Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Have You Been Naughty Or Nice?

Luke 2:8-14

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 "Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

        I must have been 4 or 5 years old.

        It was Christmas Day and it had been a wonderful day.

        The tree was still up, the presents had all been opened. There were toys all over the place. 

        But – my sister had not been behaving.  I’m sure of this, it was all her fault.  I’m sure I did my best to get her to behave but for some reason my father thought both of us had been naughty. 

        He was beginning to threaten us with the most terrible prospect.  I’m not talking minor league threats.  He didn’t say he was going to put us in time out, or spank us, or ground us or deprive us of food and water.  He threatened to call Santa Claus. 

        Up until then, I had no idea that my father personally knew Santa Claus or had his telephone number.  Apparently, my father had more power and authority than I’d ever imagined.

        My sister and I did our best --  I mean we really, really tried to behave.  But then it happened.  We did something that just brought my father’s patience to an end. 

        He picked up the telephone and called Santa Claus.

        My sister and I were in tears and we started begging him, “Daddy, Daddy please.  Don’t do this.”

        I mean how humiliating would it be for Santa and his sleigh to show up in our drive way in the middle of the day?  The whole neighborhood would see him packing our toys and taking them back to the North Pole.

        Other parents would point to us and say to their children, “You see?  You see, you don’t want to be like the Pittendreigh children.”

        Finally, after intense begging, my sister and I, along with my mother, finally convinced my father to relent. 

        Whew!  That had been a close call.

        For years after that, every Christmas I would sit in Santa’s lap and the first thing he would ask me was, “Have you been naughty, or nice?”

        And I would know that Santa remembered the day when my father had called him, waking him up from his nap, and almost asking him to take back our toys.

        The reality of life is that we have to earn certain things in this world.

We have to earn our jobs, we have to earn our homes, we have to earn our place in life.  We have to work hard for these things.

        Remember the old television advertisements of Smith Barney?  A distinquished actor, John Houseman would appear on the television screen and say, “At Smith Barney, we make money the old fashioned way.  We EARN it.”

        But at Christmas, a gift is given whether we have been naughty or nice.  It is given freely, without strings attached.

        It is a strange scene in our New Testament lesson.  Shepherds are in the fields, minding their own business.  They have no expectation of anything happening out of the ordinary.  A single angel appears to them, and announces “good news of great joy for all people.”

        For all people – not for those who are rich enough, or powerful enough, or strong enough, or famous enough, or good enough.  It is for all people.

We don’t have to earn the gift of Christ in our lives.

The only thing more amazing than that is that we so often fail to receive the gift.

A free gift, left unreceived.

On January, 12, 2007, a young man in blue jeans and a baseball cap entered a subway station in Washington DC.  He opened up the violin case he had been carrying, tuned his violin and began to play.

For over 40 minutes he played six classical pieces.  One thousand, ninety seven people passed by.  Only 7 people stopped to listen for at least one minute.  Most were too busy to stop and enjoy the music.  Twenty seven people tossed some money into his open violin case, earning him a total of $32.17. 

At the end of 43 minutes, he quietly packed up his violin and walked away.

Not a single person applauded.


That came to less than one dollar a minute.

Now what makes this story interesting is that this was not a typical violinist.  It was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s leading classical musicians.  Instead of making a dollar a minute, he usually makes about a thousand per minute.  The violin he played is one of the most valuable ever made – a Stradivari valued at $3.5 million. 

A reporter stood by observing and recording this event.  You can see this on youtube.  Just Google Joshua Bell and subway and it will come up.  You will hear the wonderful music, and you will watch the people just walking by, ignoring the gift.
Except for two people. A postal worker named John - a "smallish man with a baldish head". John had learned the violin as a youth. He recognized the quality of Joshua Bell's performance and stood enjoying it from the distance.
And then there was a demographer named Stacy. Stacy had seen Bell in concert 3 weeks before, paying over $100 for her ticket. She recognized him. "And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn't about to miss it. Stacy positioned herself 3 yards away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Stacy, remained planted in that spot until the end.
Stacy told the reporter: `It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington. Joshua Bell was standing there playing in rush hour, and people were not stopping, not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?"

In another place, at another time, the night was filled with heavenly music and brilliant light. Angels sang to workers who were busy with their flocks.  They proclaimed the birth of Christ.  His arrival was "good news of great joy for all people".
Where would those workers of long ago find this glorious child?
A palace?
A temple?
A concert hall with an orchestra playing perhaps?
It was more like a subway station than a palace.
"You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in manger."
Who would have expected to find the heavenly King there of all places?
Usually he lived among angels; now among cattle.
No splendid costume; just the simplest clothing.
And not a mighty warrior, learned scholar or majestic ruler, but a baby - humanity at it's weakest.
What a surprising place to find God.
Like a violinist playing in a train station, God made himself accessible to the masses so we can all enjoy the beauty of his gift.
It is surprising that God gives us the gift of his Son so freely, whether we deserve the gift of not.   But it is more surprising that so many will ignore this gift, and not bring Christ into their lives. 

So what of you?  Have you received the gift of Christ?
Or are you just passing through on this night, in a hurry to be on your way?

Copyright 2013, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved. 
For copies of other sermons, visit www.Pittendreigh.com


Friday, December 13, 2013

Life Takes Time

James 5

 7 Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. 8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. 9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
 10 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
 12 Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.
 13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
 17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

               I have my great grandfather’s diary, and he writes about the first time he voted.  He came to this country from Scotland, became a citizen, and was very active in local politics, and he prized the right to vote.  The first time he voted was shortly after the Civil War.  After voting, he went home and went to bed.  No television to watch.  No Internet sites to download.  Nothing but the next day’s newspapers, which of course had nothing but the local election results.  Gathering information back then was very slow – but they were used to it.

               On the other hand, we live in a world of immediacy.  We want something, we want it right then and there.

We call for a pizza delivery, and 30 minutes is too long to wait.  Gotta have it now.
We graduate college and we don’t want to work our way slowly up the ladder, we want to jump into the highest paying jobs right then and there.

We want to lose weight, so do we exercise and eat right?  Well – not me.  Takes too log. 
We are an impatient people.
               When James wrote his fifth chapter of his letter, his closing remarks, he was addressing us.

               James says to us in verse seven of chapter 5, “Be patient.”

Now that is the last thing impatient people want to hear.

You’ve all heard the old joke about the man who prayed, “Lord give me patience and give it to me RIGHT NOW.

The book of James has a sense of urgency throughout most of the document, so it is a wonderful contrast that James would end his book with a calming voice.  “Be patient.”

”Be patient brothers and sisters, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains.  You too, be patient and stand firm,”

I’m not sure how many of you plant gardens every year. It is a wonderful process.  You plow the field and then you plant the seeds.  That sounds simple but it is a lot of hard work.  And as you would do with any time that you finished a long, hard job, after plowing the field and planting the last seed, you look back to admire your handiwork.

And what do you see?

Nothing!  Just dirt. 

The next day you go out and water your garden and what do you see?  Nothing.  Just dirt.

The next day and the day after that and the day after that you go out and you water and what do you see?  Nothing.  Just dirt.

Then one day you see something.  It’s small and tiny but it is something.  At that point you’re not sure if that is corn, or poison ivy.  But it’s something.  So you keep your eye on it day after day until finally you see that there is a whole row of these “somethings” coming up out of the ground.  Corn! 

Well, almost.  It’s only a half inch tall.   Every day you go out and pamper the plants.  You water and pull up weeds and wait.  Day after day you see how much the corn stalk has grown until one day – an ear appears. 

But it’s not ready yet.  You let it keep growing, larger and larger until you begin to think – “Maybe I should pick it today?  Or maybe one more day?”

And then it is on your table.  Fresh from the field and right off the stove.

It doesn’t take a few minutes or a few days.  It takes a season in time.

James tells us that we should “be patient brothers and sisters. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains.  You too, be patient and stand firm,”

Why is patience so important?  It is not just that being patient is healthier and a more stress-free lifestyle than being impatient.

Impatience destroys our faith and hinders our personal lives, our social lives and our spiritual lives.

Impatience even has an impact on our personal economy.

Now these are tough economic times, but James has some good economic advice.

Let’s take another look at how James opens up this 5th chapter, beginning with verse one. 

1             Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.

2             Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.

3             Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

               James goes onto say several things about money and wealth – all of it negative – and then he says this in verse seven:

“Therefore, be patient.” 

What do we want in life?  Happiness, security, friendship, and love.  And these are things that we think a good economy will bring – but is that really true?

These are things that take years to achieve and to cultivate and to nurture.  We are too impatient for these things.  So instead of spending years to create and find happiness, security, friendship and love – we become impatient.  And money becomes our main goal because we think that money will buy happiness, security, friendship and love. 

Money doesn’t provide those things, but it does provide us with the illusion of those things.  Let’s face it – put a wad of money into your pocket and take people out on the town.  Buy them a steak and lobster meal.  Buy them an expensive gift.  Pick up the tab wherever you go, and you have an instant friend.  No waiting required.  The problem with that is that when the money is gone, the friendship disappears. 

James wrote about how moths eat through the clothing you buy, and how the wealth itself rots away.  It’s almost as if James is writing about the 21st Century economy.

We have wonderful goals for our lives – security and friendship and love.  But impatience gets in the way.

You want these things in your life?  You must be willing to spend a lifetime seeking them. 

James also talks about how impatience can interfere with our relationship with others. 

6             You have condemned and murdered innocent people, who were not opposing you.

7             Therefore, be patient brothers and sisters.  See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains.

8             You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near.

9             Don't grumble against each other, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

               Impatience makes us judgmental.  We don’t want to wait to get all of the facts about an issue. we don’t want to get to know someone.  We are an impatient people, so we rush to judgment.  As James put it in verse 6, we condemn the innocent person.  We grumble against each other.

Even in the church, this sometimes happens.

People sit in ConwayHall and they grumble about other church members, or about the pastor or the church staff, and they don’t build each other up. 

Even in the families, this happens.

We grumble about our spouse, or children, or parents, and we forget to speak lovingly about them.

James also speaks of how impatience can interfere with our relationship with God.

               James said this:
10           Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering…

13           Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.

               In our impatience, we do not pray.
               In our impatience, we do not give thanks.
               In our impatience, we leave God out of our lives.

               Advent is a season that should teach us patience.
               Christmas is not until December 25th, and yet we allow this holiday – this holy day – to become a burden.  We have to rush around.  We rush to do our shopping.  We rush to the post office to mail cards.  We rush from party to party.  It is so easy to be so rushed that there is no time for Christ left in Christmas.

               But the Bible calls us to be patient.  To stop grumbling and to start building one another up.  To be quiet.  To be still and to savor life – because life takes time.         


Copyright 2013, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Wolves At The Door

Isaiah 1:1-9
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”


John the Baptist looked at the world around him and knew it was in bad shape.  He pointed his finger at people and called them a brood of vipers. 

Things haven’t changed. 

Jesus Christ once sent several of his disciples on a mission and told them to be careful, “I’m sending you out as sheep among wolves.  Be on your guard.”[i]

Nope, things haven’t changed a bit.

          It is still a mean and vicious world out there, and the wolves are at the door.

          On Wednesday, a young man at West Orange High School took a gun and shot another student in the abdomen and in the face. 
A man killed his son and wife with a crossbow, then committed suicide.
A woman has been arrested for swindling an elderly man who suffered memory loss out of $22,000.
          It is a mean and vicious world out there, and the wolves are at the door. 

          We see the wolves around us, and we feel angry.

          And we are fed up, frustrated, and we often give in to hopelessness because there is no escaping this evil in our world.

          My nephew once lived in a neighborhood filled with crime.  Almost every home had been burglarized.  So he moved into another neighborhood.  On the Saturday of his move he took a break and sat down amid all of the boxes he was loading into his new home and a television van drove up.  A reporter and a cameraman walked up to him.  The reporter said, “We see you are moving.  Can we interview you?”

          “Sure,” my nephew said, thinking it must be a very, very slow news day.

          The camera was turned on, the reporter started the interview.  “We see you are moving today.  Are you moving out because of all of the murders that have happened on this street?”

          The wolves are at the door – there is no escape.

          It is easy to fall into hopelessness.

          The prophet Isaiah lived in such a time.  Things were bad, they weren’t getting better.  And like us, he was fed up!

          Our Old Testament lesson for today comes from Isaiah’s words that were apparently spoken during the coronation of the new king.  It was not unusual for a person in a prophetic role to announce God’s blessing on the new king.[ii]

          Now, these words from our Old Testament lesson do not strike us as very shocking, but apparently they were to the people of Isaiah’s time. He did not refer to the new king at all.  Instead, he spoke of a king yet to come. 

          Imagine a speaker at the Inauguration of President saying, “Let me tell you about how good the NEXT President will be.”

          And this is exactly what Isaiah does.

At this inauguration, or rather coronation, Isaiah says, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him —“ 

In other words – the present government isn’t helping.  It is dead as a stump.  There are no heirs to the throne who can follow and do any better.

So the prophet says that he has no hope in human leadership, but  -- that is not to say there is no hope at all.

Isaiah’s hope is that out of that dead stump will come real hope and real leadership.  “And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him,” says Isaiah.
“the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
“the Spirit of counsel and of power,
“the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD — 
“and he will delight in the fear of the LORD…
“and a little child will lead them.”

A new hope!  The only hope!  The little Christ child, born on Christmas Day brings us hope.

The wolves are at the door, and Isaiah knows exactly how the Christ will deal with them.

What we want to do with the evil doers of the world is to make war against them.  To hate them.  To kill them.  To ship them back where they came from. 

But the Christ that Isaiah speaks of has a wild idea.

It is an idea that seems absurd. 

Christ’s idea is for us to love them and to live in peace with one another. 

Isaiah said, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”[iii]

Now don’t misunderstand. 

This is not a world in which good and evil will simply tolerate one another.

Nor is this a world in which the innocent and good will simply live in ignorant and naïve bliss in which they lambs will eventually be eaten alive by the wolves.

It is a world in which everyone changes, including the wolves – AND the lambs.

In the language in which Isaiah was written, Hebrew, the clear message is that the wolf and the lamb will live together in friendship, not just toleration, nor in naïve ignorance.[iv]

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” Well, that is what most of us would do!

However Jesus says, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

It is easy to celebrate the birth of Christ.

It is not easy to follow his teachings.

It’s not easy, because when we hear of yet another school shooting we become angry and bitter.  And when we learn of elderly people with memory loss being swindled, we don’t want to love the accused.  We want to strike out.  The human thing to do is to respond to wolves by becoming just another wolfe.

In the movie that came out several years ago, the Kingdom,  Jaime Fox plays a Special Agent with the FBI.  He leads a team to investigate an act of terrorism in which one of their own team members has been killed.  It is a difficult and dangerous investigation, and at the end of the film, they kill one of the terrorists.  As this terrorist is about to die, he whispers into the ear of his little grandson, telling the child, “Don’t worry.  We’ll kill them all.”

Meanwhile, half way around the world, the FBI agent comforts other agents by telling them, “Don’t worry.  We’ll kill them all.”

If we are not careful, when we deal with the wolves, we may find that we become wolves ourselves.

Nelson Mandella, who died just a few days ago, was one of those folks who dealt with oppression in a real and dynamic way.  He lived in a society of race-based oppression.  He was a leader against that oppression and helped bring about change for the better.  After being in prison for almost three decades, he could have left angry and bitter and he could have advocated increased violence, but he didn’t – he could have become one of the wolves, but he avoided that.  As he put it, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness behind, I’d still be in prison.”


It is easy to deal with evil by using evil.  It is easy to respond to hate, with hate.  It is easy to deal with the wolves at our doors by become wolves.

          On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed.  Senator Robert Kennedy was on the campaign trail and was running for President.  He was in Indianapolis on a campaign stop when he learned of King’s murder.  In those days, there were no cell phones or Internet or instant news, and the audience had no idea that King had died.  It fell on Kennedy to tell them. 

          It was one of the most powerful speeches of his career. 

Kennedy  told the people, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer.”[v]

          That night, the violence and hatred behind King’s murder caused most of the nation to react in the most human way – with more hatred and anger.  The result was rioting in 110 cities.  Thirty-nine people were killed.  Another 2,500 were injured.  More than 75,000 National Guardsmen and federal troops were called to the streets.[vi]

          But in Indianapolis, where Kennedy called for love and wisdom, all was quite.

          What happens when we respond to anger with anger and when we respond to hate with hate is that we become the very wolves we dread.

          And the cycle of violence or hate or anger continues.

It is Advent.

We will sing songs of Christmas, and of peace, and of hope, and of love.

The wolves may be at the door, but the love of Christ is stronger than the wolves.

Hate may rule the world, but the love of Christ is stronger than hate.

Terrorism threatens us on every side, but the love of Christ is stronger than fear.

The wolves are at the door, but the day will come when the Christ who was born on Christmas Day returns and establishes his kingdom, his peace, and the wolves and lambs will finally rest together.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
when there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand,
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.[vii]

Copyright 2013, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved. 
For copies of other sermons, visit www.Pittendreigh.com

[i] Matthew 10:16

[ii] Trent C. Butler, Layman’s Bible Book Commentary: Isaiah, (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1982).  page 42.

[iii] Isaiah 11:6
[iv] Yearling or ayrm has a double meaning in Hebrew, as it recalls the similar word,  sy[rm, or “friends”

[v] Tom Brokaw, “Boom!” Random House, 2007.  page 52-52.

[vi] Indiana Historical Marker Database, ID #4920051.
[vii] The Prayer of Saint Francis is widely attributed to the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi, but the prayer in its present form cannot be traced back further than 1912, when it was printed in France in a small French language magazine called La Clochette (The Little Bell).  The prayer has been known in the USA since 1936 and Cardinal Francis Spellman distributed millions of copies of the prayer during World War II. It was the beginning of its international career.