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12-15-19 — Christmas in Plain Sight — Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-19 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       That is a puzzling passage. John the Baptist sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is really the long-expected Messiah, or should they be waiting for someone else? John was so sure that day down at the River Jordan when he baptized Jesus. He was certain then that this was the one he had been expecting, the Christ, the Savior of the world. But now he wondered, is Jesus really the one?

       Maybe you’ve asked that question. I’ve known people who have given their lives to Jesus, confident that he would watch over them and care for them, then things happened that made them wonder if he really is the one they thought he was. I think of one woman, I’ll call her Sarah, whose father was stricken with a particularly rough form of cancer. Sarah, trusting in Jesus’ promises of healing and peace, prayed fervently that her father would be cured, but within months he was gone. Was Jesus the one she thought he was, or should she have been looking for someone else?

       Some ask that question because of what they see in Christ’s church. Sam joined the church because he felt the presence of the Holy Spirit when he worshiped on Sunday. After a while, he started teaching Sunday school and found it deeply satisfying. He was moved by some of the experiences he had while working on mission projects. After he had been in the church for a while, he had some ideas for improving the Sunday school classrooms so they would be more welcoming to the students, but his ideas were dismissed as impractical. Through his work in the community, he saw some needs that he thought the mission committee could address and further the church’s ministry, but his ideas fell on deaf ears. When his uncle was in the hospital, no one from the church called him to ask how he was doing. He began to wonder, if the church is the body of Christ, is Christ the one I’m looking for, or is there someone else?

       John the Baptist had spent his life in the wilderness, preparing for the one God was sending to transform the world. He had given up everything, and he had told the crowds who came out to hear him that Jesus was the one they were expecting. But now here he was in prison for doing all that. Was Jesus really the one he was expecting, or should he look for someone else? So he sent his disciples to clear things up.

       Jesus told John’s disciples to go and tell him what they heard and saw: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus didn’t restore sight to all the blind or give hearing to all the deaf or make everyone walk who was disabled. There were still plenty of blind people, and deaf, and disabled. He didn’t raise all the dead. People still died, and even the ones he raised eventually died for good. He didn’t eradicate poverty. The poor were still with them. But what he did was an indication of what was in store. He was beginning to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah who described the new creation as that time when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” If you have the ears to hear and the eyes to see, it’s obvious what is going on. Jesus is doing the work of God right here in plain sight.

       My wife’s family used to get together in the mountains of West Virginia every summer for a weeklong reunion. One night, some of us went on a star walk at a nearby state park. After we had gathered at the nature center, a park ranger took us out back in the woods. It was pitch black, and we couldn’t see a thing. Standing there in the darkness, the ranger said that we were going to take a while to let our eyes adjust to the dark. She explained that our eyes have cells called cones and rods. The cones are sensitive to color, and we use them to see in the light. The rods are what allow us to see in dim light. We were waiting in the darkness for our rods to kick in. Sure enough, the longer we waited, the more things appeared in the forest. The outlines of the trees began to take shape. Over the clearing where we stood, stars began to appear, until what was once a vast blackness filled with light. Everything that was coming into focus had been there all along. We just needed the right kind of eyes, our rods, to see them.

       Often that’s what it takes to see Jesus at work. We have to be still and notice, with the right kind of spiritual eyes. One thing that makes it hard to notice Jesus is that we have preconceptions about how he is supposed to operate, and when he doesn’t meet those expectations, we miss him altogether. One way we make sense of a complex life is by forming categories and sorting people and events into them. Sorting people and events into categories saves us a lot of time and effort. If someone calls me at home in the middle of the day and says, “May I speak to the head of the household?” I immediately categorize that caller as a solicitor for something I don’t need, say “Thanks, but I’m not interested,” and hang up. I’ve saved myself several minutes of wasted time.

       When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, people put him in a category, the category of those possessed by demons. That’s what they saw, and instead of seeing past that category, they arrested him and threw him in jail. When Jesus appeared doing just the opposite, turning water into wine and going to banquets hosted by the ruling elite, he was placed in the category of a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners, a category where they put people who weren’t to be trusted, including those who were traitors and deserved to die.

       Maybe John the Baptist had put Jesus in a preconceived category of what he thought the Messiah was supposed to be like and so he missed seeing him for who he is. John told the crowds in the wilderness that the one whom God was sending to transform the world was one who was laying an axe to the root of the tree, cutting down the unworthy and throwing them into the fire. He was sorting the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire. John was looking for someone to bring in God’s new creation with a vengeance. Yet here was Jesus welcoming children, helping the outcasts, caring for the poor, saying that the blessed ones are the meek who turn the other cheek. Maybe John asked his question because Jesus didn’t fit his category.

       So Jesus told him to look again. Look with different eyes, from a new perspective. Sometimes that’s what we have to do to see Jesus for who he is. Jack Haberer, a pastor in Allentown, told how his perspective was changed while attending the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Korea when he was editor of The Presbyterian Outlook magazine. For the first twenty or so years of Jack’s Christian journey, he heard Jesus’ commandment to go into the world and make disciples of all nations as an intense focus proclaiming the Word of God to those who have not yet heard it and inviting them to give their lives to Christ. He saw any involvement in social change as a distraction from that focus. But after he became the editor of an independent magazine reporting on the life of the church, he began to travel and to meet more people from different places who held different perspectives. He met Christians who were bearing witness to the gospel in circumstances that we here in America tend to write off as distant from our concerns as Christians.

       In Korea he met a pastor from Tuvalu, a tiny country in the Pacific that is comprised of small coral reefs. The highest point in the country is 24 feet above sea level. This pastor told the delegates to the assembly how every aspect of life in his land is threatened by the rising sea level. He asked his fellow Christians to be better stewards of the planet God has given us, to stop exploiting its riches in ways that destroy the homes of his people.

       Here in America one political party might take that pastor’s words as a rationale for regulating businesses, while another party might scorn it as questionable science that depresses the economy. “But,” says Haberer, “such categories won’t fly in Sunday worship services in Tuvalu, where gospel proclamation mixes with the intense praying of congregations living a threatened existence.” One of the gifts of Christ’s church is helping us see God’s world from the perspective of other believers.

       I sometimes find myself trying to compartmentalize Christmas, trying to put the incarnation of the Lord into seasonal categories. I find myself complaining in October when the first Christmas displays go up in the stores. It seems like they’re exploiting Christmas. Or I get annoyed in February when neighbors still haven’t taken down their Christmas lights. I’m ready to start thinking about spring and they’re holding on to December. But maybe a better attitude toward the commercialization of the stores and the laziness of my neighbors would be to remember that the Messiah whose birth we celebrate at Christmas doesn’t come and go with the season. He’s not confined to our categories. He does the work of God’s reign all year long, and not always in ways we expect. In fact, any time you look, if you have the eyes to see, there is the one who came at Christmas – in plain sight. May God take off the blinders of our assumptions and give us the eyes of faith to see.

12-15-19 — Cantata Bulletin

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12-15-19 — 9 a.m. Bulletin

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12-8-19 — A Christmas-Sized Welcome — Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       A few months after my mother died, I drove down to South Carolina to tie up some loose ends with her estate. My brother was staying in her house, and on a bright Carolina morning we went outside so he could show me some of the things he’d done with the yard. He pointed over to the neighbor’s house and said something had changed about Tommy, the man who lives there. Tommy, his wife and two kids had lived in the house since before Mom and Dad moved into the neighborhood 25 years earlier. He was always a friendly neighbor, with a warm greeting and an offer of a helping hand as my parents aged. But according to my brother he had turned sour and sometimes downright hostile. “I can’t figure out what I’ve done to make him so unfriendly,” David said.

       Later that morning we went out to run an errand. As we drove in front of Tommy’s house, I noticed a handicap ramp leading up to the front door. I asked my brother about it, and he said that in recent years Tommy’s wife had developed a severe disability that limited her mobility. I began to wonder. I remembered how my parents had told me that Tommy had been bouncing around jobs ever since he retired from a career as a state trooper. A light went off in my head. I said to my brother, “Maybe you haven’t done anything to make him unfriendly. Maybe that’s how he deals with the losses in his life – the loss of his career to retirement, his wife’s health to disability, the kids moving away, and who knows what else.” I couldn’t know for sure, because I didn’t know Tommy that well. But you’ve seen it before: Sometimes stuff happens to a person and they turn inward. Everything seems hopeless, and it’s hard to see the point of engaging with the neighbors or anybody else.

       Later that afternoon David and I went to visit our Aunt Mattie Lee. Mattie Lee was 97 years old. She never married, and she had lived alone in the same house since our grandmother died in 1976. She was totally blind, and her mobility was limited. She relied on Meals on Wheels five days a week for food. The county’s department of senior services sent someone around every other week to help with cleaning and chores. You might think Mattie Lee had a grim life – but no. She was one of those people you visit thinking you’re doing them a favor and when you leave you realize that you’re the one who is better off. She radiated a deep joy that let you know she was genuinely glad to be with you. She kept up with the news. The deacons from her church kept her informed about what was going on in her congregation. She listened to audio books that came in the mail from the state library system. While we were there my cousin Edwin stopped by to give her two estimates he had gotten from a contractor to repair some damage caused by a tree that fell on the house. Who knew how long Mattie Lee was going to be living in that house, but she questioned Edwin thoroughly to make sure that he chose the estimate that would be the best value. Then she started asking him about their mutual acquaintances and sharing small town gossip. Mattie Lee may have been blind and housebound, but she was fully engaged in life.

       The prophet Isaiah writes about a stump. In the way that prophets do, he uses the stump as a metaphor for something else. The stump is the nation of Judah, God’s chosen people. It has been cut down and left to rot, the way Judah had been destroyed by Babylon and left empty and ravaged. You look at the stump, and you think that’s the end of the mighty tree that once towered over that spot. But the prophet said, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out his roots.” God wasn’t through with that tree yet. Even though it looked dead and barren, new life would spring from it. Even though it looked as though God’s people had been wiped off the face of the earth, God would be true to the promise God made to David. A new people would rise up, led by one who fulfills God’s promise of a new creation where the poor are treated fairly and the wicked do not hold the upper hand and even the forces of nature are no longer a threat.

       Some people, maybe people like Tommy, see the stump of what remains of their life, of the hope and promise they once had, and give up. They close in on themselves and shut out others. Others, like Mattie Lee, see that stump and see the new branch sprouting out of it. They know that their lives belong to God, the God of life and hope and promise. They reach out and embrace the world. They welcome each day, each person as a gift from God, a glimpse of God’s new creation.

       Today’s New Testament lesson says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (v.13) It’s hope that lets us reach out and embrace the world around us. It’s not a way of thinking or a mental discipline. It’s not a denial of the cold hard facts. Hope is a gift from God, something we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.  

       Paul is not touting the power of positive thinking or preaching the gospel of prosperity. He is proclaiming God’s new creation where no one will be in need, where all will be healthy and whole. But something happens before the meek and the poor are given justice. Isaiah says that the entrenched powers have to be displaced. “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Before the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the kid, before the calf and the lion and the fatling come together, those carnivores will have to make some pretty big sacrifices and changes in their lifestyle. For the little child to lead them, the grownups will have to relinquish their power. Just thinking positively, just laying claim to riches or health or happiness that are supposedly yours doesn’t make that peaceable kingdom come. The powers that oppress the poor, those illnesses that ravage our bodies, even those forces of nature that harm us, the floods and fires and storms, all those things are still with us and bring us all kinds of grief and suffering, but rather than resign ourselves to those things, God gives us hope.

       Jesus is our model for how to deal with the upheavals in our lives. He shows us how that new creation comes. He lived simply, cared for the poor, welcomed the outcast, proclaimed God’s new creation in what he said and did and how he related to other people. That perfect life was broken. He suffered pain, death and desertion. Then God raised him from that tomb, the righteous branch out of the dead stump, and gave him new life. The one who was raised is the same one who died, but through his suffering and death he proclaims the power of God for life.

       Each of our lives is a continual process of incorporating our losses into the new reality of who God is shaping us to be. Jesus gives us hope and courage so we can leave behind those parts of our lives that are over and receive what God is giving us that is new. Adolescence is such a tumultuous time because we are giving up our identity as children. But we don’t abandon who we were as children. We incorporate who we have been into the new person we are becoming as an adult. Scripture says that when we marry, we leave our father and mother and cleave unto our spouse, but it doesn’t take any longer than the first Christmas to discover that your spouse’s family, with their assumptions and traditions, is still very much part of your beloved. One of the beauties of a strong marriage is the way it takes people from two different families and blends them to become a new family. One of the challenges of retirement is figuring out who you are once you’re no longer working. Your years of work shaped you, so who are you once you’re not going to work? A successful retiree is someone who doesn’t necessarily abandon the person she or he was at work, but discovers who they are now at a new stage of life, how God is bringing forth the new from what has gone before.

       It happens in all of life’s transitions, whether it’s becoming a parent or an empty-nester, putting life together after the death of someone we love, living with an illness or a disability that turns life upside down. A life lived in Christ is the life that can welcome all changes and transitions, even our losses and our griefs, because we are sure that in Christ all things do work together for good.

       That’s one of the most important things a congregation does during the time of transition between pastors. You embody the hope of Advent, the expectation that God is going to continue being faithful to God’s promises.

       Now, Eastminster Presbyterian Church is by no means a barren stump. The vital signs that measure a congregation’s health are strong. Worship attendance is stable, giving is up, you have a mission outreach locally and globally. You’re a caring congregation that is at peace with itself. Over 100 people enjoyed the Thanksgiving feast two weeks ago.

       But there is some anxiety about the future. You look out across the congregation and see lots of gray hair. The ministry to children and youth took a big hit a few years ago, and you lost a critical mass of young families. We want more children and youth but don’t know what to do.

       That’s where Isaiah’s image of the stump of Jesse is helpful for Eastminster. This Advent season is a time to learn how to wait. The promise is that for those who wait in hope, God brings forth new things out of the old.

       We all get anxious about what the future will bring, whether it’s the college we’ll attend or the job we’ll have, our family or our finances – or the future of the church. But whenever I get anxious about the future, I always remind myself that the same God who has brought me to where I am today is the God who holds my future. I have no reason to think that God, who has been so good and faithful in the past, is going to be any different in the future. So we commend our lives, our loved ones, and our church, to God who brings forth new things. We don’t know what they will be, but Advent reminds us that sometimes the right thing to is to wait in prayerful expectation so we’ll be ready to receive God’s gift, when God is ready to give it.

12-8-19 Bulletin

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12-1-19 Bulletin

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12-1-19 — A Matter of Time — Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:8-14 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Do you know what time it is? Often we treat other people as if we’re living in a different time. Parents treat grown sons and daughters as if they’re still children.  Husbands and wives don’t keep up with each other as the years go by and they discover that the ways they related to each other when they first married don’t work for the new situation that exists 5, 10, or 40 years later.  A friend or coworker has offended us, and we let that insult shape the way we relate to them for years to come instead of working through differences and starting over so that we do not live in the past.

It seems to be human nature, like generals who are always fighting the last war. Eighteen years ago the attacks of 9/11 jolted us into a whole new era. We initially responded to al Qaeda the way we’d always responded to threats to our national security, by invading foreign countries with massive firepower. We expected it to work in 2001 the same way it had worked during the first Gulf War of 1991. But after a while it became clear that Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t our fathers’ wars, that the old ways of fighting were only making things worse.

       We’re good at living in the past, but today’s New Testament lesson encourages us to live for the future.  Paul reminds the Romans, “You know what time it is.”  He was speaking to those who had given their lives to Jesus Christ, reminding them that his life was more than an affirmation of peace and joy and good will.  Paul wrote to those who knew that Jesus changed the way we look at time.  Because of Jesus, we know what time it is.  It’s not the past that shapes us any more.  The future, the promise of Jesus, is what guides us.

       Just think how knowing what the future holds affects the way you live right now.  If you’re a high school senior, you know that things will be different for you after this year, so it changes the way you think about school this week.  Once a couple becomes engaged to be married, the months before the wedding are a whirlwind of preparations for what is to come.  As you approach retirement, your goals and ambitions are tailored with that retirement date in mind.  If you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, each day takes on a different character, it becomes a gift to be savored because you know in a more intimate way than the rest of us what the future holds. 

Jesus doesn’t wipe out our past.  He doesn’t eradicate our identity or our accomplishments.  He honors those things we’ve accomplished and the good we’ve done. His life fulfilled the past. It was the culmination of all the wonderful things God had done for Israel.  But it was also the promise of the future, an affirmation of what God has in store. It affects the way we relate to the people we meet every day.  We relate to people by what we know about their past – what we’ve heard about them from others, how they’ve treated us.  And all of that is important.  You can’t deny a person’s past.  But imagine what it would be like if we related to everyone in light of the promise God has given us in Jesus.  God has something wonderful in store for each and every person on the planet.

God thinks enough of that person who bothers you, that one who has hurt you, that one who makes you toss and turn at night – God thinks enough of that person to send Jesus to die for his or her sins, just as God loves you.  God wants that person to have a place at the table when the heavenly host is gathered in glory.  When you look at a person for what God desires for him or her, are you quarrels really that important?  Is it worth your time being angry?

But it’s not just a personal promise that God makes about the future. The victory Jesus won over hopelessness and hatred and death was for all the nations. Instead of resolving differences by brinksmanship or threats of force, people will look to God to guide them to be fair to everyone. Instead of resolving conflicts with weapons and wars, the time is coming when nations will look to God to resolve their differences. All our energy, our creativity, our resources will go into improving life rather than destroying it.  We’ll beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.  We’ll beat our tanks into tractors and instead of carrying bombs our airplanes will all carry food and medicine and books.  Instead of hiring baggage screeners and security officers, we’ll be hiring childcare workers and nurses and teachers.  Jesus has bigger and better things in store for us.

Church is the place where we live that promise. One reason this congregation has thrived is because it has looked for what God is doing in the world to make all things new and getting on board with it. Your commitment to serving the community is a bold affirmation of how God’s love makes all things new. You show local families the promise of Christ’s hope when you give food to the needy and Christmas gifts to kids through Bell Shelter. Your partnership with Source of Life Ministries in Haiti that we heard about last week sends the powerful message that things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been for street kids in Haiti. The compassion you show through Stephen Ministers and deacons outreach reminds our church members that Christ makes all things new. Eastminster Preschool is an investment in the future that shapes young children to respect one another and to love learning so they’ll go on to become successful students.

One of the things a congregation works on during the transition between pastors is figuring out what time it is. For Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Greg’s retirement marked the culmination of a good era. This church is strong, a real accomplishment for any congregation these days. A new era is in the works, and one of the things that happens as a congregation welcomes a new pastor is discerning what God has in mind for Eastminster Presbyterian Church here in east York and what kind of pastoral leadership you need to fulfill God’s vision for you. It’s a matter of knowing what time it is, recognizing what’s the same and what’s different, what stays the same and what has changed. That’s not something that happens fast. It takes patience and lots of prayer. It takes a commitment to keep up the good things that God is doing here now while waiting expectantly for the new things God has in store.

For the last 2000 years the western world has marked time by the birth of Jesus.  His arrival divided history into BC and AD.  In him time is different now.  The old is finished and gone.  Everything is fresh and new.  We have to make concessions for the present, for those who would harm us, for the inequalities and the injustices that plague us now.  But we don’t get stuck in the past – and what is current today will tomorrow be past. When God sent Jesus to us, God sent us the future. In Jesus we’ve already got the very best God has in store. Jesus keeps us from getting stuck in the past because he is our future.  We don’t live by what has happened but by what is yet to come.  And the one who is coming is Jesus.  He’s where your future lies.