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6-16-19 — Hope’s Long View — Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 & Romans 5:1-5 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Back in 1978 a team of psychologists set out to study happiness. They gathered a group of people who had won between $50,000 to $1 million in the lottery, a group who were victims of devastating accidents that left them paralyzed, and a group chosen at random from the phone book to be a control group. As you might expect, the lottery winners said that winning was a highly positive experience and the victims of paralysis saw their accidents as highly negative. But to the surprise of the researchers, the lottery winners didn’t score any higher on scales of happiness than the control group and they actually took less pleasure in daily activities than the accident victims. Other research has shown that Americans’ feeling of well-being is no greater today than it was back in the 1950s when real per capita income was less than half of what it is today. And international researchers have found that people in Nigeria rate themselves happier than the Japanese whose income is 25 times greater.[1]

       Now, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter whether or not people are poor. There are lots of things associated with having more money that improve the quality of life, like health, nutrition, and education. But the point is that once basic needs are met there’s not a correlation between the things so many people invest their lives in, like money or success, and a sense of happiness and well-being.

       That’s not news. Philosophers have been telling us that since the time of the ancient Greeks. True happiness, or that deeper more pervasive sense of joy, comes when we’re in touch with what we’re made to be. It’s something that comes from inside, but it’s not something we can create. It’s not something we achieve. It’s something we receive.

       Proverbs tells us what delight there was when God created the world. I can imagine God shouting with joy at the grandeur of the Big Bang. God basked in sheer gladness watching the earth take shape and the dinosaurs evolve. And God’s crowning joy was sharing all that was made with the beloved human beings. God made us so there would be someone to share all the wonder of creation. The universe resounded with joy and delight when God made us.

       So many people think of God as a stern taskmaster whose main goal is to make sure that human beings don’t enjoy themselves. If they were offered a chance to spend a vacation with God, they’d respectfully decline, imagining that it would be a horrible time hearing about how much you disappoint God and how much more you should be doing. That’s not how it would be at all. If you went on vacation with God, it would be the most delightful time you could imagine. God would be interested in you and show you all kinds of things you couldn’t see on your own.[2]

       I think of God as being like the Eastminster Preschool teachers. I look at some of those teachers who have been teaching here at the school for many years. I doubt there’s anything they haven’t seen from the hundreds of children that have come through their classes. Yet you can see that every child is special to them. They’re genuinely interested in each new discovery. They grimace with each skinned knee. The school runs so well because they’ve developed procedures and plans and know what works and what doesn’t, yet nothing is routine, no child is taken for granted. Sure, they put limits on what the children can do. They don’t let them jump out windows or treat other children unkindly. But that’s because they care about those children and take delight in them. They want to give them the best the school has to offer. That’s the point of the rules.

       God created us to take that kind of delight in the world. We’ve been given the capacity to see life and find joy and delight, and yet we keep trying to find it in all the wrong places – like in ourselves.

       Several years ago as part of a sabbatical grant my wife and I went to Britain. It happened to be our 25th wedding anniversary, so we used some of the grant to came home on the Queen Mary 2. Crossing the Atlantic by ship was one of the things on my bucket list, and it turned out to be even more fun and enriching than I had imagined. There were lectures on naval history, dance lessons, and best of all the feel of the ocean’s vastness you can only get when you cross it on the surface. Carol and I were assigned to a table where we took our evening meal, and the other guests seemed to be having as delightful a time as we were. Except one couple. They had retired early and were spending their retirement cruising. They lived on ships. When the Queen Mary 2 got to New York, they were going to get on a cruise ship to the Caribbean. From there they would get on another ship for some other destination. They did this all year, year in and year out. And they put a damper on our dinners. Each evening they’d tell us some new deficiency they’d discovered about the ship, some new way that their needs weren’t being met. The Grand Concourse was too small. The food wasn’t as good as it was on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Room service was slow. They had chosen to live their lives in this hermetically sealed environment, where they didn’t have to deal with any concerns of the world, with a crew of hundreds paid to meet their every need, and they were some of the most miserable people I’ve ever met.

       I compare them with a young woman I know who graduated from nursing school. She spent her last summer in nursing school working at a mission hospital in Cameroon, West Africa. The conditions were awful. It was hot, no indoor plumbing, the medical supplies were rudimentary, the people she worked with were mostly AIDS patients whose life span was short. But when she came home in September, she was radiant. She couldn’t say enough about what a wonderful experience she’d had, the people she’d met, how gratifying it was for her to use her newly developed nursing skills to help those people dying from AIDS. She was given the grace of seeing the power of hope in the midst of all that suffering. With so much of the comfort and security she was used to stripped away, she could see what it was that really sustained her.

       There’s nothing good about suffering or poverty or illness. Jesus spent his earthly ministry relieving people of their suffering. Pain and deprivation can embitter us and narrow our focus. But sometimes it’s in suffering that we see where our hope lies. When we have nothing else to rely on, often that’s when we know who it is that sustains us and we’re polished and refined to become more like the person God created us to be. That’s why Paul could boast in his suffering because suffering produces endurance and endurance character and character hope and hope does not disappoint us.

       That’s why the best mentors in faith are so often those who have been around a while. Age inevitably brings some degree of suffering. The longer you’re around the more hits you take, the more disappointments you experience, the more pain your body endures. Several years ago I preached at the little country church where my father grew up. It was a miserably hot North Carolina day with the temperature and the humidity well into the 90s by the time church started. Fortunately, the cotton farmers had a good crop a few years earlier and the sanctuary was air-conditioned. Sitting in the front pew was Miss Carrie Mae Smith, my grandmother’s best friend. She was 105. She used a walker to get around, and she depended on church members to get her groceries and take her to her doctors. Miss Carrie Mae was with my grandmother when my father was born in the front room of the farm house in 1924. After the service I spoke to her. She said, “I can hardly see, and I couldn’t hear a word of your sermon, but the Lord knows I’m here.” Here was a wise woman. Who knows how many preachers she’d lived through, how many arguments over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary and the order of worship. For more than a century she had been through a lot that could have made her cynical. She was with my grandparents when their six year old son, the uncle I never knew, died of a ruptured appendix. She had seen scandal and betrayal. She became more and more familiar with pain as her body grew older. But she was there most Sundays at Midway Presbyterian Church to find hope.

       By his grace, Jesus changes us so that we find delight in what God has created. We practice seeing the world through God’s eyes here in church. We practice so we’re ready when God fills us with the Holy Spirit that sends us out into the world where we see the power of God at work redeeming the creation. This church thrives because God has sent you out to confront suffering without being intimidated by it. It’s because God delights in us and wants us to know God’s power that God sends us out into the world.

       Not everybody goes on a mission trip or serves a meal to the homeless at the soup kitchen. Some use their gifts to support and build up the community of faith by leading worship or helping with Sunday School or organizing a fellowship dinner. But God’s gift to us is that when Jesus joins us to his church, he’s not sheltering us from the world’s suffering or pain. He’s equipping us to do his work of engaging life head-on. And when we engage the world’s pain and suffering, whether it’s in York or in Honduras or in the person sitting just down the pew, the Holy Spirit pours God’s love into us, that same love that was there when the world was formed, that was there on Calvary when Jesus took the brunt of death for us, that was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost. That’s where our delight is; that’s where our hope is, and hope doesn’t disappoint us.

[1] Elizabeth Kolbert, “Everybody Have Fun,” The New Yorker, March 22, 2010, pp. 72-74.

[2] Howard Gray, S.J., lecture at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, April 16, 2010.

6-16-19 Bulletin


6-9-19 Bulletin


6-2-19 — Jesus in the Marketplace — Acts 17:16-34 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Some of us remember when Christian faith was the only choice we had. Where I grew up you assumed your neighbors were Protestant.  Roman Catholics were the novelty. In the summer between fourth and fifth grade my mother and my brother and I went to the neighborhood pool every day with the Origlios who lived in the apartment building next to ours. We were fascinated with the meatless sandwiches they would bring for lunch on Friday in those pre-Vatican II days.  I’d never heard of anyone eating a cream cheese and jelly sandwich.  Sometimes they would invite me to have pasta with them for Tuesday dinner. Mr. Origilio would ask me to say grace – it was his way of reminding us kids that we all worshiped the same Lord. They would bow their heads just like my family did, except after I said Amen they would all cross themselves.  That was my exposure to religious diversity as a kid.

       Leaving home was a religious shock.  By the time I got to high school I had a few Jewish friends, but they fit quite well into my worldview.  After all, Jesus was a Jew.  But once at college it was a whole new world.  I’d read in Time magazine about the growing interest in eastern religions, but I’d never actually met someone who practiced Buddhism.  Hare Krishnas tried to engage me in conversation in the student union.  One day my roommate, a nice Methodist boy, made it clear to me he was an atheist.

       Kids today don’t have to wait until they leave home to be exposed to a world of beliefs.  Our shrinking globe has brought many of the world’s religions into our neighborhoods and our schools.   It’s socially acceptable nowadays to practice no religion.  In fact, it’s a common step in a young person’s spiritual journey to abandon religious practice once he or she leaves home.  Faced with so many claims of spiritual truth many people put their own faith on the shelf until some life-changing event like having a child wakes them up and brings them back. 

        One of the great challenges for Christians today is holding fast to what we believe in the great marketplace of ideas that is the world in the 21st century. It’s like living in a superstore of beliefs.  You can’t just walk into the Giant and buy ice cream. You have a whole aisle of frozen confections to choose from.  Which of the 50 flavors do you want?  Do you want premium or store brand?  The kind you scoop or bars?  Low fat or extra creamy?  The choices are overwhelming. 

       Athens was an ancient marketplace of ideas.  Just about any philosophy or religion known to the western mind could be found there.  Acts tells us “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”  So when Paul arrived from Israel with a religion they’d never heard of, they were delighted.  Here was something new to add to their inventory. 

       Paul had been sent to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in Europe. There were communities of Jews around the Mediterranean. His practice was to speak in the synagogues of the cities he visited.  Paul and the Jews spoke the same language, literally and figuratively.  Paul could show his fellow Jews how Jesus was the fulfillment of their own Hebrew prophecy, the culmination of God’s promises to their forefather Abraham.  They had a common starting point, and they worked from the same scriptures. 

In Athens Paul was struck with how religious the non-Jews were.  They were what we might call seekers.  They were looking for something to fill that empty place in the spirit of every person, and they gave every option a hearing.  So Paul began to speak in the agora or marketplace about Jesus.  Now, if we see someone standing on the street corner in downtown York preaching to passersby, we think he or she is a little off.  But such a practice was common in ancient Athens. There was no Internet where you could go to keep up with the world.  People got their exposure to new ideas in the marketplace. 

       Some of the leading philosophers of Athens were so intrigued by what Paul said that they invited him to go with them to the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill.  You can still go there today.  It’s a small rocky outcrop at the foot of the Acropolis, removed from the bustle in the heart of the city.  There they could have a more serious discussion. 

But now Paul wasn’t talking to the Jews. The Ten Commandments didn’t mean a thing to the Greeks.  They didn’t have a clue what the Old Testament prophets had said. Paul couldn’t appeal to a tradition they had grown up with, one that their grandparents taught them.  Paul had brought Jesus to the ancient marketplace of ideas.  He has a lot to teach us who follow Christ in an increasingly diverse world. 

       First, Paul saw the connection between the questions the Athenians were asking and the answers Jesus gave.  Athens was full of statues of gods the Greeks worshiped: Zeus, Athena, Ares, Artemis.  Among those statues, Paul had noticed one labeled, “to an unknown god.”  They wanted to be sure they hadn’t offended some god by overlooking him, so this statue covered their bases.

       Every religion and every philosophy, every human endeavor seeks to satisfy the longings of the heart.  Everyone who has ever seen a picture from the Hubble telescope has been struck with the realization of how small we really are compared to the vast reaches of the universe. Whether we try to fill our needs through eastern religion or philosophy, through consumerism or drugs, the human need for God is the same no matter how we try to meet it.  So that’s where Paul started, with what every human being has in common, that need for forgiveness, for acceptance, for love, for purpose, for meaning.

       Paul then explained to them that what we hunger and thirst for is God.  But we don’t have to wander through the marketplace of religions, gathering a little here and a little there to fill that need. God sent Jesus to bring us home to God, to that one in whom we live and move and have our being.  The proof of that love is that Jesus died for us and that God raised him from the dead so we can share that eternal life.  This is what struck the Athenians as so novel.  They had never heard of anything like the resurrection from the dead. 

       There is a lot Christian faith shares with other religions: belief in a supreme creator, the value of human love, respect for the earth, a recognition that we need something from outside us to live good and righteous lives.  The thing that sets Christian faith apart from all other beliefs is the resurrection and our commitment to the risen Christ.  That’s not something you can prove intellectually.  It’s not something that fits in with other beliefs.  The only way you can really know the power of the resurrected Christ is to commit your life to him, to let him work in you and through and bring you to God.  He judges all the options that the marketplace of life sets before us.  He helps us know what leads us to God and what leads us away.  

Paul identified the need the Athenians shared with people of every time and every place.  He proclaimed the good news that Jesus Christ fills that need.  Then he left the results to God.  We can take heart knowing that the reaction our proclamation of the gospel receives is not going to be that different from the reaction of the Athenians to Paul.  Some scoffed at this idea of a resurrection.  It didn’t fit into their well-constructed understanding of how things are, so they dismissed it out of hand.  Others found it interesting, intellectually stimulating, and said they’d be back to hear more. They were fascinated by the varieties of religious experience and studied religion the way you might study different species of fish. These were the ones for whom religion is a fascinating pastime that’s done at a safe distance, but not something that changes their life.  A few, however, people like Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, became believers.  What they heard changed their lives.

       These different reactions shouldn’t surprise us.  Jesus spoke of the different ways people would react to him in the parable of the soils. Different people are like different soils, some hard and unfertile, some choked with weeds, some fertile and productive. God’s word falls on different people with different results. Whether it flourishes or withers doesn’t depend on the truth of the seed but on the receptivity of the soil. 

       It’s easy for us to lament we can’t take it for granted that we live in a world where everyone shares our faith.  Some people react by trying to force what we believe on others.  They try to post the Ten Commandments in public places and legislate prayers in schools.  But that’s not the approach Paul took in Athens.  He started with what everyone has in common – our need for spiritual fulfillment.  He wasn’t timid about proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ.  And he knew that the results of his efforts didn’t depend on him but on the Holy Spirit working in those who heard him. 

Our world today is in some ways more like ancient Athens than the neighborhood of my childhood where religious diversity meant different kinds of Christianity. But that doesn’t have to threaten us. God is the same, and God’s Spirit works in the hearts of people no matter what the religious context is. Our work is to do like Paul, speak the truth that we know in Christ, through the words we share and the love we show, trusting that God will do the rest. Jesus is present in the marketplace, in the school, in the world, whether the people around us know it or not. Our job is to let the world know what we know. God will do the rest.

6-2-19 Bulletin