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1-26-20 — But I Say To You — Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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Everyone wants to do right. When did you ever set out intentionally to do wrong? You may look back on something you did and say to yourself, “That was wrong. I never should have done that.” But at the moment it probably seemed like the right thing to do. You know it’s wrong to break the speed limit, but you’re running late, so you justify breaking the law. You may regret this morning something you said to a loved one last night, but in the moment you thought he had it coming to him, and it felt like the right thing to do. And there are those times when we know that we’re doing wrong, but can’t stop ourselves and do it anyway. Flip Wilson said, “The devil made me do it.” Paul in Romans says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Even the greatest evil that human beings have carried out has been justified by some standard of what is good, even if that standard had to be contorted to justify what was done. Ethnic cleansing, whether in Darfur or Bosnia or Nazi Europe or colonial America is always given some justification, whether racial purity or bringing justice for age-old grievances or claiming a God-given destiny. Those who commit murder will offer a defense that is based on some concept of good. A drug kingpin will justify killing an opponent by the standard of fairness and justice of the mob; a jilted lover will stab his ex because he feels he has been wronged.

People want to do good, even if that means reinterpreting what good is. And that’s the problem with laws. They can be interpreted. They have loopholes; they are never expansive enough to cover all the wiles of the human heart. It’s like Janet Napolitano said when she was governor of Arizona and Congress approved building a wall along the Mexican border. “Show me a 50 foot wall and I’ll show you a 51 foot ladder.”

We are masters at justification, at finding reasons to clear our consciences and feel OK about ourselves. We need laws because they give us a minimum standard of how to live together and fulfill our minimal responsibilities as citizens. On April 15, I fully intend to pay what I owe my country in taxes, but I’m going to spend a lot time poring over my tax return to make sure I don’t pay anything more. A manufacturer is going to comply with environmental regulations to do its part for the environment and to avoid getting fined by the EPA, but it’s probably not going to do much more than the law requires or it might be at a disadvantage with its competitors. It would be nice if we could trust every person to do exactly what they were supposed to do, to pull their fair share, and to work together for the common good, but we can’t see inside the human heart. Ever since God gave the 10 Commandments to Moses, we have had laws to guide us and keep us within certain bounds for our own good and for the good of others. And ever since God gave Moses the Commandments, we’ve been looking for ways to parse our way around them.

There’s a common misconception that Jesus came to replace the understanding of God we have from the Old Testament, that he came to do away with the old laws and replace them with grace and forgiveness. Some people think that the God we know in the Old Testament is a God of law, while the God we know through Jesus is a God of grace. Well, for one thing, there’s lots of love and forgiveness and grace in the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, Jesus clearly says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Instead of letting us off the hook from having to follow the laws of the Old Testament, Jesus holds us even more accountable. He holds us accountable not for how we follow the letter of God’s law, but how we follow the spirit. He has come to bring in what he calls the kingdom of heaven, that way of living together and relating to one another that isn’t guided by self-interest or individual maximization, but by the welfare of others that springs from the God of love. He has called us to be part of that kingdom, where he tells us the requirement for belonging is “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And how do we be perfect like our heavenly Father? Not by trying harder and harder to obey the letter of the law. Not by striving to be perfect on our own. We do that by giving our lives to Jesus, who changes our hearts so that we have the heart of God.

In this section of his Sermon on the Mount that we read today, Jesus describes what it looks like when those whom he has called to be part of God’s kingdom live the way the law intends us to live. Rather than going into a long discourse on abstract concepts of justice and law and righteousness, Jesus gives some concrete examples so we can get the drift of what he’s saying. He starts with what most people consider probably the worst transgression of the law there is: murder. That’s one Commandment that most people can feel good about keeping. But Jesus says, “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’… but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you are liable to judgment.” Ouch. Who hasn’t been angry? Even Jesus was angry when he used a whip of cords to drive the moneychangers out of the temple. You can’t be a parent without getting angry with your kids for disobeying or doing something that puts them in danger. Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus “be angry but do not sin.” Anger can spark us to stand up for justice or discipline our kids or expose wrongdoing. Jesus got angry with the moneychangers and drove them out of the temple, but then he went to the cross to die for them. A parent gets angry with a child for disobeying, but then love channels that anger as motivation to train the child. Jesus knows how dangerous anger is. It’s like a nuclear reaction. If it can be channeled properly, a nuclear reaction can produce energy to power a city, but it can easily get out of control and lead to massive destruction.

A while back I read Rick Atkins’ best-selling Liberation Trilogy about the Allied liberation of Europe in World War II. He tells how ineffective Allied forces were when they first landed in North Africa in autumn of 1942 because the soldiers were green and not battle hardened. They hadn’t become angry enough with the enemy to throw themselves completely into battle. By the time the Allies were fighting their way through France and Germany in late 1944, they had become a more effective killing machine. After years of war, they became angry enough with the enemy that they could bring themselves to do things that are horrifying to read about. A few years ago Ken Burns produced a documentary on PBS called The War. It was about the American war effort, and it ended with the soldiers returning home. It told how the Greatest Generation got back into their routines, started families, and built careers. But there were certain things they never talked about around the grill on the patio or over the bridge table on Saturday night. My father was one of those. He was a Marine who earned two battle stars and a Purple Heart. I remember how he would talk fondly about his comrades and the exotic things he saw in the South Pacific. He told some scary stories about being trapped on a submerged submarine and being stranded on an island for days surviving off coconuts. But there was always a line he would never cross. It was clear there were some things he would not discuss. There were things they had to do in order to win the war and preserve our freedom, but they were things that did not always square with their image of who they were as children of God, things that they do not want to bring back up to the light of day, things that they could not have done if they hadn’t had the anger to fuel them.  We’re grateful to them for what they did for us, but what a price they had to pay.

Anger can cause us to dehumanize another person, and at the heart of all God’s commandments is the command to recognize and honor the humanity of others. Take the next example Jesus gives of adultery. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We may not be able to control the thoughts that pop into our minds, but we can control what we do with those thoughts. One way that people justify watching pornography is that they don’t act on their thoughts. If they are married, they remain physically faithful to their spouse. Adultery as Jesus defines it is anything that objectifies someone as a object of lust or disregards the vows of fidelity we make to another. It’s when we see others as objects to satisfy our desires, not as people made in the image of God, whom God loves and cares for. That is not being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Or divorce. Jesus was speaking to a culture in which all a man had to do to divorce his wife was present her with a written statement that they were now divorced. The law was written so that the woman could be free to marry another man, but in those days when women were not allowed to have the same freedoms they do today, they were basically dependent on their husbands or their fathers for survival. For a man to cut off his wife, even according to the law, was to leave her destitute with no means of supporting herself. It was treating her as an object, not a human being beloved of God.

And finally, Jesus gives the example of swearing an oath. If we truly are to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, as those who are perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, what sense does it make to swear under oath? In our legal system, you can be held liable for making a false statement under oath, but you can’t be prosecuted for telling a lie to your neighbor over lunch. That implies that there are two kinds of speech – speech under oath that is always true and other speech that may or may not be true. In God’s realm, there is only truth. God never speaks what is not true, and neither do those who are called God’s children.

So for Jesus, the standard of right and wrong is how our words and actions and thoughts build up relationships and respect others. Before Pilate sent Jesus to the cross, he found legal justification to put him to death. Jesus was convicted as a threat to the emperor and one who broke the laws. The Romans were legally justified for killing Jesus. But Jesus went to the cross to fulfill God’s law, to restore that broken relationship between humankind and God and the broken relationships among people. He showed the kind of love God has for us, which is the kind of love we are called to have for one another.

Jesus didn’t come to do away with God’s law. He came to fulfill it. And this is God’s law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We can be as precise in following the letter of the law as a Pharisee, but if we don’t do everything out of love, we are a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Jesus changes our hearts so we are fit for God’s kingdom, where the law is made perfect in love.

1-26-20 Bulletin

2-2-20 bulletin

1-19-20 — Bound To Differ — 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

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I don’t have to tell you that we’re living in divisive times. It seems like every news event that happens sends opposing sides scurrying to their ideological corners to engage in verbal combat. Even a natural disaster like the wild fires in Australia have sparked heated partisan bickering. Look at what happens every time there’s a mass shooting. Newspapers, airwaves and blogs start to explain why it happened. Those attempts usually reveal more about the commentators than about the shooter. One side of the political spectrum immediately blames the other for creating a climate of vitriol that led directly to the violence. As it becomes clearer that the alleged shooter has emotional and mental problems, the other side shoots back by saying that their accusers were once again trying to deny individual responsibility and solve all our problems by social engineering. Explaining the tragedy becomes a contest to see which side can score the best talking points.

That’s what happens when we think of politics and social discourse as a protracted sporting event, with elections being like the Super Bowl where the goal is for one side to emerge victorious over the other.  The goal isn’t to work together to arrive at what is true and good and right, but to vanquish the opponent and vindicate ourselves. It’s a zero- sum game. If what you believe is right, then those who disagree have to be wrong. Period. End of discussion.

It’s a pattern that carries over into the church. Just before Christmas I was talking with a friend of mine who is pastor of one our larger Presbyterian churches. He’s had a productive ministry there. The church’s mission and outreach has grown. A year or so ago members of the church, a same sex couple, asked if they could get married in the sanctuary. The session decided it was finally time for the church to confront that issue because there are other LGBTQ people who worship there. My friend led the church through a long and thorough process to come up with a decision that was true to scripture, would be pleasing to Christ, and preserve the peace, unity and purity of the church. But after going through the long process, he was shocked at the vitriol that surfaced when it came time to make a decision. He was disheartened by how mean some church members have been to each other. It was as they forgot all the hard work they’d done on how to discuss controversial issues in the spirit of Christ and reverted to the models of debate they see on cable TV.

Eastminster had your share of divisions and church fights in your history. By God’s grace, this is now a congregation that demonstrates the love and acceptance of Jesus and is focused on serving him faithfully without energy being diverted to quarreling. But it took a long time and lots of effort to bring healing.

If it’s any consolation, this problem isn’t new. It’s why Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. The church he had founded was being torn apart by differences. There was conflict over everything from how to worship to sexual morality. But it wasn’t just that there was disagreement. People were impugning each other’s integrity, accusing their opponents of being traitors to the faith.

Church fights can be the most painful of all because the stakes are so high. They deal with things that are at the core of our being. Even if the presenting issues seem trivial – the color of the carpet or the order of worship – they have to do with the way we honor God, and that really matters.

When the Corinthians broke into factions, cast aspersions on one another and spent all their energy fighting, they were at cross-purposes with the very reason God had called them into being. The questions they had were similar to the ones we wrestle with today: Can you really be a Christian if you don’t believe the same way I do? What kind of worship best honors God? What is the proper sexual morality for God’s people? Those are important questions. They shouldn’t be ignored or papered over. Paul wasn’t saying that anything and everything should be accepted without making any judgments about what is right and what is wrong.

Paul had some definite opinions on the controversies that were dividing the Corinthians. But before diving into the controversies, Paul reminded them that what they had in common was much more important than their differences.

He didn’t start by lecturing them on civility. He doesn’t evenhandedly weigh out the opposing arguments and try to find some middle ground. The first thing Paul did was give thanks to God for what bound them together. He says, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus for in every way you have been enriched in him… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” He starts with giving thanks.

When we give thanks, we recognize that we are dependent and fallible. Giving thanks is how we acknowledge that we can’t take credit for what we have or what we’ve accomplished. We recognize those places where God is at work among us. When we see God at work, carrying out God’s purposes, it puts our agendas in perspective.

Try this exercise for a few weeks. Every night before you go to bed, set aside a few minutes and think back over your day. Identify those places where you saw God at work in your life and give thanks for them. Maybe it was a kind word that a coworker said to you. Perhaps it was some insight you had into a dilemma that was troubling you. Maybe it was the way the sunset was reflecting off a field of snow. It could have been some strength you discovered deep inside you that helped you get through a difficult moment. Identifying those places where God was present in your life and giving thanks for them puts you in touch with something else that is going on. You realize that you’re not alone and that it’s God who strengthens you and guides you. You don’t have to be defensive about your opinions or your ideologies when you know God is working through you for something that is better than anything you can conceive of.

Martin Luther King Jr. had that perspective. He was able to see beyond any narrow interest to a broader vision of Isaiah. One of his rivals in the struggle for civil rights was Malcolm X. Malcolm ridiculed King’s philosophy of nonviolence and called for armed resistance to white segregation. The way Malcolm saw it, white people had used violence to suppress blacks for centuries, and the only way to meet violence was with violence. Malcolm wanted to vanquish the enemy so his side would win.

King realized that racism is bad for white people too. It poisons the soul of the racist. He saw the struggle as more than just one side triumphing over the other. His dream was for a world where all people live together in justice and peace, not for a world where the oppressed and the oppressor just changed sides. He dreamed of a world that was fundamentally transformed. The dream that he shared in that famous speech on the national mall in August of 1963 was taken right out of the Bible, the prophet Isaiah’s promise of the world where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and all people will live together in peace.

One of the dangers of strong convictions is that they seal us off from other perspectives. The louder and stronger we defend our positions, the less we hear those who think differently. The more we hunker down in our convictions and shut others out, the more likely we are to objectify those who disagree with us. And when we treat people as objects, we’re not showing the light of Christ that saves the world.

King and Paul both had strong convictions, but they were grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we anchor our convictions in a living, ongoing relationship with Christ, in a relationship that is nurtured and sustained by thanksgiving and prayer, then we allow him to use us to bring about his dream for what the world should be. In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” King wrote to the white pastors who told him to tone it down, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness and thereby rose above his environment.”

And Christ expects the church to rise above our environment of invective and hatred. Paul begins his letter by reminding the Corinthians who they are. They are  “the church of God that is in Corinth… those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus…” God is at the center of their being. They hadn’t voluntarily banded together as a service club or a civic organization. They weren’t an affinity group or a life-style enclave. They were called to be saints, together with all those in every place who call on the name of Jesus. The church can’t set its own agenda that’s fought out among its members. God set the agenda for the church before any of them ever belonged to it. In Isaiah 49:6 God says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” That’s why the church exists, to give Christ’s light to the nations so God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

In another one of his speeches King said, “We’re all tied together in a garment of destiny.” The church can be a model for our nation. By the way we treat those who differ from us, we can be that light to the nations. We don’t shun controversy or differences, but we deal with them in the spirit of Jesus, giving thanks first of all for the grace we’ve receive through him. Then we lay our differences before him and let him use them like threads to weave that garment of destiny. We may be bound to differ, but we’re bound together in Jesus.

1-19-20 Bulletin

1-19-20 bulletin

1-12-20 Sermon — The Rev. Chris Blackford, H.R.

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1-12-20 Bulletin

1-12-20 bulletin

1-5-20 — The Rest of the Story — Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-23 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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Over the past week you’ve probably been seeing reviews of the past decade in the news. The 2010s began on a horrific note. In just a few days we’ll be upon the tenth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti where 230,000 people lost their lives. A photo I saw captures the horror of that event. A mother kneeling on the floor, her hands clutching her head, facing upwards with tears streaming from her closed eyes, surrounded by the bodies of children, among them her own.  The verse we read from Matthew could serve as the caption of the photo: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation.  Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When you read those reviews of the past decade, with wars, genocide, floods, and earthquake, it raises a hard question for those of us who just got through celebrating the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem: Where is God in this?  It’s a question that’s asked daily somewhere by someone.  It’s asked after a violent crime.  It’s asked when there’s a diagnosis of cancer.  It’s asked when a marriage falls apart and when a dream is shattered.  When you look back over the years, there are tragedies of such magnitude that we have to ask as a community of faith Where is God in it all?

That’s when we have to hear the rest of the Christmas story, the part we leave out of our pageants and carols.  The rest of the story tells how the well-meaning inquiry of the wise men led to the death of innocent children.  The rest of the story tells what happened in the little town of Bethlehem after the wise men left, how its streets that lay so quiet on Christmas night ran with blood a few weeks later.  And it tells the story of how God was present through it all, never going back on God’s promise to deliver God’s people in the face of disaster and death.

One of the biggest hits on Broadway last year was To Kill a Mockingbird.  Not long ago, I rented the movie to watch it one more time. In one scene the hero, a small-town Southern lawyer named Atticus Finch, goes out to the country with his 10-year-old son Jem to meet with the family of Sam Robinson, the black man whom Atticus is defending against a trumped-up charge of raping a white woman.  As he’s leaving the shack where Robinson’s family lives, one of the white men who wants to lynch Robinson confronts Atticus, calls him an obscene name, and spits in his face while Jem watches.  When they return to their home in town, Atticus says to Jem, “I wish I could shield you from all the bad things in this world, son, but I can’t.”

And God doesn’t shield us.  Christmas is a time of hope and joy and promise, but it doesn’t make the world a perfect place, at least not yet.  Once Christmas was over in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph had to flee with the baby for their lives. The hope of Christmas isn’t that everything is perfect now.  The hope of Christmas is that God is with us – Emmanuel.

Our Christmas celebrations focus on the baby in the manger, but the Bible sets the scene in the midst of a world with which we can identify, a world where powers collide and leave innocent victims in their wake.  Remember how the beloved account in Luke begins: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration, and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  In Matthew’s story of the wise men, they stop in the capital city of Jerusalem to ask King Herod for directions to the child.  The Bible stories want us to be clear that the Messiah was not born into some idyllic world far removed from the conflicts and controversies that are so real to us.  The writers want us to remember that this child was born into a world that was wracked by political disputes and tormented by tyrants.  Some scholars have wondered why there is no other historical record of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.  Wouldn’t another ancient historian in addition to Matthew have noted something so horrible?  Probably not.  Herod was such a tyrant that the slaughter of a few dozen innocent children might have gone unnoticed in light of his other atrocities.  Just consider how many people have been killed by dictators in Syria or North Korea or Congo. We’ll never know their names because their individual stories are overshadowed by greater atrocities.

Jesus was born into a world that was much like ours, where the lives of innocent people were at the mercy of powers greater than themselves.  The wise men had made the mistake of asking Herod where they could find the one who was born king of the Jews.  Herod heard that as news of a rival, which is why he sent his soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem who were under two years old – just to be sure he didn’t miss the one who might threaten his power.

The Holy Family fled to Egypt.  Like many refugees who come to this country to flee persecution, they may have had family or friends in that foreign land.  Ever since the fall of Samaria in the 8th century BCE there had been a large contingent of Jews there.  When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, another wave of refugees headed west.  The prophet Jeremiah went Egypt when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem.

It’s likely Joseph and his family settled among fellow Jews and made a decent living.  Perhaps they could have stayed in Egypt and the child could have grown to live a safe and relatively comfortable life.  But that is not why the child was born.  That is not why God sent his son into the world.  After Herod died, an angel told Joseph to take Jesus back to Israel, back to the place they had fled.  There he grew up to live among the poor and the outcast.  He healed and taught and gave hope to those who had little hope.  He threatened those powers that hold sway over us, and his witness led him to a cross, where he shared the fate of those children who died in Bethlehem – the death of an innocent one who did not deserve to die.  He took on himself the pains and disappointments of the whole world.  And just as God was faithful to him in infancy and delivered him from the sword of Herod, God remained faithful in death and delivered him from the grave.  Except that Jesus’ suffering and death and victory were not for himself but for us, for you and for me and for all creation.  Jesus suffered an unjust death, even felt the absence of God when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Yet even death could not separate him from God.  Even death cannot separate us from God.  In his death he conquered death to give us hope and courage. – not only to you and me and the rest of humanity, but to the earth itself.  Romans 8 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…”  Maybe the earthquake that shook Haiti or the fires that are ravishing Australia are the groaning of creation that waits for the redemption of Christ.

There are no simple answers to explain why someone like Herod had it in his power to murder the innocent.  There are no simple answers to explain why floods and tsunamis kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people.  In the face of questions like that we cannot do much better than look to Job and stand in awe of God whose ways are so much beyond our ways that we cannot begin to comprehend them.  But when God came to us at Christmas, God showed us the divine character, and God’s character is love.  God came to be with us, to live with us and to die with us and to deliver us into eternal life.  God weeps with that mother surrounded by the bodies of her children.  God comforts those who grieve.  God upholds those who question and wonder why.  And God gives strength and purpose to those who reach out in compassion in his name.

The rest of the Christmas story brings us back to the world where Herod reigns and floodwaters rage, but there is something fundamentally different.  We know that God is with us, sharing our horror and our grief.  God is with us working through our prayers and our gifts.  God is with us giving us hope.  That is the rest of the story.

1-5-20 Bulletin

1-5-20 bulletin

12-29-19 Bulletin

12-29-19 bulletin Lessons and Carols

12-24-19 — 9 p.m. Christmas Eve Bulletin

12-24-2019 candlelight service bulletin