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May 23 - "Wind and Fire - Rev. Michael Plank

Day of Pentecost

May 23rd, 2021

Rev. Michael S. Plank

Hudson Falls, NY

“Wind and Fire”

Text: Acts 2:2,4: “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

Scripture Lesson: Acts 1:15-2:12

Proposition: I propose to experientially show that the Spirit brings us new life and sets us on the right course to the end that hearers be open and receptive to the Spirit’s leading.

Prayer for Illumination: Spirit of God, open our minds and hearts like you did for the church on Pentecost. Bring us God’s Word and give us the courage and the power and the wisdom to understand and to follow. Amen.

Acts 1:15-21: After the Resurrection, Jesus taught the disciples again, and then was taken up to heaven. Left seemingly on their own, the early church set out to follow God’s call. Listen for God’s Word.

Not too long after we moved here to Hudson Falls, Lauren and I flew to Wisconsin to join my family and some dear family friends for a camping trip. Until I was 16, these friends and our family had camped together every single summer, but this was the first summer that all of us had been together in over 5 years. We camped at the same campground in the same campsite that we always used to: a clearing that had woods on 3 sides of it and opened onto a meadow on the fourth side. That week was miserably hot and humid and worst of all, still. For three days the weather was sticky and still and miserable.

On the fourth day a storm was forecast for the late afternoon. The heat and stillness were still pressing, but there was a new kind of tension in the air. About 5:00 we decided to pack up all the camp chairs and loose items so that if the storm broke we could just bolt for the tents and not have to do any pickup in the rain. About 5:10 I was sitting in one of the last remaining camp chairs with my back to the meadow, looking up at the sky. It was still hot and still and the air was still humid and heavy. And as I looked up, suddenly over the trees came a black wall of clouds. About 5:10 and 30 seconds I said “Wow, look at those clouds.” And at about 5:11 all hell broke loose.

Winds blasted through the trees. In less than a minute we decided that the tents wouldn’t be enough and we should take shelter in the cinder block bathroom buildings. And as we started to hurry that way, we looked back toward the campsite and saw the first tree get ripped out of the ground and tossed through the air. There were more after that: cracks and groans as full-grown hardwood trees were snapped in two or torn out of the dry earth. We sprinted through the wind, feeling our clothes whip around our bodies, trying not to get blown over, running to shelter which was about 300 yards away. By the time we got there, less than 5 minutes after we first saw the clouds, it was as dark as night.

The winds made whitecaps in the swimming pool. They uprooted trees. They destroyed RVs and playground equipment and fences. We saw the power and the violence of those winds. Thank goodness they didn’t pass through concrete walls. Because I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have winds like that tear through the room where we were.

Unlike the disciples. On Pentecost they were together when “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). We think so often of the Holy Spirit as a passive, intangible bird or something, but here the Spirit arrives with the violent winds that can destroy property. And then, inexplicably, fire danced over their heads. It must have been terrifying. A fiery tempest swirling through the room while the believers wondered if they’d be burned to death, or if their worship space would catch fire and trap them inside. When all they had wanted was to celebrate the holiday.

They had gathered to celebrate Pentecost, which before Christians adopted it was the Greek name for the 50th day after Passover. In Hebrew it was called Shavuot – which is the festival of weeks. Seven weeks after the 2nd day of Passover, Jews would gather to celebrate and remember the day that their people received the Law from God at Mount Sinai. Most of the followers of Jesus at this point still held to Jewish traditions and had gathered to celebrate the festival on the 50th day, as the Torah commanded. They expected it to be a holiday celebration like any other. But instead of simple prayer and singing, they were met with this firestorm.

But to gain a little understanding of the firestorm, perhaps we should look a back a little further to the beginning of our text. Jesus had chosen twelve of his disciples to be apostles – which is a Greek word that means people who would be sent out – but one of those apostles, Judas Iscariot, had of course, betrayed Jesus and then had died. So Peter said to the disciples that in order to fulfill Christ’s calling to them, they should pick another person to become an apostle. There were about 120 followers of Jesus, but because Jesus had picked 12 disciples to be special apostles, and because now they were down to 11, Peter felt that that original 12 should be preserved.

The other apostles agreed and so they picked two candidates: Joseph and Matthias. They then prayed that God would show them who would be called to replace Judas and they cast lots – which means basically that they rolled the dice – to see who would win. The lots fell to Matthias, which made Matthias the twelfth apostle and meant that Joseph would not be welcomed into the inner circle. So the first act of the new church after Jesus ascended into heaven, was to vote on who was in and who was out. And the very next thing that happens in the text is that the Spirit violently assaults their Pentecost celebration.

We so earnestly believe that we know what God calls us to do. But we just do not have the luxury of calling God on the phone and having direct and clear two-way communication. And so we pray and then we listen for God’s response in a particularly strong feeling, or an opening of opportunities, or a change of circumstance, because that’s the best we can do. But we interpret those feelings and opportunities and circumstances, and sometimes we interpret them wrongly.

For a long time the church believed that slavery was acceptable, that women should not speak in worship, that the divorced should be barred from ministry, that gays and lesbians were not called by God to serve the church. We’ve believed that Muslims were our enemies, and that Jews should persecuted for their supposed guilt in the crucifixion of Jesus. We’ve believed that God gave our people this continent to subjugate and dominate as we saw fit, with no consideration for people, wildlife, or landscapes present when we arrived. All of these things we believed were God’s will. People who read the Bible and went to church and prayed daily believed that God was calling them to do these things. And how wrong they were.

And so we have come a very long way, thanks to the correction of the Holy Spirit. But still we err. Still there are things we hold onto mistakenly. Still there are decisions we make about who is in and who is out because of what we believe to be God’s call, and still we mess that up. The Spirit is always moving and always inspiring and always correcting our errors and bringing us closer to what God desires for us. And in 200 years, I have no doubt that the church in whatever form it takes will look back on us and shake their heads saying, “can you believe they thought God called them to do that?”

Peter and the apostles thought that God’s particular call was to only 12, and with how significant numbers are in Jewish tradition it is probably not by accident that the believers numbered 120 – a nice, even multiple of 12. The apostles were sure they had it figured out and then on Pentecost the Spirit whipped through their midst and set fire to them and suddenly the 120 there were all preaching the word of God – not just the 12 who had been sent out. And people gathered – and Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontusians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Cyrenes, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs all heard the word of God in their own language, and the church grew that day from 120 to over 3,000 until the vast majority were people that the apostles had never considered would be a part of the church. The apostles had said: “This is the church,” and the Spirit tore through their midst and said, “No, it’s bigger.”

And this is the story of the miracle of Pentecost and the book of Acts. It is the story of the church attempting to find its way, and being ever challenged by the Spirit to reach more people, to love more people, to welcome more people. So the church expanded to include both Jews and Greeks, but the Spirit said, “No, bigger.” So Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch – a man with different skin color, different anatomy, different social status – and baptized him. And the Spirit said, “No, bigger.” So they welcomed in Saul, chief persecutor of Christians after his conversion, and the Spirit said, “No, bigger.” So they welcomed in Cornelius and their Roman persecutors, and the Spirit said, “No, bigger.” So they went out in every direction and found whoever would listen, and as the church continued to grow, the Spirit continued to say, “No, bigger.”

And just since I’ve been the pastor here, I’ve seen the Spirit blow through this church as we thought that marriage was maybe only for a man and woman, but the Spirit said, “No, bigger.” We thought maybe ordination was only for heterosexual members, but the Spirit said, “No, bigger.” We thought that the ramp out front made us accessible, but the Spirit said, “No, bigger” and we put in an elevator. We thought then that we’d done it, made it so that everyone can worship with us, and then the Spirit said, “No, bigger,” and now we’re examining a total overhaul of our sound and streaming systems so that our vision of hospitality and visibility for our church can grow even stronger. And here we stand today, all of us in this room by the grace of the Spirit who blew and burned through that early church to convince that small group that we too had a seat in God’s Kingdom.

And we still pray for that Spirit to come with fire and wind and renew, restore, and guide our church. And we give thanks to that same Spirit, for once someone said that we did not have a home in God’s house, but the Spirit blew and burned and bought us a place. Once someone said we could never belong, but the Spirit roared and flamed and fought for our belonging. Once someone said that God was not for us, but the Spirit tore through buildings and set hearts on fire, and today, here we stand, marked as God’s own, forever adopted as children of God.


May 9 - "Saviors of the People - Rev. Michael Plank

Text: Exodus 1:20: “So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.”

Scripture Lesson: Exodus 1:15-21

Proposition: I propose to experientially show that God has rescued us through the women in our history to the end that hearers will recognize the gifts of women in their own lives.

Prayer for Illumination: Loving God, you who compared yourself to a mother who will never forsake her nursing child. Open our hearts and minds to your presence this morning as we hear your Word. We pray this in your name. Amen.

Scriptural Context: Our story begins with the first glimpses of hope for the Israelite slaves in Egypt. Listen for God’s Word.

I think an underrated spiritual discipline these days is reading through the Bible. I get that. It’s archaic, often clunky in translation, sometimes boring. And without question, without a shadow of a doubt, the Bible was written mainly about men. It was written mainly by men. It was written mainly for men. It is undeniably and blatantly patriarchal. But, it is not as patriarchal as we sometimes assume it to be.

There are fierce, strong, inspiring, brave, powerful women throughout the Scriptures. The Church – with a capital ‘C’ – throughout history has often neglected these stories. And in more modern times has relegated them to be shared maybe once a year, on Mother’s Day. And that is a shame. There are many more than one good story about women that deserve to be heard throughout the year. But even so, you can be sure that on this day, when we honor mothers, not as some throwaway consolation prize for the women who raise our citizenry, but as the warriors who battled through labor to give us life, you can be sure that on this day, we will tell some of their stories.

And so today, we’ll remember Esther. Esther was just a girl. She was an orphan – maybe 12 or 13 years old. Her parents had died when she was very young and so her cousin Mordecai had raised her. They were Jews living in the city of Susa, which was the winter capital of the Persian Empire in what is now Western Iran.

During her childhood the Jews were not actively being oppressed, but they were a long way from being distinguished citizens. Only 50 years earlier they had still been in exile in Babylon. Mordecai’s grandfather Kish had been born in that exile, and Mordecai remembered some of the stories his grandfather had told him of that terrible time. His people had been despised and exploited, abused and enslaved. But then, miraculously, the Persian King Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and issued a decree that all Jews be allowed to return to their homeland. And so the Jews were free, but they were still a fringe social group living in the most powerful empire in the world.

The Jews tried to maintain a low profile in the city, still not completely convinced that their freedom would last. But as long as it did, the intrigue and politics of Persian royalty did not concern them too much. But all that changed when word spread that King Xerxes and Queen Vashti had had a falling out. The Queen was banished and it was announced throughout the empire that all the beautiful young girls of the kingdom should be brought to the king’s harem, where they would spend a year in training and then one of them would be chosen as Queen.

Esther was one of the many girls who were taken to the palace. But before she went, her cousin Mordecai urgently warned her not to tell a soul that she was a Jew. He was still worried about his peoples’ safety, and especially the safety of his beloved cousin. Esther went to the harem and everyone who met her liked her instantly. She was beautiful, without a doubt, but she was also clever and read people well. The year she spent in training was not a bad one. She was treated like nobility and she had all that she could have wanted.

Finally the time came for the King to choose his new Queen. To nobody’s surprise but her own, Xerxes chose Esther and threw an enormous banquet in her honor. Mordecai heard the news and was relieved and grateful. He knew Esther would live a life of comfort and safety that he never would have been able to give her. Esther, for her part, was delighted. But she was also worried that her true identity would be revealed one day; that one day the jig would be up.

Shortly after the wedding, on his way home, Mordecai stopped to sit at the king’s gate. It was a gathering place in those days where people would pass the time, much like they do on park benches today. While he was there, he overheard two of the king’s military officers whispering to each other. He casually moved closer to them and discovered to his horror that they were plotting to assassinate the king. Mordecai did not love the king, but he did love Esther. And he knew that if the king was killed, the turmoil and possible civil war that followed would surely put her in grave danger.

He ran home and secretly sent a message to Esther telling her about what he heard. Esther went to the king and told him that a man named Mordecai – she was careful not to mention her connection to him – had uncovered a plot against him. Royal officials immediately arrested the two men, interrogated them, and hanged them for treason.

Some time later, a man named Haman was publicly honored by Xerxes. He was promoted to an extremely powerful court position, and by royal command all people were required to kneel when they saw him. He walked through the palace and relished the submission he saw all around him. He walked through the courts and delighted at all the people who knelt for him. He came to the king’s gate and could barely keep from grinning as he saw everyone there drop to one knee as he passed – everyone except one person. An older Jew – Mordecai – remained where he was. He would not bow down before another man.

Haman was enraged and took the affront personally. He went home and stewed and sulked and plotted, and as the weeks turned into months he became convinced that the man’s Jewish faith was to blame for the insulting behavior. And it was a short jump from that thought to the thought that the Jews were dangerous. Haman became consumed by his anger and he became obsessed with his hatred of the Jews until finally he had an idea.

As one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, it was within his power to put an end to this insubordination. So he went to the king and said “there is a group within your borders that is scattered throughout all of your cities and territories. They are dangerous and seditious and must be stopped. I will add three-quarters of a million pounds of gold to the treasury if you will let me issue a command to destroy this group entirely.” The king agreed and Haman wrote a decree that was issued throughout the empire that all those loyal to the king should rise up and annihilate the Jews on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month of the year.

When Mordecai saw the edict posted at the king’s gate he fell to the ground shaking. He knew his people’s time of peace and prosperity couldn’t last, and now it was confirmed. Only this time it was worse. This time it would not be exile, but genocide. Citizens of the empire were called upon to kill all the Jews – the command specified young and old, men, women, and children.

Word reached Esther of what had happened and Mordecai begged her to speak to Xerxes. But Esther was terrified. She was the queen, that was true, but she wasn’t the king’s companion or confidant or spouse in anything other than formality. She was a scared teenage girl, the orphaned child of two Jews, a Jew herself, a member of the ethnic group that now, by official command, was to be obliterated. She couldn’t speak to the king, she had come from nothing. Not to mention the tiny detail that anyone who approached the king without invitation was automatically put to death.

For millenia, in cultures around the world, men have been telling the world that they are weak and subservient. And it is then no surprise that Esther doubted herself. She worried about what would happen to her if she tried to do this great thing. She worried that she wouldn’t be strong enough to do it, that she wouldn’t be smart enough to pull it off. Those insidious, untrustworthy voices that try to convince us that we are unworthy crept into her mind and threatened to cripple her action: “You’re just a girl,” they said. “You didn’t hear what you think you heard,” “you’re too stupid,” “you’re too weak,” “you’re too young,” “they didn’t mean it,” “don’t make a scene,” “don’t be so emotional,” “don’t be so irrational.” They tried to label her, to insult her, to box her in.

But as those voices grew louder and louder in her mind, another voice whispered to her. A voice from a different part of her. At first she could barely hear it. But she strained to listen harder, she strained to hear the words, and then finally she could make them out. This new voice came not from her head, but from deep within her heart. It said, “yes, you can.” And as soon as she heard those words the other voices fell silent.

She believed that voice. And so she went to the king, uninvited, and she did not die, but instead the king reversed the decree. The Jews were not annihilated, but they survived. They were not attacked, but their enemies were routed. And Esther learned what so many before her had learned and what so many have since: that who people say you are or what they say you’re worth does not matter, because if God decides to use you to change someone’s life, no plot, no system, no army, no monarchy can stand in your way.

Our ancestors, those of the faith and those of our blood, were imperiled and were saved time and again. Many times they were saved by heroes. But many times they were saved by heroines. They were saved by Esther, who rescued them from genocide. They were saved by Shiphrah and Puah sparing their boys from Pharaoh’s wrath. They were saved by Miriam leading them with her brother through the Red Sea. They were saved by Deborah who led them in battle against the Canaanites. They were saved by Jael who killed the commander of the Canaanite army. They were saved by Ruth, who by her faith, became the great-grandmother of King David. They were saved by Elizabeth who gave birth to John the Baptist, and by Mary, who gave birth to Jesus.

Our people were saved by our great-great-great grandmothers, who stored up extra food for the children on the voyages across the ocean. They were saved by their granddaughters, our great-grandmothers, who saved and gardened and hunted and gathered and trapped through the great depression to keep their families alive. They were saved by their daughters, our grandmothers, who worked and fought for a greater equality for women in our nation. We were saved by our own mothers who gave up more of themselves for us than we will ever know, and that we only begin to understand when we have children of our own.

In the beginning, God created them. “Male and female [God] created them” (Genesis 1:27). And through the heroines in history – the ones who both figuratively and literally gave us life, that we have been brought safely to this house on this morning. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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…

Text: Luke 24:36-48

14 Days

Do the words of today’s Gospel reading sound familiar: “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them: ‘Peace be with you’”? If that sounds familiar it is probably because we heard these same words in the Gospel reading from John 20. The context of that passage was twofold. First, it was the evening of Jesus’ resurrection; the first Easter day. Second, John also progresses to a week later, when the risen Jesus again appears to his disciples the following Sunday. It makes sense, then, for a reading that focuses on events the week after Jesus’ resurrection to be used in church the week after Easter Sunday.

But the context of today’s Gospel reading from Luke is back on Easter day again. Before today’s actual passage, the women go to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body but find his body missing, the risen Jesus walks with two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus before he reveals himself to them in the breaking of the bread, they return to Jerusalem and find the eleven and those with them, and tell them what has happened. While they were talking about this, we are brought to the beginning of today’s text where we hear the same words we heard in John last week: that Jesus himself stood among them and said: “Peace be with you."

We seem to be going backwards to the first Easter Sunday. Shouldn’t it be time to move on to something else? After all we know the Easter story well; maybe even too well. Every year that we celebrate Easter we become a little more familiar with it. Maybe the risk is to be so familiar with it that we do start to think of it as a story like those we might have read to our children, and don’t stop to reflect on the depth of the reality of what took place for us.

It is hard for us who are separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles to comprehend what that first Easter was really like for those disciples. It was an anxious enough time for them as it is, with the authorities promising the same fate to anyone who declared allegiance to Jesus and confessed him to be the Christ. In John’s version, he told us that the disciples had gathered under the cover of darkness with the doors locked. So just imagine how startled and frightened they would have been when all of a sudden Jesus came and stood among them, hearts racing and throats dry, utterly confused about what was happening, thinking they had seen a ghost.

But it is not a ghost there with them; it is Jesus. He holds out his hands and points to his feet to show them the punctures in his flesh from where the nails were driven through to the wood of the Cross. “It is I myself!” He says. “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." Just imagine being there, right in front of Jesus! What would you do? Perhaps you might slowly and cautiously reach out with your trembling hand, touching the hand of your Maker and Redeemer. As you make contact you feel the same human flesh that you have. Imagine the blur of emotions the disciples must have felt and all the thoughts running through their mind—one moment gripping fear, the next joy and amazement because it seems too good to be true. But it is true! This is Jesus with them. He has actually, bodily risen. He physically eats some fish, right there with them. The crucified Jesus is now the risen!

Easter is not just a story—it is real. God didn’t turn from pain and suffering, injustice, grief, and brokenness but in Christ he faced it and fully absorbed it. Those wounds the risen Christ showed his disciples are real. They encompass everything he endured: his betrayal and handing over to be crucified, the horrific depths of injustice; all the mocking and spitting, the ridicule and bullying, the abuse and brutality, the emotional torment and physical pain and the anguish of being God-forsaken that Jesus suffered. His wounds encompass the grief of a mother losing her son and the fear of those who loved Jesus being persecuted themselves. They are bottomless holes in which all the disciples’ own failings are hidden: the doubts about what Jesus said, the public denial of him. They are wounds that absorb their squabbling about who would be the greatest, their lack of faith, their incomprehension of his ministry and unreliability in it, the rebuke of Jesus when he revealed his mission and of going to the Cross, their inability to stay awake and keep watch with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and keep watch, their denial of him, their inability to recognize him after his resurrection and their unbelief of the women’s testimony on Easter morning.

How deep their fright and fear must have been…not only to see Jesus but then to fear what he might say to them. We share in the same failings and inadequacies of the disciples. We know too well the reality of guilt and shame as Satan comes to attack us with the fiercest of condemnations. It’s an intolerable burden and try as we might all the self-justifications and blaming others and even God—and relabelling what we’ve done or failed to do—doesn’t take that experience of gnawing guilt away. Although Satan is overcome by Christ’s victory, he tries to do whatever damage he can with the limited opportunity he has until Christ returns to make all things new. The devil tempts us to go against God’s word, and even to decide what that word is, thereby denying Christ rather than ourselves.

The devil loves nothing more than to lead us into temptation and then heap condemnation and guilt upon us when we fall. Then, having fallen, he drives us to look inwardly on how to justify ourselves. But we can’t justify ourselves. It isn’t what we do or say but what Christ does and says that makes us right with God and brings us divine peace. That’s why we need to hear the same words from last week all over again: on the first Easter day as Jesus came and stood among them and said: “Peace be with you”. Like the disciples, we also acutely know that we need God’s forgiveness and peace. Jesus came to bring the benefits of his death and resurrection to his disciples personally by telling them in four short words that their past failings are not held against them and they are in a right standing before God: “Peace be with you.”

In Christ, God has brought Easter to us. We received and share in all of the benefits of Christ’s saving death and resurrection when we were baptised into his death and resurrection, and the one true God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, put his name on us so that we are his very own dear children who belong to him forever.

Sisters and brothers, that is why we can rejoice with the apostle John and say: “See what love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are!” God lavished his love on us in Jesus his Son, who is with us, in our lying down in the evening and our rising in the morning. He is with us when we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. He is with us in our workplace, at our school, in our every place we are. He is with us while we wait in the doctor’s office. He is with us while we wait for test results, or as we lie in hospital. He is with us as we travel, with us in our leisure. He is with us in our fears and trials. He is with us even though others sin against us. He is with us as others help us, and with us in our helping of others too. And in church he is with us here in a special way for a particular purpose that he is nowhere else. The risen Christ is here to meet with us and bless us, bestowing divine peace upon us.

We can’t go back to that house where Jesus opened the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures, so Jesus comes here for us every Sunday as he leads us through the liturgy, as we listen to the readings, as we hear the proclaimed word. The repentance and forgiveness of sins that will be preached in Christ’s name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem, has even made it all the way to us here. We can’t go back to the house the disciples were in some 2,000 years ago to hear Jesus proclaim peace…so the risen Christ comes in our time, in this space, to this house. He stands among us, his baptized people, as we share the peace of the Lord with one another: “Peace be with you”.