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"Enemies of Gratitude--Nostalgia"

Howard Boswell

Exodus 17:1-7

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

At the end of the book of Deuteronomy,

as Moses nears the end of his life,

he passes on the mantel of authority to Joshua.

In Scripture, we read that Moses made a mistake and

God punished him by forbidding him

to enter the Promised Land.

Moses remains on top of Mount Nebo

as Joshua leads the people of Israel across the river Jordan.

 

Now, I know what the Scripture says,

but I can’t help but believe there is another document

somewhere, hidden and waiting to be discovered.

In this document, God speaks to Moses and says,

“Moses, you have been a faithful leader of my people

for forty years.

You endured great hardship

as you wandered in the wilderness.        

I have changed my mind:  You may enter the Promised Land

with the rest of the Hebrew people.”

 

This document records

how Moses looked down from Mt. Nebo,

across to the Jordan Valley.

Then, he looked back at the people of Israel,

whom he led for forty years,

listening to them complain nearly every step of the way.

Moses said unto the Lord, “You know, I love the view,

so if it’s OK with you, I’ll stay here and

let young Joshua take over,

because all the people ever do is kvetch!”

 

For those who do not know Yiddish, “kvetch” means complain,

only more so.

I think after forty years in the wilderness,

Moses wanted some peace and quiet.

Can you blame him?

Today’s Second Reading provides evidence of what I mean.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me:

the lack of water was a real problem.

Yet, most nomadic people search for an oasis

where the water bubbles up to the surface.

The people of Israel wanted water and

they wanted it immediately, if not sooner!

 

What makes their demand even more tiresome is that

before this chapter, God provided for them, again and again.

When Pharaoh would not let them go,

God sent ten plagues to persuade him.

When Pharaoh changed his mind and

sent his whole army after the people of Israel,

God had Moses raise his staff and split the Red Sea,

so that they could escape.

Then, when the supplies they brought with them gave out,

God provided them with

manna in the morning and quails at night for food.

God provided again and again,

but the people accused Moses of bringing them

out into the wilderness to die.

Kvetch… kvetch… kvetch…

 

Yet, underlying their complaining was an odd desire:  

They wanted to go back to Egypt.

Now, we may not understand

why slaves would want to return to slavery.

Maybe, they preferred the familiarity of Egypt to

the freedom of the wilderness.

No wonder, when the people felt parched,

they turned on Moses, saying,

“Why did you bring us out of Egypt,

to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"

Kvetch… kvetch… kvetch…

 

Yet, it’s funny when we think about it.

Even though we’re not slaves running from Pharaoh,

we understand how the safety of what we once knew

may lure us.

Nearly every church I know long for a return to a golden era.

We look back fondly on when the pews were filled and

the building was new and the budget was made.

We long to return to those simpler times.

 

Yet, such nostalgia robs us of opportunities in the present.

We come to think, as the Israelites say,

“The Lord is not among us.”

Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Lord is here among us now and

God wants us to move forwards, not backwards.

 

Nostalgia will tell us a lie, if we aren’t careful.

The word, “nostalgia” means something like homesickness.

Now, everyone experiences homesickness, now and then,

but when all we want to do is return to what we once knew,

today loses its luster.

The Southern novelist, Thomas Wolfe was right,

“You can’t go home again.”

Nostalgia robs us of the joy of each new day.

It steals away the possibility of gratitude.

Yet, most importantly, if we keep looking back,

we’ll never make it across the Jordan River,

into the Promised Land.

We’ll always confine God’s grace to the past,

rather than allowing it to fill us, here and now.

 

Here and now, our Lord calls you and me to this meal.

We call it by many names.

Some say it’s communion.

Others say it’s the Lord’s Supper.

Still some use an odd Greek word, “Eucharist.”  

In your bulletin, whenever we come to this table,

we call it the Eucharist, which means, “Thanksgiving.”

At this time, we give of ourselves

out of gratitude for what God gives us.

Then, we respond to the gracious invitation.

Then, we pray, remembering all of God’s mighty acts and

recalling that God is not done with us yet, not by a long shot.

 

Yes, it can be bittersweet to come to this table,

as we remember what once was.

Yet, this bread and this cup is food for today

to give us strength for the journey ahead.

So, look around at what God might be doing in our midst.

Look ahead to where God might be calling us

tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.

God waits for us there and is present with us here.

Give thanks.

 

©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church

"An Introduction to the 'Enemies of Gratitude' Sermon Series

Howard Boswell

Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

Today, we begin a five week sermon series,

          based on an outline for a lectionary sermon series from

                   A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series.

Methodist pastor, Brian Erickson built “Enemies of Gratitude”

          with this goal in mind, “This series offers

                   an opportunity to teach gratitude

                             by calling out the things that keep us

                                      from being truly grateful.”

In case you wondered, yes, this series is about stewardship,

          but it’s not about stewardship commitments or

                   church budgets or any of the other things

                             that make us approach the fall

                                      “with fear and trembling,”

                                                to borrow from Paul.

 

Instead, “Enemies of Gratitude” explores

          the source of all Christian Stewardship.

As many have said, we give from “an attitude of gratitude.”

We return to God a portion of the blessings we receive.

Yet, some things stand in the way of gratitude

          and we’ll look at five of them,

                   beginning today with “Nostalgia.”

"Solus Christus--Christ Alone"

Howard Boswell

Hebrews 4:14—5:10

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

This sermon will conclude

the first three sermons in the Sola Series.

On the first Sunday, we looked at how the Reformers believed

God saves us through grace alone.

Last Sunday, we explored how they affirmed

we receive grace alone by faith alone.

Today, we come to “Christus Solus” or “Christ alone.”

 

As I began to reflect on this sermon,

I realized how a sentence emerged from

these three central statements of the Protestant faith.

We might compose the sentence in this way,

“God saves us through grace alone

by faith alone in Christ alone.”

Or we could change the order of the words slightly,

“God saves us by faith alone

in Christ alone through grace alone.”

Another possibility presents itself,

“God saves us in Christ alone

through grace alone by faith alone.”

 

No matter how one says it,

the Reformers believed you and I need

no other mediator with God than Jesus alone.

Before the Reformers, we had other go-betweens:

saints, the Sacraments, good works,

or the whole hierarchy of the church.

This situation made Jesus seem distant,

even detached from the ordinary believer.

 

The editor of Reformed Worship,

Joyce Borger makes this point well in her sermon notes.

She begins, “It sometimes is hard to get an audience with

someone in authority.”

She continues, “It seems that the higher up people are

the tougher it is for a regular person

to be able to talk to them.”

Borger goes on to point out how one has to go

through several intermediaries,  

not to mention security clearances,

before one can have a face to face

with someone important.

Her story suggests what the medieval church was like.

Oh, priests could converse with God anytime they liked,

even members of religious orders had an inside track,

but the common people had to go through

the appropriate, sometimes costly, channels.

 

Borger concludes her comments, saying,

“Before the Reformation, Jesus seemed that inaccessible to the common person. Because people couldn’t speak to him directly, they depended on the priest to speak on their behalf. But Scripture teaches us that Jesus is our priest, and that anything that kept us from direct access to him has been taken away.”

I believe that’s the entire point of Hebrews 4:14—5:10:

Nothing needs to separate us from Jesus.

He stands between God and us.

He gets us.

 

Yet, I wonder whether we grasp how good this news really is?

In one of our confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism,

after reviewing the entire Apostles’ Creed,

the writers asked, “What good does it do you,

however, to believe all this?”

Now, if you’ve memorized the Heidelberg Catechism,

please keep the answer to yourself,

because I want to attempt

another answer to this question.

 

I think it’s only natural at some point along our faith journey

to wonder, “What good does it do you, however,

to believe all this?”

It happens in different ways, at different times,

for different people.

Some of us ask this question when a loved one dies.

Others of us wonder about it when a relationship ends.

Some of us raise this question when we encounter a tragedy,

like a hurricane or earthquake or a terrorist attack.

Others of us come face to face with it when

a book or a person or another way of looking at the world

makes us stop in our tracks.

 

Yet, as natural as asking the question may be,

there is something else that is normal.

Let me share it how I see it.

At some level, all of us carry around a burden,

a weight of one kind or another.

Some of us may recall a damaged relationship.

Others of us may remember some wrong we did.

One way or another, most of us may feel

as if we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders,

but we don’t understand why.

 

Yet, I believe all of us desire the same thing.

We wish someone or something could take

the burden off of our backs.

We want someone, anyone to understand us,

really understand us.

Now, there are many places, people, and things

to which we may turn for relief.

While there is nothing wrong with most of them,

some of them are deadly,

like addictions of one kind or another.

Yet, even the best of them only alleviate some of the problem.

Here’s how I see the problem: In each of us is an empty space,

which we try to fill with a whole lot of stuff.

However, only one person can truly fills us and

only one person truly gets us—Christ alone.

 

Do you remember what one hymn says?

What a friend we have in Jesus,

all our sins and griefs to bear?

What a privilege to carry

everything to God in prayer!

O what peace we often forfeit;

o what needless pain we bear,

all because we do not carry

everything to God in prayer!

Through his life, death, and resurrection,

Jesus lifts the burden of sin and grief from us.

As Hebrews 4: 14-16 says,

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

 

Going back to the Heidelberg Catechism,

here’s how its writers answered the question,

“What good does it do you, however,

to believe all this?”

They wrote, “In Christ I am righteous before God

and heir to life everlasting.”

In a way, they said something similar to what I did.

Somehow, we sense something’s not right

and we want it to be corrected.

Most of us long to know “life everlasting,”

new life in Jesus Christ, beginning now.

 

Now, some of you may want to ask me,

“But, Howard, what happens to those who don’t believe

or who believe in something other than Christianity?”

Well, I would need an entire sermon,

maybe even another series, to answer that one.

Yet, I’d probably start by saying something like,

“I don’t know and no one does.

 That call belongs to God alone.”

For today, I want you and me to come to terms

with what it means to affirm Christ alone

and to know deeply the difference he makes.

 

©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church

"Sola Fide--Faith Alone"

Howard Boswell

“Sola Fide—Faith Alone”

Romans 3:21-31 and James 2:14-26

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

Today, as we continue to explore the Five Solas,

those statements of the Reformation,

          which begin with the Latin word for “alone,”

we look at sola fide, “faith alone.”

The Reformers believed God saves us

by grace alone, by faith alone.

In his article, “The Five Solas—500 Years and Still True,”

retired history professor, James R. Payton, Jr. explains

 what “by faith alone” means.

 

Payton writes:

We are not accepted by God because of any good works we have done or could do; we have no merits to offer as payment for the righteousness we need to come before him. That righteousness is received by faith alone, and we are justified by faith alone—faith in the incarnate Son who lived, suffered, died, and rose again to achieve righteousness for us. While that faith impels us to serve God as faithfully as we can—to “do good works”—nothing we do can win the righteousness we need to come before God, Jesus Christ has won that, and we receive it by faith alone.

 

“By faith alone” mattered greatly to the Reformers,

because the medieval church, from which they came,

taught that salvation needed to be earned by works.

Now, salvation for the medieval church meant

getting into heaven, escaping hell, or avoiding purgatory.

Purgatory was like waiting room between heaven and earth

in which people stopped until their sins were payed off.

Now, sins were violations of church law and

categorized from something like misdemeanors

up to a felony.

To pay off sins, the church issued indulgences,

which they sold freely.

Once purchased, indulgences would shave years off of

one’s sentence in purgatory.

 

Even before Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on

the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg,

a variety of Christian theologians became uneasy

about indulgences.

Yet, they grew in popularity,

because the money filled the coffers of

the bishops and cardinals, even the Pope.

They used the sale of indulgences to build great cathedrals and

to insure a luxurious lifestyle.

As Luther and others looked at Scripture,

they found no warrant for indulgences.

As a matter of fact,

they pointed to passages like Romans 3:21-31.

Paul makes it clear we cannot become righteous on our own.

In the first chapter of Romans, he quotes Habakkuk 2:4,

“Look at the proud!

Their spirit is not right in them,

but the righteous live by their faith.”

 

“The righteous live by their faith.”

We may say, “By faith alone,”

but I wonder whether we know what faith means.

Whenever we say, “I believe,”

do we consider what we’re getting ourselves into?

 

Not too long ago, I spent some time pondering this question.

You see, whenever the presbytery ordains

a minister of the Word and Sacrament,

we ask the candidate to write a statement of faith.

Most presbyteries give you one page, single spaced,

with one inch margins, and in 12 point font,

preferably Times New Roman,

to put as much of what you believe in writing.

Serving as moderator of

the Committee on Preparation for Ministry

for nine or ten years in this presbytery,

I read my fair share of these statements.

This committee reviews the statement for

obvious errors, glaring omissions, and other things. 

I wrote one of these statements of faith

before the Presbytery of New Covenant ordained me

thirty three years ago.

 

Yet, when I wrote my Personal Information Form,

I needed to write a new statement of faith.

When I started, I became aware of

one of the most glaring omissions in most,

if not all statements of faith.

Seldom, if ever does anyone define “faith.”

While I won’t read you the entire statement,

I want you to hear the first paragraph.

 

I wrote:

“I believe…” Nearly every statement of faith starts with words like these. Yet, almost no creed or confession defines “believe.” The root of the word, “believe” means “to live by” or “to love.” The Latin word, credo from which we get “creed” means “to give one’s heart.” So, “believe” means more than affirming something; it means accepting the One about whom we make those affirmations. Trust might be a better word, because it suggests a relationship.

 

You see, here’s what I think:

it’s not enough to accept God exists.

It’s not even enough to affirm

Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior.  

It’s not even enough to assume the Holy Spirit is

the One who gives us life and sustains us.

It may be a start, but when Paul uses the word, “faith,”

when the Reformers use the same word,

they mean something more

along the lines of what I wrote.

It’s not just a matter of believing in the abstract;

it’s a matter of living by faith in our daily life.

 

Now, throughout the works of the Reformers,

even down to our day, you’ll hear people pit

Paul against James.

Some will point to Romans 3, saying,

We are made right with God

by the grace of Jesus Christ through faith.”

Others will quote James 2,  

“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  

 

Yet, Paul and James are two sides of the same coin called faith.

Paul speaks about what happens

when God saves us through faith by grace alone.

James speaks about what happens after God sets us right,

how the righteous live by faith.

 

We need both sides of the coins as the church nowadays.

If I asked us to picture those who do nothing

but talk about what they believe,

we might be tempted to call them, “hypocrites!”

This kind gives Christians a bad name,

because when non-Christians look at them,

they can’t believe they’re talking about

the same God Jesus did.

 

Yet, I would imagine we might have

a harder time identifying the other kind:

Those who do everything,

but say nothing about what they believe.

We might feel more comfortable with them,

since some outside the church,

 many mainline Protestants, Catholics,

and even some evangelicals fall into this camp.

They think it’s enough to live a good life and

show compassion and tolerance to others

without having faith.

Or they think it’s all well and good to have faith,

but it means nothing unless we put it into action.

Or they think it’s not enough to believe in Jesus,

but you need to live a certain way, believe a certain way,

to be a real Christian, to be really saved.

 

So, here’s how the Reformers reading both Paul and James

balanced faith and works.

In order to be saved, to become righteous, to be justified,

one needs to believe, to live by, to love, to trust

the grace God shows us in Jesus Christ.

Yet, as one who is saved,

God calls you to serve God and others.

Yet, as one who is righteous, you live by faith,

as if grace was real and God used you to share that grace.

Yet, as one who is justified,

you stop trying to justify yourself and

stop asking others to do the same,

instead you let your works reveal

the One in whom you trust.

 

©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church

"Sola Gratia--Grace Alone"

Howard Boswell

Psalm 103: 1-14 and Ephesians 2: 1-10

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

So, we start this sermon series,

looking at “Sola gratia—By grace alone.”

In “The Five Solas: Five Hundred Years and Still True,”

retired history professor, James R. Peyton provides

 a brief paragraph about “By grace alone.”

He writes:

Recognizing that our feverish endeavors cannot commend us to God, we rely on divine grace—God’s unmerited goodness toward us in his overarching, never-failing love for us in Christ. We rely and depend on God’s grace for our righteousness in Christ, for daily provision, and for all the needs we have in life and in death.

 

Now, if you asked me what caused the Protestant Reformation,

I would say it’s the rediscovery of grace.

You see, in the medieval church,

a series of rituals created a relationship with God.

Besides the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church,

the medieval church emphasized

an urgent need “to get right with God.” 

It offered many disciplines designed

to bring the flesh under control.

 

Martin Luther provides an excellent case study in what I mean.

When he was young, he encountered a thunderstorm so violent

that he fell to the ground and prayed,

“By Saint Anne, I will become a monk.”

As a monk, Luther became a priest,

but his real profession was a biblical scholar.

He followed all the spiritual disciplines he knew.

At one point, even his spiritual director grew weary of

his constant confession and overwhelming fear.

 

Yet, something happened to Luther.

It wasn’t another lightning bolt,

but instead, he started to notice something in his studies.

He read Romans, chapter one, verses sixteen and seventeen,

 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’"

 

Probably, he ran across Ephesians, chapter two,

and read verses eight and nine, “For by grace

you have been saved through faith,

and this is not your own doing;

it is the gift of God—

not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Luther discovered that

it wasn’t all the rituals that made him right with God.

In Christ, God intervened by grace alone through faith alone

to make him right, to save him.

 

Yet, save him from what?

How was he wrong?

Well, the author of Ephesians lays out

an answer to those questions,

which begins with this stunning statement,

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins

in which you once lived,

following the course of this world,

following the ruler of the power of the air,

the spirit that is now at work among

those who are disobedient.”

 

No, the author doesn’t pull any punches.

Our sins and trespasses bring us death.

Oh, we may walk around, thinking we’re alive.

At least, that’s what “the course of this world” teaches us,

what “the ruler of the power of the air” wants us to believe.

If you’re not sure whether the author’s right,

all you need to do is look at people you meet.

Most of them look as if they’re dead,

but the brain hasn’t gotten the message yet.

They do what they’re told.

They live as they think they want.

Yet, in their eyes, the lights are out.

 

You see, the author and Luther take sin seriously

and we should as well.

Every time we fail to love as Jesus commanded us;

every time we live as if our actions have no consequences;

every time we let ourselves follow “the course of this world,”

we sin, which means

we miss the mark of what God intends for us.

Yet, here’s the kicker:

we cannot get out of this mess on our own.

 

Sometimes, people wonder

what the hardest part of being a pastor is.

I think the most difficult nut to crack is this one.

I watch with frustration as people try to earn God’s love.

I worry as someone asks me

what God thinks about his or her addiction or habit.

I wonder what it would take for us to believe

something I heard once,

“God knows us through and through

and loves us still and all.”

 

You see, that’s what grace means.

Even though God knows everything we do and don’t do,

God never gives up on us.

As the author of Ephesians says twice,

“By grace you have been saved.”

He underscores that it’s God’s deal,

because there’s nothing we can do to earn it.

It’s a gift, a free gift, with no strings attached.

 

Now, some of you may want to argue that last sentence.

You might say, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

You might ask about all the lessons we learn in church

about doing the right thing.

Isn’t that a string?

Didn’t you say last week there was a cost to discipleship?

 

Yes, I did, but let me ask you to think about gifts.

Someone gives you a gift.

For the purpose of this illustration, let’s make it priceless.

After the giver picks you off the floor,

after you say something like, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!”

what did our parents teach us to say

when we receive a gift.

“Thank you.”

 

That’s what the author of Ephesians means

in verse ten of chapter two,

“For we are what [God] has made us,

created in Christ Jesus for good works,

which God prepared beforehand to be

our way of life.”

Our good works are not what earns us a ticket to heaven.

Instead, it’s how we’re made in Christ Jesus:

to live a life of gratitude for the grace God shows us

by doing good works.

 

Now, I want you to understand that “grace alone”

is not as easy as it sounds.

As a matter of fact, it scandalizes some people,

even some Christians to think we need to earn our salvation.

The church thought Luther went too far down this road.

In our day, some churchy types think

there must be more than grace to be saved.

Yet, if we are children of the Reformers,

we need to believe and to live as if God’s grace is enough

and more than enough to make us God’s own.

 

©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church

"Introduction to the Sola Sermon Series"

Howard Boswell

The Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

On October 31, 1517, a young monk named Martin Luther nailed ninety five points for discussion on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. Most historians point to this event as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. One of our greatest church historians, Martin Marty wrote a book, titled October 31, 1517. The subtitle underscores the importance of this date: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World.

 

At the end of October, we will remember this event. As Presbyterians, we are descendants of the Reformers. Yet, outside of Confirmation Class and Reformation Sunday, we don’t often reflect upon the Reformation and its impact on who we are and how we do things. As I looked at this fall, I wanted to find a way to commemorate “the day that changed the world.”

 

My answer came in the June issue of Reformed Worship. The issue included an essay by retired history professor, James R. Payton, Jr.  In “Five Solas: Five Hundred Years and Still True,” Payton points out that five statements served as the foundation for the Reformation. In Latin, each statement includes the word, “sola,” which means alone. The Five Solas are:

          Sola gratia—“By grace alone;”

          Sola fide—“By faith alone;”

          Solus Christus—“Christ Alone;”

          Sola scriptura—“Scripture Alone;” and

          Soli Dei Gloria—“To God alone (be) glory.”

Beginning Sunday, September 10, we will look at the first three Solas in September and we will pick up the last two Solas in November.  

If you would like to know more about the Protestant Reformation, please check out the video on our Media Center page.             

 

"The Cost of Discipleship 2017"

Howard Boswell

Matthew 16: 21-28

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

In 1937, a book appeared in Germany.

Its title was Nachfolge, which means “succession.”

A young theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote it

out of concern for the renewal of the church.

In it, he suggested some problems with the church.

 

He believed the church offered people “cheap grace.”

He meant that people simply had to believe, but not obey.

He thought that “costly grace” required a person

to let go of life and let God be God.

He believed the church had become

too closely connected with the nation,

a nation in which Nazism was on the rise.

Eventually, this young theologian would be arrested and

on April 9, 1945 be executed by the Gestapo.

 

The book appeared in English in 1949,  

twelve years after its first publishing in Germany and

four years after Bonhoeffer’s death.

The book’s title became The Cost of Discipleship.

It remains in print to this day,

eighty years after it first appeared.

Let me read you only a part of a paragraph

from this classic work.

 

Bonhoeffer wrote:

The cross is laid on every Christian.

The first Christ-suffering

which every man must experience is

the call to abandon the attachments of this world.

It is that dying of the old man

which is the result of his encounter with Christ.

As we embark upon discipleship

we surrender ourselves to Christ

in union with his death—

we give our lives over to death.

Thus it begins;

the cross is not the terrible end

to an otherwise godfearing and happy life,

 but it meets us at the beginning of

our communion with Christ.

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

 

Eighty years have come and gone

since Bonhoeffer wrote these words.

Yet, the cost of discipleship,

the price of new life in Christ remains the same:

When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.

Yet, I wondered when I remembered that passage,

what would the cost of discipleship be today, in 2017?

What would we need to let go of in order to lay hold of Christ?

What might we need to abandon

in order to be free to obey Jesus Christ?

 

Before we look at those questions,

we need to recognize Bonhoeffer was not the first

to place such a high price on discipleship.

In today’s lesson from Matthew, we heard Jesus say,

"If any want to become my followers,

let them deny themselves and

take up their cross and follow me.  

For those who want to save their life will lose it,

and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  

For what will it profit them

if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?  

Or what will they give in return for their life?”

 

Now, I’ll tell you the truth:

These words are hard to hear, especially in our culture.

In our culture, we don’t deny ourselves,

instead we allow ourselves almost whatever we want.

In our culture, we seek to gain everything,

          only to find ourselves wanting more.

 

Part of the problem for us may be that

we forget what the cross really is.

We’ve made it an object of adoration.

Even people who have no particular faith wear it,

because it looks good, especially in gold or silver.

We Presbyterians look down our noses at Roman Catholics,

because they have crucifixes.

We say, “We celebrate that Jesus is risen!”

Yet, what we may really do is look away from the truth:

Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, dead, and buried.

 

Yet, we turn our eyes from another truth

when we ignore the cross.

Being a Christian does not give us a pass from suffering.

Being a Christian requires us to let go of

some behaviors, possessions, or ideas,

or at least, hold them more loosely,

which brings me back to the questions

I posed earlier in this sermon.

 

What would the cost of discipleship be today, in 2017?

What would we need to let go of in order to lay hold of Christ?

What might we need to abandon

in order to be free to obey Jesus Christ?

I’m not completely sure, but I have some ideas.

 

First, I think discipleship in 2017 might cost us our comfort.

Now, don’t misunderstand me:

I don’t mean that we all need to go out and buy hair shirts!

No, I mean the cost of discipleship in 2017 might require us

to make decisions and to do things that are uncomfortable,

like placing our faith above party affiliations;

like listening to people of color and others

who experience prejudice;

like letting go of the notion

that the color of our skin gives us privileges

others don’t have.  

I could continue, but let me put it simply:

The cost of discipleship in 2017 involves

standing for Jesus who calls us

to take up our cross and follow.

 

Second, I think the cost of discipleship in 2017 involves

taking time to learn what it means to follow Jesus.

I believe every Christian needs to be a disciple,

which means we never stop learning.

Worship alone may not fill the bill.

We need to be involved in small groups and adult classes.

We need to read books that challenge our faith,

like The Cost of Discipleship for one.

We need to set aside time, every day,

to read Scripture and pray.

 

Finally, I think the cost of discipleship in 2017 means

paying attention.

I mean we need to listen, really listen to what is said in worship.

I mean we need to be engaged in what happens here,

not just go through the motions.

 

Today is a perfect opportunity to pay attention,

to engage in what happens here.

We’ve come to this table before.

We know what will be said and what will be done.

Yet, today, listen, really listen

to what is said, to prayers we pray.

Today, look, really look at the bread and the cup,

remembering the Lord’s death until he comes.

Today, as you come forward to receive the elements,

let your movement be an act of prayer

in which you come to Jesus Christ,

our Lord and Savior. Amen.

 

©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church

"Three Challenges We Face: The Other"

Howard Boswell

Matthew 15: 21-28

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

I understand if today’s Second Reading rubs you the wrong way.

Something doesn’t seem right about it.

A Canaanite woman comes to Jesus,  begging him to heal her daughter.

His disciples try to turn her away but she keeps after Jesus.

Jesus lets her know that he comes to save the lost in Israel, but she doesn’t give up.

He uses a crude comparison, making her and all like her no better than dogs.

Yet, to borrow Senator McConnell’s words to Senator Warren,

“she was warned… she was given an explanation… nevertheless she persisted…”

 

Yet, we feel uncomfortable, even ashamed at how Jesus responds to her.

I mean, Jesus seems, well, mean, or at least calloused.

Not to let the Lord off the hook completely,

we need to remember how Jesus was fully divine and fully human.

His “fully human” side was a Jewish male.

Jesus grew up, learning how Gentiles were not our kind of people and

how Canaanites were ancient enemies.

In synagogue and at home, Jesus was carefully taught that

there were boundaries between peoples, walls to keep out those people.

 

Yet, this Canaanite woman crossed at least two lines:    

First, she was a woman who had no right to address a man

who was not her husband, especially a rabbi.

Second, she was a Gentile who had no right to ask for anything.

Nevertheless she persisted in spite of the disciples’ warnings and after Jesus’ explanations.

She persisted, driven by the need to have her daughter released from a demon.

In the end, her persistence pays off and Jesus commends her faith and cures her daughter.

 

Yet, despite the happy ending, the story points to something as old as humanity itself:

 Fear of the other.

In today’s reading from Matthew, the other was a Canaanite woman.

Down through the centuries, people drew lines and built walls to keep the other in its place.

I use the word “it” intentionally

because, sometimes, people view the other as something less than human.

 

Much of our history as a nation involves our fear of the other.

The early settlers feared the other and stole land from Native Americans.

In the South, we brought the other over in chains as slaves,

but we oppressed them for fear that they might revolt.

Each wave of immigration brought fear of the other and

it continues down to today

when fear of the other threatens to keep them out

by building a real wall.

 

Last week’s events in Charlottesville weighed heavily on my heart as we gathered last Sunday.

I didn’t know what to say, so I used the prayer composed by Jill Duffield.

Yet, I believe the time for thoughts and prayers is over, at least, for me.

Thoughts and prayers do not stop hatred and violence.

Thoughts and prayers do not stop Nazis, Klansmen,

and other white supremacists from spewing their venom.

Thoughts and prayers will not bring Heather Heyer or

Lieutenant Cullen or Trooper Bates back from the dead.

 

Yet, this week, I did think long and hard about what to say to you today.

Those who gathered in Charlottesville did not come to honor the memory of Robert E. Lee.

Instead, they came out of fear of the other. 

You see, I believe racism’s root cause is fear.

Now, you may wonder what the racists fear.

Well, they fear the other—African-Americans, Jews,

immigrants, almost everybody who is not like them.

They believe they’ve lost their country.

They believe they’ve lost their culture.

They believe they’ve lost their place.

And they place the blame on the other and those who support them.

 

Friends, let me say something as clearly as I can:

Racism is a sin.

White privilege is a sin.

Now, you may want to think that I’m getting political.

I’m not, but I am going to get biblical.

 Remember what Jesus said about the Law?

How it’s all summed up by two things?

“The first is, 'Hear, O Israel:

the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 

you shall love the Lord your God

with all your heart, and with all your soul,

and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  

The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'

There is no other commandment greater than these."

Jesus doesn’t say our neighbors are only those who are like us.

 

Turning from Jesus, look at Paul.

Paul says it clearly in Galatians,

“There is no longer Jew or Greek,

there is no longer slave or free,

there is no longer male and female;

for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Turning from the New Testament, remember what we heard in Isaiah today,

“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,

to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,

and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath,

and do not profane it,

and hold fast my covenant—

these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;  

their burnt offerings and their sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;  

for my house shall be called

a house of prayer for all peoples.”

 

I could continue by looking at two confessions of our church, written during the last century.

The Confession of 1967 and the Confession of Belhar

speak with one voice about the need for reconciliation,

not only in the church, but in the world;

not only between us and God, but between all races.

Needless to say, I thought a lot.

 

Yet, when I said the time for thoughts and prayers is over,

I didn’t mean we should stop thinking and praying.

Instead, we need to start to confront our own fear of the other.

I say, “We,” because I include myself.

I grew up in the South and some old habits die hard.

For instance, my parents taught us that

there were bad parts of town, which we should avoid.

Of course, these areas were predominantly African-American.

To this day, I confess that whenever I see a black man in an unfamiliar setting,

I get anxious, even afraid.

Now, some may see my reaction as just being careful,

but I see it as subtle racism, the fear of the other.

 

So, we need to pray, but not just in generalities.

Instead, we need to pray for the other,

for a greater understanding of their plight,

for more appreciation of their needs.

And we need to pray for ourselves, a prayer of confession.

I remembered a good one from the Worship Sourcebook. 

Let us pray.

God of all nations, we praise you that in Christ

the barriers that have separated humanity are torn down.

Yet we confess our slowness to open our hearts and minds

to people of other lands, tongues, and races.

Deliver us from the sins of fear and prejudice,

that we may move toward the day

when all are truly one in Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church

"Three Challenges We Face: Fear"

Howard Boswell

Matthew 14:22-33

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

Last summer, Gradye Parsons retired as

Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

When the General Assembly celebrated his service,

a friend, Sharon Youngs spoke of Gradye’s affection for this passage.

You see, when Gradye stood for election in 2008,

someone asked this question,

“What is the greatest challenge facing the church?”

 

When Gradye answered,

he downplayed all of the obvious challenges,

like loss of members and money,

conflict within and without the church.

Instead, Gradye gave an answer with which I agreed

and still sticks with me as the right answer to the question.

He said:

Fear is the overriding issue in our church.  It does not seem to matter whether it is a thousand member congregation with a million dollar endowment or a ten member congregation without indoor plumbing.  Everyone thinks the church is two Sundays away from closing its doors.  Fear so permeates the PCUSA that people smell it on us when they come into our churches.  We Presbyterians worry about declining membership.  We fret about losing our young people and our relevance in an increasingly secular society.  We’re afraid of change, and of drifting away from our Biblical moorings.  Most of all we fear conflict. 

 

Then, Gradye turned to this story.

He said that when fear surrounds him,

he remembers every day: 

Get in the boat. 

Go across the lake. 

There will be a storm. 

You will not die.

 

Gradye’s words stick with me,

because they speak to what I see around us every day: fear.

When I listen to politicians speak,

they talk of fear more than they talk of hope.

When I hear church leaders discuss what’s going on,

they fill what they say with dire predictions about

what will happen, if we don’t change our ways or even if we do.

Sometimes, when we speak with one another,

I understand how afraid we are not only of the future,

but of the present as well.

 

So, what can we do?

Well, let’s follow the wisdom Gradye gives.

First, we need to get in the boat.

Nowadays, it’s way too easy

“to sit along the shoreline and say you’re satisfied,”

as Garth Brooks sings.

We tend to think we’re in this mess all alone.

Yet, when we get into the boat,

we join others who share the same struggles

and know the same troubles as we do.

When we get in the boat, we’re headed in the right direction.

 

Second, we need to go across the lake.

You see, that’s the right direction: across the lake.

For the disciples, across the lake meant more ministry,

more encounters with the dying and the desperate ones.

For you and me, across the lake means just outside our doors

where the real mission of the church.

You see, the purpose of the church parallels the purpose of a boat.

When all is said and done, a boat provides transportation.

When all is said and done,

the head of the church, Jesus Christ challenges us

to go into the world with the good news.

 

Third, there will be storms.

Now, I know we’ve already talked about the storms we face.

Yet, we need to remember that there have always been storms.

Sometimes, we look back to the golden days

when the churches were filled and money flowed freely.

Other times, we look back to when things were simpler,

when everyone shared a common vision for our country.

However, there have always been storms.

Even when the churches were filled,

there were struggles over issues big and small.

Even when the country was young,

there were differences of opinion about

what it meant to be the United States of America.

Even in our personal lives, we always face storms,

moments when we feel as if we’re going down for the third time.

Oh, there will be storms.

 

Yet, you will not die.

We will not die.

Oh, there will come a time when you and I are no longer here.

Yes, there may come a time when our country comes to the brink.

Well, there will come a time when another church,

maybe even this church will close.

Yet, you will not die; we will not die.

Like the disciples on the boat in the storm, Jesus comes to us,

saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

 

Yet, the story doesn’t stop with those words in Matthew.

In Mark and John where this story also appears,

the end of the story happens here with

the disciples confused and incapable of speech.

Yet, Matthew adds another story, a story about Peter.

 

Now, I need to tell you one thing about Peter in this story.

Peter is more than a disciple doing something strange,

leaving a perfectly good boat to go walking on water.

No, Peter represents the disciples, all of them, even us.

 

Too often, we make Peter impetuous, taking an undue risk.

Yet, I see him as every disciple.

He sees Jesus, walking on the water,

and he asks the Lord to command him to come.

Now, Jesus says, “Come.”

So, Peter sits on the side of the boat, swings his legs around,

and starts walking toward Jesus on the water.

 

Listen, here’s what I think—

Peter provides an example of what faith requires.

Some people call it “a leap of faith.”

There’s only so far we can go by just accepting God.

Sometimes, we need to take a step outside our comfort zones;

we need to get out of the boat.

 

Get out of the boat.

If you ask me what fear fashions in a church or in ourselves,

I would say it’s an unwillingness to risk.

When I listen to others in the church,

I hear them speak of hanging on to what we have.

Yet, God never calls the church to mere maintenance;

God calls us out into mission.

We need to get out of the boat.

 

Focus on forward movement.

We spend most of the time in the church, in our lives,

going back over the past, or worrying about the future.

Peter was alright as long as he kept moving forward.

It’s like every movie or television show

when someone is afraid of heights.

Inevitably, someone says, “Don’t look down.”

In Peter’s case, he looked down at the waves

and felt the wind on his face.

 

When we think about it, we spend most of our time like Peter,

caught between doubt and faith.

Yet, here’s a final word from this story:

Keep Jesus in front of you, behind you, within you,

underneath you, and above you.

When Peter begins to sink and cries out to Jesus,

Jesus acts immediately to save Peter.

Please notice: Jesus doesn’t scold Peter first; he saves him first.

Then, Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

 

Friends, I hear Jesus’ words spoken gently not harshly.

He speaks gently, because he knows Peter, all the disciples,

even you and me have little faith.

Yet, remember the parable of the mustard seed.

All we need is faith that small.

Jesus understands our doubts and fears.

His hand remains stretched out toward us.

 

©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church

A Word About Why My Sermons Seem Strange

Howard Boswell

When you look at my sermons, you will notice they are not in a standard format of paragraphs. Instead, they look like they might be blank verse or something else. I borrowed this approach to writing a sermon from the late Peter Marshall, who served as pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. and as the Chaplain to the United States Senate in the 1940s.  The format helps me with my delivery as it makes it easier for me to see where to pause and what to emphasize. Also, to be honest, it’s kind of a Holy Spirit thing, because it’s how I feel most comfortable writing and preaching my sermons.

Howard Boswell

"Three Challenges We Face: Hunger"

David Randall

Matthew 14: 13-21

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 6, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

It is rare to find a story told by all four evangelists.

Yet, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell the story of

the feeding of the five thousand.

Each version has its own take on what happens.

For instance: John has Andrew bring a boy with

five loaves and two fishes to Jesus;

Mark gives more dialogue between the disciples and Jesus

and offers more detail as to how the miracle happened.

 

Miracle may create an obstacle to understanding for many of us.

Growing up with a modern mindset,

we assume a miracle is something science has yet to explain

and we look upon them with suspicion.

We assume that God needs to work within the limits we set,

but miracles have a way of outdoing what we think we know.

Yet, to appreciate miracles, we need to know one thing:

Miracles always point beyond themselves to the one who causes the miracle to happen.

 

Anyway, to understand the feeding of the five thousand,        

we need to pay attention to the first five words in Matthew’s telling,

“Now when Jesus heard this…”

What had Jesus heard?

Well, he heard Herod Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded.

While I won’t go into that story,

it appears Jesus took this news hard,

since the rest of Matthew 14:13 says,

“He withdrew from there to

a deserted place by himself.  

But when the crowds heard it,

they followed him on foot from the town.”

 

Maybe, we can appreciate what Jesus tries to do.

When bad news hits us, we want to take some time.

Yet, we also accept that life goes on and people need our attention.

 

When Jesus sees the crowd, waiting for him, Matthew says,

“He had compassion for them and cured their sick.”

Mark gives us a clear image of Jesus’ compassion, saying,

“He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

So, there in a deserted place, in the wilderness,

Jesus showed compassion by healing the sick until the day was over.

 

Now, the disciples have what some of us may think is a sensible suggestion.

They think that Jesus should send these people away,

so they could go and get food to eat.

It’s a sensible suggestion, even today.

I remember the cover of a CROP Walk resource.

It showed many people with thought bubbles above their heads, wondering,

“What can one person do about hunger?”

 

We face a challenge to our faith in hunger.

Like the disciples, we don’t believe we can do anything about it.

Some of us even believe it’s not our responsibility to feed the hungry. 

We place the problem at someone else’s feet—

the government or not-for-profit agencies, like the Food Bank.

Yet, every night, in Buffalo, in our neighborhoods, in our nation, around the world,

millions, maybe even billions go to bed hungry.

We wonder, “What can one person do?”

 

I think Jesus’ answer to that question stays the same,

“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

Like the disciples, we don’t see how

five loaves and two fish can feed five thousand men and

as little as twice as many women and children.

You see, like the disciples, we buy into a mindset that says there’s not enough.  

We assume that there’s not enough food to go around.

We see resources as scarce.

 

Yet, it is not true.

We have enough and more than enough to go around.

We live in a land of abundance.

Yet, even as people go to bed hungry in Buffalo every night,

we know tons of food go out to the dumpster.

Even as people go to bed hungry in our country,

we know the government pays farmers subsidies to not grow or even destroy crops,

so that the market remains profitable.

Even as people die from hunger in the developing world,

we know supplies stay in the hands of corrupt officials and

people don’t know how to grow food to feed themselves

          and even to make some money.

 

Yet, Jesus takes our meager resources and

does something amazing through the disciples.

With five loaves and two fish, they feed as many as ten thousand or more.

Now, I don’t want to be accused of explaining away a miracle,

but here’s what I believe happened on that day.

After Jesus had the crowds sit down,

he took the five loaves and two fish, blessed them,

and gave them to the disciples to distribute.

I imagine this act of compassion and generosity inspired

those in the crowds to see what they could offer.

As the disciples passed out the five loaves and two fish,

other gifts appeared in the twelve baskets,

until when all was said and done,

everyone was full and the baskets were too.

 

If we hope to follow Jesus in our day, we need compassion and generosity.

With Jesus, we need to look upon those in need with kindness,

offering them gifts from the abundance we have.

With Jesus, we need to be willing to give everything away,

trusting that God will provide more than we can imagine.

 

I ran across a prayer by John Slow, called, “As Jesus Did.”

I hope it can become our prayer as we face the challenge of hunger.

Let us pray:

 

Loving God,

help us to be Christ to all those

whose lives touch ours.

 

May we see others

as Jesus did,

with eyes of compassion.

 

May we listen,

as Jesus did,

to the cries of broken hearts

and a broken world.

 

May we reach out to others,

as Jesus did,

with healing and hope.

 

May we serve others,

as Jesus did,

with no strings attached.

 

May we break bread with others,

as Jesus did,

that the hungry may be fed.

 

May we celebrate with others,

as Jesus did,

your abundant provision.

 

Loving God,

help us to be Christ to all those

whose lives touch ours. Amen.

 

©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church

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