Please enjoy reading the following sermons that are favorites of Rev. Bella. Their lesson is how God moves in our everyday lives and how He can be a light to point us on the right path.

In the Clutch

Romans 8:18-39

The Spirit is there for us in the clutch, coming alongside, praying for us, interceding, giving us hope, working for good.

Kids say the darnedest things. Not long after I had arrived here at Pleasant Run, I was giving a children’s sermon the gist of which was Jesus being the exact image of the living God. So I asked the children, “Do you know what God looks like?” Expecting a shaking of heads or a blank stare, I was completely surprised when one of our girls answered yes. “You do?” “Yes,” she said. God was blue, like the sky. Now that’s a hard one to answer. We do think of God as being up there in heaven, don’t we? Sympathy cards display scenes of cotton ball clouds and blue skies. Church steeples stretch upward a hundred feet or more. We often look up as we offer one-line prayers: “Thank you, Lord.” “Why?” The Psalms tell us that God lives in the heavens and rides on the clouds. Jesus ascended to the Father. This may be inexact astronomy, but it is sound theology. God is definitely other, different, separate and distinct from all we know and experience – out of this world. In worship and prayer we reach out to something, someone who is purer, higher, and more powerful than ourselves. We reach out to something beyond us.

In the book of Romans, Paul talks about our relationship with this distinctly other God; yet in these verses it becomes clear that God is anything but separate and distant from his people. The author has just discussed in the previous chapter the frustration of the Christian condition: On the one hand, we are redeemed, yet we still live in the world. We are adopted brothers and sisters in Christ, but not full heirs of the kingdom. We have the power of God, but we still mess up and are still dependent on grace. How then are we to live? We live, says Paul, according to the Spirit. God provides for a life of hope and grace in relation to and in the power of his Holy Spirit.

Author and counselor Donald Denton tells the story of a Marine who was decorated for his heroic efforts during the Korean War. Carl Sitter was a young captain at the time in charge of a rifle company whose task was to defend the high ground around a strategically important crossroads in the Chosin Reservoir. The Chinese had launched a ferocious attack. As night fell, the captain went from Marine to Marine, simply asking each one to stay in his fox hole a little longer. Sitter says, “I told him I was counting on him. I told him I would be back.” He did this over and over visiting each of his men. Sitter sustained multiple wounds, but miraculously his company held their position – despite being outnumbered twenty to one.

The New Testament name for the Spirit of God is Paraclete, the Advocate, the One who comes along side. Jesus knew that following in his footsteps would not be easy; so he promised to send an Advocate to support his disciples in their new life of faith. Paul is reminding these first century Christians, struggling with sin in the now-but-not-yet kingdom, of God’s promised presence and power. Life is tough, he admits, but God is tougher. There is famine and persecution, hardship and distress; but when the going gets tough the Spirit is there for us, in our weakness, in our confusion, in our suffering, and in our need. The Spirit, the actual indwelling presence of God, is the concrete deposit on our unseen hope.

If you have ever placed an order for a large ticket item – say a new roof or windows for your house – you know that the contractor will normally ask for a deposit before the work is started. You are expected to put some money down in good faith. The builder then has reason, to expect full payment when the job is complete. Similarly Paul says that the Holy Spirit is a deposit, the first fruit, the first proof that God is going to make good on the rest of his promises. Who hopes for what is seen? If you have it in hand, you have nothing more to expect; but we wait for what is unseen – the resurrection of our bodies, the fullness of God’s kingdom – with good hope for we have the very Spirit of God as a deposit. The Spirit of God gives us hope.

The Spirit of God helps us pray. There are times when we are so overwhelmed by the circumstances of life that the words for prayer are beyond us. Have you ever been there? When a baby dies, a dream is lost, fire engulfs your home, or you have wandered so far from the straight and narrow that you can’t begin to find your way back. Tears come, but no words. You stare into space for sleepless hours. Anger flashes without coherent language. Normalcy seems light years away. That’s when the Spirit comes along side in support. There are times, too, when we consciously avoid the straight talk of prayer, when prayer is more habit and ritual than candid conversation with God. We’re too busy, too distracted, or maybe too ashamed to open up to God in a meaningful way. Sometimes here the Spirit steps in, takes what we thought would be daily routine, and transforms it into warm, meaningful, enlightening dialogue.

The Spirit intercedes for us, says Paul. Even when we are not aware of it, the Spirit is there pleading our case before a holy God. Pastor and author Bill Kincaid likens Spirit filled prayer to music. Some people engage in music like a technician or mechanic. They push all the right buttons. They play all the right notes at the right time; yet they lack a deep relationship with what they’re doing. They don’t experience the music. “One of my favorite musicians,” says Kincaid, “is someone I not only love to listen to, but someone I love to watch. I love to watch him play. It is so obvious that the music begins deep within him and finally makes it to his fingers and then to the keyboard. The music doesn’t start when his fingers tap the keys. [It] swells within him and finally is channeled from his soul to his upper extremities.” Such music has power. It takes us to places we can’t go on our own, to soaring heights and rich depths.

True prayer is like that. It doesn’t necessarily begin with words on our lips or even thoughts in our mind; but swells from hidden depths within, with groans and sighs too weighty for words. We pray from the inside out; and the Holy Spirit is the instigator. Such prayer has power. It takes us to soaring heights and unbelievable depths. Such prayer is sacred communication, a transparent exposé of oneself before a merciful, holy, healing God. The Spirit helps us to pray. The Spirit teaches us to pray. The Spirit prays for us, with us.

The Spirit is the knot at the end of our rope. When the world seems to turn against us the Spirit is there. When friends and family fall away, God’s presence is there. When all else fails the Spirit is still there.

Circumstances can separate us from those we love. Illness and injury can take them away. Life knocks us around and we lose track of one another. This is not the case with our friend Jesus. His Spirit is right there with us in the thick of things – always. In our suffering, no one can be as close; no one as supportive and sustaining, as the Holy Spirit; and God goes beyond this. God works and wills through our suffering for good in our lives and in the world around us.

This is not to cheapen our misery and pain. God does not use us, disregarding personal anguish, to accomplish his purposes. Yet God only knows how to head in one direction – toward the good. Like a ball that always heads into left field, a flower that can’t help but turn toward the sun, God will always be working through gross injustice, painful loss, bad choices, and lousy breaks toward the redemption and reconciliation of all creation. God’s faithfulness is not static, but rather moves toward a future horizon, toward the restoration of a fallen world. What a tremendous comfort to know that that God works in my life through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is there for us in the clutch, in the critical moments of this game called life. Paul reassures us that God is at work behind the scenes and within his people, in our weakness, in our confusion and suffering to bring beauty and good out of evil and darkness. The prevailing message of this entire chapter is that God is in charge and God is faithful. Therefore we need not be anxious. We have nothing to fear. This is extraordinary good news that the Spirit calls us to live out every day. We don’t have to control everything. We don’t have to have all the answers.

We can be at peace with one another and ourselves. We can be there for one another because God is there for us.

I am reminded of the story of a Michigan farmer who put a weather vane atop his barn inscribed with the words, “God is love.” When a friend asked why the farmer said, “It’s to remind me that no matter which way the wind blows, God is love.” No matter which way the wind blows, God is steadfast. God is love. According to priest and professor Barbara Brown Taylor, “The only condition for joy is the presence of God.” “Which means,” says Taylor, “that [joy] can erupt in a depressed economy, in the middle of a war, or in an intensive care waiting room…it is a gift.” We have received the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God, as a gift. When we acknowledge that gift, when we trust the goodness of that gift, when we open ourselves to the gift, and its work in our lives, we know more joy and less worry.

Keyed to the Future

Matthew 16:13-20

The keys of the kingdom are given to all who receive the revelation that Jesus is the Christ. They are blessed with new vision and identity, and a rock solid future.

Keys: they can play important roles at strategic points in our lives. Do you remember the first keys that you ever possessed? Perhaps it was a key to a padlock or a locker. Maybe, if you were a latch-key kid, it was a key to one of the doors of your house. Your parents solemnly placed it in the palm of your hand with stern warnings. “Now don’t lose this. Always know where this key is at.” Then of course there was the first time Dad handed over the keys to the family car. It felt like the weight of the world in your pocket. Remember the pride you felt when you held the first keys to your own car or home? You stood at least two inches taller that day. Keys are heavy symbols of control, privilege, and ownership – and responsibility.

There’s one in every family, one in every classroom or town hall meeting – the impulsive person with the quick answers and quick temper. These are usually well meaning souls – sincere in their beliefs, passionate about issues, fervent in their support. Sometimes, though, they lead with their mouth and their heart instead of their head. Simon Peter was such a one among Jesus’ twelve disciples, an outspoken fisherman who was accustomed to decisive action and straight talk. As Christians we hopefully aspire to be more and more like Jesus – warm, compassionate, sensitive, giving. Yet if the truth be known many of us are probably more like Peter; and it is to Peter that Jesus hands over the keys.

Jesus has asked his disciples two questions: “Who do people say that I am?” And “Who do you say that I am?” The disciples mumble among one another answering the first question; but at the second question Peter acts as an unofficial spontaneous spokesman, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” It’s not in print, but I can imagine eleven heads nodding in wide-eyed agreement. They had all considered it, wondered about it, rolled the idea over in their minds. However, for Peter the matter is now fact and he shares his conviction without hesitation. Peter is representative of the disciples, but he also represents you and me, the average Christian in all our strengths and weaknesses, who has received and accepted faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

This is by Jesus’ own admission no achievement of higher knowledge, but a revelation from God. Faith is a gift. Believing is a gift. It is a work of the Holy Spirit who turns the light on so to speak and shows us what is real and true. It is upon such faith that the Church is built, rock solid because it comes from God. Peter holds a unique and unrepeatable position as the first to openly confess his faith. However, the keys he receives are not his alone, but a gift awarded to all who believe. The keys to the kingdom are not the possession of one individual or an exclusive cloistered group of men, but a blessing bestowed upon all who acknowledge Jesus’ true identity. You have the keys. I have the keys; and with it the door to a bright future.

Faith in Jesus unlocks the door to the heart of God. Belief in Jesus’ atoning death opens us to God’s mercy and forgiveness. Forgiven and free we turn to forgive others. Faith unlocks the door to eternal and present day peace. Fully assured of God’s love and acceptance, we end our frantic search for such things in all the wrong places. Faith in Jesus opens the door to unity and harmony. Recognizing ourselves as equal sinners before the cross, we share a common understanding, a shared humility and grace. We become brothers and sisters instead of enemies and rivals. Faith in Jesus Christ opens believers to a new world order, giving us the keys to the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

For the Northwest Local School District school will start here in just a couple of weeks. All across this country kids are getting ready for the new school year. Whether it is a kindergartener riding the bus for the first time or a college freshman meeting a new roommate there is a lot of anxiety and anticipation in the air. There are clothes and supplies and uniforms to buy; text books, computers, calculators, and crayons. There’s been lots of talk about teachers, and public schools and standardized tests. Parents protest rising fees for everything from sports to science to music to field trips. The debate continues over the benefits of public schools versus private schools versus home schooling. Is a college degree really worth the time and expense or do technical schools yield a greater payoff? Most will agree, though, on one thing: a good education opens doors to the future.

According to biblical scholar Eugene Boring Jesus’ talk of binding and losing – “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” – is actually rabbinical terminology for authoritative teaching. It is the first century language of rabbis for the authority to interpret scripture. If this is true, then Jesus isn’t giving Peter or the Church the authority to absolve sins or condemn sinners, but the mandate to teach. Jesus who has taught as one with authority now gives the authority to teach in his name to Peter and the other disciples; and the mandate to learn. God’s Word truly does open the doors of the kingdom. The scriptures are key to learning the will of God, the ways of God, and the path God would have us take into his future. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, we gain through scripture an ever deeper understanding of ourselves, our God, and the world around us. The keys to the kingdom are given to all who receive the revelation that Jesus is the Christ. Those keys give believers free access to God and make the Word of God accessible and clear.

Have you noticed in the Bible that when God is about to do something transformational in a person’s life, that biblical character often receives a name change? Abram becomes Abraham when he is ninety-nine, a year before his son Isaac is born. Jacob becomes Israel on the eve of his return to the land of Canaan. Saul becomes Paul, Simon becomes Peter. Like Peter when we confess our faith in Jesus we receive a new identity in Christ. This happens at our baptism. We receive a new name. We become Christians or “little Christs”. We have a new family, the family of God, the Church. The values of that family become ours and we learn to appreciate life and love and community in an exciting new way. All this begins with knowing who Jesus is. Who is Jesus in your life?

Before my husband and I came to Cincinnati we lived in Southern Indiana. I served as a hospital chaplain and Wes worked as facilities manager for a homeless shelter in downtown Louisville. Wes was among other things the keeper of the keys. He had this huge ring of keys that he carried around with him that opened doors to all kinds of buildings and places. He was also to some extent in charge of a key box that had keys to rooms and devices and alarms. During the day people were calling him all the time. “Mr. Wes, we need you to open… Mr. Wes, we can’t get into…” Even at night, people would call him at home, “Mr. Wes, we can’t find the key to…” He became the search dog for lost keys, too. My husband had a huge responsibility when he had possession of those keys. Every lock that should have been locked was his responsibility. Every door that needed to be opened was his job, too. Some days it seemed that all he did was chase keys and open doors.

You and I have been handed a set of keys. As believers we have received the keys to the kingdom. It becomes then our responsibility to use them. They are not to stay buried in our purses or tucked away in a drawer. It is our responsibility to see that the doors are opened to mercy, freedom, justice, and love. It is our responsibility to see that these doors – to the church – are open, that these doors – to our hearts – are open. Pastor and scholar Gary Charles says that “The keys Jesus promises Peter are meant to unlock the world’s longing for celebration and liberation. [They] were never intended to lock out undesirables from the church, to rid God’s realm of the unworthy. If that were the case,” says Charles, “he’d never have promised them to someone like Peter, and they never would have landed in pockets like ours.”

We are to unlock the doors for others; and we are to unlock the doors for ourselves. The kingdom is out there. It’s beautiful. It’s real; and the bedrock truth of the matter is that this kingdom is unshakeable. Death itself cannot prevail against it. It is eternal. It is the one thing that endures. Nations will rise and fall. Stocks, companies, and institutions will rise and fall. Friends will turn against you. Heroes and heroines die. Mountains will erupt, icebergs melt, oceans will rise up and devour cities; but God’s kingdom cannot, will not ever fail. And we hold the keys. Wow.

When Dad handed you the keys to the car you knew that it was a tremendous responsibility. You had better take care of it. Don’t even think of bringing it back with a dented fender or an empty gas tank. Yet it was also a tremendous privilege. If Dad had offered you the car would you have refused? If he had said, “Say, here’s the keys. Would you mind washing the car for me and filling it up? And, oh, by the way, if you want to cruise by and visit with your friends – no problem.” Would you have said no? Jesus has handed you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. What are you going to do with them?

Eyeing the Future

Matthew 6:19-24 / Isaiah 49:8-16a

Viewing the future with hope or dread depends on eyes of faith or fear.

I couldn’t help but smile. The morning after the Super Bowl there were as many headlines about the commercials as there were about the football players and the game. The Super Bowl has become the most coveted of time slots for advertisers who this year paid up to three million dollars apiece for a thirty second commercial spot. The crazier the better it seems for these commercials: hungry loggers morphing into whiny actors, coworkers licking Doritos from your fingertips. The marketing world will no doubt be studying these promotional gems and fiascos for months to come. Advertising is big business. Companies spend billions in an endless effort to find the best way to pitch the sale of their products. They study the economic and social trends of the American population. What is it that makes the average American tick? What do people like, dislike, want, need, crave? Why? Advertising is a matter of sociology and psychology as much as it is marketing and creativity.

For several years I have noticed advertisers’ subtle hints that whatever they are selling can fill a person’s spiritual needs: soft drinks that bring peace and happiness, oatmeal that warms your soul, coffee that fills your cup to the brim. They have obviously discovered a human void that yearns to be filled. Lately, I’ve noticed more advertising that targets the basic human need for security. Sometimes it is a straight forward blatant appeal. You don’t want your home to be burglarized, do you? You’d better install this security system. You wouldn’t want your loved one to be unable to phone for help. You need to buy her this cell phone. Sometimes there’s a financial angle. What might happen if you don’t have enough auto coverage or medical benefits? You’d better switch to our insurance company. Fear seems to be the modus operandi. Drug companies prey on our fear of a heart attack. Social networks exploit our fear of loneliness. One insurer claims to “take the scary out of life” altogether.

We live in a culture of fear. We are told to be suspicious of immigrants, on the lookout for terrorists, and deathly afraid of nuclear proliferation. Republicans and Democrats alike encourage fear of their opponents. The other unofficial party doesn’t want us to trust our government at all. The economy is going to meltdown. The earth is going to burn up. Our kids are all going to get brain tumors from earphone “buds” and become juvenile delinquents in the process. We may be losing the code yellow, code orange Homeland Security Advisory System; but government, economic, and advertising sources will still be keeping us on high alert hoping to control our pocketbook and our vote.

Fear is a classic means of coercion and manipulation. Remember Lucy and her little brother Linus? “Give me one good reason why I should memorize the lines for this Christmas play?” “One good reason? I’ll give you five – one, two, three, four, five!” “Those are good reasons.” Lucy stands in a long line of infamous manipulators and oppressors: the pharaohs of Egypt, the kings of Babylon and Persia, Roman emperors, European dictators and Asian autocrats. The school bully isn’t exactly Hitler or Castro, but his operational mindset is the same. Political candidates aren’t plotting military takeovers nor are advertisers threatening violence, but they have all studied what scares us, and they are quite adept at exploiting our concerns.

The problem is that too often we buy into it. Politicians, investment firms, over the counter and prescription medications all promise to alleviate our fears; and so we swear our allegiance to their party, campaign, retirement plan, or cure for whatever ails us. There is nothing wrong with staying healthy and financially solvent; and there is everything right in participating in political process. Yet if we remain focused on our concerns and allow worry and fear to be the motivators behind our actions we can be easily distracted from God’s agenda and needlessly anxious over things beyond our control. Unbridled, unsubstantiated fear can lead to racial and ethnic prejudice and a lack of hospitality. Financial uncertainty can foster materialistic habits. We are apt to stock our pantries, pad our bank accounts, and place our trust in humanity and the almighty dollar instead of the God we claim to serve.

In today’s all too familiar text Jesus warns his disciples of competing loyalties. Whatever we put our heart into becomes the master of our time and energy. We cannot say that we love God and be devoted to money and things. This scripture is not a favorite passage. It makes most of us uneasy. It either hits too close to home, challenging our selfish materialism, or chides us for undo emphasis on bills and financial security. It is also a bit confusing. In between clear images of treasure in heaven and the Lord as Master are these cryptic verses about healthy or good eyes. Whatever is Jesus talking about?

In the twenty-first century we know our eyes to be receptors of light. However in the ancient world the human eye was considered to be a lamp, a source of light that enabled a person to see their world clearly. Jesus tells us that when our eyes are healthy we can put things in their proper perspective; but if our eyes aren’t so good we have difficulty seeing things as they really are. Professor and preacher Tom Long says that the crucial issue is what one sees. If one’s eye is healthy, if a person has a generous spirit and sees the world in a benevolent light, then their life will be full and abundant. If a person sees the world in a pinched and selfish way, then their whole existence, even acts of apparent charity, can be begrudging.

How we see our future depends on how we look at the world – with eyes of faith or with eyes of fear. Theologian Paul Tillich traced human obsession with power and money to our basic fear of being finite, our recognition that as human beings we are not infinite. Each of us knows that we will one day die. We are – all of us – underneath all of our mini-mansions, money markets, and military might frail and vulnerable people. We get cancer and heart disease. We are the innocent victims of floods, earthquakes, stray bullets, and drunk drivers. However, such fears and obsessions belong to the kingdom of this world, the kingdom of my rights, my money, and my piece of the pie. They are at odds with the kingdom of God, the kingdom Jesus established, a kingdom marked by generosity, hospitality, serenity, and peace. The question is to which kingdom do we belong? To whom do we swear our allegiance?

Friday evening I watched a news broadcast about a U.S.-chartered ferry that had finally landed safely on the Mediterranean island of Malta. The catamaran carried three hundred foreign citizens escaping the violent turmoil in Libya. Over half of the passengers were Americans. It is an exodus that is repeating itself in many parts of the Middle East: Libyans pouring into Tunisia; Tunisians seeking refuge in Egypt; Chinese, Canadians, Americans, Greeks, and Brits; workers, ambassadors, and tourists from nearly every nation fleeing what began as peaceful protest but has now morphed into far reaching bloodshed and chaos. Their exodus is a scene of deliverance, from poverty and oppression to freedom and hope, from violence and chaos to peace and security.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of similar deliverance as God addresses the Suffering Servant of Israel. “I will keep you and make you a covenant for the people,” says God. “You will reassign their inheritance and say to those in darkness, ‘Come out! Be free!’” There follows, as Bob read, a portrait of lush provision and safe passage and a promise that the Lord never forgets or forsakes the children that he loves. Scripture repeats this story of exodus and deliverance over and over. It is the story of God’s character, the story of Jesus who is the exact representation of God. Jesus is the Servant who delivers us, the One sent to guide us through life, to provide safe passage and from this life to the next. Today’s text invites us to look again at God’s faithfulness, to remember God’s character, to trust God’s abundant provision and grace. It’s a matter of focus and faith. It is a matter of allegiance and trust.

Rick Ufford-Chase, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and former moderator of General Assembly tells of an impressive church that he visited in a small rural community in Taiwan. When the pastor of Tek Tung Presbyterian Church first came to the congregation about twenty years ago he found a small band of Christians surrounded by a community that was ninety-seven percent Buddhist. The fact that these Christians felt isolated and fearful was most evident in the six foot high brick wall that had been erected around the church property. The pastor told Ufford-Chase that he was certain that no creative ministry could happen there so long as the congregation acted from a standpoint of fear. So little by little changes were made. The wall was torn down on the street side of the property and replaced with a low lying decorative fence. Heavy wooden doors were exchanged for clear glass and a huge cross was placed on the wall at the front of the sanctuary. In a large tree in the side yard, the congregation built a tree house for neighborhood children; and the pastor made one side of his parsonage near the church into a rock climbing wall for teenagers. Members started new programs that took them out into the community and brought the community into the church. People began to view their future with hope when they stopped viewing their neighbors with fear.

Fear is a prison of the heart; but Jesus has delivered us from fear. His perfect love casts out all fear. Viewing the future with hope or dread depends on eyes of fear or eyes of faith. Each of us makes the decision to journey through life scared and anxious, looking over our shoulder; or joyful and confident, looking ahead. The choice is ours. What’s your perspective?