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4-28-19 — Believing is Seeing — Acts 4:32-35, John 20:19-31

       It’s not news that the number of Americans who believe in God has plummeted in recent decades. A Gallup survey that came out this month shows that only 50% of Americans belong to a church, down from 70% just twenty years ago. There are many reasons for that decline in faith, but one reason is that we no longer need faith to explain how the world works. For most of human history, whenever something happened that couldn’t be explained otherwise, people fell back on God to fill the gap. When the ancients were terrorized by a thunderstorm, they explained the  lightning bolts as the spears of the gods.   When 50 million people died in Europe and Africa and Asia from bubonic plague in the 14th century, it was explained as the punishment of God. Even today, in the most advanced societies, we still attribute things we can’t predict or control to God. My car insurance policy includes coverage for what it calls “acts of God.” That covers events like a like a tree falling on my car roof or a deer that runs in front of me and smashes my fender.

       The problem with using God to fill the gaps of our knowledge is that as those gaps grow smaller, God gets crowded out. If you are in awe of God because you think that lightning bolts are God’s spears, what happens to your belief once you know that lightning bolts are sparks of electricity caused by positively and negatively charged particles that build up in clouds? If you obey God because you fear God might send some dread plague to punish you, why should you bother with God once you know that the plague is caused by bacteria carried by fleas and rodents? If biology tells me that a deer ran in front of my car because it’s mating season and he was in hot pursuit of a doe, then why should I call my dented fender an act of God when I know it’s the act of a love-crazed animal?

       If we believe in God because God is the one who conveniently fills in the gaps of our knowledge, then as our knowledge increases we have less reason to believe. This morning’s gospel lesson shows us that belief isn’t the result of some logical deduction that fills in the blanks. We believe in God because we encounter someone whom we can’t know through empirical deduction. We believe because we are confronted with awe and wonder and mystery.

After Easter the disciples told Thomas that Jesus was risen from the dead. Thomas knew that such things don’t happen in the course of nature, and he set out a list of things he had to see before he would believe. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” He had to see the evidence to be convinced.

       A week later, as Thomas and the other disciples were gathered in a room, Jesus joined them and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” That scene has been depicted in paintings showing Thomas carefully touching Jesus’ wounds, but the old masters got it wrong. The Bible doesn’t say that Thomas’ response to Jesus was a careful forensic examination to gather evidence that Jesus really was alive. According to the text, Thomas’ response was “My Lord and my God!” It was a response of wonder and awe. He believed, and in believing, he saw the risen Christ in all his power and majesty.

       The way we come to faith in Christ is different from the way we come to understand how a computer works or how to repair an automobile. Don’t get me wrong. It matters that belief is compatible with rational thought. God does not demand that we leave our brains at the door when we come to church. But for most people, it’s not a rational, well-reasoned argument that leads to an affirmation of faith like Thomas’. It’s awe and wonder and an experience of transcendent love that lets us see who Jesus really is.

       It’s that way with all of our deepest relationships. I can give you a long list of reasons why I love my wife. She has innumerable good qualities and those qualities matter. I might not have been attracted to her if she were not kind and generous and smart. But that’s not what causes love. There are probably thousands of people who have the same attributes that my wife has. But I love her and not those thousands of other people. Love is a mystery, a deep sharing, a sense of wonder that is a whole different sphere of reality.

       My wife and I were watching the British television series “Call the Midwife.” It’s about young nurses who deliver babies in the East End of London in the 1950s and 1960s. In every show, there is at least one scene of a woman giving birth, and every time we watch one of those scenes, Carol gets choked up. Now, she knows how it works. There’s nothing mysterious anymore about the science of obstetrics. Rationally, it’s the human body doing its part for the preservation of the species. But there is something beyond knowing how it works that makes it special. A birth carries with it a mystery beyond the science. It’s an affirmation of hope, of life, of love.

       Mr. Spock on Star Trek was always puzzled by the irrational things the human beings on the Starship Enterprise did. They did things that made no rational sense to his Vulcan way of seeing the universe. They would do things out of love or conviction that he couldn’t understand. Earthlings could be rational and logical; they had to be in order to run a star ship. But they also lived on  another plane of reality, one that exasperated Spock because he couldn’t see it. That is the realm of life where we encounter God, that reality that touches the depths of our human souls.

       Arnold Benz worships at the church I served in Zurich, Switzerland. He is a professor of astrophysics at the university near the church where Albert Einstein studied. He has written two books that explore the relationship between the empirical reality to which he has devoted his life’s work, the world of science and rational proof, and the reality of God that we experience as loving, feeling human beings, a reality that is beyond scientific explanation. In the preface of one of his books, he describes how he decided to become an astronomer. He was in high school, on a summer trip through southern Morocco with some friends. One night they decided to sleep under the open sky.

It was refreshingly cool… An unbelievable peace enveloped us. It was quiet: no din of civilization, no animals, no rustling in the air, nothing. The night opened the skies for us to reveal an unusual and overpowering splendor of the stars…. Because the air was totally clear, the stars hardly glittered and yet shone intensely. The sky was alive…. The bright stars gave the appearance of being closer… Interstellar space achieved a dimension of depth…. The darker the veil, the brighter the stars appeared. Everything seemed to be linked, and to constitute an impenetrable totality….

That night in the Sahara stimulated my thirst for more knowledge and assured me, too, that this knowledge needn’t stifle the sensation of amazement. With a sense of wonder, I had encountered a totally different perspective, which was not in competition with physics. On the contrary, my fascination with the quiet and mysteriously glowing stars and the prospect of pursuing new methods of scientific investigation had both captured me with their spell.

During this night in the desert, I decided to study astrophysics.[1]

For Professor Benz the galaxies and the nebulae

 became icons opening onto the perception of expansive mysteries that are beyond the reach of science. Most of us are familiar with icons. They are the small images on our computer screens that we click on to get access to an application that lets us write an email or create a spread sheet or surf the world wide web. Icons are where we enter into a world much bigger than the image on our screen.

If you go into any Orthodox Christian church, you’ll see the icons for which the symbols on our computer screens were named. From the earliest centuries of Christianity, believers have used icons to help them connect with the divine. To those of us who are unfamiliar with those religious icons, they appear flat and two dimensional. I know someone who paints icons, and she explained to me that an icon in the Orthodox faith is not supposed to be a true-to-life representation of the person it portrays, whether that’s Jesus or Mary or one of the saints. The believer meditates on the icon to open himself or herself to the presence of the Holy Spirit and let the Spirit draw the believer into closer communion with God.

For Professor Benz the galaxies and the wonders of nature do something similar. Science can explain how stars are formed from the residue of the Big Bang and how that stardust, over billions of years, came together to form you and me. For some people, that knowledge eliminates the need for God. If the origin of the universe and life can be explained by Professor Benz using science and math, then what use do we have for God if there are no more gaps in our knowledge to be filled? But for Professor Benz the more he learns, the more he is in awe of the one who is still creating galaxies we have yet to discover.

On Easter God showed how this physical world of flesh and matter is one in Christ with the realm of the Spirit, that reality that can’t be measured and is beyond our rational understanding. Jesus comes to us in our very human form and by the power of the Holy Spirit opens our perception to see him for who he is, Very God of Very God as the Nicene Creed describes him. Things that have very logical explanations, like a star shining in the sky or a recovery from a terrible disease become for us like icons that open our eyes to see another reality and exclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

We are not passive observers of that realm of the Spirit. We have a relationship with God who knows us and hears us. One of the things we Christians do is tell God our concerns and ask God’s help. We pray for those who are sick. We ask God to bring healing and comfort to those who suffer. When the people for whom we pray recover from their illness, and we give thanks to God for answered prayer. Sometimes there is a perfectly logical medical explanation for that recovery. Sometimes there is not. We know that God can intervene with nature and change the course of things. Jesus showed that when he performed miracles. But if the person for whom we pray does not recover, that does not weaken our conviction that God is there. Some of the most powerful witnesses I have ever seen to God’s goodness and mercy have been in the way friends have faced their death with dignity and courage and hope.

 Jesus sent his followers to be icons in the world so that through us the world can see what he intends for all people. In the passage we read this morning from Acts, we see the community of believers who share all things in common. “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there was no needy person among them.” People who owned land or property would sell it and give the proceeds to the community to help anyone who was in need. They did that in the spirit of God who gives so generously to us. In seeing those believers care for one another, people were drawn to see the God who offered them new life.

       Millard Fuller, who was a founder of Habitat for Humanity, was an icon who showed us Jesus. He had a successful career as a businessman in Georgia, and had become a self-made millionaire by the age of 29. But for all the success and money he had, he wasn’t satisfied. Led by a deep faith in Christ, he and his wife moved to Koinonia Farms outside Americus, a community dedicated to interracial justice. After serving five years as missionaries in Zaire, they returned to Georgia and started Habitat for Humanity. Now Jesus’ followers all over the world join together to demonstrate the love and justice of the Lord as they help people have a place to live and a new start in life. Fuller was an icon who opened the way to Jesus. When people see what we do in Jesus’ name, we are icons that point to a whole new world.

       Don’t you ever wonder why Jesus didn’t give a public display of his wounds to the crowds who demanded his murder the way he showed them to Thomas and the disciples? Why didn’t he prove to them that he was alive, that their plans to do away with him didn’t work? He knew that believing didn’t come through seeing. Seeing came through believing. The people who crucified him had seen his miracles, they had heard his teaching, but they weren’t convinced. Seeing the risen Christ is a gift given by God.  And God reveals that gift through those icons, those windows that are given to lead us into that new way of seeing.

       Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest and poet once wrote:

“Christ plays in ten thousand places,

       Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

       To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”[2]

The gaps in our knowledge of how the world works grow smaller, but God is not diminished one bit. The risen Christ appears to us in signs that we see by faith. Through nature, through prayer, through the community of faith, through signs of his power that we read in scripture or see in daily life, he comes to us, he summons us to believe, and believing we say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”   


[1] Arthur Benz, Astrophysics and Creation, trans. Martin Knoll (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2016), pp. 1-3.

[2] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44389/as-kingfishers-catch-fire.

4-28-19 Bulletin

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4-21-19 Easter Sunday Bulletin

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4-21-19 — Easter Sunday — Remember — Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 24:1-12 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Fear isn’t an emotion we usually associate with Easter.  We think of Easter and we think of joy, celebration, and triumph.  But before there were any of those things there was fear.  Two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appeared to the women in the tomb, and they were terrified.  They bowed their faces to the ground and just stood there.  Like death itself, fear brings things to a halt.  It stops us in our tracks.  The great preacher Fred Craddock has captured the paralyzing power of fear:

       “Why don’t you go out for the ball team?”  “I’m afraid I won’t make it.”

“Why don’t you try out for the school play?”   “I’m afraid I won’t get a part.”

“Why did you lie to your parents?”  “I was afraid of punishment.”

“Why were you so jealous?”  “I was afraid of losing love.”[1]

On that Sunday morning just outside Jerusalem the women’s worst fears had already come true.  The master was dead.  Were these strange men going to continue the horror and sweep them up in death too? They just stood there, stuck, immobilized by fear.

Then the men spoke to them. They gave them the antidote to fear: “Remember,” they told the women.  “Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee.”  Memory is the antidote to fear.

I was watching one of the NCAA Tournament basketball games, and just before tip off the cameras took us inside the dressing room of one of the teams. The coach was giving his final talk to the team before they took to the floor. You could see the tension on the faces of the young men. Everything they’d been working for all season was on the line, in front of millions of people. They had a lot to lose. The coach told them to remember who they were. He recalled for them the victories they’d won, the teamwork they’d achieved. They remembered, and when they went out, they played like they weren’t afraid of anything.

The women stood there in the empty tomb motionless, with their heads bowed to the ground, and the angels told them, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  And they remembered, and they went out to tell the world.

You can understand why the women had to be reminded of what Jesus said to them in Galilee.  He told the disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering… and be killed, and on the third day be raised…” It didn’t fit into the story they had constructed in their minds, the story of Jesus as the one who is above such things. Peter pulled him aside and rebuked him for such talk.  Jesus suffer?  Be killed?  That’s a thought you just want to put out of your mind.  It is one of those things you don’t want to remember.  It’s too frightening to think about.

It’s funny how memory works, how selective it is. Something happens or someone says something, and you don’t notice or you put it out of our mind. Then later something triggers that memory, and an encounter or an event that had lain dormant for a long time rises up and shapes your life. There’s so much Jesus tells us we don’t remember until later.  So much of what he’s promised that we don’t even notice until the promises are fulfilled.  Faith often works like that.

The author Dan Wakefield tells how memory led him back to church. A number of years ago he was stuck. He had just ended a seven-year relationship with a woman, buried both his parents, gone broke, and moved across the country to Boston to start a new job. He was mired in chaos. Then one day he grabbed an old Bible from one of his piles of books and with a desperate instinct turned to the 23rd Psalm. In the months that followed, he recited it in his mind. It didn’t lead him back to his childhood belief in God, but it did give a sense of peace and calm.

One evening, just before Christmas, he was sitting in a neighborhood bar on Beacon Hill when a housepainter named Tony said out of the blue that he wanted to find a place to go to church on Christmas Eve. Wakefield didn’t say anything, but a thought flashed in his mind, “I’d like to do that too.”

He hadn’t been to church since he left home for college 25 years before, but on that Christmas Eve he found himself in King’s Chapel, which he selected from the ads in The Boston Globe religious page because it seemed less threatening. He assumed “Candlelight Service” meant nothing more religiously challenging than singing some carols.

He didn’t go back again until Easter, but after that he wanted to go again. And that presented a challenge. His two initial visits had been on holidays, when “regular” people went to church. But to go back again meant he’d have to cross Boston Common on a non-holiday Sunday morning, and be seen going into the church. He tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, hoping his friends would all be home doing brunch and the Sunday papers so he wouldn’t be caught in the act.

To his surprise, he recognized people he knew. He just assumed he didn’t know people who went to church, yet there they were, intellects intact, worshiping God. Once inside he understood why. He found relief connecting with the age-old rituals, reciting psalms and singing hymns. He was reminded that there’s something beyond his own flimsy physical presence, a God and a community. Wakefield joined the church, started attending a Bible study and teaching Sunday school, and began a spiritual journey that reoriented his life.[2]

Sometimes a parent whose child has grown up and left home will lament to me that her son or daughter doesn’t go to church.  “We brought him up coming every Sunday, and now he won’t have anything to do with it.”  I remind those parents that a seed was planted and memories were made.  One day, maybe an Easter Sunday, when he remembers singing the hymns, the warmth of the congregation, the love and the peace in the prayers, he’ll walk into a sanctuary like Dan Wakefield did and he’ll remember what he already knows.  He’ll remember what he learned in Sunday school, those conversations with his youth advisor, what you taught him around the dinner table.  Sometimes those memories come and they roll away the stones that keep us from entering those holy places where we encounter what God has done.

I’ve always assumed the stone was moved from Jesus’ tomb so Jesus could get out.  But it dawned on me while preparing this sermon that Jesus didn’t need to have the stone moved.  His resurrection body could pass through walls.  The stone wasn’t moved so Jesus could get out.  It was rolled away so the women could see in.  And once the women were in, the angels told them to remember, and memory rolled away the stone of their fear that paralyzed them, and they understood who Jesus was.

Those memories of Jesus, our encounters with him in worship and prayer, the way he’s lifted us out of despair, given us direction, calmed our troubled spirits, those are the deepest and most lasting memories we have.  They are embedded in the very depths of our souls.  I’ve occasionally led worship in nursing homes where a large portion of the congregation suffer from dementia.  Some of those men and women can no longer remember the names of their own family members, but when we sing a favorite hymn or say the Lord’s Prayer or recite the Apostles’ Creed, they remember every word.  Those memories, like the God they proclaim, are lasting and endure the ravages of the years. 

Many of us are afraid for the church these days. We remember a time when the Protestant Church in America had more influence, when Sunday mornings were for church, not soccer practice, when Wednesday evenings were for Bible study, and when the congregations of Donegal Presbytery had more than twice as many members as they do today. Dan Aleshire, retired Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools, has pointed out how sometimes our memories can be misleading. When the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years they looked back longingly on the time they were slaves in Egypt and had enough to eat, plenty to drink, and roofs over their heads. Whenever they wanted to go back to Egypt, their leader Moses had to remind them of the promise God had given them that they would have a land of their own. It would be different from Egypt, but better. When the Hebrews doubted that promise, Moses reminded them of God’s faithfulness to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, how God really did deliver on the promise to make them a great nation in spite of insurmountable odds.

These days the odds against the church sometimes seem insurmountable. This is when we have to remember what Jesus said to us, what he’s promised. There was an article in the paper about two new Protestant churches that were being built on the outskirts of Beijing, China.  Each will accommodate 1500 worshipers.  They were being built because the existing Protestant churches in the city couldn’t accommodate everyone who wants to worship.  In 1950, the year after the Communists took over, there were 4000 Protestants in Beijing.  For the next generation Christians all over the world feared that the gospel was a lost cause in Red China.  We feared that all the hard work and sacrifice of the missionaries was useless.  During Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s Christians were beaten and sometimes killed, and churches were turned into museums.  But now there are over 100 million Christians in China. The church is stronger now than when the Communists took over.  Jesus was never forgotten in China.  People remembered the good news of the risen Christ.  And God remembered.

Remembering what Jesus has done, remembering his words of life, gives us hope and courage because we know that he will be as faithful to us in the future as he has been in the past. But what if you have no memories to call on ? What if there’s nothing in your experience to draw from? Then you share the memories that the church holds on our behalf, the faithfulness that is proclaimed in the scriptures and the witness of Christians through the ages. Christ joins us with his church and its memories of God’s faithfulness to Abraham and Moses and David and the apostles. Those memories of God’s people through the ages become our memories. And if the memories we have fail us, we know that God’s memory never fails. God remembers us in life and in death.

Remember what he told you.  Christ is risen.  He is risen, indeed.


[1] Fred B. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2002), p. 127.

[2] Dan Wakefield, “Returning to Church,” The New York Times Magazine, December 22, 1985, pp. 16-28.

4-19-19 Good Friday Bulletin

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4-18-19 Maundy Thursday Bulletin

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4-14-19 Bulletin

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4-14-19 — In Humble Majesty — Philippians 2:5-11, John 12:12-16 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

          One of the first parades I remember was in late February 1962.  I was eight years old and living outside Washington, D.C.  My father and I drove into the city and found a spot to stand along Pennsylvania Avenue.  We were there to see my boyhood hero, John Glenn.  Just days earlier Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth.  President Kennedy had escorted him from Cape Canaveral to the nation’s capital, and now he, along with the other Mercury 7 astronauts, was being honored with a parade from the White House to the Capitol where a joint meeting of Congress was waiting to pay them tribute.  I still remember the thrill of seeing those heroes drive by accompanied by the Vice President of the United States.  They symbolized all that was good and promising, all that was possible, not just for America but for the entire human race.  No longer were we bound by the confines of this planet.  The stars were within our reach.  What a marvelous day that was to be eight years old.

        We’ve accomplished a lot in the decades since that parade.  Where we invested effort, determination and ingenuity, we’ve made remarkable progress.  We met Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade.  We’ve sent spacecraft beyond the reaches of the solar system and penetrated the mysteries of a black hole.  We live longer.  Our children are healthier.  We’ve made progress in civil rights and women’s equality.  But there are some things that haven’t changed, some things that no amount of energy or grit or resolve can alter. 

We’ve figured out how to break free from the limits of the earth, but we’re still bound by the limits of our humanity.  One of the first things you realize when you’re a child is that you have limits.  That’s what makes the terrible twos so terrible.  Children discover that the world won’t accommodate their every desire on demand, and it makes them furious.  The older you get, the more aware you are of your limits.  When I was sixteen I finally admitted to myself that I would never be first chair trumpet as long as Bob and Manuel were in the high school band.  By the time you’re middle aged, you know there are certain things you dreamed of doing that you probably won’t do.  One characteristic of wisdom is recognizing our limits and learning how to live fully within them.

Neither have we figured out how to stop things from changing.  The car that made us feel so up-to-date when we bought it new starts to look drab and worn.  The fresh new-car smell gives way to that tired aroma of worn upholstery.  The best friend with whom you share everything moves away.  Children grow up.  You long to go back to those days when they bugged you to play their games, games that seemed so trivial compared to the important things you had to do.  Now they have more important things to do, and there are things you wish you could do over.  Life is transient.  You can’t hold on to anything and keep it the same, no matter how hard you try.

And we haven’t figured out how to keep from dying.  We can extend life and, in many ways, make it better, but it still ends.  Along with all the other animals, we have an instinctive aversion to death and an innate desire to survive.  But unlike other creatures, we are aware of our own death.  It casts a shadow over life.  We know that no matter what we do our days will one day come to an end.[1]

Today we remember another parade, one that took place 2000 years ago.  I suspect that the people who lined the parade route into Jerusalem were there for reasons that were similar to the reasons that took Dad and me into Washington, D.C., that damp February day in 1962.  They were there to catch a glimpse of someone who had done an incredible thing and who held out the promise of things even more amazing. 

Jesus had done many remarkable things, but what was creating all the buzz, according to John, was what he did for Lazarus.  Lazarus had been dead for four days when Jesus called him out of the tomb.  It was clear now that Jesus had God’s power on his side.   People were counting on him to use that power to restore Israel to the glory it had in the days of David and Solomon.  He would throw out the Romans.  He would set up a throne on Mt. Zion.  It would be glorious, the way Jesus would use his power.

But in the grand scheme of things what the crowds expected from Jesus was the same old thing.  The kind of glory they expected from Jesus the conquering hero eventually fades.  Other empires rise to power and dominate the world.  And not even the most powerful emperor can conquer death. 

Jesus was coming with another kind of power, power not even his disciples understood until he had died on the cross.  The power Jesus brought is the power that created the universe and breathed life into us.  It’s the power that never changes through all the changes of our years.  It is the power of God’s love, the love that gives itself completely to the ones God loves.  It is the love that transforms us from the inside out by taking on our limits, our transience and even our death.

If you were to chart the story told in the gospel of John, it would look like a great arc – an inverted parabola.  Jesus starts on high with the Father in all the glory and splendor of heaven.  He comes down and lives among us, taking on everything that makes us human except our sin.  He experiences the limitations of our human bodies.  He endures first the hosannas of the Palm Sunday parade and then the derision of the Good Friday mob.  Jesus takes on himself everything that is human and carries it to the cross.  He is anointed, but his anointing is for death.  He wears a purple robe, but it is the cloak of mockery.  He is presented to his people, and they reject him.  He is lifted up, but it is on a cross.  And on that cross he draws all people to himself.[2]  “He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

A while back I had the privilege of giving the blessing at the dedication of a new facility for homeless people in the city where I lived. The ecumenical agency that helps the homeless had acquired a former rehabilitation center and converted it into apartments. After the ceremony there was punch and cookies, and I was visiting with one of the residents of the men’s floor.  He asked if I’d like to see his new home, and I said “Of course.”  He took me down the hall of what used to be a nursing home and proudly opened the door of his room.  It was a simple place – a small room with a bed, a dresser, two chairs, a tape player and a small TV.  Over and over again he said how grateful he was for it.  That room – his home – symbolized for him his new life.  And he was emphatic that it was because of Jesus.  Jesus had reached down to him in the gutter, opened his heart, and invited him to turn his life over to God.  He did, and Jesus, working through the ministry of the shelter and the churches that supported it, rescued him from the street.

That’s where real power lies.  We can reach for the stars.  We can cure diseases.  We can improve the quality of life.  Thanks be to God for the ability we have to make the world a better place.  But only God can change lives from the inside out.  God does it by touching the depths of our souls, by coming to us in Christ and redeeming us through his grace.  And not only our souls, but all creation will one day be changed by his love that gives and gives and gives until in emptying himself he is exalted in glory.  “Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” Hosanna in the highest!


[1] From a talk by Martin E. Marty at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, March 1998.

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1966), p. 463.

4-7-19 — Always the Poor — Isaiah 43: 16-21, John 12: 1-8 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       A man bought a retriever, and when he took him out to the lake to train him, he was stunned.  He shot a duck and instead of jumping into the water and doggie paddling, the dog stepped onto the lake and ran across the surface.  The man couldn’t believe his eyes.  When he got back into town, he rounded up his hunting buddies.  He could hardly contain himself.  “Just wait till you see this new dog.  You won’t believe it.”  He piled them all into the back of his pickup and drove them out to the lake.  They hid in the blind, and before long a flock of ducks flew over.  The man shot, one went down, and he sent his dog to get it.  The dog bounded out onto the water, ran over the top of it, and was back in the blind with the duck in less than a minute.  “What do you think of that?” the man asked his friends.  One of the friends said, “I don’t blame you for being so worked up. I’d be upset too – pay good money for a dog that can’t even swim.”

       The gospel according to John is filled with stories like that.  Jesus does incredible things, things never seen before, but people who see them completely miss the point.  They’re so used to looking for one thing they can’t see anything else.

       Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine.  It was a sign he is lord over the most basic elements of the earth. To anyone who understood, it meant the creator of heaven and earth himself was in their midst.  But what did people see?  They saw what they were used to seeing.  They assumed that the host had just saved the best wine till the end of the party.

       One time, Jesus fed 5000 people with only five loaves of barley bread and two fish.  For those who understood, it was a sign that Jesus is the bread of life, the one who gives life that never ends.  But what did people see?  They saw a free meal, and when they tracked him down the next day, they weren’t looking for the bread of life.  They were looking for another handout.

       The people in John’s gospel remind me of the dog I used to have.  He loved to chase squirrels. Sometimes if I’d want to get a rise out of him, I’d point to a squirrel in the yard.  “Look, Robbie, there’s a squirrel.”  But he’d just gaze at my finger.  That’s all he saw.  He didn’t understand that he was supposed to look beyond my finger to the squirrel.  I was trying to give him the thrill of a good chase, and he was trying to figure out what’s the big deal about my finger.

       Mary had been watching Jesus.  She had seen his signs.  Recently she had seen Jesus raise her brother Lazarus who had been lying dead in a tomb for four days. People were still talking about it, still trying to figure it out. The religious leaders thought that anyone who could raise a man from the dead was a threat to their power and should be executed. Those who were looking for a revolution saw Jesus as the one who could overthrow the Romans and lead the people to freedom. But Mary got it.  Mary saw beyond the sign.  She saw what Jesus’ miracles had been pointing to.  She saw beyond the obvious to that new creation God promised in Isaiah when God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19) Mary saw that Jesus is the one whom God sent to bring in the new creation. 

Once Mary understood, once she saw beyond the signs, she did something that looked foolish – unless you understand.  She took a pound of pure nard, costly perfume worth a whole year’s wages, and she poured it on Jesus’ feet.  Then she stooped and wiped his feet with her hair. It was her way of showing that everything she had belonged to him. She belonged to him, body and soul.

       Watching this spectacle was Judas. He saw Mary pour the perfume over Jesus’ feet and asked “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 

Judas looked at that puddle of perfume in the middle of the room, its aroma filling the whole house, and he saw all the food it could buy.  He saw food that could be filling empty stomachs, food that could quiet the cries of a starving child, food that could give a destitute widow strength to make it through another day.  What a waste of God-given resources, he thought.  What a foolish waste.

       But whom did Jesus side with? What did he say was right – pouring out a year’s wages’ worth of perfume at his feet or selling it to feed the poor?  What would you say?  Who was right, Mary or Judas? 

It was Mary.  She got it. Jesus praised Mary for her extravagance, for seeing beyond the nuts and bolts practicality of feeding the poor, to the completely transformed creation where poverty and suffering and hunger and sorrow don’t even exist.  She saw that Jesus didn’t come just to feed the poor but to end poverty.  He didn’t come just to heal the sick but to put an end to sickness.  He didn’t come just to make the world a better place but to transform the whole creation.

       Judas’ strategy for fighting poverty is a prescription for frustration.  It’s the same mindset of those communist regimes that poured every resource toward the production of goods. They did away with things they considered irrational frivolities that distracted from the hard work of transforming society.  Worship, Bible study, and prayer were a waste of time. Art had to serve a practical purpose. Instead, everyone had to make a commitment to the five-year plan, the rationally considered, well-developed scheme to end poverty and human need.  And what did such a well-considered, rational plan lead to?  Poverty and deprivation.

       You see, if you carry Judas’ rational mindset to its logical end, you still arrive at the truth Jesus told Judas: “You always have the poor with you.”  No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we give, there will always be poverty and inequality and injustice.  And once you realize, through logical, rational consideration, that you always have the poor with you, where does that leave you?  You either give up in despair and end it all like Judas who hanged himself, or you turn your back on the needs of others  and don’t think of anyone but yourself. 

       Was Jesus being callous?  Was he telling us to turn our backs to the poor?  In the gospel according the Matthew Jesus tells us how we’ll be judged: by what we do to the least of those, Jesus’ brothers and sisters who are hungry and thirsty and in prison.  When Jesus told Judas the poor will be with us always, he was alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11 where God says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” 

       It’s not within the realm of human possibility to end poverty and suffering on our own.  We have to rely on a power that is greater than anything in us.  That power is Jesus Christ.  He understood Mary’s extravagant sacrifice as her anointing of his body for burial. Mary was pointing beyond that room, that dinner party, to the sacrifice Jesus would make in just a few days.  She was pointing to the cross where Jesus put to death the corruption and greed and sin that cause poverty in a world where God has given more than enough for everybody.  Mary was showing us what it takes to feed the poor in such a way that poverty really ends.  It takes more than making a donation to a good cause.  It takes more than giving what we’ve got left over after we’ve paid the bills.  It takes pouring out everything we have and all that we are at the feet of Jesus, giving ourselves as living offerings for him to use in transforming the world.

       When we give ourselves to Jesus as Mary gave herself, we do more for the poor, not less.  We don’t settle for just a year’s worth of wages.  That’s not enough.  We give ourselves and all that we have.  We proclaim the new creation he began on the cross.  When we make an offering on Sunday, we’re not just making a donation but engaging in an act of extravagant praise like Mary’s because with our offering we give ourselves.  When we help the poor and needy, we’re pointing to the one who came to end all poverty and suffering.  We do that when we give backpacks to kids at East York Elementary School.  We travel to North Carolina to help people rebuild their lives after natural disasters.  We welcome refugees who have fled to our country for their lives.  We help fill bags of food for Rise Against Hunger. Some will see what we do a commendable acts of charity, good deeds that make us feel good for having done them.  But to those who have eyes to see, to those who are as astute as Mary, they can see what we do for the poor as signs, signs that point beyond the obvious to someone greater, to Jesus Christ who poured himself out for us. To him be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.

4-7-19 Bulletin

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