Sunday, December 31, 2017

Child of Hope - Luke 2:22-40

Sermon Preached, December 31st, 2017
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Fifth Sunday Worship
Simeon's and Anna's Pronouncement in the Temple heard again for each child among us. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Reformation Sunday Sermon

October 29, 2017 - “Set me free” - A focus on reformation
Covenant Presbyterian Church

Reformation Scripture Passages

Turn to your neighbor and say: I am a reformer

I’ve been thinking a lot about truth lately.

We live during a time when “news”--is true? Alternative? Fake? Opinion? Predictions?
All the while traveling at lightning speed with incredible reach

We live in a time where facts have become debatable.
No one disputes the final score of yesterday’s game do they: 42-7
No one will argue with the truth that my daughter Zia was born 6 years ago today!

Yet, when it comes to so many facts, there has entered a level of subjectivity.

It seems like if we repeat something frequently enough,
Or say something loudly enough,
Or with enough confidence and conviction,
Surely it must be true--even if it is not true!

My eyes are blue---”I”m still working on it.”
He sardonically points out the distinction between people *who think with their head, and people who ‘know’ in their heart.*

Ours isn’t the only the only time when truth has been elusive.

Wasn’t there a time that the earth was flat?  

Thomas Friedman still believes this, true?  

It seems from our passages for today,
John the evangelist was concerned about truth in his day--
his gospel centers around this question of truth--while at the same time in the mouth of Jesus are the word: I am the way, the truth, and the life.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Good Trouble

As our children grow up, I’m experiencing they offer less and less of a response to a frequently asked question: “how was your day at school?”  I heard some time ago, an alternative way to engage our children after they’ve come home from school or an activity we are curious about is to ask them: “Did you ask any questions today?”  

My nephew, who is 11, sent me an email this week. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever received an email from him! It was a picture of him asking a question of someone you may recognize.
Henry Lewis.jpeg
Rep. John Lewis was visiting his school this week. My nephew had the courage to ask Rep. Lewis a question after Lewis had given a talk. I had to write my nephew back to find out what he asked. 

His response: “I asked him (since he said his mom and dad said ‘don’t get into any trouble’) were his parents mad when he got into trouble even though he knew he was doing what was right?”

I wrote my nephew back: “Henry, That is a great question! I would love to hear how he responded. Rep. John Lewis has a phrase he likes to use, and maybe he mentioned it which prompted your great question. He says it is important we get into "Good Trouble." He defines ‘good trouble’ as actions we take which support the most vulnerable in our world, as sometimes those actions can get us into "trouble". Our parents don't want us to get into "trouble", but every now and then, it is okay to get into "good trouble." 

(A great interview with Rep. Lewis can be found in the archives of:

As our children grow--as they grow in faith--may they be curious and ask lots of good questions; and may we consider how they might get into “good trouble” in the tradition of Rep. John Lewis, and all those who work for human dignity, as a testimony to their faith in God--the one who creates us all in the Imagio Dei.   

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Before the Church was a Building, 3: Sharing as Investing, Acts 4:32-37

Sharing as Investing
Commerce Presbyterian Church
By Rev. C. Craig Topple
June 12, 2016

In anticipation of a new pastor coming, as a way to get our bearings a bit, we are looking at marks of the early church.  We see the early church, as people,
- publicly caring, healing of man in front of the temple.
- People living with Conviction - willing to do what they believe God is calling them to do even at great risk
And today, we find a sharing community of believers.  

Sharing. Ruby Gene taught me a lot about sharing when she was smaller.
Once in the winter, just shy of her second birthday, we were outside and it was freezing cold.  Trasie had on a thick coat and gloves, I had a coat but no gloves. Ruby Gene initially felt she didn’t need either one.  But, her mother insisted and her mother won.  
After Ruby had them on, something wasn't right.  She saw I didn't have any gloves. "Papa, manos, guantes" she shouted in spanish--her first language.  "Daddy, hands, gloves!”
I told her I didn’t have any. “No tengo guantes.”  She did not like it that my hands were exposed to the elements.  So what does she do?  She takes off her gloves, and insists I take hers and put them on, which I attempted to do--they nearly ripped.  21 months old, such a sharing spirit!

A few months before this, we were sitting in a restaurant, Ruby was in a high chair already eating when a little boy about her age was seated with his family in a high chair a few booths down.  She noticed the child, and looked over there several times. Again, something wasn’t right. She asked to get down from her highchair, and once down, she squeezed a chunk of bread in her fist and walked over to her little neighbor holding out her hand, like some kind of love offering.  She had seen the boy didn’t have any food yet.  The boy took it.  All of us parents were just laughing and admiring this sharing spirit.  

Well, that was before she was two.  By contrast, after she turned two, we were eating dinner and a piece of bread was on a plate in front of her.  I slowly reached for it; she saw my move toward the bread and she reached out and snagged it and said, “My pan,” Spanglish for, “My bread.”  “Will you give me a little?” I pleaded.
“No.  It’s mine.”
“Please, por favor?” I persisted.
After going on like this for a while, she pinched a microscopic crumb from the bread and enthusiastically handed that crumb to me, “AquĆ­ papa.” “Here you go dad.”  
That was my share of the bread.

Sharing. Sharing often times comes quite natural and easy.  There are times when I see someone in need or someone asks me for something I am perfectly willing and happy to share.  
Yet, sharing often times is quite difficult, seemingly impossible.
There are times when I see someone in need, or someone asks me for something, and I say no for any number of justifiable reasons.

There are two narratives on display when it comes to sharing.  One is what has been called the narrative of abundance--which says there is plenty to go around, so there is no problem sharing because we can trust that we and everyone will have enough--more than enough, there is an abundance.  God can be understood through a narrative of abundance: We say things like, God provides out of abundant love, abundant grace, and abundant mercy. We say God is a generous God.  This understanding of God might lead to more of a willingness to share.  

There is a competing narrative about sharing which would suggest that there is scarcity--there is not enough to go around. What happens when we feel there is not enough to go around?
And again when thinking about God, What if we believe God’s love, God’s grace, God’s provision is scarce--limited?  How might that affect a willingness to share?    

We can see how these narratives play out in a variety of scenarios.
There are times when crops are abundant, and everyone is buried in yellow corn!
There are times when the water is low, there doesn’t seem to be enough--California has been in a drought for many years now, and there are serious worries and significant litigation over water there.

Water and sharing reminds me of a scene from the movie The Three Amigos, with Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase.  These wanna be cowboys dressed in black suits lined with sequins and big sombreros are on an odyssey like quest, They are riding horseback through a long stretch of desert.  The high scorching sun is bearing down on them.  
They’re leaned over in exhaustion. They stop for water, facing one utters a word. First, Steve Martin opens his canteen, turns it up, and out comes a desperate trickle of water which barely wets his tongue.  
Then in the same way, Martin Short opens his, turns it up, and an outpouring of dust goes into his mouth and all over his face.  Finally, oblivious Chevy Chase, opens up his canteen, turns it up, and there is an outpouring of cold abundant water.
He gulps, he gargles and spits, it drips down his body.
The others are shocked and speechless. Once finished, he throws it aside and the remainder pours into the cracked desert sand.  He then pulls out lip balm, of all things, and after ensuring his lips are fully “balmed”, he turns to his companions, sees their looks of desperation, and makes an offer to address their need, “Lip Balm.”

Our world is one in which for any number of reasons there is a disparity in distribution of resources.
Some have more than they need, an abundance,
while others have a trickle to get by on, or are desperately needy.
The early christian community faced this reality and it is truly fascinating to see the practice they implemented as a result of this disparity:
“No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

What does this sound like?

This approach of the early church attempts to merge a narrative of abundance with a narrative of scarcity. An ancient simple community of faith practices a form of wealth distribution--an economic theory--which has been studied and applied in various ways--from small communities to governments over centuries.   
Aspects of this early christian practice seem noble, aspects seem fanciful and impractical.

When it comes to abundance, perhaps we can see in this early practice the importance of sharing; Of our possessions it has been said, if we cannot give our possessions away, we do not own them, they own us.

Regarding needs--it may be important to better understand what needs are--
wants and needs can easily be confused. When we have need we can see the importance of calling upon others to help, the apostles saw the importance of this, better than to turn to more extreme and harmful measures, or harbor resentment when life is not going the way one might hope.

While this passage clearly is about material possessions sold and material needs met,  
we can see how abundance and scarcity play out in our spiritual lives as well.
Sometimes we have abundance of joy that we can share, especially with those who are struggling and experiencing difficulty.

When it comes to this practice of sharing in the early church, we actually practice a form of this wealth distribution by accepting monetary tithes and offerings, and allowing the elders to set the budget based on those gifts.

But, undoubtedly this practice of sharing by the early church is complicated for us on a number of levels.  One is simply the notion of sharing.  The way our society is structured, sharing, comes with significant baggage. Sharing can lead to obligations, paternalism, unhealthy dependency, burdensome and awkward types of encounters…especially when there remains a disparity in wealth. Offering: I will share this portion of what I have with you.
Response: Thank you for your mercy and compassion and pity.

What if we change the understanding a bit. What if, where abundance and scarcity merge together in community--as it always will--instead of a sharing type of relationship, we switch the dynamic to one of investing.  Instead of sharing with one another, we see ourselves as investing in one another. After all, what is investment? Something we hope will mature into something beneficial for ourselves and others. We invest time, energy, and yes, money into businesses, children, institutions we believe in.  Investment for the future. Investments can go sour, but they can also turn into some amazing and unexpected results.

David Gardner, co-founder of a financial service called the Motley Fool tells a story about the importance of investing--investing in people. He tells about Randy Nelson, the one time head of movie studio Pixar’s university--Pixar U.  Today, Nelson is the director of Apple University.  
Nelson started an internal university at pixar, which was seen as a crazy thing--a portion of your time at work in a given week might be to attend a class, and that class might not have anything to do with your job. Getting paid to attend a how to throw a frisbee class!?
Randy Nelson tells the story about how Pixar thought about movies compared to how Disney at the time thought about movies.  A Pixar executive and a Disney executive were at a bar--sounds like the beginning of a joke--Two big execs talking about their respective views of making a movie. The disney guy said, “you know for us, making a movie is all about the big idea.” At the time disney was coming off the success of movies like Lion King, but that had been some years before and Disney animation wasn’t doing so well.  Pixar on the other hand was producing Toy Story and Monsters Inc, they were doing great.  The Disney guy says, “admittedly we’re a little starved for ideas right now.”  The Pixar guys says, “our approach is different. It’s not at all about the big idea, at pixar it’s about the people. Because after all what is a movie. A movie is 10000 different ideas, every single line of dialogue, every character, every camera angle is an individual idea a decision that’s being made. That’s why we invest so much in our people, because if you get your people right, they will come up with the ideas all of which conspire to come together into being a successful movie...?”
If people are the number one asset of your business, you darn well better be supporting them, challenging them, and helping them grow.  (As told on Rule Breakers Investing Podcast, Campfire Stories Vol. 1, What is Better than the Big Idea? June 1, 2016)

Our theme song for this series reminds us, our churches are our people! People are our number one asset. The early church certainly was attracting many people--and was supporting them, challenging them, and helping them grow, offering the message of grace and salvation in Jesus--Those who had different gifts, monetary or otherwise, were sharing with one another, or said differently investing in one another.  

“I am investing in you because I believe in you, I believe God wants to do great things in and through your life and my life together!”
And the response: “wow, thanks for seeing the potential that is within me, and yes, let’s be the church together.”

When we invest in the ministry of this church--a local church, a connectional church--we are investing in people, we affirm that we see the potential within each and everyone of us to become the people God calls us to be. We are empowered by the holy spirit to do the life giving work we are called to do.  When we invest in one another in love as there are needs and opportunities, I can guarantee there will be many amazing and surprising returns on that investment!

Because, yes, we are the church together.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Discover Life, Again: Passion John 20-21 select verses

Discover Life Again: Passion and Commitment
Commerce Presbyterian Church, GA
By Rev. C. Craig Topple

Slide Intro:
How many of you have figured out what you wanted to do when you grow up?
Have you figured out what really motivates you, inspires you, gives you energy to spend countless hours working and yet, you’re willing to give more?  
What are you passionate about and how do you live into that passion?  
What have you committed yourself to because you decided, this is my calling, this
is how I can really make a difference?

These are hard questions, I think. We know we have one life to live.
We know we have made decisions we can’t undo.  We know that others have made decisions that have had a significant impact on our lives, for good or for ill, that can’t be undone.
Have we discovered what is most life giving for us?

Slide: Shawshank

Our series, discover life, again, began a few weeks ago by recalling the scene from Shawshank Redemption, where two men with life sentences were in the prison courtyard dreaming. Andy, dreaming about going to zihuatanejo, Mexico (I’ve been there). And Red responding: “Zewanta-what?”
Andy dreaming about possibilities. Red, could not dream.
“Red, the choice is simple,” his best friend tells him. “You can get busy living or get busy dying.”

Slide: Jesus appearances
We’re back this week to post resurrections stories about Jesus and his disciples found in the Gospel of John. The disciples, of course, had made a significant commitment to him.
They were passionate about their work. But there is a major shift--what had been the focus of their last few years, was gone, Jesus was no longer present with them like before. They are significantly shaken and desperately despondent.   
First,  they huddle behind closed doors fearful of the future. He appears before them and breathes on them--the breath of life that was from the beginning.
Breath in this breath of life.  

[I hope he hadn’t had some of those raw onions to eat like we had on our hotdogs from Wednesday night supper.  It’s funny how we can’t really smell our breath, but my girls were sure smelling mine after that supper.]

Jesus breathes on them, and the disciples are able to muster enough energy to return to something they once knew so well, and probably loved:  fishing..
But, as life would have it, they’re out all night and don’t catch a thing...
Fishing, like life, can be kind of boring--especially if you’re not catching anything--especially if you’re not passionate about anything.
I love how Jesus, for his second appearance act, comes to the shore and calls out to them, “Caught anything? And then: “Cast your nets on the right side of the boat; you’ll find fish there!”
Clearly a statement about political persuasions!  

In some ways all it takes is a simple adjustment: If it seems like you continue to come up empty, Consider a different approach.  If you're empty over here, cast your nets over have the tools, you have the ability, just hear my voice, make a little your passion, discover what you love to do, discover life.  

And you can see the shift in Peter and the others. From empty nets, to nets overflowing.
From dry despondency to splashing in the water and swimming passionately ashore.  

Steve Jobs, who's responsible for this thing (iPad), gave an inspiring speech about re-discovering what he loved due to a significant shift in his life, when he spoke to graduates from Stanford in 2005.

He says: I was lucky - I found what I loved to do early in life. [starting] Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation - the Macintosh - a year earlier, and I had just turned 30.

And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? But, at age 30 I was out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

Jobs remembers: I really didn't know what to do for a few months.... I was a public failure; I even thought about running away. But something slowly began to dawn on me - I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life--starting Pixar - which made Toy Story - And, he says, “I fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife and we would have a wonderful family together.

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple, Jobs reflected. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did.

You've got to find what you love.

An inspiring testimony from Steve Jobs, and when it works out that way great. But, this was a speech for college students, and focuses primarily on a career. Many of us are well into or beyond our careers.  But, I think there is still meaning here.  

Jobs says, Find what you love.

SLIDE: Do you love me
Peter and the disciples move from the boat to the shore and there they discover, a little meal over a flame, fish and bread.  And they rediscover what they love, or rather who they love.
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.

To me, it is less about what we are doing, and more about how we are doing what we are doing.
As the disciples warm themselves by the cooking flame, rekindle your passion for love....
As the disciples’ love is reinvigorated, commit yourself again to love....

We can do what we do, and it seems quite empty.  But, what happens if we do what we do, with love in our hearts. Love for the people around us. Love for the gift of each day.

Quite often we want our day to day activities to fill us, We want others to fill us.
What happens when we are the ones, filled with God’s breath and our lungs are filled by God’s love for us, If we are the ones who are able to fill others with our love.
Do you love me? Feed my lambs

All of us, deep down, want our life to be full of meaning, purpose, hope, commitment, we want our nets to be full.  And one of the greatest gifts we can give one another as a church community, is to help one another discover our passion for love, to offer opportunities for loving commitment.

Passion is one of those tricky words. It’s used to talk about that almost obsessive attraction for another person  when we fall in love. And it’s a word to describe Jesus brutal trial and crucifixion. Talk about mixed messages…
But, that same passion that drives us when we fall in love is similar to the passion of God’s love for us, and how we can love in this world.
SLIDE: “A deep awakening of passion in us is something that will stir into life the passion that is in others too.” (JPNewell One Foot in Eden, p54)
Love passionately as you are loved passionately.

Four people from this congregation will commit themselves to serve this congregation as elders beginning later this summer; making a commitment in this way can be difficult for we are very busy people. But the nominating committee has seen the love of those being asked, and prays that their passion and commitment may stir life giving love throughout the congregation and into the community. “A faithful response to the grace of commitment, whatever the outcome, nurtures in us a strength and endurance of character that are not easily measured. Let us know however that in following this grace we are being restored to our truest selves.” (JPN One Foot in Eden, p64)

Slide Peace Pilgrim
Here is an inspiring story about a passion to love which turned into a deep lasting and unusual commitment. Some of you who were around in the 50s may remember stories about a woman known as Peace Pilgrim (from Peace Talks Radio)
In 1953, during the Korean War and under the ominous threat of nuclear attack Mildred Norman set off from the Rose Bowl parade on New Year's Day walking wearing  a t-shirt that read: "Peace Pilgrim"
And she walked...and walked. She walked for 28 years. She never used money. She wore the same clothes every day: blue pants and a blue tunic that held everything she owned: a pen, a comb, a toothbrush and a map. "I own only what I wear and carry. I just walk until given shelter, fast until given food," she said. "I don't even ask; it's given without asking. I tell you, people are good. There's a spark of good in everybody."
It sounds strange to many of me at least; but certainly sounds like a similar lifestyle to the one we worship in this place: Jesus, is who I’m talking about.
How did Ms. Norman come to have this passion and dare to commit herself on this journey?
A childhood experience, she said:
One night in the late 1930s, "out of a feeling of deep seeking for a meaningful way of life," she began walking through the woods. She recalls,
"After I had walked almost all night, I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down. And something just motivated me to speak and I found myself saying, 'If you can use me for anything, please use me. Here I am, take all of me, use me as you will, I withhold nothing,' "
Peace Pilgrim remembers: "That night, I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations whatsoever, to give my life to something beyond myself."
By 1964 she had already walked 25,000 miles. Eventually, she stopped counting.
In an interview, the manager of a small radio station in Knox, Ind., Ted Hayes, said:
"Peace Pilgrim, you know, there are a certain number of people who would probably think of somebody like yourself as a kook or a nut."
"Well, I'm quite sure that some of those who have just heard of me must think I'm completely off the beam," Peace Pilgrim responded. "After all, I am doing something different. And pioneers have always been looked upon as being a bit strange.
But, I am passionate about this: 'I shall remain a wanderer until [hu]mankind has learned the way of peace..
In the same interview, Tom Hayes noted how she appeared to be a most happy woman."
"I certainly am a happy person," Peace Pilgrim responded. "Who could know God and not be joyous? I want to wish you all peace."
Slide: Commerce
Peace be with you, Jesus breathed on his disciples.  Cast your nets to the other side. Come ashore and be fed. And then show your love for the world by feeding sheep and lambs.
JEsus said, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

We pray to God asking for the courage to lose ourselves to a passion for loving, a deep commitment for loving that will fill this world with peace.

In the name of life giver, the life teacher and the life sustainer. Amen