March 23rd, 2023
It is almost time for Send Hunger Packing (SHUP) assembly on Saturday! I know just how much preparation, planning, shopping, and donating has gone on by so many of you in order to make our goal of 200 SHUP (Send Hunger Packing) weekend bags, in partnership with Mercer Street Friends. The weather forecast for Saturday looks like rain, which I think helps us all to find passing a morning in the church fellowship hall assembling these bags together the perfect rainy day activity. Hope to see as many of you as can make it. Remember, you can come for as long/short a time as you like between 10am-1pm.
I also wanted to let you know that there is one more opportunity to get fully into the spirit of Lent, a season not only for reflection but for acts of service, and that is to join with ArminArm (formerly Crisis Ministry of Mercer County) and the Centre Street Boys and Girls Club for their Super Saturday event on April 1st.
My family and I volunteered with ArminArm a few Saturdays back at their newest food donation warehouse at the Mill One building in Hamilton. ArminArm helps folks in our community with food, housing, and job support. Their mobile food pantry will be at the Centre Street Boys and Girls Club on April 1st from 11am-1pm in order to hand out food to neighbors there.
They need volunteers to help with the following:
Prepare bags of fresh produce
Prepare bags of frozen meats and (or) eggs
Replenish bags as they go & helping distribute the bags
Taking basic information from clients before they receive food
If you would like to take part in this volunteer opportunity, you can reach out to ArminArm’s volunteer coordinator, Shariq Marshall. You can contact her at (609) 396-9355 ext: 21 or email@example.com. I can’t make it for this April 1st event, but hope to make another one in the near future. I’ve reached out to Shariq to share more info on future opportunities.
Season of Lent
As we journey ever further into this season of Lent, I wonder what God has been teaching you? What have you observed about your own yearnings so far? What discoveries are you making about what you need to do to know about God and to trust God more fully?
Over the past few months, I have been carving out space for the daily spiritual practice of walking with God. I use the time to breathe deeply, to take time for quiet reflection and prayer, and simply to enjoy being with God in nature. The regular rhythm of this practice has been so life-giving. Taking walks, in and of itself, is not a new practice for me, but it is the intentionality in my approach that has been so restorative.
I want to invite each of you into intentional engagement during the final week of Lent, which is, of course, Holy Week. We are preparing several special offerings for Holy Week. The hope is that, as disciples, we can journey with Jesus through the most difficult week of his life. The whole of our faith centers on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We would miss the power of the gospel if we went directly from the “Hosanna’s!” of Palm Sunday to the “Hallelujah’s” of Easter Sunday without experiencing and connecting to all that transpired between those events. But we want to do it in a way that is gentle, thoughtful, and prayerful. And we want to make our offerings accessible to the whole variety of ages and stages of folks in our community.
So, here’s a run-down of what we are planning:
1. Sunday, April 2nd: Palm Sunday is Kid’s First Sunday with communion and lots of special music by our choir. This will be a music-centric, interactive, and engaging service for all ages with the joy of a Fellowship Hour following the worship service.
2. “A Gentle Holy Week”: An Interactive Display. Designed for all ages but with particular focus on telling the story in a way that is appropriate for children, youth, and young families, this 8 stations exhibit is a way to see, hear and interact with the full story of Jesus’ last week, including all that transpired after Palm Sunday and before Easter Sunday. This immersive and interactive display tells the story with words, art, wondering questions, short prayers, and simple activities. We invite the congregation to come experience this display located downstairs. Please invite friends, family and neighbors to come along with you.
“A Gentle Holy Week” Display Hours are:
Following worship on Palm Sunday
April 3rd-5th | noon-3pm
April 6th | noon-3pm | 5:30-8pm
April 7th | 10am-4:30pm
3. Thursday, April 6th: Starting at 6pm, we will share in a special family-friendly Maundy Thursday Potluck & Communion Service in the upstairs Fellowship Hall. We will sit at tables together both for dinner and the communion service and hear a few bible stories about the way that God feeds us.
4. April 7th: Good Friday Service of Silence and Sorrow at 3pm in the upper Fellowship Hall. This service will be in the upstairs Fellowship Hall. The design of the service rests in the belief that in places of sorrow, lament, and grief we meet God differently. In our culture of conflict avoidance, we too often rush through these moments, touching down as lightly as possible as we reach out for the new life offered on Easter Sunday. In doing so, we do not give ourselves a chance to meet the God who sits with us in our sorrow. With this in mind, central to this service is creating a space where people can gather around the cross with as much vulnerability as possible in silence and in sorrow.
5. April 9th: Easter Story Walk & Easter Service. The Easter Story Walk will take place outside, following the sidewalk around the church. Easter eggs will be given out at each stop on the Easter Walk. Come for the story as early at 10:45am. Worship will begin at 11:15am in the sanctuary with pre-service music and activities from 11:00-11:15am.
I hope you will begin thinking about how you want to be intentional in your experience of Holy Week this year.
December 01st, 2022
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
keep your lamps trimmed and burning, for the time is drawing nigh.
Refrain: Children, don't grow weary, children, don't grow weary, children, don't grow weary, for the time is drawing nigh. (African American Spiritual)
Advent is here: that season of waiting and waiting and waiting. Being raised in a non-denominational church, all I knew of Advent was the great fun of having a chocolate Advent calendar and reading a little bit of the nativity story each night before bed. When I became a theology major in college, I discovered the true power of the liturgical season of Advent.
Advent rituals, with the richness of their symbols, colors, scripture, hymns, and candles, take us on a journey together each year. Our hopes, fears, and longing hearts await the redemption that comes from God alone, who enters our world to turn everything on its head until all wrongs are made right and God is all in all.
We begin again at the beginning with the Season of Advent each year to better live into the tension that while we and the world have already been delivered, our and the world’s full and final deliverance is still to come.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and killed for his resistance to Nazi Germany, wrote from his prison cell that: “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes - and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.” In this way, Advent is not for the faith of heart.
When we ask Jesus to come into our lives at Advent, what we are really awaiting is full and deep change in society and ourselves, until things are on earth as in heaven. When we ask Jesus to come, God’s advent asks us to prepare the way—to yearn and work—for tangible structural and relational change.
When we light the first candle for HOPE during Advent, we are called to remember the voice and vision of the prophets and peoples who longed for a Savior and leader who would ease their suffering, and bring justice and well-being to their nations and communities. They waited in hope.
Too often, I wait in hopelessness—a symptom of my privileged place in life. Those of us who are well off and at ease have the luxury of feeling despair. It’s easy to look around at our dysfunctional politics, endemic racism, the unbalanced distribution of wealth, and climate change and become overwhelmed . . . and then disengaged. But those who are oppressed or connected intimately with systemic suffering have the greatest capacity—and sense the most urgency—for hope and for compassion.
With clear-eyed hope, may we be led this Advent season into a repentance that so transforms our hearts that we learn anew how to really participate in God’s inbreaking kingdom here and now. Amen.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
Do you ever find yourself longing for a different way, a rhythm of peace and joy, one not pushing you at a pace that makes you weary before you begin? As I started my day today, my heart was racing and my mind was full. I had a long to-do list, and I knew the minutes counted. I wanted to work smarter not harder, to accomplish all I needed to do (and more!), and yet a voice deeper inside me reminded me that what I really wanted was stillness, quiet, and to know the presence of God with me.
I took a deep breath, stepped away from the computer, the emails, my day’s to-do list, and I sat for a few minutes with God, some beautiful music, and my journal. Asking God to still my heart and my mind, I suddenly felt a deep calm wash over me. I paused for a few minutes and just savored the peace that God was so good to give me, feeling so grateful this immediately answered prayer. It was as if God was saying to me, “my child, if you but ask me, I will give you rest and peace. Be still and know that I am God.”
Have you ever considered that when God created the world, God imbued it with rhythms and a sacred pulse? There is night and day, moon and sun, water and dry land. We were placed in the midst of this movement and rhythm to learn how to dance with God, with one another, and with creation. The dances of God are these: dances of justice, mercy, compassion, love, nourishment, and wholeness.
Of course, we know the story: humans choose, over and over, our own way, a way of self-interest above the interest of others, a way that brings sin, separation, and death. We were made for wholeness and vibrancy, but we choose a different way, moving out of step with the song God wants to sing with us. The good news is that each time we follow the promptings of God’s Spirit to listen again to God’s song, we find the rhythm of God’s beat, which was made for the flourishing of all.
I invite you to join me in finding pause in your life to hear God whispering to you that you are beloved. I invite you to join me in letting go of whatever feelings of shame and inadequacy you feel so that you can hear the song of God that not only brings healing but invites you to dance. God is ready and waiting for us to choose a new path: one that leads to connection, healing, and joy. When you find yourself longing for another way, God’s restoring shalom is reaching out to embrace you. That ache of you feel deep inside is the reminder that you are being invited to dance. So, just listen. The song is there, being sung over us. It is never too late to retrain our ears to hear it.
May you know peace,
Pastor Shannon shares a message about the tragic events of the past few days from the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). She leads a prayer for the victims and loved ones as we ask God to heed our call for justice and to help us not lose hope.
March 24th, 2020 - Rev Rob
Lesson # 3 "The two parables of Jesus" in Matthew 13: 44-46 are similar and yet they are different. First, one needs to see that for Jesus the Kingdom of Heaven is one of unsurpased value. In these two parables, the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price remind me of Indiana Jones searching for the Lost Ark (the golden chest of the Ten Commandments and the Holy Throne of God) and the Holy Grail (the chalice that Jesus used at the Last Supper). Their value and power are eternal and beyond all imagination. Indiana and the Nazis will do anything to possess them.
In our present day, one can liken the hidden treasure and the pearl to the most valuable diamonds in all history. Think about the Hope Diamond of 45.52 carats or the Cullinan Diamond of 530.2 carats -- the Great Star of Africa. The value of the Kingdom of Heaven is beyond any of these diamonds.
Still, the parables are not only focused on the treasures themselves. In the parable of the treasure in the field, there is the response and behavior of a disciple -- One is surprised and elated. In this way, the Kingdom of Heaven is astonishing and comes upon us in most unexpected ways. The Kingdom of Heaven is of divine origin and gives us supreme joy and happiness.
Furthermore, the Kingdom of Heaven involves a person's resourceful passion and zeal. That is the kind of attitude and energy, the kind of faith that is embodied by people in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Besides the value of the pearl is the quest, the searching, the longing pursuit to do anything to have that one pearl. It is like the adventures where Indiana Jones will do anything to find the treasure. There is the challenge, the excitement, the lure and the journey.
What does that mean for us? Yes, in these parables the value of the treasure and the pearl have great monetary price. That is true. But they also describe the character of the pilgrim, the disciple, the people who follow Jesus. As Christians we will go the second mile to be a part of God's family, God's Kingdom. Even with this crazy, crazy coronavirus, we are called to follow Jesus to the cross and victory. We will not give up. Amen, Hallelujah Amen.
1. And what MORE do these parable say to you? Let me know.
2. And which of the other parables do you like? Why?
3. What questions do you have about these parables?
Here is Lesson # 2 of our Lenten Bible Study. Last week we were at the church. This week I am at home and it does not look like we will be meeting at the church for some time. This is March Madness without the basketball, Yuk. So, instead we go to Matthew 13 and look at all the parables.
Review "The Great Physician" heals the sick, see Matthew 9. Yes, last week we talked about Jesus healing the sick. Thanks for all your comments and insights. Jesus' ministry is especially relevant as new cases are constantly breaking out. (Yesterday NYC had 980 cases, today that has doubled to 1,990!)
How do we respond? It is a strange and surreal world. Check out Salvador Dali's painting, "The Persistence of Memory" -- how bizarre. It doesn't make sense -- a desert wilderness of soft clocks and bending time -- Weird -- Look it up on the internet!
In such a time as this, we have no frame of reference, no baseball, no parties, no church services, except to go to Jesus in the Bible. So we go and learn from Jesus. And how do we learn from him? Matthew 13:34 tells us "he would not say a thing to them without using a parable." Indeed Jesus said, "I will use parables when I speak, I will tell them things unknown since the creation of the world."
Lesson # 2 "The Stories and Parables of Jesus" Matthew 13 is a long chapter with 8 parables. What a challenge. I don't expect you to understand each one. Each one has more than one meaning. They are "multi-layered." For example, look at the parable of the mustard seed, Matthew 13: 31. My friend, Pastor Jo Gatto preached this text here March 8 and handed out mustard seeds with a verse from Proverbs. (If you did not get one, I will mail you one.) She talked about F-A-I-T-H -- "FATHER ARE INTO THY HANDS." Trusting God in all we do. Thanks, Jo. Well done.
Now let us look at more meanings of this text. The mustard seed is small, so small that it could easily go unnoticed. So small like a child in Bethlehem, born in a manger. So small in comparison with the Roman Empire and the Great Temple of Jerusalem -- so small only shepherds came to see the birth. And yet that child grew up to be the greatest leader -- greater than all the Emperors or High Priests! And so the mustard seed grows and grows into a great tree -- a beautiful yellow tree -- full of fragrance and delight. But that is not enough. There is more meaning. The branches provide a home -- a home for the birds of the air!!! And yes, Jesus provides a home for us and all people. Amazing.
1. And what MORE does this parable say to you? Let me know.
2. And which of the other parables do you like? Why?
3. What questions do you have about these parables?
Thanks. Please let me know your thoughts and I will respond.
Yours in Christ, Rev Rob
In Jesus, God saves us by becoming so vulnerable that we are able to kill him in a vile and humiliating way. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus assure us that God's offer of friendship will never be withdrawn, no matter what we do. If the cross did not result in a withdrawal of the offer, then nothing we do will lead to a change of God's heart. We can, however, refuse the offer. Friendship is a mutual relationship, and a person has to accept the offer; he or she cannot be coerced or tricked into it. And any human being's final refusal of God's friendship breaks God's heart. Still, God does not turn away from such a person in anger and rage. God lives eternally with a broken heart. That's how vulnerable God wants to be.
Those of us who are parents can relate to God's vulnerability. There is a saying that having a child is like putting limbs on your heart and setting it free in the world. We have this intense love for our children - no matter what - that indeed makes us vulnerable.
In my family's experience, we have had many a talk with our grown children about the extent of our love for them. Afraid that in these beginning years on their own they might lose their way at some point, make some mistake they think is unforgivable, or something awful might happen that tears them away from us, we have tried to make it perfectly clear that we will ALWAYS love them, and that they are welcome home under absolutely any circumstances. We probably give them that speech more often than necessary, but we're doing all we can to drill it deep into their psyche. You are always loved, you are always welcome, and nothing will ever change that. There is a lot that can happen in this world-sometimes by one's own choices and sometimes by force-and nothing terrifies us more than losing our children. Indeed, if they ever turn their back on us we would be completely heartbroken, but we wouldn't give up on them. Ever.
Imagine that love we have as parents is merely a small reflection of the vulnerable, all-invested love that God has for us all. God's heart carries a perfect love, even greater than that of a parent for a child, for each and every one of us. For me, that's unfathomable. Jesus tries to give us a sense of it in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but as we know, Jesus used parables to give us a glimpse of understanding into something far greater than we could possibly comprehend. Thus, that parable shows us that the love of the forgiving father is just the beginning.
Now here's the challenge. The all-invested, life-changing love that a parent has for a child is also just the beginning. We are called to be disciples on this earth, to serve others and to treat others as Jesus would. Does that not mean that the intense love between a parent and child should be the same love we offer every child of God? The Lenten season is an opportunity for us to grow in discipleship in anticipation of the resurrection, when all will love and be loved perfectly. What better way to prepare than to practice the loving-kindness of God?
May you be blessed throughout Lent, particularly during Holy Week, and may Easter bring you joy!
We can see the truth of Lord Acton's dictum, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," in the life of King David. The story of David and Bathsheba's liaison starts in an unexpected way, "In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem." David and his people have come to view spring as "war season." Battles have become so common, it seems that every spring David is sending "all of Israel" out to fight someone somewhere. This fulfills the warning God gave to the Israelites back in 1 Samuel when they begged Samuel for a king other than God so they could be just like every other nation. Samuel shared with them the words of the Lord about what a king would do, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots." Now the people are noticing that God and Samuel were right. Having a king isn't all it was cracked up to be. David, it seems, has fully transformed from shepherd and servant to a king like all the others.
To further illustrate the point, we are shown his "relationship" with Bathsheba. This is a story about a man of privilege taking advantage -- because he can. David sees Bathsheba on the roof of her house. Filled with lust and drunk with power, David sends for her so that he can have his way with her. When David sends his servant "to get" her, the Hebrew word is actually better translated "to take" her. Bathsheba, a woman married to a foreigner, certainly did not have the power in that culture to refuse the advances of the king.
When David is done with her, she returns to her home, and that appears to be that. Until, that is, Bathsheba utters the only three words she says in the entire story, "I am pregnant." Now, David has a problem. His solution is a cover-up that spirals out of control. Abusing his power again, David calls Bathsheba's husband home from battle. He hopes they will spend a night together, alleviating suspicion when Bathsheba has a child eight or nine months later. What David doesn't count on, though, is that Uriah the Hittite, a foreigner fighting in David's army, is far more loyal and moral than the warrior king of Israel. Uriah refuses to enjoy the comforts of home while his platoon is out on the battlefield.
David abuses his power once more, giving orders that are certain to have Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, killed in battle. Uriah is killed by the Ammonites just as David planned. David doesn't do this for love; he does it because he's in trouble. This murder is a cover-up. David does all of these machinations so that he may hide his sin and maintain his reputation and power.
David, the former shepherd, is now King David. He sends his people into a battle he doesn't deem important enough to attend himself. He uses Bathsheba for his pleasure and sends her away when he is through. Eventually, he uses his commanders to put Uriah in a vulnerable position that gets Uriah killed. The affair of David and Bathsheba is the story of one who has allowed his status to affect his judgment. David has lost sight of the value of other people, and sees them, instead, as means to his ends. He has come to view people as objects, and disposable ones at that.
While we may never be a king, president or head of state, we, too, must to pay attention to this story. If David, who elsewhere is described as a man after God's own heart, can become so enamored with his power as to use people to serve his own ends, so can we. But if we can learn from David's negative example, we can learn even more from Christ. Contrast King David to the vision of Jesus we read of in Philippians. The apostle Paul, writing to a church bickering over who is right and probably suffering through power struggles, encourages these early Christians to think differently about their power.
"Let each of you look not to your own interests," he writes, "but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." He then goes on to describe how Jesus viewed his power. "Who, though he was in the form of God," imbued with far more power than any of us will ever have, "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself ... he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:4-8).
The story of David and Bathsheba at its heart is a story about the abuse of power, a temptation all of us face. May we not get so enamored with our power that we see only our personal benefit and shirk the great responsibility we have for those whom we lead. May we not abuse our status as King David does at this time in his life. May we instead build up one another as young David the shepherd and Jesus the great shepherd did.
Rev. Dr. Shannon Smythe
United Presbyterian Church