Pastoral Messages

Previous Sermons

  • Sunday, October 19, 2014 - Confirmands Introduced

    Gentleness Matthew 11:29-31 Gentleness is the word of the week. Paul, in the letter to the Galatians, mentions ‘gentleness’ as one fruit of the spirit. I recall pictures of Jesus in Children’s Bibles where he looks so gentle- Jesus carrying a sheep on his shoulders, Jesus with children on his lap, Jesus with long flowing hair and big blue eyes.

  • Sunday, September 28, 2014 -- Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

    Patience Luke 2:15-20 When Pastor Jay asked me to preach today, he told me that today’s word of the day was patience. I just looked at him and told him - I don’t have any- maybe that’s why I need to preach about it! Then he shared the Scripture passage which he had chosen: the shepherds hear the big news from the angel that Jesus is born and they visit the newborn baby Jesus and Mary.

  • Sunday, August 31, 2014 -- Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

    The Call Exodus 3:1-15 Do you remember the time before cell phones? Do you remember the time when a phone was a rotary phone and you had to dial all the way till the end to dial a 9? Do you remember the time when you got excited receiving a call because phone calls were rare and costly?

  • Sunday, August 24, 2014 -- Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

    Courage & Compassion Exodus 2:1-10 Have you ever loved? Have you ever loved and had to let go? Maybe you remember when your child made that first step onto that huge yellow school bus?

  • Sunday, August 3, 2014 -- Seventh Sunday After Pentecost

    WRESTLING WITH GOD Genesis 32:3-31 Do you like your name? Isn’t it interesting that your parents chose a name for you, probably before you were born and you are carrying it with you all your life? Your name sticks with you- just like the color of your eyes.  Yes, you might have nick names or maybe your name is shortened- James turns into Jim, William into Bill or Deborah into Debbie.

  • Sunday, July 20, 2014 -- Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

    THE DREAMER Genesis 28:10-22 Good morning. Did you have a good night’s sleep? Did you have any sweet dreams?

  • Sunday, July 13, 2014 -- Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

    FAVORITE FOOD Genesis 25:19-24 What’s your favorite food? Pizza? Or Sushi?

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  • Sunday, December 8, 2013 -- Second Sunday of Advent


    WHO IS HE AT THE CHRISTMAS PARTY?

    Matthew 3:1-12

    This is the time for Christmas parties. However, this Christmas party is different. The house was decorated beautifully, all the lights were on, many people and a great time. I met a friend who I haven’t seen in a while and we talked.
     
    After a while, I noticed something—or shall I rather say someone—who caught my eyes. That person looked a bit different. He was standing all by himself in a corner at the other side of the room. So I asked my friend if he had seen this person before. First of all, he isn’t wearing any Christmas outfit—nothing red or gold, or anything festive. Actually, the outfit looked rather interesting. Something I hadn’t seen before. Brown, rather shaggy looking—and it looked like hair was sticking out all over the place. Do I see what I think I see? What this man over there is wearing looks like hair, more precisely animal hair. Like a coat of a camel.
     
    My friend and I are getting curious and we are making our way through the living room toward the rather unusual looking guy. Normally I can trust my sense of smell pretty well. This is a different smell—the closer we get to that person the stronger the smell gets. That’s not your eggnog or peppermint holiday odor—that smell is from outdoors.
     
    And look what he has on his plate—not the expensive food catered. It looks like honey. And what does he want to go with that? Locusts? They are like grasshoppers. I haven’t seen anybody eating locusts before. Are they a delicacy? How do you eat them? Deep fried with ketchup?
     
    I know, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I try very hard not to have any prejudices. Be open minded, I tell myself. Introduce yourself. Stir up a conversation and get to know him. Make him feel welcome. I am telling myself all these things as I approach him. But to be honest—if I would have met a person who looks and smells like him on the streets, I probably would just pass by. First impressions are everything. It takes less than a second to make up first impressions in people. Less than a second—that’s not long at all. So far my first impressions are not very impressionable.
     
    My friend and I are both making our way to the other side of the room. Other party guests have the same idea. I see some curious expressions on their faces. Nobody here seems to know him either. I hear his name is John. This is John’s first appearance. He is getting ready to give a speech.
     
    John gets up and seems to be pleased that so many are gathered around him. I wonder what his first words will be. Is he going to thank us all for the great party and wish us a nice Holiday? Better something good, after all, I left the food table. Those desserts looked yummy and I don’t want to miss them.
     
    John is ready. The music stops and we are all ears. As we all know, in order to capture your audience, the first words determine if people will listen or leave. Wonder what he’s talking about in this holiday season: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” What did he just say? “Repent?”
     
    Why should I repent—I haven’t done anything wrong.  Who is he to tell me what to do?  The minute I hear him speak, I get angry. I don’t have any warm fuzzy feelings about him. This John reminds me of the people standing at the street corner with those huge signs up: “Repent.” I have seen them, especially at off ramps of the highway. What I do when I see them? I turn away and speed up.  
     
    Yes, I could just leave the room, but for whatever reason I am glued to him, he who doesn’t fit into the party crowd. He reminds me of someone. Someone I heard about before.
     
    Now I remember:  Every year before Christmas, in Advent, we hear about John the Baptist.  He is the one who is like the Grinch who stole Christmas. Every year before Christmas, he appears. Not only does he wear camel hair, eating locusts and honey, but also he appears in every gospel. That is even more than the story about Jesus’ birth, which is only in two of the four gospels.
     
    Each of the gospels, even though they write about John the Baptist, have their own little tweaks.
    My friend standing next to me at the party pulls out his phone from his pocket, opens an app and shows me the screen. Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3, verse 2—Matthew is the gospel writer who gives us a direct quote of John's preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
     
    Repent— I don’t like to hear that word. Because it indicates that I did something wrong and need to say I’m sorry. I don’t like it when other people remind me of the mistakes I make. It feels like being pulled over by the police for a violation of the speed limit.
     
    Next I feel defensive: Repenting— me? My friend with the app on his phone tries to calm me down. He explains to me that the Greek word means not only to be sorry for what I did wrong, but “to change one's mind.” Ok, I could change my mind about certain things, like my favorite dessert or what to wear to work tomorrow.
     
    My friend reads my mind.
     
    No, that’s not what John means. The gospel writer Matthew makes sure we understand the Jewish background of his message—and in Hebrew the word “repent” means to change one’s ways, to change how we live. John uses the present tense, which in Greek indicates continuous or repeated actions: “Repent, repent, repent” or “Keep on repenting!” This is not a once for all done deal, but an ongoing process. Keep on changing, go on and change how you live.
     
    This is uncomfortable for me. John gets under my skin. Repent is more than just to turn around after you make a wrong turn driving, and the friendly voice of your GPS reminds you now to turn around. Turn around, turn around.
     
    John digs deeper. I can’t just turn away or ignore him. He got me in a way that it hurts—right at the nerve ending. It goes through and through. Ouch—and I cringe.
     
    What’s going on? Why are his words hitting like a 2x4? I feel like being seen through, like being x-rayed or going through the MRI. The feeling that all my secrets are exposed, that all is out in the open, that I see myself in the mirror.
     
    Looking at myself in the mirror—what do I see? Some grey hair and wrinkles and a few extra pounds. All this I can cover up with some creams and a smart outfit. However, when I look beyond that, what do I see? I take self-inventory.  I could be pretty content of what I discover: a good job, living in a nice home, can afford to travel from time to time—but still—somehow deep down, I feel empty. Something is missing. There is a hole.
     
    Looking at my life I see the same every day: go to work, get home, fix dinner, do laundry and go to bed. Next day, same thing. The only difference might be that after I get home I might first do laundry and then fix dinner.
     
    Is this what life is all about? Life must be more than that. Repent—that word sticks with me—turn around, change your life.
     
    I wonder: Who am I deep inside and what do I do to live a fulfilled life? Life is more than doing chores. How can I live and enjoy each day and all the opportunities God presents. How can I discover what Advent and Christmas means for me? According to John, the kingdom of heaven has come near. In the Greek it implies that the kingdom “has come” and “is now.” There is both a present and future aspect to its coming. Heaven’s rule comes with Jesus, but we are still waiting for it.
     
    I get the point that life is more than doing chores. I get the point that we are waiting for Christmas and that again we are waiting that God comes to us. Yes, God can change us, God can open our eyes and hearts—so that we are encouraged to be there for others.  Yes, I could find reasons who to live for. Maybe I could volunteer. There are so many opportunities out there. Others tell me how fulfilling it is to help others. But then I wonder: what difference can I make? I am just alone. And alone I am nothing.
     
    My friend closes his phone, looks at me and says, “Let me tell you a story.”
     
    “How much do you think a snowflake weighs?” the mouse asked the sparrow. “A snowflake weighs nothing more than nothing,” the sparrow replied. “A snowflake is so insignificant, it carries almost no weight at all. How could you possibly weigh a snowflake?”
     
    “Oh, I disagree,” said the mouse.  “In fact, I can tell you that last winter, around this time, I woke up from my winter dreaming and sat here counting the snowflakes as they fell. I watched them settling on these branches, and covering the pine needles with a blanket of whiteness. I got as far as two million, four hundred and ninety-two thousand, three hundred and fifty-two.  I watched as the next one fell: Two million, four hundred and ninety-two thousand, three hundred and fifty-three.  Suddenly the branch dropped right down to the ground and fell to the ground, covered with two million, four hundred and ninety-two thousand, three hundred and fifty-three nothing less than nothing. 
     
    The sparrow, who was only a tiny, little bird herself and didn't think she had much influence on the great, big world around her, pondered for a long time over the mouse's story. “Perhaps,” she thought to herself, “it really is true that just one little voice can make a difference.”

    My friend looks at me, smiles and says, “Go ahead, repent, turn around, enjoy life and don’t forget that one little snowflake can make a difference.”
     
    Amen.

    Rev. Dr. Sigrid Rother
    Westerville Community United Church of Christ
    December 8, 2013
    Second Sunday of Advent

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  • Sunday, November 10, 2013 -- Veterans Day Sunday


    WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

    Luke 20:27-38

    Sometimes children’s books are filled with deep wisdom. One well-read children’s book in our house is called If You Give a Pig a Pancake. The plot is fairly simple—the whole book answers the question what would happen if you give a pig a pancake? If you give a pig a pancake, she’ll want some syrup to go with it. And after you give some syrup with the pancake, she then gets all sticky, and she needs to take a bath. And after that? The whole book is a series of “what happens next” questions and answers, followed by the next “What happens next?”  Very interesting questions, however not likely to happen in real life.
     
    This fun children’s book reminds me of the rhetorical question Jesus is asked. Today’s gospel reading is part of a series—and all of them are trick questions to Jesus. No matter what answer Jesus gives, it’s not what the people who ask him want to hear.
     
    Jesus has entered Jerusalem.  He has less than a week to live—and he is confronted with different authorities. This time it’s the Sadducees. This is the only time in Luke’s gospel when the Sadducees are mentioned. They have a single chance to ask Jesus a question. Make it count. The Sadducees have one question to Jesus—one shot only. It’s now or never—make it count—similar to the 11-meter shootout after a tied overtime in soccer.  This is the only chance they have. Now or never.  Here is the well-thought out question to Jesus. This has to be a good one.
     
    The Sadducees are a religious group and they highly value the five books of Moses. They believe that if something is not mentioned in the five books of Moses, then it doesn’t exist.
     
    Here is the big moment: Their only chance to ask Jesus a question.
     
    The Sadducees decide to ask Jesus a question about the resurrection. The five books of Moses don’t say anything about the resurrection. That’s why in their opinion the resurrection does not exist and the Sadducees do not believe in it. Quite logical.
     
    They want to trick Jesus with a very theoretical case. The aim of the game is to prove to Jesus that the idea of the resurrection is absurd. So they pose to him the following logical scenario. Several questions are all wrapped up in one when they ask the "gotcha” question.
     
    According to the law of Moses, after a husband dies, the woman will be married to his brother. Back then it was partly a protection for the woman, since social security or life insurance didn’t exist.  Only a married woman was protected and cared for by her husband. As a widow she would be dependent on alms and pity by others. If the deceased husband is also a father, and the woman is going to marry his brother, the children would continue to be part of the family tradition. The family line would continue for future generations.
     
    The Sadducees, who want to trick Jesus, are not so interested in the wellbeing of the woman who just lost her husband or the wellbeing of the children. Instead, they take the scenario to the extreme. They want to know what happens next, so they ask for the very theoretical case: Who is this woman married to after she dies? Who of the seven brothers is going to be her husband after she dies? Their theoretical case makes logical sense, even so it’s a bit absurd.
     
    The Sadducees are anxious and wait for what Jesus’ response.
     
    What does Jesus say?
     
    Jesus does not tell them: Dear Sadducees, I honor the fact that you know the religious laws so well. However, isn’t it the case that you don’t believe in the resurrection in the first place? So why then do you want to know what’s going to happen to her?
     
    Jesus does not tell them: Listen my friends, we are in Jerusalem. This is my final week of being alive. I am emotionally drained.  And here you are asking me a very theoretical question about who is this woman being married to after death? I have lots of things to take care of, like celebrating the last supper with my disciples and telling them what to expect at the end of this week when I am going to be crucified.
     
    Jesus does not tell them: Dear Sadducees, I appreciate your knowledge of the law and that you are interested in my opinion. I value your logical thinking, however abstract your case might be. However I don’t have time for you right now. You are wasting my precious time with your hair splitting legal disputes.
     
    What does Jesus say?
     
    First he declares that life after death is totally different than when we are alive. Then Jesus uses Scripture, he same five books of Moses as the Sadducees use as their foundation to argue to make his point.
     
    Jesus argues, that from the time of Moses, the resurrection has been mentioned in Scripture. And to use the logic of the Sadducees, therefore the resurrection does exist. Here goes his argument: Remember the story of the burning bush? God introduces himself to Moses and identifies himself as: I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.
     
    Jesus argues, since God uses the present tense and said: I AM the God of Abraham and all the Patriarchs, even though they are all deceased, therefore the resurrection exists and God is a God of the living and not the dead. Even though Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are long gone, for God they are still alive. Because God says “I am” and not “I was,” Abraham is alive now. He died a physical death, but he must have been brought back to life, resurrected. God is truly “God…of the living.” Therefore our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living.
     
    The Sadducees, who thought they can get Jesus by using Scripture against him, are now caught and the “gotcha” question had turned on them in fullest measure.
     
    The Sadducees had one chance to ask Jesus a question. They thought in their own logic, they got Jesus with a question about religious tradition. Only to find out that Jesus is not so concerned about all the traditions, but more with the here and now. Because our God is a God of the living and not of the dead.
     
    Traditions—for the Sadducees only what is written in the five books of Moses is valid. If it’s not written there, it doesn’t exist. Traditions—they are wonderful. I love turkey for Thanksgiving and watching the fireworks on July 4th. Traditions—however sometimes they might be hindering us from opening our eyes for new opportunities. Have you ever heard the argument: “We have never done it that way—and therefore it won’t be done that way ever”? Period.
     
    Family reunions are always a great time. Couple of years ago we met in the town we grew up in. We could see the house we lived in, we could walk to the middle and high school at least three of us five attended, and share memories going down memory lane.
     
    On Saturday afternoon we were walking to our old school and on the way back we were planning to stop for coffee and cake at a little café. Our old school was located just beyond a lake, small, but still big enough to go for a canoe ride. Next to the little lake is a little café and we thought this was the perfect spot for a well-deserved rest. It was a beautiful warm September afternoon, so we decided to sit outside on the porch, overlooking the water. Everyone in our group, about 30 people, was talking about what to eat or to drink. Big decisions to make—cheesecake or the apple dumplings? Or rather some ice cream? Coffee or hot chocolate or rather a cold drink?
     
    While we were deciding of what to order, I made the suggestion of pushing tables together, so that we can all sit as a group and not divided at separate tables. So we moved chairs and tables, and arranged them in one big setting. Nobody else besides us was on the porch, and there were only few people inside the restaurant. Moving the chairs and tables didn’t take long, we decided who sits next to whom and what each of us would like to order.
     
    The waitress came and we were eager to get our orders in—lots of coffee, some teas, lemonade, cakes, ice cream, and one or two of our group even wanted to order an early dinner.
     
    However, instead of taking our orders, she looked at us and said, “Who decided to move the tables together?” I raised my hand and spoke up: “It was me, since we are such a big group and we haven’t seen each other for a year. This is our annual family reunion and so I thought it would be nice to sit together to catch up with one another.”
     
    “Who gave you permission to do so?” She asked. “Nobody,” I said, “I just did it. I suggested it, it seemed to be a good idea to us all and we all worked together of moving chairs and tables.”
     
    “You can’t do that,” was her response. “Why?” I wanted to know.
     
    “Because it hasn’t been done before. The tradition is that all tables and chairs have to be in order.”
     
    “But,” I tried to argue, “There is nobody else sitting out here. We are about 30 people, everyone is hungry and we want to stop for some coffee and cake and some folks even want to order dinner.  You will probably get a good tip tonight. This might be your best afternoon ever. You still have a few tables and chairs left out here. There are just a few people inside—so in case suddenly you get the rush of people stopping by for refreshments, you still are able to serve them all.”
     
    “No,” she said—this time more sternly. “You can’t just come here, move all the furniture and demand that I am going to serve you. What happens next?”
     
    What happens next? What happens if we think of something new which was never thought before? What happens if people not only think, but also act on doing something innovative like moving tables and chairs? What happens when people honor the traditions of the past however and try to accommodate the traditions to their present life?
     
    Maybe then, we when we see the past as past and the presence as a present, and embrace the new opportunities each day offers?
     
    Maybe then people are not stuck in and with traditions of we have always done it that way, but people encounter the living Christ and their lives won’t be the same as before?
     
    Maybe then people are like the Sadducees in our story and no longer dare to ask another question.
     
    I started out with quoting a children’s book and I am closing with characters of a children’s book one as well:
     
    Winnie the Pooh asked, “What day is it?”
    “It’s today,” said Piglet.
    “My favorite day,” said Pooh.
     
    May today be your favorite day—value the traditions of the past, experience the living Christ, because our God is the God of the living, not the dead.  Amen.
     
    Rev. Dr. Sigrid Rother
    Westerville Community United Church of Christ
    November 10, 2013
    Veterans Day Sunday

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  • Sunday, October 13, 2013 -- CROP Walk Sunday


    A THANK YOU NOTE

    Luke 17:11-19

    Have you been to the store lately? You might have noticed the overflowing boxes of candy in the shelves. That’s a good indication that Halloween and Trick or Treat Night is just around the corner. Time to stock up on sweets, chocolates and all kids of yummy candy.
     
    In two weeks little princesses, goblins, pumpkins—kids in costumes knock at the door shouting: “Trick or Treat!”  Then all these boys and girls in costumes will be given candy or other goodies. Regardless of who they are, regardless if they say thank you or run across the lawn, if they come as pirates or as a fairy. Regardless if they have been good or not. In that regard Halloween is even better than even Christmas with Santa Claus. Because the song: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” goes like this: “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, Santa Claus is coming to town.”
     
    Halloween is different—people giving you goodies regardless if you deserve them or not.
    Halloween is different—people giving you candy regardless who you are or how you look like.
    Halloween is different—people giving you goodies regardless if you say thank you or not.
     
    That’s one of the reasons why I as a Christian like Trick or Treat. Many churches don’t want to celebrate this Pagan festival, but for me the trick or treat night reminds me of God’s unconditional love and God’s grace given to all of us. True gifts—given to us regardless of anything we did or didn’t do, regardless of who we are, regardless of good behavior or not.
     
    Trick or treat—or the night of costumes and candy—is what grace is all about. Grace is given to you—regardless of if we deserve it or not. Grace is given to us regardless of who we are or how look like. Grace is given to you regardless if we say thank you or not. God showers us with abundant grace—and it’s up to us how we react.
     
    The big question comes: What do you do after receiving the candy? Do you run excitedly to the next house across the lawn because you can’t wait to receive more? Or do you use your manners, say thank you, and slowly walk down the sidewalk? Do you look forward to more or do you pause, give thanks for the undeserved gift just received and are happy that your cup is overflowing?
     
    As adults we try to be role models to our kids. Parenting is not easy. Often I hear parents say after their child receives a gift: “Now what do you say?” Don’t get me wrong—teaching manners is important, but what is even more important is why we say thank you.
     
    The real thank you comes not because we are taught to say a certain thing, but because thankfulness comes from our heart. The real thank you is based on a feeling of gratitude, a feeling of “I could not have done it without you,” a feeling of relationship to the giver. The word thanks—derives from the word “to think.” We give thanks not because we think about it, but because we think about the relationship we have with the person who was so gracious and thought of us. We give thanks because we live in relationship. We give thanks because we value that we were thought about.
     
    In today’s Gospel story, Jesus heals ten lepers. Leprosy was much more than just a skin disease—people were excluded from society, they couldn’t participate at any social functions, they were shunned. People with leprosy were totally left out—nobody wanted to have anything to do with them or coming even close to them in fear of being infected. The social stigma was much more than the physical pain.
     
    Jesus heals all ten lepers. Jesus touches those who are untouchable. He overcomes social boundaries. Jesus includes them into the circle. He widens the ever widening circle.
    After they are healed, Jesus doesn’t tell them to write a thank you note. However, Jesus tells them that they should show themselves to the priests. Because the priests were the people who decide who is in the club or outside. The priests, the religious authorities had lots of power over people—to show yourself to the priests was necessary in order to be part of the community and friends.
     
    After the ten are healed, they go on with their lives—joyful to be cleansed and to be included again.
     
    One of the ten lepers—one out of ten, that’s 10%—returns back to Jesus and says thank you. Are the other nine not thankful? Are the other nine—the vast majority—not grateful that Jesus healed them? Of course they are. So why did they not say thank you? Don’t they have any manners?

    Maybe they were too busy celebrating? Maybe because they were too excited to finally return to their families? Maybe they were focusing on their new lives and not looking back on what happened to them.
     
    We don’t know why they didn’t say thank you. We don’t know why they just went on with their lives and forgot what gifts they just received. We don’t know.
     
    It’s easy to be judgmental and to point fingers. And to say: How could they? But we just don’t know the reasons why they didn’t do: pause, think and thank.
     
    We could worry and waste our time why the other nine didn’t say thank you.
     
    Yes, we could do that. However it might be healthier to just say: For whatever reason they didn’t do it.  Let us not dwell in the fact that those nine didn’t do what we think was right. Let us rather focus on living in relationship. In relationship to God, in relationship to Jesus Christ who heals us from so many exclusion and in relationship to other people.
     
    They didn’t do it and I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for them that these nine people ignore the miracle just happened to them. I feel sorry to them that they don’t live in relationship to Jesus and to others.
     
    They went on with their lives—and so let us do the same. But with a small difference: we take time to pause, to think and to thank. Because our lives are changed—it is all by God’s grace through Jesus.
     
    The other day I went down memory lane and browsed through my boxes of photo albums of the time I lived in Africa. That was a long time ago. A different time, a different place. There are many stories to share. Maybe at a different place and time. However there is one word—not a story—I would like to share with you today. This one word is much more than just one word—this one word is more like a philosophy. This is not a theoretical, but a practical, way of living.
     
    This way of living comprised in one word is Ubuntu. In Zulu, one of the eleven official languages, the more expanded version sounds like this: Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngamantu.
     
    I am a person through and because of other people. My humanity is tied to yours.
     
    I exist only in relationship to and with others—I cannot live alone.
     
    Saying thank you is exactly like that, I am part of something bigger, I am not alone.
     
    Sometimes we might think: I can do it by myself—like a three year old trying to tie our shoes. But soon we find out, we cannot live by ourselves. We live in relationship to and with others. We are tied together, we exist because of others. Just like the Zulu saying goes: I am a person through and because of other people. My humanity is tied to yours.
     
    Jesus exemplified this spirit of Ubuntu—he included the people suffering with leprosy, he included the untouchables. Did Jesus expect a thank you note in the mail?  I don’t know. But I suspect he appreciated that one person acknowledged the fact that Jesus made him whole—in all aspects of life.
     
    We all live in relationship—to each other as families, amongst friends and as a church community.
     
    We all live—we are all showered with many gifts—day after day, week after week, Sunday after Sunday.
     
    Let us pause, think and thank. Let us live in the spirit of Ubuntu.
     
    Or as they say in Zulu: Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngamantu—I am a person through and because of other people. My humanity is tied to yours. And for that I am truly thankful to God.
     
    Amen.
     
    Rev. Dr. Sigrid Rother
    Westerville Community United Church of Christ
    October 13, 2013
    CROP Walk Sunday

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  • Sunday, September 29, 2013 -- Final Sunday as Senior Minister


    LOVING ENOUGH

    Jeremiah 32:1-2, 6-15

       I look at the articles in our bulletin about upcoming activities.  I see young families who are getting involved in the life of our congregation and I have just been getting to know them.  I think about the children and youth of our church and about adults of every age—several of them now in their nineties—who are part of our congregation and who are so dear to me.
     
       As I think about having to say good-bye to all of this and more, I have to confess that I can begin to feel sorry for myself for all that I will be missing in these coming weeks and months.
     
       I feel sorry for myself for the loss I am facing, and it is natural to do so.  My loss, however, is extremely small in comparison to what was being faced by the people of Jerusalem, including the Prophet Jeremiah, at the time of this morning’s Scripture.
     
       At the time of this writing Babylon is the most powerful nation in the world, and their army has been advancing on Jerusalem for some time.  Everyone knows they cannot hold out much longer, and very soon they will succumb and be taken into captivity in Babylon.  To say that they are feeling fear and sorrow as they think about what will be ahead in the coming weeks and months does not begin to describe it.  Despair—even desperation—is increasing by the day.
     
       In the midst of these realities, Jeremiah hears God speak to him, telling him what to do.  And what does Jeremiah do?   He buys a field.  At such a time as this Jeremiah decides to make an investment in real estate.  I don’t think I need to tell you that the economy in Jerusalem is not exactly humming at this time, and that the real estate market is at absolute zero.
     
       Jeremiah, Prophet of God, announces that he is going to buy a field at nearby Anathoth.  Not only does he buy this field, but he pays full price, and elaborately goes through every legal step that is part of such a purchase.  He goes to the courthouse and has his money for the purchase weighed and counted; he has the deed of purchase properly sealed; he has witnesses sign the deed to show that everything has been done according to regulations.
     
       “Why?  Why, Jeremiah, are you doing this?  You are now an old man—not a good time in your life during the best of conditions to be buying a field that will take years to develop, and, as everyone can see, right now we are in the worst of conditions.  Life as we know it will soon change drastically.  Why are you doing this?”
     
       Jeremiah tells us why.  “Place these deeds in an earthenware jar,” he declares, “so they can last a long time.  For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
     
       Jeremiah knows that even through what is now being faced the goodness and blessing of God will prevail and will one day be celebrated again throughout their land, including this portion of that land that he has just purchased in faith.
     
       God’s love is powerful.  God’s love is ultimate.  God’s love is great enough to lead us to do what is most difficult of all.  God’s love is so great that, because of it, we can let go.
     
       Sometimes this is not only the most difficult love, but the greatest love—to love someone enough to let them go.
     
       One of my favorite writers is Madeline L’Engle, and in one of her books she wrote about the love shared by couples who have been together for a long time—even for decades.  “In such a long term and deep relationship,” she writes, “perhaps the final and greatest act of love is to be willing to be the one who lives longer—to be the one who will go on without the other—the one who will continue to share their love with others.”  To be willing to let go—willing to say “good-bye”—because we trust God ultimately as Jeremiah did—can be the greatest love of all.
     
       Here is what Jeremiah wanted his people to know and what I want all of us to realize today.  It is that “good-bye comes before hello.”  When we face times of loss in of our lives and trust God enough to let go and say good-bye, then amazing things can follow.  We find ourselves able to say hello to new possibilities, discovering new paths and new relationships on our journey.  When we trust God enough to say good-bye, then we can begin to say hello to what otherwise we would not have known.  Good-bye comes before hello.
     
       One of the many wonderful friends I have in this congregation—who is one of our members in his nineties—is Vernon Williams.  Vernon spent his working career as an engineer, and he has told me how he often worked on designing projects that would not be completed for thirty years.  He would design and begin the work on these projects, knowing that he would not be there too see his labor come to completion.
     
       People would ask him how he could do that.  And Vernon would compare this to being a parent or grandparent or in other ways having influence in the lives of young people.  Vernon would tell me this and then he would say, “The satisfaction and joy in being part of such an endeavor are every bit as great, whether or not we will see and experience in person all the results of our efforts.”  That is how Vernon put it.  Jeremiah put it this way: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
     
       I think of the story of the elderly man who was out one day planting trees—caringly putting each seedling into the ground.  A much younger man came along and couldn’t help but ask why.  “No offense, but you won’t live to see these trees give shade or bear fruit.  Why would you do this?”  Without pause the elderly many rose to his feet and answered, “No, I won’t see the fruit or experience the shade of these trees.  But long before I came along there were others who planted trees here, and I’ve lived all these years enjoying the fruit and the shade of those trees.  I want to return the favor.”
     
       We have heard Pastor Jay talk about his first grade Sunday school teacher, Ruth Spring, whose influence he continues to feel all these years later.  Did Ruth Spring know that she was doing things that would one day add to the blessing of Westerville Community UCC?  Of course not, but she did know that she was planting seeds and trusting their growth to God.
     
       I think about people of our church who are in their nineties, who have planted countless seeds that have grown and will continue to grow: Vernon and Vesta, Hal, Jack, Grace, Dorothy, Marjorie, Meredith, Ken, Patricia, and Dwight.  I think about people of my childhood and earlier adult years who gave of themselves sacrificially and from whom I have benefitted in countless ways.  I am sure you also can name people who have blessed your life so abundantly.  Thanks be to God for every person who lives in ways that declare that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
     
       I sometimes share this booklet with people who are facing a time of great loss in their lives.  Its title is “Holding on While Letting Go.”  This is what Jeremiah did.  He held on to his trust in God and in God’s ultimate victory.  Out of that trust he bought a field when such an act seemed like complete foolishness.  And then he let go—trusting God for all that was to come.
     
       I pray to be able to do this—and pray that you will as well.  In God we can love enough to let go.  With God we say can good-bye and then able to say hello.  In God we plant trees or buy fields—give of ourselves to younger generations—even when we will not see all that will come to be as a result.  We do this because we hear Jeremiah’s words and like him our trust is in in God.  “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
     
    Rev. Harold Steindam
    Westerville Community United Church of Christ
    September 29, 2013
    Final Sunday as Senior Minister

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  • Sunday, September 22, 2013 -- Ministry Recognition Event


    MINISTRY REFLECTIONS

       Rev. Carl Bormuth had a profound effect on my life.  It was because he, wishing to retire from active ministry, said no to serving Emanuel United Church of Christ outside Upper Sandusky, Ohio, that they were willing to turn to me—someone barely out of college and in my first year of seminary—to interview for that position.  Rev. Bormuth said no to this request, but he did promise that he and his wife would be involved at the church and that he would help guide the new minister they would call instead.  And, he did.  I had only begun to serve there when he invited me to their house for a talk.
     
       Here is the last thing I expected to hear in that visit—and it was the first thing that I heard in that visit!  “Steindam,” he said, “I’m going to tell you something that a retiring minister told me when I was starting out.  I didn’t want to hear it then and you don’t want to hear it now, but I’m telling you anyway.  Steindam, the world will not be saved by your ministry.”  He was right.  I did not want to hear that.  I was just beginning!  Who knew how much difference my work might make?  Maybe the world would be saved by my ministry!
     
       Rev. Bormuth gave me a gift I did not want but very much needed.  He made sure that I knew from the beginning—just as someone had done for him long before—that the work of the Christian church was far greater than any one person, including me, and always to see myself humbly in this awareness.  The ministry of the church had been spreading long before I began and would continue long after I finished.  Much as I didn’t want to hear it, I soon realized how true his message was and I took it to heart.   And so, through more than four decades since I have been grateful for whatever part I have had in spreading just a little further the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
     
       I want to say that Rev. Bormuth advised me on other things, too, practical matters as well as that long-term vision.  And yet, what he did for me most of all was to say “no” to serving that church which in turn gave me the opportunity to do so.
     
       It’s amazing how God works, isn’t it?  One day in a place far away and without my knowing it, Rev. Bormuth said no to a request—and that “no” would influence the rest of my life.  Because of his decision I would have the opportunity to serve that congregation.  From there I would be called to my next church, and then to the next, and finally to Westerville.  My entire ministry most certainly would have followed a different path otherwise.  I am sure that each of you can see as well how similar things are true for you—how God has been at work, how each event or decision of your life has led to the next, affecting all that would follow throughout your journey.
     
       Let me say how blessed I have been in every step of my journey.  The congregation of my home church, St. John’s United Church of Christ, in Genoa, Ohio, loved and taught and encouraged me.  I think about the ministers who served that church during my growing up, Reverends David and Nienkamp, Rohrbaugh and Carlson—and especially Rev. Paul Deppen, who spent countless hours with me and who helped convince the people of the Emanuel congregation that at age 22 I was ready to begin in ministry with them.
     
       What a wonderful church Emanuel was to serve!  They accepted me as I was with so much to learn—and loved me every step of the way.  Jenny and I were engaged when I began to serve there and they welcomed and loved her also, and then celebrated our wedding with us.  A minister’s first church is very important, affecting how he or she will always think about ministry.  I was blessed to have such a positive and caring first ministry.
     
       In many ways our second call, to Central Congregational UCC, in Madison, Ohio, was our “Camelot” experience.  During our years there Nevin and Caleb were born and began school, and we started the process to adopt a daughter.  The church grew and I took on various roles in the community.  Our time there was so wonderful that even the long, hard winters along Lake Erie in Ohio’s “snow belt” that we had to endure did not dampen our spirits!
     
       I then had the blessing of being called to serve First United Church of Christ in New Philadelphia, Ohio.  In many ways First UCC was like my home church, a large congregation with similar traditions and style of worship.  Their Gothic Sanctuary is one of the most beautiful in all of Ohio.  Sara came into our family while we served there, and she was welcomed with great love by the congregation and our sons thrived in their school system.
     
       As blessed and meaningful as my first nearly 18 years of my ministry were, however, there was no doubt that God was saving the best for last.  I had never imagined serving a new congregation.  My home church and the three congregations I then served were all well over a hundred years old!  They had pipe organs and pews and stained glass windows—and they weren’t carrying overwhelming debt and wondering if they could survive!  And none of them needed to have quite the daring spirit that the people of Westerville Community needed to have, and which led Jenny and me to make our decision to live and serve here.
     
       As I began this ministry I realized that, without my knowing it, God had been preparing me all along for the challenges here.  My three previous churches were very different from one another, and I had learned things at each of them that would guide me in serving this congregation.  Before I began officially here I had a dream of a family making room at their dinner table to welcome unexpected guests.  As they did so there was plenty of food for everyone and the meal was even better because of the folks who had joined their circle.  I awoke knowing that the vision God wanted us to have at Westerville Community would be, “Sharing the ever-widening circle of Christ’s love.”  Also, from the beginning, I knew that I was called to be “Your Pastor and Friend” and that while always being your pastor first, I would enjoy as well being a friend beside you, whether playing softball or moving Sanctuary chairs or working on a mission trip.  What a joy it has been to be both—your pastor and your friend.
     
       We were extremely blessed to have Mr. Michael Downs become our United Church of Christ national church liaison shortly after I began here.  He encouraged us in many ways and assisted especially in finding ways to get our debt paid down—and then to take on more debt—so we could add the educational wing in 1997 and our new Sanctuary and more in 2003.  We have done all this and today we have less debt than we did in 1990.
     
       The charter members of our congregation and others who were part of our congregation when I began were amazing in their faithfulness.  They had kept the church going through challenges that would cause many congregations to give up.  Since the time of our arrival God has continued to lead wonderful people of faith to become members and leaders of Westerville Community—and for all of you I am extremely grateful.  Westerville Community is blessed to have people of long and mature faith—and people of all ages and stages along the way.  We are particularly blessed by committed young families, energetic youth, and children who remind us every day why Jesus told us that we must be like children to be part of His Kingdom.
     
       As our church grew we added an early worship service and more evening services and many other programs, and we were blessed by the staff members we called.  Lisa Marchal was our first part-time Christian education director, serving for three years, and was a joy to work with.  Nancy Millwater, a member of our church completing seminary, stepped into that role for two years until we called a full-time Associate Minister, Rev. Dr. Sigrid Rother.  She and I have now served as a ministry team for over eleven years—a remarkable tenure for a Senior and Associate, and I am very proud of this and grateful for her support of me and devotion to our congregation.
     
       I talked earlier about God’s timing—and what remarkable timing it was that Susan Langner, with her husband, Jeff, who had grown up in our church, moved back to Westerville just as we were seeking a Director of Youth Ministry and as Susan was hearing God’s calling to serve in youth ministry.  She is now loving our teens and serving our congregation with such excellence.  Today our music staff—Stu Myers, Joe Cantrell, and Larry Myers—are all at or near twenty years of service to God through our church, and each is gifted and extremely giving of his talents.  Beverlee Langner has served as my Administrative Assistant for nearly 18 years, and has been of vital support to my ministry.  Mary-Anne Demme with her amazing technical skills, and Shirley Mason with her willingness to take on any needed tasks, complete our outstanding office staff; Warren Hawkins works very conscientiously as our caretaker, with Ken Kish “coming off the bench” as needed; and Nancy Wilke has continued without missing a beat to oversee the safe and loving care we provide our littlest ones in our nursery, joined now by Connie Ingram, who offers the same important qualities.
     
       I have said and say again how grateful I am that the Rev. Dr. Jay Groat has accepted your call and is our Senior Minister.  Jay is without question the right person to lead you in this role.  He takes the reins of an excellent staff and volunteer leadership and is already well at work.
     
       The heart of our church is and always will be our committed members.  We share the ever-widening circle of Christ’s love because of your commitment—in roles of leadership on Council and Boards, as teachers and leaders for our children and youth, and in our vast areas of mission work.  The dollars and the hours—the love and the prayers—that you offer week after week enable us to be the church of Jesus Christ that we are.  Any time a need is announced, we know it will be met by the outpouring of love and gifts that you will offer in response.
     
       Within our congregation there are countless people who are heroes to me—who inspire me again and again.  There are parents who have faced the devastating loss of a child, and who courageously live their faith and find ways to show ongoing love for their child as they love and support other families and children.  There are families who have taken foster children into their homes, often with special needs and in some cases adopting the children as their own, changing not only the lives of these children but helping everyone understand in greater ways what love does to transform lives.  In our congregation there are organ donors; there are members who work as first responders; there are people who have served tours of duty in overseas wars; and there are those who work in helping professions.  So many of our members give sacrificially of their resources and keep the commitments they have made for service, even when their personal challenges become great.  Thank you for all the ways you inspire me.
     
       Our family has been blessed not only by our congregation but by the community in which we live.  We dare to call ourselves “Community Church” and from the beginning it was clear to me that our members wanted me to give of my time to our community.  And so…I have been active in the Westerville Area Ministerial Association, served as treasurer for eight years and in other ways have supported the mission of Westerville Area Resource Ministry, proudly have been a member of the Rotary Club of Westerville throughout my time here, supported our local schools and Otterbein University however I have been asked, served as a member of the Board of Governors of the Westerville Fund for the past seven years, and, I am especially proud to say, served as an on-call Chaplain for the Westerville Police and Fire Departments for over thirteen years.  In these involvements I have given much—but I have received far more.  In turn these involvements have led people throughout Westerville to know with even more certainty that the church I serve is truly “Community Church.”
     
       Allow me finally to be just a bit nostalgic—and most of all grateful.  As many of you have heard me say, I felt God’s call to be a minister when I was only about eight years old.  I didn’t know what such a calling would mean, but I did know that I trusted God to lead me in whatever I would need to do.  God blessed me with wonderful parents, Bernard and Alice Steindam, who not only were loving parents to my sister, Shirley, and me, but also people of faith who supported me in my thoughts about ministry, even as my home church did.  From that age of eight I never thought of pursuing any other life’s work than ministry.
     
       There is an added layer of amazement for me when I consider all this, because I am an introvert.  I am not naturally outgoing and as a child I was very shy.  I didn’t know how I would one day be able to speak with confidence or do other things required of a minister; I only knew that God would have to help if I was going to do it.  And indeed God has.  I was extremely blessed by all that I learned at Defiance College and at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.  And I have made sure my learning did not end when my required schooling did.  I have continued to read, attend seminars, and challenge myself to grow with new skills and insights throughout my career.  And it’s a good thing I have because ministry has changed immensely through these years and serving such a vital and active congregation as Westerville Community has required ever-increasing business and technology awareness, speaking skills, and Biblical and theological understanding.
     
       I close by thinking with you about the future of the Christian Church, and specifically the future of Westerville Community.  There is no doubt that there are enormous challenges being faced by the Church in our nation and throughout the world—but then, there always have been.  As Rev. Bormuth made sure I realized, the Church has been meeting such challenges for hundreds of years, and will meet them in this and coming times as well.  I say this knowing with certainty that Westerville Community will be part of meeting such challenges, growing in mission and ministry, and transforming lives in our community, our United Church of Christ denomination, and throughout the world.
     
       When our church began it had three defining principles.  I accepted them gladly and have followed them during my ministry, and I remind you of them again right now.
     
       The first principle was to have a moderate theology.  People on the extremes might not like it here, but everyone anywhere near the middle would be very much at home.  This would truly allow us to be a community church, with things that unite us being more important than any differences of politics or perspective, loving and supporting one another, and working together toward purposes greater than any differences.
     
       Secondly, everyone would be welcome here.  How true this was and continues to be.  As we grow in membership we know and care about every person as an individual.  We say “Everyone is welcome”—and we mean it!  Our church is growing in diversity, with people of differing make-up and many backgrounds—and we grow always as a family, with everyone invited to the table to be part of our family.
     
       And finally, the third founding principle was that we would be a mission-minded church.  In the early years when basic bills could hardly be paid, the congregation always found ways to keep its mission commitments.  As we have become stronger through the years our mission giving and work has increased at a greater pace than anything else.  We “pay back by paying forward,” and the more we do to help others in Christ’s name, the more of Christ’s blessing comes to us.
     
       Seventeen years into our marriage, with children aged twelve, ten, and two, Jenny and I packed our belongings and moved to Westerville.  And every day since we have been blessed by that decision!  Every day since we have been deeply blessed—and I thank you again today, because you have extended to me the greatest gift of my life—calling me to be
     
    Your Pastor and Friend,
    Harold
     
    Rev. Harold Steindam
    Westerville Community United Church of Christ
    Ministry Recognition Event—Villa Milano
    Westerville, Ohio
    Sunday, September 22, 2013

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  • Sunday, September 15, 2013 -- Christian Education Sunday


    AN OPEN SEAT ON THE BUS

    I Timothy 1:12-17

       Even since it was decided that today would be Jay’s first official day and that our congregation would have two Senior Ministers for a time, I thought it would be a good idea in today’s sermon to tell some of the story of how I first learned about this church and felt called here, and how Jay did the same.  That’s a good plan, I decided, and I wondered what the Scripture lesson, providing the basis for such a sermon, would be for today.  I looked ahead to September 15 and saw that it was a portion of Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, in which he is speaking about his call to minister in Christ’s Church—and how God judged him faithful and appointed him to this service!
     
       “Oh, wow,” I thought to myself, “this is almost too good to be true!  I can’t wait tell people how—just like the Apostle Paul, no less—God judged me faithful and appointed me to this service, and now God has judged Jay faithful and appointed him!  God, you really came through on this one!  I can’t wait to “tell this story!”
     
       That is what I was happily thinking until I read “the rest of the story!”  Yes, Paul was called to minister in Christ’s Church, and Paul was judged faithful.  Yes, I want to be and I want Jay to be thought of as being very much like the Apostle Paul!
     
       But then I read what Paul says next.  “I was appointed to God’s service,” he writes, “even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence!”  Suddenly my grandiose plans didn’t sound so grand.  Suddenly, my puffed-up ideas were losing their air.  If my intent is to compare us with the great Bible character, Paul, then “Which of us—Jay or me—is the blasphemer, and which is the persecutor, and which is the man of violence?”
     
       God certainly has a sense of humor.  I just don’t happen to like it sometimes!
     
       Well, this is today’s passage, whether I like all of it or not.  So, we need to look at it more closely.  Paul is writing to Timothy about the journey his life has had, and tells Timothy that becoming a leader in Christ’s Church was indeed an amazing journey.  On his own, as the person he had been, Paul could never have become a trusted leader in Christ’s Church.  However, God led Paul in a new direction and as that new direction continued, God judged Paul to be faithful for this very important work.
     
       As I said, my plan for today was to tell you some of my journey to becoming pastor of this church, so I will still try to do this.  A very important part of my journey was a walk that I took with Bob Haines on the campus of Heidelberg College in June 1990.  Bob was a member of the UCC church in Galion, and was a delegate to the Ohio Conference meeting being held there.  Through the years at these meeting’s we’d gotten to be friends and on this day I saw that he had chosen to attend the same break-out seminar I did.  It was a long way back to the other side of campus for the next event.  We walked together and Bob asked if I had heard that Westerville Community UCC was looking for a minister. Quentin and Jane, his son and daughter-in-law, were members there, he told me, and Jane was chair of the Pastor Search Committee.
     
       Yes, I told him, I had heard this and had even received information about the church.  “You have to apply there!”  Bob fairly shouted this at me, and for the next twenty minutes I simply listened as he told me about this church and its unique qualities.  “People of that church do things together and really care about each other,” he said.  “They don’t judge people but get to know them for who they truly are and support one another as they grow in faith.  They aren’t looking for a pastor who’s perfect,” he went on to say.  “They want a pastor who will be one of them and who will share and grow in faith alongside them on their journey.”
     
       Well, I was immediately interested because I knew I fit that “not perfect” part quite well!  Bob continued to tell about the church, and as he did my mind began to wander, trying to imagine this place.  And—I know I can’t fully explain this, but—suddenly I felt a certainty that somehow God would bring Jenny and me to this church.  Yes, there were many things that would have to happen, including convincing the church’s committee that since I was sure God had judged me faithful then they should as well!  I did not know how—but I was certain that all of this would take place.
     
       Now I am remembering April 2012.  I was in Chicago at a Senior Minister’s seminar I’d been attending throughout my years in Westerville.  One of the colleagues I had gotten to know at there in previous years was Jay Groat, who was serving in Akron.  I had been thinking and praying about my retirement and when it might be, and as I thought about my impressions of Jay, I felt a clear message from God that he could serve this church very well and that I should have a private conversation with him.
     
       Our agenda was packed and there were over 50 of us at this seminar.  I began to wonder how I could get a chance to talk just to him.  Then it happened.  I came out of the hotel to hop on our bus that would take us across town to our Seminary for the next session.  I climbed the steps and went half way down the aisle, and there was Jay, with an empty seat beside him!
     
       Well, I plunked down in that space, and for the next twenty minutes I was Bob Haines, telling Jay about this unique church and about my possible plans—and asking him to pray about applying here in the future.  And as I not only spoke but listened to him and got to know him even better than before, the same thing happened inside me as when I talked with Bob so many years earlier.  I felt a clear certainty that God would bring Jay and Vicki to this place.  So much would have to happen—he would have to decide to apply and our committee and our congregation would have to decide he was the one and I would not be able to be involved at all in that process—but I was sure that God would judge him faithful and bring him here.
     
       No, Jay and I have not been all the bad things that Paul was—blasphemer or persecutor or man of violence.  At the same time we don’t have all of Paul’s admirable qualities either.  Each of us, however, does have plenty of faults.  Neither of us is perfect.  Yet, as Bob told me and I many years later told Jay, this congregation does not want a pastor who is perfect.  “They want a pastor who will be one of them and who will share and grow in faith alongside them on their journey.” For each of us, this is how the door was opened to God’s call to come to this place.
     
       I am so blessed to have received this call—far from perfect but judged faithful by God and called to share this journey with you.  Pastor Sigrid has been so blessed as well.
     
       And today a new and wonderful story with untold chapters is just beginning, as Pastor Jay has heard God’s call—and yours—and has answered it, and begins his journey with us.  I am filled with great joy and hope as I think about the countless times ahead when there will be an open seat on the bus—right next to Jay—and each of you will have your turn to sit beside him, to get to know him, and to be greatly blessed by God alongside him.
     
    Rev. Harold Steindam
    Westerville Community United Church of Christ
    September 15, 2013
    Christian Education Sunday
    Dedication Sunday
    Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

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  • Wednesday, September 11, 2013 -- 9-11-01 12th Anniversary Remembrance Service


    EMBRACING THE FUTURE…

       Many of you, I am sure, are like me in doing this.  I cannot come to this place—cannot be in this area—without walking up to this piece of steel—to pause and to touch it and to think again about what happened on September 11, 2001—that caused this massively strong piece of steel, meant to support a skyscraper for decades to come, to be like this, twisted and bent as it is.
     
       Yes, we remember.  And in our community this piece of steel—that was part of one of the Twin Towers in New York City brought down on that day—serves vividly to remind us of what took place on that day. 
     
       We have assembled in the shadow of this piece of steel in order to remember once more.  We gather here to remember thousands of innocent lives that were lost and countless heroic actions that were offered in response.  We gather here to recommit ourselves to being vigilant citizens of this great land.
     
       Yes, we are here to remember the past.  And—we are here to embrace the future.  We gather today to declare for all to hear that there is a future to be embraced—and even to proclaim that we have already been embracing our freedoms and all other blessings for the twelve years since that horrific day.
     
       The great American writer, Carl Sandburg, wrote a poem titled “Grass”—about how the grass continues to grow even over battle fields, slowly covering the scars of what took place.  “I am the grass; I cover all,” Sandburg writes.  His poem speaks of how the grass does its work and covers the scars—and of how healing and necessary this is.  Yet there is also concern here, because as the scars are covered it becomes easier to forget what took place.  “Two years,” he writes, “Ten years,” and people ask, “What place is this?  Where are we now?”
     
       “Two years, Ten years”—for us it is now two years plus ten years—and I am grateful that we do not ask, “What monument is this?  Where are we now?”  I am grateful that we remember where this piece of steel was and why it is bent as it is.  We are here today to continue to remember—and we are here also to declare to the world that even as we remember the past, we also embrace the future.
     
       Many of us have felt the way that this piece of steel looks.  We are bent over, burdened and nearly crushed by fear as we think not only about what happened twelve years ago, but as we continue to live in a world with the news and the threats that we hear day after day.
     
       However, I want us to see this piece of steel differently.  Yes, it is bent, but even though it is, it still manages to point skyward.  It still points to the brightness of the heavens, still calls us to embrace the future and live in hope that is greater than fear—for ourselves and for generations to come.
     
       There are many people attending this service today, and I am grateful for every person who is here.  I want especially to lift up the eighth grade classes from Westerville’s Blendon Middle School who are here for this service.
     
       You students who are now in eighth grade are just now entering your teen years.  This means that you were born before September 11, 2001, but you were only infants or toddlers on that date.  You do not remember that day, but you have done all your growing up in the shadow of that day and in the changes that have come about because of the events of that day.
     
       You have grown up in the shadow of 9-11, and yet I look at you and I see energy and I see joy and I see the vast potential for all the blessing you will bring to our world.  I see your lives pointing skyward.  I see the hope that you give us and that helps all of us to embrace the future with you, living not in fear but in trust of the future God desires to give us.
     
       The days and years continue to pass.  The grass continues to grow and scars are healed.  All this is necessary and all this is good.  Even as years pass and as scars heal, still we do not forget.  We remember the past as we embrace the future.
     
       We remember the past; we mourn those who were lost and we honor those who responded heroically.  And we embrace the future.  Now twelve years removed from that terrible day, we choose to live not in fear but in hope; we choose to see that this piece of steel, bent as it may be, points toward the sky.
     
       On this day we give thanks for and we join with eighth graders from Blendon Middle School—and with generations yet to be born—who, though they grow up in the shadow of 9-11, dare to embrace the future intended for us by God, our Eternal and Loving Creator.
     
    Chaplain Harold Steindam
    First Responders Park
    Westerville, Ohio
    September 11, 2013

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  • Monday, September 9, 2013 -- Solutions 13th Anniversary Gathering


    “SOLUTIONS” 13TH ANNIVERSARY GATHERING

    John 8:31-32

       With you I am remembering 13 years ago to the first gathering of this “Solutions” group in our church.  Even more, I am remembering several months before that when Joyce—a long time AA member and member of this church—came to me to talk about beginning such a group here.
     
       I had known the value of AA and had worked with members of my churches who had benefited greatly from it throughout my ministry, so I was immediately grateful for the possibility of having such a group meet here, since we are in the center of this growing part of Westerville.  I said to Joyce, “If it is God’s will for such a group to meet here, then it will happen and it will continue to have an effective presence.”  Thirteen years later we can say for certain that God indeed intended for this group to meet and to have a presence that is very effective here, as this group we call “Solutions” has strengthened and I would dare to say even transformed countless lives.
     
       What I want to say most of all to you right now is—how fortunate you are to be members of the AA program.  Let me say this again.  I hope you know how fortunate you are to be in AA.  This program teaches things that everyone should know--things that, sadly, far too few people ever learn.  Most people in our culture go through their lives believing the illusions that our advertising and other parts of our pop culture give to us.
     
       AA gives us the truth.
     
       One of the phrases that you repeat at every meeting is “It works if you work it.”  Those of you who have been part of this program for any significant length of time know that this is true.  My hope is that those of you who are newer in the program will come to know it as well.
     
       AA does not accept the illusions or allow us to live in them.  It teaches reality.  Many times reality is harshthe truth is not what we want to hear.  But only the truth can set us free.  It can seem great to live in the illusions for a short time—a wild overnight or fantastic weekend, or maybe even for a year or two.  But the illusions cannot last.  AA dares to teach this—and the friends we make in AA dare to remind us of this, even when we don’t want to hear it.
     
       As Jesus taught, only the truth can set us free and bring blessing that will continue for the rest of our lives.
     
       As I retire from serving this congregation I want to thank you for being part of the ministry our church has had to our community.  How grateful I am for all that you have brought to me by welcoming me into your circle of tough love—and how grateful I am to know that Solutions will continue to be a vital and effective presence in this church and in our wider community for many years to come.
     
    Rev. Harold Steindam
    Westerville Community United Church of Christ
    September 9, 2013
    Solutions 13th Anniversary Gathering

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  • Sunday, September 8, 2013 -- Sunday School Kickoff Breakfast


    TELLING THE STORY

    Philemon 1:1-25

    Today is the start of our Sunday School program.  Year after year we hear some familiar and maybe some not so familiar stories, as it is the case with little Jimmy.
     
    On the way home after church, his mother asked what he had learned in Sunday School. “Well, Mom, our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his army build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he radioed headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved.”
     
    “Now, Jimmy, is that really what your teacher taught you?” his Mother asked.
     
    “Well, no, Mom. But, if I told it the way the teacher did, you'd never believe it!”
     
    Today’s Scripture reading is hard to believe as well.
     
    First of all, it’s hard to believe that we just read one whole book of the Bible—and it isn’t even lunch time yet! This letter, this little book of Philemon is truly amazing—too bad that many people don’t even know it exists.
     
    We just read one whole letter written by Paul. It’s not very often that I receive handwritten letters—mostly when I get to the mailbox, I see bills or advertisement. The other notes I receive are memos, or reminders of datelines not to be missed. A handwritten letter—that’s pretty rare anymore.
     
    Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the shortest books in the bible—to be exact 1 chapter, 25 verses, 445 words, in the Original Greek version more than 100 words less—this book is only 335 words long. It takes about 2 minutes to read.
     
    Besides those random facts, the content of this letter is hard to believe as well. Paul writes a letter to his friend Philemon and others who meet at his house church. Like we sometimes do in email, Paul cc’ed this letter also other people—Apphia, Archippus and to the church in the house.
     
    There are three characters in our story: Paul who writes the letter, Philemon, to whom the letter is addressed, and the topic of the letter, Pauls’ new friend and Philemon’s former slave.
     
    This friend has a rather unusual name. We all know that names are important. Do you know why your parents chose your particular first name? Some names are chosen because of family tradition. Sometimes there is a story behind why a person has this particular name. Names often define who a person is.
     
    The person in our story is called “Useful.” A rather unusual first name—but maybe not that unusual if you lived in Greek speaking world just before the year 100. Maybe the first name ‘Useful” sounds even better in Greek? How would you like to be called:  Onesimus?  We don’t know who gave Onesimus his name—was it his parents when he was born or was it his slave master Philemon?
     
    From a legal standpoint way back then, slavery is nothing to get upset about. From the legal standpoint the master can do with the slave however he pleases. From the legal standpoint, any runaway slave needs to be returned to the master.
     
    Paul knows all these facts. However, this letter is not about facts. Paul’s letter is about relationships. This letter is filled with care, compassion and rather unusual friendships. Paul writes to Philemon, and Onesimus, the former slaves delivers the letter. Imagine what’s going on in Onesimus’ mind, when he approaches the master’s house, clinching this piece of letter. Full of fear, not knowing how his master is going to receive him and this letter. His master could beat him, sell him or kill him. Full of fear he hands over the letter.
     
    Imagine what’s going on in Philemon’s mind when he first sees his former slave and then reads his letter from his very well respected friend Paul. Paul wants me to do what?
     
    Paul is very good at writing letters. This letter is a diplomatic master piece—Paul knows how to sell his point. Paul asks that Philemon takes his old slave back, and even more that the former slave master will welcome his former slave as he would welcome him as a beloved brother or a best friend. Paul will repay whatever Onesimus owes him. Paul wants him to set his slave, Onesimus, free. As if to make sure that Philemon does as Paul asked him to, Paul invites himself over. Philemon, he said, get the guest room ready for him.
     
    Imagine Philemon’s look on his face? Paul, you want me to do what? To set my former slave free?  This is a huge request. Don’t you realize the financial cost, the personal cost, and the social costs?
     
    Wow—this letter is full of courage.  Paul doesn’t really care about the costs and consequences about his request to Philemon. Paul appeals to him as a fellow Christian brother.
     
    Paul sure doesn’t follow convention. Paul is concerned about the human relationships. Because Paul sees Onesimus not as a fellow slave but as a fellow Christian brother.  Paul sees him as a person. He sees people over principle. For Paul love is more important than following the law. The individual person is the center of attention. It is the person who counts. 
     
    The former slave became a dear useful friend, Onesimus is a brother in Christ and therefore Philemon, a Christian himself, should treat his former slave with love and respect as well. Paul challenges Philemon to accept Onesimus back—not simply as a slave but as a fellow believer.
     
    And why? Because of Christ’s love.
     
    This is the love what changed Paul. Now Paul appeals to Philemon with that same love—because it is love, not power, which can change one relationship at a time.  Because it is love that changes and motivates us. Love is what changes the world. Love is more powerful than any other force. Love is the central message of the Bible. To act in this love, to live out Christ’s love, can sometimes be unconventional, uncomfortable and out of the norm. Being a Christian can be challenging because we set people before principle. We are all invited to share that love—just like we sang earlier on: “I’d love to tell the story of Jesus and his love.”
     
    Similar to this example: Business picked up after work hours. More people than usual went to the local drug store to pick up a few things. Amongst the customers was one young man whose age was difficult to guess. He had multiple disabilities.  He first looked around the store, and out of the blue knelt down in the middle of an aisle and emptied the cans of food from the shelves. He then played with the canned food on the floor, he built a tower with all these food cans.
     
    The clerk came over to check out the situation. Obviously he was very annoyed to see what was happening and he raised his voice ordering the young fellow to stop emptying the shelves and to put all the cans back. The young man didn’t react. So the clerk called the store manager. He then got louder and scolded the young man in a rather sharp tone. He didn’t react.
     
    Right at that moment a young lady came over, stooped down next to the fellow playing with the cans, wrapped her arms around his shoulder and put her head right next to his. She whispered something in his ear. Immediately the fellow picked up all the cans from the floor and placed them neatly one after the other back into the shelves where they belonged.
     
    The store clerk looked at the manager, who in turn looked at the young lady and asked “What did you do?”
     
    She said, “I am his sister. You see, he doesn't understand when you talk loudly to him like that. I just poured love into him.”
     
    It is true, there aren’t very many people who respond to being scolded, pushed, driven, or harassed. But everyone responds to love. Let us follow Paul’s example and live out Christ’s love—even if it might be uncomfortable from time to time
     
    If I could respond to Paul, I would write: Thank you Paul for writing this short letter to Philemon. Thank you for sharing that Christ’s love inspired you to address your friend with a rather uncomfortable issue. Thank you that this letter inspires us to reflect how Christ’s love shapes our relationship—even if it’s uncomfortable, unconventional and involves personal costs.
     
    May we be inspired to share the ever-widening circle of Christ’s love—just simply because we “love to tell the story of Jesus and his love.”
     
    Amen.

    Rev. Dr. Sigrid Rother
    Westerville Community United Church of Christ
    September 8, 2013
    Sunday School Kickoff Breakfast
    Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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  • Sunday, September 1, 2013 -- Labor Day Sunday


    FOR SOME HAVE NEVER HEARD

    Luke 14:7-14

       Jenny and I chose Door County, Wisconsin, for our honeymoon, and during the time that we were there, flocks of soft yellow butterflies were everywhere.  I don’t know if this happens every year in that area or that was simply an exceptional year, but they were beautiful and we enjoyed them.
     
       One of the things that struck us about them was how they congregated.  In a clear and moist area these butterflies would land—perhaps forty, perhaps a hundred in a group—and there they would sit, taking in nourishment.  They would face the same direction and it even looked as though they were in rows!  As we watched them, Jenny would sometimes smile at me and say, “There’s a nice congregation!  Maybe you’ll serve that congregation some day!”
     
       Now I want to point out that watching these butterflies was fun, but that it was not the most exciting part of our honeymoon!  It was, however, a very special part—and something we have remembered and referred to from time to time ever since.
     
       The reason that Jenny said what she did about the butterflies looking like a congregation was that by the time we married I had already been serving my first church for several months.  And well before that, from the time Jenny and I began our relationship, she knew that I “wanted to tell the story” and was planning a life in ministry, a dream I had had since childhood.
     
       My point is that Jenny knew from the beginning that if she married me it would be a package deal—of my being devoted to a congregation as well as being devoted to her and to whatever our family might come to be.
     
       Today—on the fortieth anniversary of our wedding day, forty years since Jenny “yes” to this life with me—our Scripture lesson is a parable of Jesus about wedding etiquette!  He talks about how to choose a seat at a wedding banquet.  Of course, Jesus—being Jesus—is talking about much more than wedding etiquette.  He isn’t talking only about where we choose to sit on one particular occasion.  He is talking about how we make our choices and thus our journey throughout our lifetimes.
     
       Jesus offers advice on choosing a seat at a wedding banquet—as a way of offering guidance on making choices in all parts of our journey.  “Live humbly,” Jesus teaches, “and by doing so you are trusting God and you will be most blessed of all.”
     
       On this day of many memories for me, as I think about my life in ministry, I realize that the hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story,” has guided me very much in the choices I have made, which is why I chose to sing it this morning.
     
       I have been so very blessed.  The long held dream I had of being in ministry and serving congregations came to be true.  As I think about what has been most meaningful to me in ministry, there are three lines from this hymn that stand out for me.
     
      The first line that is especially important to me is in verse two, where we sing the words, “For some have never heard.”  Many of my greatest joys in ministry have come about when I have had the opportunity to minister to people who have never before heard the meaning of the Gospel.  To tell the story of Jesus and His love—to tell just how great God’s love is—to tell how God is not to be feared but approached in confidence—and to have that be heard by someone for the first time—what a joy, what a blessing such opportunities have been for me.
     
       The second line in this hymn that stands out for me speaks of people in a very different place.  In verse three we sing, “I love to tell the story for those who know it best.”  Those who know it best are the opposite of those who have never heard, aren’t they?  No, these two groups are not completely opposite after all.  “Those who know the story best”—including medo “seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.”  Even those of us who know the story best—even those of us who have heard it throughout our lives—still have so much more to learn from it.  There is always more of the vastness of God’s love to try to understand.  What has meant the most to me in ministry is to tell the story—to those who have never heard and to those who know it best—and to everyone in between.
     
       I have been blessed to tell the story—and to hear the story—throughout my life.  And I have been blessed most of all because Jenny, even knowing what she did, said yes to marrying me.  When we met, Jenny knew what my plans were, and I knew that she also was contemplating what her ministry would be.  It would turn out that Jenny’s would be a counseling ministry.  Jenny has also told the story to people who have needed to be embraced by it and because of her ministry have found guidance and healing through Jesus and His love.
     
       In the first days of our married life, Jenny and I watched congregations of butterflies, and wondered what our future might bring—wondered what congregation or congregations we might be led to serve.  How grateful I am for all the ways God has led us in ministry since—and how grateful especially I am for all the blessing only God could have envisioned for us, as God brought us to this place.
     
       God has indeed said to us, “Friend, move up higher,” leading us to the various places we have called home and especially to this place of ministry and blessing for all these years—the majority of our married life.  As I have spoken this morning of my story, I pray that you have been reflecting on how God’s blessing has unfolded in your story. When we live in humility, trusting God, the greatest blessings of all come to us.
     
       You may have noted that I said earlier there are three lines from the hymn that stand out to me and I have only spoken of two of them.  The third is, “And when in scenes of glory…”  God is with us and blesses us throughout our lifetimes—whatever they may be.  Then for each of us will come the day when God will say in a still greater way, “Friend, come up higher”—and those scenes of glory beyond this world will be revealed to us.  Just as we trust throughout this life, we trust that the glories that await us beyond this life, prepared for us by the God whose love is known to us through Jesus, will be even so much greater, than we can now begin to imagine.
     
    Rev. Harold Steindam
    Westerville Community United Church of Christ
    September 1, 2013
    Labor Day Weekend
    Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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  • Sunday, July 28, 2013 -- Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

    FOR JESUS’ SAKE Luke 11:1-13    Jesus’ disciples ask Him to teach them to pray, and He does, teaching them the basic tenets of what would come to be “The Lord’s Prayer.”  Not only have Christians prayed this prayer ever since, but followers of Jesus continue to teach other young disciples to pray.  Sunday school teachers and grandparents and especially parents teach children prayers that they will be able to turn to at important times in their lives.      Perha...

  • Sunday, July 21, 2013 -- Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

    WORD AMID WORK Luke 10:38-42    The first thing I want to do in this sermon is to share a proverb with you.  Perhaps you have heard it before, and if so that is great.  Since I first heard it a few years ago, this statement often comes to my mind and helps renew my awareness and keep me in balance.  The saying is this: “If money is your greatest wealth, then you are very poor.”      This past week thirty-one of our WCUCC members were working with Habitat f...

  • Sunday, July 14, 2013 -- Commissioning of Mission Trip Workers

    ON OUR PATH Luke 10:25-37    Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is great—but I am concerned about how Jesus ends the story.  I just don’t think it has the zing that it could have and that would really stay in our minds afterward.  So I have been working on a way for Jesus to conclude His story that would be much more memorable!      Here’s my idea.  Jesus tells everything the same as He does in the Gospel account we just heard—until the end.

  • Sunday, July 7, 2013 -- Sunday after Independence Day

    GOING TOGETHER Luke 10:1-11 Today 30 people from our church are spending one week together at Dunkirk Family Camp with 150 other people from various churches. Before our family is driving up North, I went down memory lane.  I recalled my first church camp experience.

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A TUNE-UP BEFORE TRAVELING

Isaiah 64:1-9
I Corinthians 1:3-9

Sunday, November 27, 2011 -- First Sunday of Advent 

   “How dumb do they think we are?”  I don’t know about you, but this is a question I often find myself asking when I watch television commercials.  Especially the ones that have disclaimers at the bottom of the screen telling me not to do the ridiculous things being done in the commercial—as though I would rush right out and do them if it weren’t for those tiny words on the screen—are the ones that make me ask this question most of all.  “How dumb do they think we are?”
 
   The current commercial that most of all causes me to ask this question shows a bunch of people jumping out of an airplane, not with parachutes, but each holding glowing glass globes.  As these guys are plunging toward earth while holding these globes, thank heavens these words appear at the bottom of my screen: “Do not attempt.”  If not for those words being there in the nick of time I’m sure I would be on an airplane right now about to jump out in that manner!  “How dumb do they think we are?”
 
   I am proud to say that I’m wise enough not to have my view of reality shaped by what is presented in commercials.  And yet, I have to admit how much I do allow my view of reality to be shaped by what is presented in the news.
 
   There is certainly no shortage of things to worry about these days, and whenever I hear, watch, or read the news my worry increases inordinately.  Stories are presented constantly about how bad conditions are in the world—in Europe and in the Middle East.  Stories are presented about how bad things are in our country—in our economy and in congress.  And stories are presented about how bad things are in our area—unemployment statistics or the most shocking crimes.
 
   There is no doubt that if we choose to focus our lives and what shapes our reality on these storiesthen there is sure to be plenty of reason for despair.
 
   As we hear—or even repeat—all the things that are terrible, we begin to think we are the generation living in the worst times ever.  As we study more about what has happened in previous times, though, we soon learn that every generation has had reason to think things were the worst ever at their time.
 
   This was certainly true during the time of the Prophet Isaiah, when he cried out the words of this morning’s Old Testament passage.  On behalf of his people, in the despair they were feeling at that time, Isaiah cried out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!”  I have to admit that fairly often after I’ve heard the latest news this sounds like a very good request to me.  “God, get down here and quick—and clean up this mess!  O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
 
   As I have thought about commercials in preparation for this sermon, I have found myself remembering one of the most memorable and effective ones ever.  It first aired in 1959 and some of you may also be able to remember it.
 
   This commercial for “Esso Gasoline” had the tagline, “Put a tiger in your tank,” and in learning more about it I found out that it’s in the “Ad Slogan Hall of Fame”!  No, I hadn’t realized before either that there is an “Ad Slogan Hall of Fame,” but somehow it doesn’t surprise me that there is!  Anyway, for those of you who don’t remember it—and even for those of you who do—allow me to reenact a portion of it.  I will play all three parts—the person bringing his car into the station for gasoline, the gas station attendant, and of course the Tiger.
 
Driver: Pardon me, but what’s the idea of the Tiger on your gas pump?
Attendant: Well, you see, our new “Esso Extra” gasoline puts a Tiger in your tank!
Driver: Well, then, put a Tiger in my tank!
Attendant: Yes, Sir!
Driver: What does the Tiger do in there?
Attendant: Well, you’ll notice several things…smooth performance for one—and extra power!
Driver: Amazing!  Hey, where is he now?
Attendant: Who?
Driver: The Tiger?
Attendant: He’s in your tank, of course!
Tiger: Growl!
Driver: Well, I’ll be darned!
 
   “I’ll be darned.”  That was pretty strong language on television back in 1959!  Oh, and in case you were confused—there really was a time, children, when someone at the station actually pumped the gas for people!
 
   In 1959 lawyers who didn’t feel a need to advise companies to put disclaimers on the screen during their commercials.  If they did, there certainly would have been one with this commercial.  Words at the bottom of the screen would have said: “Notice to drivers—there won’t actually be a real live Tiger living inside your gas tank.”
 
   I’m pretty sure that even without that disclaimer, most people could figure out that a “real living Tiger” wouldn’t be in their gas tank if they bought Esso gasoline.  And yet, with that thought in mind maybe they really would experience a difference in how their cars seemed to run after they’d purchased that brand.
 
   So also for the people listening to Isaiah in the Sixth Century before Christ, most of them did not expect to see the sky ripping apart literally and a man with a long white beard stepping out of it and making the mountains shake as He did.  And yet, with that image in mind, maybe they were open to experiencing a difference in their world and in how life was for them.
 
   Our New Testament lesson for the First Sunday of Advent makes much gentler promises, as Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians by saying, “God will strengthen you,” and “God will be faithful to you to the end.”
 
   Promises for God to strengthen us and to be faithful to us don’t sound as dramatic as putting a Tiger in our tank or tearing open the heavens and coming down here.  They are, however, the promises that mean more than any other possibly could.  God with us and strengthening us—these are the promises of Advent, and they become known to us not through stories of fear, and also not through earth-shaking claims, but in day to day living with our reality shaped by those promises.  “God cares and God is with us.”  There can be no greater promise.
 
   And even Isaiah’s attention-grabbing words that open this morning’s passage are changed into a gentler and more lasting image as the passage goes on.  “We are the clay, O God, and you are the potter.  Shape us and shape our lives,” Isaiah says.  As we make our journey through Advent, and do not rush but take the time necessary for such a journey, what a beautiful image this is for us.  May we take our time and have our view of reality shaped not by commercials and not by the negatives of news stories, but by the promises of God to be with us, to strengthen us, and to shape us as a potter shapes the clay.
 
   On this first day of our Advent journey, we are getting a tune-up before traveling—wanting to change our viewpoints and our expectations to what are most important and most meaningful of all—taking the time necessary to do so as we look for God’s presence and God’s strength in our world and in each of our lives.
 
   And after our tune-up, how good it is to have our driver pull into the gas station as we say “Fill it up with Esso Extra, Driver, and then on to Bethlehem—and we’re taking four weeks to get there, so you don’t have to step on it!”
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
November 27, 2011
First Sunday of Advent



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“RE-JOICE!”

Matthew 25:31-40

Sunday, November 20, 2011 -- Thanksgiving Sunday—Reign of Christ Sunday 

   A little later in this service we will sing the hymn, “Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart!”  I have been singing this song my entire life, but only recently did I think about this word—“Rejoice”—and what it means.  For the first time I have thought to myself, “Okay, so I have sung this song countless times saying that I am rejoicing—but when and how did I firstjoice” so that I would be able to do so again.  How is that that I renew that ‘joice subscription’ so that I can re-joice in my life?”
 
   The definition of “rejoice” is to experience joy in a way that is continuing.  “Feel great joy,” “Be glad,” and “Take delight” are the ways that the dictionary defines this word, a word which, I also learned, comes from “Old French!”
 
   As we sing this hymn it is important to note where the editors chose to place it in our hymnals.  It is very late in the book—Number 562—and found in the Thanksgiving section.  I find this interesting because there it has many images and references besides thankfulness.  There is, however, such an overall attitude and energy that reflects thankfulness that it is very appropriate to have it in the Thanksgiving section.
 
   It is also appropriate that this song is placed at the end of our hymnals because the season of Thanksgiving is at the end of the Church Year.  Today is the final Sunday of the Church Year, and is called “Reign of Christ” Sunday.  This Sunday celebrates the fulfillment of all God’s plans.  This song—“Rejoice Ye Pure in Heart”—is also very appropriate to this observance because it certainly lifts up a mood of joyous fulfillment.
 
   The Scripture lesson for today is also an appropriate and certainly very important one.  In recent weeks we have been hearing the parables that Jesus told in His final time of teaching, on the day before He would be arrested, put on trial, and put to death.  Jesus knew that these were the final teachings people would hear from Him—so they were extremely important.  Today—from this final section of teachings—we hear the parable that Jesus chose to teach last of all, the parable of the Last Judgment, when we will all stand before Jesus.
 
   To some people at that judgment the most beautiful words imaginable will be said.  “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  “Why is this?” those rejoicing in this news must ask.  And Jesus answers, “It is because you fed me when I was hungry, gave me something to drink when I was thirsty, clothed me when I was naked, took care me when I was sick, and visited me when I was in prison.” “What? When did we do that?” these people now ask.  “Whenever you did this for the least of one of my brothers and sisters,” Jesus concludes, “you did it for me.”
 
   These are powerful images, to say the least, but I still am not sure I have answered my earlier question.  Just how is it that I go about renewing my “joice” subscription?  Joy is such an elusive quality.  How do we find it—and, even more, how do we hold onto it as an ongoing part of our lives?  How do we rejoice?
 
   I remember very well when the term “burnout” was coined.  I was early in my ministry when this word began to be used frequently to describe people who had worked too hard in their profession or in other ways had depleted their inner resources.
 
   Well, it didn’t take me long to conclude that this was exactly what I had.  “‘Burnout’—yes, that must be it!”
 
   I made an appointment with our congregation’s area minister.  Dr. Jacob Wagner was his name, and I went to his office to talk to him.  He listened kindly as I poured out my troubles—told him how much those people in my church were expecting of me and how impossible it was to do such a job completely.
 
   I laid it all out, and then I sat back and waited, just sure that he was going to say to me, “Oh, you poor thing!”  Or better yet I expected that he would say, “Harold, I am going to drive straight to your church and demand to talk to your Trustees!  You need more vacation time—maybe a couple weeks of paid leave at ‘Club Med’—and immediately!  And that of course is just for starters!”
 
   Imagine my shock when instead he said some things that were as opposite of that as possible!  Dr. Wagner began to outline a “prescription,” all right, but it was not the one I was expecting.  First he went to his bookshelves, and pulled out some volumes on the meaning of being called into ministry and told me that in a month we would meet again and discuss these books.  Then he told me to spend more time in prayer.  And finally he told me to increase the time I was spending in making pastoral calls—visits to people who were hungry or sick or in prison.
 
   As I went to my car and returned home I kept thinking about all the things I wished I had said to him—and couldn’t believe I hadn’t.  “Dr. Wagner,” I should have shouted, “I don’t think you’re listening!  What about ‘poor me’?”  Instead I had shown such respect that not only did I not complain, but I actually said I would try to do these things.
 
   And then—when I did try to do these things—what amazing changes began to occur.  By giving more, I found that I was receiving much more in return.  By thinking about beyond myself, I was finding energy and a thankful spirit—a joy—that I had not had for some time.
 
   I think quite often about that visit to Dr. Wagner and what happened afterward.  And I try to renew his prescription—and thus my “joice subscription”—as often as I can.
 
   There are many days when I have more than enough to do—a sermon to write, a worship service to plan, letters to send, reports for a meeting—any number of tasks on my list to get done.  On such a day it certainly would be understandable if I didn’t make it to that nursing home or hospital room or the home of someone in our church that may be in need of our support.  Then I think of Dr. Wagner, and I go to make that pastoral call, even when I could justify saying I don’t I have the time.
 
   And then, as I sit with this person in a time of importance or of need, I find that my energy is renewed.  Suddenly I have more insights than I did before for that sermon I need to write or project I need to do.  Suddenly my reservoir of joy is re-filled, because by offering what is in me I find that God is blessing me with even more than I have given.
 
   Dr. Wagner stressed to me that day that this “prescription” he was giving me was not his idea.  “These ideas are from Jesus,” he said. “I’m just reminding you about them.”
 
   In a few minutes we will close worship with “Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart.”  The third verse of this song is most meaningful of all for me, declaring Jesus’ ideas as Dr. Wagner did in yet another way.  “Yes, on through life’s long path, still chanting as you go, from youth to age, by night and day, in gladness and in woe, Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice, give thanks and sing.”
 
   How surprising it was for me and continues to be that by offering to care and give more—even more of joy returns to me.
 
   Yes, that was and is surprising.  But it is nothing compared to the surprise there will be for you—and I pray for me—when Jesus says, “Truly, just as you did any of these things for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did them for me!”
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
November 20, 2011
Thanksgiving Sunday—Reign of Christ Sunday



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AND WHAT ARE YOU BRINGING?

Matthew 25:14-30

Sunday, November 13, 2011 -- “Giving Thanks” Sunday 

   Another title for this morning’s sermon could be “A Tale of Four Churches,” because I will tell a brief story from four different congregations during these next few minutes.
 
   The first story comes from a church in Ohio that I served many years ago.  After six months of being there I realized that there were still some members of the church I had yet to meet.  One such person was Millie.  I asked the Deacons about Millie and no one knew what had happened—but something must have—because Millie had been very active in the church and then suddenly stopped being involved at all.  I called Millie and asked if I might come to visit her.  I had heard wonderful things about her, I said, and hoped to get to know her.  At first she said “no,” but then she did agree that I could visit.
 
   Our conversation began pleasantly as she told me how many years she had with the church and how many friends she had there.  Then her expression and body language changed as she began to tell me something else.  That church held a big dinner every year.  This dinner was known to be so good that hundreds of people came to it.  Two years before this Millie had signed up to bring her special potato salad for that dinner.  The day of the dinner, however, was awful for her.  One thing after another went wrong and it was all she could do to make her potato salad and get it to the church, even though she knew it was getting late in the serving time.  When she arrived, stressed and exhausted, carrying her large bowl through the side door, one of the members of the church saw her and looked at his watch.  “Sorry,” he said, “I guess we don’t need your potato salad this year.”
 
   Millie looked directly at me and now, “I took what I had brought out to my car—and I haven’t been back to the church since.”
 
   The second church is one I know only through a friend.  It is in another state and I know it only because their minister has become a friend by attending conferences with me through the years.  His church has some very wealthy members—or, at least, did in the past.  Years ago one member gave the church an extremely large amount of money, with the stipulation that it should be used always to keep the church exactly as it was.  The building and grounds were to be cared for and the salaries of the minister, music and office staff and custodians all paid for from this fund.
 
   “Wow, how fantastic that must be!” was my reaction as he told me this.  He was a very capable minister, delivering excellent sermons and more.  The church had an outstanding music minister, a beautiful sanctuary and landscaping—and hardly any involved members.  “I just can’t get our folks to care about what is happening at the church,” he would say to me, “or to be involved in the ongoing life of it.”
 
   My initial response about how fantastic his situation must be now changed, as felt such sadness in it.
 
   The third church in this sermon is much farther away—on the other side of the world, actually.  I recently met the minister of a church in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the poorest places in the world, and he told about the annual Harvest Sunday at their church.  “Harvest Sunday” is the day in the fall when people bring special gifts for the work of their church through the coming year.  Some people have jobs that allow them to make a financial offering or a promise for such offerings throughout the year.  Many others, however, have no money, but “live off the land” through small gardens or flocks of animals, and they each bring something from those resources on Harvest Sunday.
 
   Each year, this minister said, during the weeks before this service takes place, he hears the members of his church talking to one another, and what he hears is, “What are you bringing to the Lord this year?”  With great excitement each person is thinking about what he or she has, how blessed he has been blessed this year, and what he can give to God’s work in response.  “What are you bringing to the Lord this year?”
 
   This is in essence the question Jesus asks in the parable we hear this morning—“The Parable of the Talents.”  “What are you bringing to the Lord?”  Keep in mind that this parable is told by Jesus only one or perhaps two days before He will be arrested and put on trial.  There is urgency in what Jesus wants His disciples to hear and understand, as He knows that soon they will have to carry on their ministry without Him at their side.
 
   “Before leaving for a journey,” Jesus says, “a man entrusted gifts of money to his servants.  To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, and then he left.  Most of us are familiar enough with this story to know what follows.  The time comes when the man returns and asks what they have done with what he gave them.  He learns that the one with five talents has used and invested them and turned them into ten.  The one with two talents has done the same and turned them into four.  The servant with one talent, however, has buried—and hidden it.  “Here it is, exactly as you gave it to me,” this servant now declares.
 
   “What are you bringing to the Lord this year?”  That is the question asked by people of that church in Africa.  This is also the question asked by Jesus.  Notice that the celebration he offers to one who now has four talents is the same as it is with the one who now has ten.  What matters is not the quantity but the faithfulness in what we bring to the Lord.
 
   The fourth church is one with which we are all quite familiar, because it is Westerville Community UCC.  I think of how we just completed our annual Holly Day Bazaar, and how we will direct all money earned at the Bazaar for mission and for special projects and not to cover budgeted expenses.  In terms of budgeted expenses, we apply do apply the rental income we receive for use of our building.  This rental income, however, only pays a portion of the utilities and ongoing maintenance that such use adds to our costs each year.  The one other area of income used in our budgeting is whatever interest we earn on funds while they are waiting to be used.  This interest, however, does not even equal inflation, so whatever interest we apply simply helps us to stay somewhat closer to “even” in that regard.
 
   The “tale of this church” is that all the money needed for God’s mission and ministry each year must come from us—must come from what we give in return from whatever “talents” we have first been given by God.
 
   I think about Millie and what she heard as she stood in the doorway with her potato salad after she had worked so hard to get it there before the dinner ended.  In that moment when she was told they didn’t need her potato salad, what she heard was that they did not need her.
 
   In my minister friend’s church where everything is paid for without offerings needed from the members, he can’t get them to become more involved in the life of the church.  For those whose gifts are not needed, they will likely not experience the joy and blessing of being part of the church.
 
   Some people might say how sad it is that we—you and I—must support the entire life and mission of this church.  But I say to you—“What blessing it is that this is so.”  I say this because as we take on this responsibility we can then come to realize that you and I are not alone in doing so, but we are in partnership with God, who first provides us with all the blessings we need to do the work of this church.
 
   “What are you bringing to the Lord this year?” people thousands of miles away ask each other.  Right here in this church the same question is asked.  As we respond faithfully the same celebration is experienced.  “Enter into the joy of your master.”
 
   This week I heard about someone who was asked by Dave Thomas to invest with him when he was trying to start his restaurant called “Wendy’s.”  This man said “no”—and today would be a multi-millionaire if he had said “yes.”  I’m sure you have heard such stories as well, of missed opportunities.
 
   Jesus’ parable ends with rather stark words to the man who did not invest his talent.  He is “cast out into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  I used to think Jesus was being cruel in saying this.  In light of the urgency of that time when Jesus told this story, however, I think about it now and I realize there is no cruelty in what Jesus says, but rather a statement of fact.
 
   Some of the saddest words people can say are, “If only,” or “Oh, what might have been.”  What outer darkness it is—and what weeping and gnashing of teeth are part of it—when people are left saying, “Oh, what might have been” or “If only” I hadn’t buried that talent and that opportunity.
 
   How grateful I am for the opportunities when I do not miss them—and pray that you are as well.  When we invest the gifts God has provided us and enter into partnership with God in the use of them, the greatest blessing of all follows.  All that our church is doing in 2011 and all we will do in 2012 has come to be and will come to be through the gifts that you and I offer—because every one of us is needed here.
 
   Jesus is saying to the servants who invested their talents—and says to us as we invest ours—“Enter into the joy of your Master.”  As you ponder the litany heard earlier this morning of just some of what has been shared through our gifts this year, I pray that you are experiencing not regret but joy as you know integral you are to these and all the blessings we extend.  I pray that you are continuing to ask—and to celebrate—what you are bringing to the Lord this year.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
November 13, 2011
“Giving Thanks” Sunday


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IN RESPONSE TO GOD’S GRACE

Psalm 107:1-9

Sunday, October 30, 2011 -- Consecration Sunday 

   As he often does, earlier this month Hank Stonerook got our Men’s Club meeting going by telling a series of jokes—with this month’s theme being church jokes.  For reasons I’m sure you can understand, there aren’t many “church jokes” I haven’t heard—and I had already heard all of these.  Many others in the room probably had, too.  But that didn’t matter; they all went over big and got great laughs.  Maybe it was Hank’s delivery!
 
   Anyway, the first joke in Hank’s monologue was I am sure the first “church joke” I can remember hearing.  You’ll be able to tell that this joke has been around awhile by the gender of all the characters in it.  Three children are discussing what their fathers do for a living and how much they get paid for their work.  The first child is a doctor’s son and says, “My dad just takes care of someone who is sick for a while, and he gets this much money for it.”  The second child is a lawyer’s son and says, “My dad just goes to court with someone and after the trial he gets this much money for it.”  Finally, the third child, who is a minister’s son, says, “That’s nothing.  My dad just talks for fifteen minutes and it takes four men to carry all the money to him!”
 
   The idea of ushers carrying the money forward after the sermon reminds me of another story—one that did not make me laugh but instead made me nervous.  Early in my ministry the idea was being promoted to move the offering from the middle of the service to the end.  “People should give in response to God’s Word that has just been preached to them.  That should be how the service ends,” was the recommendation.
 
   About the time that I was considering this idea I heard a story told by a man who had gone to worship at a church for the first time—and the order in that service had the offering right after the sermon and at the end.  As this first-time attendee listened to the sermon he was quite moved.  “I’m sure I have a fifty dollar bill in my wallet,” he thought to himself, “and I am going to put that fifty in the offering plate!”  As the sermon went on, however, the minister said a couple things this man wasn’t sure he could agree with.  “Maybe twenty dollars will do today,” he then found himself thinking.  As the sermon went still longer and the minister challenged the listeners to take action in their lives in ways this man didn’t want to do, he thought, “This really isn’t much of a sermon.  I won’t put anything in the offering today!”
 
   As I heard that story and thought in other ways as well about having the offering after the sermon—and, as I noted, this was early in my ministry—I wondered if that was a good idea.  “That’s a lot of pressure on me to have a sermon that inspires but doesn’t upset anyone—every Sunday!” I thought to myself.
 
   Speaking very honestly with you at this time, it isn’t so much a sense of pressure that I feel as it is a continuing sense of unease.  I have been employed as a minister for a long time—since the year after I finished college and had just begun seminary.  I have now been leading worship for many years, including each year the annual Stewardship Sunday service—when we appeal to our members and friends of the church to commit themselves to giving to the work of our church.
 
   What brings my sense of unease is knowing—and knowing that you know as well—that a portion of the money I am hoping you will give will eventually come to me.  This is how I make my living.  This is how my family is supported.
 
   I am sure that not only for myself but for Pastor Sigrid and for any committed minister on this Sunday of the year—not only do all those jokes about ministers come to mind but much more as well.  There are many jokes: “All he does is talk for 15 minutes and four ushers carry all the money to him”—or “Why do we pay him so much when he only works one day a week?”  And I am sure there are many other jokes you know as well—but, we are not going to turn this into an “open mike” time so please don’t expect to get to stand up and tell yours!
 
   The jokes are usually pretty harmless and well intentioned.  Beyond the jokes, however, there are also criticisms and comments—often ones not so harmless.  “All the church wants is my money!”  How many times have you—and I—heard that?  “Why does the church even have to talk about money or ask for it?  It should only be concerned about spiritual matters.”  That is perhaps the most common—and difficult—criticism of all.
 
   There are many questions and criticisms, jokes and complaints related to churches and especially to ministers about money.  And as I think back to those early years of my ministry, I remember coming to a time when these pressures that I was feeling almost caused me to quit this profession.  “It’s an impossible job to do this and make everything happen—make people feel good about knowing that their gifts are necessary, not only for the pastor to be paid but for the church to continue to meet its obligations and continue to exist at all,” I kept thinking to myself.
 
   But I was spared—I was blessed as much as I have ever been—when God said to me, “Harold, not only is it not all about you—but it also isn’t all up to you.”  And praise God that I then realized: People do not give in response to my sermon.  They give in response to God’s grace!
 
   In our Psalm today we read, “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good….Let the redeemed of the Lord say so!”  Those who know God’s goodness—those who have been redeemed by the Lord—those who have experienced God’s grace—respond!  As we know what God has given to us and done for us, we simply must respond!
 
   The movie, Chariots of Fire, centers on the life of runner, Eric Liddell, who feels called to become a missionary—and he also feels called to continue to compete in races.  One day he tries to explain to his sister how both of these can be.  “I believe God made me for a purpose,” he says to her.  “I also know that God made me able to run fast, and when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”
 
   I say to you: “Find your purposeand run as God makes you able—and know God’s pleasure.”
 
   Many years ago a minister friend of mine told me about a Monday when his church was quiet and he went to the Sanctuary to get something, thinking no one was there.  The Sanctuary was quiet, but it was not empty.  He was surprised to see a high school boy of his congregation who had been training to become a gymnast.  There was this teen-ager, thinking no one else was watching as he faced the cross and practiced—in the somber quiet and presence of God—the routine he would perform later that week.
 
   I say to you: “Whatever your talents may be, offer them first to God and then know that their glory will become known even more by others.”
 
   This summer I listened to a minister who serves a Christian church in Mozambique, Africa—in one of the poorest areas of the world—as he told about offerings at his church.  His parish is located in a rural area away from any city.  Last year some of his parishioners had no money that they could give at the time of offering, and he told them this was okay—that God understood.  They told him, however, that they had to give something in response to what God had given to them.  The very next Sunday he noticed in the offering baskets that, along with the coins and bills, there were bundles of berries.  In that rural area a kind of berry grows that is considered a delicacy by people who live in the cities.  And so some of his people who had nothing else they could give had gone out to gather berries for the church to sell.
 
   These berries, however, need care and processing before they can be sold.  So the next day the Deacons of his church cleaned them and packaged the berries for sale and took them to the nearest city.  They earned sixteen dollars by selling these berries—not a great deal of money especially in light of how much effort the Deacons made in order to do this.  But how important it was, this minister stated, for his Deacons to honor those gifts and have them become part of their church’s ministry.
 
   I say to you: “Whatever you give to God’s work through our church will be honored and will become part of our church’s ministry.
 
   Sometimes I hear complaints from people about why the church talks about money so much—or about why the minister is paid so much for working so little.  But that’s okay—because it isn’t about me and doesn’t depend on me.  It is about God’s grace—it is in response to God’s grace—that we are called to give.  And as for the reason that the church talks about money and must talk about money—is that Jesus did.  Jesus talked more about money and about our possessions and how we use them more than He did about anything else.
 
   In our brief passage from Matthew this morning Jesus offers a startling concept.  “The greatest among you will serve, and will not exalt yourselves but humble yourselves,” Jesus declares.
 
   I think of a scene from the old “MASH” television series.  Klinger, a lowly corporal from inner city Toledo, is speaking to Winchester, a surgeon and major from the wealthiest part of Boston, asking him if their families can get together after the war.
 
   “Klinger,” Winchester says to him, “my family has accumulated great amounts of wealth with the expressed purpose of not having to associate with families like yours!”  As opposite as can possibly be from such an outlook, Jesus says that those who could be exalted must instead choose to be humble, and that those who could get away with doing the least must instead serve and give—in response to God’s grace.
 
   The offering has already taken place this morning.  It came before the sermon because it does not depend on the sermon.  Our offerings are not in response to a sermon but in response to God’s grace.  Our offerings to God throughout the remainder of this year and into the coming year are made because we know that the Lord is good, and because we who are redeemed in the Lord must say so.
 
   And so it is that whether we run or are gymnasts or have any other talent—we offer these talents to God and feel God’s pleasure.  And whether we can only put meager gifts into the offering or whether we have much to give—we do so humbly and let God do the exalting, because we give in response to God’s grace.
 
   That minister from Africa also told us that in their country the people do not stay seated during the offering, but must jump and dance during that time the baskets are being passed because they become so excited by the meaning of it.  I don’t expect that we are about to start doing exactly that anytime soon.  But I do know that we have the offering at the center of our worship because our offerings are at center of our lives.  And I know that as the offerings are brought forth each Sunday morning we stand and proclaim most joyfully of all—“We give Thee but Thine own” at 8:30 service and “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow” at 10:30 service.  Why?  It is because “God is good”—and the redeemed must say so, giving in response to God’s grace.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
October 30, 2011
Consecration Sunday


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BE READY

Matthew 25:1-13

Sunday, November 6, 2011 -- Daylight Saving Time Ends 

Regardless of what country or culture, kids play similar games. Sometimes the best are those that require no manuals or controls, those with no fancy equipment—all you need is space and other kids to play with. Games you can play inside and outside—and it doesn’t really matter who is all around to play it with you.

One of the old favorite games—is Hide and Seek. The game is simple—and lots of fun. One person is it, he or she turns around, counts to a certain number and in the meantime all the other kids try to find the best hiding places and keep absolute still. After ‘it’ has finished counting, we hear the shout:

Ready or not—here I come.
Ready or not—here I come—that’s how it goes not only for Hide and Seek, but for many things in life.
Ready or not—here I come—this could be all the chores waiting for you.
Ready or not—here I come—the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas season.
Ready or not—here I come—just like in today’s story from the New Testament.
 
The parable of the 10 bridesmaids—as it is sometimes called, is not necessarily one of my favorites. This wedding story is not like your typical celebration of a young couple getting married and everyone being happy about their love. Jesus liked parties. There are lots of stories in the Gospels where Jesus is having a good time. Today’s parable is about a party as well—a wedding. Wedding customs were a bit different in those days.
 
The tradition here in the States is to have at least two bridesmaids who walk in front of the bride at the beginning of the worship ceremony. The best man attends the groom—but not bridesmaids—like mentioned in our story. In Jesus’ time the bridesmaids wait for the groom with their lamps shining and escort him into the wedding ceremony and feast.
 
The bridegroom is late. He arrives at midnight with his party to come to the party—but half of the guests are already asleep. Surprise—I can hear everybody shouting. But the late bridegroom is not the only surprise.  There are ten bridesmaids—five of them foolish and five of them wise. Or to quote the Greek, which is not as gentle in their vocabulary: five are prudent and five are morons! The five prudent bridesmaids have all enough oil for their lamp. Lamps were used to welcome the guest of honor, much as we might put lanterns outside our homes at holiday time. The five foolish bridesmaids have no oil.
 
When the bridegroom arrives, they have to scramble and find a merchant and buy theirs at the last minute. At the end they are excluded from the party. Our parable concludes with the warning: Keep awake therefore. Or as the King James Version says: Watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
 
As in any joke, the most important part of a parable is in the end. The punch line—not the story itself is so important, but the conclusion—the end is what makes the joke funny.
The same in our parable: Our story is more than to bring enough oil to a weeklong wedding or have enough refreshments for a party you are hosting.
 
The last sentence is what gives this parable its kick. For centuries people have been scared with this message—they were frightened, they were afraid that they would not keep awake, and would not watch enough for Christ’s big return.
 
There are many churches that are concerned about the end times. There are lots of people who have done much planning and used all kind of mathematical and so called scientific calculations of when exactly the time is that Jesus will come again. They are sure about the exact date and time. To these people I would like to reply, "I used to get quite involved in figuring these things out.  I had charts, maps and all kinds of spreadsheets.  Then I decided that God didn't need me to help with the plans.  So, I've resigned from the Planning Committee and want to be part of the Welcoming Committee!"
 
In my opinion this parable is much more than just a warning not to fall asleep. Last night we gained one additional hour, so the danger of falling asleep today is not as big as in other days. I don’t want to be as splitting hair, but I believe there is a small but important difference with what words to choose. The Greek word that is used for “Keep awake” or “watch” has two meanings. It is much more than just to keep awake or to watch, but even more important: pay attention, to be ready so that nothing can overtake you.
 
To be awake is just not enough, we are asked to be ready, in order to do something.
 
Just as in the game of Hide and Seek: Ready or not, here I come.
 
When is Jesus coming back? I’ll be very honest with you. I don’t know exactly what the return of Jesus will look like, and I have no earthly idea when it will happen. The good news is we don’t need to know all these details. There’s no need to loose any sleep over this. But the questions remain: How do we get ready? How do we prepare for his second coming? What shall we do while Jesus is gone?
 
We are supposed to be like the wise brides maids ready all the time. This means more than just having enough resources with us, more than being a good boy scout and always being prepared. The bridesmaids in our story didn’t know when the groom was coming—and neither do we. But they did what they were supposed to do—carrying enough oil with them. They were prepared.  They did what was expected of them. They were not afraid of anything. Just like what we are supposed to do as Christians in this world. When we live as who we are asked to be, when we feed the hungry, take care of the poor and spread the message of hope, we don’t need to be afraid. We are ready, we are prepared—for anything that may come.
 
Just like in the following story: Years ago, a farmer owned land along the Atlantic coast. He constantly advertised for help. Most people were reluctant to work on farms along the Atlantic. They dreaded the awful storms that raged across the ocean, wreaking disaster on the buildings and crops. As the farmer interviewed applicants for the job, he received more and more refusals. Finally, a short, thin man, well past middle age, approached the farmer. "Are you a good farm hand?" the farmer asked him. "Well, I can sleep when the wind blows," answered the little man.

The farmer was puzzled by this answer. But he was desperate and hired the man anyhow. The man worked hard around the farm, busy from dawn to dusk, and the farmer felt satisfied with the man's work. Then one night the wind howled loudly in from offshore. Jumping out of bed, the farmer grabbed a lantern and rushed next door to the helper’s sleeping quarters. He shook the little man, and yelled, “Get up! A storm is coming! Tie things down before they blow away!” The little man rolled over in bed and said firmly, “No sir. I told you, I can sleep when the wind blows.”

Enraged by the response, the farmer was tempted to fire him on the spot. Instead, he hurried outside to prepare for the storm. To his amazement, he discovered that all of the haystacks had been covered. The cows were in the barn, the chickens were in the coops, and the doors were barred. The shutters were tightly secured. Everything was tied down.
Nothing could blow away. The farmer then understood what his worker meant. He was ready, he was prepared for any wind. So the farmer went back to bed and slept during the storm

When we're prepared, spiritually, mentally, and physically, and trust in God in all we do, we have nothing to fear. Even when we hear the voice: Ready or not—here I come.
 
Rev. Dr. Sigrid Rother
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
November 6, 2011
Daylight Saving Time Ends


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LOOK BUT DON'T TOUCH

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Sunday, October 23, 2011 -- Membership Orientation Sunday 

Next week is Halloween. Kids like to dress up. Like many little girls, I wanted to be a princess. One day my mom had a surprise for me. She promised that we were going to visit a castle. And to top it off, we were going to enjoy hot chocolate and afternoon cake in the castle as well. I could hardly wait--a dream come true--to visit a castle, to sit at a royal table in the fancy dining room and enjoy my favorite drink and some cake. I felt ever so special. Which dress do I wear for this specific big event? Finally the choice was made: Black shoes, white socks and the blue velvet dress with the big bow in the back.

Finally--after what seemed like an eternity--the day arrived. After lunch time we drove to Kassel and from the distance I already saw the castle on top of the mountain. This is so exciting. Shortly Mom and I would be in inside this beautiful magnificent building and even sit down to eat. My imagination went wild--is the prince going to sit with us as well? What if he talks to me? Shall I curtsy?

We parked, and walked to the entrance. I was a bit disappointed not to see a red carpet or servants waiting for us--but all that didn’t matter--we were in the castle. We visited the chambers and the living areas of the duke and duchess who resided here many years ago. The smooth velvet material, the couch looked so inviting. Whenever I reached out my hand to touch something I heard my Mom: “just look, don’t touch.”  But I wanted to feel how soft the pillows were--but here came the voice again: “just look, don’t touch.”  Finally we came to the dining room--the table was set--so many plates and fancy china and many glasses at each place. This looked so inviting--and Mom said we were going to have hot chocolate in the castle: so I sat down on this fluffy chair, and waited for the waitress to serve me my hot chocolate. I lifted up the cup since I wasn’t sure if the cup was already filled--and there again was the voice: “just look--don’t touch.  No, this is not the place we are going to stop for hot chocolate.”  What a disappointment--I was waiting all this time for the special moment--and all I heard was: “just look, but don’t touch.”

(Yes, we did have the promised hot chocolate and cake was not to be enjoyed in the dining area, but in the nearby café opposite the parking lot next to the gift shop.)
 
Just look, don’t touch--these words could have been said to Moses as well. No, he didn’t visit an antique castle or a toy store, but he must have been disappointed as well.

Today’s Old Testament is the last chapter in the book of Deuteronomy, the end of the portion of the Bible also known as the Torah or the Pentateuch. At this important junction of the biblical stories, we hear that Moses, the leader and spokesperson of the people dies. Moses has been the main character four biblical books--Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. He led the Israelites--out of slavery in Egypt to Mt Sinai, through many trials and now stands at the edge of the Promised Land. He is just about to enter into the promise God made so many generations ago to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But Moses is not permitted to enter the land. Moses dies just before his mission is accomplished. What a way to end his vision of setting his people free.

Moses can look, but can’t touch. God shows him a vision of that land, promised so many years ago. But he will never set a foot in it. Moses will never enter the Promised Land--how disappointing for him.

The story of Moses reminded me of a famous speech. This speech was given by a leader of people, who similar to Moses tried to set the people free. Similar to Moses, he was able to look, but couldn’t touch the Promised Land. It is the speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. He addressed the crowd in Memphis and he concludes with the following words:

“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

One day later Martin Luther King was assassinated--he saw, but never touched the Promised Land.
Moses, Martin Dr King Junior--these are just two examples of leaders, who had a great vision, but never saw the results of their hard work. For years they worked hard--but never could touch the Promised Land. It’s easy to feel disappointed. It’s so easy to be disappointed and think: “I did all this for nothing? Why bother if I can’t reap the fruit of my hard work. If I had known all the time, I would not have put so much effort into it. Why bother? I knew it, one person alone can’t make a difference.”

We have heard these and many other similar statements before. Maybe we said or felt them ourselves. But then we might be inspired by stories we read in the paper. Yesterday was National Make a Difference Day. Millions of people, all over the country contributed to make the world a better place to live. Our family joined others as we volunteered in a local project.

We might never see the results of our work. We might never meet the people we helped. Couple of hours of hands on work might not seem much in light of all the need in the world. But instead of getting all upset of how useless our hard work might be, maybe it is healthier to think differently. Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about seeing results. Maybe we shouldn’t spend so much energy on immediate success. Maybe it is better not to focus on what we achieve or not achieve, but rather focus on the people we help.

How many of us work day after day without ever knowing what difference we make. Just to name a few--and there are many more who day in day out work and give their lives without ever realizing what impact they have. Thank you to all parents, grandparents, teachers, tutors, mentors, coaches, social workers, doctors, police officers, fire fighters, and all of you who work patiently with people--we may never realize what difference we make. We may never realize how lives are changed.
But for those of us who do it anyway, for those of us who want to make a difference in the world regardless of what others may think or say, I want to share this traditional Russian Fable written by Leo Tolstoy.

There was an old man out working in a field planting apple trees. He dug the hole, put the tree in the ground, and tamped down the dirt. Then he went on and dug another hole. As the old man was working, along came two teenagers. The teenagers decided to tease the old man. One said, “Hey, old man. What are you doing?”  The old man replied, “Can't you see, I'm planting apple trees.”  The other boy said, “Yeah, I can see that, but don't you know it will take five to six years before any fruit on that tree is ripe. Old man, you are wasting your time. You will probably be dead and in the ground yourself before the first apple is ripe.” They both laughed at their cleverness.

The old man stopped for a moment. He said, “You know, you are right. I will probably never see a red apple on this tree. But I am not planting these trees for myself. It is hope that I am planting. I am planting these trees for my children and my children's children. Someday, a hundred years from now, a little boy or girl will climb up into this tree. They will pick a ripe red apple. When they eat it, I hope they will think of me and smile.”

May we be inspired to plant apples for future generations, may we be motivated by people like Moses to follow God and to lead people out of bondage to the Promised Land even if we can just look, and not touch.

Amen.
 
Rev. Dr. Sigrid Rother
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
October 23, 2011
Membership Orientation Sunday


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THE PRESENT OF PRESENCE

Exodus 33:12-23

Sunday, October 16, 2011 -- CROP Walk Sunday 

Invitations come in all different forms and sizes--some of them are fancy, some casual, some home made and some of them real unique. Recently I received one invitation saying:  The present of your presence is all we want.

The present of your presence is all we want. How wonderful that these dear people value the gift of being together, the gift of time spent with one another, and companionship more than any material goods.

The present of your presence--I have to admit, not always did I think that this was true.

When I was a little girl my Dad frequently had to be out of town of for business trips. Sometimes he went for a longer period of time. There was an empty space at the dinner table. I have to be honest with you--yes, I was anxious for Dad to come home, but I was even more excited about the gifts he brought me. Every time he came home, after the excitement of seeing him, I asked the same question:  What did you bring me? And then there was Mom who reminded me over and over again, that not the gifts he bought, but the biggest gift is the present of his presence.

The present of the presence--it took me a while to realize that this indeed is the biggest gift we can give each other.

The present of the presence--not only a perfect gift to give to each other, but also the perfect gift God gives us. In today’s story of the Old Testament Moses reminds me a little bit of me when I was a child--not being so convinced that the present of the presence is the biggest gift indeed.

Moses and God have lots of conversation with each other--they have a special relationship. Moses is the like an advocate or a middle person--to relay messages from the people to God and from God to the people. In the chapter before, we read that Moses went up to the mountain to receive the 10 commandments, but it took him longer to get down. So the people turned to Aaron, who is Moses’ brother and also co-leader of the Israelites. Aaron told him to take off their golden jewelry, he molded and burned it all to a golden calf. When both God and Moses saw what happened, they both got angry. Moses literally threw the two tablets of the 10 commandments on the ground and also burned the golden calf. Then he apologized to God on behalf of the people.

There always has been special relationship between Moses and God. Moses tells the people all about God and God’s plans and also negotiates with God. The people respect this relationship and know that Moses has his special one to one time with God--or as we read few verses prior to our reading: God speaks to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”

But Moses wants more. Moses wants proof that God will continue to be his friend. He asks: Show me your ways, so that I may know you. But God responds: My presence will go with you. Or to put in other words: The present of my presence is enough. But this is not enough for Moses. He demands: Show me your glory.

Moses wants proof--he wants to see God with his own eyes. But God insists: You cannot see my face. The present of my presence is just enough.

Moses reminds me of many people I know. If I only could see God’s face, then I would believe. If only I could have the proof that God exists, then I would come to church. If only God would show up once, then I would believe in God.

Moses, like so many people, wants clear answers. He wants crystal clear responses.

Just like the Pharisees and the Herodians who challenged Jesus. A soon as Jesus saw both Pharisees and Herodians together, he knew they were up to something. The Pharisees, who saw themselves as law abiding Jews, together with the Herodians a group who accommodated the Roman occupations as much as they could and found religion highly impractical--how is it that both groups have a question for Jesus? Teacher, they asked. Teacher? This is a title of respect--do these groups really pay due respect to Jesus or do they just say so to be polite?

Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? This is not only a trick question but also a highly political one.  If Jesus answers either Yes or No he would fall into their trap. They accuse him either of rebellion or idolatry--a rebel or troublemaker, either way the accusation would be sufficient for his arrest. So what does Jesus do? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or is it NOT lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor?  Jesus answered them, “YES!” So much for a definite answer.
 
It would be so much easier if we have definite answers. Either yes or no.
It would be so much easier if God would tell us exactly what to do. Big signs or billboards from heaven would be just fine.
It would be so much easier if God would show up, perform a few miracles here and there, and we would have the proof that God is really there.

But all we here is: The present of the presence is just enough.

That was the answer for Moses and the Israelites. Many years later, Jesus said the same.  The last sentence in Matthew’s gospel, the final statement Jesus says is: I will be with you always--till the end of age.

That’s the promise we live by: The present of my presence is just enough.

Wherever we are--God is with us.

This reminds me of the following story: An atheist and a Christian were engaged in an intense public debate. On the blackboard behind the podium the atheist printed in large capital letters, “GOD IS NO WHERE.” When the Christian rose to offer his rebuttal, he moved the “W” backwards one space so that the statement now read, “GOD IS NOW HERE.”  
 
The placement of a single letter can make all the difference. Where do you place the W? Where do you place God in your life? Do you focus on “no where” or in “now here”?

Where is God for you? Is God nowhere or now here?

Sometimes all we need is to be assured of God’s present of the presence.  Especially when we don’t know what to say. When we are called to be with someone in a tough situation. When we are overwhelmed.
 
When we lived in Michagan, I volunteered as a hospital chaplain. One Halloween evening, I was called to Mercy Hospital. Every time when I arrived in the parking lot, I prayed for God’s guidance and strength--whatever the situation might be.

Mom was on her way home from work and dad was bathing his two sons just before they got their costumes on. The 4-year-old was getting out of the tub, Dad turned and reached him the towel. Just then the 2-year-old brother slipped in the tub and fell on the rim of the tub. He was not responsive--and Dad took the two boys, the 4-year-old in his cowboy costume and wrapped the little brother in a towel to drive to the emergency. On the way he called Mom, and the family met at the hospital. The 4-years-old:  Can we go trick or treating now? When are we going trick or treating? When do I get some candy?

The 2-year-old was pronounced dead--exactly the same day six years ago Mom lost another child when she left him with her first husband.

There was the 4-year-old asking repeatedly: When do we go trick or treating? And the whole family looked at me for answers.  I didn’t have any answers. All what I could assure them was the presence of God. All I could do was to be with the family--to cry out for help--to pray for guidance and to leave the rest to God.

Couple of days later was the funeral--lots of people, lots of tears.  After the service the family approached me: Thank you for being with us. That meant a lot to us. Your presence was just enough.

The present of the presence--it’s just enough.

And it depends on you where you place the W: God is no where or now here.
 
Rev. Dr. Sigrid Rother
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
October 16, 2011
CROP Walk Sunday


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MORE EASILY GOT THAN NOT

Exodus 31:12-17,
Philippians 4:4-9

Sunday, October 9, 2011 -- Access Sunday 

   Usually I find that I can agree with stands taken by the American Civil Liberties Union.  Many times I agree with them begrudgingly, because from my view of the world things would be much better if whatever it is they are trying to stop would be allowed to happen!  Eventually—though begrudgingly—I usually have to admit that this would limit certain rights and therefore as the ACLU says it should not be allowed.
 
   Here is something, however, that I don’t think I’ll be able to agree with—even begrudgingly.  Perhaps some of you heard or read this story about an offer being made by a judge in Bay Minette, Alabama.  For a person convicted of a crime that carries a jail sentence—when it’s a first-time offense and a non-violent offense—this judge is offering a “Get out of jail free” card.  All the person must do is to go to church every week for a year.  That’s right—that’s it!  Attend worship every Sunday for fifty-two straight weeks and the sixty day sentence—or whatever length it may be—will be absolved.  The person can even choose which church to attend!
 
   Well, wouldn’t you know it?  The ACLU says this is a violation of the separation of Church and State, and they intend to have the program stopped.  Now, I’m all for the proper separation of Church and State—and as I said I usually come around to seeing the wisdom of the ACLU, whether I like it or not.  In this case, however, I may have too much personal investment because from my point of view sitting in church for 52 hours would do an offender—and all of society—far more good than having him sit in jail for sixty days.
 
   The title for today’s sermon is “More Easily Got than Not.”  The idea for this title comes from two different sources.  The first is from a television show in a wartime setting.  Two doctors are trying to get to an aid station that is located right at the front to help some wounded soldiers.  “Will we be able to get in there?” they ask the guards at the checkpoint.  “Getting in isn’t the problem;” they are told, “getting out is.”
 
   The second and even stronger source for this title comes from the nineteenth century writer, Henry David Thoreau.  Writing about how increasing quantities of material goods were complicating and cluttering many people’s lives, he made this observation: “Some things are more easily got than got rid of.”  Hence the title for this sermon: “More Easily Got than Not.”
 
   I think again about that sentencing alternative being offered by a judge in Bay Minette, Alabama.  “Go to church every Sunday for a year and avoid jail,” he tells certain offenders.  “Oh, I think to myself, this would be great!  If only I had the power to make people attend church every Sunday!  I’d do whatever it would take for that to happen!”  And yet no matter how much I might wish I could get more people to attend worship—no matter how sure I am that it would be very good for them to do so—I still would never say what is said in this morning’s Scripture lesson, in which God is instructing Moses on what to tell people about the Sabbath.
 
   “You shall keep the Sabbath,” God says, “for this is a sign between me and you for generations to come.  Do not profane it; do not do any work on it.”  I hear this and think, “Yes, this is very good”—until, suddenly, I hear what comes next, as God says, “Whoever profanes the Sabbath shall be put to death.”  This can’t be, I think—I must have misheard or misread this.  But then we continue and we hear, “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.”
 
   I stare at these words on this page in my Bible, but no matter how long I stare they still are there!  You may have noticed that in quoting a small portion of this passage in our bulletin this morning I could not get myself to print all of the statement.  “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath, dot, dot, dot,” is all I could decide to have printed.  “God,” I have to ask, “how demanding can you be?  How can this be in Your Holy Word?”
 
   There are many people today who say, “Oh, every word of the Bible must be taken literally—no questions asked.  And with this as their guiding declaration they pull out certain words from the Bible in order to pass their judgments.  “It’s right here in the Bible,” they say, “and every word of the Bible has to be true literally, period.”
 
   To anyone who makes such a statement I say in response what was said in the television episode that in part inspired today’s sermon title, “Getting in isn’t the problem; getting out is.”  Once you say that you are going to interpret and follow every word of the Bible literally you are in where it will not be easy to get out.  You will find that you then must follow or defend things that cannot be literally true.
 
   Is God literally telling us to put to death every single person in Westerville who is working right now—or who worked yesterday, since literally the Bible is referring to the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday here?  Is this the God we worship?  Here is what I say to you instead.  The Bible is so great that much of what it says is true in meaning for us even beyond what the words that convey this meaning can literally say.  This is the case in this morning’s passage about what God wants Moses to understand and tell his people—and for us today also to understand.
 
   The words of the Bible are from ancient documents.  The Bible is the Word of God—capital W—and yet it was written by human beings who lived in a specific time and who used the language of their time.  At the time of Moses the Hebrew language had a very limited vocabulary.  As Moses returned to his people to tell them about God’s covenant with them—and God’s laws for them—Moses didn’t have a great many vocabulary choices from which to choose.
 
  It wasn’t as if Moses could pull a Thesaurus off his bookshelf and think, “Let’s see; God said to be as absolute and clear as possible about how important it is to honor the Sabbath.  Okay, then what ‘alliterative adjective’ should I use from this list to announce this?”  There was no such list.  There weren’t several word choices here.  The Hebrew language was still very limited and often the only way to say something was to put it into black and white terms.
 
   And so these words say, “Whoever profanes the Sabbath, whoever does any work on the Sabbath, whoever doesn’t live out the covenant I want to share with you—shall be put to death.”  The meaning of this passage is that whoever treats the Sabbath day like just any other day, week after week, is cutting himself off from the best of life.  Whoever fails again and again to experience worship and rest and renewal each week is already dying in the deepest parts of himself.
 
   As part of our Sabbatical this summer Jenny and I were able to attend our United Church of Christ’s national meeting, and the most compelling speaker that I heard there was a man named Arn Chorn Pond.  Arn Chorn was a boy in Cambodia during one of the most horrific times in human history, when the Khmer Rouge regime took power and killed tens of thousands of their own people.  Arn Chorn survived those “killing fields” because he learned to play the flute, and played it so well that he was made to play their revolutionary songs that the Khmer Rouge wanted people to hear.
 
   As a teenager Arn Chorn managed to escape and was taken to a refugee camp where he was barely surviving.  There was little food and so much sickness in that camp that he was near death—when a visiting American with the last name “Pond” came to the camp and saw him, and chose to bring him to America and adopt him.  And so his name became Arn Chorn Pond.
 
   Today, decades later, this remarkable man has dedicated himself to three great projects.  First of all, he performs concerts, as he is considered one of the finest flute players of our time.  With money he earns from these concerts he does the second of his projects, which is to help children growing up in Cambodia today, many of whom all these years later are still affected by the aftermath of the war that Arn Chorn Pond survived.  The third of his projects is here in America, which became his adopted home.  Arn Chorn Pond spends large amounts of time meeting with American teen-agers.  He tells them the story of his life—perhaps plays his flute for them—and then he appeals to them not to be enslaved by all the material trappings of today.
 
   “Do more than go to the mall every day.  Do more than think you must have every new thing that is advertised or everything that you see friends having,” he tells them.  Arn Chorn Pond’s message is that even as he was enslaved by the Khmer Rouge, we in this land can become enslaved by day after day pursuing too many material things.  As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Some things are more easily got, than got rid of.”
 
   I am glad that I not only read this morning’s passage from Exodus but studied it more deeply.
 
   When finally I moved beyond only the literal meaning of the words to the meaning of the message in them and I made it all the way to the end of the passage, I read the single most important word of all—the final word in the passage.  I read, “The Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested, and was refreshed.”
 
   Think about that.  The Lord God was refreshed.  Even God—Creator of Heaven and earth—must be and is refreshed by keeping the Sabbath.  How will I keep the Sabbath?  How will I find worship and rest and renewal—and be refreshed—so as not to be dying but truly live?  How will I not be enslaved by pursuing only material things day after day, but find a rhythm of life that lead be to be refreshed—and blessed—in the most important ways of all?
 
   Many of the lessons of the Bible contain meaning beyond the literal words—because they are the Word of God.  As we seek the meaning God wants us to know in the rhythm of worship and renewal—balancing our work and other pursuits—then in every week we will find ourselves refreshed in ways that even a Thesaurus would not be able to describe.  We will find ourselves living the deepest meaning of what Paul writes to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
October 9, 2011
Access Sunday


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THE RIGHT AND WRONG SIDE
OF THE TRACKS

Exodus 17:1-7,
Philippians 2:1-11

Sunday, September 25, 2011 -- Bible Presentation Sunday 

   During the time that my mother was in a nursing home in our home town—especially when her condition became very serious last spring—I made many trips to visit her.  There were so many trips that I began to take different routes through town to get to the nursing home, seeing and remembering different places as I did.  Several times on these trips I decided to drive through the neighborhood and past the house where my family lived until I was eleven.
 
   Of course there have been changes since then.  The most noticeable one is that the railroad tracks are no longer there.  Railroad tracks ran at an angle through our town—and they passed right through my neighborhood.  These tracks went behind my Cousin Sandy’s house and then over and across from my house, and just across and one space over from my house was a loading and unloading station, where trains would sometimes stop to drop off or pick up cargo for transport.
 
   These tracks, I discovered, have all been taken out—as they hadn’t been used for some time. There is now grass and other nice landscaping growing along this raised area.  This certainly makes for a different and I’m sure in many ways nicer neighborhood.  In my childhood those tracks were so busy that we had to live with the smells of the steam engines and learned to sleep with the sounds of trains going by frequently in the night.
 
   One thing that had not changed was the porch on the house that had once been my family’s house.  On one of my drives through the neighborhood and past that house—probably because of the changes I had noticed where the railroad tracks had always been for me—I looked at that porch and I saw a vision—a vision of remembrance from some of the days of my childhood.
 
   In my vision I saw a man I didn’t know sitting on the porch and eating food from a plate he held in his hand—perhaps leftovers from our family’s supper the night before or perhaps some friend eggs or something else just made for him.  I found myself remembering times when I came home from school or from having been out playing somewhere, and there would be a man sitting on our porch, eating food that my mother had given to him.
 
   We know about poverty and hungry people in our time—and about ways they may go about getting a meal.  In the 1950’s it was very common for the poorest of people—“bums” some people called them—“hoboes” my mother called them—to jump onto a train and just go somewhere.  Later, when they were hungry enough and there was a chance to get off the train, as there was at that loading place near our house, they would jump off and go looking for a place where they might be given something to eat.  Our house had come to be such a place.
 
   It was in the midst of these years that I am remembering, while we living in that house—that I received my first Bible.  I was in the fourth grade. Today is the day we are giving Bibles to children of our church—third graders or in some cases, a little older.
 
   This is a very important day—Bible Sunday—and I hope that the Bibles our children receive this morning will mean as much to them as mine came to mean to me—or as the Bible you once received came to mean to you.
 
   I marked each Bible we gave this morning at the place where Jesus’ teaching of “The Golden Rule” appears.  “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” is a good place to open a Bible for the first time.  This morning’s New Testament lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is a bit more complex, so I did not choose to mark it as the first place for them to see.  This passage is, however, a foundational part of our Christian faith, and one that I hope these children will each learn about very soon.
 
   In this part of his letter to the people of Philippi, the Apostle Paul quotes the words of a hymn that was being sung in the churches of that time.  For lack of a better title—and there could be no better title—Bible scholars call it “The Christ Hymn.”  It tells in very basic and yet majestic language exactly what Jesus had done, coming to live among us on earth and giving Himself for us.  This hymn concludes, “And so every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  These closing words of this hymn are especially important.  “Jesus is Lord.”  That was the very first creed or confession of faith of the early Christians.  “Jesus is Lord.”
 
   I want to talk to you for a moment about Phillips Brooks.  Most of us know at least one thing about Phillips Brooks.  It was he who wrote the inspiring words we sing every Christmas, the words of the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  Phillips Brooks lived from 1835 to 1893.  He was a minister in the Episcopal Church—and even became a bishop in Massachusetts.
 
   As one of the most respected Christian leaders of his time, he was once asked this question by a newspaper reporter.  “Mr. Brooks,” he was asked, “why are you a Christian?”  And without hesitation he answered, “I am a Christian because of my Aunt Tillie, who lives in Salem.”
 
   “It is because of my Aunt Tillie,” Phillips Brooks stated without hesitation.  This story reminds me that the Christian faith is “more caught than taught.”  It comes to us through the very real lives of people who exemplify the Christian faith for us, who lead us to ponder its meaning and in time bring us to adopt and proclaim it as our own.
 
   I would come home from school and see someone I didn’t know sitting on our porch and eating the leftovers of a meal that had been served in our kitchen the night before.  I had probably thought that this meal was “okay”—but here was someone who was relishing that same food.  I would feel rather uncomfortable, though, and go around the house and in through the back door.  Then later I would ask, “Mom, why do you do that?  What makes you think you should do that?”
 
   And she would answer me, “Well, I don’t help every time someone comes to our door like that.  But when I can tell that they really are in need and we have something extra to give them, the Bible tells me to try to do something to help.
 
   During those same years I was going to Sunday school and hearing stories from the Bible.   And when I reached fourth grade I even had a Bible of my own and read it eagerly the best that I could.
 
   As I saw my mother help a scrubby person who came to our door and then heard her explain—“When I can tell that they really are in need and we have something extra to give them, the Bible tells me to try to do something to help”—it was then that these words from the pages of the Bible became much more than only words.  They became for me the Word of God.
 
   How important it is to read the Bible—and to share copies of it with our children.  But what is most important of all is for there to be living examples of the Christian faith in our lives—and especially in the lives of our children—who bring the words of the Bible to life as the Word of God.
 
   The Christian faith is more caught than taught.  How grateful I am for the living example that you are for the children who are receiving their Bibles this morning, and for many others, as well.  Like “Aunt Tillie” for Phillips Brooks and like my mother for me, you may be the one who leads a child to know that these words in the Bible aren’t just words, but the Word of God.
 
   And once having caught this understanding and this joy, they will be ready also to catch the meaning of how God brought water from a rock, of how Jesus is Lord, of how Jesus teaches us to live by the Golden Rule—and then one day help to inspire the children of the next generation.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
September 25, 2011
Bible Presentation Sunday


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EVEN MORE ON THE FUTURE

Exodus 14:26-15:2, John 11:17-31

Sunday, September 11, 2011 -- Tenth Anniversary Observance 

   The fact that today is the first day of Sunday school in this new season, and what our Old Testament lesson for the day is, causes me to remember a story.
 
   A couple who had not let their young son be involved in any church activities at all, decided at last to allow him to attend a Sunday school class with a  friend of his.  He came home from the class and they of course wanted to know what he had learned there that day—and asked him to tell them.
 
   “Wow,” Joey told them, “it was amazing.  We learned about General Moses and how he put all of his people on pontoon boats while they were escaping from the Egyptian army so they could go safely across a sea that had been blocking them.  And as they went, General Moses had depth charges dropped into the water behind them.  No sooner had they made it across when the Egyptians also got on pontoon boats and came after them, but the depth charges began to explode and their army all sank into the water—and so the Israelite people were all free and safe!”
 
   “Now, Joey,” his parents said, feeling quite concerned.  “This isn’t what really happened, now is it?”  “Well, no,” Joey responded rather hesitantly.  “But it I told you what really happened, you’d never believe it!”
 
   Some things—especially some things in the Bible—can seem almost too amazing to believe.  Also, there are things that are so terrible that it seems at first impossible to believe.  This may well be how it was for many of us when we first heard what was happening on September 11, 2001.  It took time to soak in—to realize it was true.  It was that horribly impossible to believe.
 
   All of us who remember September 11, 2001, and the days that followed, have many specific memories about that time.  What I want to share with you right now from my memories are the two that relate most clearly to matters of faith.  One thing very clear for me is how our sanctuary was packed on the following Sundays.  Here and across our country there was record worship attendance on the Sundays after that terrible day.  The second thing I remember is how many people there were who told me this had caused them to have doubts about God and about their faith.  “I don’t want to,” people would say to me, “but after what happened and how horrible it was, I can’t help wondering—I can’t help doubting—whether God is really in charge.”
 
   People attended worship in record numbers and more people than ever said they were having doubts about their faith.  These two things sound like total contradictions of each other.  Perhaps, though, they are not.
 
   For our New Testament lesson today I have chosen to have us hear a portion of the story that was read in our church on the Sunday after September Eleven ten years ago, the story of Jesus and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  It is in this story that Jesus weeps.
 
   Amid our many tears in those days after Nine-Eleven, this story of Jesus and His time of sorrow seemed to me an appropriate one for us to hear.  Today we hear what leads up to when Jesus weeps—and then to the miracle that will follow.
 
   When Jesus arrives at the place where Lazarus is being mourned by his family and friends, He is met by Lazarus’ sister, Martha, and here are the first words that Martha says to Jesus.  “Lord,” she says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Martha’s focus is on the past—on what already happened and on how much she wishes that it could have been different.
 
   So, too, for us, after any tragic event or time of sorrow, we go over and over what happened in the past.  “If only things had been different,” we say again and again—even though we know we cannot go back to change any of those things.
 
   The first words of Martha are words about the past—which is a natural thing to do.  Notice, however, what the first words are that Jesus says.  The first words Jesus says to Martha are, “Your brother will rise again.”  Jesus speaks first of all about the future and what will be possible through the power and love of God.
 
   When people in a time of grief move at last from thinking only about the past and cannot be changed to envisioning the future and what will yet be because of the power and love of God—what an incredibly important moment that is.
 
   As our Westerville chaplains met with police and fire leaders to plan how we would mark this tenth anniversary of Nine-Eleven, we discussed many possible themes or titles for it.  I am very grateful for the theme that we were led to choose.  “A Decade of Remembering, a Future of Hope.” This is the theme and focus on which we all agreed.
 
   Remembering the past and what happened is very important.  We must not forget—and will not forget.  Even more important than the past, however, is the future.  What is most important of all is to live into the future in hope.  “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus says.  His first words to Martha in her grief about the past are His assurances about the future.  Jesus’ focus is even more on the future.  And so must ours be.
 
   For a decade we have remembered.  For a decade we have said “if only” again and again.  For a decade we have created ever tighter security restrictions.  For a decade we have lived with fear because of what happened.  For a decade we have remembered—and we will continue to remember and we will continue to be vigilantBut as Jesus says to Martha, He says also to us, “Your loved one will rise again.”  As Jesus says to Martha, He says also to us, “Envision the future and what will yet be because of the power and love of God.”  As Jesus says to Martha, He says also to us, “Even after what happened, dare to live in hope.”
 
   Most people assume that the opposite of faith is doubt.  But I propose to you that this is not true.  The opposite of faith is not doubt, but a hollow certainty.
 
   The opposite of faith is an unwillingness to go into the future in trust of God, even when we know that certainty is not possible.  Yes, we struggle in our faith—as well we should in this world of so many uncertainties and sorrows.  We struggle—but still we go forward.  We continue to trust in God even as we mourn certain things from the past.  Beyond everything else we look even more to the future with hope than to the past with regret.
 
   Jesus says to us, “Your loved one will rise again; God’s power and love will prevail.”  Therefore, even when there are no certainties we go into the future knowing that the final word in this world never was and never will be the word of terrorists or other forces of evil, but the Word of God.
 
   Martha speaks from the past—which is natural to do in a time of shock or loss.  Jesus speaks about the future.  Then Jesus says the most important words of all in this passage—words spoken in the present tense.  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  This is the greatest promise and assurance of Jesus to Martha—and to every one of us—in this or any time of sorrow.
 
   I remember clearly that after the tragedy of ten years ago many people came to worship—and many people expressed the doubts that they were having.  These two things may seem contradictory, but they are not.  Even as doubts were natural, people also were seeking to grow in their faith.  Those who sought to grow in their faith were blessed by God, and as they continued to do so they heard Jesus’ call to live into the future in hope.
 
   The opposite of faith is not doubt, but rather the desire for a hollow certainty.  With very real questions in the midst of the uncertainties of this world, we should and we do remember the past.  But even so much more, we live into the future in hope, knowing this day and every day that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  This is the one certainty we can have—and it is all we need to provide strength and guidance for this day and for every day to come.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
September 11, 2011
Tenth Anniversary Observance


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A BONUS DAY FOR “MARVELING”

Psalm 149:1-9

Sunday, September 4, 2011 -- Labor Day Sunday 

   Most of us are familiar with a quotation by Woody Allen from many years ago.  He said, “Eighty-five per cent of life is just showing up.”  That’s pretty good—and it’s been a meaningful thought for me for some time.  “Being there” is often what matters most—or at least it can be stated that after one shows up other good things can follow.
 
   Here is another quotation—decades older and said by someone of much greater stature than Woody Allen.  Winston Churchill said, “Most of the work that is done in the world each day is done by people who do not feel very well.”
 
   When I first heard this statement I thought that it couldn’t be true.  And yet, it is true that for many if not most people there are difficulties, aches and pains, feelings of discouragement—on more days than not.  If a poll asked people at random whether they really feel like going to work, or going to school, or showing up for some other responsibility today—a majority would in all honesty answer, “No, not really.”  What matters is what Churchill realized—that they show up anyway and do their work and fulfill other responsibilities even when they aren’t feeling very well.  This is at least eighty-five per cent of life!
 
   For her text for today’s Children’s Sermon Pastor Sigrid chose another quotation.  “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord.”  This quotation is so familiar that we can hear it without having its full meaning register with us.  These words of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, were revolutionary—they were foundational to everything else that followed in their culture.
 
   No one should be asked to work every day.  Every person—and even the work animals—deserved and needed to have a day off every week.  And this day off wasn’t just something decreed by a benevolent boss or by a labor union.  This day off was decreed by none other than God Himself, saying, “You can only honor me if you maintain balance in your life.  You honor me as you care for your inner being.”
 
   These words were revolutionary.  No other culture at that time had considered such a thing.  And they were foundational for everything else that followed for them.  The Psalms of praise to God were part of what followed, and we have heard one of them this morning, praising God for God’s goodness to their nation.  “Praise God’s name with dancing,” we read, “making melody.”  The Psalm also states that God takes pleasure in His people.  This was why God had degreed the minimum of a day off from labor each week—because God not only wanted their praise, but God took pleasure in them.  Also in this Psalm is a proclamation that I need to think about a bit more.  It says, “Let them sing for joy on their couches.”
 
   There is a “public service commercial” that’s been running recently which is directed at children.  It says, “Get out and play for an hour a day.”  When I was a child, if my friends and I had been told something like this, we would have exclaimed, “What!  What do you mean—only an hour?”
 
   A generation and more ago children played outside for many hours every day.  Such play was as natural as breathing, a given, a part of life.  Because of the proliferation of television, electronic games, and especially the internet, however, a majority of hours—if not all waking hours each day for some children—are now spend sitting indoors.  This, experts are at last realizing, is not very healthy, and so the appeal to get out and play for an hour a day represents not a major decrease, as it would have for previous generations, but a major and much needed increase.
 
   Going back to the time of the Hebrews who sang the words of this morning’s Psalm—and to the time of most people who have lived in this world—they were outside working most of the time.  Having an hour a day to be on the couch would be an unusual and wonderful joy.  And so the Psalm declares, “Let them sing for joy on their couches.”
 
   Perhaps you wondered about the word I used in the title for this morning’s sermon: “A Bonus Day for ‘Marveling.’”  What is ‘marveling,’ you may ask—and I am glad to tell you!  In past generations when the Sabbath Day at last arrived each week and people did not have to show up for work, they would rest and renew—they would sing for joy on their couches.  Most, however, did not spend all day on their couches.  In addition to taking time for worship, they would also go out for walks or drives.  They would look at and ponder the things they did not have time simply to behold with awe and wonder during the other days of the week.
 
   “Marveling” they called it—walking through the woods, smelling the flowers, looking at the cloud formations.  The Sabbath day was a day for wonder, a day to enjoy, a day to give thanks.
 
   I distinctly remember the time when I was a child and I first understood Labor Day and what it was meant to be—and, I must tell you, it did not make sense to me.  “We are honoring working people,” I thought to myself, “by not having them work on this day.  Shouldn’t Labor Day be a day when people do go to work and we all thank them for doing so?”
 
   That’s a pretty good question and I think my idea about it made sense.  It makes even more sense, however, that it is the way it is.  Labor Day was created to be a holiday—an extra day off—for people who otherwise received only one day off each week.  It was a bonus day to ‘marvel’—to walk through the woods or rest on a couch, a bonus day to find joy and renewal.
 
   “Most of the work that is done in the world each day,” Winston Churchill observed, “is done by people who do not feel very well.”
 
   It is those people who still show up—who do their work and go to class and fulfill their responsibilities—that enable all of us to have the lives that we do.
 
   How important it is, God says to us, to have a Sabbath each week.  “This is how you honor me,” God says.  How important it is to praise God, to marvel at God’s goodness, to give thanks for all God’s wonders.
 
   And once a year, an extra day we call “Labor Day,” just to “marvel,” is a marvelous idea.  Since its inception it has helped all working people to know that they are appreciated and to be renewed in strength.  Since its inception it has helped all working people once again on the next day to show up for work and other responsibilities—even when they do not feel very well.   And that makes all the difference.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
September 4, 2011
Labor Day Sunday


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NOT A GAME OF SOLITAIRE

Exodus 3:1-7

Sunday, August 28, 2011 -- Time and Talent Sunday 

   Just over three month’s ago, on the morning of May 23, I awoke in the nursing home room where my mother was receiving Hospice care.  She had been in Hospice care for over a week at that point, and along with my sister I had been spending most of every day and night in that room.
 
   Carol, my mother’s roommate, turned the television on at 7:00 every morning—and she did so again on that day—and tuned in “The Today Show.”  This was the morning after the devastating tornadoes that had struck Joplin, Missouri, and throughout the two hours of their broadcast there were graphic scenes from throughout that city, continuing reports about the mounting statistics of the storm, and interviews with those who had lived through it.
 
   I watched and listened, and I knew rationally how terrible all of it was.  And yet I did not feel the pain of the tragedy in the way I normally would.  At that time my emotional energy was drained.  After more than a week of keeping a constant vigil at my mother’s side and not knowing how much longer we would be need to be there, my ability to feel compassion beyond that room was limited.
 
   I prayed for the people of Joplin, but I was even more grateful that I knew all of you here were also praying for them.  And I confess that at that time I was most grateful of all for the prayers that I knew you were saying for me and for our family.
 
   This morning we have powerful stories in both our Old and New Testament lessons, and I am choosing to focus on the story from Exodus of the encounter Moses had with God at the burning bush.
 
   Though he had been raised in the Pharaoh’s house in Egypt, Moses knew he was by blood one of the Hebrew slaves who had been put to work there.  Moses, however, had escaped from Egypt many years before this and was now living a very solitary life in a remote region far away.  Moses thoroughly expected that this was how he would live out his days, in this place, far away, unconnected from his people.
 
   On a day that starts out so routinely, however, things quickly becomes anything but routine, as Moses sees a bush that is burning—and burning—and yet not burning itself out.  Finally, he simply has to see what in the world is happening here—and he finds that he is in the presence of the Holy.  The miracle he sees, and the voice he hears, tells Moses that he is in the presence of God.
 
   This is quite amazing to say the least.  But what God says to Moses—the words that conclude this morning’s lesson but only begin the elaborate story that will then follow—are most amazing of all.  “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt,” God says; “I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings.”  And from here God will state that Moses is the one most prepared to lead these people on God’s behalf out of slavery and into freedom.
 
   Sheila Fox opened our church council meeting this month with a devotion that was very moving for me.  Her devotion focused on the theme that no one can be a solitary Christian.  God calls us into community, to care about one another and to work together to fulfill God’s purposes.
 
   Moses expected to live out his life as a solitary individual, but God called him and convinced him that he was needed for a far greater purpose, living in the midst of others.
 
   Today we are celebrating the 25th ordination anniversary of the Rev. Marilyn Marshall-Goetz.  As a friend and colleague of Marilyn’s I have learned many things from her.  There is one lesson that I remember most of all.
 
   Marilyn began to attend our church just as one of our charter members, a beautiful person named Robin Seils, had returned to active involvement with us.  Sadly, it was also at that time that Robin was diagnosed with leukemia, and it was a very serious diagnosis.  I went to visit Robin in her hospital room at the same time that Marilyn was also visiting her.  As I arrived, Marilyn was talking with Robin about being hopeful in God during this time.  Robin responded that in this time she was not able to feel such hope.  Marilyn took Robin’s hand and looked into her eyes and said to her, “Then I will hold your hope for you until you can feel it again.”
 
   Those words meant more to Robin than I can possibly explain to you.  They also meant so much to me, and have been a lesson to me ever since.
 
   There are times for each of us when we feel depleted.  In such times our faith may be low—and we may not be able to feel any hope at all.  We may not even be able to pray for ourselves very well in such a time.  In such a time and through such times those who are part of our church community—our faith family—hold our hope for us, pray for us, offer us the strength and support we need more than ever and would not otherwise find or know at that time.
 
   This is what I felt throughout those long days of vigil in my mother’s nursing home.  Even when I could not feel much compassion beyond our own situation, and did not feel great faith or strength, I felt your strength; I felt your prayers; I felt your hope that you were holding for me and for everyone else in my family at that time.
 
   Today is “Time and Talent Sunday” at our church.  Many people might think that all this means is that we are giving thanks for various talents that members of our church may have and for the 24 hours we each have every day—and that on this day we encourage one another to share more of those hours and talents through our church.  And, yes, all of this is true.  But what is most important about this day is the sharing of our faith—and our giving thanks for what we share and for how we support one another in all times and especially in the times of need that each of us goes through.
 
   Life is not a game of Solitaire.  We are not called by God to go off by ourselves and be removed from the needs of others—and the support of others.
 
   .  “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt,” God says to Moses; “I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings.”  God’s power to make the bush burn and burn and not be consumed is quite amazing.  What is most amazing, however, is God’s compassion for people in need and God’s call to each of us to live in community, giving support and receiving support—and when necessary even holding one another’s hope—as we share our time, our talent, and most of all our faith.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
August 28, 2011
Time and Talent Sunday


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TRANSFORMERS FOR TWO MILLENNIA

Romans 12:1-2

Sunday, August 21, 2011 -- Tenth Sunday after Pentecost 

   During my Sabbatical earlier this summer I studied the challenges that Christian Churches are facing at this time, and found that there are certainly many of them.  Among all these, however, perhaps the biggest single challenge is the perception that teens, twenty-something’s, and thirty-something’s have come to have about churches.  Again and again, I read or heard, younger people now tend to think of the Church as “out of touch,” as “fighting against scientific understandings,” as “working harder to keep people out than welcoming people in,” or—most indicting of all—even thinking of the Church as “Unchristian” in terms of their understanding of what “Christian should be.”
 
   There are many reasons that such perceptions have come about for our younger generations.  One of the most compelling reasons for these perceptions is media coverage of religious storiesWhen is it, I ask you, that a story about religion or a church or a church leader makes the news?  What about a time that a radical and fringe group who call themselves a church demonstrate and shout horrible, hateful things at the funeral of a military person?  What about a time that a crazed minister threatens publicly to burn the holy book of another religion?  What about a time when a church leader is caught living a secret life totally the opposite of what he preaches, or caught skimming money from his church in order to live a lavish life-style?  Yes, you can be certain that any story such as these will be covered in great detail.
 
   I will not say that such stories should receive no coverage at all, but I will ask about the countless other stories that could be covered.  What about a time when a church sends a crew of people, as ours did recently, to work on the yards and homes of families who are in need in Columbus—or sends teens and adults together to work on homes of families in need in West Virginia—or changes hundreds of lives forever by paying for the building of wells in a nation in Africa?  Will any of these stories be covered by television crew and newspaper reporters or photographers?  No—not likely.
 
   During the past week several people have asked me about this morning’s New Testament lesson.  It’s Romans chapter twelve, verses one and two.  “Only two verses,” I have been asked, “is that all we are reading?”  And my answer is “Yes, that’s it absolutely.”  There is so much in these two verses that I don’t know that we could “take much more” than this!  Consider what is in just these two verses: presenting ourselves to God as a living sacrifice; not letting ourselves be conformed to this world but transformed by discerning the will of God; discovering what is good and acceptable and perfect.  I would say that this is more than enough to try to cover in one morning’s service!
 
   As I have studied these two verses in greater depth, here is some of what I have taken away as a summary of their meaning.  To follow these teachings we must live actively for more than ourselves.  We must move from compulsion to inspiration as the basis for our living.  And we must move from a dying existence to being true worshipers who are continually renewed in faith and in hope.
 
   Allow me to distill these vital teachings even more.  I will never forget a seminar I attended in which the leader had offered many very meaningful insights about the Christian faith over a period of several hours.  Then came the question and answer period that always follows such a time, and I remember most of all a question that I knew was impossible for anyone to answer.  “Professor,” this person asked, “how would you proclaim the message of the Christian faith in one word?  What would that word be?”
 
   “Well,” I thought to myself, “that is certainly a ridiculous question to be asking.”  But without hesitation this Biblical teacher answered it!  “Transformation,” he proclaimed, “the message and meaning of the Christian faith beyond all else is the transforming of lives.”  And as he said this I thought about our passage for this morning—so brief, and yet so immense in what it says.  And what it says most of all is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds through the will of God.
 
   “Transformers” may be a relatively new phenomenon in our society, getting great media attention through the “Transformers” movies and toys and posters that we see so often.  Not as a recent phenomenon but as its mission for two millennia—for two thousand years—the Bible has called Christians to be transformers—to be transformed by God and then in turn to bring transformation to the lives of those among us who are in need of such blessing.  This is exactly what we in our church are called to be and to do—whether or not the national or even local media ever pick up on these stories.
 
   This is also exactly what happened just over a week ago, as crews from our congregation worked for three days with families in need on their homes and yards.  After those projects were completed the words I heard most of all about what happened at those sites were “dramatic difference” and “transforming change.”
 
   These pictures may not be picked up by our local television stations and shown in public ways, so I have asked that they be shown to you this morning.  Here are some before and after pictures showing the dramatic difference, the transforming change that members of our church helped to bring about….
 
   Only two verses—this is how long today’s Scripture lesson is.  But how packed with meaning these verses are—with more than enough for us to try to absorb into our understanding this morning, and then to seek to live for the rest of our lives.  “Be transformed by discerning the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  This is the compelling and challenging message that the Bible has dared to proclaim for two thousand years, and that we hear anew today.  This is the compelling and challenging message that those who are taking membership vows this morning are daring to say yes to embracing, whether or not the media these days are picking up on the power of this message.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
August 21, 2011
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost


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BOLD BEYOND BELIEF

Genesis 45:1-15

Sunday, August 14, 2011 -- Sunday before School Starts! 

   This is not the most common question I am asked—but it is a very frequent one.  I am asked very often about forgiveness.
 
   “Pastor,” I am asked, “do I have to forgive that person”—or “those persons”—“after what they did to me?”  Or the question may be phrased, “Does the Bible say I have to forgive?” or “How can God expect me ‘just to forget it’ after what they did?”
 
   Forgiveness is not easy even to ask about, much less do.  The pain on the face of the person asking tells me how deeply they are struggling with the question, and that it is one that cannot be answered hastily or lightly.
 
   This morning’s Scripture describes one of the most dramatic scenes in the entire Bible—which is saying something, because there are many very dramatic scenes in it.
 
   Joseph was the eleventh of twelve sons born to the patriarch, Jacob, and from the viewpoint of his ten older brothers, he was their father’s favorite.  One day when Joseph was seventeen his brothers became so jealous of Joseph and angry with him that in a fit of rage they were ready to kill him.  While they didn’t do that, they did the next closest thing.  They captured him and sold him into slavery to some Egyptian traders passing through their land.  So Joseph was taken away.  Whether he would die sooner or later in slavery in that foreign land the brothers did not know and did not care.  They did know that they would never see him again and that was fine with them.  To cover their tracks they told their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
 
   In his life as a slave in Egypt Joseph went through terrible times and amazing ones—sometimes in prison and sometimes out.  What was by far most amazing of all was that while he was in prison he was able to interpret a dream of the Pharaoh concerning seven years of bountiful harvests and then seven years of famine that were ahead.  As Joseph outlined the strategy they must have for storing up all the grain possible during the good years in order to get through the coming years of famine, the Pharaoh not only released Joseph from prison, but placed him second in command only to Pharaoh in all of Egypt in order to direct the carrying out this plan.
 
   This morning’s portion of the story takes place after the seven bountiful years and during the second year of famine.  People from many nations are now traveling to Egypt to buy grain, as it is the only nation that was wise enough to store up so much extra.  Among those who come to Egypt seeking to buy grain are Joseph’s own brothers, the very people who years before had sentenced him at the least to a life of misery and most likely to an early death.
 
   Now we come to this morning’s scene, when Joseph’s brothers are brought before him.  Of course they do not recognize this adorned and powerful man who speaks the Egyptian language and rules with such immense power.  Joseph, however, recognizes them, and gives orders for his assistants to leave the room so he can be alone with them.
 
   “Joseph,” we read, “could no longer control himself.”  The emotion he felt was so strong that he “wept so loudly” that even though the doors were closed, the Egyptians in the rest of the household could hear him.  “I am Joseph,” he now says to them, and then asks, “Is my father still alive?”
 
   I can’t begin to imagine what his brothers are thinking at this point, but it must be a combination of shock, disbelief—and fear.
 
   Then Joseph says the most important words of all.  “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me into slavery,” he says to them, “for God sent me before you to preserve life.”  In this incredibly amazing story, these words of Joseph are most amazing of all.
  
   “Do I have to forgive that person”—or “those persons”—“after what they did to me?” “Does the Bible say I have to forgive?” or “How can God expect me ‘just to forget it’ after what they did?”
 
   These are deeply difficult and troubling questions.  Perhaps you have asked such a question at some time in your life.  I know that I have.
 
   In response to someone struggling with such a question I cannot and do not simply say, “Well, of course you have to forgive and that’s that!”  Forgiveness is never as simple or easy as that.  As we continue to talk about what they are going through, I do say this: “I pray that at some point you will be able to forgive.”
 
   There is much for us to learn from the story of Joseph and such amazing forgiveness on his part.  It is important to note that Joseph’s forgiveness does not occur instantly.  His brothers had sold him when he was 17.  More than 20 years have passed since, so that he is now in his very late 30’s.  Many things have transpired and Joseph has come to recognize what is most amazing of all in this or any other story—and that is the purpose and providence of God.  Joseph’s forgiveness is offered so graciously—and yet we must see that it is offered within a far greater context—a context of being able to say, “God sent me here…to preserve life.”
 
   When I say to someone, “I pray that at some time you will be able to forgive,” I am not telling them just to “forget it” or that this means no more than simply letting the other person or persons “off the hook.”  Also, and perhaps most importantly of all, in hoping this person will be able at some point to forgive, I am saying this not so much for the benefit of the one being forgiven as I am for the benefit and blessing of this person who may offer forgiveness.
 
   Forgiveness is a power that is bold beyond belief, because forgiveness is not just a feeling or an idea; it is a bold force made known through the actions that will follow.
 
   The person who forgives is now released from the power that had been gripping him or her and receives the far greater power and providence God—which continues to give more and more blessing.
 
   Forgiveness seems at first to be unilateral.  The person doing the forgiving must be the one first of all to offer this.  As the bold force of forgiveness is extended, however, we realize that this is not just unilateral, because God is in the midst of it.  God’s providential power now comes to be known in still greater ways, even as Joseph could see the ways that God had been working all along to provide.
 
   I cannot tell you that you must forgive or when you must do so.  And I cannot and do not tell you just to forget whatever happened.  But I do say to you that as you remember what happened and as you open yourself to God’s far greater power and providence, you will come to that time of letting go of what was gripping you and holding you captive as you go forward into the far greater future God wants to give.
 
   What a powerful moment it is when you are able to say and to act upon these declarations: “I am strong…I am even stronger…because no matter what your intentions were, whether accidental or purposeful, God’s purposes are so much greater.  And that is why I have become even stronger through this.  It is because no matter what you intended or did, God has sent me forth—and continues to send me forth—to preserve and to embrace life—abundant life in this world and eternal life beyond.”
 
   Forgiveness is a very personal and very challenging subject.  I have tried to offer this morning not just my thoughts but a Biblical view concerning it.  True forgiveness cannot be offered hastily or lightly, but when we come to the time of being able to offer it, what power, what blessing it holds—and will hold eternally.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
August 14, 2011
Sunday before School Starts!


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THAT’S NOT FAIR

Genesis 37:1-28

Sunday, August 7, 2011 -- Eighth Sunday after Pentecost 

That’s not fair--this might be the most popular statement amongst siblings.
That’s not fair--you like him better than me.
That’s not fair--he gets more presents than I do.

Maybe as parents you have heard this statement: “That’s not fair” before?
Maybe after you heard “That’s not fair” you tried to explain your actions, but the ears couldn’t listen, but were pre-occupied with the feelings that things are not fair?
Maybe the person who is convinced that “this is not fair” does not see the many times when he or she received privileges?

In today’s story I hear the siblings say: That’s not fair.
That’s not fair that the youngest brother is Dad’s favorite.
That’s not fair that the youngest is given this beautiful new colorful coat made out of the finest material and we, the older brothers, have to wear the dull tan and green colors that don’t show the dirt, and clothes that last a long time.
That’s not fair that this beautiful coat makes our little brother look like someone who is too good to do any manual chores.
That’s not fair that he is treated as someone special and we have to work extra so that he can rest and take it easy.
That’s not fair that he is parading around and watches us work hard.
That’s not fair that we have to pick up where he slacks off.
That’s not fair that he also dared to share his dreams with us.
That’s not fair, that even in his dreams we were his slaves.
That’s not fair that he, the youngest, treats us so unfairly.

That’s not fair and so many other things which are not fair about our youngest brother, so we as siblings want to do something about him. We want to take matters in our own hand.

Let him figure out what it means to be treated unfairly. Let him feel it--because that only would be fair.

It is that even in the time of the Old Testament, siblings were concerned about being treated unfairly. Parents and everyone else who has ever heard: That’s not fair--be comforted. You are not dealing with a new or unusual complaint. This criticism is thousand of years old. Our story of the Old Testament is a prime example of sibling rivalry and how older brothers tried to deal with unfairness in their own way.

It is also good to know that the Bible never says that God is fair. But when God created the world and everything in it, God said: It is good. And when God created humans in God’s image, God said: It is very good.

The Bible does not say that life is fair. The Bible does not say that God is fair. Actually reading some of the stories, and who God chooses to be leaders of his people, it doesn’t look to be fair at all. At least according to our standards, God sometimes may have chosen the wrong person. Couple of weeks ago we read about how Jacob tricks the birthright of his older brother Esau, and he will be God’s chosen one. In today’s story we read that Joseph as the only one amongst his brothers who gets this wonderful coat and dreams that his older brothers will be servants to him. Or consider Moses, who even kills an Egyptian guard, will be the leader of the Israelites. Or King David did not always behave in a royal matter--but he is chosen to be the king and many psalms are accredited to him. These are just a few examples in the Bible when we think that life is not fair.

The Bible doesn’t say that life is fair. The Bible does say that God is good. About 2 years ago one of our members, Tom White, had his terrible accident falling ofF a tall ladder. He spent many weeks in the hospital, received many blood transfusions and there were many weeks of uncertainty and intense prayers. Whenever Susan posted updates about Tom, and sometimes the medical diagnosis and prognosis didn’t look good, she concluded with the sentences: God is good--all the time. Life might not always be fair, but God is good--all the time.

I have to admit--the more I read how the youngest brother Joseph was treated differently and received all the privileges, the more I can sympathize with the brothers. That does not mean I would have acted the same way. But I can understand where they are coming from and their feelings of: That’s not fair. It is sometimes difficult for us to accept that other people are given more privileges than we have. It is sometimes difficult for us to live with the fact that we are not chosen. It is sometimes difficult for us not to act like the brothers and take matters into our hands--and to make things fair--at least for a while.

The story of Joseph doesn’t end here, but the adventures are just starting. After the brothers threw him into the pit, the brothers sold him to strangers and Joseph started his journey in Egypt. Joseph doesn’t complain about his new circumstances, but with a great attitude, he adapts to his new situation and prospers. Joseph uses the special gift which God has given him--the power to interpret dreams--not only to save his own life, but also to save nations from draught. And what is even more wonderful to fathom--all this time God is with Joseph, even through some challenging times of distrust, and danger. Joseph’s new life is far different than before--but God turns a potential terrible situation into something positive. And even more: It was Joseph who saved the nation and even his own brothers and their family from famine.

Life is not always fair. But maybe the brothers and also we don’t need to spend so much time and energy arguing why certain things are not fair, but rather use that energy to re-focus. Instead of pointing out what we don’t have, instead of focusing of all the things we think are not fair, maybe we could learn to see life from a different perspective: What do we have? What can we do to live life to its fullest?

Life happens--and sometimes there is nothing you can do about it. But you can choose how you adapt and what you focus on.

Life is not always fair, but maybe we could the same letters F A I R and use other words starting with the same letter.

F is for forgiveness.
If life is not fair, then forgiveness isn’t fair either. But how much easier is it for us to live with forgiveness than adding up all the times which in our mind are not fair? Forgiveness is not necessarily about the other person, but forgiveness is really a gift we give to ourselves. Because forgiveness offers peace.

A is for attitude.
Attitude is more than adding up facts. Attitude is how we live with what is given to us. Every single day, many times during the day we have a choice we will embrace for that day. We cannot change the past, we cannot change certain facts, we cannot change how other people will react. The only thing you can do is to decide how you react. Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% of how you react to it. Only you are in charge of your attitudes.

I is for impact.
What impact does this incident which you think is unfair have on your life? Not only for today, but for the following week, month or year? And to widen our horizon: what impact does this unfair incident have on life in general?? Will, what seems to be so unfair, change the world?

R is for relax and let go--let go and let God.
Maybe this is the most difficult. You are not in charge. You don’t know what the future will bring. As the brothers did in our story, they dealt in their way with what they thought was unfair, but little did they knew that the brothers, whom they sold, will actually save them in the future. Relax, let go and let God.

Maybe if we start concentrating more on those four words starting with the same letters as the word fair: forgiveness attitude, Impact and relax, maybe then we can join Susan in her words: God is good--all the time. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Sigrid Rother
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
August 7, 2011
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost


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Wedding Ceremony                        


Alicia Delvaux and Nevin Steindam Wedding Ceremony

Saturday, August 6, 2011

   Recently when I told a fellow minister that Jenny and I would be officiating at our son’s wedding, he asked me if I would be including any embarrassing stories about Nevin from his growing up as part of it!  My immediate answer was--and is--“No, of course not!”  So, Nevin, you can relax about that!

   I’m not including any such stories because it wouldn’t be the least bit appropriate, but in addition to that I’m not doing so because there really aren’t any such stories to tell!  Oh, I remember and could tell a few cute things as every parent can about their children.  When all is said and done, however, what has always been true and matters most of all is that you, Nevin, are such a good person.  And what has always been true and matters most of all is that in Alicia you are
marrying such a good person.

  I will share one memory, but it is from my own private thoughts.  This is something that many parents may wonder about as their children grow.  There were times as you were growing up, Nevin, I would think about the long-term future and know that you would probably marry some day, and of course I hoped that the person you would find to share your life with would be such a good person.  And I remember thinking, “The person Nevin will marry is out there ‘somewhere’ right now and there is nothing I can do at this time to help make that person be a good and wonderful one.  Jenny and I can only do our best as Nevin’s parents and trust that the parents of his future bride are also doing their best right now.  And, indeed, that is exactly what was happening all along.

   Alicia, you chose for this ceremony a verse from the Bible that I have never used in a wedding before.  The verse is Lamentations 3:22 and I am very grateful that you have chosen it, because it is exactly right for this day.  “Because of the Lord’s great love,” we read, “we are not consumed, for His compassion does not fail.”

   Tom and Judy, Jenny and I, take great pride that the two of you have grown to be the persons you are and that we had important parts in this. And yet we know that so much more also happened--many more influences, challenges and blessings than we could control--all of which together have brought you through these years and led you to be who you are and where you are as you give yourselves to one another in marriage.  “God’s compassion does not fail,” Lamentations says, “because of God’s
great love.”

   In addition to your choice of the Lamentations verse, Alicia, I very much appreciate your choice of the beautiful poem that Jacky read just minutes ago--“The Pleasures of an Ordinary Life.”  This poem lifts up what matters most of all in this world--the pleasures that are too often considered ordinary--the enjoyment of what is of lasting meaning that we are blessed to share in the midst of what is usually called “ordinary.”

   I am led to think about the wedding that received the most attention and media coverage by far this year--the “royal wedding” of Prince William and Kate Middleton a few months ago.

     There was so much fanfare around this wedding that people could conclude that somehow it must “count more” than any other wedding.  In truth what it “counts for” is exactly the same as every other wedding this year or any year in which two people enter their marriage covenant with the sincere desire to commit their lives to one another.

   There are often times after a celebrity wedding that there are soon reports of problems and an ending of the relationship.  And we wonder how that can be.  This couple had “everything”--wealth, glamour, fame.  But what they did not come to have is what matters most of all.  They did not embrace the pleasures of the ordinary--which are most important of all.  They did not allow themselves to see the compassion and the blessing brought to their lives because of God’s great love.

   The verse from Lamentations about God’s great love and blessing throughout our lives affirms what is most true and important of all.  The passage from Colossians that you also chose tells how to embrace and live this most important blessing from day to day.  “Kindness, forgiveness, and thankfulness” are the traits that I want to lift up from this passage most of all for you always to remember and follow.

   Alicia and Nevin, each of you is the person you are--each such a good person--and today you become even better person still as you become one together in God’s great love.  God’s love and compassion will continue to bless each of you and bless the two of you together, so that this love will also bless the countless other lives that you together will touch throughout the coming years.

   As you share the pleasures of your ordinary life, you will find that they are truly the most extraordinary blessings of all.  Alicia and Nevin, may your love be extraordinary--as God’s blessing continues to be made known to you and
through you--now and always.

Rev. Harold Steindam
Alicia Delvaux and Nevin Steindam Wedding Ceremony
Saturday, August 6, 2011


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St. John's UCC 50th Anniversary                        


FINDING EMPLOYMENT

Psalm 105:1-6, Matthew 20:1-16

Sunday, September 18, 2011 -- St. John’s UCC 50th Anniversary Celebration

   Worship services have now been held in this sanctuary—and in the accompanying Chapel alongside it—for fifty years.  By my quick calculations I find that there have been approximately 2600 Sundays during this period of time—twenty-six hundred “Lord’s Days” on which worship has been held and sermons preached here.
 
   Recently I heard for the first time one of the sermons preached in this sacred space during this half century.  The date of this particular sermon was June 22, 1975—and I heard it for the first time on May 30 of this year.
 
   It was on May 30 that my mother, Alice Steindam, died after a lengthy stay at the Genoa Care Center.  After we took care of the things that families need to do at such a time, I returned along with my sister, Shirley, her husband, Mike, their daughter, Darci, and her infant son, Russell, to our parents’ long-time home on Genoa-Clay Center Road.  We had not been there long when my sister found a box of cassette tapes that my mother had recorded many years ago—including a recording of the sermon that Rev. Paul Deppen preached here on the morning of June 22, 1975.  That was a significant date for our family, as it was the day of my ordination as a Christian minister.
 
   For some time I had been serving my first church—Emanuel United Church of Christ in Upper Sandusky—as a student minister, and so I was there leading worship and not here that morning. The ordination service would take place here later in the day.  That morning, however, worship as always took place here and as an important part of his sermon, Rev. Deppen referred to the upcoming ordination service.  He did not talk just about me and my calling into ministry, however.  Rather, he used this occasion as a teaching opportunity for all members of this congregation—to have everyone listen and consider again how God calls each of us in our lives.
 
   “Look what I found,” Shirley suddenly called out as she brought the tape and an old cassette player into the living room of our mother’s house.  She pushed the play button and I listened to this sermon that had been preached here—a sermon I had not before heard—on what had been such a significant day in my life.  Now I was listening to it on yet another very significant day for us—the day of the beginning of our mother’s eternal life.
 
   As I’m sure all of you who know and have heard Rev. Deppen can imagine—this particular sermon was very inspiring.  And as I listened to it I found myself thinking about how many inspiring services, how many inspiring sermons—how many inspiring moments—there have been in this sacred space throughout these fifty years. 
 
   As I have anticipated this very special day, I have realized that there have been many such moments in this Sanctuary and for this congregation that I have not been part of—even as I was not part of that morning’s service on June 22, 1975.  I have, however, been extremely blessed to be part of and inspired by countless other moments—through many of the pastors, parishioners, and services of this church.
 
   I consider myself very blessed to be able to remember Rev. Paul David, and to know that it was he who baptized me.  I remember Rev. Robert Nienkamp with such gratitude—and will always remember how he led our congregation up to the time of his death in the decision to build this beautiful church.  I remember Rev. Paul Rohrbaugh who was my pastor through my formative years, including my confirmation classes, and Rev. Robert Carlson, who arrived just in time for my confirmation day and who was a great inspiration during high school years.  Both Rev. Rohrbaugh and Rev. Carlson have continued to be friends and colleagues and guides for me throughout the years of my ministry.  Then, as I was about to graduate high school Rev. Paul Deppen arrived, and what blessing he brought to the church overall and to so many of us individually.  Still today, whenever I am asked “who my home minister” is, I say, without pause, Rev. Paul Deppen.  And our family will never forget how Rev. Deppen and Rev. Robert Waidmann ministered to my father, Bernard Steindam, more than 28 years ago, during his time of his illness and dying, and ministered to our family as they did to countless others in such deeply meaningful ways.  And for more than a quarter century since that time others in pastoral ministry, others as staff members, and so many others as teachers and musicians and more have continued to lead and bring blessing to and through this great church.
 
   This congregation has now served its community and world in Christ’s name for over one hundred and forty years—with the past fifty of these years being at this location and centered in this sacred space.  These are incredible numbers—remarkable periods of time—but they find their full meaning only when I begin to think in terms of each individual, each family, that has been enriched here—and realize that my family is but one of the hundreds—thousands even—that has been so blessed here.
 
   As I walk through, look through, or even think about this space that we dedicated to God’s glory fifty years ago, I can see or picture in my mind so many significant events and places within these walls.  I remember that even for me as a child fifty years ago it was very meaningful for me that the pulpit furnishings from our former church building were being brought here for our ongoing use and services in the chapel.  And here in the sanctuary itself, I look about and see the places where I was standing, or sitting, or kneeling at very important moments in my life.
 
   I think most of all about this pew right here...  For some reason this was the pew that my family chose early on as “our spot” for worship, and for years, my dad, mom, sister, and I sat in it every Sunday morning for worship.  By the time I was in junior high and high school, however, whenever I could I did move up to the balcony with my friends to sit with them there.  I don’t know if that still happens with some of the teens of this church, but I hope so!
 
   This, you see, has been and continues to be the sacred space where the words of this morning’s Psalm are lived out—where we give thanks to the Lord, call on the name of the Lord, sing to the Lord and seek God’s presence and strength.
 
   What an inspiring place this is.  And of all that is here as a permanent part of this space, I have to say that what is most striking of all are the windows that surround and adorn and inspire us here and in the chapel as well.
 
   Not only were these windows of a new style at that time—as beautiful as and yet different from traditional stained glass—but most of these windows, as many of you know, were designed to interpret the Statement of Faith of our United Church of Christ.  Only recently did it dawn on me just how amazing this was!  The Statement of Faith was written and accepted by our still very new United Church of Christ denomination in 1959.  In 1961 this Sanctuary was dedicated, with these windows so beautifully designed, produced, and installed at that time.  How amazing indeed it was and is that in that very “brief window” of time, these incredible windows came into being and have inspired worshipers here for fifty years since—and I expect will continue to do so for at least that many years and more into the future.
 
   On this very important date we gather—as individual families within the larger family of St. John’s United Church of Christ—gather on this Lord’s Day at this time within the beautiful windows and more of this sacred space.  We each have found “our pew” or other place for this day to hear God’s Word.  And—what is the Word that we hear today?
 
   We hear one of Jesus’ most powerful—and most controversial—parables! I must confess to you that when I saw that this would be the Gospel reading for this particular Sunday, my first thought was, “Oh, no—not that one—not on this special day!”
 
   Jesus tells about the owner of a vineyard who goes out early in the morning to hire workers for the day.  This was a common occurrence at t that time.  Many people were “day laborers”—who hoped each day that they would be hired by someone so that at the end of the day they could purchase food for their family.  There was a gathering place in each town where such workers would assemble by six in the morning—with the hope that they would be hired and earn the “usual wage” or standard amount of one denarius for that day’s work.
 
    Jesus says that this day begins and at six in the morning many but not all of those assembled are hired by various employers, including those fortunate enough to go to work for this owner of a vineyard, who agrees with them to pay the usual wage.  At nine o’clock this employer decides that he can use more workers and goes back to the town’s gathering place where he hires some of those still waiting and hoping there.  He does the same at a noon and then at three.  There isn’t even time to discuss a wage at this point—“Just go to work and I’ll be fair with you,” he promises.  Finally, at five in the afternoon he goes back one more time.  The working day at that time was twelve hours—six to six—which means there’s only one hour left to go.  “Why are you still here?” he asks the people still waiting after being there all day.  “Because no one has hired us,” they answer, and he says to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”  Six o’clock arrives.  The work day is over.  It’s time to pay the workers and the owner has them paid in reverse order to how they had been hired.
   Those who had started at five o’clock and worked for only an hour don’t expect to receive much but at least it will be something.  How amazed they must be when they each receive a denarius, the usual rate at that time for a full day’s work!  So also the others all receive a denarius, until at last those who had worked for the full twelve hours step forward.  I can understand what they are thinking: “Wow, if the guys who worked one hour have received a denarius, how much more will those of us who have worked all twelve hours be paid?”  But they also are paid—one denarius—and they complain bitterly about how unfair this is.  And—it is unfair, is it not?
 
   In another way, however, it is fair because, as the owner reminds them, this is exactly what they had agreed upon at six that morning for their wage to be.  Even so, I find myself identifying with and being upset along with these workers.  “Twelve hours, same pay as for those who’d worked one?—come on!”  This is why I thought to myself, “Oh, no,” when I first saw that this would be today’s Scripture.  “Why such un unsettling and controversial teaching of Jesus on what should be a festive and celebrative morning?” I found myself asking!
 
   Eventually, however, I came to realize that this is the very teaching that we at this time and in this sacred space need to hear.  We are here this morning—all together.  Some of us have been here since six in the morning and have done so much for the work of this church for what seems a very long time.  Others didn’t arrive until five o’clock.  And yet we’re here together—all here as part of this one beautiful family of God’s people.  And the reward for all of us—of being able to enjoy and be inspired by and within this glorious space—is exactly the same.  Each of us is offered the grace of God—for now, for each of the days to come in the life we have in this world—and for eternal life to come.
 
   I noted a moment ago that while it seemed so unfair that the “twelve hour” workers were paid only a denarius, from a “labor standpoint” this actually was perfectly fair, because this was the wage on which they had agreed.  There is another way also in which the payment of a denarius to every worker was even more fair—was most fair of all.  As I noted, each worker went to the gathering place that morning hoping for work so that he could buy food for his family later that day.  For many families at that time, there would be little or nothing to eat on the days that their wage-earner did not find work.
 
   This vineyard owner in Jesus’ parable—very much like God Himself—wants blessing for every individual, for every family.  And so he is generous—even to the point that some would begrudge such generosity.
 
   The title for this sermon preached within this sacred space on this very important day—is “Finding Employment.”  All of us know what “employment” is—just as those would-be, hopeful workers in Jesus’ parable knew.  In today’s economic times we hear and think even more deeply about what employment means.  But on this day I must say to you that there is an even greater meaning for the word “employment” than what we usually think.  I opened the dictionary this week to this word, and yes, there are the expected definitions about finding engagement for pay in a job.
 
   The dictionary’s first definition of all, however, for “employment” is this: “Purpose.”  “To be employed is to have purpose for our lives—hopefully in a way that earns enough money to support ourselves and our families, but also in many and far more important ways than that.
 
   As I say to every class of new members who join the congregation I serve in Westerville, Ohio, I say to you.  I hope and I pray that you will be here—within this sacred space for worship and learning and fellowship—often.  But far more important than what you do or receive within these walls will then take place as you go out from these walls.  Inspired by what you receive here may you live every day of your life with a faith-based sense of purpose.  Allow me say this once more.  “May you live every day of your life with a faith-based sense of purpose!”
 
   For fifty years worship and so much more has taken place within these walls, taken place within the beauty of these windows.  For over one hundred and forty years this congregation—many families joining together as one family—have worshiped and worked and served together as St. John’s Evangelical Church—and then as St. John’s Evangelical and Reformed Church—and ever since moving to this location as St. John’s United Church of Christ.  But always, though our denominational name has changed, the One in whose name we serve—Jesus Christ—has remained always the same.
 
   For two thousand years the message of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed in this world through faithful congregations in all the towns and cities that now cover the world.  How grateful I am for this congregation.  Whenever you first came to work and serve as part of this great church—whether at six in the morning or only at five in the afternoon—may you know the blessing of that one denarius of reward that you and all others are blessed to receive here.  May you continue to gather with your family within this wider family—whether always in the same pew or always moving to different ones—in such a way that you find employment—in order that you find that faith-based sense of purpose to guide and bless you as you go out from this sacred space and into the world.   May that one denarius of God’s grace bring blessing to you and through you for this day, for the days to come, and indeed—as for my parents and for so many others who have worshiped and been nourished here in the past—for eternal life.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
St. John’s United Church of Christ
Genoa, Ohio
September 18, 2011
Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration of New Church and Sanctuary



Special Tribute                        


Tribute to Rev. Bill Chidester

 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011  

   On the day that I met Bill Chidester he became my friend.  And from that day on he would always be my best friend in ministry.

   It was late summer 1975.  Bill had recently moved to Ohio to serve Sycamore United Church of Christ, located only eight or nine miles from the church near Upper Sandusky that I had been serving, and we both attended a meeting of area UCC clergy.  There was a presence about Bill that caused me immediately to want to get to know him and as I found a way to sit next to him and we talked just briefly, it was clear to me that here was someone I could respect and learn from.  I was quite right about those initial thoughts, although I could not begin to imagine how much I would learn from him and come to respect him over the course of the more than 35 years that would follow as colleagues and friends.

   Bill came to rural Ohio from Yale Divinity School with a great deal of knowledge and expertise to share.  He came, however, as one who was so approachable.  Bill had amazing abilities and insights—whether in preaching or offering pastoral care or leading a meeting—and he shared each gift by meeting people where they were, always inviting and caring as his way of going about ministry.

   Bill had a can-do attitude.  Less than a month after meeting one another, he and I formed a small group with two or three other clergy who began to meet weekly in Bill and Sharon’s home to discuss Scripture lessons for the coming Sunday’s sermon.  During one of those sessions we somehow began to talk about taking our Confirmation kids on a trip to discover United Church of Christ heritage.  It was an overwhelming idea to me but Bill knew we could do it.  And indeed we did.  In the summer of 1976 we took more than 50 Confirmation students and other leaders on a ten day bus trip through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and New England states.  We spent days in New York City—even going through the Bowery area—and in Boston.  We survived Hurricane Bell as it swept up the coast on a night we were staying in an old conference house right along the ocean.  All this was done meaningfully and memorably for middle school students from eight of our rural churches—with many of those youth having never before traveled outside Ohio.  To put it mildly, I learnedas much as any of those kids did on that amazing adventure that Bill most of all brought into being.

   Of all that I learned from Bill, what I learned for which I am most indebted of all is this:  Bill had—and encouraged other ministers to have—a healthy disrespect for the ministry.

   It’s very easy for ministers to get caught up in their role to a point of thinking more highly of themselves or that they are more important than they actually are.  Bill always kept a healthy understanding of who he was and who all of us in ministry are.  We are very human individuals called to serve in a sacred and trusted role.  And with that “healthy disrespect” Bill’s ego—and consequently mine as he influenced me—stayed in a very healthy balance.

   Bill had a strong ministerial heritage in his family and was proud of and always honored that heritage.  And yet he found his own way to live out this sacred and trusted role.  During his career he would serve two churches—each a long and meaningful tenure that continues and always will to have impact for great ongoing blessing.  Bill served more than a decade at Sycamore United Church of Christ, and then over a quarter of a century here at Sylvania United Church of Christ.  At each of these churches Bill’s presence, his approachable nature, and his many gifts for ministry enabled him to bring lasting blessing to hundreds and hundreds of lives.  Always he was seeking to improve his abilities and sharpen his skills even more, and he did this in a number of ways.  He went on to earn his Doctor of Ministry degree, and every year he attended continuing education seminars.  It was in attending those seminars and rooming together each year that Bill and I most of all maintained and grew our friendship through these years.

   Bill could have aspired to other levels in his professional life.  But what he wanted to do most of all he did do through all of his career—and that was to serve a caring congregation that was growing in faith and mission and impact for good in the world.  Thank you, people of Sylvania UCC—and also members of Sycamore UCC—for being part of such churches that brought fulfillment for Bill even as he brought great fulfillment to you.

   Finally, Bill shared the sacred role entrusted to him so very well.  He was a true colleague.  And I must take one more moment here to say how incredibly grateful Bill was whenLuke Lindon accepted the call to share ministry with him here at Sylvania UCC.

   Bill was an outstanding minister.  I have known none finer.  And yet that was not what was best about him.  He was first of all and most significantly of all a loving husband, devoted father, proud grandfather, and amazing friend.  And it was as he fulfilled all of these most important roles that he also could speak to us and inspired us in all the ways he did as such an outstanding minister.

   Thank you, Bill.  Thank you, dear colleague and friend.  I am forever changed because you allowed me to become part of the circle of your life—even as you invited and allowed many others also to share the blessings you offered in such abundance.

   I pray that all of us in ministry will be as approachable in our work as you always were in yours, as we maintain proper balance in our personal and professional lives by having that “healthy disrespect” you had concerning the images of ministry—and which in turn led you and can lead all of us to find the healthiest of respect for what truly is a most sacred and trusted role.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Sylvania United Church of Christ
Tuesday, May 24, 2011


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Sabbatical Study 2011                        


The main focus of my Sabbatical study was the decline occurring in churches in recent years and what is happening in some churches that has them still growing--even thriving. I read many books and articles, interviewed over a dozen ministers and other church leaders in growing congregations and visited as many churches as possible. Below is the result of my study.


ADMITTING “WE CAN’T STOP THEM”—AND THEN GOING FORWARD
 
Reflections on the Present—and Hope for the Future—of Mainline Churches
 
   Each interview begins very much the same.  Before moving into the dialogue I hope to have I ask the church leader to listen to some of the serious concerns in the United Church of Christ and other mainline denominations.  Seventy per cent of UCC congregations can no longer afford a fulltime, ordained minister with denominational standing to serve their church.  The average age of UCC members nationally is 65.  We are losing five congregations for every one we gain.  The percentage of ordained clergy age 35 or younger who are serving our churches has dropped from 35% in 1970 to less than five per cent today.
 
   Then I ask them to listen to some trends that are of concern for churches across the spectrum.  Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, once “protected” in most communities, are now no different than other times of the week.  Church involvement has gone from being a foundation of American life to being just one of many “options.”  “None” is the fastest growing response to questions about religious involvement.  Media focus predominantly on negative stories regarding churches, and consequently younger generations are very suspicious of the Church in general, thinking of it as “out of touch,” fighting against scientific understanding, or even being “unchristian.”
 
   Each of my interviews begins in this same way, as I try to make a number of “opening statements” before our dialogue.  What happens next—and usually before I’ve had time to get through my entire list—is also the same.  The person sitting across the table is not only nodding in agreement with each statement—because he or she already knows these things—but is also eagerly adding their own examples of current downturn in the “Church”—all churches in general and mainline congregations in particular.
 
   Whether using anecdotal evidence or the findings of recent scientific surveys, most people now agree that the mainline Christian church—in strength, status, and role—is in serious decline.
 
   At the same time, however, there are many mainline churches that are thriving—gaining vitality in mission and ministry.  What is happening in these congregations that can be helpful for others to know?  This question will be a focus for this document.  In order to go forward with positive understandings, however, we must first be willing to face and admit current concerns—and what has led to them.
 
 
“WE CAN’T STOP THEM”
 
   One of the great “characters” of the past half century plus not only in baseball but across our culture has been Yogi Berra.  In addition to having a long career with the New York Yankees and being one of the best catchers in baseball history, Yogi often made statements on a variety of subjects that came out in very humorous ways, with many of his quotes becoming part of our ongoing lexicon.  For example, it was he who said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”
 
   Many of his statements, while silly in one way, may also offer insights as they change how we see something that is otherwise overly familiar.  My favorite Yogi quote came during a time when attendance at Major League baseball games had dropped.  A reporter asked him what he thought about this and what should be done about it.  “Hey,” Yogi responded, “if the people aren’t going to come to the ballpark, we can’t stop them!”  Trying to “stop” people from “not attending” creates quite a picture— worthy of comparison to some of the hyperbolic statements of Jesus (i.e. “a log in one’s eye”).  It’s impossible—and invites further thought from a new perspective.
 
   Over the past decade and more the evidence that people are staying away from churches—and can’t be stopped—has been mounting.  A majority of people in the youngest two generations have not grown up with an expectation of attendance at worship or Sunday school. The evidence is also clear that this change has hit our society’s most established churches—those in the “mainline”—hardest of all.
 
   Eden Seminary President, David Greenhaw, notes that the very strength of mainline churches for so many generations eventually led to our greatest weakness.  We were in the privileged position of placing church buildings in what were the best locations—amid farming regions and highly populated areas of cities (especially with certain ethnic groupings).  As inner city populations lessened or changed in make-up, and as the number of farm families decreased in rural settings, the people available for active involvement in these churches also decreased dramatically.  Many of these buildings were constructed for large congregations and have physically deteriorated while also becoming too large for their current congregations.  Thus these once proudly placed buildings can require all the resources those left in them can muster just to maintain them.
 
   Costs related to having a full-time minister have also risen at a rate greater than the budget many congregations can support, meaning that the traditional understanding of full-time ministry cannot be offered by such congregations.  The possibilities for growth in ministry and mission—or of having more than a “maintenance” ministry—are thus even further decreased.
 
   There were over 100 churches in the UCC Association in which I began my ministry and nearly all of them paid at least a living wage to a minister.  Now less than half are doing so.  In an Association where I served three decades ago, one of its counties had ten active UCC churches.  Recently I learned that among those ten, two have since closed, some share a minister, and others have part-time pastoral leadership.  The focus for each changed from thriving to surviving—with not all of them doing even that.
 
   While we have become acutely aware of these issues in recent years, they have actually been occurring for several decades—if not centuries.  Again, it was David Greenhaw whom I first heard state that the largest predecessor part of the United Church of Christ, the Congregational Church, while being the strongest cultural force in America after the time of the first Pilgrim and Puritan landings in 1620 and 1630, actually began to decline as a percentage of American population as early as the 1740’s.
 
   It was in 1964 (coincidentally the final “Baby Boom” birth year) that mainline denominations experienced their first decline in actual numbers on membership rolls.  That trend has not changed.  I began to serve my first church in 1973 and in each year for the next decade plus a report would come from national headquarters telling how many our losses had been during the previous year.  It seemed, however, that little attention was being paid in response.  After all, we were strong—we were “the churches” and we knew it.  Why worry about being just a “little less dominant” than we had been a year before?  Inevitably, though, as American population continued to increase at an average of one per cent per year while mainline church rolls decreased at an average of one per cent each of those same years, the numbers could no longer be ignored.
 
   People “were not coming to our ball parks” in ever greater degrees—and we could not stop them.  We especially could not stop them as we continued to do only what we had been doing for so many years before.  The “good old days” were over, whether or not we were ready to admit it.  Actually they had been over for some time.
 
 
MEGA TRENDS ACROSS THE BOARD
 
   The Church is not the only institution that has been experiencing such changes in recent decades.  Masonic orders have had drastic decreases in active involvement.  Service clubs struggle to attract the numbers they once did.  Even such enterprises as bowling leagues are less prevalent than they once were, as more people prefer “bowling alone” to the commitment of being part of an organized group gathering at a certain time and place.
 
   Consider also the reductions in the newspaper industry, once a staple of American communication.  The peak year for newspaper readership was 1964, matching exactly the time of decline in “subscription lists” for mainline churches.
 
   The decline of the American automobile industry is yet another example.  I worked at an auto factory in my college summers of 1969 and 1970.  At that time no one could have imagined the decline in sales and overall “customer loyalty” that were not far off—or what would have to take place for this once dominant industry even to survive, much less again compete.
 
   Having been born in 1950—not at the very beginning but early in the Baby Boom years—I have had a good viewing point from which to see the vast changes that have occurred during the past six decades.  My childhood was in the 1950’s, when Sundays were protected days.  I remember how my father would be sure to buy gas on Saturday if we would be visiting relatives the next day, as gas stations were not open on Sunday.  My teen years coincided with the challenges and changes of the 1960’s, and my ministry began in the 1970’s when mainline churches still assumed unchallenged strength and influence, even though trends to the contrary were already in place.
 
   Through each decade since the seventies, these trends have not only continued but gained momentum.  It was in 1980 that I heard Lyle Schaller observe how many small churches there were in mainline denominations with an average age of members that would make us think they would cease to exist in another decade.  Yet, he confidently went on, they had continued at their same relative strength for several decades already and almost certainly would for many more.  Three decades later such a statement can no longer be made, as many of these congregations have indeed closed since while countless others are barely surviving.
 
   Values differences between older and younger generations have certainly been major factors in bringing decline to local churches.  Staying active and supportive because this was “Grandpa’s church” is no longer a motivating factor for younger adults.  Yes, they will make appearances on special occasions, but the kind of ongoing support required to keep a church vital will not be given.  Most likely these members of younger generational are not involved in any church, and if they are it is likely one large enough to offer perks and packages for their family that “Grandpa’s church” could not dream of providing.
 
   The greatest change of all, however, has been in the overall understanding of the role and importance of “church” in our culture.  The immensity in change from the attitudes and realities about Sunday that I recall from the 1950’s to those of today is difficult to put into words.  Recently I attended Sunday morning worship at a small congregation I had learned was “making a comeback” after being near to closing.  On the way to this church I drove past a long stretch of soccer fields.  Every one of those fields was in use, filled with youth and adult leagues alike, playing games that are scheduled there on every Sunday morning of the year that weather allows.  The number of worshipers at the church I then attended was encouraging compared to what had recently been.  Yet I could not help wondering how many such congregations would be required to equal the number of people at just that one stretch of soccer fields that same Sunday morning.
 
 
NO LONGER “EXPECTING THE SAME RESULTS”
 
   One of the great hymns of our tradition includes a very powerful line: “New occasions teach new duties.”  (“Once to Every Man and Nation,” James Russell Lowell)  Mainline congregations have been singing these words for more than a century.  Not very often, however, has the message actually been heeded.  Many jokes are made about the “Seven Last Words of the Church” (“We’ve never done it that way before!”).  Unfortunately, this is not so much a joke as a commentary on what has been true for too long in congregations that assume they are at the center of things (in the “mainline!”) and thus have no need to change.
 
   We are also familiar with the oft-used definition of insanity: Doing the same things while expecting different results.  Through the decades since our downturn began undeniably in 1964 we have continued to think that if we do the same things we have been doing—perhaps just a “little better”—then the results will be different.  Then we can go “all the way back to the 1950’s” (the ideal that many churches still have).
 
   Rev. Robert Molsberry, United Church of Christ Ohio Conference Minister, preached a compelling sermon upon his arrival in Ohio.  Jesus instructed his disciples to “fish for people” and “cast out into the deep.”  The disciples, however, were instead washing their nets.  (Luke 5:1-11)  “This is very much what the Church has been doing,” Rev. Molsberry stated.  “We are busy washing our nets and placing them along the shore.  ‘Look how clean and attractive they are,’ we announce, expecting the fish to come out of the water and jump right into them!”
 
   We expect the standards and messages that worked with the Duty and Builder generations to work equally well today.  “Surely the fish will come to us and we don’t need to ‘cast out into the deep’ or be present ‘where the fish are now swimming!’”
 
   For a long time we in mainline settings have done the same things while expecting different results—even old (1950’s) results—to follow.  Perhaps we are at last ready to try for new results by remaining faithful to the best of our traditions as we also see “new occasions” and ask what “new duties” we are being called to perform.
 
 
GOD’S CALL TO “NEW DUTIES”

   After decades of denying the realities of decline, we can no longer do so.  Unfortunately, many church leaders have now moved so far as to be stuck in another “stage of grief”—depression.  “We are dying,” I hear many of our most committed folks say, “and”—many go on to assume—“there is nothing we can do in response.”

   What a blessing it was to hear Rev. Laurinda Hafner (Senior Minister of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Coral Gables, Florida), who was the Sunday preacher at the 2011 UCC General Synod Meeting in Tampa, Florida.  “It is time to stop moaning that we are a dying church,” she proclaimed, “and instead claim the faithful and vital role God has called our congregations to have in this time.”

   Consider these faithful and vital realities—and the possible “new duties” that follow.

   Those of “Generation X” (born 1964 or 65 through the very early 1980’s) and the “Millennial Generation” (born early 80’s through the end of the 1990’s) do not give financially to charitable causes in the same ways that previous generations did.  I am not referring here to the fact that they don’t give by check or in church envelopes on a weekly basis, although these things are also largely true.  (Many stewardship studies are being done on how to enable younger adults to give in ways that fit their financial lifestyles—by electronic fund transfers, credit card payments, even giving by cell phone—and these and other approaches all need further consideration.)  What I am speaking of here is that younger generations do not give simply “because it’s the right thing to do” (in other words, out of duty to cause and trust of institution).  Rather, they give only when they know their dollars are making a difference in changing lives and when they understand
how those dollars are being used.

   I confess that I am among those who once rued such changes, because dire calculations can be made about how much less money churches will eventually receive because of them.  I am now beginning to see, however, that this may actually be the challenge that will redirect us toward a stronger future.  As long as churches could count on the giving of enough members “no matter what” (or of the endowment dollars they had bequeathed years before) there was little need to change anything.  Thus many patterns continued even as declines were occurring, which added all the more to those declines.

   For decades we have talked about younger people as the “future of the church.”  In many churches even those in their forties are spoken of in this “seemingly caring” but actually pejorative way.  Younger adults, teens, and also children are not the “future” of churches but a vital part of the Body of Christ today, and must be seen in this way.  They must also be treated in this way—and fully included now—because the Church cannot continue in any other way.

   Here’s the good news.  It is that by listening to and including the influences of—and understanding what is important to—Generation X, Millennial Generation members, and those even younger, the Church can be as relevant as it has ever been, and as relevant as the world needs it to be (and these needs are greater than ever before).

   Here is more good news.  It is that younger generations truly do care about spiritual matters and faith questions.  Certainly there are different ways they hear and respond to the Christian message, but they do want to hear it and are open to being impacted by it.  I see evidence of the searching of young people about spiritual and faith related matters every day.  Very seriously and deeply they are questioning and searching.

   Churches must take younger people seriously.  Hear their questions and develop programs in which they can ask them.  And—not later but now—include them in the life of the church.  This means having children, teens, and younger adults be visible and take leadership in worship services, activities within and beyond church doors, and decision-making that guides the congregation.

   Theologian Emil Brunner declared that “the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.”  Never has it been truer than it is today that a church must have a mission focus—with clear and celebrated involvements that are changing lives in its local setting and beyond—if it is to remain vital.  Younger people demand this, and it is right that they do.  Every church I have studied that is vital and growing—regardless of size of congregation—is increasing and celebrating mission involvements and offering clear and welcoming ways to be part of them.

   Worship must be a time of meaning and joy.  Calling it “traditional” or “contemporary” is not what matters—being relevant does.  This means including both long-standing worship elements and new expressions of praise and technology.  It means experiencing energy among participants even as inner reflection is also encouraged.  It means having a number of individuals or groups in leadership during the service, and not the minister alone providing it.

  “What does the Bible—and what do the faith stories of those around me—say in response to what is happening in the world and what is happening in my life today?”  As worshipers return to their daily lives with insight and hope related to these questions, they will want to experience such renewing worship again soon.

   Not “adding members” but “making disciples” must be the priority for churches.  This means being aware of the individual journey each person is making and helping each person to follow the way of Jesus.

   The church community must be inclusive of all who seek sincerely to follow Jesus.  It was Jesus himself who declared and best of all demonstrated this.  Younger generations have no desire to be part of groups (especially ones calling themselves churches) that do not welcome and include everyone and even spend vital time and resources trying to keep “certain people” out.  Churches holding on to old prejudices about who can or cannot be involved will become even less relevant in coming years.

   Finally, we must understand that a church gathers not only within its building, but wherever “two or more gather” in Christ’s name.  Referring again to Rev. Molsberry’s quote, we can no longer wait on the shore for fish to jump into our nets, but must find ways to be present as a community of faith in varieties of settings.  This may take the form of a mission endeavor or through an inviting study group, singing experience, or other activity that is held “where people are.”

 
UNDERSTANDING SOME THINGS WILL CHANGE…

   One of the people I interviewed for this project was Dr. Richard Wing, Senior Minister of First Community Church in Columbus, Ohio.  While sitting with him in a restaurant I realized that at a nearby table was a young man whose wedding I had performed about four years earlier.  He and his fiancée had looked for a church not only for their wedding, but to join and make their church home.  I enjoyed immensely getting to know them as we prepared for their wedding and welcomed them into active involvement in our church.  For a year after their wedding they were active in worship and more.  Then their involvement lessened and eventually stopped.

   I wondered if I should go over to speak to him, not knowing if it would be awkward.  I decided I would, and when I did Jason welcomed me warmly and caught me up on how he and his wife are doing.  I then returned to our table and briefly told Dr. Wing the situation, and how sad I was still about losing them from our congregation.

   “I know what you’re saying,” he assured me, “and I used to feel the same.  Finally, I began to look at this differently.  I realized that people become involved in churches for many reasons.  For some there is a need that lasts for a season of their lives and then they move on—similar to attending a university in pursuit of a degree.  Perhaps they go from ours to a different church and perhaps to none, but in either case we must be grateful that we were an important part of their lives for however long that season lasted.”  Dr. Wing’s wisdom has been a great blessing for me.

   It used to be that people who joined a church would be part of it for as long as they lived in that community.  For many people this is no longer true.  Not long after that “restaurant encounter” I received a voice mail response to a message I had left with another family, telling them I had missed them and hoped to reconnect soon.  In this return message Shawn thanked me for my concern and told me they had been meaning to “let me know.”  They were now attending and probably would join a different church.  He then said this:  “Thank you for everything you have done for our family.  We will always have special memories—most of all that our daughters were baptized at your church.  It’s nothing you’ve done.  It’s just a new time in our lives.” Even meaningful baptisms of children no longer assure that a family will remain in a church if “a new time in their lives” comes about.  Rather than focusing on personal sadness when someone moves on from our congregation, I now try to focus on celebrating what we did for them—and they for us—during the season that we shared.

   Another change from previous years is that people may be on multiple faith or spiritual paths at once, with areas of influence in addition to those expressed in our church.  Rather than seeing this as a threat or being closed to other expressions, we can instead celebrate that we have much to learn as well as offer in such cases.  The church I serve has people of many faith backgrounds and all add greatly to what we share.  Several of our formerly Catholic members continue to make the sign of the cross after prayers during worship services.  While this would once have caused shock waves in a Protestant church, I feel blessed each time I witness it and often want to join in the sincerity of their expression.  Recently a beloved friend of one of our members—a person who had become part of the Buddhist faith—died, and his family had no place to hold a memorial service for him.  We welcomed them into our sanctuary, using portions of both Buddhist and Christian traditions, and this was a meaningful experience not only for members of his family and faith community but for those of our congregation who attended.  Wedding ceremonies for Christian/Jewish or other “mixed background” couples can offer teaching (as well as touching) moments.  Many churches now offer yoga classes—with understanding about its Hindu roots as part of the sessions.  Teaching about and trying to promote understanding of Islam and its scriptures in our churches is now more important than ever.

   For people of all ages—and especially younger generations—new styles and approaches to “doing and being church” must be welcomed.  Through my involvement in Rotary I am aware of changes being approved for new clubs in this international organization.  No longer is the “60% attendance at meetings rule” enforced.  As a matter of fact, what constitutes an “official Rotary gathering” is being modified to welcome younger men and women who would rather gather as a group for a service project or at a bar for conversation than go through the formalities that have for the past century defined what an official meeting must contain.  While this is being met with resistance by some, it is moving forward, giving this international service club its best chance not only to hold on but to grow in the service that is its core value.

   So also we in the church must hold our core values highest of all, knowing that function is more important than form.  Here are three core values of our United Church of Christ as clarified by David Greenhaw.  One: Faith and critical thinking are inextricably bound.  Two: Responsibility to the social world in which we live is inseparable from the spiritual values that we embrace.  Three: We are not afraid of differences, believing that those who are different from our current majority in religious expression, in race or ethnicity, or in sexual orientation, can bring blessing to us.  These have always been our core values.  It is more important than ever to live them.

 
…AND SOME THINGS WILL NOT

   My congregation granted me time away to study churches that are remaining vital and even growing during this period of downturn for so many.  It happened that just as my time away was to begin my mother entered Hospice care, so I spent the first three weeks of this planned time with her and other family members as her life on earth was completed and celebrated.

   At first I assumed that because of this change for that considerable portion of the time, I would have to accept learning far less related to my study.  As those days went on, however, I came to realize that I was experiencing firsthand the most important lesson of all—and which matters above everything else in vital churches.  Throughout those weeks the people of my congregation did extraordinary things as they held me and my family in prayer and offered countless other expressions of support.  I was amazed, humbled—and most of all grateful—to receive such gifts of grace.

   I realize more than ever through this personal experience that this is what has always mattered most of all—and always will—in vital churches.  A community of faith that is supporting, guiding, and loving its own folks, especially in times of need, and that reaches beyond to share Christ’s love with others who are in times of need—is and always will be what the Church most of all is called to be and do.

   Not the number on the roll or the amount of money in the endowment fund determines the vitality of a church.  Rather, the presence of the Living Christ made known in the congregation’s gathering and reaching out does.  This can happen in many forms.  It can happen with full-time clergy serving the church or with shared leadership involving a part-time ordained person and trusted congregational members to provide such leadership.

   As mentioned earlier I recently drove past a long stretch of soccer fields on a Sunday morning—with every field in use—and then worshiped at a smaller membership church.  On that drive I was dismayed to think of how many people were at those fields compared the number who might be in the church I would attend that same morning.

   It is true that the worshiping congregation that morning was only about 70.  But they were a vital 70!  While the percentage of younger adults and children was not as great as that of older generations, people of all ages were present—and the children and youth were clearly loved and included in the life of the congregation and the flow of the worship.  Upcoming mission opportunities were highlighted, there was a joyful energy throughout the hour, and their relationship with their minister was one of blessing.  As a result their church was showing growth in numbers.  The numbers could hardly compare with how many people were on those soccer fields that same morning, but the people of this church were experiencing something far more meaningful—experiencing what will impact the world in ways a Sunday morning soccer match never could.

   As long as there are congregations that embrace the spirit and presence of Christ, there will be people who hear the call to serve in pastoral and other roles of leadership in them.  As long as there are congregations embracing and sharing Christ’s love, the Church will continue to find ways not only to survive but to thrive in this new century, as it has through the challenges of each of twenty centuries before.

   No, if people “aren’t going to come” we can’t stop them!  But we will be able still to find ways to meet, embrace, and welcome many.  Our newest occasions require new duties—even while holding on to the best of what has been.  Whether for a season or for an entire lifetime what is shared in such communities of faith will translate not just into welcoming church members, but into making disciples, and in turn these disciples will change the world just as it has always been changed—by transforming lives one at a time.  In new and vital ways, may the abundant life in this world and eternal life beyond promised by Jesus be proclaimed.

Rev. Harold Steindam, Senior Minister
Westerville Community United Church of Christ, Westerville, Ohio
July 31, 2011


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Thanksgiving Eve Worship                        


AN EARLY VIEW FROM THE HILL

Matthew 5:14-16

Wednesday, November 23, 2011 -- Thanksgiving Eve Worship 

   Dear Fellow Saints.  I wish to thank Elder Brewster for his presentation this evening concerning the care we provide for our fellow saints who are in greatest need at this time.  I also wish to thank him for allowing me to take leadership of this portion of our special mid-week service.  Usually Elder Brewster speaks God’s Word to us, but at this service, as your Governor, I have asked to do so—to give a “State of our Community” address to you.
 
   Today is November 23, 1627—very nearly seven years since our arrival on these shores in December of 1620.  This has been our seventh and thus Sabbath year of life here—a very important Biblical year.  We remember only too well the hardships of our first winter, which was just beginning as we arrived.  What sorrowful months those were.  Of the 102 of us who came here, barely fifty of us were still alive when spring at last arrived.
 
   We prayed continuously for God’s providence throughout those desperate days.  One of our greatest fears, you will recall, was how we would be treated by natives here.  We had heard stories that caused great trepidation.  But then—praise be to God!—in the April of 1621 the first of the natives came to our settlement—and his first word was “Welcome!”  His name was Samoset, and he spoke a little English.  He then introduced us to Squanto, who spoke even better English.  Squanto, we learned, had once been captured by some Englishmen who tried to make a slave of him.  He was able to escape—but not until he had learned their language—all part of God’s plan to help us, I am sure.
 
   We also remember the day we happened upon their tribe’s storage of corn.  We were so hungry that we ate much of it.  We didn’t know it was their corn for seed and in doing this we were stealing from them.  In spite of that—and in spite of how he had been treated by other white settlers—Squanto was very kind to us, even teaching us how to plant crops that grow best in this soil.  By autumn’s harvest we had such joy, knowing there would be ample food for winter.  How right it was to have a harvest worship and feast in thanksgiving—and of course to welcome the natives who had blessed us so.
 
   This is now the seventh year of such a celebration.  I do not know if this idea of such an annual feast and time of worship and thanksgiving will continue long into the years ahead, but I do know how important and right it is for us at this time to reflect and once again give thanks.
 
   In the address I made to you seven years ago—while we were yet aboard our dear Mayflower—I spoke of God’s providence and destiny for us.  I cited the words of Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew: “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.”  I could hear God saying to us that this place where we were arriving to settle would always be a “shining city set on a hill,” and I was convinced that God’s greatest providence would always be upon this land, whatever might be ahead.  Let us reflect further on some of what has already occurred—and what may yet be—for this shining city.
 
   First of all, I remind you of what caused us to set out from our homeland and dare to sojourn to this New World.  It was and will always be our desire to worship as we see right.  We could not abide having bishops in fancy robes in some far away place telling us what we must do.  God’s Holy Spirit speaks to each of us and we listen and we follow accordingly.  If some want to call us “Congregational,” so be it.  For, indeed, we believe that our congregation—and every congregation—should in prayer and discernment be able to govern itself.  May such a spirit as this spread to all parts of this land, and may freedom ring always in every part of it!
 
   With worship as our reason for being and for being here, I am most grateful that we began as soon as was possible to build our house of worship.  In only our second year—1622—we began the construction that took over a year to complete.  Since that time of completion we have not failed to gather in this blessed space every Sabbath Day—and for other occasions of worship such as this one.  Praise God for this consecrated space.
 
   Next, I speak to you of the way of life for our women and children.  They do follow all Godly ways and precepts from Holy Scripture.  For this one time of special worship we are sitting together—with men and women and families actually being allowed to intermingle!  I assure you that on the coming Sabbath we will return to what we know is proper, with men on one side and women the other, so that there will be no distractions during Elder Brewster’s teaching.  We follow all Biblical precepts, and our understanding is that there should be equality of opportunity for all.  Some may call this a system of “free enterprise,” in which our women and even our children are allowed along with the men to work and prosper as they are able.  Such enterprise has already blessed us abundantly, and it is my fervent prayer that such an open system may continue for all years ahead in this bounteous land.
 
   Finally, I speak to you of our beloved pastor, John Robinson.  While other congregations with similar principles to ours hoped they could work with the Anglican Church to purify it—and therefore they are often called “Puritans”—Pastor Robinson helped us to see that we needed to separate from that church in order to be free—and so “Separatists” we are often called, especially since we made our pilgrimage here.  Pastor Robinson inspired and aided us in all our plans.  We were so sure that he would set sail with us in 1620, but he thought it best to wait with the others and then travel in the next voyage a year or two later.
 
   Sadly that meant that we would be here for a time without a leader ordained in the ministry.  But, again, how grateful we are for Elder Brewster, who has led us so faithfully!  Twice an ordained minister traveled from our homeland to serve us, but sadly neither worked out.  One was so poorly suited for this life that he returned to England at his first opportunity.  The second was so poor a leader that we returned him to England at the first opportunity!  Each year we prayed would be the one when Pastor Robinson would join us.  But never was he able—and then, only last year, we received the sorrowful news that he had taken ill and died.  May God rest his soul in eternal peace! 
   And may God continue to hear our prayers of thanksgiving for Elder Brewster, who continues faithfully still to lead our devotional lives.
 
   Do you remember the words that Pastor Robinson spoke to us in his sermon on our departure more than seven years ago?  He preached inspired us for our journey—and the very last words he said to us were these: “Remember, God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from Holy Word.”  What an important guiding lesson this has been!  God is still speaking to us.  God’s Word is not closed but open.  We must always be praying, studying, and listening to what new understandings God yet wants us to learn from the pages of Holy Scripture.
 
   In the first book of the New Testament of this Holy Word, Jesus speaks to His disciples from the mountain.  “You are the light of the world,” He says to all of us.  “A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”  How thankful we are to know that we are the light and we do not desire to hide our light under a bushel basket, but to set it on a lamp-stand where it will give illumination to all.
 
   Yes, after seven years I am even more convinced that God has called us to be—and we are—“a shining city set on a hill.”  With all the providence of our lives—the light of God’s Word, the bounty of this land, the friendship of the natives, and our own industrious and joyous labor offered on all days except the Sabbath—I am certain that this light will spread and will shine not only in each of our own houses, not only in our community, and even not only in our land, but to all the world.
 
   In my mind’s eye I look far into the future—to imagine people twelve generations hence.  I imagine my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter.  Perhaps her name will be Anne—and she will live and serve with the saints of a congregation many miles from here, but one that has come into being from the same spirit we share today.  To live humbly and to serve to others—and always to worship God freely—these will be her values and the values of those around her.
 
   No, I cannot say for sure what will be ahead.  But I know what has already transpired and how greatly God has blessed us thus far.  And I can only begin to imagine the blessing that will continue to spread through us from this shining city set on a hill—and how this light will illuminate the world.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam—as Governor William Bradford
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
November 23, 2011
Thanksgiving Eve Worship
 
With Scott Marier, Executive Director of WARM, in the role of Elder Brewster, and Anne Blaisdell, a direct descendent of Governor Bradford, as referenced at the ending.



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Advent Wednesdays                        


SIMPLY WAIT

Mark 13:32-37

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 -- Midweek Advent Reflection Service 

   I don’t know why it happened—and take no credit for it.  It simply did happen—that as this Advent Season began last Sunday, and for each of its four days so far, I have been open to God’s blessings, and thus have found myself receiving God’s blessings in some deep and meaningful ways.
 
   As I said, I don’t know why—and the fact that I don’t know why is probably part of the reason for it.  It simply happened and continues to happen.  I could and did not make it happen.  It simply did—and is—and I pray that it will continue.
 
   In the novel, Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, as the title character makes his journey to various places, he is often asked what his resources or talents are.  And every time his answer is the same.  “I can pray; I can fast, and I can wait,” Siddhartha says, over and over again.
 
   As I read this novel, at first when Siddhartha would say this I found myself thinking: “Well, that isn’t much!  Being able to do those things won’t get you very far!”  But as the story continued, I began slowly to realize just how powerful each of these gifts is.  Especially the ability to wait—what strength there is in being able to do that!
 
   The title of the devotional booklet we are giving out at our church for this Advent Season is, “What Are We Waiting For?”  This title reminds me of a song by a couple named Jim and Jean Stroedee.  The song has a refrain that says, “What we do while we’re waiting depends on what we’re waiting for.”  This is a concept worth much more reflection.  What we do while we are waiting depends on what we are waiting for.
 
   In the Advent Season, what are we doing—and why?  What are we waiting for?
 
   During the early years of my ministry, I got sick every single year during the week after Christmas.  I would either come down with a terrible cold or get the flu or contract some other malady.  I finally realized that this was a result of the letdown and exhaustion I had, which in turn made me quite vulnerable to getting sick.  But even more than that it had to do with what it was that I had been waiting for and working toward throughout the Advent Season.  My entire focus was on getting through it, getting things done, getting things checked off the list.  And so, when finally I “got there”—I crashed.  That was the “reward” for all my work because all I was waiting for was to be finished with it.
 
   I’m pretty sure God wants each of us to receive and experiences much more than only this during Advent and then Christmas.  Just checking off the list—just getting through or getting things done—is not meant to be the intention or the result.  And I’m also certain that God does not want us to experience a huge “post Christmas let-down” and maybe even illness afterward, but rather the greatest of fulfillment and blessing when we do indeed arrive at Bethlehem on Christmas Day.
 
   A few minutes ago we heard a portion of the Gospel lesson for the First Sunday of Advent.  I’ve never been a big fan of the Scriptures for the First Sunday of Advent, because they always have to do with what is called “The Second Coming” or return of Jesus.  The idea of preparing for or expecting “The Second Coming” causes great anxiety for many people—and many predictions are made about it.  During this year of 2011, as I’m sure you remember, there were two such predictions that made the news, both by a radio minister named Harold Camp.  First he predicted “The End” would come in May, and then declared that he had made a “slight miscalculation,” and that Jesus would return and the end would take place in October.  As you may have noticed, both of his predictions—like every other such prediction ever made—did not turn out to be true.
 
   In this Scripture Jesus talks about “keeping awake” for when this will happen—which has always added to my anxiety.  This is because my interpretation of this has always been that we had better be alert and ready for the Second Coming every minute.
 
   What Jesus stresses more than anything else in this passage, however, is that no one knows or could ever predict when this will happen.  Even Jesus Himself, while on earth, did not know.  Only God knows.  Finally I have come to realize that this teaching of Jesus is not intended to cause us anxiety, but to lead us to let go and trust God.
 
   The final words of Jesus in the passage—“Keep awake”—do not mean that we should be trying every minute to calculate the date of Jesus’ return, as Harold Camp and countless others have done before him, but rather do be open right now to the blessings of God that are here for us.  These are not blessings that we get by “predicting and calculating a date” or blessings we can make happen in any other way.  Instead, we simply need to accept them.
 
   This is what Advent is meant more than anything else to be about.  In this season, we simply wait.  And as we wait we allow God’s blessings to come to us and we are guided from there in all we say, do, and give—guided to have whatever there will be on our lists of things to get done.  And then, Christmas does indeed come.  And it comes not with letdown or illness, but with the greatest of fulfillment.
 
   “What we do while we are waiting depends on what we are waiting for.”  We are waiting for a birth.  We are waiting for the birth—of God Himself into our world and into each of our lives.  Maybe, just maybe, by admitting that I can’t explain why I’m feeling more blessing in this season is the best explanation of why it is so.  It isn’t about me and my lists.  It’s about God and God’s promises.  And it isn’t up to me or even up to my greatest efforts.  It’s up to God and the amazing power of God’s grace.
 
   So together, let’s “simply wait.”
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
Midweek Advent Reflection Service
November 30, 2011


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Christmas Eve                        

POWERFULLY PRESENT

Luke 2:1-7

Saturday, December 24, 2011 -- Christmas Eve 

   Tillie, a member of a church I used to serve, was an extremely caring and concerned person.  One Sunday I preached a sermon about a rather harrowing experience I had had the week before.  This was long before the days of cell phones or GPS systems—or even a “Triple A” membership, in my case—and my car had broken down in a remote area where I did not know anyone.  In my sermon I told about some of the things I had experienced while in that very vulnerable and uncertain situation—not knowing how I would get out of it and needing to rely on the help of complete strangers.
 
   When the service ended I went to one of the doorways to greet worshipers, and I could see Tillie practically fighting her way past other people to make it to me.  When she did she grabbed my hands and looked at me with such worry on her face.  “Oh, Pastor,” she cried out, “did you ever make it back home?”
 
   I wanted to say, “Tillie, I’m right here talking to you—of course I made it back home!”  Tillie, however, wasn’t convinced and wanted to know how I had made it back, so I gave her a brief explanation.  Only then did that very worried look on her face begin to disappear.
 
   We have heard again this evening the simplest story—and yet the most beautiful and powerful story the world has ever been told.  We read how Joseph and Mary had to travel from their home in Nazareth all the way to Bethlehem—the equivalent of two states away—because of government regulations at the time.  Bethlehem was a long way from home for them—not only without a cell phone or GPS, but traveling by donkey—and with Mary nine months pregnant.
 
   In that crowded city where they do not know anyone and cannot find usual accommodations, they realize that right here and right now Mary is going into labor!  “While they were there,” we read, “the time came for her to deliver her child.”  “Oh,” I can hear Tillie crying out at this point: “will they ever make it back home?”  Then we hear the next sentence, and it changes everything—in this story, in the world and in each of our lives.  “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
 
   Author Wendell Berry has written, “It gets darker and darker—and then Jesus is born.”  It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.
 
   I think often of dear Tillie and how naïve she was.  But now I find myself asking, could it be that I am the one who is naïve?
 
   Yes, I am here—and safe—right now.  You can see that.  But did this “just happen” or have I been blessed in countless times and ways that this is so?  None of us “just happens” to be here.  Every one of us has had times of being the recipient of God’s incredible gifts of grace, blessed by the kindness of strangers, and guided by the light of providence that has shown on our path.
 
   There have been many times when it got darker and darker—and then Jesus was born.  How did that light break forth at just the right time?  What caused that person who would never see me again to be so kind?  Where did I find the strength to do what I needed to do at just the right moment?
 
   Tillie is right.  What is most important cannot be taken for granted.  It got darker and darker—and then Jesus was born.  And that is how and that is why I am here, safely back home, as you are as well.
 
   Karen Carpenter, with her exquisite voice, many years ago recorded a song that first introduced me to the idea of “Christmas” as a verb!  In this song she is away from the one she loves and for that person she sings, “But I can dream, and in my dreams I’m ‘Christmasing’ with you.”  “Christmasing”—is that a word?  My “spell check” doesn’t think so.  “Christmas”—is this a verb?  My “grammar check” doesn’t think so.
 
   And yet as surely as Tillie wants to know how I got back before she can be sure that I am back, just that surely “Christmas” is more a verb than a noun.  Christmas is a verb—a verb of action and a verb of being—the being of God’s powerful presence in our lives, and the verb of our being powerfully present in the lives of others.
 
   One of the most remarkable people of the 19th century was Philips Brooks.  Philips Brooks is best known today as the author of the beautiful hymn we sang earlier in this service.  “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” he wrote, “how still we see thee lie.  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  Philips Brooks had the gift of writing beautifully, and from everything I have learned about him that beautiful poetry came forth as an expression of what was most remarkable of all about him—and that was his presence—his powerful presence.
 
   In the 19th century, newspapers were the major communication form.  They were then what the internet is today.  Facebook today has nothing on what newspapers communicated at that time about people’s lives day to day and even hour to hour.  Here is a brief portion of an article in one of the daily papers of that time telling what happened in their town one day.  “The day opened cloudy and with overall gloom.  But then at noon Philips Brooks came downtown and everything brightened.”
 
   I think about such a person that his presence brightened and changed everything—and I realize that this is what God’s light through Christ has done for each of us.  “Emmanuel—God us”—Christmas is a verb because it changes everything for us.  And then, having received this great gift, we are called by God to extend it to others.
 
   How often people say, “Why doesn’t somebody do something?”  Could you or I be that “somebody”?  Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  Or, as a simple poem puts it, “The love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay.  Love isn’t love till you give it away.”

   “It gets darker and darker—and then Jesus is born.”  Mary and Joseph—with baby Jesus—would make it home safely.  And so have you and I.
 
   Because we have made it home, we are now able to help someone else also make it home.  When someone is lost or in despair—you or I can be the powerful presence to help that person make it safely home.
 
   Yes, I am here—and I will no longer be naïve enough to take this for granted.  I am here because when it was darkest for me, Jesus was born.  And because Jesus was born and lives in me I can be powerfully present for someone else.  So can you.  We can change “Christmas” from a noun to a verb each time that we, by our presence, help lift the gloom so that someone can see his or her way safely home.
 
Rev. Harold Steindam
Westerville Community United Church of Christ
December 24, 2011
Christmas Eve



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Ash Wednesday                        

  • Wednesday, February 22, 2012 -- Ash Wednesday

    RECALCULATING Mark 9:9-13    Some of you may not know this or find it surprising, but I do not like to ask directions.  I always figure that my internal compass will guide me safely to wherever I need to go!  And, for whatever reason, I continue to think this way even though my “internal compass” hasn’t worked very well more often than not!      Now that “GPS systems” are quite prevalent, I’m not a big fan of them either.  I don’t like the idea of having a...

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Installation Sermon                        

  • Sunday, March 11, 2012 -- Service of Installation for Rev. Virginia Lohmann Bauman

    FIRST AND LASTING IMPRESSIONS Acts 1:6-11    It’s wonderful when someone makes a great first impression and, Gini, you certainly made an excellent one on me!  I remember from the time I first got to know you being so struck by your personality and presence, and most of all by your passion for the power of the Gospel.  I remember also being impressed when I learned that you had other training and skills besides those for ordained ministry, being a law school graduate and havin...

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Good Friday Sermon                        

  • Friday, April 6, 2012 -- Good Friday

    EVEN NOW? Luke 23:26-43    Today is my daughter Sara’s birthday.  And she does not like it!  She would like her birthday to be a happy day and a day of celebration, and she understands that Good Friday is not observed in any of these things.  And, strange as it may sound, she is in a small way “holding me responsible!”  After all, I am “the church guy,” and it is the church that observes Good Friday as we do, so she can’t help associating me at least to a point with...

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Maundy Thursday Sermon                        

  • Thursday, April 5, 2012 -- Maundy Thursday

    UNCONDITIONAL LOVE John 1:14-18, 29-30 Today is Maundy Thursday--today we remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. Today we remember love--not your cutesy love with cupid or hearts, but deep love--love which moves you way deep inside. The Scripture for today’s service is not your typical Maundy Thursday reading.  But the suggested chapter for today, if you read the New Testament one chapter a day, five days a week, is the first chapter in John’s gospel.

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  • Saturday, June 30, 2012 -- Rev. Dr. Forrest Hoppe Godspeed Service


    THAT WE KEEP MOVING

    I Samuel 17:41-45, Ephesians 4:11-13, Matthew 11:2-6

       In one of my favorite episodes of the television show, “MASH”—an episode written by Alan Alda—the company chaplain, Father Mulcahy, is questioning his effectiveness at this Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.  Especially compared to the doctors who operate on the wounded soldiers brought to the hospital, he wonders how much difference he is making.
     
       One of the reasons this is episode appeals to me is that Father Mulcahy is asking the question that most ministers sometimes ask: “How much difference am I making?”  We deal is so many intangibles.  It’s often difficult to know whether we are having much effect.  And if this is true for local church pastors, who at least get to concentrate on one particular congregation, then how much more this is so for those who dare to serve at the wider church level.  Trying to minister to thirty-eight very different congregations is even more challenging.
     
       And—doing such work as this now, in this day and age, has to be the most daunting task of all.  In this time in which ever-increasing numbers of people think they are each the first ever to say that they are “spiritual but not religious”—in this time in which Sunday has become just another day of the week and “church” just one of countless options for that day—in this time in which many people have come to declare that the once “mainline” church is now on the “sideline”—in this time today, daring to minister at the Association level of the Church is most challenging of all.  What difference can a person doing such work today possibly make?
     
       A person who answers such a calling sees a giant before us.  This giant is covered in armor and has all the weapons of the modern world available to him—even a shield-bearer to help carry the excess weapons.  There he stands, cursing and taunting.  Who would be foolish enough to go out now—at this time and into this arenato face what must be faced there?
     
       Well, this is what Forrest Hoppe dared to say yes to doing on behalf of the Central Southeast Ohio Association of the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ.  He accepted a giant of a challenge, becoming our executive and our pastor.  He accepted God’s call to become our Association Minister.
     
       Our Hebrew Scripture from I Samuel is a portion of this past Sunday’s Lectionary reading.  David stands before the giant, appearing insignificant and ill-equipped in comparison.  And yet he confidently proclaims his message.  “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts.”  Could it possibly be, we wonder, that this is the message that will be the one to prevail?  And could it be that Forrest Hoppe, stepping into the role he did at the time he did in the life of the Church and the life of the world, would proclaim the message that would prevail?
     
       The second of our passages this afternoon, from the Letter to the Ephesians, was requested for this service by Forrest himself.  This is a passage that is very important to him, telling about the varieties of gifts that God has given.  Because of these gifts some are apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.  There are a variety of gifts—but all for the purpose of equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.
     
       Forrest possesses many gifts of God.  One of the most important of all is his gift of humility.  Throughout these nine years, in all the work he has done, it has never been about him.  Even for this service today, Forrest asked me not to make it all about him!  Forrest, today’s service is celebrating your ministry and giving thanks for your work among us—it has to be at least a little bit about you!  Still, I heard and I understood what Forrest meant when he said this.  He meant that this service of worship, like all that we do, must most of all be about equipping saints for the building up of the body of Christ.
     
       Martin Luther once said, “I was brought into this community of Christ’s saints through the Holy Spirit, and incorporated into it through the fact that I have heard and still hear God’s Word.”  Indeed, our still speaking God brings us into this community of Christ’s saints, and through Forrest’s gift of humility God is still speaking to speak to us.
     
       Our Gospel lesson today is one that I chose, because it has come often to my mind as I have reflected on Forrest’s witness and ministry among us.
     
       In this story John the Baptist is in prison, and he has to know—so he sends his disciples to ask Jesus and find out for him—“Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?”
     
       Point blank Jesus is asked.  But He does not give a point blank answer.  He does not shout back, “Just look at me!  Of course I’m the one!”  Instead, Jesus points to what can be heard and seen—and can lead others to make their own conclusions.  “Tell John what you hear and see.  The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear.”  All these examples of His healing that Jesus lifts up are ones of overcoming diseases that otherwise would have excluded a Jew of that time from being allowed into official temple worship.  The healing Jesus offered was not just physical, but was one of reconciliation, of restoring those who had been excluded, to once again be welcomed into the fellowship of the worshiping community.  “And blessed is anyone,” Jesus concludes, “who takes no offense at me.”
     
       The Rev. Dr. G. Forrest Hoppe has come into our midst facing a giant of opposition in the name of the Lord of hosts.  He has done his work humbly, seeking to equip saints and build up the body of Christ, always pointing beyond himself.  And now, what is it that we see and hear?  It is that in the times of greatest challenge Forrest has continued to lead faithfully.  It is that new and more workable By-Laws and a more effective structure of Association work has come into being during his tenure.  It is that three new congregations have been welcomed into our fellowship and some established congregations have joined our Association and others are considering doing so.  It is that an international partnership has been established.  Most of all, we hear and see that no one is excluded from the worshiping community of this Association—and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at this.
     
       One of Forrest’s favorite stories is by Robert Fulghum, a story that I want to tell briefly right now.  Robert Fulghum says that through the years when he has attended a lecture or seminar and at the end the leader asks, “Are there any questions?” he has often taken that opportunity to ask his question, which is, “What is the meaning of life?”  Almost always, Fulghum notes, this question is met with laughter.  One time, however, it was answered very seriously.
     
       On the island of Crete there is a Greek Orthodox monastery, located between two cemeteries—one where Nazi paratroopers were buried and the other where local citizens who died fighting those Nazi troops were buried.  This monastery exists today because of the work and witness of a man named Alexander Papaderos, who was a child on that island during those years of World War II, and who later determined that an institution centered on peace and understanding, located at that very place, might help bring needed healing not only there but to the rest of the world.
     
       Fulghum attended a week long seminar at this monastery, and at the end of it he dared to ask his question: “Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”  Papaderos dared to answer his question.  He pulled from his wallet a little piece of glass, about the size of a quarter.  This, he said, had been a piece of a shattered mirror from one of the Nazi motorcycles, that Papaderos had found when he was a boy.  He smoothed it and polished it and over time learned that he could use it to reflect the light of the sun into deep holes and crevices and closets and other places that the light of the sun would otherwise not reach.  “I realized,” he went on, “that I am not the light, and yet that there is light—and that this light will shine in certain places only if I reflect it.  To reflect light into places where it otherwise would not be,” Papaderos concluded, “is what I am about.  This is the meaning of life.”
     
       That episode of “MASH” that I often reflect upon ends with one of the doctors lifting a glass to toast Father Mulcahy, saying, “Here’s to a man too modest to know how much strength he gives us just by the decency of his life among us.”  Father Mulcahy then realizes this: “Maybe it doesn’t always matter that we feel useful as we move from one great challenge to another.  What matters is that we keep moving.”
     
       Forrest, thank you that you have kept moving!  And as you have moved you also have moved us forward to face the giant before us, doing so in the name of the Lord of hosts.  You have sought to equip saints and to build up the body of Christ, humbly pointing beyond yourself and welcoming all God’s people into our worshiping community.  You have reflected God’s light into countless places where it otherwise would not have been.
     
       Thank you for the strength you have given us by the decency of your life among us.  Through your faith in the God of hosts you have kept moving, and we promise you that we also will keep moving—moving forward in the vital work we are called to do as the Central Southeast Ohio Association.
     
    Rev. Harold Steindam
    Westerville Community United Church of Christ
    Rev. Dr. Forrest Hoppe Godspeed Service
    June 30, 2012


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