Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

On the Outside Looking In

That 10th commandment, "You shall not covet . . . " gets to something very deep and very tragic and twisted in human beings. It really means "don't set your heart on having what is not yours to have." Soren Kierkegaard says: "envy is admiration grown sick." It is twisted or perverted admiration. And, envy is in a sense the same thing as coveting what is not yours to have. But, coveting is a little different than envy too. Envy tends to make you angry or even hate another person who has what you want. Coveting what you yearn for and don't have can bring about envy, but it doesn't always bring about envy. Often, coveting what you yearn for and don't have brings about a negative relation internally, within the self. Instead of hating the one who has what you don't have, you turn the hatred inward despising yourself for not being able to be this, or not being able to have that. Maybe that is just hidden envy; I'm not sure. Envy and unfulfilled yearning which are part of the same experience comes when we feel ourselves "on the outside looking in." The Indigo Girls have a song called: "Love Will Come to You" that expresses the longing of human beings for love, and the experience of being "on the outside looking in." At one point in the song, the words are vivid: "my face pressed up against love's glass . . . to see that shiny toy I've been hoping for, the one I never can afford . . . " to express the painful experience of having the desire for intimate love awakened in the heart but never getting there in real life. It is that haunting feeling that comes around for us that what we really long for is just out of reach. And, this feeling comes in different areas of life. In our experience with our work and careers, our experience as parents or spouses as well. Now, I know that sometimes a deep longing is very good and ought to be nurtured even if it is not fulfilled. But, I can't help think that so many of our "deep longings" are created out of some real brokenness and twistedness inside of us. What I am talking about is the tendency of human beings to manufacture a series of dreams that are just out of reach to keep ourselves miserable and in a state of always feeling like we are on the outside looking in. Watching a movie and feeling how wonderful it must be to share a love with another like it is portrayed in the movie, while you've got somebody back in the living room who loves you and would enjoy talking with you and sharing a hug with you right now. Not enjoying the nice place to live that we have because it's not as big and expensive a place as the family next door. Not appreciating the healthy body we have because we don't quite meet the standards for Miss or Mr. Universe. Not appreciating the good job we have because we weren't able to get that promotion we had hoped for. Maybe when we feel like we are on the outside looking in, we ought to take some time to look inside of ourselves. The true longing of human beings is not to live up to some standard in the world outside of us, but to conform ourselves to a mystery deep within us. Now, with regard to that mystery, we may be "on the outside looking in."

Friday, April 20, 2012

Struggling Towards Understanding at Bible Study

We have been having evening Bible Study in our congregation for about the last 13 or 14 years. At first we had it on Tuesdays, and then we moved it to Mondays, and then we finally settled on Thursdays. The change was always because of my work schedule it seems. But, over the years, we have looked at all kinds of passages of scripture, and raised all sorts of issues in our discussions. But, one thing has happened consistently in our Bible Study - at some point, someone asks a question that really matters to them about how to life a faithful life in the middle of all the real challenges of life. And, the group joins in, starting to ask the same question or ask it out loud in a little bit of a different way. And, we share experiences: often funny, some sad, some with a touch of anger still, and some full of insight and hope. But, in contrast to almost every group discussion I have been a part of in my life, there is no competition involved. There is no one trying to "one-up" the last speaker. I have never seen or been a part of anything like it. And, time after time, when I have been about ready "to throw in the towel" in life, I come away from these Bible studies refreshed and ready to try again.

There is a level of honesty about the struggle to live in faith that just cuts right to my heart each time.

It is like we become one in this thinking out loud that we do, in this sharing of life through words and laughter and stories and questions and attempts at answers. And, we never know where the real helpful word will come from. But, it comes. Whereever two or three are gathered in this Spirit, the Word comes, the Word made flesh.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

First Samuel, Chapter 8 - A Sermon

The prophet Samuel was the greatest prophet in Israel since Moses. Between Moses and Samuel, there were prophets but none of them had that sense of being the one through whom God guided his people of Israel.

We hear that Samuel was born after the prayer of his mother, Hannah, was answered. Hannah, who was one of two wives of Samuel’s father, had never been able to have children. But, she prayed and prayed, even weeping as she was praying at the temple one day. And, the head priest Eli saw her and thought she was drunk. He said: “Woman,put away your wine.” Then, she said: “I am not drunk. I am praying with all my heart because my heart is deeply wounded.” Then, Eli felt pretty awful I think about what he had said to her because he was deep down a good priest. And, he said, “Woman, whatever your prayer is, may it be granted by God.” And, the answer to that prayer was a little boy born to Hannah. Hannah promised God that she would dedicate him to serve as a priest of the Lord with Eli. And, after the boy was weaned – probably not til 4 or 5 years old, she may have delayed the weaning a bit too. But, eventually she took the little fellow to Eli, with a little priest’s robe she had made and left him there. And, so Eli trained him up to be a priest.

Eli had two grown sons, but they were rotten, taking bribes, sleeping with prostitutes at the temple, etc. I always feel like Eli saw in Samuel a chance to amend his mistakes in raising his own sons. And, apparently, Eli did a great job with Samuel, because he grew up to be a great judge and priest over Israel.

But, now we pick up in our history towards the end of Samuel’s life. It says:
The elders called a meeting, because Samuel was old, he had appointed his sons to serve as prients, and his sons did not walk in his ways. They said: “appoint us a king, so we can be like the other nations.” This struck a nerve deep in Samuel, who had been raised on the prophecies of Moses. Moses had warned against having a king, because a king would oppress his own people.

And, according to our scripture, this desire to have a king among the people of Israel, struck a nerve deep in the heart of God. But, God says to Samuel: “They have not rejected you, but have rejected me from being their king.” But, go, do what they want you to do, but first warn them about what having a king will be like.”
The first time I really read this passage, I did a double-take. What? God doesn’t want them to have a king, but God is going to give them a king? And, Samuel seems to have felt that way too.

I think we see here some of the mystery of God’s relationship to human beings. God’s will was that Israel be led by a prophet, one who listened for and spoke the Word of God. Before Samuel the Word of the Lord was said to be rare in Israel, but with Samuel, the Word of God came to Israel again. The real crisis involved in Samuel being near death was that the Word of the Lord would have no one to receive it and pass it on. Israel would be without a prophet, without one to receive the Word for them and speak it to them. They would be without the Word of the Lord.
If Samuel’s sons were all they had as priests over Israel, the Word of the Lord would depart from the worship and governance of Israel, at least in so far as it was presided over by Joel and Abijah. But, if a king was appointed, it would reveal Israel’s rebellion against the Word of the Lord, because the Word of the Lord comes to prophets, not kings.

I imagine this conversation between God and Samuel:
“Look, Samuel, you have been just as bad a father as Eli was to his sons. But, he was a good father to you. Could you not have learned something from all this?” Now, you put me in a hard place as you have left Israel in a hard place, because your sons are rotten – really rotten to the core. Do you have any replacements to suggest? Is there a true prophet hiding out somewhere that you haven’t told me about?”

Samuel just says: “O Lord, I was going to ask you the same thing.”
God replies: “The answer is ‘no.’ You are the true prophet of Israel, but your days are numbered. Go and appoint them a king!"

Samuel: “This is not exactly how I envisioned my life coming to an end. Having to appoint a king that will oppress the people, and leaving Israel without a man of God to hear and speak the Word of the Lord.”

God: “Well, Samuel, this is not exactly how I envisioned the history of my people, but I do thank you for your service. You have been a good prophet. So, finish your task. Your task is not to dictate to me, but to obey me, even when it is unpleasant. I have shared with you that this is unpleasant to me as well. That should be enough for you. And, who knows what will happen in Israel before you die. I always think of something good.”

Samuel: “Yes, you do, Lord. You never give up. I don’t know why, but you never give up. Thank you, Lord. I will go and do as you have asked me.”

And, Samuel in obedience to God appointed Saul as king over Israel, and Saul led them in their battles and for most of his reign Israel got the upper hand over their enemies, but Saul had trouble knowing how to obey the Word of the Lord that came through Samuel, the prophet. Saul would seem to do pretty well, but then he just couldn’t get things right with God or with the prophet, Samuel. In time, God rejected Saul as king over Israel. Samuel had a hard time accepting this as well, but he spoke the Word of the Lord. And, after Samuel grieved Saul’s rejection, God called Samuel to get up and anoint a king of God’s own choosing – a king who would follow God with his heart. And, Samuel went and anointed David, a young shepherd, the seventh son of Jesse.

The prophet Samuel was near to the doings of God. He was involved in the working out of God’s plans and responses to human beings in those days of Israel. It was a great and sacred task to partake in holy things like this. But, it was very difficult on Samuel, who had to take actions he didn’t really want to take: anoint Saul as king when the prophet knew God had never wanted a king but was simply allowing this rebellion in Israel. And, it was hard on Samuel to then pronounce and carry out the rejection of Saul as king when it was time for that. God had led him to anoint Saul, but that action was now put into question by God telling Samuel that Saul was rejected as king.

None of us have been where Samuel was. None of us has shared a conversation quite like that with God, or at least not at that level.

But, then again, maybe we have been where Samuel was in some ways. If you been in thought or prayer before God, you may have wondered as Samuel wondered: “Why does this go on that is against your ways, O God? Why does this horrible situation or condition or injustice or suffering continue when it is not really what you want for human beings? O,God why do you allow a person to just throw their life away when you have created them to live fully and to rejoice in you?”

Samuel wondered why God would let Israel become like other nations and have a king to rule over them. Samuel may have also wondered how God could let Samuel’s sons become so corrupt, even as Samuel begged in many prayers that they would turn around and walk in his ways.

God may have wondered why Samuel didn’t take more time to prepare his sons, and why Samuel was so ineffective in training them to be priests. Of course, God didn’t have to wonder. He knew. Because God knows that we human beings fall short of the glory of God, which is to say most all of us are really underachievers in a profoundly tragic sense.

And, then we turn around and blame our sorry state of affairs on God, not realizing we have put God in an almost impossible position as we are generally proud of what we should be ashamed of and ashamed of what we should be proud of. Yes, God has had a difficult time dealing with a mixed up human race: so much good about us all, and then so much that is twisted and destructive. But, God has never given up. God has continued to come up with a new plan of saving again and again.

But, it is hard to save someone who is bent on their own self-destruction. That was God’s struggle with Israel. The Israelites so often bought into the success strategies of the Canaanite culture. They tried to get along and worship the gods of the Canaanites. They tried to fit in and not stand out, so they could go along and get along with other peoples. But, the Israelites were always putting themselves in the hands of other rulers, other religions, and being abused and oppressed. Only God would protect them – in a sense and most importantly, only God could protect them from themselves.

But, God’s ways are not our ways. He comes over our way a long way to understand and help us understand. If it had been a human ruler in charge, when Israel asked for a king, the human ruler would have just said no and punished those who asked. But, God was in charge who understands things that are very deeply a part of human life and understands things too deep for us to grasp about how the Divine works out his will in history. God basically said: “I don’t want you to have a king, but I’ll let you have a king. I am warning you of the problems of having a king.” And, God did not give up on redeeming his people. God goes farther than we are willing to go with people; God gets dirty in the mess of history and rules from within it. And, God, sometimes sooner, and sometimes later, comes out with the victory – a victory God can share to bless others.

God could have a victory immediately back then, I suppose, if he were a different kind of God. If God was really like a king, he could have just made the rules and punished those who disobeyed. But, history shows that though God has brought punishments, that is not God’s chosen way of governing humans in this world. If God was not really after a victory he could share with us, then his course would be an easy one in life. But, God will not be victorious and let the world fall into destruction. God has always wanted a victory for humanity,not one against humanity. And,this takes wisdom, and perserverence, and a love that cannot be defeated by all the forces of resistance and evil among us and among creation itself.

Scripture presents God as a Warrior often in the Old Testament, and at a few points in the New Testament as well. This is a powerful and important image of God. For, God is a warrior for the body and soul of every human being on this earth. And, God goes to battle again and again against the powers of evil that twist and destroy human life; he goes to battle to save the bodies and souls of human beings. And, God gets bloodied in the process. Isn’t that the meaning of the cross? God will go so far to save that he will not spare his own Son, his own Being from being beaten and mocked and executed on a cross of wood?

Remember our God whom we love: he is the God who leaves behind the safety of heaven and comes down to do battle for the lives of human beings right here on earth. And, our Dear and Holy and Good God suffers in the process. We know this from that cross of wood that once stood on Golgatha, with the Son of God hanging on it. We know this from the thanksgiving that wells up in our hearts. And, we know that the suffering of God is a redemptive suffering. When God suffers, redemption and salvation come into the world, into our lives, into those places in which God suffers.

O, God, how can you have allowed yourself to get so drawn into and mixed up in the affairs of humanity? How can you who are holy have taken on the burdens of human beings like us, who are unholy? We have put you in so many difficult situations again and again. You could have given us up. It seems to us you should have given us up. How can we be worth all the struggle it takes to redeem?

Your Love remains the only answer we can find, and Your Love is a mystery far beyond our imagining and greatest hopes. Whatever we seem to ourselves and others, O Lord, we are above all loved by you. Whatever our neighbor seems to us or herself, she is above all loved by you.

Why have you become so involved and burdened with human affairs? Because of your love. Because of your love. Because of your love, we live and move and have our being. Because of your love, we stand up as we hear your pardon. Because of your love, we live on when we feel no reason for living. Because of your love, we love even when hated by others. Because of your love, you chose a king after your own heart, even if having a king wasn’t your idea in the first place. Because of your love, the world exists. Because of your love, Samuel kept on speaking your Word of Truth. Because of your love, we got up this morning. Because of your love. Because of your love. As loveless as we are at times, we love, yes, we love, because of your love. Amen.

Bible Study Thursday, April 19 at 6 p.m.