.’” Mathew 25: 14-15
This morning I would like to start with a deep philosophical and theological question that has been pondered over through the centuries by learned and simple people alike. It’s a question that has caused a lot of head scratching, deep thinking, and answers like, “I dunno,” as well as complicated answers that fill books. The question goes like this, “Why were you put on this planet at this particular time and in this particular place?” Or to put it simply, “Why are we here?” “What is the purpose of your life?”
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi Concentration Camps observed how some people were able to survive the terrible conditions and concluded that there was one factor that enabled those people to endure the impossible – it was the driving conviction that there was still some purpose in their lives, that they still had something to live for, some important work yet to do.
“What is the purpose of my life here and now on this planet?” Let’s go to the Book of Genesis – the book of beginnings – and see what it tells us about why we are here? In the beginning humans are put here to care for the earth and the living things on this earth and to live in relationships – with the rest of creation, with each other and with God.
We also note that when God created the world there was evening and morning, sunrise and sunset. That means God gives us our days. God gives us our time and we are told that he was very pleased with what he had given us. Note also that he gives us days to work and days to rest. So while we carry time around with us, we wear time on our wrists or nowadays our phones and live as though we own time, time is actually God’s, not ours. God made it. God owns it. God gives it to us as a gift.
When we look at the opening chapters of the Bible and then follow the message through its pages it’s clear that God puts us on this earth to look after the gifts he has given us. This is not just about looking after the world and not abusing it, but also looking after everything and everyone that God has given to us. That includes our bodies and our abilities, the people he has given us in our families, our friends, and our sisters and brothers in the church. God entrusts to us and wants us to look after his world and that includes the physical world and its environment, the people he has placed in our lives – those we know well and those we don’t know personally.
In all of this there is something worth noting. The Bible never talks about us being here to get as much as we can out of the world for ourselves. The Bible is always pointing us away from ourselves to God or to others.
In Jesus’ parable this morning, a man is about to go away on a journey and so he entrusts his servants with his property, “I am going away. I want you to look after what is mine.” Then he gives to each of his servants various amounts of his assets for them to manage and we note that he doesn’t give them all the same amount – he gives to each one according to his ability. He is not asking the impossible; he knows his workers and simply wants them to manage well what he knows they are quite capable of taking care of. There is no favoritism. All he asks is that each one is faithful in their task. He says, “In time, I will return, and then I want to know how well you have managed what I have given to you.”
The question that you and I are left to consider, “How well am I using what God has given to me?”
How much do I do for myself and how much is for others? As I have already said, when I look in my Bible I can’t find anything which says that I am to use my time, my talents, my wealth, the resources available to me through work to advance my own cause, to make myself more comfortable, to be more respected and become the envy of everyone else – the emphasis being on the “I”, “Me,” and “Myself.” I don’t see any of that in the Bible but I do see a lot about others. I am here for the other person – to help care for those that are sick, to feed those that are hungry, to try and bring hope to those that see none, and to help those that have no voice or protection.
The Bible even suggests that the reason I work is so I am able to be more generous – the more I earn, the more I can give away (2 Corinthians 9:11) Here’s a challenge:
If I work so long and so hard that I don’t have time for my family, don’t have time for my church, don’t have time for God – how well am I using what God has entrusted to me? The ironic thing is that we work hard and long hours to provide for others, for those who depend on us to earn an income, but if all they get from us is our income and never actually see us, or we are too tired to be of any use to anyone, how wisely are we really using our time? If that’s how I have been managing what God has given me, then how will I answer my Creator when He comes back and asks me to give an account of what I have done?
On the other hand, if I waste my time, and I am lazy, unproductive and do nothing to benefit someone else, then how do I answer the Creator who asks me to give an account of how well I have managed the gifts he has entrusted to me?
When we answer the question, “what is the purpose of my life,” the answer God is looking for is how our work, our money, our time, our abilities, our leisure time have actually benefitted the world and the people around us in some way. God is not looking to see what legacy we have left behind, but what people we have touched, in what way is our world a better place because we have lived here for however many years we have in this life. Some are very gifted in such a way that they can be an Albert Schweitzer or a Mother Theresa and leave a legacy that is famous because they touched so many lives and books have been written about them. That’s like the servant who was given five talents and faithfully did great things with that money.
But there was also the servant who was given just a small amount and with that small amount he was faithful and able to do great things. Using what we have been given to serve others and honor God, no matter how humble that might be, we will receive the commendation, “Well done, you good and faithful servant…Come in and share my happiness.” (Matthew 25:23)
When we answer the question, “what is the purpose of my life,” will we be able to say that we have used the time God has given us to get to know him more, serve him more, share him more with others?
As your worship leader, I believe every sermon should and must have some good news in it. The truth is that there is a lot in this parable that leaves us feeling guilty which really isn’t good news. The last words of the parable echo in our ears, “As for this useless servant – throw him outside in the darkness; there he will cry and gnash his teeth.” (Matthew 25:30)
Sometimes we need a challenge, we need to rethink, to reevaluate. Jesus forces us to do that, as we listen to this story. The parable forces us to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of my life? Why have I been put here on this earth? Why has Jesus called me to be his disciple and made me part of the people of God in his church? How am I using the time, abilities, and resources that God has given me to be a blessing to others?
And as we prayerfully think through these things we will fall on our knees and acknowledge how often we have failed and how often we have believed that life’s purpose has been all about us to the exclusion of everyone else.
Sisters and brothers hear the good news: Jesus came to take on the heavy load of guilt that we bear. He came to take upon himself our failures, our self-centeredness, our selfishness, our inability to use what God has given to benefit the people around us. Jesus died for those moments when we let our sinful nature overwhelm the new life that we have in Christ. He forgives us when we think that our purpose in life is to accumulate as much as we can for ourselves and forget that we have been blessed to be a blessing to others. He gives us the Holy Spirit to renew us and fill our hearts with new desires and new plans and new ways of service to God and the people in our lives.
 “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Fankl (2006, Beacon Press)
Nov. 8 - “Repairing Broken Walls ” - Rev. Plank
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 8th, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“Repairing Broken Walls”
Text: Isaiah 58:12: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
Scripture Lesson: Isaiah 58:9-12
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that each of us has work to do in healing our nation to the end that hearers will engage is self-examination and faithfully undertake that work.
Prayer for Illumination: God of all people, you call us together from our own unique locations to be your Beloved Community. Help us to live up to that call. Open our ears to hear your Word to us and give us the wisdom to understand it. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Scriptural Context: These words from Isaiah were written after the Exile, when the Prophet was seeking to guide God’s people back to wholeness. Listen for God’s Word.
This Wednesday will mark one hundred and two years. One hundred and two years since, “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” the Armistice was signed in 1918 at Le Francport that ended fighting on land, sea, and air between the Allied Forces and Germany, their last remaining opponent. It was signed at 5:45am, and came into effect 5 hours and 15 minutes later. Another 2,738 men died that morning before 11:00.
The First World War was arguably the most devastating and brutal war the world has ever seen. It combined the old tactics of setting armies in lines against each other, with brand new devastating weapons that we know today. And so it was a war of attrition, with both sides digging trenches and taking turns sending men “over the top” to run into the No Man’s Land in between and be cut down by gunfire from the other side. The strategy was to keep sending men to their deaths until one side had had enough. There were an estimated 40 million casualties, with 9 to 11 million combat deaths, 11 to 13 million civilian deaths, 2 million dead from disease, and another 6 million missing and presumed dead. Even taking the conservative estimates, over 10% of the entire population of Europe died in that war. It was a staggering and sickening event in which human lives were thrown away by the thousands every day.
But also in World War I come the stories of the Christmas Truces. You remember those? There are many of them, and sometimes they have elements in them that are maybe fictionalized or embellished, but the truth of the matter is that there places along the front when, on Christmas Day in 1914, the fighting stopped along the lines. And depending on the location, one side or the other would should across No Man’s Land, “Merry Christmas!” and slowly, Allied and German troops, would venture unarmed out of their trenches. They met their opponents and traded cigarettes and souvenirs. They sang carols and shared beverages. In some cases games of soccer broke out.
These truces were completely unauthorized. When higher command found out about them they would order a return to the fighting, and the troops would delay. In the middle of one of the deadliest wars in human history, spontaneous peace broke out between armed enemies. These were men who, for whatever reason, even though those in the opposing trench were actively killing them just yesterday, decided that despite their orders, they would not fight. They would instead lower their defenses and build relationships, they would see the humanity in their opponents, they would build each other up instead of tearing each other down. It only lasted for a moment in the scope of the war, but it is incredible to remember it and to be reminded of what we humans can rise to.
It’s no exaggeration what Isaiah preaches to his people when he says they “will rebuild the ancient ruins and raise up the age-old foundations;” that they “will be called Repairer of Broken Walls and Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (58:12). We can do magnificent, holy, and beautiful things when we come together, even if we are coming together out of crisis.
Isaiah wrote to these people after their lives had been upended by the Exile. Rampant corruption had led to a weakened state which had been easily defeated by a foreign enemy that had carried them off into slavery for 3 generations. And as the end of the Exile arrived, this great event that they hoped would fix things, Isaiah reminded them that they still had work to do: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (v. 9-10). Isaiah’s calls to justice are throughout the whole book, but here he adds this interesting piece about doing away with “the pointing finger and malicious talk” and I think that’s worth talking about for a bit this morning.
I think that going into this presidential election, most all of us in this country recognized how bitterly divided our nation is. And there cannot be division that deep and that painful that is caused by one thing. There have been so many factors that have contributed to our finding ourselves where we are today: escalation in rhetoric, a global pandemic, economic turmoil, racism, sexism, classism, shifting demographics and power dynamics, 24-hour news networks, social media, a devaluing of the art of leadership, violence, intimidation, cancel culture, and on and on and on.
And so I want to affirm that our situation has a lot of nuance to it – even if these days it’s more fashionable to paint things in black and white. And I want to acknowledge too, that as a white, heterosexual, cis-gender man, my day-to-day actual experience has been relatively constant throughout all the presidential administrations I’ve seen. That’s not true for everyone. But what I want to talk about isn’t politics, it’s human nature.
I told you last week that this week I was going to talk about unity no matter who won. Joe Biden did, but I would be preaching this same sermon to you if Donald Trump had won a second term. Because the president is only a reflection of the character of the nation, for good or ill. No one person can fix a country. And no one person can destroy it. That’s up to us, as the people. And so, I’m going to make what might be a bold assumption, which is that if you are a U.S. Citizen and you are in this room, or if you’re a U.S. Citizen watching this within the boundaries of the United States, you care about being a part of this country. After elections there are people who expatriate, and I don’t fault anybody for that. But if you stay, I assume that you care about being a part of the nation and about it being better. And so that assumption is what I’m going to work with this morning.
There are people who feel hurt and angry about our nation today. There are people who have felt hurt and angry over the last four years. And there were people who felt hurt and angry in the 8 years preceding that. And our hurt and anger nearly always influences our behavior. It influences how we speak to each other and how we speak about each other. If we’re hurt and angry we want change, but if we’re hurt and angry, we might not go about it in the most skillful way. True change involves changing your heart, not just your actions. And if you hear nothing else that I say this morning, please hear this: no one has ever changed their heart because they were berated into doing so.
People change their behavior because they’ve been berated, absolutely, but not their hearts. And their heart has to change. And as much as it is not your responsibility how others see and view you, you do have some agency in how they see and view you. And you can choose to speak and write and relate in a way that they might hear what you have to say. Or not. But if we want to be a United States again – and once more, I acknowledge here that I’m making some assumptions – and if we want to move forward together as a nation, we must do away with the pointing finger and malicious talk.
We must do away with blame and scapegoating. We must do away with cancel culture. We must do away with demonizing “the other side.” We must do away with painting anyone we disagree with as some monolithic caricature. Because that doesn’t work. It’s never worked when someone has shouted at you that you’re wrong, and it won’t work when you shout at them. We have our beliefs, we have fortified our positions, and like those soldiers in World War I, we fire from our trenches and hurt each other until someone says they’ve had enough.
But that’s not how peace comes. That’s not how peace came that Christmas. Peace came by a few men who were courageous enough – who led from the heart enough – to lower their own defenses and see the humanity on the other side of No Man’s Land. That involves tremendous risk, because they could have been hurt again. But they led from their hearts. They started within. And that starts with the great tenet of the Reformed Traditions called the Doctrine of Total Depravity, which sounds oppressive, but really is the idea that even at our best and purest, there is none of us who is not in need of God’s grace. And if we can remember the countless times that we have behaved unskillfully and yet have found grace extended to us, then just maybe we can see unskillful behavior in others and remember that they too laugh and love and are loved. And we can begin to do away with the pointing finger and with malicious talk.
And instead we can begin to rebuild. We can start by rebuilding relationships. I’m not saying that’s not challenging work, it is. But it’s a place we can start. And I’m not saying it’s your responsibility to heal relationships with people who have been vicious to you, it’s not. But if you want to, sometimes it’s possible.
What I’m saying is that we have a chance to rebuild. We have a chance to put away brokenness and division. We have a chance, right now, today, to examine our own lives and do away with the pointing finger and malicious talk and to begin to heal the division in our nation. We had that chance yesterday too, and every day in the weeks and months before that, but it’s the first day of the week, the first day after the election results, the sun is shining, and today feels like a good day to start something new.
So let’s do away with cancel culture. Let’s do away with unfriending over politics. Let’s do away with the pointing finger and malicious talk. Let’s listen to each other. Let’s speak in ways that invite others to hear us. Let’s rebuild the ruins. Let’s raise up the old foundations. Let’s repair the broken walls and restore the streets with dwellings. Let’s come together and have a hand in building God’s Kingdom in our nation and on this earth. Let’s let our light rise in the darkness and our night become like the noonday. And let’s move forward together as God’s Beloved Community. Amen.