Sunday, June 25, 2017

Job Description

The Rev. Dr. Skip Ferguson
Manassas Presbyterian Church
Manassas, Virginia
June 25, 2017

Job Description
Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came near
and heard them disputing with one another,
and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well,
he asked him,
“Which commandment is the first of all?”
Jesus answered, “The first is,
‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God,
the Lord is one;
you shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind,
and with all your strength.’
The second is this,
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
There is no other commandment
greater than these.”

Then the scribe said to him,
“You are right, Teacher;
you have truly said that
‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’;
and ‘to love him with all the heart,
and with all the understanding,
and with all the strength,’
and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’
—this is much more important than
all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely,
he said to him,
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
After that no one dared to ask him any question.

You shall.
I shall.
We shall.
No, “thou shalt not.”
No scolding, judgmental
cranky voice,
the type of voice that is all too common
in churches of all denominations.

No, here it is just a voice of love,
inviting us to love:
“You shall love God,
and you shall love your neighbor.”

Jesus calls them Commandments,
but really they are more an invitation:         
Love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
with all your mind,
with all your strength,
and with all your soul;
And love your neighbor as yourself.

Do that;
do these things,
and you’re on your way to new life,
a rich life,
a full life,
a blessed life,
a Kingdom life.

These commandments are the keys
that open the door to this rich life,
this full life,
this blessed life,
this Kingdom life;
this life our Lord invites us live.

The keys are paired.
We need both;
we cannot open the door with one
and not the other.
We cannot open the door
just by loving God;
we have to love our neighbor, too,
love our neighbor as ourselves.

To love our neighbor as ourselves
is to look into our neighbor’s face
and see the image of Christ in him, in her,
to look upon our neighbor and see her, see him
as a child of God,
loved by God.

And, let’s be honest
with every passing day,
we seem to be doing a
worse and worse job at this,
as our society, our world
grows  more separate,
more tribal,
more angry,
more hostile.

A Pulitizer prize-winning writer
included this observation
in an article he wrote recently:
“Today, we’re not just deeply divided,
as we’ve never been before,
we’re being actively divided —
by cheap tools that make it so easy
to broadcast one’s own ‘truths’
and to undermine real ones,…
This anger industry is now either
sending us into comfortable echo chambers
where we don’t see the other,
or arousing such moral outrage in us
toward the other
that we can no longer see their humanity,
let alone embrace them as [those]
with whom we share [many of the same] values.”
(Thomas Friedman in the New York Times
June 21, 2017)

To love our neighbor as ourselves
is not to shred them in 140 characters;
it is to put ourselves in their shoes,
to live with that endangered attribute, empathy,
through which we actively,
think about what life must be like
for someone with skin a different color;
someone who wears a hajib
as a sign of their faith in the God of Abraham;
someone who is so desperate to escape
terrifying violence, gnawing poverty,
or utter hopelessness
that they’ll try to cross the Mediterranean Sea
in a rubber dinghy,
knowing they’ll be unwelcome
wherever they land,
knowing they’ll be branded with those terms
that we have made odious, repulsive:
“refugee”, “immigrant”.

In his masterful book “The Great Divorce”
a book that is not about
the breakdown of marriage,
C. S. Lewis describes a town
where the people are “so quarrelsome:
as soon as anyone arrives
he settles on some street.
But before he’s been there twenty-four hours,
he quarrels with his neighbor.
Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly
that he decides to move.
Very likely he finds the next street empty
 because all the people there
have quarreled with their neighbors –
and moved.”

What Lewis is describing is
how he envisions hell.
Yes, hell.
Not the hell we’re used to imagining,
the hell of “fire and devils and
all sorts of interesting people sizzling on grids,
but a town like any other town,”
except there is no community,
no neighbors,
a place utterly devoid of love,  
love in all its forms.

It is place where there murder everyday;
not murder done with guns or knives,
but murder in the heart,
one neighbor killing another neighbor
in their hearts,
snuffing them out as if they never existed.

How quickly we forget that
Jesus calls us to be light,
to light the world with love, God’s love—
that’s our job, yours and mine,
our job as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Our job is not to wag our fingers,
judge, condemn,
wave our Bibles as weapons
as we say testily, arrogantly,
“Don’t you know Scripture says….”

In the words of Reverend Fredrick Buechner,
“we were created to love one another
despite all the differences between us,
the way God loves us despite all our differences.
If only we could see
that the very faults we find so unbearable
in those we are one way or another at war with,
are versions of the same faults
we are blind to in our ourselves.”

If only we could see
that the faults we find in others
are nothing more than
variants on the faults they see in us—
why then we’d be neighbors!
Why then, we’d be light!


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Time for A Tune-Up

The Rev. Dr. Skip Ferguson
Manassas Presbyterian Church
Manassas, Virginia
June 18, 2017

Time for A Tune-Up
Matthew 16:24-26

Music – joyful, energetic,
even triumphant.
It’s the music coming from the television
that first pulls you in,
your ears first,
and then your eyes,
followed by your mind,
and then every bit of you
focused on the screen.

The music slides down and moves to the back,
to make room for a voice,
smooth, rich, honeyed,
a voice talking to you in high definition:
“Don’t settle for less
when God wants you to have more,
Have the life you deserve,
the life God wants for you,
a life overflowing in blessings,
God’s richest blessings,
Yes, you can be free to enjoy
all of God’s richest blessings!”

The images on the screen
show happy, carefree men and women,
standing before lovely homes,
driving shiny new cars;
and then as the music swells,
you see a woman dancing, spinning around,
her hands in the air as money rains down on her,
dollar bills raining down,
as though from God’s heavenly hand itself.
“You can be free to enjoy
all of God’s richest blessings!”

“Yes!” you think to yourself,
this is the life you want,
this is the life you deserve to have,
overflowing in the richest of God’s blessings.

So on Sunday morning you go to church,
go with a whole new attitude;
go where you once went reluctantly,
today you go eagerly,
filled with anticipation,
a sense of expectation.

The music stirs you as the service begins.
You can’t help looking up,
looking not so much for God,
but for perhaps a few dollars floating down,
down, down, from the heavens,
into your lap.

You wait, impatiently, for the sermon.
You’re so eager for the preacher
to step behind the pulpit,
eager in a way you’d never been before.
You can’t wait for him to open his Bible,
read scripture,
and then interpret God’s Word,
reveal God’s secrets,
open the door,
show you the path.

Finally the moment comes.
The preacher stands up from his chair
and walks toward the pulpit.
Each step is measured, deliberate.
His face is somber, serious,
his eyes fixed on the pulpit.

He steps behind the pulpit,
stands behind that great sacred desk.
He clears his throat,
adjusts his stole.
The room is silent,
you are on the edge of your seat… literally.
The worn tattered Bible
the preacher put on the pulpit,
along with his sermon manuscript—
you look at them
and you see a treasure map.

Finally the moment comes.
The preacher opens his Bible
and says in bold baritone,
“Our lesson this morning comes from
Matthew’s gospel,
reading from the 16th chapter.
Jesus is gathered with his disciples,
speaking to them.
Jesus is speaking as well to you and to me

“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
For what will it profit them
if they gain the whole world
but forfeit their life?
Or what will they give in return for their life?”
(Matthew 16:24-26)
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.”

“Wait a minute,” you think.
Wait a minute!
“Deny yourself?
Take up your cross?
Forfeit your life?
Is the preacher kidding?
Where are the riches?
Where are the blessings?

Deny yourself?
Take up your cross?
Lose your life to find it?
Your blood pressure rises,
your cheeks burn.
You’re not just disappointed,
you are angry.

Your mind is no longer on the preacher.
You don’t hear him say,
As the apostle Paul tells us,
‘Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth’”
(Colossians 3:1)

You can’t wait for the service to end.
You can’t wait to leave.
You can’t wait to go find another church,
a church where the preacher
will tell you of riches and blessings,
a church where the preacher
would never even dream of saying,
“deny yourself”.
A church where the road rich in blessings
will finally be revealed.

This is our struggle
the struggle we have with God,
with Jesus,
with our faith.
We want blessings,
sometimes we even expect blessings
to flow,
flow in return for our faith—
that’s the deal.

After all
aren’t those the very words we sing   
in the Old Hundredth,
the doxology we probably know best:
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
We want blessings.
We want blessings to flow.
We want an abundant, rich life,
each of us, all of us.

Deny yourself?
Take up your cross?
Lose your life?
No thank you!

But yet, those are the words
of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Those are his teachings:
his words to his disciples;
his words to you and me.

How easy it is to turn a deaf ear to Paul’s words:
‘Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth’”
We cannot fool God with our denial:
our minds are firmly on things of this earth.  
It’s no wonder we balk at our Lord’s teachings.

Imagine if our minds were set,
truly, faithfully set,  
on things above.
Imagine if our minds were set on things above
rather than always pressing our own wills,
our own agendas.

We would welcome aliens and immigrants,
not fear them.

We would take communal responsibility
for healing the sick,
feeding the hungry,
rather than turning from them,
telling them its their own fault
they’re sick or hungry.

We would care for this earth,
God’s creation,
rather than denying our responsibility to God,
and to the generations who will come after us.

We’d look constantly for ways
to burn away the anger
that seems ready to consume our world,
burn it away with grace and love,
as improbable a road as that might
seem to walk.  

We’d turn from the judgment that colors our lives,
the judgmental mindset we all have,
even as we furiously deny having it.

Denying ourselves,
our focus on things above,
we wouldn’t struggle,
as another denomination recently did,
to condemn racism and bigotry.
We’d quickly adopt,
as they happily ultimately did,
a statement bold, strong and faithful,
words that are a call to action:
Racism and white supremacy are, sadly,
not extinct but present all over the world
in various white supremacist movements,
sometimes known as “white nationalism”
or ‘alt-right’;…
We decry every form of racism,
including alt-right white supremacy,
as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Listen again to our Lord’s words,
from Matthew’s Gospel,
this time through Eugene Peterson’s paraphrasing
in the Message:
“Anyone who intends to come with me
has to let me lead.
You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am.
Don’t run from suffering; embrace it.
Follow me and I’ll show you how.
Self-help is no help at all.
Self-sacrifice is the way, my way,
to finding yourself, your true self.
What kind of deal is it
to get everything you want
but lose yourself?
What could you ever trade your soul for?

Jesus asks us hard questions,
and expects much from us;
he sets the bar high.
It’s easy to turn away;
it’s easy to lose sight;
it’s easy to muddle our Lord’s message.

you and I are not in the drivers seat;
Jesus is.
And, continuing with our car metaphor,
like any car engine we occasionally run rough,
even backfire.
We need regular tune-ups,
spiritual tune-ups
to call us back to our Lord’s way.

Our Lord knows we’ll sputter, fall,
turn away.
But his promise to us is always the same,
grounded as it is in grace:
“If you fall, I will help you back up,
If you turn away,
I’ll help you find your way back.
Try it again.
I’m with you every step of the way.
I’ll never give up on you.”

So, as the first letter of Peter teaches us
“roll up your sleeves,
put your mind in gear,
….Don’t lazily slip back into those old grooves …,
doing just what you feel like doing.
You didn’t know any better then; you do now.
As obedient children,
let yourselves be pulled into a way of life
shaped by God’s life,
a life energetic and blazing with holiness.
 (The Message)

“As obedient children,
let yourselves be pulled into a way of life
shaped by God’s life,
a life energetic and blazing with holiness.”
A life rich in blessings.


Sunday, June 04, 2017

The Common Good

The Rev. Dr. Skip Ferguson
Manassas Presbyterian Church
Manassas, Virginia
June 4, 2017—Pentecost

The Common Good
1 Corinthians 12:4-7

Now there are varieties of gifts,
but the same Spirit;
and there are varieties of services,
but the same Lord;
and there are varieties of activities,
but it is the same God who activates
all of them in everyone.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit
for the common good.

It’s the stuff of dreams, not reality.
Thirty people/two hundred people
called to a table.
Called to sit together around a table,
a table large enough to seat them all,
a table where there are no better seats,
no lesser seats,
no cold metal seats at one end,
upholstered seats at the other—
all are the same.

Thirty people/two hundred people
seated,…  gathered,
enjoying one another’s company;
no squabbling,
no bickering,
no gossiping,
no fighting;
everyone getting along,
in good spirits,
smiles abounding.

As guests settle into their seats
the host stands quietly off to the side,
a linen napkin draped over one arm
like a server in a fine restaurant,
attentive to every need.

Once everyone is seated,
the host asks everyone to
quiet themselves for moment,
and then he offers a prayer,
brief but pointed,
thanking God
for the food they are about to eat,
for nourishing them,
for friendship,
for beauty,
thanking God for all creation.

The host then begins to serve,
quickly, quietly,
each person,
no one is overlooked,
no one goes hungry,
no one thirsts.

Yes, this sounds like the stuff of dreams,
yet it is not.
It is not imagination run wild.
This is us,
you and me,
as we respond to our Lord’s invitation
to come to his table
and share in the meal that he has prepared.

This is us,
all of us gathered together,
a small group, a large group,
a diverse group,
each of us unique,
different gifts given us by the Spirit,
yet each of us bound by our common faith,
all of us invited by our Lord.

It is a simple meal our Lord sets before us,
but it is rich and nourishing,
filling us in a way that no burger and fries,
no subs,
not even Hawaiian pizza with pineapple,
ever could.

“Come”, our Lord says to us,
“Come all.
You, yes you,
and you.
Come to my table.
All are welcome;
no one is refused.
Sit, eat, drink.
Come joyfully.
Come be community.”

“Come to my table to be renewed.
Come to my table to be refreshed.
Come to my table that after you’ve been fed,
you would go out in my name,
you would take me out into the world.”

This table, our Lord’s Table,
is a place of reconciliation;
reconciliation  with one another,
and with all the world.
It is a place where we are called
to set ourselves aside,
remembering our Lord’s teaching
that we are called not to be served,
but to serve;
the example before our very eyes:
our Lord serving us.

We find it too easy, though,
to come this table for ourselves,
to come looking for a preferred seat,
a seat set aside from others,
a seat with our close friends,
away from those we don’t like.

We’d be wise, before we take our seats,
to recall Paul’s rebuke
to his Corinthian brothers and sisters:
“I do not commend you,”
he admonished them.
“I do not commend you,
because when you come together
it is not for the better but for the worse.
There are divisions among you,
For when the time comes to eat,
each of you goes ahead
with your own supper,
…one goes hungry
while another gets drunk.”
(1 Corinthians 11:17ff)

Our eyes are not to be on ourselves,
anymore than our minds are
to be on our stomachs.
We come to this table in community—
with one another, for one another.
We come to be fed together by our Lord
that then together
we can go out into the world
as disciples of Christ
to stand up against injustice,
bigotry, hatred,
and want.

We come to be fed together
and to be reminded
that when righteous and justice are absent
it is not because God is absent;
It is because we are absent,
our eyes closed to the needs of others,
our hearts walled off to the common good.

We come to this table together
that we would go out together,
each of us working for the common good,
as the Spirit empowers us,
the good of all, all God’s children.

As the Reverend Frederick Buechner observed,
“There can never really be
any peace and joy for me,
until there is peace and joy finally for you, too.”
There cannot be peace for one,
unless, until there is peace for all.

Anne Lamott has written,
“Christians have a very bad reputation in the world,
and we have earned it,
with our hate and self-righteousness.
We speak in reverent terms of grace, justice,
equality, mercy,
and then we despise people
who are also created in God’s image.”

This meal helps us to
turn from self-righteousness,
turn from ego,
turn from too much self,
for this meal reminds us
that God’s love is not only absolute,
it is impartial,
given freely to all.

This meal can draw us deeper into holiness,
the flame of God’s Holy Spirit
fanned brighter, warmer,
stoked by grace and love
in communion with one another.

So, come to this table.
Come and be fed.
Come and be fed together in communion
and then, renewed and refreshed,
go out into the world
and seek not your own good
so much as you seek the common good,
as you take the gospel
of the grace and love of God
revealed in Jesus Christ
to the very ends of the earth.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Vertical to Horizontal

The Rev. Dr. Skip Ferguson
Manassas Presbyterian Church
Manassas, Virginia
May 28, 2017

Vertical to Horizontal
Acts 1:6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him,
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore
the kingdom to Israel?”
He replied,
“It is not for you to know the times or periods
that the Father has set by his own authority.
But you will receive power
when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”

When he had said this, as they were watching,
he was lifted up,
and a cloud took him out of their sight.
While he was going
and they were gazing up toward heaven,
suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
This Jesus, who has been taken up from you
into heaven,
will come in the same way as you saw him
go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem
from the mount called Olivet,
which is near Jerusalem,
a sabbath day’s journey away.
When they had entered the city,
they went to the room upstairs
where they were staying,
Peter, and John,
and James, and Andrew,
Philip and Thomas,
Bartholomew and Matthew,
James son of Alphaeus,
and Simon the Zealot,
and Judas son of James.
All these were constantly
devoting themselves to prayer,
together with certain women,
including Mary the mother of Jesus,
as well as his brothers.
It is a remarkable scene Luke gives us
in the opening pages of Acts:
Jesus, our Lord, risen from the grave,
having spent 40 days with his followers,
is lifted up,
taken up into the heavens,
as though he’d stepped into a invisible elevator,
as though gravity had lost its hold
on our Lord’s body.

His apostles are struck speechless by the sight,
their eyes glued to him,
their heads slowly tilting back,
all in perfect unison,
like the crowds that would fill the beaches
of Cape Canaveral two millennia later,
watching a Space Shuttle lift off the launchpad.

Luke opens the scene so prosaically, though,
the apostles questioning Jesus:
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore
the kingdom to Israel?”
We cannot claim to know the mind of our Lord,
but surely he must have thought to himself,
“All this time and they still don’t get it.”

His reply came in stern words,
“It is not for you to know
the times or periods
that the Father has set by his own authority.”

But then our Lord,
always graceful, always grace-filled,
ever patient,
softened his tone,
“But you will receive power
when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”

Do you hear what Jesus was saying to them?
We need to listen and understand
because Jesus is talking to us as well,
here and now:
It isn’t for us to know the mind of God,
to know God’s plans, God’s schedule.

What we are to know,
what Jesus wanted his apostles to know,
and what Jesus wants us to know,
is that we have work to do,
we followers of Christ:
the work of taking the gospel of Jesus Christ
out into the world,
to the very ends of the earth.
This is the work Jesus calls us to,
work we are empowered to do,
enabled by God’s Holy Spirit.

So we should not find it
the least bit surprising, then,
to hear in our lesson,
the words of the white-robed men,
presumably angels of the Lord God:
“Men of Galilee,
why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
In other words:
“Why are you standing around gawking at the sky?
You have work to do.”

The apostles hustled back to Jerusalem
back to that city where only a few weeks before
they’d been frozen with fear,
frozen to inaction.
But the fear was gone now,
melted by their time with the Risen Christ.

And so they gathered
to ready themselves through prayer
as they waited —
the apostles,
along with “certain women”,
and, as Luke tells us, Jesus’ brothers.
Yes, Jesus very likely had real brothers,
and sisters as well,
sons and daughters born to Joseph and Mary
after Mary gave birth to Jesus.

They prayed as they waited –
prayed as they waited
for the Spirit to come upon them;
which, of course,
the Spirit did in such dramatic fashion
on that first Pentecost.
But Pentecost is next week,
so we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Our focus with this text
should be on the vertical and the horizontal,
to use terms Diana Butler Bass gave us
two months ago when she was here.

The vertical is God’s power
coming down through the Holy Spirit;
God’s grace and love,
coming down through Jesus Christ;
and then God’s power of grace and love
going out horizontally through us,
you and me,
through all of Jesus’ followers,
to the very ends of the earth.

The apostles clearly didn’t get this
as they spent their last day with Jesus.
Their question to him makes that clear:
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore
the kingdom to Israel?”

Were they looking to rout the Romans?
Chase away the Greeks and other Gentiles?
Turn Israel back to a good Jewish nation,
pure and undefiled?
Is that what they really thought lay ahead for them?
Is that what they thought Jesus wanted?

It seems all too likely
that the apostles were still – still –
looking for King David,
still looking for the warrior messiah
astride his mighty white steed,
sword in hand!

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
Those were our Lord’s words to the apostles.
And they are our Lord’s words to us.
We are called to witness,
called to take the Word out into the world
…to the ends of the earth.

“Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.”
(Matthew 5:7)
Take these words… to the ends of the earth.

“Do not judge,
so that you may not be judged.”
(Matthew 7:1)
Take these words… to the ends of the earth.

and you will be forgiven.”
(Luke 6:37)
Take these words… to the ends of the earth.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
(Luke 6:31)
Take these words… to the ends of the earth.

“Let anyone among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone…”
(John 8: 7)
Take these words… to the ends of the earth.

You have heard that it was said,
‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, Love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you.”
(Matthew 5:43)
Take these words… to the ends of the earth.

Why do we find this so hard?
Why do we turn so quickly from Jesus’ teachings,
or take his words apart
and then reassemble them
in ways that  better suit ourselves,
our comfort levels,
our lifestyles?

On this Memorial Day weekend,
we rightly honor those
who gave their lives in service,
those who, as we remember them,
bring to mind the words of our Lord,
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
(John 15:13)

Those who died
at Bull Run,
the Somme,
the Battle of the Bulge,
the Battle of Hue,
and countless other battles and wars.

But even as we remember,
even as we honor,
we should also remember our Lord’s call,
our Lord’s words:
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called the children of God,”
our Lord teaching us yet again
God’s hope for all God’s children
that there will come a day when
 “they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
(Isaiah 2:4)

Even as we remember,
even as we honor,
we should also remember and honor
our Lord’s call to take those words
out into the world
and work for peace,
work for reconciliation.
weaving even our Lord’s most difficult teachings
into our own lives
so we can carry those words more faithfully
out into the world.

It is hard work,
this discipleship business.
It can often be challenging,
even Sisyphean –
that character from Greek mythology
who was condemned to spend all eternity
rolling an immense boulder up a hill
only to have it roll back down
each time he neared the crest,
forcing him to start all over.
But still, Jesus calls us, 
calls us,
and the Spirit empowers us,
gives us strength, 

When the apostles asked Jesus
when the Kingdom of Israel
was to be restored,
they were looking for the day
when God would,
in the words of Sister Joan Chittister
re-assemble a union of types,
reassemble the tribes,
and set them apart.

What the apostles missed,
what we miss as we hope still
for the same thing,
is that through our Lord Jesus Christ,
it is not a union of types God wants for his children,
but a union of hearts.
for, as Scripture teaches us,
God is love.

“I give you a new commandment,”
Jesus says to us,
“that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

Our Lord calls us to take these words,
witness these words,
in our lives,
in all we say,
in all we do,
and even to the ends of the earth.