Monday, July 30, 2012

Sermon from 7/29/2012

Scripture John 6:1-20

Rev. Michael Fry preaching
at East Bethany PC
July 29, 2012

What if Jesus asked our congregation, Where are we going to buy enough food for all these people to eat?[1] 

We might answer like Philip, that we don’t take in enough money to support such a project, or like Andrew, that we have this amount in our budget and it would be but a drop in the bucket of this need.  These are rational and practical responses yet they do not answer Jesus’ question. 

We might think, In the face of so much need, what can we do?[2]

The world is unfair, there is so much poverty, I certainly don’t like it but I am only one person what can I do?  A drop in the bucket.

We are a small church, with a small budget, we only 24 people in worship.  There’s just not enough people here to meet that kind of need.  We are just a drop in the bucket. 

This kind of thinking is precisely what gets in the disciples way in this story.  They think they know what can happen.  They too live in an economically depressed area and know how hard resources are to come by.  What are five loaves and two fish among so many people?  A drop in the bucket.

Theologian Cheryl Johns proposes that part of our problem is that the old saying, ‘knowledge is power,’ limits us rather than moves us toward action – because sometimes too much knowledge can keep us from trusting in a power greater than ourselves. 

She notes that, the pursuit of trivia is so much more appealing than the pursuit of answers to problems and solutions to crises.  This causes knowledge to become an escape from reality that does not empower but entertains.[3] 

This happens to me when I’m going to buy something like a pocketknife.  I spend three hours or more trying to figure which knife to get.  It really frustrates my wife because this is three hours spent researching something rather insignificant that is going to get lost in a month or two. 

There is another old saying, It’s not what you know but who you know.  The disciples don’t really know Jesus yet.  They’ve been traveling with him for two years now and they’ve seen what he has done turning water into wine at a wedding and healing people where ever he went, but they don’t really understand that they are walking with God and have not come to fully trust him yet.   

But when we face an overwhelming need with limited resources, trust in God is exactly what we need.   

This is quite the challenge isn’t it? 

General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, faced a similar challenge in the film Moneyball, where he faces the challenge of fielding a competitive baseball team with limited resources compared to teams like the New York Yankees.  And despite the odds, the advice of coaches, and 50 years of baseball tradition he has done this. By recruiting undervalued players that are overlooked because they throw funny or considered past their prime, he has found an unconventional way of putting together a successful team.  This has changed how baseball is being played because now bigger ball clubs are using similar systems in player recruitment. 

Beane is not multiplying loaves and fish to feed people; he takes lots of little drops of water and fills a bucket with them to make a winning team.  My point is that even though we have limited resources, it need not limit our vision or our future.  We act with trust in God rather than what we think we know about the future. 

We act trusting that God will provide.  The good news in this passage is that in the hands of Jesus little becomes much – this allows the few to become many, and the weak to become strong. 

What do we have to put in Jesus’ hands? 

A little boy gave up his own food, and by his generosity and Jesus’ power, he and every single other person ate their fill and there were still left overs – an abundance! 

Jesus does the impossible – the math does not add up – two fish and five loaves of bread should not feed 5,000 people.  Yet this is the kind of abundance that Jesus promises us in our ministries when we put what we have in his hands. 

Habitat for Humanity is an example of an organization that began seeing the huge need for clean, decent, and stable housing.  They started with a dream of building homes and selling them at cost, financed at no interest, to people who would not qualify for a mortgage.  On paper huge need, no profit margin, and risk equals failure, not even a drop in the bucket.  Since 1976 Habitat for Humanity has built 500,000 homes and sheltered 2.5 million people – a huge drop in the bucket.[4]

Think about how a few people in this congregation went together to organize the chicken barbeque at Clor’s for Doug and Peggy Fuller that raised more than $1000.  This might be a drop in the bucket compared to all their expenses, but it is a drop of compassion that shows Doug, Peggy, and their family that they are not battling leukemia alone. 

Think about the food table that we started this past winter to give food to people who are hungry not just around holidays but who need food at the end of July.  Bob wasn’t sure it was going to work, but he thought together we could feed a few families.  Does it end world hunger?  No, but it is a drop in the bucket that means that a few more people are eating better than they would if we hadn’t decided to get behind this project. 

We can be limited by what we know or we can trust Jesus to multiply our efforts.

Where the disciples are limited by what they think they know, Jesus sees possibility. 

Let us spend a few moments reflecting on our own on what might be some of the unrealized possibilities that God sees for our ministry here at East Bethany, possibilities that lie dormant because of perceived limitations. 

And let us never stop trusting in God, whose power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).  In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord Amen. 

[1] Karen Marie Yust proposes a similar question in her article on the Pastoral Perspective of this passage in the Feasting on the Word Commentary.  Year B, Vol. 3. WJK: 2009, pg?.
[2] This question is posed by Cheryl Bridges Johns in her article on the Homiletical Perspective of this passage in the Feasting on the Word Commentary. Year B, Vol. 3. WJK: 2009
[3] Cheryl Bridges Johns.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sermon from July 22, 2012

Scripture Psalm 23 & Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Rev. Michael Fry preaching
at East Bethany PC
July 22, 2012

Jesus’ heart was filled with pity because they were like sheep without a shepherd.[1] 

A better translation of pity here would be compassion, Jesus’ heart was filled with compassion.  Pity is when we feel sorry for someone.  But com-passion comes from two words: com meaning with and passion meaning suffering.  Compassion means a desire to help, to alleviate pain, to ease suffering.

What was your reaction when you heard about the shooting this Friday in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, pity or compassion? Or when we hear on the news about the violence in Syria? 

Do you know that 90% of the casualties of war today are civilians?  During World War Two 90% of the casualties were enlisted forces and 10% civilians. Do you feel pity or compassion? 

Think about the how women and children share a disproportionate burden of poverty today, pity or compassion?

Do we have pity or compassion for the two-thirds of the world’s people who have never heard the good news of God’s love in Christ in a way that makes sense to them in their own language and culture?[2]  

Compassion moves us beyond talking a good game to actually doing something about the problem we see.  Compassion moves us beyond indifference because the situation has moved us off of the couch and into action. 

Think about what are you passionate about.  Who or what are you willing to suffer for or sacrifice something for? 

Here Jesus’ compassion for the crowd causes him to sacrifice some one-on-one time with his disciples, an opportunity for them to rest after they have returned from their mission of preaching, casting out evil spirits, and healing people.  They are tired and hungry because so many people are coming to Jesus they don’t have time to eat.  How many of us return from a trip or vacation more tired than we left? 

It is compassion that moves Jesus to suggest to his disciples to take a retreat with him, to seek solitude, and rest in God.  It is compassion that makes Jesus change his plans when he sees so many people gathered by the shore in what was supposed to be a deserted spot. 

Theologian Douglass John Hall poses two questions that are related to our passage today which are very important questions to ask our selves as twenty-first century Christians.  The first is a theological question: how does your God view the world?   And the second is an ethical question: how does your God ask you the view the world?[3]    
  1. How does God view the world?
  2. How does God ask you to view the world?

These are personal questions that make us think; they are questions that shape how we see the world and then guide our interactions with one another. 

Hall suggests that for many religions, recent and primitive, deities (or gods) have been depicted in one way or another as ominous, wrathful, vengeful, angry, and vindictive – therefore approachable not directly but only through someone acting in a priestly role, meaning going between ordinary people and God.[4]  This might even describe some forms of Christianity today.

But in Jesus, who is God, we see something different.  Compassion.  God is not some distant being who created the earth and then abandoned it to see what would happen.  God is not approachable by a select few highly educated or holy people.  We see in God compassion, a willingness to meet us where we are and challenge us to grow in a covenant relationship with him. 

We see in Jesus the willingness of God to become human, vulnerable, giving up all power and glory. 

We see in Jesus the willingness of God to be identified with outcasts and sinners, the sick and the lonely – not the powerful and the elite. 

We see in Jesus the willingness of God to change his plans of rest and retreat in order to care for the people who seek him out in lonely and deserted places. 

We see in Jesus the willingness of God to give his life, to suffer the humiliation and pain of death on a cross, dying like a criminal. 

And we see in Jesus’ resurrection the willingness of God to do the unimaginable – showing us that suffering and death do not have the final word. 

This is not pity but compassion.  God sees the world and all that we do and has compassion for us. Philippians 2 eloquently expresses the compassion of God:  it is the oldest of all affirmations of faith that the church has used.  Consider these phrases from it:

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

These words reveal the essence of God’s compassion—God who came to earth in Jesus, who lived with us, and suffered for us.  God knows what it is to be criticized, lied about, and betrayed, he knows the physical pain of torture and what it is like to be thirsty. 

God has compassion for us and God will help us, God will alleviate our pain and ease our suffering. 

Moreover God challenges us to approach one another in this same spirit, with humility and the willingness to suffer with each other.  Some might say that it is compassion that makes us human, but it would be more accurate to say that compassion makes us act more like Jesus – more like God in whose image we are created.    

So what are ways that we show compassion? 

What is our response to the shooting that took place in the Colorado movie theater early Friday morning? 

Did anybody talk about it with another person? 

Did anybody pray for the people who were wounded, the families of those who died, and those who now carry invisible scars from the shooting? 

Did you pray for the shooter or his family?

Did you call somebody you love to tell them, “I love you and I’m glad you are alive?”

These are acts of compassion. They show a desire to help, to alleviate pain, to ease suffering.  When we act with compassion we honor God, we are doing what we were created to do.    

What is the act of compassion you will do this week? 

[1] The Good News Bible uses the word pity while the NRSV, NIV, and King James versions of the Bible use compassion.  We use the Good News Bible in worship. 
[2] These figures come from the PC(U.S.A.) office of World Mission and are issues that they are trying to address through mission work.
[3] Douglass John Hall, Mark 6:30-43, 53-56 in Feasting on the Word Commentary.  Year B, Vol. 3. WJK: 2009, pg 261. 
[4] Hall, pg 262.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sermon from July 15, 2012

7th  Sunday After Pentecost – Amos 7:7-15

Rev. Michael Fry preaching
at East Bethany PC
July 15, 2012

I have been inspired recently by the books of Seth Godin, in particular Tribes and Linchpin.  His writing on leadership is prophetic in the sense that he has the courage to speak out and write what he thinks and like Amos his writing exposes some pretty harsh realities about our culture.  While his books contain challenging material, I find them to be energizing – most notably his concept of tribes, which are very different from the tribes on the reality TV show Survivor, where cutthroat completion weeds people out as people are voted off the island and at the end only one-person wins. 

By contrast Seth Godin’s concept of tribes is reminiscent of Native Americans or family clans like the 12 tribes of Israel who made up the nation or people of God.  We are their descendants in faith, the heirs of people who were united in their service of one God.

Likewise Godin’s concept of a tribe is of a group of people who gather around a common purpose or interest and communicate with one another.  Think about it – tribes are people who share an interest, talk about that interest, and have common experiences that they share that are related to this interest. 

Over time the concept of a tribe has evolved from the desire to survive and produce offspring in order to care for the eldery to elaborate systems of hierarchy, to simply being a fan of something. 

What are you a fan of? 

What are you loyal to? 

What is something that you would be willing to sacrifice something else in order to go and do?

Part of what has happened with our culture and to a certain extent in churches is that they no longer have a shared identity or common experience that really hold us together.  We are constantly bombarded with information and competing loyalties – between family obligations, work, volunteering, church, sports events, and the list can go on and on to include toys, video games, and hobbies from model train enthusiast to quilting circles. 

All these choices make us long for a simpler time when it seemed like there were fewer choices and thus fewer obligations, and more time to do things like be with family and go to church. 

The hard reality is that we can’t go back to those times and it is no use wishing that we could.  What we are called to do is to look where we are and choose how to move forward as a people of God. 

In many ways we are struggling with some of the same issues that Amos was preaching about. 

The abundance that the wealthy in Israel enjoyed made them forget that everything ultimately comes from God.  Have you ever noticed how some people’s level of thankfulness seems to decrease as they gain more and more? 

The elite of Israel had traded loyalty to God for what appeared to be the promise of stability and prosperity.  Like many people today have traded God for some other activity. 

Amos challenges this and makes those who are comfortable, uncomfortable.  And when the high priest Amaziah challenges him, Amos tells Amaziah that he is not in it for the money, not preaching for his food, because Amos is a farmer called by God to speak these words and his loyalty rests in God. 

Did you notice how when Amaziah confronts Amos he does not mention God?  Amaziah refers to Bethel as the King’s place of worship and the national temple, instead of God’s sanctuary and temple indicating that his true loyalty lies in preserving the kingdom of Israel instead of service to God. 

Moreover because of political alliances with Assyria, Israel was experiencing unprecedented wealth, power, and prestige but this was really only true about the people who had money and power. 

Amos describes the condition of Israel by saying that the people have rejected the law of the Lord and been led astray by false gods (Amos 2:4), the righteous are sold for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals (2:6), the heads of the poor are trampled upon and they are forced to provide grain for the wealthy (2:7, 5:11), and not only are the poor oppressed but the needy are crushed (4:1).  Justice is not administered and the righteous are oppressed (5:12). 

Is our world, our country much different?  Executives of businesses filing for bankruptcy are asking to receive bonuses while pension benefits for retired employees are being cut; these are the employees whose labor built the company and made a small group of people a lot of money while some of these employees’ work took an extraordinary physical toll on their bodies. 

People are caught in cycles of poverty in many ways, including the predatory lending practices of some payday loan companies that charge fees and interest at a rate that has an annual equivalent of 300 to 800 percent causing people to go into deeply into debt for a relatively small amount, like $300, because their car broke down while they still have to pay rent, and have no savings from which to draw.[1] 

And let us not forget that while some people have lost a lot of money and their homes due to the housing crisis and recession the people who created the conditions for the crisis, most of them are doing pretty darn well. 

Just as Amos challenged the elite of Israel we are challenged to ask, in all seriousness: Do these business practices honor God? 

For Amos the answer was a resounding “No.”  He boldly reminded the people they were part of a tribe that God liberated from slavery, established as a nation, and exposed the fact that they had stopped relying on God.  These people who had once shared a common identity as God’s people, dependent on God and one another for their survival were now a group of individuals looking out for their own self-interest. 

In our time perhaps Christians need to be reminded that we too are a tribe, a group of people who gather around a common purpose – to honor God, who created us, who liberates us from sin, and who calls us to eternal life.  Honoring God with our lives in service and worship.  Christians are a group of people who talk to one another and pray for one another.  And by doing things together like sharing meals, baseball games, worship, and Bible study we share experiences with one another and develop a common identity rooted in God.    

This is one of the reasons that I am excited about trying something new this fall.  On the first Sunday of the month we are going to offer what we are calling sandwich school a time after worship for children and adults to learn together exploring questions about faith and worship.

East Bethany Presbyterian Church is already a tribe.  We have a small dynamic group of people with a range different gifts, talents, passions, and ages endowing us with a wealth of different experiences and knowledge.  Our challenge is to figure out our purpose together, gather around that common purpose or ministry, and communicate with one another all while trusting in the goodness of our Lord and Savior to lead us. 

God called Amos, who was a farmer, an ordinary person, to be a prophetic voice in Israel, and Amos courageously answered this call. 

As a tribe of God’s people, will we courageously answer God’s call here in East Bethany? 

[1] Lending With Grace: Breaking the cycle of payday loans, by Jesse James DeConto, found in the Christian Century, June 27, 2012.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sermon from July 8, 2012

6th  Sunday After Pentecost – Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Mark 6:1-13 

Rev. Michael Fry preaching
at East Bethany PC
July 8, 2012

Five years ago the Washington Post featured a news story about a street musician playing his violin in a busy metro station in Washington D.C.  He played six classical pieces of what some consider to be the most beautiful and complicated music ever written, for a total of 45 minutes while 1,097 people walked by on their way to work, oblivious to what they were hearing. 

This ordinary looking street musician was actually Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed virtuoso who often plays for sold out and standing room audiences, typically people pay a lot of money to watch and listen to him play.  But on this day his performance received no applause, no recognition, and he collected $32.17 from those who tossed money into his violin case.  Remarkable, for a man whose talent can command $1000 a minute. 

This was an experiment of “context, perception and priorities.”  Would people recognize and appreciate beauty in an unconventional setting and would they stop to listen?  The Post discovered their results through a hidden camera and follow up interviews with the commuters who passed by.

The comments of the commuters were telling.  They were busy, had other things on their mind, some were listening to iPods, and others talking on their mobile phones talked louder to be heard over the music.  One person said, “Nothing about him struck me as much of anything.” Another man waiting in line for his lottery tickets commented that the music “sounded generic” yet, he remembered every number he played in the lottery that day.  Some analyzed him financially wondering how he could make a living doing this. 

During this concert seven people stopped to listen, twenty-seven gave money, and the other 1,000 people walked on by. 

One man stopped for a few minutes sensing that this was something special.  Even though he was not into classical music and had never given money to a street musician before, he found himself tossing a contribution into the violin case.  He said that the music made him feel at peace. 

Every time a child passed they slowed down, trying to stop and listen but each time their parent moved them on. 

One fellow, realizing the quality of the musician, stood for nine minutes and was baffled that no one else paid him any attention.  And one woman actually recognized it was Joshua Bell and wondered what on earth was going on. [1]  


Our context and setting determine a lot of what we see, what we hear, and what we expect.  The people in the metro station were on their way to work, not a classical music recital.  And who would expect to hear extraordinary music in this otherwise ordinary place? 

The people in Jesus’ hometown have the same challenge.  To them Jesus was their neighbor, they knew his family – Jesus was Mary’s son, an ordinary carpenter, who suddenly was teaching in the synagogue with wisdom and had the power to perform miracles.  How could this be?  Where did this power come from? 

As twenty-first century Christians we realize that this power comes from the Spirit of God working in and through Jesus.  But to his neighbors he was a fellow villager who was becoming famous – suddenly he had this insight and authority when he taught and healed.  And rather than celebrate and say yeah I knew him when…  They treat him with contempt, because they think they know him – after all it takes a village to raise a child. 

Just as only a few people recognized or heard the music being played in the metro station during rush hour, a few people recognized what was going on with Jesus.  Scripture tells us that he was able to heal a few people. 

And I imagine that what drew these people to Jesus was something similar to what drew the select people who heard the music in the subway. 
  •  A childlike curiosity.  
  • The sense of deep peace they felt in Jesus presence. 
  •  And the quality of steadfast love that radiated out from him. 

In the article Joshua Bell observed that the hardest and most awkward part of playing in the subway was the time after one piece had ended and before he started the next one.  Usually he receives a standing ovation and here there was no applause, no affirmation, no validation for what he had done.  It made him wonder if he was a successful musician after all.    

What about Jesus?  Was he successful? 

In his hometown Jesus receives no applause, no affirmation, no validation for his teaching or who he is – they do not realize that there was not just a prophet among them, but God.  Yet Jesus continues on, he provides an example of brushing the dust off his feet for his disciples, for the mission he is sending them on – a mission that will include danger, disappointment, and rejection. 

For we learn that to be a follower of Jesus will require danger, disappointment, rejection, and even death.  If we continue reading on in Mark 6 from verses 13-30 we discover the price of following God, from the example of John the Baptist, who is beheaded because of the message he was preaching against King Herod’s wife. 

This is a story that prepares us to expect rejection as Christians, to expect to not be successful or welcome, and yet to persevere so that the Good News can continue to be shared. 

Maybe we need to re-think or re-define what it means to be successful as individuals and as a church. 

Does success as a church mean filling the pews, having a large budget, a thriving Sunday school program, or a full-time minister? 

Or does it mean being faithful?

Does success mean faithfully caring for one another, our neighbors, and strangers?  Does it mean being rejected or taken advantage of because we are faithfully answering God’s call?  Does it mean being faithful to God and dying – dying to ourselves so that we may live for God? 

Does it mean being faithful in small things, so that we may then be entrusted with greater things?   

Because if we are honest we are the rebellious people God sends Ezekiel to, we are Jesus’ neighbors who are contemptuous of Jesus message and power.  We are so wrapped up in our own world, seeking our own success, trying to get to work or a meeting on time, distrustful of other people, trying to set ourselves apart from our competitors and colleagues so that we might get noticed.  We get so wrapped up in these things that sometimes we fail to hear the wonderful music, we fail to hear the Spirit calling us into service. 

Jesus did redefine what it means to be successful because in his weakness and in his death he showed such strength – the strength of God’s love for the world – love not just for those who loved him but also for those who rebelled and rejected God.

In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus gave us a definition of success that is pretty much the opposite of what our culture considers success to be when he told the people assembled, whom God blessed in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:2-11). 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, blessed are those who are reviled, persecuted, and against whom all kinds of evil is falsely spoke. 

Why?  Because…  
  • the Kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are poor in spirit, 
  • the meek will inherit the earth, 
  • those who hunger for justice and righteousness will be filled, 
  • the merciful will receive mercy, 
  • the pure in heart will see God, 
  • the peacemakers will be called children of God, 
  • to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake belongs the kingdom of heaven, 
  • and when people criticize us, despise us, persecute us, and lie about us because of our devotion to Jesus we are to rejoice. 

Rejoice because our reward in heaven is Great!  For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who came before us and they will do the same to those who come after us (Matt 5:12). 

We are to rejoice because when people do this we have touched a nerve; we have made them aware of the heavenly melody God calls us to follow instead of the seductive musical score of the world. 

We are to rejoice because our reward is not in this world and cannot be found here.  We are to rejoice because we are God’s children and our reward cannot be taken away from us.  And when we finally receive our reward we will be filled with such peace that no music played or written by human hands can ever capture. 

For this is the peace that passes all understanding and the loving embrace of God from whom we cannot separated, for we are his beloved children – this is our reward, this is our eternal blessing, this is our everlasting inheritance. 


[1] Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nations’ great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour?  Let’s find out.  By Gene Weingarten, in The Washington Post, published Sunday, April 8, 2007.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Reminder: Session Meeting this Wednesday

Just a reminder that the Session will meet this Wednesday, July 11th at 6:30 PM.  If you are unable to make the meeting, please contact Reverend Fry or Cassie Carlsen, clerk of session.

Mission Committee News This Saturday at 9:00am we are invited to gather at the First Presbyterian Church in Batavia to help with projec...