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July 26 - "Counter Culture" - Rev. Plank
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 26, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
Text: Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Scripture Lessons: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that Jesus offers an alternative to the embittered and toxic lives we often choose to live to the end that hearers will find wholeness and peace in following Jesus’ way.
Prayer for Illumination: Gracious God, open our ears and minds and hearts as we hear your Word this morning. Speak to us through whatever barriers we put up against you and empower us to live as your people in the world. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30: After John the Baptist was thrown into prison, John’s disciples came to hear Jesus speak and to ask him if he was the one about whom John had prophesied. Jesus answered their question and then preached about the brokenness in the world. Listen for God’s Word here.
At a certain age, many children experiment with cruelty. As they learn about ways to relate to people, as they explore how they want to be perceived, as they mimic what they see modeled in their lives, they often try on cruelty as one of many options. Anti-bullying campaigns have worked hard in recent years to address this kind of behavior.
It’s what is seen on playgrounds around the country when a group of kids gangs up on another child and taunts her and ridicules her. It’s the kind of thing you see where the questions they ask their victim will get twisted around so she can’t possibly give a right answer. “Why are you staring at me?” “I wasn’t.” “So you think I’m ugly?” “No.” “So you want to fight me?” “No.” “So why are you staring at me?” “I wasn’t.” And on it goes as the girl looks frantically for help and finds only danger in each of the faces she looks to.
It’s like that famous scene in Goodfellas when Joe Pesci says “I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?” When Jesus speaks to the crowd he compares them to this kind of childish cruelty: to children who sit in the marketplace and offer challenges to each other that have no safe answer. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance. We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (v. 17).
Now those verses aren’t always interpreted as the cruel taunts of children, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to me. The Greek text says that these children called out to each other, that there were groups of children saying these things back and forth. And it sounds to me like those kinds of cruel questions that are put forth to trap people. “We played the flute, but you didn’t dance. Don’t you like our music?” And the other group, also performing music, said “well we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn. Don’t you care about all this sad stuff?” It sounds to me like children who are setting each other up. When one child says, “this is a happy song, why aren’t you dancing?” the other says, “why are you dancing, this is a funeral song?”
The word translated as “children” in this text is not the same one that the gospel writers use when they talk about letting the children come to Jesus. The word used to describe children who are as innocent as babies is a different word than the one used to describe children who are being childish. And it’s this second word that we find in this passage. And so when I read these verses I hear childish children being bitter with each other.
And that interpretation is solidified for me because Jesus goes on to say that this generation is like those children, because when John the Baptist came, pursuing purity by fasting from food and drink, everyone said “He is possessed by a demon.” But when Jesus came and both ate and drank, they said “He is a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (vv. 18-19, paraphrased). A no-win situation.
The generation Jesus describes that engages in this kind of petty cruelty and bullying is embroiled in bitterness and toxicity. And we haven’t exactly escaped their condition, have we? We are in many ways living in a zero-sum, no-win, bitterly challenging landscape all the time. If a senator votes against a gun control bill, people on one side will accuse her of trying to build a lawless hellscape where there are no consequences for actions. If she votes for the same bill, people on the other side will accuse her of fascism and say she’s trying to build the United States of North Korea. If you’re pro-choice, you’re a baby killer, if you’re pro-life, you’re anti-woman. If you’re in favor of increasing the military budget, you’re a blood-thirsty imperialist. If you’re opposed to it, you’re an idealistic coward.
We are surrounded by this kind of dangerous bitterness and toxicity where taking a stand on anything brings ridicule, and any stand we see taken fills us with a spiteful glee as we conspire about how to tear that person down and poke holes in their ideas. And we scream that “If you really were paying attention, you’d see how stupid that sounds!” If we’re lucky, this bitterness leads only to mistrust, disillusionment, cynicism, and anger. But if we’re not lucky – and I think at this point you could make the case that we haven’t been – it can tear our country apart.
We are four months into this global pandemic, the likes of which the world has never seen. I’m not saying this is as deadly as the Bubonic Plague – it’s certainly not. But through a perfect storm of under-estimating its effects, combined with how rapidly humans travel around the world, it has covered the globe. There are 195 countries in the world, and all but seven of them have had confirmed cases – and most of those are small island nations. That’s never happened before. And yet, in this crisis facing all of humanity, this opportunity for all of us to come together in common because we are fighting for a common cause like never before in human history, this has turned into one more wedge to drive us apart.
Are you pro-mask or anti-mask? Is Covid a big deal or is it just the flu? Is this real or all a conspiracy? Also, who did you vote for? In the U.S. alone we have lost 145,000 lives due to this disease. That’s more people than any war in our history besides World War II and the Civil War – and all in four months. And even if you believe those numbers are inflated – even if they are grossly, criminally inflated and for the sake of argument we say that the real number is only half that 145,000, the only additional war that slips ahead of this pandemic for number of deaths would be World War I.
And we fight about it. “You’re wearing a mask! You’re a coward! Don’t let the government control you!” “You don’t have a mask on! You’re anti-science! You’re a horrible person!” “We played the flute for you and you did not dance. We sang funeral songs and you did not mourn.”
Don’t you get tired of all that bitterness? Doesn’t all the name-calling and pettiness exhaust you? Don’t you ever just want it to stop? To stop tearing apart and to stop seeing others tear each other apart, to stop being cynical, to stop being hurt, to stop hurting. Don’t you feel worn out?
I’m not saying give up on what you believe to be right. I’m not saying abandon your principles. But this strategy that we’re engaging as a culture has nothing but deepen divides at a time when we desperately need to unite and move forward.
The generation Jesus spoke to, the crowds around him, those who were like cruel and petty children, had reached a point where they could take no more. Factions had formed all over, violence was beginning to bubble under the surface, you didn’t know who you could trust. And some people were tired of running from all that. Some people were tired of fighting. And to them, and to us, Jesus offered an alternative to the toxic culture they lived in – a counter culture.
The alternative that Jesus offers is far more radical than anything we saw in the 1960s. Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (vv. 28-30).
The way we have practiced these last months and years is not the only way. There are options beyond bitterness and negativity and despair. There are options beyond toxicity and spitefulness. There are options beyond physical, psychological, and emotional violence. There are options beyond laying snares for your fellow human beings.
Jesus says: Come, you who are tired of being hurt and find healing, yes, but also learn how valuable you are in God’s eyes and increase your sense of self-worth so that you won’t allow others to abuse you anymore. Come, you who are tired of hurting others and find forgiveness, yes, but also learn how to love in a way that is not self-serving, but serves others. Come, you who are afraid, and find courage. Come, you are in grief, and find peace. Come, you who are lonely, and find community. Come, you who are searching, and find a welcome. Come, all who are weary and burdened, and find rest and peace and a future in God’s Kingdom. Amen.
July 19 - "Pain and Purpose" - Rev. Plank
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 19th, 2019
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“Pain and Purpose”
Text: Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of [adoption].”
Scripture Lesson: Romans 8:12-25
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that God brings purpose out of pain to the end that hearers stay engaged with discomfort and open to where it might lead.
Prayer for Illumination: God of all people, you who created and ordered liberty, send your Spirit on us to set us free from the chains that bind us. Open our minds and hearts to follow you into the freedom you promise. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Scriptural Context: Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome in the hopes that they would understand righteousness and see how chasing after it would lead to freedom from that which binds us. Listen for God’s Word.
A good friend of mine was a wrestler and rugby player in school and into college. And when he was 20 years old, he found out that the nagging pain in his knee was a rare form of cancer. They ended up amputating his leg above the knee. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to lose a limb. Particularly to lose a limb in the prime of your early twenties. And especially if you were an athlete and training, and using your physical body was a part of how you moved through the world.
But he came through the procedure like a champion. He did physical therapy and rehabilitation and learned to use a prosthetic. He learned to walk again, then learned to run again. And today, 18 years later, if he were wearing long pants and you met him casually, you’d never guess that he had a prosthetic leg. And one thing he told me the doctors said to him when he was recovering from the surgery that took his leg, was that being an athlete was a tremendous advantage for his recovery: not because of his health, but because athletes intuitively understand that there is pain worth facing and worth embracing, because it brings growth.
Any serious physical training at a competitive level yields pain: the pain of burning muscles, the pain of gasping for air, the pain of soreness, the pain of injury, and the pain of disappointment. But an athlete knows in her bones, that on the other side of that pain is growth. She knows that she cannot become the strongest and fastest and best without being willing to engage with pain. And so when she meets pain, she learns from it, and it makes her better. That attitude is what my friend had, and it’s what allowed him to face and engage with the pain of recovery rather than running away from it; and it’s what’s allowed him to arrive where he is now.
But that’s difficult for a lot of us. We want to run from pain and hardship because it is painful and hard. Pain with value is difficult to understand and so another example is the one that Paul uses here in his letter to the Romans. And that’s the example of a woman in labor. Any of you mothers know way more about that than I do. And many of you fathers know a thing about it too. It’s hard for me to imagine that level of pain. I’m around pain and exertion and intense physical effort quite a lot, and Lauren’s labors have been absolutely staggering to watch for me. But what comes at the end of those? A child. And even her first labor, the one where we lost our very first child, as tragic as it was, was overwhelmingly beautiful.
And so Paul dives into this metaphor and this discussion of pain and frustration and what can come of it, and examines it because as technologically advanced as we are today, we’re still just people. A friend’s grandfather when I was in high school would say “Folks are folks.” And the church in Rome, I imagine, had the same aversion to pain that so many of us do.
The Roman church was bitterly divided. People hated each other. There was disagreement that ran so deep it became uncivil. It’s not a stretch to imagine that even something simple as the hymn you chose to sing on your walk, or the prayers you started your day with, or the clothes you wore, or whether or not you wore a mask would be enough to start an argument as people leapt to conclusions.
That’s a painful way to live life as we all now know (if somehow we were lucky enough to avoid that knowledge up to this point). This was supposed to be the church. This was a group founded on a common identity, with common ideals and they were tearing themselves apart. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s difficult to overcome without intervention. So Paul tried to do some damage control.
And he took this tack that does something we as a culture are wildly uncomfortable with: he talks about nuance. We don’t do that much anymore. You are either for me or against me. You’re on my team or the opposite team. If you wear a mask, you must hate Donald Trump. If you support Black Lives Matter, you must oppose the police. If you are a Republican, you must be anti-science. If you like to fish, you must hate gun control. That kind of monolithic thinking is very effective at uniting small groups against an enemy. But it’s a terrible way to move a broad group of people forward into anything resembling peace and prosperity.
And so culturally, we’ve boxed ourselves into corners and stirred up an environment where nuance is weakness, changing your mind is betraying your cause, and you are either with me or against me. We are as bitterly divided as the church in Rome all those years ago.
But still Paul persists. And still he insists here that things are more complicated than we sometimes think. And the nuance Paul injects is this: I know the division is painful. But don’t wish that pain away just yet.
“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (vv. 20-21). In other words, he says to the church in Rome that God is letting this frustration continue in the hopes that you will learn from it. Those are difficult words. The idea of a good and merciful God allowing for pain is hard. What kind of God would allow this kind of suffering to continue? Would allow for racism and violence and unrest and disease and corruption and death to continue?
I watched Harvey the other day running on pavement just as fast as he could. He was wearing Crocs. Crocs are terrible shoes to run in. They’re too bulky and too floppy, especially if you’re 6. He’s tripped and fallen before and I’ve talked with him about how it’s a bad idea to run in those Crocs because he trips on them. So I watched him run, all out, in his Crocs, on the pavement, knowing that exactly what did happen would happen, and he tripped and he fell and he scraped his knees and his hands and his chin. And he bled. And he cried. And I held him and comforted him and cleaned him up and put Band-Aids on. And when he had recovered, he wiped his eyes and said, “I don’t think I should run in those Crocs anymore.” What kind of God would allow for suffering? The kind of God that knows that there are hard lessons, important lessons, good lessons, that can only be learned through pain.
I want to be really clear that I don’t believe that God contrives situations of suffering for us. But if a loving, compassionate, caring, open-hearted parent, can allow their child to get hurt, knowing what lessons lie on the other side of that, I can imagine situations where God might let things play out. There are things I know about myself and my marriage and human nature and God and love and provision that I only know because I went through the catastrophic pain of losing my first daughter. They are lessons that came at a price so terrible that there were times when I thought that paying that price would break me. But now I wouldn’t give those lessons up for anything.
That’s how I understand the idea that God would allow for suffering. It’s hard. And you may not agree with me. And I may not be right. So I call on the Reformed Tradition’s maxim that we are Reformed and Always Reforming According to the Will of God – in other words, this is my best guess, and if God shows me a better way, I’ll be glad to take it. But my understanding is that God transforms pain into purpose.
And so we have now this nation bitterly divided, particularly when it comes to the Covid-19 Pandemic, and how to address issues of race. Feelings are hurt. Relationships have been damaged. Trust has been betrayed. And so many of us are tired. So many of us want to just walk away. So many of us have had enough. But if I can tweak Paul’s analogy, and borrow from the amazing Elizabeth Akinwale (an elite CrossFit athlete) – this cultural pain is like training. This angst, these hurt feelings, this offense, this discomfort, this outrage… this is like training.
If you throw in the towel when youre training becomes uncomfortable, you don’t grow. If you set the weight down, stop running, stop pushing, when your muscles start to burn or your breath comes in gasps, then all the work leading up to that moment won’t count for nearly as much. When it becomes uncomfortable is the exact moment to dig in and keep pushing forward, to embrace the pain, to engage the pain, to embrace like a friend and to say to it, “What do you have to teach me?”
A labor coach Lauren worked with when she was pregnant with Harvey said, “I see women in labor who find that pain and shake their heads and say ‘no, no, no!’ The time for ‘no’ was 10 months ago. Now it’s time for ‘yes.’” I know it hurts right now. I know we’re tired right now. I know a lot of us wish things could be like they were when we were comfortable and not confronted with all this stuff we don’t want to talk about.
But keep going. I know it seems easier to turn away, but we are at the precipice of breaking through. Our people, our nation are almost to the other side of this pain. Don’t let this crisis go to waste. What do you have to teach us, Coronavirus? What do you have to teach us, fear? What do you have to teach us, hatred? What do you have to teach us, division? We are subjected to frustration, but subjected, Paul says, “in the hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
All of creation is groaning right now. But maybe it’s not groaning because it’s in its death throes; maybe it’s groaning because it’s in its labor pains. And the difference in perspective here is real and it exists within you. Is this pain an affront to you or is it a teacher? Will it accost you and harm you, or will it be like the man who fought with Jacob until Jacob wrestled a blessing from him?
The night is long and dark. The labor pains are more intense and they’re coming more closely together. It seems like they’ll go on forever. The pain is so great that it’s almost unbearable if you’re in the midst of it, and it frightens even those of us who are just witnesses to it. It seems impossible to recover from and it seems endless. But the morning will come. The sun will rise. And as impossible as it seems, something new will be birthed from this. And when it is, we will be that much closer to our liberation from decay, that much closer to the freedom and glory of the children of God, that much closer to living the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Amen.
July 5 - "Independence Day" - Rev. Plank
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 5th, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
Text: Romans 6:18: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”
Scripture Lesson: Romans 6:12-23
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that God calls us to live in and work for freedom for all people to the end that hearers experience gratitude for their own freedom and be moved to work for freedom for others.
Prayer for Illumination: God of Liberty, you who set the captives free, unchain our minds and hearts as we hear your Word to us this morning, and let it liberate us. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Scriptural Context: Paul’s letter to Rome was written to a church in crisis: one facing persecution from outside and conflict on the inside. And in his letter, he writes about righteousness. Listen for God’s Word.