Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Gentleness and Reverence

Gentleness and Reverence
Sermon by The Rev. Dr. John A. Dalles
Sunday, May 17, 2020
Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22
Finish this sentence: Keep your eyes on the …(blank)…  Keep your eyes on the ball. Keep your eyes on the road. Keep your eyes on the prize. Keep your eyes on the horizon. Keep your eyes on the goal. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Variation: Keep your eyes on your own work. "Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground." (Theodore Roosevelt). Which is a non-sectarian version of what Peter is saying in this passage of scripture: Keep Your Eyes on Jesus Christ.
You see. Peter knew, as well as anyone, that there WERE people who would harm Christians who were eager to do what is good.  In his day, Christians were being harmed right and left. Not because they were bad but because they were good. Not because they were living for themselves, but because they were living for Christ. Not because they wanted their own way, but because they wanted the way of the Lord.  Not because they desired power, but because they desired to share the power of the Gospel with the people around them.
When one is engaged in such worthy and worthwhile pursuits, one will run headlong into forces that try to put a stop to it.  Those who either don’t understand, or more likely, those who get it, and want to get rid of what Christ is all about. There are those who feel that the only way to do that is to make people suffer for doing what is right. No wonder Peter says, “Don’t be intimidated.”
The fear here, is that the forces that are opposed to what you believe, might win through intimidation. They might scare you into keeping quiet. They might frighten you in such a way that you decide that doing nothing is better than being mistreated for doing something good. Don’t let that happen, says Peter.  Don’t be intimidated.  It is a call to boldness, isn’t it?  A call to bravery.  A call to confidence in the Lord.  A call that we are blessed to receive. And are blessed to share.  So, whatever happens we can say: 
“We acknowledge that there is no help but from God, and we rejoice that we are permitted to fly to him.” 
That is a quotation from Pittsburgh’s own Felix Brunot.  From the family of Brunot’s Island fame. Felix Reville Brunot (1820-1898) co-founded the Singer, Nimick and Co. steelworks. Felix was a director, and later president, of the Allegheny Valley Railway in the 1850s and 1860s. He fought in the Civil War.  Brunot was a director of several other organizations including: Allegheny Cemetery Association, Western Pennsylvania Hospital, Allegheny General Hospital, the Western University of Pennsylvania (Pitt), and the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. And he was a man of faith. How did he say that – again?
“We acknowledge that there is no help but from God, and we rejoice that we are permitted to fly to him.”
Brunot said that on an occasion when people were trying to do good, in the name of Jesus.  And other people we retrying to intimidate them.  When Christian were trying to work together, and people were trying to break them down. It happened in the Pittsburgh of not so long ago. It would be good if we could hold on to his observation – and put it to use in our lives – in the Pittsburgh of today.
“Don’t be intimidated.  Keep your eyes on Jesus Christ.” When Peter wrote those words, he wrote to a Christian community that perhaps comprised less than 1percent of the population. Christianity at this time was a suspect religion.  From a backwater country in the Middle East. It found itself at odds with the prevailing culture. And with the people who were all around. Christians were an easy target for suspicion, ridicule, and blame, if things were going wrong.  They found themselves in positions of having to take a stand for what they believed, and when they did that, they did it at their own peril. Sometimes, at the risk of their very lives.
The First Martyrs of the Church of Rome were Christians martyred in the city of Rome during Nero's persecution in 64. The event is recorded by both Tacitus and Pope Clement I.  In July of 64 AD, Rome was devastated by fire. Largely made up of wooden tenements, fire was a frequent occurrence in the city. Rumor blamed the tragedy on the unpopular emperor Nero, who wanted to enlarge his palace. He accused the Christians. According to the historian Tacitus, many Christians were put to death "not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind”.
Not long after he wrote this letter, Peter himself would end as a martyr, crucified on a site that is now the Clementine Chapel, which was then part of Emperor Nero’s gardens.  One of the two main untouched areas of Old St. Peter's Basilica, surviving from the earliest days of the Christian Church in Rome. Located just behind the central altar of St Peter’s Basilica, it holds a place relatively similar to our Chancel mosaic of Christ.
Pope Clement I (d.99), in his Letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 5), written c. 80–98, speaks of Peter's martyrdom in the following terms:
"Let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted, and came even unto death. … Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labors, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him."
Jerome (327-420) wrote that "At Nero's hands Peter received the crown of martyrdom being nailed to the cross with his head towards the ground and his feet raised on high, asserting that he was unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord." Peter lived, and Peter died, according to his teaching in our scripture passage: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
I believe that few of us will be called to make that kind of testimony – one that means life and death.  Then again, as we speak of and honor our lord – those are the words that lead to life. And in as much as we do not – that way is the way of death. It is, after all, a life and death situation. “Always be ready to make your defense…”
Maybe another way of saying that is this: “As you think about your own story, where do you see God at work? - God is at work (fill in the blank).  God is at work, when things feel hard.  God is at Work in Your Church.  God is at work in your world.  God is at work in each of us. God is at work, in you. Cultivate a lifestyle of seeing where God is at work. Then tell it to others; make your defense.  Yet do it with gentleness and reverence.
 “Gentle words wield great power.”  Don’t just take my word for that; you see, it is a direct quote from the Old Testament – from Proverbs 15. (Prov. 15:1; 25:15).  Calm demeanor, kind words, tender-heartedness, can accomplish more than their opposites ever could. Not only in the way of conversation, and communication, but more importantly, in the way of convincing and convicting others of the way of Christ. And is that not that the reason we are called to make our defense?  To convince and convict others of the truth of the Gospel.
Peter also says to make our defense in all reverence. What is said, and what is done, needs to be said and done with deep reverence.  With deep respect for that particular someone who has become all in all to you. That is, Jesus our Lord. So, what's the best way to revere Jesus?  It is to share your blessings to the less fortunate.  It is to develop a holy habit of reading scripture and praying regularly.  It is to find ways to give of your best to God. It is all of these.
As the genuine religious impulse becomes dominant, reverence more and more takes charge. 'I come to seek God because I need Him', may be an adequate formula for prayer.  'I come to adore God’s splendor, and fling myself and all that I have at His feet', is the only possible formula for worship, and for life.” (Evelyn Underhill).
The point of this passage seems to be that the hearers need not fear suffering, nor fear the powers that be.  In our text, Peter counsels a very different response to persecution. Rather than focusing on your persecutors, and being overwhelmed by fear and hatred: Keep your eyes somewhere else – “Keep your eyes on Christ."  Amen.

This is an original sermon by The Rev. D. John A. Dalles, Interim Senior Minister and Head of Staff of Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA .  It was delivered on the date indicated in the text. You are encouraged to read it and reflect upon it.  Please keep in mind that the sermon is Copyright © 2020 John A. Dalles.  Permission from the author is required to reproduce it in any fashion.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Grow Into Salvation

Grow Into Salvation
May 10, 2020 – Mother’s Day
Sermon by The Rev. Dr. John A. Dalles
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 1 Peter 2:2-10

Here is a Pittsburgh story,  by author Guy Hogan...

Every weekend, Scott took the long bus ride to this home in one of the suburbs of Pittsburgh.  To work on the front or back lawns, or on the hedges, or in the garden.  On Saturdays, he brought out the portable radio and listened to the college football games as he worked. On Sundays he would stop work to go inside…and watched the Steelers on TV.

         “Tell me about the Great Depression”, Scott asked his mother.  He and his mother sat at the kitchen table. She sat dicing potatoes, already cooked and peeled and sliced, for potato salad.

“You know the story.”
“Tell it to me again.”

         “I was a little girl.  We were never cold or hungry.  Your grandfather worked in a produce yard.  And we kids would go down to the train tracks and pick up the coal that fell off the coal cars.”

“Tell me about the war.”

         “Your father and I got married. We would see Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo on the news reels. You father didn’t have to go because he did defense work in the mill.”  

         “And women couldn’t buy stockings.”

         “I couldn’t afford to, but you could buy them on the black market.  We would use makeup on our legs and draw a line down the back as a seam…”  [“Compressionism: the Pittsburgh Stories” By Guy Hogan. P 30 & 31]

Do you tell stories like that?  Do you listen to stories like that?  Do you find the time to hear memories, to evoke the past, to share authenticity with those who came before you?  Do you provide yourself a link with the past, your past, and the large past that we call history?  

Do you tell and listen to stories that make the past part of your present, and you future?  Everyone likes a good story. Such stories are a way to define who you are.  To help you grow into who God calls you to be.   Not the “you” of the LinkedIn resume.  That is fine.  But rather, the  real you, the one who has deep feelings, and who has long memory, who has hopes and dreams.  And who may sometimes feel that those hopes will not be fulfilled, that those dreams might never come to fruition.

If Scott were define who he is, from what we know of the conversation with his mother in that Pittsburgh suburban kitchen, it might go something like this:

You are a Pittsburgher, a child of a child of the Depression, a son who cares about his parents.  Cares in ways that show.  Like spending the weekend doing chores around the house you grew up in.  Even though you don’t live there anymore.  You are a person who grew up with family, and who listens to their stories.  Because you want to.

That is what you might say about Scott.  What would you say, about you?  If you are looking for a way to put those most important things in your life into perspective, then listen again to the ending passage of our scripture lectionary reading for today:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

You are growing into salvation. Ninety-five percent of us don’t think about ourselves in that way.  We know too much about ourselves.  So we think of ourselves as too old or too tired, or too young, or too busy.  The word of God invites you to think of yourself in a new way.  The person you are is a person God made.  Into whom God breathed the breath of life. God knows you better than you know yourself. God’s desire for you is good. God wants to give you friendship.  And will do anything possible to make that happen.  God will come to you, be with you, like a mom - sitting at the kitchen table.  God likes to know all of the highs and lows of your personal life. God does that in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, God is always inviting you to be with him, to follow him, on a faith pathway that he has built, into a today that has been crafted for truth. Into a place that is the right stetting for your skills and abilities. 

God, in Jesus has called you to this very moment. God has named you as part of a royal priesthood.  God offers you a gift, to grow into salvation.
10 Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

If you are looking for a sense of home, a sense of belonging, a sense that you are welcome, that you are significant in all the lasting ways that count, then find yourself at home in Jesus.  In the company of believers, in the house of the Lord.  It is your home, your dwelling.

10 Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people.

What does it mean to be “A Chosen People”?  If we think of the entirety of salvation history, we see that God makes choices.  God sets people apart for salvation and service. In the Old Testament, God selected the Jews, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and down to the people who were prepped for receiving God’s promised Messiah.  The Jewish people are our forebears.  Their story is our story.  Just like Scott’s mother’s story was Scott’s story.  
Sometimes God says: “You know the story”. And we reply, “Tell it again”.  Tell us about the burning bush and the fiery furnace. Tell us of God’s love and care in challenging and unlikely situations.   Tell us of the times when right triumphed over wrong. 
These stories are like picking up the precious lumps of coal that fell from the coal car. These are the stories that keep us warm when it is cold.  They inspire us.  Because we are God’s chosen people.  Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. We receive God’s grace and favor. God’s love and mercy. 
We might think about how good it feels when we have been chosen for something.  Like getting homemade potato salad, made the way that only Mom can make it.  Multiply it exponentially, for how great it is when we are chosen to be part of God’s people.
         “Tell me about the war”, Scott asked his mother.
         She said: “…We would see Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo on the news reels. You father didn’t have to go because he did defense work in the mill.”  
A nation is drawn together when it has a clear and sure purpose.  People are drawn together, who might not have known one another.  And, when they are drawn together, they do the defense work that needs to be done. How does I Peter put it? “You are a Holy Nation”.
The Greek word for “nation” (ethnos) is used here in the singular – a nation that is not many nations – but one nation, in Christ.  Drawn from all times and places.  Drawn together when it has a clear and sure purpose.  A nation that will make do. A nation that will go without. Like using makeup and painting lines down the back of one’s legs because stockings are out of reach.  A nation that will value giving and self-sacrifice.  A nation that will do what it takes.  A nation that will stick with the task at hand.  That is what sets Christians apart.  As God’s Own Possession.  We are distinct from those who do not see, do not understand, do not believe the truth about Jesus Christ. God has called us out of darkness (Col. 1:12-14).  God has brought us into the kingdom of light.
So, tell us about the Great Depression. And tell us about God’s Great Salvation.  Tell us about the War.  And what it took to win it. Tell us, so that we can make the story our own.  Tell us that story. You know the story. Tell it again.  So we can tell it again.  Amen.

This is an original sermon by The Rev. D. John A. Dalles, Interim Senior Minister and Head of Staff of Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA .  It was delivered on the date indicated in the text. You are encouraged to read it and reflect upon it.  Please keep in mind that the sermon is Copyright © 2020 John A. Dalles.  Permission from the author is required to reproduce it in any fashion.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

It’s Not a Sprint Its a Marathon

It’s Not a Sprint Its a Marathon
Sunday May 3, 2020
A Sermon by The Rev. Dr. John A. Dalles
Psalm 23; John 10:1-10; I Peter 2:19-25

Who would have thought it?  That what began as precautions has turned out to be a way of life.  Not the “new normal”, as people are fond of saying.  But a new reality until further notice.  When we began this coronavirus warranted set of precautions, it was March.  Now it is May.
We have been learning things along the way that we may not have wanted to learn.  
We have had to make sacrifices that we may wish we did not have to make.  
We have adjusted our way of life, which before that time, was well ordered and more or less pleasant.  
We have formed new habits of social distance. 
We have learned to use the phone, and texting, and email more than we did before.  
We have avoided crowds, touch, travel…and more. 
The list goes on.
We know that while not unprecedented, this is highly unusual.  We have compared it to what happened at the time of the Three Mile Island event – if we lived in Pennsylvania at that time.  
We have compared it to the worries surrounding Y2K, and have wondered if perhaps we could have managed a bit more preventive steps so that the impact of this pandemic would have been less.  
We have compared it to when the planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and the Shanksville field, on 9-11, and realized that the uncertainty as well as the horror, are palpable.
What have we – who trust in Jesus – learned in this time?
We are dealing with stressors that are different from but not disconnected to his own.  
Peter talks about that in our New Testament lesson:
23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, [a] so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds[b] you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
So, are we to think that Jesus was weak, and that we should be pushovers?  
No.  He suffered for a reason.  
Like a lifeguard who jumps into the water to save someone who is drowning.  He exerted effort on our behalf, so that we could have live and have it abundantly. 
And he entrusted himself to God.  The one who judges justly.
Sometimes we have to do that.  Because even though we know in our heart of hearts what is the wise, prudent, challenging, hard thing to do, not everyone else will agree with us. We will get a lot of pushback.  But somehow – trust me I ow it to be so – when we entrust our entire pathway to God, God will respond in kind with a trustworthy response.  
Jesus is in the business of saving people’s lives.  
That is what the word “Savior” tells us.
So, you have to put him in the same category as an EMT or firefighter, a police officer, a lifeguard, and so forth, whose daily work puts their life on the line, on behalf of others.
Wiling to go and to risk and to do and all because of you.  You are the person in need of help, you are the person trapped in the burning building, you are the person being held hostage by a criminal, you are the person who is being swept out to sea.
And then, Jesus comes along.
Who is Jesus?
-       Jesus is the one who teaches us the way.  
-       He is the one who reminds us who God is. 
-       He gives us precepts for living that are the high road of truth and love and justice.
But all of this is a subset to the larger realty that he has come to save you.
And that is exactly why…
23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, [a] so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds[b] you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
I am thinking that you may be up against something today that is overwhelming you.  
-       It is that problem that you cannot solve.  
-       It is a hill you cannot climb.  
-       It’s a puzzle you cannot solve.  
-       It is … More than you can handle on your own.
The good news is that you do not have to.  Someone is here to help.  Give it to him and I promise you without a doubt that he will save and solve.  
I don’t know exactly how.
But I have seen it happen.
Pray and trust and someone will come into your life with just the right answer at just the right moment.
They will take on what you cannot carry.
They will give you the insight you couldn’t find yourself.
They will build up and encourage.

They will take the problem on, and solve it.

Does it sound like a miracle?  Yes.
So, hang in there.  
You are running a race that is NOT sprint, it is a marathon.  And God has given you most of what you need to run it.  And God will provide the rest of what you need to run it.
Through the love and strength of Jesus.

I suppose that I have never heard a sermon on the strength of Jesus.  I do not know why.  He is the strongest man who ever lived.  
-- Not the Charles Alas kind of strength (If you don’t recognize that reference look it up later).  
-       Not the kind of strength that come from power lifting…
-       Wait maybe I have that wrong.  
-       He has the power to lift you to where you need to be.  
-       So, talk about power lifting!  . Jesus is your man.
And he will knock down whatever is trying to bear you down, all the while lifting you up again.
Setting you on in a place that is safe and secure and solid.
Trust Jesus.  
He has done it again and again.  And he is ready to do that for you.
This is the wishful thinking of an optimist, someone will say.  
No.  this is the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Which it not a Pollyanna approach to life.  It is a God of the ages approach to life.
Who do you always want on your side?
The one who gets you to the finish line as a winner, a victor, 
First, second, third or last.
The one who gets you to the finish line as a winner, a victor,
My friend Sean is a marathon runner.  I have seen him out running.  In Fact, I used to see him every day along Wekiva Springs Road, the main road between my home and my church., in Florida I would call out, “Yo, Sean!” and he would smile and wave and keep on running.
I have seen him out running.
It isn’t pretty.  
Sean sweats a lot, and he wears t shirts that get drenched from the long runs he takes.
And usually, Sean’s hair is matted.  
And he has a runner’s gait that is not like a dancer’s.  
In fact, I am not sure how he does it.  
He is what we would call middle age.  
But he has run the Boston Marathon a number of times and he is fast.  I am glad Sean is fast.  Because he finished in so much time back in April 15, 2013, that his mother and he were miles away having lunch when the bombs went off – at the finish line on Boylston Street …

And in the exact spot where his mother had been standing to watch Sean run past, during the race.

Sean is also a dedicated youth leader in his church and has been on more mission trips than anyone else in the congregation.  I believe the number is thirty – as a youth, and as an adult leader.
I asked him, once, if he had to sum up what makes for completing a successful marathon, he said:
“Practice and Persistence.”
I suspect you know a marathon runner, who would say something similar, if you asked him or her.
And I suspect you know any number of followers of Jesus Christ who would say something similar.
Jesus would also tell us that sometimes you have to save people who don’t want to be saved. 
         We get that message all through scripture and especially in the beloved words of Psalm 23…
He is the Good shepherd and people are the sheep of his pasture who ought to be along still waters and sanding in green pastors.  It is a strange thing that they wander off and get into trouble.  
They think they can do it on their own.  
They think that they know better than God knows. 
They are certain that everyone’s viewpoint matters but not as much as their own.  
They doubt that God can do much for them.  
Oh, there are any number of reasons they would give.
But would a person trapped in a burning house turn away the firefighter who came through the flames in order to get them out safely. No.
A ship stopped, mid ocean, at about ten after nine in the evening.  The husband and wife, who were in their stateroom, noticed that the ship had stopped moving.
“Something is wrong.” He said.
“What do you think it is?”
“I think someone fell overboard.”
“Oh no really?” She said, in quiet disbelief.
But a moment later, the ship began moving again, and on the TV monitor screen in the room, that indicated the ship’s progress, it was clear that the ship was turning around.
In a few moments it stopped again. And then gigantic spotlights were trained back and forth, on the dark, deep, open ocean.
As that was going on, a launch was lowered into the water.
And about half an hour after that, the ship started up again, and turned to its original course, and was underway.
In that short period of time, the crew had rescued a woman who had fallen into the water, from the 13th deck.
She was tremendously lucky, that she hadn’t fallen on to some other portions of the ship on her way down.
She was even luckier that people on the 13th deck had seen her fall, and had thrown a life preserver, that lit up the moment it hit the water.
She was even more lucky that the captain and crew were quick to act.
And luckiest of all - that she survived her ordeal.
Would a person who is all alone in the water, in the dark, mid ocean, say,” Oh no I don’t need that life preserver.”
But it is strange, isn’t it, that people who are perishing, resist what Jesus can do for them.
I would urge them to reconsider.
We would all urge them to take the help that is extended to them.
We would say – let Jesus do what he came to do.
Let him keep you safe.
If you have a chance to save someone who doesn’t think they need it, do that.  
And remember, it may take a while.
But this is a marathon, not a sprint.
There is an old hymn, not much sung anymore.  No matter, it expresses what we are talking about.  What we are experiencing in these unusual times.  (Far off I see the goal).
1 Far off I see the goal—-O Savior, guide me;
I feel my strength is small-—be thou beside me;
with vision ever clear, with love that conquers fear,
And grace to persevere, O Lord, provide me.
[Robert R. Roberts, 1925]

This is an original sermon by The Rev. D. John A. Dalles, Interim Senior Minister and Head of Staff of Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA .  It was delivered on the date indicated in the text. You are encouraged to read it and reflect upon it.  Please keep in mind that the sermon is Copyright © 2020 John A. Dalles.  Permission from the author is required to reproduce it in any fashion.