February 1, 2016

Spring Cleaning for the Soul (February)

We are in the middle of winter. It may not feel like it now, but spring is just around the corner. Spring is my favorite season for many reasons. The days are longer and brighter. New life springs forth all over Creation. We Christians even celebrate new life emerge from a tomb! Can it get any better?

On top of all this, I look forward to the day when I can open my windows once again and breathe the fresh air of a cool spring breeze. It’s a great day to pair with a good spring cleaning of the house. Sweep up the dusty corners, clear the cobwebs, and do a thorough cleaning from roof to basement. It’s a little hard work, which gets your body moving. And I always find something that I had lost or forgotten three months ago!

If there is anything close to a “spring cleaning” for the soul, it would be Lent, a word meaning ‘spring.’ During these forty days leading up to Easter, Christians have taken the time to open the windows of their heart, let some fresh air in, and allow God’s light to shine in every dark corner. In essence, we echo the words of Psalm 139, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. See if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Lent is a time when we take a concerted effort to purify our hearts and clean up our lives. This is something we should be doing all year, but like spring cleaning, sometimes we need to stop everything else and focus on the task. As we set aside special days to focus on things we should not forget throughout the year (e.g. Mother’s Day, MLK Jr. Day, Christmas), Lent is a time to focus on repentance and holiness. And like Christmas, Lent is not commanded in Scripture, but Christians for centuries have found it edifying to the soul to write it in their calendars and take special care to practice it.

Join me, beginning on February 10th, a special service of Ash Wednesday, in participating in a spring cleaning of the soul as we prepare for Easter. Who knows, perhaps like me you will discover something about yourself that had been lost or forgotten.

In Christ,

Pastor Rich

January 1, 2016

Three Kings Day (January)

Three Kings Day is celebrated around the world by Christians every January 6. In honor of this holiday (which is older than Christmas), here are seven facts:

1) The Story of the “Three Kings” can be found in Matthew 2.

2) The Kings apparently did not visit Jesus at the stable. Jesus and his family had moved to a “house” (Matt 2:11). Jesus was older but not yet 2 years old, for Herod chose to kill all children from 2 years old and under (Matt 2:16).

3) We usually imagine just three kings. But since they gained an audience with King Herod pretty easily, and their comments troubled Herod (Matt 2:3), it was probably a much bigger and notable group, not to mention their servants and animals and gifts. We get the number three from the three gifts mentioned in Matt 2:11 of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Most likely, they presented more than three gifts to Jesus.

4) Traditional names given to the Three Kings are Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, described as being from Persia, India, and Arabia, though other names have been used. They are described as wise men, kings, and astrologers in English, magos in the Greek where we get the word magi. They were religious rulers probably with some political power, hence “kings.” Christians have used the word “king” because of its echo with verses like Psalm 72:11, “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.”

5) Epiphany is another name for Three Kings Day. It means “revealing” since Jesus was revealed to the world through these kings who represent the nations of the world. Jesus is not just the Savior and King of the Hebrew people, but all people.

6) Epiphany marks the end of the 12 day long Christmas season. It has been celebrated by Christians longer than Christmas. It is thought that Christmas was chosen to be celebrated on December 25 partly because it would be close to the holiday of Epiphany.

7) Three Kings’ Day is often celebrated with children placing a box of grass or hay under their beds. During the night, the Three Kings come, feed their camels the hay, and leave three gifts in return. For what it’s worth, I think that’s much cooler than Santa.

Pastor Rich

December 1, 2015

Welcome the Foreigner (December)

We have received a gracious opportunity to live out our faith and be more like our Father in Heaven. There is a dire situation in Syria created by their 4-year civil war, the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and we Christians around the world have been given the resources to be a “light in the world” for these millions of refugees.

Many Syrian refugees have been welcomed by over 50 countries around the world, Turkey bearing most of the load. Americans have hotly debated whether to take on more of the load with concerns about security. While security is a matter to take seriously, we have many who serve in Homeland Security and the State Department who ensure through their rigorous and tested process that foreigners will be welcomed safely. We pray God continues to give them wisdom.

The risk is real, but the question still remains. Will this country open its arms to the foreigner in need? Will we Christians as representatives of God’s Kingdom open our arms? It has not always been the case. In 1939, as Hitler was persecuting Jews and months before WWII began, Jews were escaping with their lives. The majority of Americans (I imagine many of them were Christian) refused to accept them as refugees. Some sailed to American shores only to be turned away back to Europe.

Today we see Syrians escaping with their lives from their war-torn homes. Some people have labeled them as “Muslim refugees,” but little do they know that a large fraction of Syrians are Christian, about 2.5 million. It was on the road to Damascus, Syria that Jesus met Paul. It was in ancient Syria that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” In this “cradle of Christianity,” brothers and sisters have been witnessing to Jesus for two millennia up until today. Often, it is the Christians forced from their homes and ancient churches by the government and revolutionaries who are looking for a place to raise their children away from war.

Regardless of their faith or ethnicity, we are commanded to help people in danger. Jesus reminds us of this through the Good Samaritan who helped a Jew in danger despite the mutual hatred between Jews and Samaritans. The Syrian refugees are at the side of the proverbial road, looking for a Good Samaritan to show them the hospitality of Jesus.

After the Hebrews were rescued from slavery in Egypt, God gave them this command: “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19 NIV).” The people of God know well what it is like to be a foreigner, beginning with Abraham, then with the Hebrews in Egypt and later under Babylonian and Roman rule, and now us Christians today. We are called foreigners in this world, anticipating the coming of God’s Kingdom (1 Peter 2:9-11). Let us extend the same mercy to foreigners today as God extends to us every day.

Pastor Rich

November 1, 2015

Loving Our Neighbors (November)

One day a man approached Jesus with a question: What is the greatest commandment? Perhaps he thought if he could begin with this one, the others would be easier. Perhaps he thought if he understood the greatest commandment, it would put all the other commandments into perspective. Nevertheless, Jesus obliged and said,

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV)

Why did Jesus add a second commandment? Why did he not answer the man’s question and move on? I am convinced that Jesus did this for those who believed that they could love God without loving their neighbor. For Jesus, obeying one of these commandments requires obeying the other one. As John puts it, “whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen (1 John 4:20 NIV).”

What does it look like for Mount Hermon Baptist Church to love her neighbors? This is a question we need to ask ourselves continually. We as a church have been trying to answer that question in new ways recently. A few months ago, we hosted Connect Sunday, a Sunday of inviting our neighbors and organizations in our neighborhood. If we are to love our neighbors, the first step is to get to know them!

Last month, we hosted the Block Party. Again we invited organizations in our neighborhood to work with us to make it a community event. Food truck, ice cream, live music, many vendors, IdentAKid, fire trucks, and games galore created an atmosphere of fun and learning to be better neighbors to one another. By all metrics, the afternoon was an immense success, and I again thank all who were a part of it, both Mount Hermon members and those outside the church.

I hope and pray that we can continue to host similar events for and with our community. We, however, can also go out and join neighborhood organizations, volunteering and working alongside them, seeking the common good for all people. May we be a force for good.

I want Mount Hermon to be known as a force for good. But I also want Mount Hermon to be known as a force for God. We do not do good because it’s a nice thing to do. We do it because God commands it. We do it because the Spirit empowers us to do it. We do it because we want to be like Jesus, doing good with no strings attached. And when we do, we discover that we have fulfilled both commandments of loving our God and loving our neighbor.

Pastor Rich

October 1, 2015

Entertaining Angels Unawares (October)

We all have certain verses that capture our imaginations and inspire us to be more like Jesus in this world. Since I was old enough to read, one of these verses has been from the letter to the Hebrews: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2 NIV) I know some of us have stories that tell of a stranger crossing our paths who we suspected as being one of these angels. That verse suddenly and unexpectedly becomes real in our lives.

As I grew older, I realized that the writer of Hebrews was pointing back to certain stories in the Old Testament where angels visited their forefathers. Three strangers visit Abraham in Genesis 18. In the next chapter, two strangers visit Lot. In both cases, the hospitality of Abraham and Lot are praised, and the inhospitality of others condemned. If it happened then, it can happen today, and we are called to show hospitality to the stranger.

As I meditated on this verse recently, I was reminded of the 12 million Syrian people fleeing their war-torn nation. I thought of the Syrian and Iraqi Christians fleeing their homes from ISIS. I remembered the millions of Hispanic immigrants fleeing from destitute and violent circumstances to the US. Their very presence in this country has become a major political topic, one I hope will open the door to the Gospel and Jesus’ example. Many of these immigrants we know; they live on our street as neighbors. Many more are strangers to us.

If angels were to walk the earth today, it is no far stretch that they would come as a Mexican immigrant or as a Syrian refugee. It gives me pause and challenges me to ask if I would practice hospitality to those people like Abraham and Lot did. It gives me even greater pause when I imagine my Lord watching to see if I extend as much hospitality to them as Jesus has done for me.

But the matter is even more poignant when Jesus begins discussing the matter. In Matthew, he says in so many words that it may not just be an angel but Jesus himself in the face of the stranger. In a parable where Jesus assumes the role of the King, he says, “I was a stranger and you invited me in…. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Mat 25:35, 40 NIV) Isn’t it just like Jesus, our King and Lord, to be found not among the great but among the least? Isn’t it just like Jesus to be found in an immigrant community or a refugee camp?

I am encouraged to see people in the US and Europe stand up on behalf of the stranger and offer hospitality in these dire circumstances. I hope that the Church can lead the world in the work. Mount Hermon can do this very thing in our community, being an example to others as we invite the stranger in and show them the love of Jesus.

Pastor Rich

September 1, 2015

Year in Review (September)

Once again a year has passed, and once again our God has blessed us abundantly, often in ways we would not have guessed. We witnessed the baptism of three and the dedication of one. Congratulations again to Tyler, Alex, Katrina, Shelby and the many brothers and sisters to join the family of Mount Hermon as members. It is always a joy to see a person deepen their commitment to Jesus Christ. May none of us ever stop in deepening this commitment.

And in many ways we did this year in both word and action. Most recently we hosted a new event called Connect Sunday, inviting the neighborhood to worship together and begin friendships with one another. I pray that Mount Hermon can be a touchpoint for the neighborhood to seek the common good and learn to be better neighbors to one another. Many of us worked hard to make this event a success.

We also continued our partnership with Yates Baptist Church through Operation InAsMuch. A total of 170 participants between the two churches served in dozens of capacities to share the love of Christ with our hands and feet. We served in a public way that day, but I know that we have persistently served in small and private ways each day. Those among us who are called to exemplify service, our deacons, have worked behind the scenes to set the tone of this church as a serving church. This year we welcomed two new deacons through ordination, Mike Fitzgerald and Donnie Riley.

We have also experienced loss in our family. We will not forget Marie Couch, Virginia Shook, Polly Coley, and James Futch. They are in the arms of our merciful and gracious Father in heaven, and we rejoice in the hope of being reunited with them one day. These and the many others in our cemetery remain a part of Mount Hermon both in the indelible mark they made in life and through the indestructible bond we share in our union with Christ.

Mount Hermon’s music program continues to grow and mature, never fearing to explore new ways of worshiping together with the leadership of Janice Thompson as Music Leader. Finley Walker faithfully assisted her in leading worship on Sundays and Wednesdays. More recently, Terri Anne Darby has joined us as our new pianist. The choir and individual members never cease to inspire us with special music that guide us worshipfully to the throne of God.

“I have never been to a church so welcoming,” one visitor recently noted to me. We rejoice that God can be so gracious in making us a church of hospitality and joy. As we move forward this year, whether it is visiting the prison this month, hosting a neighborhood block party next month, or going on mission to Guatemala in two months, I pray that others may see our hospitality, our joy, our unity, but most of all our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we receive all this and more.

Pastor Rich

July 28, 2014

Nation of Israel (August)

As I write this article, the fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip rages on, with over 700 Palestinian civilians, many women and children, having lost their lives in the fighting. The very area of the world where Jesus Christ our Lord proclaimed “peace on earth and good will towards men” is once again embroiled in violence. The people of Israel have always held a special place in the hearts of Christians. If one equates the modern state of Israel with the people of Israel of our Scriptures, then we have some serious questions to answer regarding this most recent strife.

Aside from the Jewish people themselves, arguably no one knows their history better than Christians, for we cherish their history in the pages of our Holy Scripture. And we know how often the Jewish people stumbled in their pursuit to walk in God’s ways. God would send prophet after prophet to call them back on the path of righteousness. Today is no different. We must be careful not to support any and all that the nation of Israel does, for they too stumble, and God continues to call them back.

I often hear from brothers and sisters how we are to support the nation of Israel, but I rarely hear that we must call them once again to seek shalom (peace), to be a city on a hill that draws all nations to itself. We cannot give Israel a blank check to do anything it wants, for that is putting Israel ahead of Jesus. There is a danger of forsaking the commands of Jesus for the sake of the nation of Israel, and this is something we should never do. When Israel (or any country for that matter) uses gratuitous violence against innocent civilians, we must be prepared to stand up and say, “No.”

Years ago, there was a group of people who forsook the Savior for the sake of the nation of Israel. They were described as the Pharisees. According to the Gospel of John, the Pharisees were so preoccupied with the safety of Israel, they were willing to go as far as to orchestrate Jesus’ execution.

But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:46-50)

The Pharisees made the conscious choice to save their lives and the life of their country by forsaking the Messiah. Ironically, Jesus prophesied that in just a few years Rome would indeed come and take away both the temple and nation. Perhaps this is a sober reminder of Jesus’ warning, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it (Mat 16:25).”

God has called us to be ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor 5). In a very real way, we citizens of God’s Kingdom can serve as ambassadors between Israel and the people in Gaza, seeking reconciliation, condemning violence, whether perpetrated by Hamas or the Israeli government, and being witnesses on behalf of the One who called us to be peacemakers. And in all these things we can hold securely to the promise: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Pastor Rich

July 1, 2014

The Songbook of the Church (July)

This summer we will be spending a good amount of time in the book of Psalms, a collection of 150 ancient songs from the history of the people of God thousands of years ago. It is an amazing book that miraculously continues to speak to us today as it spoke to God’s people throughout the years and will continue to guide us as a Church until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Psalms can be considered the first songbook of the Church. When God’s people gathered together to worship, they would open up the book of Psalms and sing those songs together. They understood the words as powerful and true as they let the Word of God penetrate their hearts as they sang. Writers of the New Testament loved to quote from the Psalms. The Psalms pointed to Jesus the Messiah and consequently took on an added level of significance and beauty.

We have lost the melodies initially used for the 150 psalms, but that hasn’t stopped modern musicians. We have composed new melodies so that the Church can continue to sing these songs today. In fact, most of the psalms I have memorized were because someone put music to them. It is much easier to memorize words when you can sing them.

These 150 songs will continue to be the heart of our singing as Christians. We return to them time and time again. I find it so very powerful as I sing a rendition of Psalm 23 to imagine that the saints for the past 3000 years sang these very same words. When we sing, or even recite, the Psalms, we join the unending choir of God, ever praising and rehearsing for that great day we praise God face to face.

But the Psalms does not restrict us to these 150 songs. No, in fact in Psalm 33 and Psalm 96 we are commanded to sing to the Lord a new song! The Psalms serves as a springboard into creating new music and lyrics to God. The Psalms is like a schoolteacher, guiding us in what to sing and how to sing it, then sending us out to create our own songs. Thank God the Church has been obedient, giving us beautiful songs like “It Is Well” and “Amazing Grace.” The command still stands: Sing to the Lord a new song! As we gather as the Lord’s Church in 2014, let the ancient songs and the new songs fill our sanctuary and fill our hearts!

Pastor Rich

June 1, 2014

Pentecost (June)

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ was the most monumental event of all history. It changed everything. Sin and death no longer ruled, for they were conquered by our Lord. But some days, it just does not feel like it. Sin and death continue to fight, like an enemy who knows it has been defeated but refuses to surrender. We continue to stumble due to temptations, and our loved ones still pass away. Where is the salvation from these enemies?

Sometimes I feel like the disciples on the day Christ ascended to heaven. They asked him, “Lord, are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel now?” They had waited so long under Roman oppression for the Messiah to come and liberate them. Now the Messiah was here, and he proved his power even over death! Ceasar would be piece of cake.

But that was not Jesus’ plan. It was even better than that! He wanted his disciples to be a part of “restoring the Kingdom,” not through violent revolution, but through acts of love and sacrifice. If that is the case, they were going to need some help. And so Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, which comes 10 days later, to empower them to live like Jesus. Paul describes the Holy Spirit’s power like this:

But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

Romans 8:10-11

We look forward and pray for the day God’s Kingdom comes to earth as in heaven. On Pentecost we see the day that the power of heaven came to earth. God’s very Spirit descends from heaven just like when Jesus was baptized and it rested on him. But now it rests on all of Jesus’ disciples! We have the power of God with which Jesus walked while on earth. What more, Romans 8:11 says we have the power of God that rose Jesus from the grave! Resurrection power within us!

God is transforming this world, little by little, from the inside out, and the Holy Spirit is the catalyst. Deep within, the Holy Spirit is making you a new creature so that one day you will be able to live in the New Creation where God will reign for ever and ever. And there will be no sin and no death and God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Pastor Rich

May 1, 2014

Extravagant Easter Living (May)

The resurrection of Christ changes everything. We have been discussing this wonderful truth throughout the Easter season, just as Jesus’ disciples did 2000 years ago. They had the privilege of spending the forty days after the resurrection with Jesus. We read in Acts 1 that Jesus “appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” Jesus was forming this new community into thinking in a different way, like citizens of the kingdom of God.

This still is our job today, our blessing! We can rediscover, like a small child, the wonders of a world with the possibility of resurrection. In light of our bodies being resurrected, how do we treat it? How do we treat other’s bodies? In light of Creation being ‘resurrected,’ how do we treat Creation? How do we assist it in proclaiming the glory of God (cf. Psalm 19)? Since we know that death has been defeated, how do we live beyond death today? These and many other questions challenge us to think differently.

After spending forty days helping his disciples think in light of the resurrection, Jesus, “was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight (Acts 1:9).” Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, ever living to intercede for us (cf. Hebrews 7). Have you ever thought about your master sitting next to the Father, eagerly talking about you? He is! And he can’t wait to tell the Father your requests. So pray just as eagerly, knowing your master Jesus is listening.

Also in May, we will be celebrating the birthday of the Church! Not Mount Hermon, not Baptist, but the Church with a capital C! A day we call Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection, we celebrate the day when the Holy Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead, came down and filled the community of believers with this same resurrection power (cf. Romans 8:11, Acts 2)! The Spirit continues to fill and guide the Church with this power, so we can be confident to move forward as Mount Hermon knowing this.

Easter is a reminder of God’s extravagant love towards us. Not only are we saved from our former selves, but we are saved into a wonderful new reality with Jesus as our master and the Holy Spirit empowering us to live holy lives. During this Easter season, follow the example of your Father in Heaven and love extravagantly. Do unexpected and extravagant acts of love to friends and strangers. And when they ask why, tell them you are celebrating God’s extravagant love toward you in Easter.

It is an exciting season we are in! Take time to celebrate anew with your brothers and sisters, and then go and love extravagantly!

Pastor Rich