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Prophets, Then and Now

 

I am offering a series of sermons on the prophets. I am doing this because I believe God expects his church to be a prophetic church. The first Sermon, “Old Testament Prophets,” presents a short history of Prophets in Israel, which God from choose from all the nations to be his people. The second sermon, “New Testament Prophets,” explores the history of the church, (whose members all posses the Holy Spirt) as a prophetic community. A third sermon entitled “I Walk the Line,” is a personal follow-up to my paper “My Response to Same Sex Marriage”. None of the ideas expressed herein differ greatly from what I have taught through forty years of ministry, and none are original to me, . I am indebted to my friend and mentor, the later Robert Lyon for my doctrine of prophets and prophecy, especially prophets in the New Testament and in the church of today. WNG

I. Old Testament Prophets

By definition, a prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of another. In Bible, the prophet sometimes speaks for God and sometimes speaks for the people of God to which he or she belongs. The first person to be called a prophet is Abraham, who is the patriarch of Israel and the father of all who have faith. In Genesis 20, the LORD God speaks to King Abimelech is a dream telling him that though Abraham has not always been entirely truthful, “…he is a prophet, and he will pray for you.” Abraham proved himself when God called him to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house, to go to a land he would shown him, and Abraham went out, in obedience to God, not knowing where he was going.

People have the wrong Idea about prophets. They think that the primary task of the prophet to foretell the future. That is not so. The primary task of the prophet is to forth-tell God’s word to God’s people in times of moral or national crisis. God alone knows the future. God sometimes reveals the future to the prophets, who then tell the rest of us about it, but the prophet must still face the future, a day at a time, as it is being revealed. The prophet suffers an additional anxiety: If what the prophet has spoken comes to pass, the prophet is a true prophet. If it does not come to pass, the prophet is a false prophet. Ouch!

Now the greatest prophets don’t just predict the future, they help to shape it. The greatest prophet in the Hebrew bible is Moses. It was Moses God sent to Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go!” And it was Moses who led the people out of their Egyptian slavery, and through the desert to Mt. Sinai, where God gave them the Law that bound them together and made them God’s witnesses in the world. In Exodus 33 we learn that the LORD God spoke with Moses “face to face” as a man speaks with his friend. Then, later in the same chapter, we learn that God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock while God made his glory pass-by, but God allowed Moses on a glimpse of his glory, from the backside, for no human being can look upon the face of God and live. So what do we learn from all this? Perhaps, we learn that Moses knew God imperfectly and only in-part, yet Moses knew God better than anyone before him. Therefore Moses was the perfect conduit through whom God gave the Law that became not only the foundation of Israel, but the foundation of Western Civilization.

This might be a good place to add that not all prophets were men. Miriam was a sister to Moses and the Bible calls her a prophet, too. After the Lord’s deliverance of Israel at the Yom Suph, Miriam took a a tambourine in her hand, and began to beat upon it and cry, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea.” [Ex. 15:20-21] And all the women of Israel follow her example, and they beat on tambourines and danced. I suppose that mean they were not yet averse to dancing. By the way, scholars say this little snippet of text is among the oldest in all of scripture.

The LORD God never left his people leaderless too long. After the Death of Moses God said to Joshua, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” And God seldom left his people comfortless. For a period of 300 years God raised up a series of prophets, which the people called Judges. The Judges not only spoke God’s word, but enforced it. Some of them were men, like Gideon—who got his start in a winepress, and some were women like Deborah, who held held court under a palm tree between Rama and Bethel.

The last and greatest of the Judges was Samuel. When Samuel was old the people of Israel came to him and asked for a king to rule over them, so they could be like the other nations. Making use of his prophetic imagination, Samuel warned the people that they were better off following God without a human king. He said, “A king will take your sons for charioteers, and your daughters for perfumers and bakers, and he will take the first of your crops and the best of you land.” The people would not listen. So Samuel anointed two kings over Israel. The first Saul looked like a King, but ended up a failure. So Samuel did something truly risky, he anointed David to be King while Saul still lived.

The Bible never calls David a prophet; but we do, for the beauty and truth of his Psalms. The Bible does teach that David surrounded himself with prophets like Gad and Nathan. Nathan was fortunate to be a prophet to David, for David was a wise man, and he listened to what Nathan had to say, even when it was not what he wanted to hear. For example, the LORD sent Nathan to tell David a story about two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which gave to his children as a pet. This little lamb would eat from the poor man’s plate, drink from his cup and nap in his bosom. The poor man loved his little lamb like a daughter. Then a traveler came to visit the rich man, and rather than take a lamb from his own flock, he took the poor man’s lamb, and set it on a plate before his guest. When David heard the story, he was enraged! He said, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!” Then, remembering mercy, David said, “The rich man will give four lambs to the poor man!” It is a good thing that David had second thoughts about capital punishment, for immediately Nathan lifted up his eyes upon David and said, “You are the man!” And, no doubt lifting a bony finger, he continued:

“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives, and I gave you Israel and Judah. If this was not enough, all you had to do was ask for more, I would have given it. Why then have you despised the word of the LORD, and done what is evil in his sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite, and you have taken his wife, Bathsheba, to be your wife.Because you have done this, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives and give them to your neighbors. What you did, you did in secret; but I will punish you before all Israel and before the sun.’”

Did you get that last bit, how God will punish David “before all Israel” and “before the sun?” It is easy to interpret “before all Israel.” God punished David before his own people. What wen say and do in secret will be shouted from the housetops.Papa John should have known that. Still worse, Nathan says that David will be punished “before the sun.” What does it mean that God will punish David “before the sun?” It may simply mean that God is going to punish David in the hard light of day. However, it may mean a great deal more. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and then, for people on the far side of the globe, it rises in the east and sets in the west. It does this, day in and day out, as long as earth endures. The sun shined upon all the days of our ancestors, known and unknown. The sun shined upon us when we were born, and it will shine upon our children when we die. The sun shines upon the just and the unjust. It shines upon our friends and upon our enemies. God’s punishment of David is recorded in scripture. Scripture is read around the world, and this story has been told for almost 3,000 years, and it will be told as long as time endures.

We human beings have the mistaken idea that our actions affect just us, the few lives we can touch with our hands and see with our eyes.That is not so! Our actions have always been like a stone thrown into the still waters of a pond, it creates ripples, and those ripples spread out on the surface of the water. Our actions spread out in space. he Bible teaches that the sin we commit in the world is like leaven in a barrel of flour, the whole barrel is soon leavened. Thus Jesus warned his disciples to beware the Leven of the pharisees who preach the right things but do not practice what they preach. Likewise, our actions spread out in time. The Bible teaches the good and bad we do is passed down through the generations.Thus the prophet Isaiah said, “The parents have eaten sour grapes and set the children’s teeth on edge.” And Moses warned that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation. If Moses were alive today, he revise this estimate upward. Sins are like nuclear waste, they are hard to handle, for a long, long time.

Thankfully, God took mercy on his people, and God sent the prophets not only to warn against sin and disaster but to promises forgiveness and grace and better times ahead. Thus Isaiah prophesied the birth of a child who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. We remember and celebrate the names of some prophets, but the names of other have been forgotten. I am intrigued by the nameless prophet of Judges 6, who simply told the people to remember the God who brought them up from Egypt. This prophet is nameless, even in the Bible, but I believe that he or she is not forgotten by God! In the same way, I believe that God will remember all those small, selfless and secret acts of kindness that never make it onto Facebook. The Prophet of Nazareth said that the Heavenly Father sees what is done is secret, a promised his disciples that the day was coming when God would reward all those secret sacrifices. He said,“Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

It goes almost without sayin that no one ever sets out to become a prophet. No prophet ever received a salary, instead, they end up in caves and cisterns, and in jail. They are sometimes beheaded and nailed to a cross. Their enemies are often members of their own household. Amos did not want to be a prophet. Amos said, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees” And Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet. He pointed out to God that he was only a youth. And Hosea did not want to be a prophet, because God made him marry a prostitute—which was symbolic of Israel who committed adultery against him with false god. And Jonah did not want to be a prophet. Jonah went to the ends of the earth to escape his mission, and when God turned him around, and made him a raging success, he was bitter in his success. Abraham Maslow was right, “Success, we can’t handle success.” Prophets become prophets for one reason only: God sends them and gives them little choice.

Now most of you know that at least 16 books of the Bible bear the names of prophets, and each of those book represent at least one prophet who spoke the Word of God to the People of God. In times of great moral or national crisis. The Jewish Talmud teaches that the last of the great prophets of God were Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, all of whom spoke to the people of Israel when they came home from the Babylonian Captivity, and were trying to rebuild the nation.

Our New Testament does not agree with this pronouncement by the Talmud. Take the example of John the Baptist. In the gospels, even the common people thought that both John the Baptist was like one of the great prophets of old. Jesus himself said that John the Baptist was “the greatest of the prophets,” meaning John had a vision of what God was doing that was superior even to the vision of Abraham, and Moses, and Isaiah. What made John so great?

I suppose there are many answers. First, of course, he got people to act. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people came out, in great numbers to receive it. No sermon is a real sermon unless it is a call for action. Second, John was practical. When the multitudes who came out to him for baptism asked, “What should we do?” He said, “Let him who has two coats share with him who has none.” In saying this, John was not proposing a philosophy of charity, he was simply proposing a response to the immediacy of human need. And when the tax collectors asked him what they should do, John did not tell them to revise the tax code, that is an issue for other times, he simply told them to be honest, and “Collect no more than what is due.” And when soldiers asked him what they should do, John did not propose a theory of just war, or urge them to become conscious objectors. He said, “Rob no one by violence or lies, and be content with your wages.” John knew that sometimes, the only way that people can cope with our place in life is to leave off the big worries, and concentrate on the little ones, the ones that are right in front of us. In John’s teaching I hear echos the serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Third, John spoke the truth, to everybody. He called the priest who came out from Jerusalem, a brood of vipers, and asked them who warned them to flee from the wrath to come. And he called out Herod for marrying Herodias. According to Jewish law she was not only still the wife of Herod’s half-brother Philip, but she was the daughter of Herod’s other half-brother, Aristobulus. That means Herodias was Herod’s niece, sister-in-law, and wife, all in one. This made Herod and Herodias the most infamous royal couple since Ahab and Jezebel. It was a terrible example for the people,, so John called them out. Finally, John was greater than all the great prophets who had come before him because he stood closest to Jesus. According to the Fourth Gospel, John started preaching to prepare the way of the Lord. And the day came that John pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World!” And it was not long before John’s disciples came to warn him, that all the people were going over the Jesus. John did not get excited, he simply said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

The Prophet John the Baptist predicted his own future, and we read about it this morning. Mark this contrast. Nathan called out David, and David repented of his sin. David went on to be Israel’s greatest king. He was called, “a man after God’s own heart,” and he was seen as the forerunner of the Messiah who was to come. By contrast, John called out Herod, and was cast into prison. Then at the behest of Herodias, with the help of Salome, and over the objection of Herod, who like hearing John, John was beheaded. His only crime was the truth.

The New Testament teaches that John was the last of a long line of great Old Testament prophets. Of course, The New Testament also teaches that there is a new, longer line of prophets that begins with Jesus, continues through the disciples and into the church. Someday soon, we will speak of “The Future of the Prophets.” In the meantime, we will do well to remember the words John spoke about Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

The late Bishop Jay Hughes grew up here at New Philadelphia. Jay once told me that the hardest thing that he every had to do was to face a sign that the members of Lititz Moravian Church had placed on the rear of the pulpit in which he stood to preach Sunday after Sunday, It read, “Pastor, we would see Jesus.” Jay said the second hardest thing he ever had to do was face that same congregation and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I would see Jesus, too.”

Finis

II. New Testament Prophets


Before preaching this sermon, I reminded the congregation that I still consider myself bound to the paper I wrote entitled “My Response to Same Sex Marriage”. I have presented the material in this Message which is the clear teaching of scripture so that people can understand my process of discernment, and further develop their own. eople who have a different hermeneutic, or way of receiving and interpreting Scripture may differ from me, but most will also allow my interpretation. Many people have accused me of sitting on the Fence. I respond that from my position on the fence I can love people on both sides of the fence. Ironically, People on both sides of the argument about same-sex marriage have accused me of falling-off of the fence. They say my way of thinking leads to an inevitable conclusion. Perhaps it does. I do not project my thinking or method on others. I continue to believe I am where I have to be based on the time and place in which I serve. When I was a platoon leader in the Marines, I was taught that when a platoon goes on a long march or run, the platoon does not finish until the last member of the platoon has finished. I love the simplicity of that. I hate divisions between winners and losers, and finishers and non-finishers. I always have; I suppose I always will. As to homosexuality in the church, it is ironic that something we call a non-essential has taken so much of our time, and caused so much anxiety. Of course, for those who are being talked about–and talked around, I hope and pray you will at least rejoice that we have entered a new era of conversation and action. God bless us everyone. WNG

 

The last time I spoke to you, we saw that John the Baptist was the last of a long line of Old Testament prophets, and that Jesus was the first in a long line of New Testament prophets. Today, I want to remind you that Jesus is the first of the New Testament prophets, but not the last. In the 2nd chapter of Acts we read about the first Pentecost when God poured out his Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus. The house where they were staying was filled with a rushing mighty wind, and tongues of fire stood over them, and they spoke in languages they had never learned, and everyone understood everyone else.

In the words of my dear departed grandmother, “Those disciples raised a ruckus!” And because they did raise a ruckus, they attracted a great crowd, and the crowd thought that the disciples had drunk too much new wine. Then, standing in the midst of the disciples, Peter delivered his first sermon. He said:

“Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem…these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only 9 o’clock in the morning; but this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

It is pretty obvious from this text that God intends the church to be a community of people who all possess the Holy Spirit, a prophetic community, a community that lives in advance of its age.

Of course, that is the idea. In reality the church seldom functions as a prophetic community. Here is the problem. Most of us see the world as a place of change, and we are frightened by change, so we do our very best to make the church a place of stability. That is why we spend more time preserving our old traditions than we do making new ones.

Likewise, the prophetic community often ceases to be prophetic, because the members of the community, especially those of us who are pastor-teachers, are terrified that we might be called upon to do something prophetic. Niccolo Machiavelli defined our fear when he wrote:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

Now according to 1st Corinthians 12 and 14, God has given some people special gifts of discernment and prophecy. These people are sometimes odd and disruptive, but they do not bother us as long as they use their gifts to affirm all that has gone before. We especially like it when they talk about sins other than our own; and we also like for them to tell us to love one another, and to be kind to one another. However, when these troublesome prophets begin to tell us things that we don’t want to hear, we either ignore them or ask them to leave. “Go trouble the world!” we say, and they do. Susan B. Anthony was a Quaker and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist, but they found their real pulpits out in the world.

Susan B. Anthony first joined the anti-slavery movement, and then two decades later she was a leader in gaining women the wright to vote. Some women embraced her message others did not.

Martin Luther King, Jr. became a leader in gaining African Americans their Civil Rights. Needless to say, members of black church were among the first to embrace Dr. King’s message of non-violent resistance, and thank God they did, or else our streets would have flowed red with blood. However, members of the white church were not so eager to rally beneath his banner. We knew we should. We knew from St. Paul that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. We knew from Bible school that, “God loves the little children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Some of us even quietly hopped for Dr. King’s success, but few of us stepped up to be counted. I don’t know about you, but as a teenager, I was fearful to step out too far because of what my friends might think. I guess you could say that I loved the praises of my peers, not God.

Not surprisingly Dr. King said that his greatest disappointment was the failure of white Christians—especially the clergy, to step up in favor of Civil Rights for non-whites.

Today, that same kind of unrest is once again stirring up the church and the world. I don’t have to tell you about the actions of our 2018 Synod. Some think that the Synod acted prophetically. Others think that the Synod drove a nail in coffin of the Moravian Church. Since the passage of Resolution 14, several people have told me that the church is letting the world change us, when we ought to be changing the world.

I understand how people feel—nobody is more anxious than I; but the truth is that God has often used the world to change the church. In the first Christian century, the world persecuted the church in Jerusalem, and the church had to scatter, but as it scattered it took the gospel to other places, “to the ends of the earth.” Likewise, in the 1610 (or thereabouts) Galileo told the church and the world that the earth was not the center of the universe. The church silenced him with the threat of excommunication, but the world embraced his truth with open minds and eventually forced the church to do the same. Ironically, it was 359 years before Pope John Paul conducted a special service in which he said Galileo had been right. Likewise, in Pre-Civil War America, much of the church was on the side of slavery. Preachers, south and north, extolled its virtue from their pulpits using numerous Biblical texts; and when they were invited to preach to the slaves by their masters, they took texts like Ephesians 6:5, “Slaves be obedient to your masters from the heart….” Small wonder it took a bloody Civil War to abolish that peculiar institution. Likewise, when women won the vote, and then started asking for more and more freedoms, like equal pay for equal work, and the right to ordination, much of the church stood solidly against them. Even today the Catholic Church refuses to ordain women, and many Protestant churches still teach that God made man to rule over woman and not vise versa. Many protestant church will still not allow women to teach men or hold positions of authority over them. Not long ago, a woman I know attend membership classes in one large church and growing church in our community. She had seen no women elders listed on the church’s website, so she asked the pastor leading the class if the church permitted them. He responded, “Well, I suppose we would if the right woman came along….” She went away shaking her head. Though it is hard to accept, the world is still ahead of the church in the area of empowering women. This despite the fact that God promised to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, on his menservants and his maidservants.

II
So, the church is supposed to be a prophetic community, and we seldom are. How will we ever change that? In Matthew 16:2 Jesus makes a observation that I think is relevant to this question. Jesus said that we often know how to predict the weather from the color of the sky, but we cannot read the signs of the times. In other words, almost anyone can say:

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight;
Red sky in the Morning, sailor take warning.

But very few people can look around at the life of our church, our community, our country, and our world and make accurate predictions about things that are far more important to us than the normal run of weather. Until more of us can read the signs of the times, the church will never be a prophetic community that lives in advance of its age. So, then, how do we learn to be more discerning? I will need several weeks to deal with this question, but, today, I will begin with three suggestions.

1. First, we must begin by examining ourselves. The Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece said, “Know Thyself.” In John 16:8 Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would convince the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment. It was said of Martin Luther that he searched out himself before God, and he searched out God before himself. We must do likewise. We have to know who we are before we can know who we are supposed to be before God. Now this task is easy, and not so easy. Some of our preferences are easy to discern because they are reflected in every choice we make. However, some of our prejudices are so deep that we are scarcely aware of them, and they affect our view of the world almost without our knowledge. If we have unrecognized prejudices, we may not be able to discern God’s truth. You see, most of us do not live by logic, we live by our gut—the ancient Jew would have said “the heart.” Jesus said that God wants us to love him and serve him with not just with all our heart—our gut, but also with all our mind. The gut by itself is not enough.

2. Second, we must know what we know and what we don’t know. In his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari writes that one of the most important discoveries in the history of the human race was the discovery of our own ignorance. He said this discovery made the modern world possible. Until we know what we know and what we don’t know, we will never make any progress in discerning the signs of the times. Far too many of us simply believe what we want to believe with no real evidence. I am constantly guilt of this—in ways large and small, Let me give you a small for instance: I have heart disease, but when I sit down to eat a cheeseburger lathered in mayonnaise and served up on a toasted and buttered bun, I convince myself that I am immune to all the fats in that sandwich, because I eat one so rarely, not more that two or three times a week. Ha!

In the same way we must know what we know about the Bible, and what we don’t know about the Bible. The Hymnists says that the Bible is “the Golden Casket in which the Gems of truth are stored.” That is true, one need only read one of the great texts like John 3:16 or Romans 10:9 or Romans 12: 1 and 2 to see them shine, for they shine in any light. But some texts are like lumps of coal, they shine in some circumstances, but not in others. A good example is Psalm 137 where-in we read that it will make people who called themselves the people of God happy when they dash the children of their enemies against the rocks. That text may have sparkled for a Jew who had just seen his own child killed by a Babylonian, but it does not shine for us, for Jesus told us to love our enemies. How much more should we love their children? No wonder Martin Luther said that the Bible is inspired in direct proportion that it preaches Jesus Christ.

As an aside, some people ask, “Why would God permit such a text in the bible?” I think he did it so that we could know he both understands and loves us even in the depths of our own grief and anger.

3. Third, we must learn to read the Bible so that we can discern the difference between those text that express the great and timeless principals, and those texts which are which are conditioned by the time and place and people for which they were given. The Law of Moses provides us with a ready example. According to the rabbis, Moses laid down 919 laws. Most of them were “commandments in ordinances.” According to the book of Ephesians Christ abolished these laws of commandments in ordinances in his body on his cross, and they no longer apply to us. However, Moses lifted-up ten of these 919 laws for special consideration. We call them the Ten Commandments, and I am pretty sure most of you know them. However, you may not know that Moses also laid down two great commandments that seem to be the basis for all others. The first is found in Deuteronomy 6:4 and the second in Leviticus 19:18. Now, you might not know these two commandments, but Jesus did. In Matthew 22, a Pharisee, a lawyer, came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” And Jesus answered,“The first and greatest commandment is this, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” That is from Deuteronomy 6:4. Then he continued, “And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” That is from Leviticus 19:19. Jesus then concluded, “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” In other words, Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets—which is his way of referring to the entire Hebrew Bible, is based on just these two great principals. These then are the principals that must guide all our interpretation of Scripture and Life.

Of course, as followers of Jesus, we will add a third principal to the other two, a principal that is both the foundation and outgrowth of all Biblical wisdom. As Christians we always read scripture in light of Jesus Christ!

I have told you before how Herman Weinlick and I once represented the Moravian Church in a conference with a number of other Reformed Churches. One day, after lunch, a member of the conference brought in Bishop Spong’s book, “The Sins of Scripture.” He laid it open and asked, “What would you Moravians say about this?” Herman and I knew what he was talking about, for we had read that book. We knew he was referring to text like text like Exodus 21 where-in Moses lays down the conditions under which a Jew call sell his own children. And Deuteronomy 21, where-in Moses says that the parents of a stubborn and rebellious child are to take him to elders of the city so that they might “stone him to death with stones,” and Deuteronomy 21 where-in Moses says that a illegitimate child (a bastard) cannot enter the assembly of the Lord for ten generation. And 1st Corinthians 14 where-in women are told to keep silent in church. And, of course, the dozens of texts that tacitly approve slavery, including those in the New Testament. Herman and I conferred for just a minute, then we answered, “Well, we Moravians would say that there are some things in Scripture that are pre-Christ and some things in scripture that are sub-Christ, for they do not measure up to him.” I will stand-by that answer. I love the scripture, and live by its authority. However, I would never, ever read scripture without filtering what I read through my knowledge of the Eternal Word of God Made Flesh, Jesus Christ.

Some people say, “But Worth, God never changes his mind When God says something it true forever.” According to the Bible, the first part of that statement is absolutely true. God does not get-up in the morning and say, “What am I going to do today?” God knows the end of a thing from the beginning. According to the Bible, the second part is not true, for people in different generations of God’s people perceive the same subject in very different ways. Consider the dietary laws of the Old Testament. Moses forbad the children of Israel to eat shrimp and oysters and and pork because he wanted them to be peculiar, and stand out in the world as God’s people. But when God cast a wider net—and set his sights on winning the world to Christ, these dietary regulations no longer served the same purpose. In Acts 10 God gave Peter a dream in which he sees a sheet let-down from heaven that contains all kinds of birds, and animals, and reptiles. And a voice said, “Peter, rise kill and eat!” And Peter said, “No, Lord for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice said, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common!” Or take this matter of male circumcision. It was the definitive sign of God’s covenant with Israel. According to Exodus 4, when Moses neglected to circumcise his two sons, God almost killed him, until Zipporah, his wife, did the deed for him. Yet, in Romans 2 St. Paul says:

28 For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.

According to Galatians, “the circumcision Party,” which sometimes included Peter and James continued to argue for it; but they lost out. In Colossians 2, Baptism is lifted-up as a Christian substitute for circumcision.

Obviously, there is more to say. I am going to have to continue this next week, but let me sum up today’s lesson. God wants the church to be a prophetic community, living in advance of the age in which we live, and sometimes we become this, for a time, because God sends prophets to trouble us until we can stand it no longer. When these prophets arise, before we ask them to leave us and go to the world, it behooves us to remember what the great Catholic theologian Hans Kung said in his book, “Truthfulness: The Future of the Church. “ There-in Kung wrote:

Any one who wants the church to die out, to become the graveyard of God, must want her to remain as she is. Anyone who wants her to live, as God’s living congregation, must want her to change. Only by changing does she remain as she is. Only by renewal is she preserved.

I am not sure I have a text for that, but I have a read and apt example in Philippians 3, were-in St. Paul said:

“Forgetting what lies behind (his dependence upon the law) and straining forward to what lies ahead (Jesus Christ himself, and the righteousness that comes from him), I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

I would also mention Mark 2 where-in Jesus says that “…new wine is for fresh skins.” He was of course talking about the new wine of the gospel and the fresh skins of the church. Of course, Jesus went on to explain that when we try to pour new wine into old skins, the skins burst, and we lose both the wine and the skins. Come to think of it: That is exactly what Machiavelli was getting at when he said:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

This simply reminds us once more that no prophet ever had it too easy, else, they would not be prophets at all.

Finis

III. I Walk the Line

This third sermon is more personal than the first two. It is self-explanatory.

Apelles of Cos was a great Greek painter of the 4th century before Christ. Pliny the Elder said that Apelles surpassed all other painters who went before and all who came after. Singlehandedly he contributed more to painting than all the other together. The work of Apelles was so much in demand, and he was so wealthy, that he could afford the rare extravagance of praising other painters. Learning that his chief rival, Protogenes was living in poverty, he sailed to Rhodes to assist him. When he arrived at the studio of Protogenes, Protogenes was away. His housekeeper asked whom she should name as a visitor when her master returned. Apelles replied only by taking a brush and tracing upon a panel, with one stroke, an outline of exceeding fineness. When Protogenes came back he saw the work, and said, “Only Apelles could have drawn that line.” Then he drew a still finer line just inside the line of Apelles, and told his housekeeper to show it to Apelles if he should return. Apelles did return, the next day, and when the housekeeper showed him the work of Protogenes, Apelles marveled at the skill of his chief rival. Then he took up the bush a second time, and drew a third line, between the other two. When Protogenes returned he saw it, and confessed himself surpassed, he then rushed to the harbor to see the master before he sailed.

That is not the end of the story, but I am going to stop fit here, because I am going to piggy-back on this story, and say, “It is easier to draw a line on one-side or the other, where there is plenty of space, than to draw a line in the middle.”

It can be done. It was done by the Southern Province Synod of 1995. The issue was ministry to homosexual persons. There were “insiders” who simply wanted to follow the same line the church had followed for 19 centuries. They said that the main issue was sexual purity. And there were “outsiders” who were seeking to follow a new line. They said that we now know that people do not choose their sexual orientation, and justice decrees that homosexual persons should have the same freedom to fall in love, and make promises as heterosexual persons. Both groups were against promiscuity and abuse in every form. Some said the outsiders were rewriting the Bible; they said, “No, we are reading it with fresh insight.” (If you want to know more about the exegesis of both groups, see my paper, “My Response to Same Sex Marriage”). At any rate, at the Southern Province Synod of 1995, the church drew a line in the middle when it resolved that we would agree to disagree on matters touching homosexuality.

For a number of years the middle-line held sway. In 2002 the Unity Synod affirmed this middle-line, when it declared homosexuality to be, “a biblical, theological, and pastoral issue that does not rise to the level of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Meaning, that there were people who followed the inside-line, and people who followed the outside-line, but both were followers of Jesus Christ.

In 2014 the Synod of the Northern Province voted to allow same sex marriage, and the ordination of homosexuals living in celibacy or committed relationship.
In 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States declared same-sex marriages constitutional and made it the law of the land. Then, in 2016, in reaction to this action by the Northern Province—(And the action by the Supreme Court?), the Unity Synod declared all homosexual acts to be a sin, even those between two committed partners. Several observers who were present at that Unity Synod have reported to me that the Synod passed this resolution at least in part so that members from one of the African provinces could go back to Africa and tell people there that they can continue to do as they have always done despite what those crazy Americans and European might do. In that country, homosexual activity is a crime officially punishable by imprisonment—and unofficially by much worse.

By the way, according to a member of the Unity Board both the Resolution of 2002 and the Resolution of 2016 are “binding* Resolutions,” meaning that both are still in effect, even though they contradict each other. (The term may be other than “binding”* because I am working from memory. The essence is the same.)

The plot thickens. In 2018 the Southern Province voted to let the individual churches decided whether or not to marry same sex couples and accept homosexual pastors. Some people say this was the right thing to do. Some said it was the wrong thing to do. Others objected to the politics of Synod even more than the action of Synod. Still others criticized the Synod for forcing the decision down into the churches because now, every local congregation becomes a law unto itself, which is sure to raise the specter of Congregationalism. Some have dared to say, “Maybe God just wanted to stir the pot, and force us to recognize a large group of people who need our help (Whatever that may be).”

But what is the end result of all this? Well According to the resolution and the Book of Order, the Board of Elders in combination with the pastor, may now choose to allow same sex unions in the church, and the Joint Board can now choose to call a homosexual pastor.

Our board of Elders is working on a statement on Marriage, but we have tentatively agreed that there will be no same sex marriages here at New Philadelphia unless the pastor in question and the whole Board of Elders unanimously agrees we should proceed with that marriage.

As to calling a pastor, the Joint Board does that in combination with the PEC, and the PEC takes great pains to gather information from as many members of the church as they can. You will never be left unable to express your opinion.

All this means that we can, if we desire, simply continue as we have always done until that time when we are faced with the issue of saying “yes” or “no” to a couple requesting a same sex union. The truth is that we may not receive a request for a same sex union for years and years. A decade ago, a large church here in Winston-Salem suffered greatly when they decided to permit same sex unions. I recently asked the pastor how many the church had hosted since. He said, “Oh, just the one….ten years ago.”

We could go the other way. We could just get in one big room go back over the same arguments on either side that we all know so well. I doubt that many would be converted from the position they now hold. Truth be told, I don’t know which way such a scenario would go, or how many people would be hurt by it. That is a shame, for there are a lot of good people walking the inside line and a lot of good people walking the outside line. I walk the middle line, because I believe from the bottom of my heart that this is the position that God wants me to follow, for I believe God wants to maintain the Unity of the Moravian Church. I think God wants us to continue to teach the larger church, the church universal, what we taught it on August 13, 1727. And what is that? Simply that people who disagree on matters of doctrinal importance that do not rise to the level of the Lordship of Jesus Christ can still live and work together.

Now let me change gears. I am proud of what we have done here at New Philadelphia. For almost two decades New Philadelphia has been the single largest worshiping congregation in the Moravian Church. I am talking average attendance, not names on the books. More than that, as your pastor, I regard you as one of the most talented and attractive congregation in the entire Unity. To borrow a phrase from a man I respect who warned me against absolute superlatives, “If you are not the best— you are one of the best, and if you continue to love one another, and respect one another, you will continue to be one of the best, and you will continue to be a leader in our denomination.

I count myself blessed, for I have been privilege to serve this one church for more than thirty years. When I consider my time here, I am reminded of Psalm 16. I am particularly fond of verse 3 which declares, “As for the saints in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.” For me the saints include all who are here—and all who are in God’s Acre. I am also fond of verse 6 which declares, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.” A visitor to our Farmer’s Market summed it up for me when she said, “I think I have stumbled into a Hallmark Movie.” That remark was reported to me. Had I been there when it was made, I would have responded, “Yes, I suppose we are a Hallmark congregation, for when God sent us his son, he cared enough to send us his very best.” How does the author of the 4th gospel put it: “the law was given through Moses,” but we have all received “wave after wave of grace in Jesus Christ.” Most of us agree that grace is all we want, and all we want to give.

Now let me change gears again. Now I am in high. Despite my pleasure in your company, the time has come for me to close this chapter, and retire from this pastorate, and I will do that on Sunday, October 28th, 2018. As I do this, I am sure this congregation will face challenges, but with every challenge, there is an opportunity, and I believe that your best days are ahead. When I came here, I identified with Jonah, the reluctant prophet who was afraid of success, and we still hit new heights in average attendance and built new buildings that would cost more than 6 million dollars to duplicate today. I have told you this before. I have not told you that I also identified with Moses. God permitted Moses to see into the Promised Land, but not to go in. I have always believed myself a transition pastor of sorts, and the real boom is ahead. I believe this congregation is going to reach new heights. I will not be with you when you achieve those heights, but I am confident you will.

Why am I leaving? It is not over any struggle I see in your future. I am leaving for a number of reasons. I am leaving because I am 69, and most of my friends retired before 60, and I am confident that this is the right time for me. I am leaving because my doctor wanted me to do it two years ago. I am leaving because I want to spend time with my wife, Elayne. I am leaving because Elayne and I want to spend more time with our children and grandchildren. My daughter and her husband and one grandson is here. My son is north of Boston with his family, including three of my four grandchildren. My oldest granddaughter is going to be 12 years old in November, and hitherto I have spent only about two weeks with her over her entire life. I want to change that. Likewise, I want to spend time with mother, and help her, as she prepares to make her Exodus to the real Promised Land and the city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God. My mother, Henrietta, has dementia. She is making “the long good-by,” and it is the most challenging thing I have ever faced. Finally, I am leaving because I believe all these things—and others besides, point to my leaving as the will of God. I look forward to a new chapter of life, and freedom, and ministry. Whatever I do, I hope to do the work of a witness, for a long time to come.

What’s next? After my departure, you will have an interim to help guide you into the future. However, I still have almost three months left to set the stage for the better days that are coming. In three decades here, we have learned a few things from our successes and failures. We have a lot to talk about. If you care about your church, please make every effort to be in attendance. I would count it as a personal favor. It will certainly impress those pastors who are already starting to contemplate what it might be like to serve here with you.

Finis

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Worship with Us

Perhaps you have shared a Christmas Eve Lovefeast with us? New Philadelphia has two worship services every Sunday morning with c. 366 persons in attendance (2017). Our 9:00 AM Worship is a large Traditional service. Our 11:10 AM Worship is a blended service. Ordinarily, the preacher of the day preaches at both services, and Mr. Steve Gray always directs the Chancel Choir at the earlier service, and the Beracah Choir at the later services.

There is a nursery for both services. Parents receive a radio-alert device, and are notified immediately if their child displays any kind of discomfort.

Both Sunday services feature frequent performances by our Band, and our Bell Choir.


Two Unique Choirs

The Chancel Choir leads worship each Sunday at 9:00 AM. and meets at 7:00 PM each Wednesday for practice. Michael Westmoreland is our Organist.

The Beracah Choir leads worship each Sunday at 11:10 AM, and practices each Monday at 7:30 PM.

A number of New Philadelphians are accomplished musicians, and we frequently enjoy the trumpet, flute, violin, or guitar in our worship services. We invite members and friends of New Philadelphia to participate in one choir, or in both.


Bells of Joy

The Bells of Joy meets every Wednesday evening to practice and enjoy fellowship with each other as we work through a variety of music to enhance the worship experience for the NPMC congregation. The members of our handbell choir come from a variety of musical backgrounds, but each of us enjoys creating music as a part of our ministry to the church. Our director, Terri Queen, is a delightful leader, always eager to guide and challenge us. Music is a wonderful way to worship our Lord and Savior, and we are so happy to be a part of the music program at New Philadelphia.


The New Philadelphia Band

The New Philadelphia Moravian Church Band meets weekly*. Check the schedule for this week’s practice. There are classes for beginning band members, and scholarships are presently available for children who wish to play an instrument**. Although the Band takes a special interest in Church Festival occasions (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Palm Sunday, Passion Week, Easter, Pentecost, 4th of July, August 13th, Church Anniversary, and Thanksgiving), the main purpose of the Band from week to week is to play a prelude for each Sunday morning worship service. During Lent and Advent, the Band plays rounds through the community and at homes of shut-ins. The Band is also committed to supporting funeral services of members within this and other Moravian congregations. Do you play an instrument? Would you like to? You are invited to participate with our band. Contact David Teague at band@newphilly.org for additional details.

Regular Band Practices are from 7 pm – 8 pm on Monday evenings; we take a break after Christmas and during the summer we have Band-Rounds in the fellowship hall.


Useful links:

MoravianChorales.Info hosts a complete green-blue chorale book in parts.

MoravianBand.Org is theSouthern Province Band Page.

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NPMC_Band/ is a newsgroup for NPMC Band Members.

For additional information about our musicians, please check out the Staff page.


The Christmas Eve Lovefeasts

The Christmas Eve Lovefeasts are the apex of worship at New Philadelphia Moravian Church. Services are held at 4:30 p.m. and at 8:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, with a band prelude 30 minutes prior to each. A third lovefeast is ordinarily held at 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday night in late December. The dieners serve a simple meal of buns and coffee as the congregations sings carols and hymns of the season. We partake together as the choir sings several anthems. Then, as we sing “Morning Star” the candles are distributed to every worshipper. A wonderful scent feels the air. The warmth of the moment is palpable. The soft glow of the light from hundreds of pure beeswax candles reminds us that Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world!” Or, as St. Paul once wrote, “We have seen the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus.” Then, during the final verse of the final hymn, the congregation holds all our candles aloft to remind one another that Jesus also said, “And you are the light of the world! Let your light so show shine before people that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven.”

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People have a right to know how their pastor will respond to the recent move of the 2018 Synod of the Southern Province of the Moravian Church to permit individual congregations to decide whether or not they will perform same sex marriages. I have written a paper to describe where I think I must be at this moment in our local church, province and denomination. It is available HERE in PDF form for the convenience of our congregation and other interested parties. As always, I have tried to accent the Unity of our church, province and denomination over any one position, including my own. I respect those brothers and sisters who disagree with me, regardless of what you believe. May God bless all of us, and grant all of us guidance, grace and peace, whoever we are, and whatever we believe on this subject.

Worth Green
Senior Pastor

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When I was seeking a master’s degree, my professor told me that I should choose a subject for my thesis that was nearest my heart. “Write about something that you truly care about,” he said, “and you will never get writer’s block.” I found that to be true. It is a good rule of thumb for a weekly sermon, too. A pastor should choose a topic for the week at hand that deals with the thing that is nearest his or her heart in that week.

Sometimes that is hard, for there are multiple demands. Monday is Memorial Day. We have already dealt with that, and there is more to come. Even more important, today is Trinity Sunday. Joe and I chose the liturgy and the hymns to fit the occasion; and I planed a sermon on the Trinity. However, this week, this year, I don’t really have the heart for it. Don’t get me wrong. The Trinity is an important doctrine; but most of us have receive it by tradition, and retained it by habit, almost without thinking. It has been a long time since I have heard two members of this church arguing about the Trinity. And it has been almost five centuries since John Calvin and the City Council of Geneva burned his one-time friend, Michael Servetus, at the stake because Servetus had a less than Orthodox understanding of the the Triune God. So, too, there are some who want me to preach on homosexuality and the action of the 2018 Synod. There are other who want me to preach on almost anything else! To be honest, I don’t have the heart for that sermon, either, for I don’t have a lot to add to the paper I have written and posted on our website. That paper is a clear and truthful statement of where I think I must be in this time and in this place. I will say that the paper has been affirmed for me by a number of the responses I have received.

One response in particular is special to me, and it ultimately inspired this sermon. A man who actually resigned his position in his denomination over the issue of his church’s more open ministry to homosexual persons contacted me to say that, since his resignation, he had reached almost exactly the same position I have articulated in my paper. He told me he had to leave his denomination in order to discover his authentic hermeneutic and theology; and he counted me extremely blessed that I could reach the same positions while still serving a congregation.

That is a telling statement. It is not just about him, and not just about me. It is about us, and how we live our lives in the community which is the body of Christ.

We live our lives out in accordance with the Word of God which comes to us through the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. But the Word of God is more than Words on a page. For, in accordance with the will of God, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we live our lives out in the presence of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate and Living Word. The writer of the Hebrews captures this reality perfectly when he writes (and I quote):

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do. Hebrews 4:12-13  (Un-quote).

Jesus still speaks to us, and he speaks in three ways. First, he speaks to us in the words of Scripture, and in the way that we read and interpret Scripture in his presence, as a community of faith. As Jesus said, the Holy Spirit “calls to our remembrance” what has been said. Second, Jesus speaks to us in small voice that begins in the heart of one person who dares to listen and then spreads. There are no words, (his) voice is not heard.” yet, as Jesus said, “the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, and declares to us that which is to come.” When God speaks to our hearts, whatever the means, we cannot deny it. Third, God speaks in and through the community. the Holy Spirit often speaks to me in the careful and loving tones of a brother, or sister, who whispers their truth in my ears. One never has to shout the truth, a whisper is enough. When I hear a truth from a brother or sister, even if it is contrary to my truth, I try to listen to it, and wrestle with it, before the Lord, in the same way I once wrestled with my own truth. I expect a brother or a sister to do the same for me.

Does the ability to share our truth mean that mean that we will always reach agreement?

Sometimes we do reach a measure of agreement. In Acts 15, the first Apostolic Council had to decide if Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians. After no little discussion, the Church in Jerusalem reached a conclusion. They said that Gentiles did not have to become Jews before they became Christians, and they published that decision to the Gentile churches, saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” That please almost everyone, with the possible exception of Circumcision party, which, as we know from St. Paul, continued to argue their truth—and insist on circumcision, long after circumcision had lost its relevance. The Circumcision Party had many proof text on their side, but the Living Word, Jesus Christ, made circumcision irrelevant. There are always backwaters. As Paul said:

1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2   Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. Galatians 5:1-4

Sometimes we do not reach agreement. We see a particularly relevant example a little later in Acts 15. There we read how Paul and Barnabas fell out over John Mark. Mark accompanied them on their first missionary journey; but for some reason, he just quit and went home. When Paul and Barnabas were preparing for their second missionary journey, Barnabas asked Mark to come, and Paul said, “No! If he goes with you, I will not!” And Barnabas took John Mark and Paul took Silas, and now we sing,“It was good for Paul and Silas, it was good for Paul and Silas, it was good for Paul and Silas!” Who was right about John Mark? Was it Paul, or was it Barnabas? In commenting on this passage John Ogilvie wrote that it may be that both Paul and Barnabas were right. God knew that Mark needed the stern rebuke of Paul, and God knew that Mark also needed the second chance offered by Barnabas. It is a classic case of Hegel’s Dialectic—or God’s Dialectic, if you will:Thesis plus Antithesis equals Synthesis. Of course, it was not until many years later than God’s true purpose for John Mark was revealed. Tradition says that Mark stuck by Peter when he was in Rome, right up to his death; and that Mark became Peter’s interpreter and the author of the 2nd Gospel, the one that bears his name. Sometimes, we see God’s wisdom unfold without delay. However, sometimes, we cannot see the wisdom of a decision that we have made as a community before him until after the passage of many years, for only then does it become absolutely plain and irrefutable.

Because God truth sometimes takes a passage of years to make itself known. Living in community is always a blessing, but it is not always easy.

Living in Christian Community is always a blessing. A number of years before the start of World War Two, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a little book about Christian community entitled, “Life Together.” In it he said that we ought never take Christian community for granted, for not everyone is blessed with it, and he gave examples of Christians who were forced to live without community, such as those who were in prison, which was strangely prescient for Bonhoeffer himself was hanged to death in a Nazi concentration camp. Bonhoeffer then added some sage advice for young pastors. He said, “A pastor ought never criticize his (or her) church (to outsiders).” That is good advice. A pastor who criticizes his or her church to outsiders will never grow that church. For a church (or a denomination) to grow, its pastors and its members must often love it for more than it is worth. We must love it for more than its worth, in order that it might become all that God intends it to be. Along these same lines, Robert Schuller used to tell pastors attending his school of Church Growth, that they had to “sell” their church to potential new members; and if their church was not particularly marketable, they had to sell “the dream of their church.” I guess I am blessed. In my three decades at New Philadelphia, I have always found this church to be eminently marketable. I used to tell potential new members that, if I were a venture capitalists investing my money in churches, I would most certainly invest in New Philadelphia.

Living in community is always a blessing, but it is not always easy. Sooner of later the people that we love the most will disappoint us. They will disappoint us because in some way they are different than we are, with different beliefs. If you don’t believe this, read about the chaos in the churches before the advent of the American Civil War. The pro-Slavery argument had dozens of texts at their disposal. All assumed slavery, and not one said “free the slaves.” The Abolitionist had only the belief that God made all men in his image, and the slaves themselves looked to the experience of the Exodus. Something that Martin Luther King, Jr. Evoked when he spoke of getting to the Promised Land. Scott Peck says that the hardest thing a church ever has to do it to pass through the Stages of Community. He named three. The first stage of community is Pseudo-Community, when everyone thinks they believe just alike. The second stage of community is Chaos, when people find out they are not all alike, and their beliefs differ. The third stage of community is True Community, in which people accept one another despite their differences. God cannot bless a church until it has achieved True Community. Churches that pass from Pseudo-Community to Chaos to True Community are few and far between. Thankfully, Moravians have a better record than most. We see this in the experience of August 13, 1727. In those days the Moravian Church was made up of at least six different sets of people from six different denominations with six very different theologies, and they were badly divided. On August 13, 1727 they came together, not by setting aside their doctrinal differences—they remained and Zinzendorf even appointed “bishops” to steward each; but by accepting one another in spite of them. It was not long after August 13th that the renewed church adopted the one essential of the Ancient Moravian Unity, “a heart relationship with the Triune God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that issues in Faith, Love and Hope.” That experience of August 13, 1727 has been preserved for us in hymns like:

What brought us together, what joined our hearts?
The pardon which Jesus, our High Priest, imparts;
‘Tis this which cements the disciples of Christ,
who are into one by the Spirit baptized.

The one thing necessary for a church to move from Chaos to True community is for its members to accept one another despite their differences, for the sake of Jesus Christ. That is, each person recognizes every other for their commitment to Christ. It is easier to achieve this when every member of the community remembers the word of Jesus that we must remove the Log from our own eyes, before we remove the spec that is in the eyes of our brothers and sisters.

In the last three decades, I have seen a lot of people come and go from this church. I am glad for those who have come, and sadden by those who have left. Some have left this church, because for things like work, a move, etc. Some have left because it was not the church they had hoped it would be. Others have left because this pastor did not fit with their idea of what a pastor should be. I nearly always do exit interviews, so I could give you a long list of people who have left, and I could go into great detail as to the reasons that they left. For example, about two years ago, I had two individuals leave because I would not swear allegiance to a favorite doctrine. I loved them enough that I wrote them a long paper demonstrating from Scripture why I could not believe as they did; but they left anyway.

Sometimes it is hard to agree on scripture, even when it appears to be plain. There are 55,000 Protestant denominations, and countless independent churches, and most of them came into being because people could not agree on scripture, In this regard, Oswald Chambers was right, “It is far easier to be true to our convictions than it is to be true to Jesus Christ.”

Well, as I have said, I have seen a lot of people leave this church, for one reason or another, and that saddens me. But there is one thing of which I am proud. Even many of those who have left us have continued to grow in the soil of the Christian community they once shared with us. I know this because, over the years, they have come back to us, for one reason or another, simply because they found something here that they could not do without. Some come back for a lovefeast, or a fellowship meal. Others show up at Easter. Some come back to ask me or you, about a problem they are having. I can name several people who came back to us, just to die. I am thankful for each and every one of those who have left, and returned, for whatever reason.

Thirty years ago, on the last Sunday in May—or was it the first Sunday in June, I can’t remember, I was installed as the pastor of this church. Just before I was installed, I made the Joint Board a promise. I did not promise to be perfect, for I knew I had too much human in my being for that. And I did not promise that I would deliver a brilliant sermon every week, for I knew that to be impossible. Likewise, I did not promise that, in points of theology and faith, I would always agree with all of you, or even a majority of you. I did not even promise that my pastoral care would be sufficient to your needs, though I hope it has been. I promised only that I would not quit. I thank God, that despite several temptations to do just that, God has always sent along something or someone to anchor me in place. I have managed to hang on, because at least some few of you—including many who have passed into the more immediate presence of the LORD have refused to let me go. At this juncture, if I can do so with integrity, I would do all that is in my power to do the same for each of you. If the anchor holds—then anything is possible.

It is Memorial Day weekend, so let me end with this example. In 1876, Lucius Lamar, a Senator from Mississippi helped bring Reconstruction to a close when gave a magnificent speech before the Senate of the United States, saying that it was hight time for us to be one nation again, north and south. He concluded the speech by saying that if the illustrious dead from both sides could speak from their heavenly rest, they would say,“My countrymen! know one another, and you will love one another!” (Note) That, I think, is not bad advice for the Moravian Church today. If we truly know one another, as fellow servants of Jesus Christ, we will love one another.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

Note: Kennedy, John F.. Profiles in Courage: Deluxe Modern Classic (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) (pp. 140-141). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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On the Sunday before Christmas, I preached a sermon in which I talked about my childhood experience of Christmas as a Moravian here in Winston-Salem. I know that preaching is “the communication of truth through personality,” but I feared that sermon was a step too-far.

Interestingly, you responded to it with enthusiasm. Not so much because I talked about my experience, but because I talked about experiences that were common to many of us.

Just this week, as I was planning my sermon for Mother’s Day, a man I respect said to me, “Worth, don’t talk too much about Synod this week, talk about your mother.”

Those were his exact words. He did not say, “Talk about our mothers.” He said, “Talk about your mother.” I expect he said that, thinking that all of us have mothers, and every story of a mother and her child is both very specific, and well nigh universal. When I mention how my mother loved me, and fed me, and cared for me, and taught me, and disciplined me, and picked me up when I fell down, you nod your heads and say, “Amen!”, because your mother loved you, and fed you, and cared for you, and taught you, and disciplined you, and picked you up when you fell down.

Therefore, I am going to talk about my mother, in hopes it will enable you to think about your own.

My first memory of my mother is that of an invalid. My mother gave birth to me when she was living with my father in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where dad was a student at Moravian Theological Seminary. In case you are wondering, I was born in Bethlehem, lived there for three weeks where I picked-up my accent, and moved back to North Carolina. My dad stayed in Bethlehem, but my mother came home, because the physical shock of my birth was too much for her. Back in Winston-Salem, my mother was in bed for almost a year, and my grandmother took care of her, and also took care of me.

I am proud of my grandmother, Stout, “Granny.” She had a hard life—but a good one. She came to North Carolina from South Carolina after her father’s death. That is a story in itself. My Great-Grandfather Henderson was a chicken farmer and a conductor on the rail road. The train ran by his farm, and would stop there to pick him up. One day, after he left, a road-gang arrived. That night, a member of that gang came over to my great-grandmother’s house and tried to break down the door. My Grandmother Stout, just a little girl at the time, told me that she was clutching her mother’s legs in fear, when Great-Grandmother Henderson pointed a large “horse pistol,” at the door and told the man if he did not leave she would shoot. He did not leave, and continued to beat on the door—with renewed effort, so, terrified for her life and the life of her child, she shot through the door. My Grandmother Stout told me that the next morning they found the man dead in the pea-vines that grew along the front porch. I am not celebrating this violence, for it escalated, as violence often does. It was not long after that my Great-Grandfather Henderson was killed, perhaps in reprisal, and his body thrown from the train.

The two women, mother and daughter, then moved to North Carolina where my Grandmother Stout managed to stay in school through the fourth grade before she took work to help support herself and her mother. At the age of 17, she married my grandfather, E.L. “Pop” Stout, already 30 years old, who had a produce business. Pop hauled fruit and vegetables from Florida to Winston-Salem, and he also had business interest in California. He was often away. That left Granny Stout to raise their 6 children on her own. My mother was the oldest. She was born when My grandmother was still 17, and she was 17 when her youngest sister was born. My Granny Stout did a pretty good job with her children. My mother was valedictorian of her high school class, as was her next oldest sister, my Aunt Lee. My Uncle Boyd had a distinguished career in the U.S. Air Force, serving in two wars; and my Uncle Archie was the first man to win two $5,000 innovation awards at the now defunct Western Electric Plant on Old Lexington Road. My Aunt Ella Mae was smart, sweet and strong. It was she who gave me the baby doll for Christmas, in hopes of making me kinder and gentler, perhaps. And my Aunt Anoree looked like a movie star was one of the best athletes of either sex I have ever known. If you think I am proud of my family, you are right. But I am prouder still of the woman with the 4th grade education that raised them.

Anyway, my Granny Stout took care of my mother, and she took care of me. My earliest memories are not of my mother, but of my grandmother. I can still remember waking up in her bed, and scrunching over next to her to stay warm under a stack of quilts. The house on Cotton Street where we lived did not have central heat, and it was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Don’t for a minute think we were the unwashed poor. We did not have a bathtub or hot water, but I got a bath every Saturday night whether I need it or not. I took it in a galvanized tub in the kitchen with water heated on a wood stove. Between those big baths my mother gave me “bird baths” in the sink, and bird baths are always better than spit baths (let the reader understand). Likewise, we had an indoor toilet, which was installed on the closed-in back porch; and later, long after mother and I move out, my granny got a hot water heater and a shower installed, too.

I remember my mother best when Dad graduated from Seminary and we moved to Enterprise Moravian Church. Enterprise was in the country then. I remember my mother letting me wonder in the woods and play in the mud behind the house, though she did caution me to look out for snakes. She had concerns because the house was built on a snake hill. I will never forget the day I went into the basement to see my Cocker Spaniel going one on one against a mama copperhead while her babies crawled all around them. he snake would strike, and my dog would dodge the strike. It happened over and over until finally, the snake struck, and my dog, apply named Butcher Boy, caught her behind the head and chewed until her head fell off. I went upstairs and got my mother and she came downstairs and killed all the baby copperheads by cutting their heads off with a garden hoe.

In the Bible a snake is the symbol of evil. One passage in Amos talks about how a man can outrun lion, and then run into a bear, or lean a hand upon a wall and be bitten by a serpent. Snakes can sneak up on you, and so can evil. My mother always tried to protect me from evil. However, every mother eventually realizes that she cannot protect her children forever. It is the nature of children to wander outside a mother’s sight and control. Early on, my mother turned to prayer to protect me. We started every day with prayer at the breakfast table. And we finished with prayer every night. Until I was 8 or 9 my mother would kneel by my bed and listen as I prayed:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake;
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Like many of you who also learned that prayer, after she left, I would lay awake thinking that I was not yet ready for God to take my soul. I had too much life left to live. I also thought about how I did not want to God to take my my mother’s soul either, and that was far more likely for she was well past thirty, and older than dirt.

Even then I could not imagine anything worse than for a mother to loose a child (especially me), except perhaps for a child (especially me) to loose a mother.

Mary the Mother of Jesus knew what it was to loose a child. Her brave suffering has been a comfort to mothers of every generation. In my study, I have a small soap-stone statue of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary holding the broken body of Jesus. This small copy of the Pieta was given to me by a mother who lost her son—not to death, but to a disagreement. She sent him away because she considered him immoral. She was so afraid of God and God’s punishment, that she no longer felt comfortable loving her own child. She gave me the statue because I told her it was all right to love him, even if she could not understand his behavior.

The other side of this equation is when a child looses a mother. Nothing tugs on the heart like watching a young child who has lost a mother, except, perhaps, watching the child’s father try to do double duty as father and mother. We always hope and pray that God has a special consolation for such folk and, thankfully, he often does. The consolation sometimes comes in the form of a loving step-mother, who steps into a vacancy left by the loss of a mother to help a father raise a child or children she chooses when she chooses him.

Finally, I would recall for you how traumatic it is for anyone to loose a beloved mother, regardless of age. In one of his many books, Father Richard Rohr says that when we loose a beloved mother to death, it is like God has died, for our mother is our first God image and our divine security. I can add to that. When our mother’s are no longer themselves, such as those who have dementia and Alzheimers, and we cannot communicate with them as we once did, we sometimes feel as if God no longer knows us or hears our prayers as he once did. My mother is in memory care. Often, not always—but often, she acts normally toward some people, like my wife. Most of the time she is anything but normal with me. Most of the time she thinks I am my father, and everyday when I leaver she accuses me of leaving her forever, and plotting a divorce. She has often used that language. So, too, when I am with her, she makes me uncomfortable because she tells me things about her relationship with my father that I do not want to know. TMI! Too Much Information! How do I deal with this? First, I tell myself, I must now love my mother as she once loved me, not expecting much in return, as she loved me when I was a tiny helpless infant. Even though she sometimes does not know me, I always know her, and understand my continuing debt of love to her. Second, I tell myself that despite my mothers inability to recognize me and understand me, God knows me and hears my prayers as he always has. I like to think that God says to me what he once said to Israel,“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; and I have called you by name, you are mine.”

I remember a lot about my mother! I remember the time, at my cousin Robert’s birthday party when she showed unusual creativity. We were in the dining room in Granny’s house on Cotton Street. It was early November, and already dark out, and as we gathered around the table to cut the cake, I saw a face in the window. It was the face of a notorious neighborhood peeping Tom. I looked at my mother with wide-eyes. She put a finger to her lips to caution me against speaking or calling attention to myself, and slipped out of the room. She returned with a blank cartridge starter’s pistol my dad had left her for protection. Perhaps he knew from experience that it was never good to put a real gun into the hands of a woman in my mother ’s family. Anyway, mom came back into the room, and slipped around the wall like Dirty Harry. Then she jumped into the Peeping Tom’s face and pulled the trigger of that blank cartridge pistol. It went off with a BANG, and he fell over backward. He was soon on his feet and running away. My mother took off after him. Just as she cleared the front door she yelled, “I missed him, but I will get him next time.”

I have many more memories. I remember my mother working at the Downtown Garage, allowing me to belong to an early generation of latch key kids. I have memories of my mother writing a song for our 1966 Parkland High School Football team. She set it to the tune of ghost-ridders in the sky. And I remember how she let me have a 1947 Chevy Fleetline for a graduation present, even though it cost $60 dollars, and she and dad had already spent almost as much as on a Bulova Self-Winding watch. And I remember how, when I went off to college, mom let me take the car that we were supposed to share. And I remember how, on the day I got married, she met me on the steps of the church with her little box camera, and took a picture of me before I went into the church to tie the knot. Elayne has always loved my mother like her own, and mother has always loved her right back. Elayne has always said that my mother loves her more than she love me, because she has taken better care of her. The only evidence I can find contrary to Elayne’s opinion is that picture from the steps of the church, which still stands on mom’s dresser.

And I remember how when I was at sea with Battalion Landing Team 3/6, my mother wrote me to tell me that when I got back to North Carolina she and dad would not be there. And I remember visiting with them in Indiana where she gave me a bible to carry with me to my temporary duty station in California. And I remember how it was an encounter with the Risen Christ inspired by that very Bible that caused me to decide to become a disciple of Jesus Christ for myself. Mom and Dad had presented me in baptism when I was just a child, and they had sent me to confirmation, but my mother lived for the day that I would own the faith for myself. Of course, mom was thrilled when I declared for the ministry. She said she always expected that I would go in the ministry, and she told me that, when I was just a little boy, she had come into my room one night, and heard a choir of angels. I have no doubt she thought it was a miracle. I did not have the heart to tell her, but it was more than likely Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, because when the atmospheric conditions were right, my old record player would sometimes pick-up WTOB even after the records had quit playing.

The hardest thing any of us ever have to do is go beyond the convictions of parents who loved us before we were born, and gave us life, and watched over us, and taught us all that they could. Yet, that is precisely what every generation must do. If humankind had never advanced beyond our first parents, we would still be dressed in skins, and living short lives in small, hunter gather communities. Karl Barth said that when we see beyond our parents, and make decisions for ourselves, whether religious, or political, or practical, we are like midgets standing on the shoulders of giants. We do not see father down the road than they see because we are more able, but because they have lifted us up so that we can see further than they.

In handing out the paper I have crafted this morning—which is available here, I have the hope you will read it carefully, not once, but several times over. I am not proposing anything new. You will not read in it anything I have not said many times from this pulpit and in private conversations. That said, I know that I am asking you to see things that former generations, even the generation of our parents, may not have not seen. Some decisions are not theirs but ours. Of course, God continues to cares for them and us, parent and child, and so on through out the generations. The devout orthodox Christian Kahlil Gibran wrote a poem that describes this perfectly entitled, “On Children.” It goes like this:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min

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In 2nd Corinthians 12:14 the apostle writes that  “… children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children.” Paul was willing to spend and be spent for the church in Corinth, for the members of that church were his spiritual children. In the same way, we who are parents are willing to spend and be spent for our children.

“Parents ought to lay up for their children,” and it is perfectly natural for parents to want to pass on their material advantages.

I once knew a woman of advanced age. As a young woman, she worked as a secretary for about a decade, and then she became a full-time housewife and mother. When she reached the age of 65 she started receiving a small Social Security check every month. She never cashed a single check for her use. Instead she put it in the bank for her children. She told me that “parents ought to lay up for their children,” and she wanted to lay up for hers.

Or what about this. I have a friend who was living in the state of Florida when his first child was born. He and his wife had a little extra money, so they took advantage of a Florida law, and paid their infant sons college tuition at a greatly reduced rate. This year their son will be graduating from college, in Florida, debt free. When it comes to material benefits, “parents ought to lay up for their children.”

It is never too soon to start putting something aside for our children. The parents and grandparents of Baby Boomers worked hard, and we are in the midst of the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world. Unfortunately, we are also in the midst of a huge transfer of poverty. Several years ago, I went to a Safe and Sober Prom Night presentation and heard David Daggett give a statistic that frightened me. If a person drops out of high school, there is a 90 percent chance they will spend their lives in poverty. Likewise, if they have a baby, or help to make a baby while they are in high school, there is a 90 percent chance they will spend their lives in poverty. And if they drop our of high school while having or making a baby, there is a virtual 100 percent chance they will spend their lives in poverty. Who then can save them from poverty? Thank-fully, what Jesus said about saving people from wealth in Mark 10:27 is equally applicable when it comes to saving people from poverty. “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

Of course, this text is not just about laying up material benefits for our children. It is also about laying up spiritual benefits for our children.

What is true of poverty and wealth is also true of sin and righteousness. Both the Bible and life teach that what we are, whether good or bad, we almost invariably pass on to our children, whether we want to pass it on or not.

For instance, the author of 2nd Kings warns that when we serve idols, we sow the seeds of idol worship in our children and grandchildren. In those days, an idol was made from wood, stone or precious metal and was shaped by human hands. Today, we are more likely to worship idols of plastic, silicon and steel that are shaped by robots. Even more dangerous, we worship at the alters of beauty, wealth and power. Bertrand Russell warned against the worship of “that bitch goddess success.” Success just for the sake of success is a terrible mistake. We may climb the ladder of success, and get to the top, only to discover it has been leaning against the wrong wall.

What is the point? Simple either we serve God, and God treats us like children, and the world serves us; or we serve the world, and the world treats us like slaves, and prevents us from enjoying the blessings of God.

Both the Bible and life teachs that we reap what we sow. The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that God keeps steadfast love for untold multitudes, but visits the sins and mistakes of the parents upon their children’s children. When God visits our sins upon our children and grandchildren, God is not being cruel, for God is simply following the same laws he laid down for us in the world. We reap what we sow. Writing in the 6th century B.C., the prophet Isaiah said, “The father’s have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In the first part of the 20th century, Ann Franke wrote, “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. We make our choices and our choices make us.” I would add only that our choices make us, and our children, and our grandchildren. This is a hard truth; but life is a lot easier for those who learn it. Frankly, if we love our children, the only decent choice is a decent life. In Psalm 103:17,18 we read:

But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.

We want to lay up material benefits for our children, and we want to lay up spiritual benefits for our children. Naturally, above all, we want our children to know they are loved and accepted.

Mothers communicate love and acceptance quite naturally. A mother’s love is physical. It is tightly connected with the mother’s body. Before birth a mother is connected with her child by the umbilical cord. After birth, a mother is connected with her child literally “at the hip.” A mother’s love is expressed when she holds, touches, feels and feeds her children. An old Jewish proverb declares, “God cannot be everywhere so he made mothers.” An old Scottish proverb captures the same truth in more detail when it declares:

Baby has no skies, but mother’s eyes;
No God above, but mother’s love.
Her angel sees the Father’s face,
But she the mother’s, full of grace;
And yet the heavenly kingdom is of such as this.

There is no substitute for the kind of love a mother gives. No young child can survive without some mothering from somebody. Children have to be hauled about, and fed and changed. A child needs his mother like a fish needs water and trees need sunshine Likewise, every child—whether a baby or an adult, is challenged to the depths of their being by the loss of a good mother. In his book, “From Wild Man to Wiseman,” Richard Rohr says that:

When a good mother dies, it feels to the child—even the adult child, like God has died, because our mother is our first clear God image and she is our Divine security.

And what about a Father’s love? A father’s love is different from a mother’s love. For a child, the father is the other person in the house. A father’s love is not so immediate and physical as a mother’s love. It exist at a greater distance. A father does not have to love his children; a father must choose to love his children. A good father decides in our favor. He picks us out of the crowd, and picks us up, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually.

I think it is interesting that in most primitive cultures, God’s love is almost always perceived as feminine. People worship a mother goddess. But the religion of the Bible is different. In the Bible, though the God we know as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a sexual being, God reveals God’s Self to his children in the way that human Fathers reveal themselves to their children. For instance, when God choose Israel to be his people, he picked them out of the nations of the world, and lifted them up out of slavery in Egypt to claim them for his own. God gave them an identity. Thus in Deuteronomy 7:7 Moses says to the people:

When God set his heart on you and chose you, it was not because you were greater than other peoples, you were the least of all the peoples. It was simply for love of you that God chose you.

Every person wants God to love them freely, without qualification. That is why Nathaniel said to Jesus, “Show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” And that is why Jesus said, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” Jesus wants us to know that the Father loves us like he love us. And every child wants his or her father to love them freely, without qualification. Listen carefully. If you remember nothing else from this sermon, remember this: When a child gets a father’s love in abundance, whether that child is male or female, they enter life with confidence and energy. We want to do great things, and we have the energy to get them done.

By contrast, when children—especially men, don’t experience the love of the father, and there is no father substitute—like a step father who steps in to love them, or a mentor such as a Scout Leader or teacher, disaster follows. Let me give you an example.

Father Richard Rohr, whom I have already mentioned, tells the story of meeting a Catholic sister who worked in Peru’s central prison. During her first year at the prison, as Mother’s Day approached, the inmates came to her and asked her for Mother’s Day cards. No matter how many cards she gave them, they were always asking for more. As her first Father’s Day at the prison drew near, anticipating a similar rush, she ordered several cases of Father’s Day cards. Several years later those cards still in her office, for not one prisoner asked her for a Father’s Day card. Then she realized why.:The men in the prison had no real father figures in their lives.

As fathers and grandfathers, and as friends of the family, and as those those who love and work with children such as teachers and pastors, men must pay careful attention to the children in our care when they are young. We must pick them out of the crowd, and find ways to “pick them up” (psychologically and spiritually) and make them feel special. The opportunity is passing quickly. By the time our children are teenagers, they will care more about the opinions of their peers, than the opinions of their parents and grandparents and teachers.

The truth is that all children are easily reached—though some take more reaching than others. In his book, “The Road Less Traveled,” Scott Peck says that we spend time with what we love. Children know this instinctively. When we spend time with our childen, they know we love them.

Years ago, I had a friend who had a young son who was born with a tragic illness. He knew he would have limited time with his son, so he treasured every moment. He had a little poem hanging over his desk that summed up his attitude:

What shall you give to one small boy?
A glamorous game, a tinseled toy?
A pocket knife, a puzzle pack?
A train that runs on some curving track?
A picture book, a real live pet?
No, there’s plenty of time for such things yet.

Give him a day for his very own,
Just one small boy and his Dad alone,
A walk in the woods, a romp in the park,
A fishing trip from dawn to dark.
Give him the gift that only you can,
The companionship of his “old man.”

Games are outgrown and toys decay,
But he’ll never forget If you give him a day.

Naturally, though we may have to vary the activities, the same approach works with our daughters. The apostle said that, “Parents ought to lay up for their children.” Ironically, when we do that, we find that we are also sowing the seeds of our own happiness.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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