Worship, May 22 – Numbers: Sharing God’s Grace

WELCOME to this post for divine worship at Digby Baptist Church. Full service details are available in the Bulletin, here on the website.

SERMON – Numbers: Sharing God’s Grace. Numbers. Numbers are interesting. One, two, three. One hundred. 3.14159. Six six six. A billion, a trillion, a googol.  I’m surprised at how I enjoy watching math videos on Youtube, even though all the math how-to I learned forty years ago is now forgotten. 

Numbers. Numbers are powerful. Numbers of people. A family, a community, a church, a cultural group, a nation. Digby Baptist is, officially, a couple hundred people. Digby town is a couple or 3 thousand. Amherst is ten thousand. 

Numbers. Numbers is important. The Biblical book called Numbers. It tells more of the story of the ancient Children of Israel, in the wilderness, led by Moses. The book begins and ends with a census; hence the name of the text, ‘Numbers.’ 

In chapter eleven we have this story, about a number of leaders who were chosen to help Moses – seventy elders. Filled with the Spirit, they were. But a couple of fellows were not with the rest, yet still they prophesied, spirit- filled. A tattle tale told on them, to Moses. Moses’ second- in-command says, ‘yeah, you tell them, Moses!’ But what does Moses say? “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

This is what I want to explore today: the ministry of a number of people, the sharing of the grace of God. So let us turn to this letter of joy, called Philippians. 

We read someone else’s mail, or so it might seem. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to his Christian friends in the town of Phillipi. Paul is imprisoned. But his letter is beautiful. And it is so special and inspired it has been saved for generations to read and ponder, and meet God in these pages. Let’s walk through these words, written to a number of people. 

The start of his letter: 3 I thank my God for every remembrance of you, 4 always in every one of my prayers for all of you, praying with joy 5 for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 

There is great joy over these people, who are partners in the gospel. The Gospel. What is the gospel? There is so much to say, even this preacher does not know where to start. This good news is, in one sense, simply the story of Jesus. Along with His story, is the confidence that this story reaches beyond its time, even to us, and makes life different, better, new, for us. Christ is our centre.

In my teenage years I was in the Christian Service Brigade, rather like scouting but overtly Christian, with Bible memorization and prayer and so on. In my twenties, the CSB leaders in Middleton had a reunion for all the boys and leaders who had been in the Brigade. They even had a punch bowl with Tang in it, complete with spruce needles floating, just like on our camping trips! I always remember what the key leader, John Tufts, said about that kind of youth ministry. It was very simple. He said, to be successful it must have two elements. It has to be fun, and it has to be Christ-centred. 

We are a local Church, a number of people who should be connected because this is Christ-centred. I always look for that connection. You too; remember it.

In Philippians 1 Paul has great joy over these people, this number of people, this group. These ones, long ago, were partners with Paul in this new movement, the Jesus movement, the Way of Jesus. It was not about a bunch of individuals. They were a group, a fellowship, a team.

Next, Paul wrote, 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. This is one of those Bible verses that gets brought out and quoted often, to encourage and give hope and inspire. But it may or may not apply to any group of us today. Sure, I might have confidence that the good God started to do among you will get finished. Or I might not have confidence that things will be finished. 

I have been thinking a lot and a lot and A LOT about what good we have done together over the past eight years.  Much of it is still hidden from my eyes, somehow. That’s probably good for me and my ego: it’ll help me be slightly humble. 

I do see things like… an opening of our hearts and a relaxing of former strictness. I see it in the ways you know how to include people who, years ago, might have been frowned upon for their behaviour, their looks, their differences of opinion, or their religious history. I like to think the Master will do even more with you, Digby Baptist, to love and include people, with the power and authority of Jesus. You know the very different sorts of folks Christ spent His quality time with!

Paul is so personal in this letter, of course. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart… He clearly had spent time with them, in their town, and was keeping in touch, now that he had been arrested and was no longer a free man. He knew what God would do with them because he knew them well

I know you well, thanks to our eight years together. I will certainly hold you in my heart. So many of you are generous at saying that and promising that. On Monday, at the Bible Study Group, Bonnie recited a freshly composed ‘Ode to Jeff’ which was fun but also touching. (I have a lyric ready for you that I’ll present at the reception next week.) Last Sunday, Dianne presented me and Sharon with other gifts of creativity: not one beautiful quilt but two! And from a few people already we’ve been given overly generous cash donations, with words of thanks. Etc.

It is quite fitting that we, in congregations, often speak of being ‘church family.’ We are given, by Creator, the work of holding one another in our hearts. 

I was a bit upset last week when I visited a shut-in I know (for the last time) and she seemed to think I had been mistreated while here and not appreciated – by Church people! I’m not sure how she got that idea; I think she is just a bit out of touch and perhaps slightly confused. I tried to listen well, and then quietly say I did not feel badly used here, but cared for and supported. 

Next in Paul’s sentences we get to the title of my sermon: for all of you are my partners in God’s grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. Partners in God’s Grace; sharers in God’s grace.

I keep saying my way of explaining grace. I don’t limit it to ‘getting something good we don’t deserve.’ That can sometimes be true. Mostly, I say GRACE is something that happens that is above and beyond what we could have done. Grace is: more good appears than we could come up with. There is a supply of goodness and blessings that is bigger than us, even all of us people put together. 

This was needed for Paul and his friends, while he was imprisoned. How could they be partners in the faith with a setback like that? Grace. Today, how can we be partners in the Faith with the limitations of a pandemic, and all the wrecking of plans and togetherness? Grace. More is possible with God than we can cook up on our own. Yes!

In the next line Paul is back to his deep friendship with these people. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the tender affection of Christ Jesus. 

You are probably like me; you long for people in a few ways. You long to see someone who is away from you; you long to be together. We’ve had a lot of that. I’m going to feel that in the months ahead, when I am seldom back in Digby. It will be a bit like the longing I’ve had for a few months to have Doug still alive, and Mike. Or how I’ve wished I still had in pew fellowship Barb and Nancee and Linda, and others.

We also long for people… to make progress. You know, to make a good decision and act on it, to be healed from some serious problem, to be reconciled to someone. We long for good things to happen to one another. 

Twenty some years ago I was dating a woman in the town where I lived. One signal that she was not the right one for me was the way she had a bad attitude about some people. She had a coworker I knew, and that coworker had something really nice happen. My friend turned up her nose, and said that woman didn’t deserve what she got. I couldn’t believe it! We are here to long for the best for other people. (Not to mention pray for our enemies.) I’ve been so happy to see compassion in you all. 

Speaking of this, the finale of our reading today was: 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what really matters, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Dear Church, we are a support group for our progress. I think my main pastoral focus is personal progress – in you. I don’t focus on ‘getting people saved,’ though that is a definite step of personal progress a lot of people could use! I don’t focus on recruiting people into the Church, though I know this is on my mind a lot, probably for selfish reasons. I am concerned and curious about the spiritual growth of humans, mainly the ones I know and care for. How do you learn something important? How do you make a personal change? How do you take your next best step? 

A lot of my pondering this is about God, what God actually does with you. How does the Spirit intervene? When does what we, the Church, do make a real difference in people’s lives? That is the question for our day and age. 

We share God’s grace. We share what Jesus does to transform us. We share the message that this is real today.

Let us   pray. Spirit of truth, may the lessons of the scripture grow our faith and action. May the distractions be forgotten. 

As we worship together, we dedicate the offerings we have brought or sent in, for the good work we do together. Inspire us to give well, Holy God, and to spend our resources in excellent ways. 

God of Love, as we hold one another in our hearts, we pray for healing and help for many today. We ask for guidance and courage along life’s pathway. We seek from You a touch of courage and a release from all the fears that keep people isolated and distant. And we bless our Pulpit Committee in the searching work they are undertaking for the fellowship. 

Risen Christ, this past week was like many – there were many deaths as well as times to gather and give thanks. With resurrection hope, comfort all who mourn, bless those who are facing death, and also be near those who walk with those at the end of life. 

God of the Universe, our prayers are for the whole world, held in Your hands. We ask for your steadfastness and strength in:  the alarming high inflation rate in many nations.

the concerns of an outbreak of wild polio in Mozambique.

the shortage of infant formula in the United States brought on in part by faulty production methods resulting in contamination and infant deaths.  

the damage to property and loss of life as Uruguay has been hit by the strong winds and high waves of a subtropical cyclone.

the people of Iraq who are suffering under the eighth sandstorm to engulf the country since mid-April. We pray for the countries of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Bahrain who are suffering these intense and more frequent storms.

and the sufferings of the pandemic, wars, famine and impoverishment around our world. Even the news of monkeypox spreading is one more drop in the bucket of anxiety: let there be grace and serenity, we pray.

Now, as Richard of Chichester prayed: Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me. O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day. AMEN.

The Good News: What’s Right

(Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11) – J G White
11 am, Advent 2, Sun, Dec 9, 2018 – UBC Digby

Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas–
star and angels gave the sign.
Christina Rossetti, 1883

What kind of Good News, Gospel, do we have?  Paul, of the Bible, wrote to his friends in one town, and spoke of sharing in the Gospel, the work of the Gospel.  (Phil 1:3) Did you detect his tone of voice in the words of this letter?
I thank my God every time I remember you…
The One who began a good work in you will complete it…
It is right for me to think this way about you…
How I long for all of you with the compassion of X

Yes, the Good News of Christianity is a message of love – God is love, God loves us, God loves all, God does not want anyone to be wrecked.  Not one person.

We are to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ – right where we live.  As we serve in this way, remember this part of the Message we have to give out:
You are in God’s image – you are of God.
You are loved, so loved, so lovable.
You are valued, so valuable, you are gold!
You are becoming, becoming so amazing (not just forgiven).

Last week we explored the bad news: what’s wrong. This week: what’s right.
Jesus and the Gospel – is not just problem solving.

Some Christian teaching says that to be human is to be totally depraved.  I think other Christian teachings are better. There is evil and wrong in us, yes.  Yet there is beauty and good in who we are. A human, even an unsaved human, is a wonderful thing.

At a funeral last week I heard some verses of scripture well read that are very familiar to me.  From 2 Corinthians 4. I could have yawned through them, in my comfortable pew. But at that moment, and not of my choosing, they hit me right in the heart.  They moved me deeply.

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure

C S Lewis wrote a whole long essay about this, this ‘weight of glory’ that we each shall bear.  This beautiful holiness of the human being – often hidden down deep inside us, that will yet be revealed.  It is what we have in common with what we call God.

The Christian story – from scripture – is unique.  The Creator comes into creation; God gets born as a human individual. A baby was born in Bethlehem, with the same kind of fingernails, the same kind of gallbladder, the same kinds of distractions in his brain that we all have.  Our story to tell is of a Supreme Being who actually becomes one of us. That tells the world something about how worthwhile we are.

The Good News also tells us we have purpose. We are saved for good works. (Eph 2:10) Jesus did great things, we shall do greater things. (Jn 14:12) The One who began a good work in you will bring it to completion, says Philippians 1.

Another word picture in the Bible is of the refiner’s fire.  How a metalworker fires up the furnace, and out comes the pure gold.  So it is for humans – there is pure gold in us to be refined.  We heard this today from Malachi 3 .  No, we are not nothing, into which God needs to put something good; at heart we are created good and beautiful.   

How do you show others that they can come out like gold?  That they are precious? That they are loved!  Do you believe this about yourself? Can you say, like Job did, (Job 23:10)
But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold?

The season of Advent and Christmas is a season for storytelling.  So here is a story. Another old- fashioned story by the Rev. William E. Barton.  His tales are about a wise old pastor, Safed the Sage, and his life experiences, long ago.
This story is called ‘The Pens.’

I have a friend who is a maker of Gold Pens. And he said unto me, What doest thou know about Pens?  
And I said, I live hard by a Pen, though not in one; for I am a Writer.
And he said, Come with me, and I will show thee how a Pen is made.

So we entered the Factory, and came into a room where there was a Crucible.  And a man took Fine Gold and weighed it and cast it into the Crucible; and Copper he took also.  And out of the Crucible came forth an Ingot.

And another man took the Ingot and weighed it, and rolled it into a Sheet.  And another man took the Sheet and weighed it, and cut it into Strips. And another man took the Strips and weighed them, and out of every one of them cut he Pens an hundred and forty and four.

And another man took the Pens and curved the sides thereof.  And another man cut out of every several Pen an Hole that was shaped like an heart.  And another man cut in every Pen a Slit.

And every man counted the Pens that were given him, insomuch that if one Pen had been lost, or so much as a grain of gold missing, it would then have been known who had taken it.  

Then did certain damsels take the Pens, and they burnished them and polished them, so that every Pen received of the labor of an hundred men and two score maidens.

And the garments that they wore are burned once in the space of three months, and from the ashes they save more than enough gold to buy new garments.  And when they wash their hands the water runneth into a great Vat and settleth, so that in every month they take from the bottom of the Vat gold to the value of three hundred shekels.

Now I had watched the making of one Pen from the time it came forth in the Ingot till it was completed.  And my friend took that Pen, and caused it to be set in an holder, and gave it to me. And he said, Keep it, for it is thine.
And I bowed low and thanked him.
And he filled the holder with ink.

And I spake unto him, and said, Behold, thou hast showed me a wonderful thing, and I have learned much.  But I will show thee a thing yet more wonderful. For I am filling this Pen not with ink only, but with memory and creative power.  I will cause this Pen to tell the story of its own creation, so that men who live a thousand miles away shall see what I have seen this day.

And he said, Thine is the more wonderful art: for the making of the Pen is not so wonderful as the use thereof.

So I took the Pen, and I wrote this parable therewith.  And I remembered the gold that did not become Pens, but became dust of gold in the garments, and that flowed down the pipe into the Vat.  And I prayed to my God, and said, O my God, who willith not that any of the children of men should perish, if the washings of men’s hands yield not filth only but gold to the value of three hundred shekels in a month, what canst thou do with the souls of men, in the day when hearts are tried as gold is tried in the furnace?

And I know not the answer to my prayer, but my hope is in God.  

(William E. Barton, Safed and Keturah, 1921, pp. 82-84)

If I Live and Nothin’ Happens…

(Philippians 1:21-30; John 14:8-14) J G White
Sunday, Sept 24, 2017, UBC Digby

Ralph is a wise and kind man.  In early retirement he returned to live in his hometown, small town Nova Scotia.  And though he’d had a career away in northern Ontario, Ralph still had all the old-fashioned language he had grown up with in his hometown in the 1940s.  All the sayings of the old-timers.  “Fill yer boots.” “A word to the wise is sufficient.”  “If I live and nothin’ happens…”

No wonder Ralph talked about what he planned for the spring of the year with the preface, “if I live and nothing happens.”  When he was still a little gaffer, an older brother was on a school field trip along the seashore, when a rockfall came down and killed him and another boy.  A few years later, Ralph’s older sister and her husband, and another family member, were in a car that went off the bridge in town and into the tide.  The three adults drowned; Ralph’s baby nephew was saved.  And Ralph himself was almost killed in a serious vehicle accident up on Ontario that ended his working career early.  No wonder he made all his plans in terms of “if I live and nothing happens.”

Ralph’s frequent phrase came to mind as I pondered those famous words of the apostle Paul, “For me, to live is Christ; to die is gain.”  Missionary Paul was aware that death could come at any time.

We know life is fragile… ‘handle with prayer!’
Maureen Potter suddenly gone.  A friend of Sharon and mine, Rev. Clarence Bungay suddenly gone last week.  Constable Frank Deschenes killed suddenly.
Disasters in Mexico, the Caribbean, Florida, etc.  
So, if I live and nothing happens… what will I do?
If I live after something happens… what will I do?

“To live is Christ, to die is Gain.”  There is no third option.  No living without serving God because you are hurt or disabled or almost destroyed.

That was Paul’s experience.  Here he was, writing a letter from his prison cell.  We can’t even tell for sure what prison he was in.  But he writes this letter to the Church in the town of Philippi; it’s his most joyful, happy letter of all!  

Yet, he is ready to be dead. It’s possible.  He is also ready to be alive and do more.  This letter, in and of itself, has been inspiring people for almost the past 2000 years.

I think it was the Moravian Christians who had this symbol:  An Ox between a plow and an ax: ready for either – to work or to die.  Such was Paul’s life. Such is any believer’s life, with Christ, in Christ.  

If you live to suffer through another day, what is your calling?  What will you do?
If you survive this week, or next month, or until next year, what will you do?

It is said there are things worse than death.  And it is what we do when life is rotten that can be truly beautiful.  People go on to live for Christ after physical disability or after disaster comes along.  After emotional trauma makes it so that life is never quite the same again.  After they have been hurt by the Church, by God’s own people.  After they have failed or done terrible things.  
After such things… what is your calling?  Your mission from God?  Your purpose?

Sadly, many people do not find that “to live is Christ.”  To live is just pointless, and what has happened makes them useless to Jesus now.  So they feel.  Many believe their life is wrecked when it comes to being on God’s team.
But in God’s world, this need not be true.  

I wonder about a pastor friend who left ministry last year because he was finally caught in a long-term affair with a church member.  He may be going back into ministry, in another province.  
I wonder about a brilliant retired friend who did time a couple years ago for an abusive moment with his little grand-daughter.  His isolation now is extreme.
I wonder about people like Truena Raymond, with her delightful sense of humour that still shines through, and Christian faith, despite the ravages of dementia to her memory and thinking.
I wonder about many people.  
God isn’t finished with them yet.

The late Henry Nouwen, Catholic pastor and author, is known as a wounded healer.  That’s the title of one of his books, The Wounded Healer.  In it, he tells this story from the Talmud, that classic collection of Jewish wisdom.

Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave… He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”

Nouwen concludes: The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, unbinding his wounds only one at a time, always prepared for the moment when he might be needed. So it is too, with ministers. [Since it is their task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, they must bind their own wounds carefully, in anticipation of the moment when they will be needed.]

They are each called to be the wounded healer, the ones who must not only look after their own wounds, but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. They are both wounded ministers and healing ministers. (pp. 87-88)

Some of our wounds are from things that hit us from outside, and some wounds are self-inflicted.  It is we, all the saints, who have the work of the ministry.  It is wonderful Good News from our Messiah that each and every one of us can be a wounded healer.  

Paul, of old, was definitely a suffering man.  He wrote at the start of his letter, Philippians,
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ. (1:12-13)  

In the middle of great limitations and dangers, Paul was continuing to do what he could.  And though here, he seems to be talking about suffering unjustly for what he has done for Jesus, we also have hints of Paul’s other struggles.  In Romans chapter 7 he exclaims:  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (7:15, 24)

He found his answer in Christ Jesus.  And Paul went on to do great things for God.  We also have the work of Jesus to do.  As we are.

We heard from Jesus, in John 14, today.  I see at least three big ideas here: If you see Me, you see the Father.
You will do greater works than mine.
Ask for anything, and I will do it.
Jesus saying to His people: ‘You will do greater things than what you have seen Me do.’  Really?  Wow!

Let me end with a striking word picture by Max Lucado, talking of “holiness in a bathrobe.”

When your world touches God’s world, the result is a holy moment. When God’s high hope kisses your hurt, that moment is holy. And I’d like to talk to you about the holiest moment of your life.

No, not your birth. Not your wedding. Not the birth of a child. I’m talking about the holiest moment of your life.  These other moments are special. They sparkle with reverence.  But compared to this moment, they are about as holy a burp. I’m talking about the sacred hour. No, not your baptism… [Not your first Communion or your first confession or even your first date.  I know those moments are precious and certainly sacrosanct, but I’ve a different moment in mind.]

It happened this morning. Right after you awoke. Right in your house. Did you miss it? Let me recreate the scene.

The alarm rings… You’ve already hit the sleeper button three times; hit again and you’ll be late. The hour has come. Daybreak has broken. So, with, a groan and a grunt, you throw back the covers and kick a warm foot out into a cold world.

[You stand. At that moment, everything that will hurt during the course of the day hurts. It’s as if the little person in your brain that’s in charge of pain needs to test the circuits before you make it to the bathroom.]

With the grace of a pregnant elephant, you step toward bathroom. You wish there is some way to turn on the light slowly, but there isn’t. So you slap on the spotlight, blink as your eyes adjust, and step up to the bathroom sink.

You are approaching the sacred.  The holiest moment of your life is about to occur. (Get ready. Here it comes. The holy moment is nigh.)

Look in the mirror. Behold the holy one. Don’t turn away. The image of perfection is looking back at you. The holy moment has arrived.

I know what you are thinking. You call that “holy”? You call that “perfect”? You don’t know what I took like at [8:00] A.M.

No, but I can guess.  Hair matted.  Pajamas or nightgown wrinkled. Chunks of sleep stuck in the corners of your eyes. Belly bulging, dried-out lips, pudgy eyes. Breath that could stain a wall. A face that could scare a dog.

“Anything but holy,” you say. [“Give me an hour and I’ll look holy. Give me some coffee, some makeup.”]

But there’s where you’re wrong. You see, what makes the morning moment so holy is its honesty. What makes the morning mirror hallowed is that you are seeing exactly who God sees.
And who God loves.
Just you.

“He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy,” [scripture says.] (Hebrews 10:14)

Now I realize that there’s a sense in which we’re imperfect, says Lucado. We still err. We still stumble. We still do exactly what we don’t want to do. And that part of us is, according to the verse, “being made holy.”

But when it comes to our position before God, we’re perfect. When he sees each of us, he sees one who has been made perfect through the One who is perfect-Jesus Christ.

Go ahead and get dressed. Go ahead and put on the rings, shave the whiskers, comb the hair, and cover the moles. Do it for yourself. Do it for the sake of your image. Do it keep your job. Do it for the benefit of those who have to sit beside you. But don’t do it for God.

[God] has already seen you as you really are. And in [God’s] book, you are perfect. (Lucado, In the Eye of the Storm, 1991, pp. 229-233)

If you live and nothin’ happens, may your life be Christ, in, with and for Christ.  If you live after something happens, may you still be beautiful for God.