Thursday, September 17, 2020

Grace and Peace Episode 4

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Grace and Peace Episode 4
Presbyterian Church of Easton
September 22, 2020 

Watch the video

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:2

Heidelberg Catechism

6 Q. Did God create people so wicked and perverse? 

A. No. God created them good and in his own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that they might truly know God their creator, love him with all their heart, and live with God in eternal happiness, to praise and glorify him.

7 Q. Then where does this corrupt human nature come from? 

A. The fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. This fall has so poisoned our nature that we are all conceived and born in a sinful condition.

8 Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil? A. Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God. 

Last week we saw that all the misery we experience in our lives is a result of sin.   Sin is coming up short in meeting God’s expectations.   It is something we all do.   And this leads us to an obvious question. Is this what God intended when he created us?  Did God want us to sin and be miserable?   The answer is no.  This not at all what God intended for us.  Let’s look at how things started and how things got so messed up.  

We were created for a life of joy.  We read in Genesis 2:8-9,  “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  God made us and placed us in a beautiful garden where we would love and enjoy God forever.

God created for us a paradise to live in.   We had everything we needed.  We would live forever with God.   But something happened that messed all this up.   God told us how to live to enjoy abundant life.  God explained to us what was good and what was evil.  All we had to do was obey God.   But we were arrogant and wanted to decide good and evil for ourselves.   We ignored God’s instructions for life and began doing whatever we wanted.   This is called sin.   And the consequence of sin is misery.

Is there any hope for us?   Yes, there is hope.    For all who believe in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit will come and will help us to begin the life long process of becoming obedient children of God.  All we have to do is believe in Jesus Christ, be born again, and our transformation will begin.   And we will experience the great comfort and joy of belonging to Jesus Christ as our Creator intended.

Let’s pray.  Heavenly Father, we have sinned in thought, word, and deed.  We ignore your instructions for life and do whatever we want.  And we are miserable.  Please, forgive us and send your Spirit upon us so that we may become your obedient children.  This we pray in the name of our comfort and joy, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Sermon Matthew 18:21-35 “Forgiven and Forgiving”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Presbyterian Church of Easton
Sermon Matthew 18:21-35 “Forgiven and Forgiving” 
September 13, 2020

Video of Our Worship Service

Forgiveness is the foundation of our faith.  Each Sunday we gather right here to confess our sins and ask God for forgiveness.  And we know that if we do confess our sins and truly repent our faithful God will graciously pardon us.  This gives us great joy. All we have done to fail God’s expectations is wiped away by the blood of Jesus Christ.  And in this joy, we owe God an enormous debt of gratitude.   

God expects us to express this gratitude in a very specific way.  We are to forgive those who have harmed us.  And this is a very difficult thing to do.  So today we will be looking at what it means to forgive someone else just as God has forgiven us.  But before we start all of this will you pray with me?

Lord Jesus Christ, we know that by your sacrifice on the cross we have been forgiven for all of our sins against God.  We thank you for this gift.  And in our gratitude, we ask that you teach us, though the scripture, how to forgive those who have harmed us.  We pray all of this in your strong name.  Amen.

Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” 

23“For this reason, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Have you ever noticed that we can’t change the past?  We have little control over the present. At least our future is filled with hope.  

The past is locked in stone. It is trapped in our memories forever.  Sometimes we want to forget the past but it keeps coming back.  When we least expect it, a memory from the past breaks into our minds reminding us of a past hurt.   This rekindles an anger that never seems to go away.  Our only hope, when this happens, is that God will give us the gift of forgiveness which will wash away our anger and allow us to heal.

One thing to remember about forgiveness is that it is always about forgiving a person for something that person did.  It’s not possible, I believe, to forgive a corporation, a church, a school, a business, or a government.  Since all of these are products of a fallen world they all have the potential to harm us.  And when they do we rightly get angry and demand justice.  

But forgiveness is something we do about people, people who live in families and work for corporations, churches, and schools.  We forgive people because people, like us, were created in the image of God and because people, like us, are sinners in need of forgiveness.  Therefore only people can be forgiven.  And this leads us to the first step of forgiving someone, to realize that the person who hurt us is a person just like us.

All too often we see a person who hurts us, not as a person at all, but as a demon.  We say things like “He is nothing more than an animal” or “She is just a cheat”.    We see people through the lens of our anger and hurt.  But by looking through the lens of forgiveness we understand that the person who hurt us is a person, not a monster.

Another thing to remember is that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.  Recognizing that the person who hurt you is a person does not mean that you should marry that person again, or be friends with that person again. Reconciliation or restoration is often impossible to do.  Forgiving means that you recognize that you were hurt by a person who was flawed, a sinner.  And with that realization forgiveness then becomes a possibility.

Whenever we are hurt we have the desire to get even.  Our sense of justice and fairness demands this.  We want vengeance.  We want our enemy to suffer.  But forgiveness means giving up our desire for vengeance.  Forgiveness, therefore, requires that we give up our right to get even.

We have to give up vengeance, but not justice.  Vengeance is the satisfaction we feel when someone who hurts us is hurt.  But justice is when someone pays a fair penalty for what they have done.  Forgiveness requires that we hold justice but drop vengeance.

There is an interesting story in John Irving’s Trying to Save Peggy.  A new freshman in college named Maggie was walking home from the library with her new friend, a senior named Apol.  When they arrived at the dorm Apol kissed a very excited Maggie.  

A week later she got a note from Apol that said that he had syphilis and probably gave it to her.  He told her to go down to the infirmary at once for antibiotics.  

At the infirmary, the nurse listened to Maggie’s story and assured her that she was ok.  She could not get syphilis from kissing Apol.  The nurse also said that Maggie was the fifth freshman girl who had come to the infirmary with the same story that morning.

Maggie decided to get even.  She hung a 25ft banner made from five-bed sheets on the front portico of the school which said in large block letters “Apol Sider Has Syphilis”.  

Apol, with some friends at the airport, hired a biplane to fly a large banner over the next football game which read “Maggie Mousma Has a Filthy Disease.”  

What did Maggie’s and Apol’s desire to get even accomplish?  What does a desire to get even ever accomplish?  Situations just escalate into continuing conflict.  We need to first surrender our right to get even if we ever hope to get around to forgiving.

As we have seen, to forgive someone as God has forgiven us requires us to see that person as a human being, however flawed, and to give up our right to get even.   When we do these two things, something happens to us.  Our feelings begin to change.

Usually, when someone hurts us we experience pain and anger, but our feelings quickly change to hate.  We hate the person who has hurt us.  We can passively hate someone and hope that bad things will happen to them.  We can actively hate someone and plan the misfortune that will befall them ourselves.  Either way, we tend to call on God in Heaven to hurt someone at least as much as they have hurt us.  

But when we receive the gift of forgiveness from God our feelings begin to change.  We begin to desire that good things will happen to the person who hurt us.  Our desire for that person’s goodwill will be weak at first.  It will be mixed with a desire that bad things will happen too.  But if you experience, even a little, the desire that good things will happen for a person who hurt you then you can be assured that God’s gift of forgiveness is coming upon you, and your feelings will change.

The apostle Peter knew the importance of forgiveness from Jesus’ teachings.  But he wondered how long, should a follower of Jesus keep forgiving someone who hurts them over and over again.  Seven times seemed enough for Peter.  After all seven was the number of days in a week.  But Jesus said that there is no limit to forgiveness.  It does not matter how many times you were hurt in the past, God’s gift of forgiveness is sufficient for you to recognize the humanity of the person who hurt you, give up your right of vengeance, and begin to feel benevolently toward that person regardless of how long or how many times you have been hurt.  

Jesus’ parable tells us that we have been forgiven by God.  We are sinners and deserve God’s condemnation.  But God recognizes us as created in his image.  God has no desire to get even with us. And God loves us no matter how long or how many times we have sinned.  As a response to God for giving us we owe a debt of gratitude which can only be paid if we forgive those who have hurt us.  

So if you are angry with someone today, if someone has hurt you, I urge you to forgive that person just as God has forgiven you. Remember that the person who hurt you is a sinner in need of a loving God just as you are.  Remember that God never takes vengeance or tries to get even and neither should you.  And God loves us even though we are sinners.   So we are called to love even those who have hurt us.   The only way we can love the ones who hurt us is if we are first loved by God.  And the promise of scripture is that even though we are sinners and deserve to be condemned, God loves us and forgives us and gives us by his grace the gift of being forgiven and the gift of forgiving others.  Let’s pray.

Father in Heaven we ask for the gift of forgiveness.  Forgive us of all the sins that we have done against you.  Remember that we are your children.  Withhold your ability to punish us.  And love us as if sin had never touched our lives.  Then help us to forgive those who have hurt us.  Allow us to see that they too are your children.  Remove our desire to get even.  And help us to love them as you love us.  We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ who gave his own life that we might be both forgiven and forgiving. Amen.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Grace and Peace Episode 2

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Grace and Peace Episode 2
Presbyterian Church of Easton
September 8, 2020

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:2

Heidelberg Catechism Question 2.  What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?   A. Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance. 

We Christians believe that our only comfort in life and death is that we belong to Jesus Christ.   And belonging to Christ gives us enormous benefits.   Our sins are forgiven.  Christ frees us and protects us from the devil.  We are promised eternal life.   And our hearts are transformed so that we desire to live our lives for Christ.  We believe all of this to be true.  It brings us great joy. 

To experience this joy we must live as people who belong to Christ.   How do we go about living like this?  According to the second question of the Heidelberg Catechism, we know how to live as people who belong to Christ by our rational understanding.  It is through teaching and learning that we come to know that we belong to Christ.   

The resurrected Christ talked about the preaching and teaching ministry of the church this way.  He told us to help people understand what is written in the Bible.  Luke 24:45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 

It is the responsibility of the church to provide this teaching and learning.   Though biblical sermons and Bible studies the church learns to live as people who belong to Christ and experience great joy.   What must the content of that preaching and teaching be to achieve this wonderful joy?   What should the church preach and teach its members?   

There are three things that must be taught.  These are, first,  the sorry, sinful, miserable state we find ourselves in.   Second, what Christ is doing about all of our problems.  And third, the gratitude we own Christ for what he has done for us.  If the church preaches and teaches about these things then it will begin to live as people belonging to Christ and the church will receive great joy.  Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, bless your church with your Spirit so that in our preaching and teaching people will learn and accept the truth that we belong to you.   Help us to experience the great joy of belonging to you.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Grace and Peace Episode 1

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Grace and Peace Episode 1
Presbyterian Church of Easton
September 1, 2020

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:2

Heidelberg Catechism Question 1.  What is your only comfort in life and in death? 
A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

The Holy Ghost Church in Heidelberg was divided.   Would they celebrate communion as Protestant Reformer Martin Luther taught?  Or would they do it as the Protestant Reformer Ulrich Zwingli taught?   The division was so great that the President of the College of Wisdom and the Pastor of the Holy Ghost Church got into a fistfight at the communion table before a stunned congregation.  

Hopefully, the Presbyterian Church of Easton does not have problems like this.  But all churches have divisions.  And whenever a church experiences a pastoral transition these divisions must be dealt with.   

The Holy Ghost Church dealt with their divisions by developing a catechism, a series of questions and answers for teaching.   And in the very first question, they tackled their most glaring problem.   Did they belong to Luther or Zwingli?

The answer they came up with was, neither.   They did not belong to Luther.   They did not belong to Zwingli.   They belonged to Christ.   They read in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 “... Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

Belonging to Christ gave them great comfort.  Their sins were forgiven.   They were protected from danger and the devil.  And belonging to Christ gave them great benefits.   God sent his Holy Spirit to empower them to accomplish His plan for salvation.  With the Holy Spirit, they were assured of eternal life and were motivated to live lives pleasing to Christ.  These comforts and benefits are available to us too if we belong to Christ.   Belonging to Christ is a gracious gift from our loving God.  

Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for the blessing of Christ.   Through his sacrifice on the cross, he bought us, and now we belong to him.    We thank you for forgiving our sins, protecting us from evil, transforming us into a new life, and promising us eternal life.   We are greatly comforted by all of this.    And so we pray in the name of our savior, Jesus Christ.   Amen.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sermon Matthew 16:21-28 “Following God”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
Sermon Matthew 16:21-28 “Following God”
August 30, 2020

Video of the Worship Service

This is my last Sunday with you and your Interim Pastor.   I turn this church over to Christ who will continue to lead you.   Your Session will guide your reopening.   Your Pastor Nominating Committee will find you a wonderful new pastor.   Your Deacons will continue to care for the congregation.  Your Trustees will continue to care for the buildings and grounds.  I urge all of you to remain grounded in scripture and follow Christ where he may lead this church.   Let’s pray.

Father in Heaven, we know that you are present with us when we need you.  We thank you for your Holy Spirit which is with us and in our hearts strengthening us for the difficult tasks we find ourselves in.  We know, through your son Jesus, how much you love us.   We ask that you let us follow you into a glorious future. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord our rock and redeemer. Amen.

Matthew 16:21-28   21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you."  23 But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."  24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?  27 "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.  28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."

Moses grew up in two different cultures.  On the one hand, he was a Hebrew and his Hebrew servants always let him know that he was mashea, the one pulled from the water.  On the other hand, he knew the privilege and power as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.  Eventually, the stress of belonging to both the privileged class and a despised minority became too much.  Moses grieved over the oppression of his people.  And one day when he saw a Hebrew being beaten by an Egyptian, Moses reacted violently and killed the Egyptian taskmaster.  When his crime was discovered Moses fled to the wilderness to hide, and with God’s blessing, to survive.

The wilderness is where we go to deal with the enormous problems in our lives.  Jesus knew something about the wilderness.  He spent forty days and nights without food and water in the wilderness.  Jesus knew that an even greater wilderness was in his future, the cross.  And he knew that his followers would also experience a wilderness with their own crosses on their backs.  Followers of Jesus, it seems, are not immune from the wilderness.

Moses adjusted to his new life in the wilderness by getting married to the daughter of the Priest of Midian and caring for the priest’s sheep.  Moses got to know the wilderness real well as he guided the sheep in search of grazing land and water.  

This led Moses to the mountain of the gods, Horeb.  There Moses saw a remarkable sight:  a fire burned in the midst of a bush, but the bush itself was not consumed.  “Was this one of the gods of Horeb?” Moses must have thought as he stared at this incredible sight.  And Moses knew that this must be a very powerful god because it knew his name.    

Moses had to be greatly relieved when the god of the fire in the midst of the bush identified itself as the god of his own people.  The god of the fire in the midst of the bush was none other than the God we have been reading about for the last few weeks, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebecca, and the God of Jacob and Rebecca and Leah.  Moses had seen an awesome sight and it turned out to be none other than the Lord, God of Israel.

After meeting the god of the fire in the midst of the bush, Moses was given an important task.  He was to use his skill as a shepherd for the last forty years in the wilderness, his upbringing in the Egyptian court, and his love for his own people to lead the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, to the Promised Land.  

This was not going to be an easy task.  Moses didn’t think he could do it.  After all, the Egyptians had a death warrant out for his head, and his only experience for the last forty years had been tending sheep.  How could Moses convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go?  And where would they go once they were freed?  These questions must have been racing through Moses' head as he pondered what God was asking him to do.  And thankfully Moses had no idea, at this point, that the task God was giving him would take another forty years to accomplish.

But Moses followed God.   He followed God back to Egypt where Pharaoh was persuaded to let the Hebrews go to worship God.   He followed God, a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire at night, through the wilderness.  Moses followed God all the way to the Promised Land.

When we embark on a task given to us by God we should not expect that the task will be easy to do or that it will be accomplished quickly.  We have to trust that God is at work guiding us and helping us to do what God wants us to do even though we can’t see the whole picture as God does.  So we have to act on faith and trust that in God the work will be finished.

This is where Pittsgrove church is right now.   You have embarked on a new journey of finding a new pastor.   No one knows how long this may take.   But if you always keep your eyes on Jesus and follow him everything will turn out alright.

Doing the work of God is like taking up a cross.  We have to deny our own wants and desires to focus on what God wants.  We have to trust that God will provide for us and our needs as we do God’s work of loving others.  We are called to obedience and love supported by a strong faith.

Jesus had a long and difficult road ahead of him.   He was on his way to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, tried, and executed by the authorities.   When the disciples heard this they became quite upset.   Peter was so angry he rebuked Jesus and reminded him that as the Messiah, Jesus had the responsibility to lead a revolution and take control of the world.   This must have been very tempting for Jesus.  It was the same temptation that Jesus was offered by the Devil in the wilderness.

Matthew 4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

At that moment Jesus realized that Peter was now following the Devil.  So Jesus rebuked Peter, as he had the Devil earlier.   Jesus told him to focus his mind on divine things rather than human things.

This is good advice.   I get upset, sometimes, when I see violence in our streets and growing racial divisions.   I get upset when our political process seems to be falling apart.   When this happens I begin to realize that it is harmful to focus so much on human things.  It is so much better to focus your mind on divine things.  

That is why I have been trying to teach you to read scripture and pray every day.   You have received from me, via email, a link for daily scripture readings.   Bookmark this link and go to it every day to keep yourselves grounded in divine things.

This is what Jesus meant when he urged his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him.   You are to walk away from your focus on the cares of the world.  Your cross is to focus on Christ.   Read scripture every day.   Watch sermons on Youtube.   Worship with your church every week.   Pray when you get up, at meals, and when you go to bed.   Focus your mind on Jesus, this is the cross you must carry.

And if you carry this cross there is an enormous promise and benefit for you.  Jesus has promised to return, with the angels, to bring about justice and righteousness.  What a glorious promise!   But we have an important question to ask.   When will this happen?   How long must we wait?

There are some who say that they will happen sometime in the future.   But I think it has already happened, at least in part.   Jesus did say that he would return with the angels before some of his original disciples tasted death.  I think that Jesus was referring to Pentecost when he did return as the Holy Spirit to empower the church.   And this is really good news because it means that Christ is here, with us now.   

This is the spiritual reality on which we should focus.   Jesus was a historical person.  Jesus is alive today.   Jesus is with us, empowering us to be church.   Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church, take up your crosses and follow him.   Let’s pray.

God of the fire in the midst of the bush, we come to you today expecting miracles in our lives.  We come expecting restored relationships.  We come confident that you will be with us as our God as we travel through the wilderness with crosses on our backs.  But we are also confident that in your time, your will be fully accomplished on Earth, and for that, we are most grateful. Amen.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Sermon: Matthew 16:13-20 “Build upon Rock”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
Sermon: Matthew 16:13-20 “Build upon Rock”
August 23, 2020

Order of Worship

Worship Video

“Who am I?”  This is a question we all ask.  We want to know our own identity.  We need to know who we are, why we are here, and what our purpose is.  Our identity is tied to the names given to us by our parents, the educational degrees we have earned, the work we do, and the families we have.  But since we are all children of God our identity ultimately comes from our creator.  Today we will be exploring the issue of who we are by looking at the naming of two important biblical characters, Moses and Peter.  But first, will you pray with me?

Holy Spirit, be with us as we read and interpret the Holy Scripture that has been preserved for us by the church for two thousand years.  Help us to understand not only the original meaning of the verses we read but what you are saying to us through them today.  And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When Moses was born his identity was already established.  The Egyptians saw him as part of a despised minority of foreigners that had grown too large and had to be stamped out; this put Moses' life in jeopardy as soon as he was born.  His mother saw him as a beloved son who had to be saved from death.  To Pharaoh’s daughter, he was seen as a gift of a beautiful baby whom she gave the name common to Egyptian royalty, Moses.  And his own people, when they heard the name “Moses” thought of the Hebrew word “mashea” and remembered that Moses was one of their own, the one pulled from the water.  From God’s perspective Moses was the one who would lead the Hebrew people out of slavery, through the waters of the Red Sea, and eventually to the Promised Land.  So it was God who really named him Moses, mashea because he was to be the one who would pull the Hebrews out of the water to safety and freedom.

Today our names are given to us by our mothers and fathers.  This ability to name was given to us by God at creation when Adam gave names to the creatures God had created.  I have studied my own genealogy and discovered that in the eighteenth century my ancestors were named after family members; then in the nineteenth century biblical names were used; and in the twentieth century, we went back to family names so my middle name, Thomas, is my grandmother’s maiden name.

We all have names from our parents but our name is not the same thing as our identity.  In Washington DC, where I am from, most people are identified by the work they do and where you are from.  Where you work is important because Washington is a place of power and where your work indicates your proximity to that power.  Where you are from is important because almost everyone in Washington is from someplace else.   So in casual conversations, the first thing we always ask is “Where do you work?” and “Where are you from?”

I have found that Koreans approach identity in a very different way.  They often seem surprised when I ask them where they work or which city in Korea they come from.  For Koreans identity is determined not by what you do or where you are from, but by title and age.  One’s title and age determine the respect that someone is owed.  For example, I am a “moxa”, or pastor.  Because the title “moxa” is considered very prestigious in Korean culture the respect suffix “nim” is usually attached so I am called respectfully “moxanim”.   When addressing each other Koreans usually use titles rather than names.  

The second aspect of Korean identity is age.  The older you are the more respect you receive.  So in casual conversations, you will be asked how old you are.  Although determining one’s age is vitally important in Korean culture you can see how offensive that would be in American culture.  Just ask the typical American woman how old she is and see what happens.

Of course, God gives us our real identity.  We are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  And this brings us to someone named “Peter”.

Matthew 16:13-20  13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"  14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."  20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Just before beginning his journey to Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus took his disciples to the northern part of Galilee near Lebanon and Mt. Hermon.  They went to a new city built by the Tetrarch Philip and dedicated to Emperor Tiberius.   Notice these important people are identified by their titles.

While they were traveling Jesus was talking to his disciples and asking them questions.  One question was about identity.  “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  All educated Hebrews would know about the Son of Man.  The prophet Daniel predicted that a human being would come directly from heaven to rule the earth with power given to him by God.    Their expectation was that this person would come to lead God’s people from slavery to Rome to the promised land of the Kingdom of Heaven.   Some were even speculating that this person had already arrived on earth.  Could it be that Elijah, Jeremiah, or another of the prophets was about to return to earth from heaven?  Could a great leader and prophet like John the Baptist be resurrected from the dead to rule God’s kingdom on earth?  And as Jesus’ miracles became well known some were beginning to think that he might be the Son of Man.

Another question from Jesus to the disciples was: “Who do you say that I am”.  This is a question we are still asking.  Who is Jesus?  Some say that Jesus was a good teacher of morality.  Others say that Jesus was a prophet.  And still, others say that Jesus was a historical figure of minor importance in the first century.  But for Christians, the answer to this question defines who we are and gives us our identity.  So let's look at the identity of the first Christian, Simon Peter.

Simon was given the Aramaic name Cephas by his parents.  English speakers pronounce Cephas as Simon.  Simon was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee as his father and grandfather had been.  His identity was tied to his family and their work for generations.  Changing identities in this culture was nearly impossible.  You were expected to do what your father did and your son was expected to follow you.  Your identity was tied to your family.  

         But when Simon left his fishing nets to follow Jesus he left behind his identity and took on a new one as a disciple of Jesus.  And now Jesus was asking him to identify who Jesus himself was.   Simon identified Jesus as the anointed one, the messiah, the Christ, and as the Son of the living God.   With this confession, Simon identified himself as a Christian, one who believes that Jesus of Nazareth was truly the long-expected messiah and God’s own son.  

        Whenever Jesus hears this confession from the lips of his people he knows that we are his followers and have assembled into his church.  And that is why we confess in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.

When Simon made this confession, Jesus knew that Simon now had a new identity as a Christian.  So Jesus gave Simon a new name symbolizing his new identity.  Jesus called him in Greek, “Petros” which sounds, to Greek speakers, a lot like “petras” which means “rock”.  Simon became Peter the rock upon which Jesus Christ would build his church.  

Church history tells us that Simon Peter became the Bishop of Rome, and in that role, he collected and preserved the writings which one day would become the New Testament.  Peter and the bishops, priests, pastors, and teachers who would follow would preserve these writings as authentic presentations of orthodox faith in Jesus Christ, always protecting them from heretical teachings.  It is upon this rock, the Word of God, that the church of Jesus Christ is built.  This rock, the Word of God, will never be shaken in an earthquake; it will support the church forever.

As Christians, we are identified as people who stand on the solid foundation of the Word of God.  The Word of God contains the keys that unlock the Kingdom of Heaven.  That is why it is so important to be in church every Sunday to hear the Word of God read, preached, and taught.  As we hear faithful preaching and teaching the Word of God enters our hearts changing us into disciples of Jesus Christ and unlocking the gates of heaven which lead to eternal life.

        If Christ were to come back right now and visit Pittsgrove Church what would he call us?  Pittsgrove is our historic name.   But what name would Christ call us that would describe who and what we are right now?   I’ll leave this question open.   But think about it.     

        We are Christians who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and the Son of the living God.  Our identity is built on the solid foundation of the Word of God which, through faithful preaching and teaching, unlocks for us the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that you are the Christ, the Son of God.  We thank you for blessing us with the church that has preserved the Word of God for two millennia.  Open us to receive this Word into our lives through the preaching and teaching of this church today.  And give us the new name “Christian”, as those who follow you.  Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Sermon Matthew 15:21-28 “Strangers at the Table”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
Sermon Matthew 15:21-28 “Strangers at the Table”
August 16, 2020

Order of Worship

Worship Video

Fifteen years ago I met and married Grace and began a new multicultural life. Since then I have had one foot in one culture and another foot in another culture.  And most of the distinctions between those cultures center on what my mother would call table manners.  We are going to look at table manners from a biblical perspective this morning.  But first, will you pray with me?

Heavenly Father, we come to you this day as we have week after week for years and years and years.    In that time little has changed.   The way we do church is unchanged since our beginning in the 19th century.   Bless us Lord with change. Help us, Lord, to try something new.  In Jesus’ name, we pray.  Amen.   

Earlier you heard a wonderful story from Genesis 43.  Joseph was the eldest son born to Jacob and Rachel.   And when Rachel died, during the birth of her second son, the two boys were all that Jacob had to remember his family with Rachel.

Jacob loved these two boys very much.   And he spoiled them.   Jacob’s other sons became very jealous.   And so when they had the opportunity they sold Joseph into slavery and lied to their father saying that Joseph was dead.   

Joseph was taken to Egypt where, with God’s help, he became a famous dream interpreter and correctly predicted the seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine that  Egypt and the surrounding countries were then experiencing.  Joseph, wisely, had the Egyptians store up extra food during the years of plenty so that there would be enough in the years of famine.  

Jacob and his family experienced this famine and his sons were sent to Egypt for food.  There they were recognized by Joseph as his brothers.    Joseph had already forgiven his brothers for what they had done to him because he knew that God had used their evil actions for good.  So when his eleven brothers arrived in Egypt,  Joseph honored them with a great feast.  

Eating together is how we celebrate important times in our lives.  I can remember the great feasts my mother would prepare for holidays and when the grandparents visited.  Roast beef, turkey, or meatloaf with all the trimmings were on the table.  

I can also remember pot luck dinners when families would gather in church every month.  We sampled dishes from all the other families.  My mother’s scalloped potatoes were always in high demand.  I am so thankful that Ruth makes those same potatoes for our dinners here at Pittsgrove.  

Fifteen years ago my eating habits changed.  I met and married a wonderful Korean woman whose ministry for international students involved cooking Korean meals.   I loved those meals.   I loved eating with international students.   So I decided to marry Grace and enjoy her cooking for the rest of my life.  

Once I was eating in a Thai restaurant with a mixed group of Americans and Koreans.  Although Thais do not use chopsticks, some were provided for the benefit of the Koreans who do use them.  The waitress brought out platters of food that were served American style.  They were passed from person to person who scooped out what they wanted on their own individual plates.  We then ate from our own plates refilling them as desired.  

Near the end of the dinner, I saw a single shrimp sitting on a serving dish across the table.  Using chopsticks I reached across the table, grabbed the shrimp, and ate it.  Immediately I was scolded by an American woman sitting across from me who yelled “Jeff, what are you doing?”  I explained that in Korean culture food is placed in shared bowls all over the table and you use chopsticks to eat whatever you want directly from the shared bowls.  At a Korean meal, there is no need for a plate.  A Korean man sitting next to her was amused that an American man was getting into the same kind of trouble that he experienced as a new immigrant.  These are the kinds of multicultural experiences I have had in the fifteen years that I have known Grace.

In Genesis, we see how the Egyptians handled multicultural experiences at dinner. They were avoided.  No Egyptian would ever eat at the same table as a Hebrew. So the Egyptians ate at a table by themselves.  The Hebrews ate at a table by themselves.  And Joseph who had one foot in each culture ate all by himself.  The rule was that strangers were not welcome at the table.  And this brings us to an unusual and somewhat disturbing story about strangers at the table in the gospel of Matthew. 

Matthew 15:21-28   21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."  23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us."  24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."  26 He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  27 She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."  28 Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

Many of us are disturbed by the words of Jesus.  Why would Jesus not talk to the Canaanite women who came to Jesus to heal her daughter?  Why would Jesus call her a “dog”? This does not square with our picture of a loving Jesus who welcomes everyone to the table.  

To understand this passage we must first understand Jesus’ teaching style.  Jesus usually began teaching by referring to the Law of Moses.  Here the Law of Moses clearly states that a Hebrew man should not speak with a Canaanite woman.  The reason was simple, according to Moses when the people of God entered into the Promised Land, the Hebrew men were not to marry Canaanite women because those women would take their children not to God’s tabernacle but to pagan shrines.  To prevent this, Hebrew men were told to marry good Hebrew women.   This Mosaic Law was what Jesus was referring to when he refused to speak with the Canaanite woman.

But after fifteen hundred years the laws of Moses had been perverted.   A once sensible law that encouraged men to ensure that their children would worship Yahweh had been twisted into a rationale for hatred against the Canaanites.  It was this racism that Jesus referred to when he said that sharing food with a Canaanite was like giving it to the dogs.  This was a mean spirited perversion of the Mosaic Law which Jesus had come to condemn.   Jesus was not going to tolerate racist attitudes against anyone and would not allow the Law of Moses to be twisted for that purpose.

Jesus, speaking from the position of authority as the Son of God, told his followers that no longer would race, ethnicity, nationality, or language, be used in deciding who would gather at his table.  Everyone who places their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is welcome to share in his fellowship.  

Today, we live in a society where monoethnic churches are the norm. Whites go to white churches.  Koreans go to Korean churches.  African Americans go to African American churches.   The wealthy gather in wealthy churches, and the poor gather in poor churches.  But the church of Jesus Christ should be multicultural.   We should be inviting everyone to church.   

Let me tell you a true story that happened to me.  A black homeless man was living on the streets in Los Angeles.  I saw him as I walked through the community.   I recognized him but I didn’t know when or where we had met.  

I saw him one morning and invited him to come to a prayer group that was about to meet.  After the prayer service, we all went over to Burger King for breakfast.  It was there that Joseph, the man we met, pulled out a sketch pad and showed us some drawings.  That is when I remembered when and where I had met him before.  

Ten years before I participated in a ministry serving lunch to homeless men in Washington DC at the Church of the Pilgrims.  Joseph was coming for lunch each Sunday and I remember looking at his beautiful drawings.  He got a job and we didn’t see him for lunch anymore. Eventually, Joseph took a bus from Washington DC to Los Angeles.  He worked for a while in California but was now living on the streets.  He started coming to my church.

I believe that a church that welcomes into its doors people from all ethnic groups and economic levels will be richly blessed by God.  A church that welcomes everyone even the poorest, even the most despised, is a church that will be blessed with new members and increased giving.  God is just waiting for the church of Jesus Christ to wake up and realize that it's separate ways must end and all must come together around one table.  When the people of all nations, ethnic groups, and economic classes come together around the Lord’s Table then truly the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

So what about Pittsgrove Church?   How will this church take up this challenge and become multicultural?   One place you could start is with the selection of a new pastor.  According to the Church Leadership Connection of the 1700 pastors looking for churches 300 are racial-ethnic.   So, there are 300 Black, Hispanic, Korean, or something else pastors looking for churches.  But there are only 30 racial-ethnic congregations looking for pastors.  So the racial-ethnic pastors must look for calls in white churches.  

This would be a great opportunity for you.   You could bring in a Korean pastor or a Hispanic pastor and begin to experience the richness of cultural diversity that I have experienced for these 15 years.   

You have already experienced multiculturalism through my wife, Grace.  Grace is a Korean racial-ethnic pastor.  Remember what she did for you last year with a Christmas Open House in the manse.   And remember the great party we had in the manse during our Lenten study.   These were all wonderful multicultural experiences.

So I urge you to look for a pastor that will help you to become multicultural.   Take a chance on a racial-ethnic pastor.  You will be blessed far more than you can even imagine.  Let’s pray. 

Lord Jesus, we ask that you help us to become multicultural.   Help us to welcome everyone into our fellowship.   And bless us with a pastor who will help us experience the great joy of diversity.   We pray all this in your glorious name.  Amen.