Missing St. Mark’s? A ‘critter congregation’ has saved your seat

Bob and Cindy Maser with the critter congregation

Church families — including ours here at St. Mark’s Lutheran — are really missing each other during this grievous COVID-19 pandemic that has swept our world. We love to be together, worship together, serve together, laugh, weep and grow together.

In this very special week — Holy Week — the separation is palpable, with grim realities all around us, great loss, great need and also the living and powerful hope that Easter represents to those who follow Jesus.

Our own Bob and Cindy Maser saw a photograph of the empty pews at St. Mark’s and were inspired to do something. Those empty pews represent our respect for the guidance of health care officials and our commitment to do all we can to stop the spread of this virus and protect our community and each other — even if it means we must be apart for a while.

“But Easter should be a time of rejoicing,” Cindy said, “and we need to bring a smile to everyone at a time like this.”

So they conspired — remotely — with Interim Pastor David Mueller, drawing inspiration from a Facebook post Cindy had seen.Pastor David Mueller with Leroy and Lion and Larry the Sheep

“In these increasingly difficult and sad times, we felt a little fun might help!” Pastor Mueller said. “So while we cannot get to church these days, my good friends Larry the Lamb and Leroy the Lion invited a few of their friends to come by.”

And they came, all right — some two by two, some solo, all with appropriate social distance.

“They were very enthusiastic and wanted to come but I only had room for two bags full,” Cindy said.

Pews with stuffed animals

And a critter congregation — sort of a Zoo Lutheran fellowship — assembled for just a few minutes of “togetherness.”

It’s true that the pews and the buildings have no humans in them — for now. But we’ll be back soon. And the heart of the Church is beating and full of love and hope for the future.

“As you can see — the church is not empty!” Cindy said. “And God loves His creatures, great and small. Spread the message to all!”

Mickey and Minnie

A couple of critters sitting atop hymn books

‘Astonished by a Woman:’ Sunday message from Pastor David Mueller

Pastor David Mueller

Good Sunday to you! We visit from a distance during this season of Coronavirus, having canceled services at the recommendation of health officials who hope to curtail the spread of the pandemic.

This morning, Pastor David Mueller and John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, met in our conference room to record Pastor Mueller’s sermon. We include a link to the audio here and also the text.

Lay low for now. Watch for weekly communication! Take care of yourself and others. Rest assured that God is with you and in the midst. We’ll be back together soon!

Here’s the link to the audio:

You can follow along with the text here:

“Astonished by a Woman”

Pastor David Mueller

It is not often that we cancel church worship services, but today is one of those occasional days when environmental circumstances require it and there may be more until the Coronavirus, as it is commonly known, is controlled and a vaccine is developed and produced.

Let’s begin with a word of prayer:

“Lord God, Gracious and Merciful Father, on behalf of and most probably with all of the citizens of the world You created, protect and preserve us all from the harm and danger this germ could cause. Teach us humility in the midst of this crisis so that we will realize anew that there is so much is beyond our control. Allow healing

and hope to happen universally. Turn us to You and, Lord, please help us all. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Now please bear with me as I learn with you to speak and hear a sermon in a communal vacuum. It clearly is odd for me not to have faces to see or expressions to notice, I trust that some instruction and inspiration will occur even though we are not here together.

John Lasher and Pastor David Mueller
John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, met with Pastor David Mueller in St. Mark’s conference room to record his sermon.

I presume that you have a Bible handy and can turn to John 4:5-42. It is the first of three quite long Gospel lessons from John during the next three weeks. I am not going to read it here. Actually, I was not going to read it in planned worship at St. Mark’s anyway. I had a song ready to play about this encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman.

This story is jam packed. Given its content, I must admit that I believe it would be better to have a woman and not a man interpreting it. Hard as I may try and diligently as I may pray, it is nearly impossible for me to relate to this woman’s life. And as we all know, I am not Jesus either. But as usual, let’s jump in.

After a long morning haul, Jesus was traveling through Samaria on His way back to the Galilee region to the north. He was tired and was sitting by Jacob’s Well at the noon hour, a usually quiet place at that time of day when it began to get hot.

Earlier in the morning, the area around the well would have been noisy and busy as the women of Sychar, the town, came both to get water and to catch up with each other about scuttlebutt and such. They had long since gone back to their homes, but a lone woman came to draw water when Jesus was there.

Freeze frame this scene for a moment, for a woman alone encountering a man, let alone a Rabbi, was itself rare, risky, and even inappropriate. This may sound benign in our day but back then in that culture. The disciples later on were astonished that Jesus was talking with a woman — any woman. Set aside, please, the water part of this encounter and we will pick it back up in just a bit.

The conversation leads to this woman’s marital history and present state: five previous husbands and now living with a man who was not a husband. Now it is no longer benign. Most of us view her, initially at least, as pathetic, perverted, promiscuous, not a very nice lady. That, by the way, is exactly how the other women in town saw her. Had she gone to the well with the others earlier, she would have been scorned, belittled, shamed and laughed at.

In taking a closer look at her, mindful of life back then, she is also a victim. The prerogative for divorcing was exclusively the man’s. And because of economic circumstances back then, a woman would have to prostitute herself in some fashion to survive. Perhaps one or more of these five husbands died. But that changes nothing. A woman would essentially be destitute. So if you are into blaming, blame the husbands as well as the woman.

Jesus in no way was pejorative with her. He states the facts and treats her with a certain quiet dignity she may never before have known. And what soon becomes most incredible is Jesus’ revelation to her that genuine worship of God has little if anything to do with where — there in Sychar or in Jerusalem — or with whom — Samaritans or Jews. Worship, He freely shares with her — having not yet shared it with anyone else, male or female — is of Spirit and Truth, for God is Spirit.

Next thing we notice here is that this woman ran right into the village where she was usually scorned and badgered and became the very first know evangelist, evangelism at its root meaning “Good News.” To make a still long story a but shorter, people in the village believed her so very authentic testimony and later went to check out this “Messiah” for themselves, becoming even more convinced.

Now, please move with me back to the early water wonder here. After asking her to give Him a drink, Jesus brought up the issue of “Living Water.” Water from this well or any other physical source would have to be drunk every day, but not living water “gushing up to eternal life.” Here Jesus treated this scorned, abused, and misunderstood woman with more dignity and respect and opportunity than she knew existed. “Sir, give me this water.”

I am reminded of the Prophet Amos (5:23 & 24) when he said on the Lord’s behalf: “Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harp. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

This woman asked for this water and it would have been cruel and unreasonable for Jesus to have denied it to her. So at this moment this water would have gushed up within and without her and whatever sin she had committed in her obviously sad and sorry life were washed away, making her righteous and granting her justice.

This is powerful, beautiful, and terrifically loving stuff. The disciples were astonished that Jesus was talking with a woman and a Samaritan to boot, but we get an even better look than they did at the time and I hope we can be astonished as well, but by the righteousness and not the risk of it. And may we remember our Baptisms when living water was offered to us. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Altar during Lent

Sundays with our Synod

Bishop William Gohl

During this time of Coronavirus pandemic, when congregations including St. Mark’s have canceled services to prevent spread of the virus, our Synod — the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the ELCA — is posting a Sunday service of the Word. You can watch Bishop William Gohl here.

Peace to you all!

Lenten Wednesdays at St. Mark’s

St. Mark's altar during Lent

Join us for a special series of Wednesday evening gatherings through the Lenten season, a time of reflection, contemplation, repentance and preparation for the coming celebration of Easter.

At 6 p.m., we’ll share a soup and salad supper in the Great Room.

At 6:45 p.m., we’ll gather in the sanctuary for a brief evensong service, about 30 minutes in length, with prayer, Scripture and music.

A legacy gift blesses St. Mark’s and its music ministry

Robe dedication

Music and worship were a big part of Angeline Myers’ life, a life that stretched for almost 100 years. Her love of lyric and harmony lives on at St. Mark’s, where our choir now has 25 new sapphire blue robes because of her gift.

Sandy Pierson and Nancy Myers, daughters of Angie, directed the gift to St. Mark’s music program. Sandy has been a soprano in St. Mark’s choir for about 30 years. Nancy serves as one of our liturgists.

Angie learned to play piano as a child and her four children all played instruments, too, Sandy said. Angie was a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Wilmington, playing the piano for its Sunday School and a small singing group called “Christian Endeavor,” which met in her home. When Holy Trinity closed, Angie joined St. Mark’s.

Choir in the loft“Angie left her family a legacy of music appreciation,” Sandy said. “I feel music is extremely important to the enrichment of our worship at St. Mark’s. I love being a member of this dedicated group that feels like family. We are worshiping together when we sing. Singing fills me up with joy.”

The new robes are lighter in weight, washable and wrinkle-resistant, according to Nancy Wilkerson, Council member and choir member, who coordinated the project. They replace a well-worn collection that has served the choir for more than 40 years. The legacy robes were laundered and donated to the Mount Pleasant High School drama department.

Robes carry a significant message in the church, according to John Lasher, Director of Music and Worship Arts.

“Robes are meant to serve as an equalizer,” he said. “Whatever we may wear beneath the choir robe, whatever our worldly “status” (so to speak), we are equal in God’s eyes. By removing the distraction of what each choir member might be wearing (that is, by covering it up), robes also help to take the focus off of the messengers, that it might be directed to the message.”

The Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers

A dove on a branch.

Editors note: This is the seventh in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We meet at 10 a.m. on Sundays (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service). Join us in the Great Room!

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Traditionally, military personnel wear uniforms, which identify their nation, the service they represent and the rank they hold. They are paid; it is their job as well as their duty. Their purpose is to kill enemy combatants in the event of a war and be ready in the meantime.

Peace “freaks” and “niks” are often viewed as scruffy folk, young and old, who hang out in public places displaying signs and shouting slogans. They often appear as if they do not have anything better to do or cannot find reasonable work. If they do work, most do not use their lunch hours to protest. If they did, they would most assuredly not be wearing expensive business suits. “Peacemakers” seem to have an image problem.

I am fully aware that in all the Beatitudes, there are political ramifications, especially to this one. With wars going on, most of us have serious and sincere political opinions. Most Christians of any depth do NOT want to hear partisan political posturing from the pastor. I will not violate that boundary this morning. My political, military and other opinions are not the point here and neither are yours. If a genuine and complete peace is what we seek, then it is God’s and not our will which must be discovered and heeded.

Our task today is not to discuss peace keeping but Christian peacemaking. THIS IS NOT OPTIONAL! Mercy was the last thing known and shown before reaching the top of the holy hike and seeing God. Mercy is what flows with us as we descend back to the valley below. To refuse peacemaking obligations for the Christian is no less a failure in duty than a soldier refusing to fight. In both cases, it is cowardice.

I have to believe that those who have faithfully climbed and seen God are now descending with a powerful and beautiful sense of God’s presence and promise, short-lived though the audience may have been, and terrifying as it may be to face what lies below. As we descend, peacemaking as children of God is far removed from what is usually thought to be peace. The world at war will refer to us by all kinds of names, but “children of God” is not one of them. All periods of world history involve war.

Christians are not to be striving for the absence of conflict or for simply treating a particular tension. Peacemaking is both the most difficult and dangerous exercise there is. The dangerous part we will need to address next Sunday. The difficult part is that peace, by Biblical definition, has to do with all and not some aspects of life. It is, therefore, very long and hard work. It is comprehensive!

The techniques and strategies for war are studied. We have military academies and other institutions for that purpose. Can the techniques and strategies for peace be studied and learned? Why don’t we have peace academies? We do! They are called “Christian congregations.” This congregation is a peace academy or is not fulfilling its purpose.

War has to do with two or more sides fighting for death. Peace has to do with working for life. Both cost time and money. War destroys property and people by its nature; peace builds and preserves people and property by its nature.

War can be waged on the ground, in the air, or at sea. Peace is to be in relationship to everything. “Shalom” in Hebrew; “Salaam” in Arabic; “Pax” in Latin; “Erineis” in Greek, all speak of peace in every way, in everything with everyone, even if those who use those languages have difficulty equal to our own in achieving it.

It is especially difficult and demanding for Christians to be called upon to make peace where there exists conflict: between nations, neighbors, spouses, races, political parties.

Imagine the six-pointed “Star of David.” Peace with God and with oneself in Christ is at the center of the star. To whatever point in the star one turns, there is opportunity for peace.

Every family has disputes. One could take a side, cast the problem aside indifferently, establish a tough position of one’s own, or prayerfully seek to make peace. This is true with neighbors, friends, enemies, work and schoolmates, and all other points of the star. Are we stars who shine brightly in peace or people who whine nightly in conflict?

Peace, as Jesus gives it, and as we are to make it, is not as the world gives (John 14:27) precisely because it is peace on every front. As we will note next week, much of the world’s people will despise us for being serious about achieving true and complete peace.

Christians, whether we like it or not or are called upon to participate or not, fully understand that war happens. When war is unavoidable, it must be fought with killing and not kindness. Evil is real in our world and cannot be ignored.

Today there are Christians who believe that Jesus is returning to rule the earth for a millennium either before or after a period of tribulation. I am not judging this; Christians can and do differ on Biblical interpretation and theological/ethical position. I wonder, however, why so many of these seem so merciless about the punishment to be dealt out when Jesus returns? For some, even peace is the sign that things are wrong and not right. Why then, does Paul write unconditionally, “Pursue the things that make for peace.” (Romans 14:19) What did Paul have in mind when he wrote: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18) David the Psalmist sang: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it!” (Psalm 34:14) Are these authors of holy writ trying to fool us?

What Christians ought to share above all else is the love of Christ, deep and abiding prayer in Christ, and the peacemaking Christ Himself has given us to do. It is this “peace that passes all understanding and keeps our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Philippians 4:7) It is the absence of this peace expressed which has caused many outsiders to be stressed about Christians. Jews can rightfully ask: where is the peace?

I served as a “Mediator” for over 15 years in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. I was formally trained as a “Peacemaker.” Peacemaking is at the top of a curve, with slippery slopes on each side of the top. On the one side is “peace faking,” which at its extreme leads to suicide. On the other side is “peace breaking,” which leads to murder. Clearly in the conflicts I have been asked to mediate, neither of the extremes were realized and on occasion, genuine peace making was experienced.

Christians, who know the healing of their own relationships with God, self and others, see the potential for peace in the relationships of others as well. Some marriage partners in conflict would seem rather to kill than heal. Just read any newspaper. We know some nations at war would rather kill than seek peace. Just read any newspaper. We Christians keep believing in the “Prince of Peace,” and would rather die for him than kill. We break nothing, we fake nothing, we make peace.

The symbol of our peace is not an eagle with olive braches in one claw and arrows in the other, although I, like you, respect that symbol for what it means. Ours is not a buzzard, which feeds on death, a hawk which looks for prey, or a duck which quacks, but a dove which lights gently on hearts burning to heal in newness and life.

Luther initially wrote the tract: “Can a Soldier be saved?” because his friend, Assa von Kram, a soldier, had a conscience problem and was unable to reconcile his Christian faith with military service. Luther concluded that military service was not inherently in violation of Christian conscience. This is a decision, however, which each Christian must make in his or her heart. Some might in conscience choose not to serve and seek alternative service to military service. THERE IS NO CHOICE IN PEACEMAKING. IT IS OBLIGATORY!

Here also, is a piece of what Luther wrote in his commentary on this Beatitude: “With an excellent title and wonderful praise, the Lord here honors those who do their best to try to make peace, not only in their own lives but also among other people, to try to settle ugly and involved issues, who endure squabbling and try to avoid and prevent war and bloodshed … (others) have no other goal than to stir up unrest, quarrels and war. Thus, among the priests, bishops and princes nowadays practically all we find are bloodhounds. They have given many evidences that there is nothing they would rather see than all of us swimming in blood. If a prince loses his temper, he immediately thinks he has to start a war … they cannot rest until they have taken their revenge and spent their anger, until they have dragged their land and people into misery and sorrow. Yet they claim to bear the title ‘Christian princes’ and to have a just cause.”

Note that Luther had no patience or respect for either secular or spiritual leaders gone awry. He went on to write: “All this comes from the shameful, demonic filth which naturally clings to us.” He further pointed out how Christians must be peacemakers in both their personal and communal lives.

Things have gotten far worse since Luther, in terms of the numbers, nature and nastiness of conflicts and in the amount of damage that has been and can still be done, most usually in the name of good and not evil. This is the very nature of evil, that is, deception. Perhaps the Psalmist is most timely today as we hear: “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (34:14) Maybe Paul was right on when two millennia ago he commanded us “to pursue the things that make for peace.” (Romans 14:19)

Take peace out of the Scriptures, cut the word out every time it appears, and watch the Bible begin to look like Swiss cheese.

Unfortunately, wars and rumors of same will continue to increase. It is the nature of fallen humanity. Christians will not be blessed by being agents of conflict and war. We are told nowhere in our Bibles to go and wage war. Even President Dwight Eisenhower said that every bomb built, whether dropped or not, is bread and butter taken from the mouths of children. But there is hope and we need to be agents of peace in anticipation of it.

Possibly one of the most troubling matters these days is the apparent complicity of the Syrian Christians with the Assad regime. They seem to be saying little or nothing about injustice and violence on both sides. German Christians were similar 75-80 years ago. And what of us right now?

Listen to this: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak; for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:8-10)

Together, we can help in times of disaster

For the healing of the nations, we pray to you, O God

Many of our neighbors in the United States and around the world are facing disasters and you can provide real help. Donations to Lutheran Disaster Response’s general fund enable us to react quickly whenever and wherever disaster strikes, including at times such as these, when the need is great. With multiple disasters threatening the lives of people around the world, will you consider making a gift?

Consider:

* In Australia, intense wildfires have been raging across the country. In New South Wales, more than 1,200 homes have been destroyed and nearly 9 million acres have burned. In Victoria, over 4,000 people were trapped by the bushfires, which forced them to take refuge along the beachfronts and in boats. The wildfire season is expected to get only worse due to the severe drought experienced throughout the country. Lutheran Disaster Response is sending a grant to the Lutheran Church in Australia so it can continue to respond immediately, providing food and other necessities.

* In Indonesia, heavy rain caused severe flooding and landslides in the greater Jakarta area. More than 60 lives were lost and close to 100,000 people lost their homes. The government opened 255 evacuation centers as temporary shelters for displaced families. Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP, the Batak Christian Protestant Church), a companion of the ELCA, opened a tent in Jakarta to provide free medical checkups to families affected by the flooding. HKBP also supplied cleaning materials to help communities remove debris and clean water-damaged homes. Lutheran Disaster Response is providing support to HKBP to continue the relief and recovery activities.

* In Puerto Rico, a series of earthquakes up to a 6.4 magnitude have killed at least one person and caused power outages and widespread damage. The earthquakes come as many residents of the U.S. territory are still recovering from the 2017 hurricanes, painstakingly repairing or rebuilding their damaged homes. Lutheran Disaster Response is communicating with the Caribbean Synod and Lutheran Social Services of Puerto Rico about the best way to support the recovery effort.

With your support, we are able to respond with Christ’s love, hope and healing — and practical support for disaster survivors.

The Rev. Daniel Rift, director, ELCA World Hunger and Lutheran Disaster Response Funding
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Beatitudes: Blessed are the pure in heart

Climbers reach the top of the hill

Editors note: This is the sixth in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We meet at 10 a.m. on Sundays (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service). Join us in the Great Room!

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

With all the Beatitudes but especially this one, I need to rely entirely on the promises of Jesus Christ. I am utterly unable to make God appear.

In time, each of us wants to be in the presence of God. This is our ultimate hope realized fully when temporal life ends and eternal newness in Christ begins. While “hope that is seen is not hope” (Romans 8:24b), “we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25b).

The presence of God in the meantime eludes us when we seek God and can spook us when God shows up unexpectedly. We are perhaps more comfortable with the “real” world down below, despite imperfections and even evil the likes of which occurs every day. The presence of God is almost too much to take. Just yet!

Travel back with me to an incident in the Hebrew Scriptures (Exodus 3:1-6). Moses was out and about keeping sheep. On Mount Horeb, he encountered the burning bush. He was intrigued and looked closer, at which time the Lord called out and said: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father … Abraham … Isaac … and Jacob.” Moses then “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”

A few thousand years later, Jesus invited Thomas to touch His post-resurrection wounds. Jesus went on to speak about the blessedness of those who do NOT see and yet believe (John 20:29). While at first seeming to be a contradiction, Moses not touching and seeing is complementary with Thomas getting to touch and see. We need to explore this!

With today’s Beatitude, the pure in heart are promised an audience with God that is visual. We must be careful, however, not to make more of the sense of sight employed than the presence of God enjoyed. Moses was to take off his sandals so that he might feel the sacred earth beneath his feet. Feeling God’s presence, hearing God’s word, knowing God’s will, smelling and sensing the holiness and majesty of God are at work here, too. Our whole being needs to be engaged in experiencing the presence of God.

Remember that this Beatitude is the highest point of a hike that included five previous stops. This one, like the others, builds on, flows from and requires the previous ones. Each needs and leads to the next. We arrived at this point having made the whole holy hike. We are on holy ground. How are you doing? How are those around you? We are in this together. We may not all be in the same faith place right at this moment. This, however, does not change the nature of the moment. This is a communal and not merely a personal encounter.

The promise of Jesus is utterly essential. I would never try to conjure up God. We do not practice some goofy form of Christian voodoo. This is not about saying the right words because this is not about words. The marvel of this moment is beyond comprehension and verbal expression. Are you seeing and otherwise sensing God? If not, the clouds blocking vision are not on the mountain but in your eyes: spiritual cataracts perhaps.

Like a pilot waiting to take off, we need to go over the checklist one more time. Have you shown and known mercy? Is there something going on in you that you do not believe God forgives? Are you holding back on forgiving someone else?

Ophthalmologists can look into your eyes with precise and expensive equipment to determine if you have heart disease, which your cardiologist may not have picked up on. Speaking of hearts, the organ of note here, plaque can clog an artery, throw a clot and cause great damage, even death. Sin is like that. It blocks the view and (or) can cause a heavy heart to die and faith to fail. Mercy is the spiritual surgery you need. Jesus died for every sin of every person every where in every time. Believe that or there is no seeing God. A small sin is an impurity; only the pure see. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” (James 2:10) The only way to be absolutely and completely pure in heart is to be purified.

God is not hiding. God wants you to see! Again, this is not my promise but that of Jesus. “The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sins.” (1 John 1:7b) Either “all” is all or all is nothing at all. This is a time to take sin seriously and to take mercy faithfully.

Have you been hungering and thirsting for what is right and just or for something else? The “something else” may be blocking your spiritual vision.

How is the meekness coming? Non-meekness is genuine weakness.

Is the mourning over what and who was given up to take this hike? Tears of grief and fears of grace can affect the sight every time.

Do you remain humble and poor in spirit? Only the poor in spirit can be lifted to pure in heart. You have to be perfect at nothing here. Jesus is the perfect one. The Holy Spirit is working hard to allow you, move you, empower you to set aside that which blocks you from being purified and seeing clearly.

You SEE, the audience is on God’s terms and not ours. We are NOT forgiven our sins and empowered to see God in order to continue on our silly, sick, and sinful ways.

This hike is distinctively Christian. We are NOT as Christians to be judging others: (Luke 6:37 & Romans 2:1-11), including Jews, Muslims, Hindus or atheists/agnostics. It is our responsibility to witness to others. “Believe like us or you lose!” “Drop your pagan ways, misguided theologies, conceptions of God which flow from vivid but limited imaginations.” Is that our testimony? Fine, but what credibility and integrity do we have if we fail to follow the very teachings and leadings of Christ ourselves? DO WE REALLY BELIEVE IN AND DO WE PRACTICE SPIRITUAL POORNESS, MOURNING, MEEKNESS, RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND MERCY? We are judged for being Christian rather than for avoiding the pitfalls of other faiths.

The Ten Commandments, or “The Law” in Biblical language, are thought by some to need promotion anywhere and everywhere. But do WE keep them? The whole seventh chapter of Romans, along with many other Christian Scriptures, proclaims that we do not and cannot. With the Law comes the increase and not the decrease of the sin. We tend to judge others who break laws we are good at. That’s hypocrisy! We may be judging others in this very room right now for doing something other than what we feel we do right ourselves. It is blinding us, deafening, numbing, dumbing, destroying us.

The Commandments are demands on us which we cannot fulfill adequately. The Beatitudes are a trip Jesus takes with us to encourage us, empower us, enjoy us. He picks us up when we fall or fail along the way. He draws us together in community not of competition but cooperation, not of duty but of delight, a community of faith and not fright. He dies for us that we might walk with Him in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

Listen to this wonderfully appropriate portion of Romans 7 (4-6): “In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.”

It ought to be fascinating to us that the Christian life begins at Baptism, a moving down into the depths of water. Here, however, we have climbed in faith to the pinnacle, the height of holiness, where only those who have been washed are pure enough to see God.

This “holy hike” is not a one-time excursion into the incredible mysteries of God, but a daily journey into mysteries that in Christ have been revealed. There is nothing cryptic or complicated about any of it. It is as plain as day.

We are invited by Jesus to follow Him, empowered by the Spirit to believe in Him, freed and forgiven in His blood to serve Him. If anything else in this precious pilgrimage is also clear, it is that we need to make this trip together. You cannot believe for me, but you can believe with me. It is only together that we can see God. I actually need to go one step further. It is only in each other than we can see God.

It has been said that spiritual sight is not like a camera shot of a panorama as much as a surgical scope that a physician might use. With the scope there is more precision and perspective. The camera is more of a broad angle. We could translate all the Beatitudes as “Blessed are the focused, for they will be forever fixed.”

What has happened or should have is that the distractions are gone. We are here looking up and not back down. I like panoramic views, but this is NOT one of them. As we look up to view God, God invites us to look at one another. What we see, indeed, who we see, are not sinners, but saints. We are living saints, “holy ones” not holy in ourselves but having been washed, cleansed, declared holy by THE HOLY ONE!

Down below, in the valley to which we shortly must return, people often look at each other and note the nastiness, focus on the flaws, failures; the fights and the blights and the dark nights. Down there, it is rare to treat others as we would be treated. People are too busy being rude, crude and causing a feud. In all too many instances, there are senseless deaths. Is there any question that at times we can see the devil in certain individuals?

Not us, not up here! We are too near the presence of God. God calls us to look upon each other as He sees us, forgiven; given a new chance. We belong to God; we were “bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). We belong to each other because we have bought-ness in common. The “unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) holds us together with God and one another. We see God in each other.

How could it be different? “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN GOD; IF WE LOVE ONE ANOTHER, GOD LIVES IN US AND HIS LOVE IS PERFECTED IN US.” (1 John 4: 9-12)

In closing, there are two things I would ask of you:

1. Close your eyes and imagine being on the top of the mountain on a clear, crisp, beautiful day. It is in the silence that God is: no volcanic eruption, no thunder and lightning. Let there be silence! “Be Still and Know That I am God” as the hymn goes and as the Psalmist says (37:7).

2. Look around at each other! Let go of the past and the arguments over whatever! Look into the eyes of each and every person here, redeemed in the Christ, and see in Christ’s people here, God! The future of this congregation depends on your faith in Christ and your love of one another.

The Beatitudes: Blessed are the merciful

Hands released from handcuffs

Editors note: This is the fifth in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We have been meeting at 10 a.m. on Sundays (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service). Join us in the Great Room!

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

For any of us who have made a long trip by automobile, especially one made a time or two previously, there is often a milestone or place near the end of the trip which signals being nearly there. For children the classic question is, “are we there yet?” On this holy hike, we are near enough to the very top to say: “We are almost there!”

It has been a productive trip for me once again, studying and praying along the way, being renewed in my grasp of grace in contrast to how graceless life down below can be, perhaps more these days than ever. Being with Christian people like you is a privilege but not pain-free. Growth of any kind, especially spiritual growth, often comes out of pain. There is grace in pain, when it is shared with fellow climber believers.

This, therefore, also has been a truth trip. I remember well an Argus poster of long ago with a contorted Raggedy Ann in an old fashion crank wringer, the caption reading: “The truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable.” It also has been said: “Hell is truth seen too late.” It is not yet too late for us!

Perhaps you have sensed in the Beatitudes the mood swings or, better yet, mood developments. The poor in spirit are empty, their mourning is somber, meekness is calm, hunger and thirst are intense. Today the mood is utter elation, celebration, anticipation. We have made it close to the top and this plateau is a place to stop and rejoice. “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”

In virtually every gathering of Christians, there is, because there must be, mercy. Every time we together approach God in worship, prayer, instruction, there is mercy. The same is true when we approach God individually. There is no getting to God except through mercy. The over-riding and underlying truth is that God is merciful.

One reason some folk do not know mercy is because they have not come through what proceeds it: spiritual poverty, grief, meekness, hunger and thirst for the right and just.

In Matthew 9:10-13, Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners and in predictable fashion is questioned about the company he keeps by Pharisees. Jesus responds: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (9:12) He then suggests that these know-it-alls “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (9:13)

This is not new. The Prophet Hosea (6:6) said: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The Prophet Micah (6:8) reported: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” When Jesus says, as reported in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (6:36), “Be merciful, just as your father in heaven is merciful,” we are asked to be who God is in doing what God does. Mercy is at the very center of God’s essence.

If we try to enter at the center, however, without first having known its prerequisites, we can easily cheapen mercy, discount it and end up delaying and denying it to ourselves.

Two convicts were reflecting on a recent visit to the prison by the governor. The one said: “You know, I actually bumped into the governor himself.” “Oh yeah, what did you say?” asked the other. “Pardon me, Governor!” “And then what did the Governor say?” “He said, ‘Certainly!’ but I failed to get it in writing.”

Mercy has to do with kindness, but not without justice. We cannot simply bump into God, say the right words and expect to get off scot free. Justice and mercy go together. Real, honest, complete mercy requires payment. Mercy is not sweeping reality under a legal, moral or spiritual rug. In essence, when someone in temporal life leans on the “mercy of the court” the court on behalf of the people, including the offended party, pays the price in risking another chance or lighter sentence for the offender.

God, as judge, has latitude, choice. We cannot pin God down and demand a free ride. At any given time, God could convict and sentence us, and there would be justice. We all break God’s Law with commitment and constancy. Instead of extending wrath, God chooses to extend mercy, but not mercy without justice.

A boy once said to his teacher, “Is it fair for someone to be punished for something he didn’t do?” “Certainly not,” replied the teacher. “I’m glad you feel that way,” the boy said, “because I didn’t do my homework.” Cute, but mercy is never ever getting away with something.

As we collectively make our way to this plateau on this holy hike with Jesus, we learn and grow but none of it is complete or sufficient. That is what is so exciting about this point on the climb. After having gotten this far, God could say: “Well folks, nice try but not good enough; get out of my sight!” God chooses to be merciful, to pay the price with the blood of Jesus, not only for our wrongs but for our quite pathetic attempts to do what is right. We are free, therefore, to celebrate the moment and joyfully anticipate what still lies up ahead. It is exciting, happy/blessed but it is never cheap. It cost God His Son, His priceless, to pay for mercy grounded in justice.

Both before and after this merciful moment on this majestic mountain plateau, mercy is to have been known and shown by us. It is interesting in the extreme that mercy here is received by those who first offered it to others, primarily to each other on the hike. It is not the natural but new reaction of folk who have gotten this far even if they still fall short. We have hungered and thirsted for Christ’s righteousness because it is obvious that our own does not suffice. When we look around at others, we see those, who, just like us, need Christ’s righteousness. To a person, each is so far behind Christ that it is only by His reach and push that we could ever get this far. We either could have judged one another, complained, compared, contrasted and blasted each other or believed together in the One who was, is and forever will be perfectly righteous, just, loving, caring, compassionate and good.

None of this is without risk to us. Possibly the heaviest and scariest of the parables of Jesus is Matthew 18:23-35. A master forgives the $10,000 debt of one of his servants who then goes out and violently tries to collect a dime owed him by one of his fellow servants. “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

If mercy is NOT what is flowing through and to us, then we have gained absolutely nothing from this hike, and would be better off not having made it at all. You can look up for yourself in Matthew 18 what happened to this merciless monster mentioned above. It was not nice. Judgment received for mercy not shown is justice deserved.

If we are in the process of grasping what is going on here and in faith seeing the potential for living very differently and more humanly, then we see in Scripture all kinds of examples of merciful kindness. Merciful kindness is righteousness in its redeemed way.

The familiar parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is all about mercy or the lack thereof. The robbers obviously were merciless in robbing the victim and leaving him for dead. The priest and Levite who walked by were merciless in no less a way. The Samaritan was “the one who showed him mercy,” in the very words of the Lawyer who was testing Jesus to begin with. The battered Jew in the ditch surprisingly did not resist receiving mercy from an extremely odd source. The story is all about mercy.

“Have mercy on us” is the cry so frequently heard extended to Jesus, by the blind (Matthew 20:30), lepers (Luke 17:13) and many others. From hell the rich man who mercilessly failed to respond to Lazarus on his doorstep, cried out: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me!” By then it was simply too late for that.

We have no worship service or any other Christian encounter without mercy as central because it is so central to God’s nature and so central to our need. It is central that mercy be extended through us or there is simply something absolutely essential missing in us.

One doesn’t go to a car dealer to buy linens, a post office to buy celery, a hardware store to buy cookies, a theatre to find nuts and bolts. One does not go to a Christian Church to simply get morality. Strict morality is more apt to be found at a Mosque. In the Church we get and give mercy or it is not a Christian church.

Mercy is as close to God as one can get without actually being in His presence. Next week, having known and shown mercy this week, we get to see God. Truly and eternally blessed are those who do!

Survey says: Growth is top priority

Stylized compass

The St. Mark’s Compass Team, tasked with developing a strategic plan for the church, continues to study the data gathered in the recent congregational survey.

Analysis of the data continues—moving toward a full and more formal report that will summarize findings in five areas: fellowship and caring, faith and faith development, outreach, flexibility and atmosphere. Many challenges and aspirations have been identified.

The top priority identified by the 70 respondents, according to Compass Team convener Nancy Wilkerson, was to “develop and implement a strategy to attract new members and incorporate them into the life of the church.”

Many suggestions were shared on the “other priorities” page. Here are a few samples:

* Do more to meet the needs of young families
* Establish prayer circles, praying for members who have difficult situations arise
* Help us connect with each other across boundaries (service times/styles, age, marital status, etc.)
* Develop a program of service projects serving our neighborhood community
* Improve our website (Editor’s note: We’re already working on that! Keep the suggestions coming!)

Much more information is coming, so please stay tuned.

Coming soon:

* Discussion sessions will be scheduled to address questions, seek more information and further explain the goals of this process.
* Congregational leaders (Council members, committee chairs, ministry leaders) will gather with Jim LaDoux of Vibrant Faith at a retreat in mid-April to review the reports, discuss priorities and begin to shape St. Mark’s strategy.
* A full and formal report will be prepared and provided to the congregation.