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Still Waters and Dark Valleys 
Sunday, April 29, 2007, 07:30 AM - Sermon
Psalm 23
C Easter 4

The darkest valley, or the valley of the shadow of death in some translations, sounds like a good place to be fearful. How can one be fearless in such a situation? Fearlessness is not the absence of danger, but the presence of faith. The old story is that Fear knocked at the door, Faith answered and no one was there.

How do we get there?

Self-Differentiated

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. First decide, choose who is your shepherd, who or what moves you through life? Where is your trust placed? Is your job your shepherd? Is your family your shepherd or your spouse? Another way to look at this is who do you belong to? The other verses expands on these with verbs of making, leading, and restoring. What is your mission in life? Is your chief end as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”?

One way not to be fearful, is to know who your shepherd is. Or in secular terms what your life goals are, what your direction and purpose is. If there is nothing you want, it is easy to be discouraged, easy to be fearful. Our Psalmist is not fearful for he knows if is following the way the Lord is leading him and that is the most important thing he can be doing, so he is able to be courageous.

Robert Heifetz says “Followers want comfort, stability, and solutions from their leaders, but that's babysitting. Real leaders ask hard questions and knock people out of their comfort zones. Then they mange the resulting distress.” Some what a Lord that serves them. They want to be Jesus' shepherd. A Jesus that answers prayers and responds to us like a good butler, “Do you want milk or honey with your tea?” when from reading this Psalm he is one who leads, who makes us move. Sometimes I point out to people in grief that the promise here is that the Lord is with us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, not the Lord who lets us get over it quickly, or avoid dark times completely. We have to move through it the darkness and only looking back can we see that the Lord was with us and that goodness and mercy followed us all our life long.

As our society tries to herd us by using fears, marketing, quick-fixes, patriotism and media campaigns we will find life and calmness by staking out our individuality and integrity. Saying, with Joshua, non-anxiously without judgment or malice, “then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” The Lord is my shepherd, I choose to follow the Lord's way. Taking a stand, not picking a fight, will help you find the still waters and get you through the dark valleys.


Boundaries

The rod and the staff are not comfort tools. Jesus does not come with a pillow for our head and a cushion for our backside. The rod and the staff were not so subtle tools to grab sheep that wandered from the way of the shepherd. Boundaries. No teen will admit it, but it is a comfort to have boundaries, fences. When they don't have any, they seek to find some by pushing until a limit is reached. The struggle to find how to be separate while remaining connected begins in childhood and should be a task throughout our life.

There are less social forces than before to keep boundaries, so it is even more important for each person to know where they end and others begin. It is often difficult to say “I” when others are demanding you say “We” It is difficult not to get brought into other people's emotional muck and mire, yet still be connected with them. You will be told that you are cold and uncaring. Jesus got the same criticism, in Matthew 11:17, “ 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.'”

You can do anything you want, is a lie told by well-meaning parents, not a part of the faith experience. We have limits and boundaries, without them we become wanders without purpose, easy prey for the wolves that lurk looking for those who have wandered from the path.


Non-anxious Presence

The late rabbi Edwin Friedman popularized the idea of a leader being a “non-anxious presence”. Being calm in crisis while be connected to others. How about the image of breaking for dinner in the presence of your enemies? Now this may mean to make them jealous of your having a feast as they stand by watching, but I think it could mean, being so sure of yourself and confident in your way that you can go ahead with lunch plans even though you are surrounded by enemies.

Playfulness is one way to be connected yet non-anxious. I know of one pastor who when asked, an earlier generation anxious attack of “Would you like your daughter to marry one?” said, “I don't know, who did you have in mind for her?” He was non-anxious in that situation, but connected. Now be prepared to be labeled as uncaring or non-pastoral because a lot of people believe that caring is getting upset along with people instead of helping them with their upsetness by being calmer than they are. The rescuer of a drowning person isn't helping if she jumps in and sinks with them!

Conclusion

Know where you are going, who you are following, who your shepherd is.

Know your boundaries, what you do and don't do before you are tested; where the Lord's rod and staff are marking what is the safe course for you.

Know how to take care of yourself and your own emotions even under attack, remember no matter how bad the morning, you can look forward to lunch with the Lord.

Advanced permission is given for non-profit, for-prophet use of the above at no charge as long as it is reproduced unedited with notices and copyright intact. Written copies are provided after they are preached as a courtesy for the personal, private, appreciative use of the congregation of Goodyear Heights Presbyterian Church, their families and friends to support the ministry of Goodyear Heights Presbyterian Church and its pastor the Rev. J. Christy Ramsey. Join us Sundays! 8:15 Traditional Worship and 10:15 Blended. Mingle in our Gathering Room between services and take advantage of Christian Education opportunities.

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God's Refrigerator 
Wednesday, April 25, 2007, 10:46 AM - Extra Christy
More from the things you didn't really notice until the Realtor pointed out files.

Over the years our refrigerator has become the data warehouse of our home. Permission slips, band concert dates, school pictures, class schedules, coupons, school notices, postcards, church calendars and all the urgent stuff of family life had a clip or a magnet holding them on the exposed sides of the refrigerator which looks more like a inside out filing cabinet than a food storage unit.

Our Realtor told us that was no-no for an Open House and showings. For one of the mind games of an open house is to let the prospective buyer see themselves in your home. So the family open source database (with built in ice maker) puts you in the house instead of them. No Sale!

Now our refrigerator has a clean, flat, outside ready for its new owner to write their family's lifestory on it. Looks lonely to me.

I got to thinking about God's refrigerator. Max Lucado in God Thinks You're Wonderful says:

"If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it."

What a great image of God's personal, involved and caring love! I imagine it covered with our schedule, our report card(!), postcard prayers, and permission slips. We are part of God's family, in God's house. Just check the refrigerator!


A Caring Involved God

O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in-behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me," even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.- Psalm 139:1-12 (NIV)



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Cold Coals and Warm Fires 
Sunday, April 22, 2007, 07:30 AM - Sermon
John 20:19-31 C Easter 3

How did Saul go from breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord to being Paul the greatest apostle of the Lord, founder of churches, and author of major portions of the New Testament? Many will tell you he was converted on the Road to Damascus, recorded here in Acts 9:1-6. This story is a favorite among those who experience an intense “sick soul” conversion, a rapid turnaround from drunkard to disciple.

Do you have a sudden intense experience with God or the holy that turned your thoughts around? Song writer David Bailey in his haunting song, Holy Roads, has this stanza:
Sometimes you need a road to Damascus
Sometimes you must be blinded by the light
Hear a voice that's bigger than thunder
Take another look at what you thought was right

I have seen many blinded by the light of a intense experience. Sometimes it is a conference, a retreat, an illness or injury, even a new year's resolution. For one it was a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina where The Blessed Virgin Mary has been appearing and giving messages to visionaries. For many pastors it is a time away at seminary or an extended mission that is so intense it makes everything that went before dull and unimportant. All these people want to the congregation to hear about their new found meaning.

In religious terms people talk about a “born-again” experience, but I tell you what do you have when you are “born-again”? A spiritual baby, and a baby needs care to survive and grow. The rare ones who find a community to nurture them and sustain them, are able to make a lasting change in their life and faith. The ones who go alone, often grow bitter because others just won't get it.

Community is necessary to conversion. We see that here in our extended reading of Saul's conversion to Paul. Ananias is the hero of this story, not Saul/Paul. He even gets away with giving the Lord back talk, note the respect, he doesn't say he want go and lay his hands for healing on the one who has the legal authority and the motivation to kill arrest him for later stoning, just wants to make sure God is aware of that part of Saul's resume.

Go, says God and he does. And Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit and healed by a member of the community and join the disciples in Damascus. Conversion and Community. God makes them go together, even when they don't want to because God knows that after lighting a spark, the only way to keep the fire going is to gather new fuel to it. The hottest coal, isolated from others, soon grows cold.

Terry Pluto in his column “Everyday Faith” talks about “The TV Test”. When he is trying to decided what is the proper choice in his everyday life, he asks himself, “If this were shown on television, would I be embarrassed?” He also expands that by imagining his wife, Roberta, looking over the computer screen at the web sites he is viewing, or watching him choose the shows on the premium channels that beckon him. He tells that some men who travel, put a picture of their kids on the Television set. It reminds these traveling Dads, that if their kids were with them, could they watch the program with him? These are all everyday examples of who the community helps us to keep the faith, even if they are not physically present, we can call on their memory to help us make good choices.

Move on over to the gospel. Mark tells us about a encounter between Peter the three times denier of Christ and the risen Lord. He poses a question to Peter three times, “Do you Love Me” and Peter confess his love, perhaps balancing his threefold denial of Jesus. But note what Jesus says in response to his profession of Love, “Feed my lambs”, “Tend my sheep”, “Feed my sheep”. The three time profession of love is good, and perhaps necessary but to keep it true, to make it real, Jesus tells Peter to be involved with the others of Jesus fold. Something he had trouble with, bravely stating that even though everyone else would fall away he would not, telling Christ he would not let Christ wash his feet like he did everyone else, even getting out of the boat of disciples to meet Jesus walking on the waters, he set himself apart and away from the other disciples time and again, and got in trouble, missing the boat. Jesus here, tells him the way to restoration and to faith that is not easily denied is to remain in relationship with others of the flock.

Having a hard time with a faithful life? Know you should do something but have trouble. Get a friend or a church member to help you be the person you want to be, or better yet the person God is calling you to be. Agree to meet for lunch, and commit to telling the friend what you have done. Maybe it is a difficult phone call, you are dreading, tell your friend, I'll meet you for lunch the day after tomorrow, and I'll tell you how the call went. Now your friendship is helping you do the right thing. I've even asks some friends to tell me to do things, give them a script so I can hear someone else say it to me. You can also find help with others who are striving for the same goal, a walking partner for exercise, a diet and exercise group, a Bible study fellowship, a volunteer group. The more you are with people who help you be the person you want to be, the easier it will be to become that person.

I am not in the best shape. I am not a morning person. But years ago, I agreed to help out on the Relay for Life, and I said, put me down for the hour no one wants, when you need me. So Jerry put me down for 3 AM to 4 AM. I was there walking the track for our team, I was not enjoying the walk. Suddenly out from behind the tent jumped up Jerry, a 50+ routound man yelling, GO CHRISTY! YAY RAMSEY. I smiled and thought that was nice send off. I was half way around the track when from behind a sign he can running out yelling “WALK BABY WALK”. For the next hour, every lap or half a lap he would jump out and cheer me. I burst out laughing when the leaped out of the porta-john yelling. I easily made the hour walk, Jerry did most of the work for me.

Church should be that kind of place. Where we borrow each other's faith, to make it through the tough times in life. For conversion without community soon becomes cold and lifeless. Gather together and tend the sheep, be there for one another and you will find the way to follow Christ.

Advanced permission is given for non-profit, for-prophet use of the above at no charge as long as it is reproduced unedited with notices and copyright intact. Written copies are provided after they are preached as a courtesy for the personal, private, appreciative use of the congregation of Goodyear Heights Presbyterian Church, their families and friends to support the ministry of Goodyear Heights Presbyterian Church and its pastor the Rev. J. Christy Ramsey. Join us Sundays! 8:15 Traditional Worship and 10:15 Blended. Mingle in our Gathering Room between services and take advantage of Christian Education opportunities.


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Home Inspection 
Wednesday, April 18, 2007, 10:24 AM - Extra Christy
We are selling our house in Greensburg. This means the an inspector invasion! These folks poke and prod around seeking to find issues in four categories:

1. Major Defects (like structural failure)
2. Things that lead to Major Defects (such as a water leak)
3. Things that hinder financing, occupation, or insuring a home. (would you believe termites!)
4. Safety Hazards (lack of GFCI electrical protection)

A twenty page report comes back with all of these issues grouped into Roofing, Structure, Heating, Electrical, and Exterior sections.

Reading through the report that peals back the cover from all our home's defects, I couldn't help but think what a spiritual inspection report on a spouse or fiancÚ/fianceÚ (or, yikes, myself) would look like! What would a spiritual inspection report cover?

1. Major Defects (like alcoholism, gambling, lying, adultery?)
2. Things that lead to Major Defects (drinking, laziness, a temper, flirting, lack of spiritual practices?)
3. Things that hinder financing, occupation, or insuring (undependability, lack of commitment and consideration?)
4. Safety Hazards (reckless driving, drug abuse, violence?)

The examples on both of these lists are made up, by the way!

There is a note of grace in the Home Inspection; titled, "What Really Matters in a Home Inspection". Tucked in among the photographs, environmental reports, maintenance recommendations, life expectancies, minor imperfections, major defects, and safety hazards, it advises "Relax...no home is perfect" and "Often a serious problem can be corrected inexpensively to protect both life and the structure."

I think that note of grace would be good addition to our spiritual inspection report too. No one is perfect and we can be restored. This is possible because the perfect one already paid a high price for our restoration, on the cross.

However your personal inspection report comes out, Relax, Christ is still going through with the heavenly deal because he loves and forgives you and has great plans to fix you up.


No Perfect Inspection

...and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said.

"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." - John 8:4-11 (NIV)


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Seeing And Believing 
Sunday, April 15, 2007, 07:30 AM - Sermon
John 20:19-31
C Easter 2

What if there were scientific proof of Jesus' resurrection? Proof that Jesus was God with us. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, my Lord and my Savior. I don't know what that would be for you. Think about it what would it be for you? Reading the account in an ancient book? The word of a respected scientists with charts and graphs, test results? A news reporter from your favorite network with an exclusive expose of the true life of Jesus. The word of your pastor, your spouse, your teacher, your parent, of Jesus Christ himself? Maybe you are like Thomas, when I can touch and see the wounds myself, I will believe?

What if we could meet famous atheist Sam Harris test, that we could under laboratory controlled conditions, pray for an amputee to regrow a limb and it happened!

The test comes from Newsweek's April 9, 2007 issue, with a cover story on living with cancer came out just before Easter with an article on the The Battle of Belief. (page 54) It is on the web (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17889147/site/newsweek/) and yes I have a paper copy as well. It is a modern day doubting Thomas story, how do you know whether to believe? Acted out between mega church pastor and author of the Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren and atheist Sam Harris who sees as much evidence for God as for Zeus and says it is a “ludicrous obscenity” to take children to church.

How do we get faith? What is our test? What sources of belief have our fingerprints on them?

Heritage faith

Some of us have the faith of our fathers and mothers. We believe because they did. Anymore, it is grandmothers and grandfathers that are handing down this faith. Making sure the grandchildren get to church, Sunday School, and confirmation class. Some of this faith comes from being with others in church. It is like catching a cold, you have to be in contact with others who have faith to catch faith. Some authority is wrapped up in this one too, authority figures tells us this is so and so it we believe as part of our obedience to them.

The comfort here is the loving envelope that faith is wrapped in. It is a heritage like your name, family trips, hugs, and bedtime stories. There is power in roots and connections which we celebrate in baptisms and weddings were my parents and their parents were married. The challenge in this faith is to make it your own faith, continuing the faith story adding your own chapters not just repeating it by rote. Folks still come to have their children baptized because it is something their parents want them to do. Sometimes even grandparents. So the good parents, being good children even as adults, act out their parents or grandparents faith, instead of their own faith. How much better if they had come to worship and classes, not with the question of “what do we have to do to get our child baptized” but “why is baptism important for my child and our family?”

Book Faith

Some folks get their faith from a book. Most likely it is the Bible, but sometimes another book of faith. Could even be A Purpose Driven Life, or, if you are older, Your God is Too Small. They have a verse for every situation or problem, or, if they don't they will next time you see them. They are a hardy bunch, the best of them tackle the project of reading the whole Bible. Those that do, are a different sort, because as the Bible itself says, there are things in the Scriptures that are “hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort” (2 Peter 3:16) Reading the Bible first hand puts isolated verses in context and brings in whole sections not normally quote. It is the difference between reading the menu and eating the meal, more filling, but more complicated as well.

The comfort is to have a source, a object, a body of knowledge, written down in black and white. It is the security of having a good map in the glove compartment or mounted on the dashboard. The challenge in this faith is finding a way to live faithfully instead of just knowing what faith is. A mission trip caravan was searching for a restaurant, and the navigator was using his GPS equipped notebook, staring at the screen, and clicking updates saying, “It should be right here!” when one of the youth said, look up from the screen, it's right in front of us.” Getting our nose out of the book and looking around the challenge of book based faith.

Found Faith

Culture or maybe media based faith. The media part is what folks pick up from television, the internet, and the occasional book. From Harry Potter to internet rumors unchurched people come up with a jumble of pop culture, Bible verses, and horror movies. The classic way is that there is a natural faith found in our innate sense of right and wrong the so called moral sense bases of faith. I also include the design basis of faith, you find a watch, you figure there is a watchmaker behind it; you find a universe with much vaster and more complicated parts working together to produce life…you figure there is a universe maker, A God.

The comfort in this is that it is based on your own understanding, so it makes sense to you, what you call common sense. The challenge is that there is no challenge, for everything is made to fit into a mosaic that makes sense to you. Religion found here is that it is simple and easy to believe, if you are like me. It is usually a cause and effect faith, bad people are punished and good people rewarded either here or the hereafter because that makes sense us. The challenge of this faith to find the mystery, the grandeur, the otherness of God who is not just the neat answer to all our questions, but the question to our neat answers.

Conclusion

Most of us are a mix of heritage, book, and found in various proportions. Faith from our parents, from the Bible and study, from our own experience and common sense. If you listen to the great debates of the faith, you will see that arguments are based on history or the holy words of creeds and traditions, the scripture or the Word of God written, or experience; revelation would be a more holy word than experience here.

For Heritage Faith...
How can you make the faith of your fathers your own?
For Book Faith...
How can you go from knowing about faith to living out the story?
For Found Faith...
What can push you beyond your balanced, ordered, and rational life?

I would tell all of you, not to worry so much about how you got your faith, but what Jesus told his disciples. Take that faith and be sent with the Holy Spirit. To spread peace, to seek to forgive sin not retain them. Not how you got it, but what you do with what you got. So that people will see that faith makes a difference in people for the better, a better world through better people; that is a goal even Sam Harris and Rick Warren can faithfully agree to.

Advanced permission is given for non-profit, for-prophet use of the above at no charge as long as it is reproduced unedited with notices and copyright intact. Written copies are provided after they are preached as a courtesy for the personal, private, appreciative use of the congregation of Goodyear Heights Presbyterian Church, their families and friends to support the ministry of Goodyear Heights Presbyterian Church and its pastor the Rev. J. Christy Ramsey. Join us Sundays! 8:15 Traditional Worship and 10:15 Blended. Mingle in our Gathering Room between services and take advantage of Christian Education opportunities.

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