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Sermons and Spiritual Messages
► Hear "Fit for New Purpose"
or read it here in PDF format
Spiritual Message by Joy Barnitz, December 29, 2013
Scripture readings: Malachi 3:1-3, Mark 13: 32-37
With Christmas 2013 behind us, it's time to prepare to welcome the New Year. As we put away the holiday decorations and start to make our new year's resolutions, it may be a good time to review where we are on our spiritual journey. Are we in good shape for 2014? Are we 'fit for purpose'?
Every year when the Advent season comes, we get to hear many things about the birth of Jesus. Was there indeed something very significant and special about the birth of this little baby in Bethlehem, Judea? Certainly, as his name and genealogy show, Jesus was very clearly born to be the Messiah, who would save the people of Israel from oppression and misery. Yet, instead Jesus became the Savior of the Christians who were mostly Gentiles. So what happened?
Luke's gospel account of the angel Gabriel informing Mary of her irregular assignment indicates that she asked a couple of poignant questions but didn't really hesitate to sign up for the job of giving birth to the Lord. Let's scope out the deeper story this third Sunday of Advent.
As a prophecy, the prophecy of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer, is the first prophecy after Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament. Does it make Zechariah a prophet? What is a prophet? Or more importantly, what does mean to be a prophet of God? Let us explore these age old questions, which have been and still are essential in Christian practices on this Sunday morning.
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, 'No; he is to be called John.' They said to her, 'None of your relatives has this name.' Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, 'His name is John.' And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, 'What then will this child become?' For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Together, during Sunday's spiritual message, we will explore a practical approach to prayer and meditation and how this can lead to an intrinsic inner attitude of gratitude and thanksgiving.
It is very hard to share your understanding and wisdom regarding how to live a good and fulfilling life with another person. So, we can only imagine how hard it would be to do so to your close friends and family! The very people amongst whom Jesus might have spent his childhood and adolescence could not believe that Jesus was actually the Messiah! What lessons shall we learn from this challenging story in Matthew?
Reverend Doug explores the New Church concept that all love and wisdom, goodness and truth, flow from God.
In John 8:32, Jesus teaches us that, "the truth will make you free." What is this "truth" that could grant us the ultimate freedom? More importantly, how and where do we obtain this "truth?" Seeking, finding and knowing the truth has been and still is one of the greatest motivations for humans. Yet, how do we know it is the "truth" that we have found when we have found something?
Reverend Sterner speaks to the question of where church can be found in our cultural context and what type of leadership it might require.
Rev. Stephen L. Sterner has Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Lancaster Theological Seminary. He has been an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ for 43 years, serving in new and historic churches across the US. In 2008, he became Executive Minister for Local Church Ministries of the UCC, where he advocated for local UCC congregations, was a member of a task force that developed a new governance structure for the UCC National Setting, and was a member of the UCC Council for Higher & Theological Education. He is also a former PSR trustee, having served during the presidency of William McKinney. Steve also served as the Interim Conference Minister of the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC.
While getting his BA at Gettysburg College, Sterner met a college chaplain who suggested Sterner get involved with some student activities, including a trip to tutor students in New York City. Sterner's experience there showed him that church could be engaging, and he decided to go to seminary. Beyond his experience as a pastor and UCC national executive, he also has experience in developing sustainable endowments, and building partnerships with communities and organizations.
Of what he hopes his role at PSR will be, Sterner said, "I believe leaders today are called not to resist change or simply name it, but rather to help organizations sort out the necessary changes to enhance their vision and mission for the future."
He and his wife Judy have 2 grown children, and Steve will be coming to PSR from residence in South Carolina.
In Luke 10:21, Jesus says, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants." What are the things that the wise and intelligent do not see, but the infants do? What is an infant, but being full of innocence? I would like to explore the possible difference between being wise & intelligent and being innocent...
In Mark 9:42-48, Jesus gives a very graphic and passionate illustration of how to keep your spirit clean from committing sins. Whenever I read this, I am glad to be a Swedenborgian in that I do not have to take any of this literally.
So, what does it mean by cutting off the "foot" and "eye?" When we read this teaching of Jesus in the way Emmanuel Swedenborg suggests, what we find is a most effective way to remove the core of negativity and materialism that often darkens our minds and hearts.
In Matthew, there are a number of teachings that begin with "the kingdom of heaven is like ..." In 13:33, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven with "yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
According to Swedenborg, this very short and simple parable contains a concise summary regarding the entire process of our regeneration, of our being "born again." The focus of the talk on Sunday will be on the meaning of "yeast," "woman," "three," "flour" and "leavened."
In Luke 10:12-15, it seems that Jesus condemns the unrepentant cities. One fundamental question that is asked by all is, "Does God ever condemn anyone for anything?" Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the word condemn as this:
According to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the woman who was caught in adultery was punishable by death with stones. Yet, the teachings of Jesus have been mercy and forgiveness. Would it be still right to simply forgive an obvious offense? Or should it be punished according to the law? Forgiveness brings love and mercy, while utter leniency may not be the most appropriate way of living together in this world. How should we know what to do at each given moment?
Sometimes Jesus teaches by looking straight into the camera and addressing us directly. We are surprised, or at least we should be. "Love your enemies" should shock us, if we hadn't heard it so many times before. "Turn the other cheek." Easy to say, and after constant repetition easy to hear.
But in our Gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus hits us so hard, so unexpectedly that preachers often just stay away from this story. "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." [Luke 14:26] What?!? The Prince of Peace tells us we must "hate"? And surely He, of all people, has not forgotten the Fifth Commandment, "Honor your father and your mother".
What in the name of heaven is going on here? He has gotten our attention - a great teacher always will, after all - but just what are these "possessions" we are supposed to give up to truly be disciples? Come this Sunday and we will explore these mysteries.
Who would not desire to be loved and favored by God? However, is there a way to be the first or the most loved by God? In this short story, Jesus teaches and explains a heavenly secret by means of which we can truly become one with God our Creator!
In the Four Gospels, Jesus gives us 39 parables. A parable is a story in which special meaning is embedded. The disciples of Jesus asked him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" To this, Jesus answers, "The reason I speak to them in parables is that "seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand." After reading this conversation again, a question arose in my mind: Are you one of the disciples or one of them to whom Jesus had to speak in parables?
What does it mean to catch fire in our current world? How do we remain kindled in the face of hardship, heartache and times of desert dryness? Christine Rodgers ponders these themes using scripture, poetry and shared life experiences.
In the gospel reading, Jesus asks us to be like servants waiting and watching for the Master to return to His house. The sermon will consider our readiness and watchfulness as servants waiting for God to return. It will reflect upon the challenges of keeping to this in the midst of modern life.
Is it all for naught, vanity of vanities, or is each day a precious God-given gift? What teachings about money would Jesus give in this stressful 21st century economy, so vastly different from His 1st century world - or is it really so different? Am I bound for a greed-based circle of hell because I have a 401k? Am I off the hook because I contribute to my 401k with the right spirit? Rev. Speas will grapple with the challenging questions raised by this week's scripture.
There are over 2 billion Christians in the world. Therefore, there can be a number of different answers to the question, "Who is a Christian?" But, there cannot be any doubt of the truth that as a minimum all Christians desire and are willing to follow Jesus. So, what does it mean to follow Jesus?
The story of Jesus healing a boy with a spirit is written in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). But only in Mark, one of the most honest and inspiring statements is written: "I believe; help my unbelief!" This was the cry of the father whose child was with a spirit. When you want something from God desperately, what do you truly believe or want to believe? The power of a God who can grant what you wish? or The true existence of a loving and caring God?
I love rainbows. I love them for their natural beauty, of course. But I love them for the way they always make me think of the Noah story: "I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth." [Gen. 9:13] It makes me smile. It makes me smile to think that the power of the story always reminds me of this, just as God (the story tells us) said "When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." But it never occurs to me to wonder if I take it literally. I love the power of the story, that this natural wonder makes me feel God's omnipresent love. I know that there are truths that go way beyond mere facts.
Having faith in God may not be as easy as it sounds. Particularly when you consider our tendency to seek a clear and concrete sign, having faith in God becomes even more challenging. In Matthew 12:39, Jesus tells a group of people when they ask for a sign, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign." So, what would be the most appropriate way to build the foundation of having faith in God?
The Gospels have many stories of Jesus healing people by touching them. In Mark 5:34, a woman is told that her faith has made her well after she touches Jesus' cloak. What is so special about this story? And what is so special about touch?
► Hear "Preparing the Way: The Mysticism of John the Baptist"
June 24 is the date that some Christians commemorate the birth of John the Baptist. We often call John the Baptist the "forerunner" to Christ or the one who prepared the way for Jesus to be seen and known as the Christ. This reflection presents John in a new light: as an intuitive mystic whose ways of knowing and perceiving invite us to explore our own innate ways of knowing and believing.
When we refer to Jesus as the Christ, we are acknowledging and confessing that He is the Messiah of humanity. Both Messiah and Christ mean "anointed" linguistically and Savior theologically. This is Savior with a capital S, meaning that he is the Savior of all mankind on earth, most likely of all in the entire universe. So, why did we need such a Savior?
The word "transfigure" as a verb means "to transform into something more beautiful or elevated." On a certain evening, Peter, John and James witnessed Jesus being transfigured! According to Luke, "the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white (Luke 9:29)." So, what does this mean?
If Jesus were to come to your dream tonight and ask of you "Be my disciple, child," how would you answer? Your answers would certainly vary depending on where you are. But if you are a Christian, whether you like it or not, you have already answered this question when you chose to be a Christian! The matter now is whether you become a true disciple or just a disciple... What would be so special about being a "true" disciple versus being just a disciple?
Mary the Mother could be considered as the most blessed mother of all, because she was the mother of Jesus Christ. But at the same time we cannot help but wonder, "Was that how she actually felt?" For believers, Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Divine, the Incarnation of Creator. How could a human woman be the mother to God Incarnate?
In the Bible, there are many stories and parables involving trees. Often, trees are used as personification of a certain characteristic or nature of an individual. In Luke 6, Jesus illustrates two very simple but opposing qualities of human actions: good and evil. In a way, it seems that being good or being evil is a definite state of being. But, our focus for this Sunday is the very last sentence in Luke 6:45, "it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks." What does Jesus mean by "heart" in this context?
► Hear "Stepping Back Into The River of Life" and "A Journey of Self Discipline"
The Reverend Junchol Lee offers a 7-week Discipleship Training program based on two fundamental principles: 1. God is real and experiential - meaning, if you want, you can experience God, and God wants that. 2. You are a Spirit in Training - the training is done by you and God.
We are all students, and God, only, is The Teacher. The work is done by students' own intentional search for God. A disciple is one who not only wants to learn the Teaching of The Master, but also live the Principles of The Master. James and Corina share their experiences from the training.
There are a few fundamental questions that we as self-conscious beings have been asking for millennia: 1. Is there really a Creator? 2. If so, what was/is the purpose of creating humans? and 3. What is the worthy way to spend the limited time we have here on earth? In John 7, Jesus challenges the Jews of that time along with all of us living in this 21st century, with, yet, another very important question: Do we know what it truly means to know the truth and/or to have faith in your God?
We call him Jesus Christ or the Messiah. Christ is from the Greek word cristos. In the Hebrew, christos is written as messiah, meaning anointed! According to Exodus, the first ones who were to be anointed were Aaron and his sons to serve at the duty of priests. Later, both Saul, the first king of Israel, and David, the second king of Israel, were anointed with oil by Samuel. Moreover, we find a very different kind of Messiah in the Prophets. So when we Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah, what does that really mean?
In one way or another, we all experience a variety of sickness and illness. In a way, being sick is a way of learning the truth that our life is so very fragile and vulnerable. And yet, the sum of all the pain and agony we experience when sick cannot begin to be compared to that of those who are born with limited and challenging conditions, whether in body, mind, or both. In the Gospels, Jesus cures many of those who are suffering with such innate disabilities and illnesses. Jesus did not cure all those who were sick or ill, but only those who either came to him or were found along his way. Why?
As morning dawned one day, about 2000 years ago, something amazing happened! For Christians this has become the most important event, Easter. Jesus came back from death on the 3rd day as he had promised his disciples so many times. Yet, what is most intriguing about the story of Easter is that all four Gospels tell us that it was women who first witnessed the resurrection! Why women? Why not the faithful Peter or the beloved John? This year, I would like to explore this aspect of Easter...
Jesus enters Jerusalem. Seemingly this is not a major event. As a matter of fact, he might have been coming to Jerusalem for the past many years to observe the Passover, the most important among the three Jewish Pilgrimage Festivals. But this time, he asks his disciple to prepare a colt that had never been ridden. And, as he enters Jerusalem, the people shout, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven! (Matthew 21:9)" Hosanna means either "help" or "Save, I pray."
What were their expectations of Jesus? And, more importantly, what was the teaching that Jesus had in mind by entering Jerusalem in such a manner?
2013 marks the centennial of the death year for Rev. Joseph Worcester, founding pastor of SFSC and guiding visionary for the renowned church and gardens at Lyon and Washington streets that opened for worship for the first time on Sunday March 17, 1895.
To commemorate the confluence of these significant dates, the service focused on the spiritual practice of worshiping regularly in the extraordinary sanctuary Rev. Worcester designed in a now-legendary collaboration with church members and architectural colleagues, many of whom became important figures for their contributions to art and architecture. In addition to complementary scripture readings, the sanctuary itself is the primary text.
Whither the Promised Land? We see in this week's reading how Joshua finally led the Israelites there, but where is Moses? After all his extraordinary work, why doesn't Moses get to cross over, also. And we ourselves - shall we ever reach this fabled homeland in our faith journey? (Hint: if the Word is indeed a story about us, the answer can be "Yes".) Will we find this place to be different than what we have known, or will we ourselves be different? Just where is this path leading us,anyway?
In John, Jesus identifies himself as "the bread of life." Jesus even emphasizes this with, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (John 6:52)." What captures my attention fully here is the word life. An easy explanation would be that by life here Jesus meant the spiritual life. Indeed, but what kind of life that we live would be considered as a spiritual life by Jesus, and compared to what?
In Matthew 12, the teachings of Jesus seem truly revolutionary and liberating in that he proclaims:
"Something greater than the temple is here (12:6)" & "For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath (12:8)"How can there be something that is greater than the temple? This question might have come into your mind if you were there and were listening to Jesus at that time. Then, he claims ownership of the Sabbath! Here are the two key and central words: temple and Sabbath. Again, what is it really that Jesus intends to teach us in this particular teaching?
It most likely happened in the second year of his ministry that Jesus sent out the twelve with a very specific assignment: proclaim the good news and heal people. However, the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke differ on exactly what this instruction of Jesus was about. Matthew emphasizes "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-6)." Mark emphasizes "began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits (6:7)." And, Luke's focus is "to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal (9:2)." And yet, all of them mention a special action that they should take as a testimony against those who reject them: to shake the dust off from their feet! What does this mean?
Yeast is something that we use to make both the texture and taste of bread more pleasant to us. In the Bible, the use of yeast is strongly prohibited when the bread is prepared to be the offering to God and/or to be used for a special occasion. In the Gospels, Jesus strongly warns his disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees. Instead of using terms like "wrong," "false" or "selfish," Jesus specifically uses the word "yeast" to describe the things of the Pharisees that are spiritually harmful to his disciples. So, what exactly is the yeast of the Pharisees?
In Genesis chapter 12, an old man is visited and called by God to leave his home and his family and go to a land faraway. He was 75 years old, and his wife was 65. They had no children, yet he believed this promise from God: I will give this land to your descendants! The old man's name was Abraham, the father of three major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Who was this God?
Have you ever been displaced into another culture, far from your home? Have you ever found yourself a "stranger in a strange land"? We have many different portraits of the multi-faceted Swedenborg, knowing him as a natural scientist, as a cosmologist, as a profound theologian with deep insights into the nature of God and reality. In his call to "enter intellectually into the mysteries of faith" (TCR 508) and bridge the widening gap between science and religion, we find a very modern struggle that resonates with our present conversations about spirituality and secularism. But Swedenborg was "modern" in another, key way for many living in the 20th and 21st centuries, our ongoing era of globalization: as someone who spent many years in exile in foreign countries, far from home and his beloved garden, living in London and Amsterdam where his English and Dutch were, at best, passable. This experience of exile might help explain why a number of expatriate artists (from August Strindberg to Oscar Milosz) have written about finding in Swedenborg's Writings "a spiritual home." This sermon explores home and homeland in the Writings, and also why Swedenborg, late in his writing, chose to identify as a "Swede" when Marriage Love was first published in 1768.
It is a very simple and clear thing to acknowledge that hearing can happen without much intention and effort, while doing takes intention, effort and persistence. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus emphasized this matter by comparing it with building a house: the wise will build their house on rock, while the fools build their house on sand. Just as it is a natural and normal thing to build a house on rock, it is the same to act according to a truth once we have learned that truth! Yet, this may not be as simple or natural as it might seem...
We have passed through the season of Advent and Christmas; Lent, which will lead us up to Easter, begins next month. This period in between is known in the church calendar as the "Season of Epiphany", when it is revealed to us that the baby born in Bethlehem is indeed the Christ, the anointed one - in other words, the promised messiah.
These winter seasons (the rest of the year being known as "Ordinary Time") reacquaint us, year in and year out, with our Christian faith. In doing so, are we being spiritual or religious? Either or? Both and? For some, the term "religious" has developed pejorative connotations. Dare we, then, be religious?
There is something that most of us on earth do in the first week of each New Year: we make a new list of our new year's resolutions! However, the sad truth is that it is very rare that anyone will actually be able to celebrate at the end of the year for completing the list. Many things that we put in the list will most likely end up just being hopeful wishes... Is there a way to make it different this year?