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Jesus Welcomed Children

October 7th, 2018, Pastor Galen

“Let the little children come to me…for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mark 10:14).

So often in our society children are seen as a disruption. Children distract us from the seemingly more “important” adult things that we have to say and do. In truth, children require a lot of time and attention, in a society where time is often in short supply for adults. Children are completely and utterly dependent on others, in a society that values independence. Interacting with children requires us to get down to their level, in a society that’s all about upward mobility.

And yet Jesus welcomed the little children to come to him, and said that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

I like to imagine what this scene must have looked like. In the previous verses, Jesus had been outside, speaking in front of a large audience, engaging in an intense public debate with some of the most prominent religious figures of his day.

Now, according to Mark 10, Jesus is in a house with just his disciples, debriefing the public spectacle that just took place. But while they’re relaxing in the house, people start bringing their children to Jesus asking him to bless them. I like to imagine this scene in the house, with Jesus holding a child on his knee, other children crowding around asking to be held. Toys strewn everywhere, one child fussing, other children running around, chasing each other around the table. Parents, grateful for a few minutes of reprieve as Jesus occupies their child, begin commiserating with the other parents in the room about the challenges of potty training and life with toddlers.

As a parent, it always blesses my heart when someone is willing to take the time to converse with my children — when they’re willing to stop what they are doing, to get down to their level, to look them in the eye, to ask them a question, and to really try to get to know them.

So often as a parent I feel like I’m walking on pins and needles when we’re out in public. What if our 2-year-old throws a tantrum? If so, how will the adults in the room respond? Will we be reprimanded, shushed, asked to leave? One of the most amazing feelings is in those times where my child is being fussy, and an adult responds not with criticism or a harsh word, but instead with a word of grace, or blessing for us or our child.

A few weeks ago, we were enjoying brunch at one of the wonderful dining establishments around the corner on The Avenue, and our 2-year-old was getting restless. She had finished her food and didn’t want to stay in her seat, so she started to walk around and around our table. We were distracted in conversation, but a few minutes later the owner of the restaurant started walking towards us. My pulse quickened as I feared she was going to reprimand us for allowing our child to walk around in the restaurant and potentially disrupting the other customers. Instead, she reached out and handed a wonderful little bowl of strawberries and blueberries to our child, which served to both occupy and satisfy her, and to show us that we were indeed welcome in her establishment.

It was this sort of interaction that Jesus had with children. Jesus’s disciples actually verbally rebuked the parents for bringing their children and interrupting Jesus. But Jesus was in fact indignant — but not at the parents or even the children, but instead at his disciples for wanting to prevent the children from coming to him!

Jesus welcomed and blessed the children and taught his disciples to do the same. He took the time to converse with children, to get down to their level and to get to know them. Jesus blessed them, spoke kind words over them. Jesus had a heart of love of compassion for all people, including and especially children.

Children and the Mission of our Church

Over the past few months since I’ve been pastoring here, I’ve been trying to learn and listen and observe the needs of the surrounding community. At the same time I’ve been taking stock of what are some of the assets of our church, some of the ways that we’re already meeting the physical and spiritual needs of people in the community, and some of the ways that perhaps we could even expand our outreach and impact into the community.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of families in this community, many of whom may not attend church regularly. And so I’ve been thinking about some of the ways we can attract families to come to church, and I was thinking about the fact that we have a great kids ministry on Sunday mornings and wonderful monthly family nights, and how we could maybe leverage our kids ministry to attract families with children. Parents can come to church with their children, they can know that their children are downstairs having fun and learning great biblical truths in children’s church, while the adults are upstairs worshiping God in reverence and peace and quiet.

But this past week I’ve been convicted that my thinking has been skewed. You see, I had been seeing our children’s ministry primarily as a strategy for attracting families to come to church, as a means to reach the parents. But this week God has been convicting me that children are not simply a tactic for community outreach or even a strategy for church growth. Children themselves are valuable to Jesus, and therefore they should be valuable to us as well. If Jesus can take time to welcome and bless children, so can I, and so can we. I don’t think this is a radical shift for many of you, but I know it is for me. I hope that we are and can continue to be a church that welcomes children like Jesus did.

“…the kingdom of God belongs to such as these”

Not only did Jesus welcome children, he taught his disciples that “the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14) and that “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15).

In other words, there’s a lot that children have to teach us, and a lot that we as adults can learn from children. Children have an intrinsic love, trust, and dependence on God that we would do well to observe and incorporate into our own lives.

Although we often highlight the simplicity and innocence of children, children can be very deep thinkers as well. They often have incredible insight and grasp things that we as adults often don’t understand. I know that my own children have taught me so much about God and about the world.

Each of my children has their own personalities and perspectives on the world. Our oldest daughter tends to be incredibly optimistic like me. But my middle daughter tends to be much more realistic about the challenges and difficulties of life, even at the age of nine. She has always had a particular heart for the homeless and for people who are asking for food or money. It really bothers her when she sees people who are in need, and I think even at her young age she has a strong grasp of injustice.

Several years ago when she was even younger, we were driving in our car and we saw a store that was named “Life is Good.” You may have seen t-shirts or merchandise with those words before. My daughter asked about the meaning of that slogan, and my older daughter and I immediately responded with something to the effect of, “Well, you know, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Life is good, so we should enjoy it!”

And then my 5 or 6-year-old daughter said something that will probably forever change the way that I think about the world. She looked up and said, “But life is not good for everyone!” Even at the young age of 5 or 6, my daughter had a grasp of inequality and injustice and the harshness and reality of life for so many people that I so often ignored. I for one have so much to learn not only from my own children, but from all of the children of our church and community.

The Church of Tomorrow — And Today

My friends, children are not just the Church of tomorrow. They are the church of today. Children have a lot to teach us, if we will only stop to listen and learn from them. Children do need to be taught moral guidance and biblical truths, but they also have an intrinsic trust and knowledge of God and the world, and we as adults would do well to learn from them.

It is my hope and prayer that we can take Jesus’s command to heart, to let the little children come to Him. Let us as a church welcome children with God’s love, and let’s allow them to show us what it means to enter more fully into the Kingdom of God.

Flood

September 39, 2018, Pastor Galen

Psalm 124

Psalm 124 says, “if the Lord had not been on our sidethe flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away” (Psalm 124:2, 4-5).

I have never been caught in a flood. But I do know from personal experience that water can be an incredibly destructive force.

One summer a few years ago someone broke in and stole the copper pipes from the vacant house that was attached to our house. This of course caused the neighbor’s basement to flood, overflowing into our finished basement apartment, causing us thousands of dollars of damage. That same summer a tornado peeled back part of our roof. This was followed by three days of rain, which caused another several thousand dollars worth of interior damage to our house.

We need to drink water in order to live, we need rain for our crops to grow. But water can be both a blessing and a curse.

“The Flood Would Have Engulfed Us”

About a month ago, my parents were caught in a torrential rain storm with rising flood waters. They were driving on the highway when it started to downpour, and they came upon water flooding over the right lane of traffic. The water looked muddy and they couldn’t really see how deep the water was, but rather than proceeding through the water they stopped. The water was rising fast and they could feel the water rushing underneath their car, so they backed up and got over to the shoulder and waited over an hour until the rain subsided. They said that water rushing in the gully along the side of the road looked like a fast-moving creek.

When they did finally resume driving they saw cars partially submerged in the water, and many more cars that were trapped, where people had to be evacuated.

All in all, 10 1/2 inches of rain fell within a couple of hours in the Mt. Joy, PA area, which was a historic record. A nearby trailer park was severely flooded, and quite a few homes were damaged.

I am grateful for the wisdom and patience that God gave to my parents and that they didn’t try to drive through the flood waters. If it had not been for the Lord on the side of my parents, “the flood would have engulfed [them], the torrent would have swept over [them] the raging waters would have swept [them] away” (Psalm 124:4-5)!

This month we’ve been talking about Creation. We talked about how nature reveals God’s glory and majesty, and how we as people have been tasked with the care and conservation of the earth. But so often we have acted irresponsibly, sometimes intentionally but many times unintentionally bringing harm and damage to the earth and to us.

But we’ve also seen that nature itself can also be incredibly destructive. Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes cause incredibly devastation.

Nature is a powerful force. But the Psalmist reminds us this morning that as powerful and as destructive as nature can be, God is even greater. Although so many times we feel vulnerable and powerless before nature, we must remember that God is on our side, and that God has the ability to step in, to intervene, and even to reverse the laws of nature. In the Gospels we see that Jesus calmed a storm and fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and fish. Jesus turned water into wine, healed people who were sick, cast out demons, opened the eyes of the blind, made the lame walk, and brought dead people back to life. In each of these instances Jesus reversed the laws of nature, showing that God is more powerful than even the most destructive forces in creation.

Salvation

Now, although God has the ability to intervene and reverse the laws of nature, and although God has the power to protect us from the raging flood waters, the reality is that sometimes people do die in floods, and many times there are casualties due to hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters.

We don’t know why God intervenes, rescues and protects certain people in certain circumstances but not in others.

What we do know is that when God steps in and intervenes, when God saves us from death and destruction, that salvation reminds us of the spiritual salvation that Jesus makes available to each and every one of us through his death and resurrection.

You see, each and every one of us will die at one time or another (unless we’re still alive when Jesus returns). Although we will all experience physical death at one time or another, we can experience eternal life through Jesus Christ. And for that eternal life we don’t have to wait until we die – eternal life can start here and now. Jesus said in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Eternal life is about knowing Jesus, and that can start now.

I Thess. 5:9-10 says, “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”

And this salvation is available to anyone – it’s not dependent on how righteous or holy we are. Titus 2:11 says, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.

Notice that it says salvation is “offered” to all people. Although salvation is available to everyone, we must accept God’s gift of salvation in order to receive it.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the story of the man whose house was flooding, but he refused to be rescued by a rowboat, motorboat and helicopter because he said “God will rescue me from the flood!” When he died and went to heaven, he asked God “Why didn’t you save me?” And God said, “I sent a rowboat, motorboat and a helicopter to rescue you. What more were you waiting for?”

God’s salvation is free and available to all, we just have to reach out and accept it.

And when we do accept it, our lives will never be the same!

Titus chapter 2 goes on to say, “[Salvation] teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:12-14).

I love these verses! Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

John Wesley said it like this:

By salvation I mean, not barely (according to the vulgar [common] notion) deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.

So salvation is not just about going to heaven when we die. It’s about living for God here and now, it’s about seeking God’s kingdom here on this earth, it’s about praying for God’s “Kingdom to come” and God’s “will to be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as we pray in the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:10).

When God steps in to intervene on our behalf, when God does a miracle, or when we see God saves us from physical harm or destruction, we can be reminded of the salvation that God has made available to every one of us. There’s nothing we can do to earn it, it is a free gift, we just need to receive it. When we accept that gift, God gives us eternal life, and begins in us the process of transformation to make us more righteous, merciful, truth-filled people who look like Jesus and who are eager to do what is good.

This World Needs God

I don’t know about you, but when I look at the world around us, I think that the world could use more righteous, merciful, truth-filled people who look like Jesus and are eager to do what is good. Sometimes it seems like our world is drowning, like the flood is trying to engulf us, the torrent is sweeping over us and the raging waters are threatening to sweep us away, as in Psalm 124.

And I’m not just talking about all of the rain and flash-flooding that we’ve been getting this year! I’m talking about the how we’re being flooded with partisan politics. I’m talking about the torrent of anger and division that is sweeping over this nation, and the raging flood waters of lies that are threatening to sweep us away.

And one of the ways we saw this demonstrated this week was in the confirmation hearing of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Now don’t worry, I’m not trying to take this sermon in a political direction. I honestly have no idea who is lying and who is telling the truth! But I think it’s obvious that someone must not be telling the truth. The stories are so drastically different, they obviously can’t both be right. In truth, there is a lot at stake for both of the individuals involved, and from watching clips from the hearing it’s obvious that there are a lot of feelings and emotions on both sides. And for some of you this whole discussion might bring up some very personal feelings for you as well.

But this is not just a story of what happened or didn’t happen between two teenagers 35 years ago. It’s representative of the way that men so often mistreat women, of how readily many people will lie to cover up the truth, and of just deep and wide the political divisions are within our country.

To me, Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing reveals just how much our world needs God. Because unless God steps in to save us, the divisions, the hatred, and the anger is just going to continue to grow. The flood waters just might engulf us, the torrent might sweep over us and the raging waters might sweep us away.

Fortunately, God is in the business of salvation and transformation. God can transform both individuals and this world. I believe that there is hope, that God can redeem our society, that the truth can break through.

This morning I want us to pray, that God would make us to be people of integrity, that God would save us and our country from the political divisions that are threatening to overwhelm us, and that God will put us on the right path to be a society that is righteous, just, and truth-filled. Let us pray that God would save us, both individually and as a nation!

More Than Words

September 23, 2018, Pastor Galen

Psalm 1, James 3:13-18

Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:1,2-3a)

I don’t know about you, but I am one of those people who cannot sit still for very long. My mind is always racing, I’m always thinking about the next thing, so the idea of meditating on God’s law day and night makes my head spin. I work with a group of law students, and I see colossal textbooks that they carry around. Let’s just say there’s a reason that never studied law.

It’s even difficult for me to focus in prayer for very long, especially if I’m just sitting by myself in my room. I need to be out in nature — often I pray while going for a run, or I take a walk and talk to God while experiencing God through nature.

Fortunately, I’ve noticed that nature is one of the ways that God speaks to us. Sometimes God speaks to us through the Bible, sometimes through a still small voice, and sometimes it’s through things that happen in the world around us.

I’m Not A Tree

Several years ago, I was down in New Orleans for a conference related to my campus ministry job. We were given some time during the conference to go and be alone with God, so I went outside and took a walk, and eventually sat down underneath the shade of this gorgeous gigantic tree. I sat with my back leaning up against the trunk of the tree, praying and journaling and talking with God. A few yards in front of me there was another tree, almost identical to the one I was leaning against. These were beautiful trees, with branches reaching up to the sky. They must have been around for over a hundred years.

As I sat there praying and talking with God, I stared at the beautiful tree in front of me. While I was praying, I was asking God to show me what God wanted me to do in the next season of my life. I was in a time of discernment in ministry, I’d been doing college campus ministry for quite a few years, and I was considering moving into a church ministry role, but I wasn’t sure where to go or what to do next.

As I was praying and looking at that tree, I was thinking about how solid the tree was. And I thought to myself, “You know? Maybe God is saying that I’m somehow like that tree! Maybe God is saying that God has made me to be a pillar in my community. People are counting on me and relying on me, and I just need to stay firmly rooted and grounded where I am. God just wants me to stay put, to just be faithful, and stay where I am. I don’t need to get up and move anywhere, I’m already where God wants me to be.”

And as I was just sitting there, sort of relishing in this thought that I was like that tree, thinking about how faithful and solid I am, I began to feel this prickling sensation all over my body. Actually, it was much more than a prickling — it was more like a burning sensation! It came upon me all at once, and I had no idea what it was. I really hadn’t spent a lot of time down south before, so I was completely unfamiliar with this phenomenon that they have down in New Orleans called the “Red Imported Fire Ant.” Apparently I had sat down on or near a nest of these fire ants, and they didn’t like that I was in their space!

Well, let’s just say that I learned that I was not nearly as rooted and grounded as I thought I was! Unlike that tree, I did not stay put. I took off running, straight to the room where I was staying and tore off my clothes and jumped in the shower.

I wasn’t exactly sure what God wanted me to learn from that experience, but it felt significant. I will say that it was definitely a humbling experience, and I think God was trying to tell me that although it is important to be rooted and grounded in the Word of God, that doesn’t mean we have to stay put. When God tells us to move, we need to move!

But I think the moral of this story for us is that:

  1.    God can speak to us in a lot of different way.
  2.    When God speaks we don’t always hear what we expect or want to hear.
  3.    God has an incredible sense of humor.

To me it is encouraging to know that God can speak to us today, through many different means and in many different ways. We don’t all have to be Biblical scholars – we just need to make time and space in our lives to actually listen to God.

More Than Words

Now, although Psalm 1 exhorts us to meditate on the Law, or Word of God, James 3 reminds us that true wisdom is shown not just in knowledge of the Word, but also through “deeds done in humility.”

In our society, wisdom and knowledge are usually associated with words. We tend to think that someone who is smart or wise always has just the right words to say. To us, a wise person is eloquent, has an exhaustive vocabulary, and the uncanny ability to quote just the right proverb in any given situation.

According to James, however, wisdom is shown through correct actions. James declares that the wisdom that comes from God is peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial and sincere.

Why does James challenge our preconceived ideas of wisdom and knowledge? Why does he insinuate that wisdom is more than words?

Well, anyone can memorize intelligent-sounding proverbs. Given enough time and discipline, any of us could enlarge our vocabulary, or learn to arrange words in such a way as to impress others.

But only a genuinely wise person can consistently act wisely, in any situation, when the pressure is on, whether or not anyone is watching.  Not only do wise people act wisely when the pressure is on, but those who are truly wise normally try to avoid situations where they know they will be tempted to make poor choices – which are often when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.

But how does one become wise? For that we must go back to Psalm 1 — by meditating on the word of God.

Meditating: Wrestling and Ruminating

Meditating on the word of God day and night of course does not mean that you have to sit still at a desk and study all the time. You don’t even have to find that perfect shade tree to sit under. Meditating on God’s Word entails taking in the Word of God, and then ruminating on it, chewing on it, even wrestling with it.

My favorite questions when I read a Bible passage are:

  1.    What do I like about this passage?
  2.    What don’t I like about it?
  3.    What am I going to do about it?”

Yes, I admit it! Even as a pastor, there’s a lot of passages I don’t like in the Bible. Sometimes I don’t like a particular Bible passage because it’s difficult to understand. Other times because it seems too far-fetched and implausible.

And sometimes, if I’m honest, I don’t like a particular passage of Scripture because I simply don’t want to put it into practice!

But you know, It’s OK to wrestle with God – some of the most godly characters in the Bible wrestled with God — either literally (see Gen. 32:22-32) or figuratively (Moses, Job, Abraham).  And it’s even OK to be angry with God, to question God, to ask God “why do bad things happen”? Again, we’re in good company with the biblical saints when we do that.

I think that it’s when we wrestle with God’s Word, when we ruminate on the Word, when we question God that we become more deeply rooted in God’s Word. If we just take things at face value, then they stay on the surface. It’s only when we wrestle and squirm with the Word that it sinks down deeper into our souls. And it’s when we move beyond the easy, pat answers that we become humbler, more compassionate people.

It All Starts and Ends with Jesus

In the end, though, we find that Jesus is the only one who fits James’s description of one who is truly wise. Jesus is the one who always acted in humility, who was always pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial, and sincere. Jesus is the only one who truly lived a life that was always good and righteous, who never harbored bitter envy or selfish ambition. Jesus is the tree planted by the rivers of water, whose life always yielded good fruit.

As we look at Jesus’ life, we see that Jesus was indeed someone who cultivated wisdom through meditation on God’s Word and through deeds done in humility.

  1. As a twelve-year-old boy, Jesus was in the temple “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46).  When his parents told him to come home with them Jesus “was obedient to them…And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:51-52).
  2. In Luke 6, “Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God” (Luke 6:12).
  3. And Acts 10:38 says that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and…he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”

And so, Jesus is both our role model, and the means by which we can live a life that is righteous and fruitful. We all have been selfish or envious at one time or another. All of us have harbored bitterness, or boasted and denied the truth. We need the grace, mercy and forgiveness that only Jesus can offer. We need Jesus to help us become firmly rooted and grounded, and to make wise decisions, and to bear good fruit.

With Jesus’s help we can become solid, deeply rooted, trees that bear good fruit. With Jesus’s help we can bear “fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Through Jesus we can move beyond bitterness, selfishness, and envy. We’ll still make mistakes on this side of heaven, but with Jesus’s grace, mercy and forgiveness we can become people who “sow in peace [and] reap a harvest a righteousness” (James 3:18).

Not Everything Is Good

September 16, 2018, Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 19

I grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I suppose you could call Harrisburg a large town or a small city. There were about 50,000 people in the inner city, and about a quarter of a million people in the metropolitan area. Harrisburg is much smaller than Baltimore, but in many ways it had the feel of a neighborhood or community not too different from Hampden. We could walk to the dentist office, the barber, the shoe store, and the farmer’s market.

Growing up we really didn’t throw a lot of things away. My parents weren’t really big spenders. They were pretty conservative in how they dressed, and we bought most of our clothes from the thrift store or got hand-me-downs from other families who had kids older than us.

But I also didn’t really think about a lot about recycling or caring for the environment. My school had recycling for aluminum cans, but at home we would just throw away whatever we didn’t need. We didn’t even have recycling for glass or paper that I was aware of. Generally, I just kind of lived my life with very little thought or concern for how my actions were affecting the environment.

The Harrisburg Incinerator

Now, although Harrisburg was a small city, it had big aspirations. The mayor when I was growing up was mayor Stephen R. Reed. Steve Reed became the mayor 2 years after I was born, and served for 7 terms, for a total of 28 years! Steve Reed was a big dreamer who loved the city of Harrisburg and was always looking for opportunities to get Harrisburg on the map. Steve Reed did a lot to improve the city, including reinvigorating Harrisburg’s downtown business district, establishing a minor league basement team, and founding the National Civil War Museum (yes, believe it or not the National Civil War Museum is in Harrisburg, PA even though no battles of the Civil War took place in Harrisburg!). Steve Reed even began to accumulate memorabilia to start a Wild West Museum in Harrisburg, PA, even though Pennsylvania is most definitely located on the East Coast, nowhere near the Wild West.

Now, when Steve Reed became the mayor he inherited a problem – namely the city was carrying a massive debt due to an incinerator that constantly required costly maintenance and repairs. The incinerator had been purchased in the early ‘70’s for $15 million, but the debt had eventually grown to $94 million.[1]

But, not to be deterred, Steve Reed saw an opportunity. Rather than getting rid of the incinerator and buying a new one, Steve Reed and the city council decided to “double down” and go into even more debt to drastically expand it. The argument was that with the newly expanded incinerator the city could charge the surrounding counties to dispose of their trash, which would allow the city to pay off the now humongous debt, and eventually become a steady source of income revenue for the city.

Unfortunately, at some point along the way it was discovered that the Harrisburg incinerator was spewing toxic chemical pollutants into the air. So, the federal government came in and shut the incinerator down. Not only did this effectively cut off any sort of cash flow for the city, but it left the city with a tremendous amount of debt, so much so that the city eventually had to file for bankruptcy and is still recovering to this day.

Now, lest you think that this is just one more example of big government coming in to squash the little guy for some petty reason, I do want to let you know that the pollutants being spewed into the environment were incredibly harmful to people. And not only did they affect the people in Harrisburg and the surrounding areas, but it was discovered that the particular chemical toxin that was being released in the air was actually making its way all the way to Northern Canada! Dioxin was discovered in the breast milk of native Canadian women and traced all the way back to the Harrisburg, PA incinerator.

This means that the mayor and city council, in their attempt to help their city, had inadvertently poisoned women and children over 1,000 miles away. And I, as I was happily-go-luckily skipping along on my merry little journey as a child, throwing away aluminum cans with no thought for tomorrow, was obliviously negatively impacting children that I would never even meet.

Now I want to emphasize that neither myself nor the city leaders had any intention to hurt other people. This was not some sort of insidious plot to poison Canadian women and children. This was not the evil brainchild of some sort of criminal mastermind in an abandoned warehouse who came up with this brilliantly insidious scheme to wipe out half of the world’s population. This was simply small city leaders dreaming big, planning for the prosperity of their own city, with no idea of how it would negatively hurt those around them or indeed their own city down the road.

Not Everything Is Good

This month we’re talking about Creation. We talked a few weeks ago about how God’s good creation displays the majesty and the wonder of our Creator God. We talked about how as followers of Christ we should want to preserve God’s beautiful creation so that all people can be led into awe and worship of our creative and gracious God. Last week we talked about how mountains in particular can teach us particular characteristics of God as well as teach us life lessons about ourselves.

But this week we’re talking a very different aspect of creation. We’re talking about the reality that this world that we live in is not perfect. That although God created the world and called it “very good,” we live in a world where bad things happen. There are incinerators that spew out toxic chemicals. The water in our beautiful inner harbor is not safe enough to swim in, let alone drink. Hurricanes destroy people and property, there are floods, tornadoes, landslides, and all sorts of natural disasters.

And we can’t just blame nature either. People do a lot of damage too! People hurt and kill each other. Sometimes intentionally, other times by accident. And sometimes, even when we’re trying to do good, we end up inadvertently hurting people a thousand miles away.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

In the first chapter of Genesis, God commanded the first humans to “…fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 NRSV).

Subduing the earth and having dominion over every living creatures on earth is a lot of power! But “with great power comes great responsibility.” Now, having “dominion” over something simply means to rule over. This does not give us license to destroy the environment or to ravage the earth for our own purposes. Instead we are called to be stewards of God’s resources, using them wisely, and taking care of the earth as if it were our own.

But we are by nature selfish people. We do things that we think are in our best interest, that end up hurting ourselves and others. So often we naively make decisions that negative impact other people and future generations. And so often, even when we do have good intentions, we inadvertently hurt other people.  

And I’m not just speaking about throwing away aluminum cans or purchasing municipal incinerators. Every day, at work, at school, in our relationships with our friends and family members, we do things that we think will help us or our family or our church or our business, but in retrospect we realize that our decision caused hurt or pain to someone else.

What do we do when we find out that the actions that we’ve been doing have hurt other people? How do we move forward when we find that we’ve made a mistake or caused someone pain? Do we stop doing it? Do we sweep it under the rug? Do we cover it up, hoping no one notices?

This is the situation I think all of us find ourselves in at some point or another, whether it’s at work or school, at home or in church. The question is, how do we move forward when we’ve caused someone pain, when we’ve made a decision that negatively impacted others?

Moving Forward in Grace

My friends, this is where grace comes into play. This is when we need God’s forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. We need to ask for God’s grace and mercy to wash over us like a flood, to cleanse us, to help us make things right and to start over if necessary. You see, so often we think that God’s grace and forgiveness is only needed when we’ve been caught doing something really bad, or when we’ve done something to intentionally hurt someone else. But often it’s those times that we mess up, when our good intentions inadvertently cause pain, or when we naively make mistakes that we most need God’s forgiveness so that we can forgive ourselves and move on.

You see, one of the temptations when we’ve made a mistake is to double down, to sink our teeth in further. We don’t want to admit that we’ve made a mistake, so we go above and beyond to defend our actions, we lie to cover it up, and we end up in a much direr situation than when we started.

You see, mayor Reed and the Harrisburg city council knew that their incinerator was in danger of being shut down by the EPA when they decided to enlarge and expand it. Although they may not have known the full environmental impact of their incinerator, their decision to double down and expand the incinerator was in part a denial of how bad things really were.

In Psalm 19, the psalmist says, “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. (Psalm 19:12,13).

We need God’s help in order to acknowledge our mistakes, to bring them out in the open, to make things right, and to move on and not let it take hold of us. The psalmist recognized that we need God’s mercy not just when we intentionally sin, but even when we mess up. In fact, we need God’s help to even reveal to us when we’ve made a mistake because so often it’s difficult for us to even recognize our own errors.

But the psalmist also goes on to ask God to keep him from “willful sins.” The Hebrew here has this connotation of pride – it’s this sense that our pride can lead us to go in deeper. Rather than humbly admitting our mistakes and moving on, we double down, we sink our teeth in, and in the end our pride begins to rule over us! Rather than us having dominion over the earth, our pride begins to have dominion over us. If we’re not careful, we fall into cycles of negative behavior that sometimes we even pass down to the next generation. And even if no one ever finds out, in the end it hurts us and others even more than if we admitted our mistakes when we first discovered them.

We need God’s help reveal to us our errors and show us how to move forward. We need God’s grace and mercy to wipe the slate clean so that we don’t let our past mistakes take hold of us. We need God’s help not only to keep us from falling back into the same trap again, but to help us not be “ruled” by our pride.

Responding to the Word

Friends, this morning I want you to know that God’s grace and mercy are available to each one of us. Whether you’re carrying a load of guilt for past mistakes, whether you’re living in fear of how your actions might impact others, or whether you just want to remain open and sensitive and humble to God’s spirit, I want you to know that God is ready and waiting to forgive you, to shower you with grace and mercy, and to make you over anew.

We live in a world that’s broken. Things are not the way they were meant to be, and we’re to blame for a lot of that. We shoulder a large burden of responsibility and sometimes we steward that responsibility unwisely. So often we mess up. But we can move forward with God’s help, in the knowledge that God’s grace will be there to pick us up again when we fall, and God’s mercy and compassion can free us to walk in newness of life.

This morning we’re going to respond to the word by singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” I want to invite you to let the words of this song wash over you and to receive God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness.

I’d like to read just a few lines of this song as we prepare to sing it together this morning:

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not, they compassions, they fail not, as thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mind, with ten thousand beside! Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed they hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!

Those Who Trust

September 9th 2018 by Pastor Galen Zook

My Mountain Flop Experience

If you’ve ever climbed a mountain, you know that it is a physically demanding experience. But climbing a mountain can teach you a lot of life lessons as well.

When I was a junior in college, our college campus Christian fellowship went away for a week-long retreat at the end of the school year. We spent the week planning for the following year, electing new leaders, having fun and relaxing at the end of a busy school year.

Well, somehow I got it in my mind that it would be a fun bonding experience for our leadership team to hike up a mountain together and watch the sun rise over the valley below. I knew there was a beautiful view of the valley below from one of the lookouts, and although I had never climbed the mountain in the morning, I just knew it must be gorgeous to watch the sun rise over the valley.

So I went around and convinced all of the other leaders to wake up several hours before dawn the next morning so we could hike up the mountain in the dark and get to the top of the mountain in time for sunrise.

Now this wasn’t Mount Everest or anything like that, but it was a rather strenuous hike for those who weren’t accustomed to hiking – especially in the dark. But with a lot of coaxing and cajoling, we all finally made it to the top, just as the sky was starting to brighten.

As we came upon the lookout and saw the valley spreading out below, I realized to my great chagrin that the lookout faced squarely to the west – the exact opposite direction of where the sun was rising! It slowly dawned on me (pun intended!) that I had just forced my friends to get up several hours early and climb a mountain in the dark just so we could see the very same sight that we could have seen from down below – the sun rising over the tops of the trees behind us!

Now, I had just been elected president of that the fellowship, and needless to say, that experience did not win me a lot of points with the people under my leadership. But convincing my friends to climb that mountain in the dark, I learned a lot of valuable life lessons. I learned a lot about myself, about leadership, and how much I needed to grow.

I learned that good leadership is not just about encouraging and inspiring people to ascend to greater heights. Good leadership also requires doing exhaustive research, and meticulous planning. I learned that I had the ability to gather and encourage people to do just about anything, but that I needed to get better at taking into consideration what exactly I was leading people to.

I learned a lot from that mountain experience. (Rather than a mountain top experience I would call it a “mountain flop” experience!) But I definitely received some enlightenment through that experience.

Nature Teaches us about Ourselves and about God

This is the second week of our series on the topic of Creation. Last week we looked at the importance of protecting and caring for God’s creation, and how creation reveals to us the beauty and creativity of God. This week we’re looking at what creation can tell us about ourselves and about God’s care and protection for us.

Those Who Trust in God Are Like Mount Zion

In Psalm 125, the psalmist tells us that “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever” (Psalm 125:1).

Those who trust in the Lord are like a mountain. I don’t know about you, but I rarely think of myself as a mountain, although some people have pointed out that I tend to walk around with my head in the clouds! And I suppose, most mornings in the flurry of activity trying to get the kids ready for school I do experience several volcanic eruptions of anger as I yell at the kids to get dressed and not to forget their backpacks.

So I guess in some ways I am kind of like a mountain, but not necessarily in the way the psalmist suggests!

Now, I’d love to be solid, immovable, unshaken in my resolve. But in reality I’m afraid I much more often resemble a reed shaken by the wind, or the shifting sand of the seashore.

And yet, the psalmist tells us that those who trust in the Lord are like a mountain that cannot be moved, but will endure forever. The key words here are in the Lord. In and of ourselves we are easily shaken. It’s only when we put our trust in the Lord that we can remain firm and stand strong like a mountain.

There really is not much that can shake or move a mountain. Hurricanes, landslides, forest fires, earthquakes – all of these drastically change the face of a mountain, but they don’t do much to move the foundation, the bedrock of the mountain. Like a Timex wrist watch, mountains can “take a licking and keep on ticking.”

And this is how it is for us when we put our faith and trust in God. The psalmist is not suggesting that life will be a cakewalk, that the road will always rise up to meet us, or that the stars are always going to align. The psalmist is simply telling us that we can make it through whatever life brings our way if we put our trust in God. The storms of life can and will beat against us, but with God on our side we can withstand.

Trusting in the Lord

Like my mountain flop experience, we often learn through making mistakes. And the trials that we experience, the storms we weather can deepen not only our knowledge of ourselves and God, but they can actually serve to deepen our faith and trust and dependence on God.

Although the NIV says that those who trust in the Lord will never be “shaken,” I think a better word is “moved” or “removed.” I’ve found that as we grow in our faith and trust in God, there are many times when our faith is shaken. Bad things happen, and they absolutely affect us. We’re rattled, we’re thrown off balance, and our faith sometimes gets knocked around in the process.

Growing in our trust in God does not mean that we stop experiencing doubts or insecurities. In fact, growing in spiritual maturity often means that we begin to hold things more loosely. Rather than becoming more rigid in our convictions, growing in our faith and trust in God often means that we realize how much we don’t know, and how much we need to grow.

Some of the wisest people I know, who have the deepest faith and trust in God, would be the first to admit that they don’t know all that there is to know about God. They are continually learning new things, and continually growing. Rather than being immovable, they are flexible, adaptable, always willing to take in new information and learn new life lessons. Just like the face of a mountain changes and adapts over time, so we must be willing to incorporate in the new things that we’re learning about ourselves and about God.

Like a Mountain, The Lord Surrounds His People

Verse 2 goes on to say that God is like a mountain. Just like “the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people” (Psalm 125:2).

In the days prior to our advanced modern military technology, mountains played a pivotal role in warfare by providing a necessary defensive barrier against invading armies. Not only would a mountain slow an invading army down, but they generally took away the possibility of a surprise attack, giving the defending army plenty of time to prepare for the assault.

In the same way, the Lord surrounds and protects us. Indeed, we can put our faith and trust in God because God is like a mountain, surrounding us with God’s care and protection. Again, this doesn’t meant that bad things will never happen to us, that we’ll never be attacked by the enemy, but simply that God is there with us, that God holds us in his hand, and that God will help us get through whatever life brings our way.

In the words of the song, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,”

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.