Monday, May 7, 2018

Sharing in the Gospel (Acts:1:1-8; Phil. 1:1-6,9-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A friend of mine retired a few years ago from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department after a career of over thirty years.  He retired as a commander.  I asked him how he liked being retired.  He remarked that it was strange.  He said as a commander, he had absolute authority over his deputies.  I ordered them to go here or do this and they obeyed.  Now I no longer have any authority.  I am just another civilian.”

I thought, you know, I can relate to that, I can identify with him.  Being a pastor of a congregation is like being a commander in the Sheriff’s department.  I have absolute authority over the congregation.  I tell members to do this or go there and they do it instantly.  On the other hand, maybe not.  It’s really more like herding cats.  But after 42 years, I will find out what it’s like to join the ranks of civilians.

The 19th century Christian Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “The role you play in life is like a cloak which you can put on and take off.  Your identity is deeper than your role.  At your core you are a child of God.  In retirement I am taking off my role as an installed pastor, minister, reverend.  And by grace I am privileged to have more time to put on and wear another cloak, another role, Grandpa. I can’t think of a better role in retirement.

In our lesson from the letter of Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes to a church which he personally planted: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.”   He is writing this letter near the end of his ministry.  And he fondly remembers sharing in ministry with the people of the church of Philippi in Greece.  He warmly recalls their love and support and hard work.  I thank you for allowing me to share in the ministry of the gospel with you.  The gospel is the message of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world from sin and our participation in God’s work of reconciliation today.   Out of love, God sent Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners.

Being a pastor is a privilege.  You become deeply involved in people’s lives and lead a congregation in worship and ministry.  Is it ever taxing?  Sure.  Do pastors ever feel sorry for themselves?   Do they ever whine?  Yes, I confess I sometimes do.  Like can you believe it, I had three session meetings this month, or I had meetings almost every night this week, a person called to share some problems, I taught a class, had a funeral on Saturday and still had to prepare a sermon for Sunday.  Oh, woe is me.”

And then pastors, that is, yours truly, remember II Corinthians 11.  Listen to the Apostle Paul tells of his hardships:

I have been imprisoned, I have endured countless floggings, and often been near death.  Three times I was shipwrecked for a night and day, I was adrift at sea, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own people, in danger in the wilderness, I was beaten with rods.  Once I received a stoning, often without food, in toil and hardship, through sleepless nights, hungry and thirsty, cold and naked.”   That’s when my whining stops.  I think, You lucky guy, think of what pastors have to deal with in the Middle East, you only had a few meetings this week.”

I am thankful for so many things.  I am grateful for your allowing me to share in the gospel with you and to serve alongside you as we have strived to follow Christ’s vision of people bringing people to Christ.  I have truly enjoyed sharing in worship and preaching over these past 12 years.

I am thankful for your listening to stories about our grandchildren, who by the way just happen to be here this morning.  I also know we are not the only proud grandparents in the congregation.

I am thankful for our music program, for our Director, Esther, for our organist, Anne, for our talented and dedicated chancel choir and sounds of worship.  I appreciate the formula Esther has put together in blending traditional and praise music, in leading our handbells and in bringing guest instrumentalists to join us in worship.

I am thankful for our leaders, that is, our elders and deacons, with whom it has truly been a pleasure to serve with in ministry.  I am also thankful for having the opportunity to work with our staff.  I have been impressed with their enthusiasm, gifts and abilities as they lead us in ministry.

So many memories stand out over the past 12 years.  Like your overwhelming personal support for me when I lost my voice for about three months in 2011.  Ministry and laryngitis are just not compatible.  I honestly thought: “Well, I can’t speak, I can’t talk, they might say: Alan, we like you, it’s nothing personal, it’s just business, but standing in the pulpit staring at us each Sunday just isn’t cutting it.  Maybe its time to move on.

But you didn’t, instead, you brought in guest preachers, you allowed me to not talk so the healing process could begin, you asked me questions and then quickly said, “Oh, don’t speak, just nod yes or no.”  You supported and prayed for me and I will always remember your love and kindness and patience.  Thank you.

You likewise supported Nancy, through prayers, meals, cards, visits, stories, loaning us walkers and canes with Nancy’s recent hip replacement surgery.  We both felt your genuine care and support.  We thank you.

I remember the many good, faithful, and dedicated members and friends of our church who have died over these past 12 years.  We indeed miss their personalities, their contributions to ministry, their friendship, their participation and support, their humor, faith and witness.  God has called these dear people to his heavenly home and we truly believe, based upon the word of the Risen Lord and the promises of scripture, that we shall see them again one day.  They are just ahead of us on the journey.

I shall remember your commitment to sharing in God’s work in the world.  Just before his ascension, Jesus called together his disciples and issued this command: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.    You have not only participated in ministry within these walls, but you have served God in the world.

God has called our congregation to a variety of opportunities for mission: serving homeless people through providing meals to some 100 people every Sunday night and our mail service, which provides homeless people an address where they can receive their mail, volunteering in CCSA, providing animated movies and pizza to families in the community on Friday nights for eleven years, hosting our community wide Graffiti Day aimed at cleaning up PB, participating in the annual Pacific Beachfest on the board walk and in operating our preschool which serves families over 60 children five days a week.   You heard God’s call and obeyed it.

I want to also highlight some of my themes over these years:

First, be thankful!  We read in I Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Being thankful is God’s will for us.   Thankfulness, gratitude, is the root of happiness, the key to contentedness, the path to a positive mind and attitude.  There are plenty of negative forces and powers in life that strive to supplant a grateful spirit like greed, jealousy, resentment, anger, hate, forgiveness, and entitlement.  These always pose a threat.  A thankful person is a healthy person. God’s goal in creating us is that we might become grateful people because that spirit leads us to care for and engage in other people’s lives.

The psalmist says: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for God is good.  I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before you I sing your praise, I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness.”

Second, love with Agape love!  Agape love is the love God loves the world with.   It is giving love, self-less love, sacrificial love, love with no requirements or strings.  It is undeserved love.  It is the because God first loved us kind of love.  We see it in the gospel.  Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and forgiveness on the cross was pure grace.  C.S. Lewis wrote: “Christ’s death on the cross has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.”   Christ died while we were still sinners.  We couldn’t earn it and we didn’t deserve it, but out of love Jesus died to bring salvation, by grace through faith.

Today we see quid pro quo love, something for something love, a favor for a favor love.  Agape love, where we expect nothing in return, is a love we are capable of giving when we come to faith and have the power of the Holy Spirit in us.  It is the kind of love that changes lives.  Whom do you know who needs agape love from you?

Third, trust that your service in the Lord is not in vain!  It is easy to get discouraged.  In I Cor. 15: we read:  Therefore, my friends, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

I remember a mother at a former church.  She was estranged from her adult daughter for many years.  The daughter refused to have any communication at all.  The mother continued to pray, to write letters, to occasionally leave a brief message on the phone.  I prayed with her on many an occasion.  Finally, after over 10 years, her daughter phoned her and invited her mother out to lunch.  This mother’s faith and perseverance was not in vain.  It was a glorious day where a mother and daughter were reconciled.  Praise God.

Fourth, be an encourager!  Can you be an encourager in an imperfect world with flawed people, like you and me?  Of course.  This is the only world we have.  Jesus was an encourager to his disciples and to the crowds.  The Apostle Paul was an encourager to the churches he planted.   Barnabus, Paul’s companion in mission was called the Encouraging One.  This is the day.  Now is the time.  There is no better time than today.  Look for the possible.  Look for the good.  One word can change how someone’s feels about himself or herself or set them on a path for their future.  There is always something we can see in a person to encourage them about.

I like the story about a concert where a rather squeaky tenor had just finished his solo.  The applause was less than enthusiastic.  Someone in the audience exclaimed: “’Extraordinary!  Bravo!’ ‘Excuse me,’ said a puzzled women sitting next to him, ‘but I teach voice and I think his voice was quite inferior.’ ‘Voice?’ replied the other man, ‘I wasn’t thinking of his voice, I was praising his nerve.’”

Thank you for calling Nancy and me to PBPC in 2006.  Your call started as a temporary designated relationship and developed into an installed relationship. You brought us back to San Diego, our hometown, back to the beach from the mountains of Colorado, and to a caring and creative and faithful Christ-centered congregation.

Hear these words as you move ahead:  I Corinthians 16: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.”   God has guided and empowered our church since 1888, 130 years.  Like our past, our future lies in God’s sovereign will.  In this light, I close with my favorite verses from the book of Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not rely on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge God, and God will make straight your paths.”  Amen!

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Life After (I Peter 1:3-5;11 Cor. 5:1-5) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A mother writes:  While our family was leaving Disneyland, after a fun day, our sons Tyler and Cory, ages six and two were walking hand-in-hand behind my husband and me.  We overheard Tyler tell his younger brother Cory, ‘This is what heaven is like--except it's free!’

In the summer of 2004, 75 year old Fred Smith of Dallas Texas, was hospitalized in a semi-conscious condition and not expected to live.  Family members heard him repeat, "I want to go home…I want to go home."  After an emotional family conference, they concluded that they should respect his wishes and take no extraordinary measures to keep him alive.  For the next 36 hours, the family read Scripture, prayed, and said their goodbyes.   His daughter Brenda sat with him till midnight. Coughing finally broke through Fred's deep sleep and he suddenly awoke.

Brenda told him of the family's decision to follow his desire to "go home." She explained that he would gently slip into unconsciousness and then God would welcome him into his heavenly home. Suddenly, Fred's eyes opened wide and he said: Brenda, “I don't mean heaven, I mean my home, you know, my home on Parkchester Drive." Laughing through tears, we took him back home.

A question which has haunted the minds of men and women down through the ages was asked by Job in the Old Testament: “If a man dies, will he live again?  As a pastor, I have spoken to many people over the years about their attitude toward death.  People have different perspectives about it.   Age is an important factor, like whether you are young or elderly.  Having dependent children living at home is another significant factor.

The subject of death is ignored by many, welcomed by others as a blessing, because it means an end to physical or emotional suffering, and for still others death is feared.  Some don't fear death per se, they fear dying.  How am I going to die, will it be sudden and painless or prolonged and agonizing?  Some people believe death means the end, our complete extinction and others believe life continues on in some mysterious and unexplainable way.

I have personally ministered to grieving families over the years.  I have been with people in their final moments before death.  I have experienced the death of both of my parents and I can say that we are never really ready when that moment arrives.  When the last trumpet sounds it always takes us by surprise and comes as a shock.

If one dies, will one live again?    Cultures have different ideas about life and death because for some the idea of total extinction is unacceptable and unjust.   The ideas, perspectives and philosophies about death are innumerable.

Our culture offers symbolic immortality as an answer; that is, symbolic modes of living on.  For instance, there is the biological/biosocial mode, living on in our family, in people's memories, in our children, grandchildren, city, village, town, or nation.  There is also the creative mode, living on in one's accomplishments like having a school, like Kate Sessions Elementary, or a hospital, like Ellen Browning Scripps, named after you.  There is living on in your inventions, writings, movies, music, art, philanthropy, or in having built something, whether a playhouse for a child or the Freedom Tower in  New York City, the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere.  Comedian Woody Allen said:  I don’t want to achieve immortality by my work.  I want to achieve it by not dying.

Further, there is the nature mode, living on by becoming one with the natural world, the ground or the ocean, where our molecules are re-absorbed into nature.   Others find comfort in the notion of reincarnation, living on in another form of life. What do you think of symbolic immortality?  For Christians it may or may not bring comfort and assurance about the after-life.

For Jesus' followers, the basis of our hope, the ground of our confidence, our assurance about a life beyond this life is grounded in Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, stories about the appearances of Jesus following his resurrection, the testimony of eye-witnesses, and the teachings of the scriptures.  The historical event of the resurrection and the testimony of the Bible, the word of God, is the foundation of our assurance of the life to come in heaven.

Our Christian faith and the scriptures declare the truth about the after-life, eternal life, everlasting life, glory.  Here again the words from the letter of Philippians:  For as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their appetite, and their glory is in their shame, their mind is on earthly things.   But our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ; who by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior, who sits at the right hand of God believed in and taught about heaven.  Jesus says:  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”   Jesus’ prays: “Our Father who art in heaven” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasurers in heaven.”

In II Corinthians we read:  For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”

I Peter says: “By God’s mercy, we have an inheritance waiting for us in heaven.”   Faith in Christ the resurrected Lord, gives us a divine perspective through which we can look at this life and the life to come. We have a dual citizenship.  We are citizens of the United States and citizens of heaven.

What is heaven like?   We read in I Corinthians:  Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.  Now we know in part, then we will know fully even as we are fully known.”  What will you see, what will you know?   There are so many questions:  What will heaven look like?  Will heaven be boring?  Is there an ocean in heaven?  Am I good enough to go to heaven?  Are there animals in heaven?  Do you have to diet in heaven?  Will I see family and friends in heaven?  Can you drive in heaven?

Our knowledge is limited, but we do have some answers.  You will see Jesus, face to face.  You will see God face to face.  You will worship in heaven.  There will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain.  You will be evaluated by Jesus for how you lived out your Christian life on earth.  You will be recognized for your treasures or rewards, that is, those kindnesses, good deeds, and loving acts you performed during your life time.  You will be reunited with loved ones.   I can say this to you with confidence, in the life to come, you will see and you will know.

I remember when my mother died in 1988 at the age of 73.  She died from the effects of Parkinson’s disease and pneumonia.  I was overwhelmed with grief.  A month or so after she died, I saw her in a dream.  Her faced was radiant.  Her body was whole, healthy and graceful.  She was walking in a sunlit meadow, she smiled and said:  Alan, I am OK, I’m fine.  Get on with your life.”  A wish-dream?  Some would say so.  I don’t believe it was.  I believe I saw my mother in heaven.  I believe this dream was an expression of God’s grace during my time of mourning.

Hear those moving words of Jesus’ promise – “Believe in me.  In my father's house are many rooms, I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it weren't not so, and after I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

What an inspiring promise.  Heaven is a gathering of the faith community, the communion of saints.  Just as Jesus appeared to his followers following his resurrection, and they recognized him  and interacted with him and ate with him, so heaven means for his followers that it will be a time of reunion with Jesus, friends and loved ones.   Heaven is a realm where you will be forever released from pain and suffering, from fear and death.

The Bible teaches that in heaven we will receive a new body.  Think about that.  Does that get your attention?   We will not at death be reabsorbed into the universe, like a drop in the ocean.  Our individual identity, created by God, will continue.  I Corinthians says:  Some ask, with what kind of body will I come to heaven?  We read in I Corinthians:  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable, what is sown is mortal, what is raised is immortal, what is sown is physical, what is raised is spiritual.  What is sown in dishonor is raised in glory.  What is sown in weakness is  raised in power.  If it is sown a physical body, it is raised a glorious body.   We will be clothed with a heavenly dwelling.

Hear Jesus’ marvelous promise: “Because I live, you shall live also.” “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

Death, even acknowledging the grief that accompanies it, should not be feared or dreaded.  It should rather be seen as God's final gift of grace, because beyond death lies a glorious heavenly homecoming when we shall be with the Lord and others, where we shall dwell in the house of the lord forever, and where we shall live as citizens.

I close with a quote from the great evangelist Rev. Billy Graham:  When I arrive at heaven’s Gate, God will not be impressed by the many crusades I have conducted.  God will not be impressed that I spoke to more people than anyone in the history of the Christian Faith.  I come to the Gates of Heaven like anyone else—in Jesus Christ and His all sufficient, sacrificial, substitutionary death on the Cross for my sins.  We will be in heaven by the stripes on the back of Jesus Christ, not by any stripes, badges, medals or honors that we have been awarded.” Why?  Because heaven is the ultimate expression of the grace of God.  Amen!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Preaching for the Birds (Matthew 10:7-10) by Grant Kay


On March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Bergoglio was a surprising choice to a lot of people, due to his age, his nationality, his religious order, and more. But the thing that stood out about Cardinal Bergoglio was that his whole career had been spent in service and care for the poor. He was known for his dedication to living a simple, humble life with few possessions, and his willingness to live and work with the poor, sick, and needy. When it came time for Bergoglio to be introduced to the world as the new pope, it was revealed that he had chosen a name that no pope had ever taken: Pope Francis. The name choice was in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who dedicated his life to following God by serving the poor, and who, in doing so, awoke an entire generation of devout Christians.

The man we call St. Francis was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in either 1181 or 1182 AD, in the town of Assisi, in northern Italy. His father was Italian and his mother was French, and hew as not very tall as a child, and so was given the nickname Francesco, which means “little Frenchman,” from which we get Francis today. Francis’ early life is actually quite similar to the life of Augustine that we learned about last week, though not entirely. Francis was somewhat spoiled and indulged as a child, and was quite self-centered as a result. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and Francis loved fine clothes, good food, and expensive parties. Though he was a Christian, he was one in name only. His life did not bear any marks of real faith at the time.

In 1202, at about 20 years old, Francis went off to war. While in the army, he was captured, and spent the next year in captivity and illness. During this time his spiritual conversion began. When he was finally able to return home, he began to avoid the parties and games of his carefree days. He spent a great deal of time praying in a run-down old chapel in San Damiano, just outside of Assisi. While he prayed at San Damiano, he experienced the same vision three times, in which the Christ on the cross of the chapel spoke to him and said, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My House which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis assumed that this vision was about the chapel he was in, which was in great disrepair. So he sold some of his father’s golden cloth and used the money to rebuild the chapel.

When his father heard about this, he was furious. His son had stolen valuable merchandise and then spent it all! Francis’ father dragged him before the bishop and began legal proceedings against him. At that moment, Francis made the decision that he would change his life: He decided to renounce his whole life, give up his inheritance and family business, and leave. In order to owe nothing to his father, Francis even took off the clothes he was wearing at that moment, gave them to his father, and then walked out of the court naked and went straight into the woods.

From that time on, Francis lived the life of a poor wanderer. One day when he stopped in a church, he heard these words from Matthew 10 from our scripture reading. Francis took this message to heart and chose to live as simply as possible, in imitation of Jesus. He also began to see that Jesus chose to identify with the poor, and so he took a vow of poverty. He lived only by begging for food, and he also taught others as he travelled. He also begged for money to give to the poor, and spent much of his time helping those who lived in abject poverty. He had no possessions, and spent a great deal of time in nature.

Even later in life, when he had founded a monastic order and lived with others, it was said that Francis would spend up to half of each year in the natural world, away from people and cities, praying and communing with God. Francis loved God’s creation, and never ceased to worship God for the things he made. The famous hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King” was written by St. Francis. That hymn represents Francis’ love of nature, and his desire that the whole earth, not just humanity, should give praise to God.

There is a famous story about St. Francis that he was trying to decide whether to retreat into nature, or go back into the cities to teach. In a fit of inspiration, he ran up to a flock of birds and began to preach to them about Jesus. The story has it that none of the birds flew away until he had finished preaching and made the sign of the cross over them! As wild as that story sounds, it reveals Francis’ deep connection to the natural world, and his love of God’s creation. The story says that when he came back to his friends after preaching to the birds, he accused himself of negligence because he had never preached to the birds before then!

Despite Francis’ love for nature, he could not remain entirely out of human society. By 1209, he had about a dozen friends and followers who had begun to imitate his lifestyle and travel with him. So Francis decided to found a monastic order, which meant that the Catholic Church would officially support his ministry and would allow others to follow his path. In order to found a monastic order, you had to have permission from the Pope. Otherwise, you could be declared a heretic for practicing something that was against the church. There was just one problem: Francis wasn’t just out there living like a hermit, caring for the poor, and preaching to animals, he was also challenging the structure of the Catholic Church.

When Francis chose to take a vow of poverty, and people started to follow him, it began to raise questions about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. You see, many bishops, cardinals, and popes over the centuries had amassed incredible wealth through their church offices. It probably comes as no surprise to any of us today that powerful people were abusing their power to obtain incredible wealth. The bishops and cardinals of Italy were perfectly content to oversee the church and live comfortable lives of wealth, until along came this voice in the wilderness of Assisi, living in poverty and caring for the poor.

You can see why it might have been a bit daunting for Francis to go to Rome and seek approval for his monastic order. For the pope to approve of Francis and his followers would be to acknowledge that the riches of the Catholic Church were un-Christ-like. Yet Francis believed that his life and his group of followers were ordained by God and living in a way that was pleasing to Him. The pope at the time was Pope Innocent III, who had inherited great wealth from his predecessors. Innocent was somewhat uneasy with the idea of a wealthy church, but he was not about to change the status quo.

When Francis came to him for permission to start his monastic order, he came in his beggar’s clothes. When Pope Innocent saw Francis, he said that he looked and smelled like a pig, and he should go wallow among the pigs Francis, instead of taking the insult and leaving, went to a pig sty, rolled around, and returned to the Pope saying, “Father, I have done as you ordered; now, will you do as I request?” Pope Innocent was impressed with this display of humility and obedience, and allowed Francis to officially form his monastic order.

With official approval, the Franciscan order quickly grew. A woman named Clare founded a sister organization that soon became known as the Second Order of Franciscans, but was also known as the Poor Clares. After that, there were many who wanted to live in imitation of Jesus and follow the Franciscan Rule, but felt it necessary to remain in their jobs, families, and so on. These people were also formed into communities and became the Third Order of Franciscans. Thus, the Franciscan movement began to spread in all facets of Christianity: men and women were joining the movement, whether it was the first, second, or third order.

Francis also tried to spread the message of the gospel around the world. He made a trip to Egypt in an attempt to convert the Muslim Sultan to Christianity. This shows the boldness of Francis, in that he travelled deep into territory controlled by Muslims, at a time when Muslims and Christians were constantly at war, just to try and win people for Jesus. Supposedly, Francis was able to gain an audience with the Egyptian Sultan, but wasn’t able to convince him to convert. However, the sultan was so impressed by Francis that he granted him safe passage back to Italy.

Francis spent many years leading his monastic brothers and sister, teaching them and trying to keep them humble. Thanks to the rapid growth of the movement, there was always the temptation to give up humility or poverty in exchange for the glory and wealth of the world, just as the bishops and cardinals had done before them. So Francis worked hard to make sure that his followers would not give in to these temptations. He spent the final years of his life continuing to live in poverty, teaching about the life of Jesus to all who would listen, and growing his Franciscan order to become the largest monastic order of the time.

For a church that had become increasingly wealthy and hierarchical, Francis was nothing short of revolutionary. Francis called people out of their comfortable lives and into service, poverty, and humility. He challenged the dominant power of his day, not through revolution or fighting but through the example of his life. Francis’ vision from his youth, of Jesus telling him to “repair my house” had become about so much more than a small chapel. He had begun to repair the whole Church from its ruin of excessive wealth and comfort.

The life of St. Francis has many lessons for us. First, follow the calling of God in your life. If Francis had not obeyed the small call of rebuilding that chapel in San Damiano, who knows if he ever would have embarked on the path of his life. Francis shows us that God cares not only about humans, but about the world that he created: the animals, plants, birds, and the rest. Finally, Francis shows us the power of following the example of Jesus in our life. Francis’ commitment to living like Christ was revolutionary enough to change the whole church.

I would like to close with a prayer written by St. Francis that has remained a powerful and popular prayer down to this day. Let us pray,

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Friday, April 13, 2018

What Are You Discussing? (Luke 24:13-35) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Think for a moment about a time when you grieved the death of a loved one.  What was that experience like?  I believe grief is the most intense and painful experience in all of life.   For some of you it is a distant memory.  For others the sting of grief is still raw and painful.   In our story from the Gospel of Luke, two disciples are sharing their grief with a stranger on their journey home.  Many of you have walked that road.

Cleopas and an unnamed disciple are departing from Jerusalem and heading back to their home in the nearby village of Emmaus.   They are trying to come to grips with the death of their dear friend and teacher Jesus.  At this time they were completely unaware of Jesus’ resurrection.  For them it was still Good Friday.   Overwhelmed with grief, they push on, alternating between moments of silence and quiet conversation.

We had hoped that he was the one.  The one to redeem Israel.”  They had hoped Jesus would liberate the Jewish people from the Romans.   They loved and respected Jesus as their teacher and friend.  They had seen him perform miracles, care for lepers, and heal the sick.  Jesus taught spiritual lessons through parables about the Kingdom of God.  But now that was all in the past.

They trudge on, when suddenly, a stranger appears before them and asks: “What are you discussing with each other?  They were surprised and probably annoyed by this interruption.  This stranger listens and then gently chastises them for their lack of faith in His teachings and promises.  He spends a day with them and then at the right moment, the stranger reveals His true identity as the Risen Lord.

In this Easter season, we shout with joy because we don’t grieve a dead Jesus, but follow and worship a living Lord.  What is God’s word to you in this story?  Here is what I hear God saying.

First, the two disciples were surprised by the sudden appearance of this stranger.  He appeared out of nowhere.  They didn't expect him at all.  And this intrusion turned out to be a surprise of grace.  It changed their lives and renewed their hope and faith and courage. Sometimes God surprises us in this way.   It's the surprises of life: the unexpected blessings, a contact by a friend from the past, anticipated bad news that turns out to be good news, a gift of health or finances, that you realize is God’s will in your life.  Can you think of a time when God's grace surprised you?

Second, Jesus met the two disciples at a time of deep personal need.  Here is an amazing truth. There are times when we are more receptive, reachable, open to God’s word and action in our lives than other times.   A time of need is just such a time. Scripture has story after story when Jesus meets people at their point of need.  They are surprised that this stranger is interested in their conversation:  What are you discussing with each other?” God cares about what you are discussing and thinking about and doing.  God’s mercy meets us in our times of brokenness spiritually or emotionally, when we are weak or hurting.  When has God met you at a time of need?

Third, Jesus appeared to them, but they didn't recognize him.  Why?  Perhaps Jesus didn’t want them to immediately recognize him.  Or maybe it was about perception – if you don't expect to see something, you often won't recognize it, you won't see it, you will look right past it.  I remember that happening to me when I ran into a couple from our former church in Santa Monica when we were living in Colorado.  They were looking at me and I noticed them looking, but kept walking, until they shouted “Hey, Pastor it’s me.”  They were out of place.  I saw but I didn’t see.  Our own perception prevents us from seeing what is right in front of our eyes.

Jesus stood before the disciples, but they didn't realize who it was.  There are times when God is acting in our lives, when God is intervening in our lives, when God is reaching out to us, but we don't recognize that it is the presence and power of God.   Later we think, I wonder, could that have been God intervening in my life?

Fourth, though broken-hearted, these disciples were not defeated and headed home to start the next chapter of their lives.  In my experience, people who battle on in times of grief and deep disappointment, who persevere in making a life or taking care of family are more likely to find God or to be found by God, than those who just give up.  Having the courage to keep moving forward, to carry on, opens up opportunities to encounter the living God.  There is one set of footprints in the sand, because God is carrying you forward.  I have experienced this in my own life.  I have seen it many times in the lives of people.

Fifth, God is saying that Jesus the Lord reveals Himself, His word, to us in the scriptures.  Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?  God has inspired people throughout history as they have turned to His word.  God continues to speak to us through the Bible today.

The psalmist says: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.  The Gospel of John says:  These words were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  II Timothy says: “The Bible was written to teach us the truth about God and salvation, to teach us the truth about moral living, to correct unjust or unkind behavior and to change our lives, so that we might mature in faith and grow closer to becoming like Jesus Christ in mind, heart, and behavior.

The Bible is a priceless source of inspiration and guidance and strength and wisdom.  By the Holy Spirit's witness through the Bible: Bach composed, El Greco painted, and Pascal wrote his book Pensées.  The Word of God has inspired Christian authors like Catherine Marshall, Charles Swindoll, Billy Graham, Charles Stanley, Pastor Rick Warren, and Max Lucado, whose works have inspired millions.

Sixth, I hear God saying that Jesus reveals Himself to us in the Lord’s Supper.  The church has claimed from the time of the first Easter meal when the disciples ate with Jesus after his resurrection, that the Risen Lord is present whenever his followers gather together for communion.  The two disciples sit down with Jesus, break bread and Luke tells us: “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.  Throughout the ages, Christians have testified to Jesus the Risen Lord being truly present in the celebration of Communion.   The broken bread and poured wine are occasions of Christ's presence.

In the Lord’s Supper, by faith, the Holy Spirit feeds our souls with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.  The Holy Spirit strengthens our faith and confirms our faith.  We participate in a spiritual communion with the living Christ.  We receive forgiveness, healing, and spiritual renewal.  We grow closer in our union with Christ and with one another as we gather at His table.

Shortly before his death, tennis star Arthur Ashe, who died of AIDS due to a tainted blood transfusion in 1993 wrote these words to his daughter:  Camera, have faith in God.  Do not be tempted whether by pleasures and material possessions or by the claims of science and smart thinkers, into believing that religion is obsolete, that the worship of God is somehow beneath you.  Spiritual nourishment is as important as physical nourishment and intellectual nourishment.  And by it you will grow into a deeper understanding of life’s meaning.

A woman writes: “Someone dear to me once gave me a little cross adorned with roses. It bears the inscription, ‘Hope raises no dust.’ I tried my best to penetrate its mystery. But after thinking about it, it still seemed like a vague axiom about hope.  But for Christians, hope is not vague. We have a hope that is historical, personal.  We have a hope that encounters us in life and says, “What are you discussing with each other?

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann expresses the heart of God from Good Friday to Easter in these words: "God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him."  My friends, may we too encounter the Risen Lord in worship and in our daily lives.  Such encounters are surprises of grace.  Amen.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Jesus First Word on Easter! (Matthew 28:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A pastor writes:
 A friend of mine who worked for a mortuary, had a number of responsibilities in his job, including traveling to small rural communities to conduct funerals where there were no churches.  He would go out with an undertaker and they would drive together in the hearse. One time, on their way back from a funeral, my friend was feeling tired.   He decided to take a nap and went to lie down in the back of the hearse.

The undertaker pulled into a service station to gas up. The attendant started filling up the tank and was kind of freaked out, when he saw a body stretched out in the back.  While he was filling the tank, my friend woke up, opened his eyes, knocked on the window and waved at the attendant.  My friend said he never saw anybody jump so high and run so fast in his life.”

Yes, when you’re expecting death and you see life; it startles you, it shakes you up, it shocks you.   So it was on that first Easter.  Everything turned upside down.  The women and disciples thought they were going to see death, but instead they saw life!   Jesus' followers were shattered, grief-stricken at seeing Jesus crucified and buried.  But all that changed on Easter.  Jesus’ appearances transformed his followers; they were now hope-filled and bursting with joy and passion and power and began to witness to others in His name.    Easter is proof that all lives, any life, every life, can be changed when one meets the Risen Lord, when one hears the truth and power of the gospel.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb early in the morning to anoint Jesus' body with oil and spices as was the Jewish custom.  The women encounter an angel who says to them: “Do not be afraid; He is not here, He has been raised as He said. Come and see; go quickly and tell the disciples Jesus has gone ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him.

The Risen lord suddenly appears to these two women as they are leaving the tomb.  Jesus utters his first word “Greetings.”  No, not “I’m back.”  But rather, Greetings!   And our Risen Lord says greetings to you this morning as well.

The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the Christian faith and hope; it’s the historical basis for the celebration of Easter.   Easter is a shining light in the darkness of this world.  Critics argue that the resurrection is a hoax.  But if this is true, if there is no hope, if we are earthbound, if aging, suffering, pain and death is all there is; well, listen to this scripture from I Corinthians: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.  If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all people.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.

Easter declares Jesus is alive!   The tomb was empty!  The stone was not rolled back so Jesus could get out, but so people could enter the grave and see for themselves that Jesus had risen from the dead.   As a pastor, I’ve seen people who by grace through their faith, have been saved from tombs of grief, from tombs of self-loathing, from tombs of shattered relationships, from tombs of aimlessness, from tombs of addiction, from tombs of hopelessness.

The Risen Lord changes, transforms, sinners, nihilists by grace and power.   You may have heard the song, “I Can Only Imagine,” written and sung by songwriter and vocalist, Bart Millard, lead singer in the Christian band MercyMe.   The story behind the song is that when he was young his father, known as Bub, was extremely abusive toward him, verbally and physically for years.  When the beatings slowed down in Bart’s early teens, the father told Bart: “Do what you want, I don’t care anymore.  Bart said those words hurt almost worse than the beatings.

His father became ill and something miraculous began to occur, Bub unexpectedly began praying and reading the Bible.  He encouraged Bart in his church youth group, rather than berating him for going to church. Bart and his father became friends. They prayed and talked together daily for hours.  Bart saw God transform his father’s heart before his very eyes.  He said: ”If the gospel could change that guy, the gospel could change anybody.  His father died of cancer when Bart was in his late teens.  At the gravesite, Bart’s grandmother, a woman of faith, said: “I can only imagine what Bub’s seeing now.  Those words penetrated Bart’s soul and inspired him to write the song “I Can Only Imagine,” in 2001.  It’s been released as a movie this year.

Easter announces that there is no grave deep enough, no stone heavy enough, no evil strong enough to keep Christ in the tomb or to keep us, whoever we are, and despite whatever we have done, from meeting the Risen Lord and finding grace, mercy and forgiveness in His name.   The question is: Is evil stronger than God, hate stronger than love and death stronger than life?  Christianity says no!  Why?  Because on Easter God raised Jesus to life, because Jesus is alive and the Risen Lord said: “Greetings” to a world that believed he was finished.  Easter declares there is hope for tomorrow, there is the promise and assurance of new life.

Easter further points to an afterlife, an eternal life, a life beyond this temporary earthly life.  A new heavenly life awaits those who surrender their lives, who trust, who believe in Him.  Scripture promises:  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”   Life begins when we discover this truth for ourselves and act upon it.  The resurrection shows that even the seemingly indomitable power of death is inferior to the will and power of God.  Easter announces that Jesus' resurrection opens up the future.

I ask you two questions: Do you have hope for the future?  What is the basis for your hope?  Christians around the world today are not declaring: "The stock market has risen. It has risen indeed."  "The dollar has risen.  It has risen indeed."  "Google has risen. It has risen indeed."   The hope that has ignited the hearts, stirred the souls, and uplifted human beings across the centuries is: "Christ is risen. He is risen indeed."

So where do we place our ultimate trust, in our President and our politicians?  In ourselves?  I’ll let you answer that question.  Because of Easter, I place my ultimate trust in Jesus, the Son of God, the Risen Lord.  Let us place our trust in Christ alone.  Jesus says:  I have come to bring life and life abundant.  There are many rooms in my Father’s house, I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it were not so, and I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.  Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even though they die, shall live.

Jesus is Risen, Jesus is Lord.  The first word Jesus spoke on Easter was “greetings” to those who believed he was dead.  On this Easter Day, Jesus looks into your heart and says: “Greetings” to you as well.   Alleluia.  Amen.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Gift of Prayer (Mark 1:35-37; Phil. 4:4-7) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Dear God, so far today, I’ve done alright.  I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.  I’m thankful about this Lord.  But in a few moments, I’m going to get out of bed, and then I’m going to need a lot of help.  Amen!

This morning we are focusing upon prayer.  Why?   Three reasons.  Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, the Patron Saint of Ireland, a Roman Catholic Bishop in 5th century Roman Britain, whose life is well worth studying.  Prayer was central to the spiritual life of the Celts of Ireland.  God used Patrick to evangelize Ireland and to synthesize the Roman Catholic Faith with the culture of the Celtic people.  This synthesis has come to be known as Celtic Christianity.   Second, because today Christians are observing the season of Lent, with its emphasis upon the interior spiritual life.  Third, because prayer is indispensable to following Jesus and it’s crucial to the ministry of the church.

I am convinced that if a Christian is to be spiritually alive, if a Christian is to have a vibrant faith, if a Christian is to be joyful, faithful, Spirit filled, Christ centered, one must be continually immersed in prayer.  I believe the same thing about the church.   Is prayer important?  The Gospel of Mark says: “And in the morning, a great while before day, Jesus rose and went out to a lonely place and there he prayed.   It was important to Jesus.  Prayer was fundamental to his life and ministry.  Jesus personally prayed.  He taught the disciples and crowds how to pray.   He commanded his followers to pray.

What is prayer?  It's not an empirical science, based upon observation and experimentation.   Thousands of books have been written about prayer.  But prayer remains shrouded in mystery; we don’t finally understand it.   But that’s OK.  There is a plethora of things we don’t understand about life, but we keep on living it.  We don’t fully understand the human brain, but that doesn’t keep us from thinking.  We don’t know how to raise children, but we learn and keep having them and do the best we can.  We don’t fully understand human biology, but the medical field continues researching.  We don’t understand ourselves fully or what motivates others.  We don’t understand why the universe exists and we only have theories about how it came into existence.  We don’t know if life exists anywhere else in the universe except on earth.  We don’t know what happened to the dinosaurs.   I love what one scientist said:  It’s easy to focus on what we know, yet to me the wonder of the cosmos, the awesomeness, is never greater than when we contemplate all that we don’t know.  I feel exactly the same way about prayer.

I believe prayer is the highest activity of the human spirit.  Prayer is a gift of God's grace.  Prayer is a spiritual bridge in the divine-human relationship.   Prayer is the soul's approach to God.  Prayer is an encounter with God.  Prayer is communion with God, an intimate meeting with God.  Prayer is conversation with God which involves speaking and listening.  Prayer is a spiritual discipline which needs to be practiced.  Prayer is the path to a deeper relationship with God and to a deeper knowing of ourselves.  Prayer, transforms our minds, lifts our spirits, and enlivens our hearts.  Prayer is a way for our spirit to get in tune with God's Spirit.   Prayer is an expression of love.  Intercessory prayer is a way of loving others whether members of your family or friends or strangers.    Prayer builds our faith up in God and expresses our faith to others.  Prayer is a way God achieves His plans and purposes for human lives and the world.  Prayer is a way God changes us and circumstances around us.  Prayer keeps us dependent upon God which is a good thing.

Prayer says:  I need you God, I belong to you.  I want to be in constant touch with you.  My heart is restless until it rests in you.   Prayer helps us to be a better human being, a better follower, and to see God more clearly, follow God more nearly, and to love God more dearly.

I like what author Richard Foster says about prayer: “Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life.  Prayer brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit.  Real prayer is life creating and life changing. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.  If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.

From where does prayer flow?  Prayer flows from a heart of Thanksgiving.  I thank you God.” “I praise you God.  Prayer flows from a heart of fear and need.  Help me God.  I am sorry, forgive me God.  Prayer flows from a heart of love.  Help this person God.   Prayer is our response to God’s word and activity in our lives.

I thank God for prayers which have been answered in my life: prayers about Nancy and our sons, and our daughters in law and grandchildren; prayers for protection in frightening situations; prayers for healing and health; prayers for surprises of grace which I didn’t expect nor deserve, but isn’t that what grace is all about; prayers leading me, guiding me, inspiring me and encouraging me in ministry as a pastor serving four churches in 42 years.

I am thankful for prayers for others which God has answered over the years.   Prayers for healing, for employment, for marriages becoming healthy, for parenting challenges which were resolved, prayers for older parents who reconciled with their grown children, prayers for grown children stepping up to care for aging parents, prayers for people who discovered direction and purpose in a life that had been aimless and lost.  Prayers for persons who came to faith in Christ as their lord and savior.

And yes, there have also been prayers that were not answered, at least in the way I had hoped they would be.  Some of those are the questions I hope to have a conversation with Jesus about one day.   I like some of you have questions as well.   In my own case I can think of prayers God did not answer in the way I prayed, but in looking back, I am grateful God didn’t, because things unexpectedly turned out better.  I am thankful for the prayers of others for our family over the years.  Yes, we learn a lot about patience and trust in the life of prayer.

I think of an older member in one of our congregations who was having severe back pain.  Two highly qualified doctors informed him of the diagnosis and the recommendation – lower back surgery.   He prayed about it.  We prayed about it, because he still had doubts in his mind.  He finally went to visit one of the Mayo Clinics.  They told him it was an issue with a leak in the cerebrospinal fluid and required a stint and that he needed a totally different surgery.  He recovered fully.   This is not to disrespect the doctors at all.  We all know diagnostics can be extremely difficult.  The point is my friend continually prayed and listened and was guided by God to the right place and the right doctor for him.

We know that prayer can be spontaneous or read, memorized, silent and spoken.  I love classic prayers, like the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  I love The Prayer of St Francis: “O Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is doubt, faith, where there is despair, hope, where there is darkness, light, where there is sadness, joy.   O master grant that I many not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood, as to understand, to be love as to love, for it is giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned, and in dying that we are born to eternal life.  I love the Lord’s Prayer:  Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I close with the inspiring words from the letter of Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I say rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen!