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5/24/20 — Belonging For Others — John 17:6-19 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Two years ago I visited Meteora in central Greece. Meteora is an area of dramatic rock outcroppings that tower over the plains of Thessaly. Centuries ago monks built monasteries on top of the rocks, places where they could be inaccessible to the world below and live together in communities that devoted themselves to work and prayer. For hundreds of years, the only way to get there was for the monks to haul you up the sheer cliffs, hundreds of meters high, in baskets attached to rope pulleys. It’s only in the last sixty years that some of them  have been accessible by road.

Each of the monasteries has a chapel that is richly adorned with art. Inside the chapels the walls are painted with illustrations of biblical scenes, saints, and patrons of the monastery. What really made an impression on me, though, were the frescoes on walls of the narthexes, or vestibules. Those rooms outside the main worship areas are where  people who did not belong to the church would sit and overhear the service going on inside. From floor to ceiling, and across the ceiling, the narthexes are covered with depictions of Christian martyrs being put to death. The scenes are gruesome. There are people being beheaded, having their arms or their breasts cut off, burned at the stake, some are even being skinned alive. What an introduction to the faith for those who didn’t belong. Pictures of Christians being boiled in oil are not exactly what modern church growth specialists would recommend you emphasize to attract people to your congregation. Come join with us! Torture and death await you!

You have to commend those monks, though, for not sugar-coating the faith. There are times when Christians suffer terribly for what we believe. And even when believers aren’t being persecuted, those frescoes tell something about the community that gathers there for worship. They are part of an ongoing lineage that includes martyrs who suffered and died at the hands of those who hated them because of their faith.

Christians are still persecuted in many parts of the world. Churches have been burned in Nigeria. Congregations have been attacked in Pakistan. Bibles and worship services are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. I’m sure that Jesus had those persecuted believers in mind when he prayed to God that night before his crucifixion and asked God to protect his disciples whom he was sending out into the world. He knew that many of them faced what he was going to endure the next day. Some would literally have to take up their cross. He prayed that God would protect them so they might be one even as he and the Father are one.

That unity would be crucial for them to endure what was ahead. Soldiers who have been in combat say that they may believe in the cause they are fighting for, but in the heat of battle, it’s their comrades for whom they would throw themselves on a live grenade. It’s the band of brothers with whom they’ve eaten, shared hardships and come to love that in the moment they fight to protect.

Which raises the question, What does that have to do with us? The threat to Christians in the United States isn’t so much persecution as indifference. Now, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes we do experience discrimination because we belong to Jesus. We can share stories of times that we’ve been scoffed at for our faith or excluded from a group. There are definitely times when following Jesus can put us at a disadvantage, perhaps when our employers or our peers expect us to do something that goes against what we know is right. It’s tempting sometimes to draw in on ourselves and find strength in the identity of a persecuted minority, but whatever we suffer for our faith in the United States is in a different category from what is depicted on the walls of the monasteries of Meteora or modern Christians whose very lives are threatened because of their faith.

One of the things about the gospel of John that challenges me is its emphasis on how Jesus’ followers are set apart from the world. John 3:16 says that Jesus came into the world because God so loved the world that he gave his only son, but in this prayer that we read today Jesus says to God, “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” John emphasizes that there is a distinction between the world and those who follow Jesus. Jesus prays that God protect his followers from the world.

And yet there are other places in the Bible where Jesus emphasizes that his followers must reach out and bring in those who do not belong to him. He tells them to go into the highways and byways and bring in whomever they can find. He especially charges them to seek out the despised and rejected like Samaritans and lepers. In the gospel according to Luke, the emphasis is not so much on protecting and strengthening the community of faith, but broadening it and becoming more involved in the world.

So which is it? Do we Christians pull in on ourselves and set ourselves apart from the world, or do we go out to engage the world and give ourselves to it? Well, it’s both. It’s an inward focus and an outward focus. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like breathing. You can’t choose whether it’s better to inhale or to exhale. You have to do both.

The psychiatrist W.D. Winnicott was sitting a park one day and observed that the children would play boldly on the swings and the monkey bars, but every once in a while, each child would scurry over to his or her mother. Maybe it was to wipe a runny nose or get a kiss for a bruise or just for a quick hug. After that brief connection with the mother, the child would run back to her or his playmates and carry on with play. That led Winnicott to observe the need for what he called holding objects. It’s something that is obvious among children on the playground, but it’s something we need throughout life. We need grounding in something solid and reliable, a place where we can feel safe and renewed, in order to go out into the world and thrive.

That’s why families are so important for a healthy, flourishing life. Families provide a place where we can find strength and support, a place we belong. In order to provide that kind of support, there is something exclusive about a family. It can’t include everyone. Being part of a family means that you are treated differently from others.

The late Haddon Robinson, a renowned preacher, told about the first time he met his future wife’s parents. He and his fiancée travelled to her hometown, went to her parents’ house, and when her mother opened the door, his fiancée said, “Mother, this is Haddon.” She gave him a big hug and said, “Come in, come in. We’ve so been looking forward to meeting you. You must be starving. Let me show you into the kitchen.” She opened the refrigerator, and took out some of the delicious dishes she’d prepared. She told him, “Now you know where the kitchen is. Help yourself to anything that’s here. I know you must be tired after your long trip. We’ve prepared the best room in the house for you. It’s in down in the basement. Let me show you.” So she took him downstairs and showed him his room, with its own bath and a large comfortable bed. He was feeling great. He hadn’t even been there an hour and already he had the run of the kitchen and the best room in the house. He lay down, and after he’d been resting for a little while there was a knock on the door. It was his fiancée’s father. “Haddon,” he said, “I’m so happy to meet you. I hope you’re comfortable. Look, I know that you and my daughter have lots of things to do, so here are the keys to the car. Help yourself to it whenever you want.” He hadn’t even been there two hours, and already he had the run of the kitchen, the best room in the house, and the keys to the car.

But then he wonders, What if he had not known their daughter? What if he had just walked up off the street, knocked on the door and said, “Hi, I’m Haddon Robinson.” He was sure that his mother in law would have been polite. She would have said, “Yes, can I help you?” “Sure. I’d like something to eat.” Kind woman that she was, she probably would have taken him into the kitchen and given him a sandwich. Then if he’d said, “Can I have a place to sleep,” that’s when she would have gone into the back room and called the police to help him find the homeless shelter.

We treat family differently. That doesn’t mean that we are indifferent to others, but it does mean that we need a place we can call home, a community where we find strength in the love and support that binds us together in a special way. Jesus is the one who brings us to the family of faith. He is the one who opens up to us the riches of the heavenly Parent who welcomes us into the household.

Like any family, the family of faith has to work on staying connected. Family support isn’t something that exists in the abstract. It takes concrete forms. We make a point of getting together with those we love whenever we can to share our joys and sorrows, to encourage each other, and to listen. If we can’t get together, we write or email or FaceTime. We pray for each other.

Eastminster does a good job of keeping this church family connected and strong. Groups like Stephen Ministers and Sunday school classes provide a place where people can come together in caring and supportive ways. Bonding and friendship take place at committee meetings, work days, and NOAH luncheons. During the quarantine, the deacons are working to be the connecting tissue of our body while we’re apart, and people are reaching out to each other over the phone or in Zoom meetings. When the church family is working well, when it reflects the unity and the joy for which Jesus prayed in the upper room, we can do the work of reaching out into the world for Christ.

The reason I was in Greece two years ago was for the annual meeting of the Association of International Churches in Europe and the Middle East. It’s a network of congregations like the one in Zurich where I was interim pastor that serve international English-speaking communities. Every year the pastors of those churches gather for a week of sharing, worship and learning. That year the gathering concluded with dinner at a very nice restaurant in the heart of Athens. An old mansion had been lovingly converted into a space that was tastefully decorated with original artwork and creative design. The food was gourmet, and the service excellent. Our group of 45 were the only ones there that night. The spirit of the evening reflected the bonds that had been formed over the previous week. There was joy and laughter and encouragement. As I was leaving, I thanked the owner. He told me that that evening was the best in the 12 years his restaurant had been open. There was a sense of joy that pervaded the group, and he noticed how they had shown their appreciation to his staff that served them.

After we all returned home, the man who had organized the meeting, James Bultema, a pastor in Turkey, sent around an email telling us that after our dinner the owner of the restaurant asked if he could walk with him back to the hotel. He told James what he had told me, that it had been the best night at his restaurant since it opened. He asked James what it was that made the group different. Was it the fact that we were all Protestants? James explained that what makes the difference, no matter what branch of the church, is that we belong to Jesus. Through him we have the power of the Holy Spirit flowing among us. Belonging to Jesus gives us strength and joy and peace which the world can see in our life together. James was writing to ask us to keep the owner of that restaurant in our prayers, that he would respond to what he had seen among our group by renewing his relationship with Christ. In that community of believers who gathered in his restaurant, the owner saw what Jesus was offering him.

Eastminster prides itself on what a close and supportive church family it is. That is truly a blessing from God. It is a blessing that God has given you so you can be a blessing to others. Mission outreach is different right now. The preschool isn’t meeting. Backpacks aren’t being packed for East York Elementary School and mentors can’t meet with their students. But as we move into the new normal, the world is going to need this church even more than ever before. People who are struggling to find hope will need to see what God has in store for the new creation, where we resist the temptations to blame and fight and compete and instead love and help and care.

What Eastminster has is what God intends for everyone. Jesus calls us into this community of faith so we can find strength and courage to be in the world, the world that he loves so much that he gave his life to bring it back to God. Because we belong to God, we belong to each other, and together we show everyone in the world how much Jesus loves them.

5-17-20 Online Worship Service

 

Service for the Lord’s Day

Sunday, May 17, 2020

 

Gathering

 

Chimes

 

Welcome

 

Prelude                                                        Stand Up and Bless the Lord                             Robert Powell                     

 

Opening Sentences

 

Gathering Prayer

 

Hymn No.  379                     My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (vs. 1 and 4)                         Solid Rock

 

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

 

REFRAIN – On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand.  All other ground is singing sand.

All other ground is sinking sand.

 

When He shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in Him be found,

Dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before Thy throne.  (repeat REFRAIN)                                            

 

Confession and Pardon

 

Response                                          Goodness is Stronger Than Evil                                          John Bell

 

Goodness is stronger than evil.  Love is stronger than hate.

Light is stronger than darkness.  Life is stronger than death.

Victory is ours, victory is ours through Him who loved us!

Victory is ours, victory is ours through Him who loved us!

 

 

Word

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

Scripture

1 Peter 3:13-22

                                                                                                                                                           

Sermon                                                          In Good Conscience

 

Hymn No. 339                                              Be Thou My Vision (vs. 1 and 3)                                      Slane

 

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.  Nought be all else to me, save that Thou art.

Thou, my best thought by day or by night.  Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

 

Be Thou my wisdom, and Thou my true word.  I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord.

Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.

        

Offering

 

Offertory                                        Fairest Lord Jesus                                 arr. James Michael Stevens

Janis McCollim, flute solo             

 

 

RESPONSE                           Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart                                          Henry Smith

 

Give thanks with a grateful heart.  Give thanks to the Holy One.

Give thanks because he’s given Jesus Christ, his Son.

And now, let the weak say “I am strong.”  Let the poor say “I am rich,”

Because of what the Lord has done for us.  Give thanks!

 

Prayers of Intercession

 

     Lord’s Prayer

 

 

Sending

 

Hymn                                              I Love to Tell the Story (vs. 1 and 3)                             William Fischer

 

I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.

I love to tell the story because I know ‘tis true.  It satisfies my longings as nothing else could do.

 

REFRAIN – I love to tell the story.  ‘Twill be my theme in glory

to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

 

I love to tell the story, for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.  And when in scenes of glory I sing the new, new song,

‘twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.  (repeat REFRAIN)                                             

 

Blessing and Charge

 

Postlude                                               Cornet Voluntary                                                        John Travers                         

 

 

Next week’s sermon is “Belonging for Others.” The scripture text is John 17:6-19.

 

Thanks to Jill Duffield of The Presbyterian Outlook and The Book of Common Worship (PCUSA)  for portions of this service.

 

In Good Conscience

Everyone wants a good conscience.  Who hasn’t wrestled over right and wrong, trying to listen to what your conscience is trying to tell you?  And who hasn’t felt that pang of conscience when you’ve done something you know you shouldn’t have done?  We’ll go to great lengths to have a good conscience.  We’ll even convince ourselves that the truth is a lie so our conscience won’t bother us.  When a child is caught being naughty, she’ll point to her brother and say, “He made me do it!”  A CEO will convince himself that he didn’t know his company’s books were being cooked, even if he did conveniently look the other way.  And when people can’t have a good conscience within the accepted norms of right and wrong, they’ll construct their own system of morality.  The Sopranos lived by the mob’s code of honor.  They might grow rich by murder and extortion, but within their own moral framework, they had standards of right and wrong.  Suicide bombers in the Middle East can kill innocent bystanders in good conscience because they see their acts within the context of a skewed understanding of jihad.

A good conscience is important to us, but there is a lot working against it.  In fact, the forces working against a good conscience are so strong that we need something more than our own willpower to keep our conscience from being overwhelmed.  We face temptation, peer pressure, fear – left to itself, our poor little conscience can’t stand up for us on its own.  A set of rules or guidelines can help, but what we really need is a guide, someone who can help us see in every situation what is the right thing to do.  We need someone to give us courage to face up to all those things that overwhelm our conscience.

1 Peter was written to early Christians who were struggling with their conscience.  They were faced with difficult choices.  Their commitment to Christ put them at odds with many of the things that were accepted, even expected, in ancient times.  Their faith put them at odds with things that had been engrained in them since their birth.  For example, everyone who lived in the Roman Empire was expected to worship the emperor.  You could worship any other god you pleased, but you had to acknowledge that the emperor had supreme allegiance in your life.  Christians couldn’t do that.  To follow Christ is to make him first in your life, ahead of everything, even country.  If they didn’t worship the emperor, they could be tortured or even killed.  Their consciences were conflicted.  Should they be loyal to those values their government, their peers, even their families held, or should they be loyal to Christ?

Peter reminded those early Christians of their baptism.  Baptism was their assurance that a good conscience rests in Christ, and in Christ there is nothing that can shake it.  We share Christ’s death and we share his resurrection.  Every power that could hurt us is subject to him.  What do we have to fear by letting him guide our conscience?

One of the first Christians to show the power of a good conscience in Christ was a man named Stephen.  (He is the namesake of our Stephen Ministers.)  The story of Stephen is found in the seventh chapter of Acts.  Stephen was a deacon in the church in Jerusalem in the first years after Jesus ascended into heaven.  Deacons were those who cared for the widows and the orphans in the early church.  Stephen was clear and articulate about why he served.  He let everyone who would listen know that by serving the poor he was serving his Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, in those days the nerves of the authorities were still raw after their encounter with Jesus.  They had crucified him because they feared that his growing popularity was a threat to their power.  But things had only gotten worse for them.  More and more people believed that Jesus rose from the dead.  When Stephen spoke about Jesus, people responded and gave their lives to the Lord.  So the authorities arrested Stephen and told him to account for himself.

Don’t you ever wonder what you would do if you were arrested because of your faith in Jesus?  Do you wonder if there would even be enough evidence to convict you of being his follower?  Do you wonder if you’d have the courage to stand up for what you believe?  Stephen could have rationalized that he’d be more effective for Christ if he just kept quiet and stayed alive.  But his conscience was firmly grounded in Jesus.  He gave a long and eloquent defense of his faith, a powerful testimony to his Lord Jesus Christ.  The crowds were so angry that they picked up rocks to stone him to death, but he calmly prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  His last words were not words of anger or vindictiveness or revenge.  His last words were like those of Jesus, words of a good conscience.  “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  (Acts 7:59-60)  Stephen’s conscience was grounded in Christ.

William Sheppard had a conscience grounded in Christ.  In 1890 he became the first black Presbyterian missionary to Africa.  Sheppard went to the Congo.  In those days the Congo belonged to King Leopold of Belgium.  Leopold had vast rubber operations there.  His henchmen would force villagers who lived deep in the forests to leave their farms and work in the jungles tapping the rubber trees for sap.  That sap was processed to make rubber.   The workers lived in subhuman conditions.  Meanwhile, their families starved to death because there was no one to tend the crops.

One day in 1899 Sheppard was traveling in the bush and came across a camp of soldiers in the service of the king’s rubber company.  There was a horrible stench in the air, and in the camp were a large number of objects arrayed on racks being smoked for preservation over an open fire.  The leader of the soldiers told him they were hands – the right hands of 81 villagers who had resisted capture.  The leader told Sheppard, “I always have to cut off the right hands of those we kill in order to show the State how many we have killed.”[1]

Sheppard wrote about his discovery and other atrocities committed by the king’s rubber company in missionary journals that were widely distributed in churches in the United States and Britain.  He wrote in spite of a law forbidding anyone to write anything critical of the king or his agents.  As a result of Sheppard’s articles world opinion began to swell against the Belgian atrocities.  The Belgians put Sheppard on trial, but he was acquitted on a technicality, probably because of the presence of the American and British consuls in the courtroom.  As a result of Sheppard’s bravery, the world community put pressure on the king of Belgium to cease his forced labor.

Sheppard had plenty to fear in following his conscience and exposing those atrocities.  He broke the law in order to do it.  But the same faith that led him to brave the jungles of Africa, risk malaria, and risk instant death so he could preach the gospel to remote Bakuba people gave him the courage to speak out against the King of Belgium.  When your conscience is grounded in the everlasting God, what do you have to fear?  Sheppard ended his life as pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Louisville.  When he died so many people came to his funeral that his little church couldn’t hold them all, so the service was held at Second Presbyterian Church where, many years later, I had the privilege of serving as pastor.

That same faith guides the conscience of Christians every day.  Most of our stories aren’t as dramatic as those of Stephen or of William Sheppard.  But a conscience grounded in Christ still gives courage as it has through the ages.

A high school junior I’ll call Alice was out driving around with some friends on a Friday night.  There were five in the car.  As they were driving through a park, the girl driving the car pulled a bottle of spiced rum out of her purse and took a drink.  She passed it around.  Alice was scared.  She didn’t want her friends to ridicule her and make fun of her for being too good to do what they were doing.  She didn’t want to be cut off from them.  But she remembered what she had read in the Bible about our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit.  She knew that what she did reflected on her family and on Jesus.  She knew she didn’t have anything to fear, so she said no and asked the driver to let her off at a convenience store so she could call her parents to pick her up.

When you were baptized, God grounded your conscience in Christ.  You share his resurrection to eternal life.  Sometimes we get weary.  We forget or get distracted.  But Christ doesn’t forget.    He nourishes us and he fortifies us with his spirit.  He prepares us to stand up for him, and he stands with us, just as he stood with Stephen and William Sheppard and Alice.  He gives us a good conscience.  In Christ there’s nothing to fear.

[1] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (Boston: Mariner Books, 1999), p. 164.

5-10-20 Online Service

 

Service for the Lord’s Day

Sunday, May 10, 2020

 

Gathering

 

Chimes

 

Welcome

 

Prelude                                             All Glory Be to God on High                             arr. David Cherwien      

 

Opening Sentences

 

Gathering Prayer

 

Hymn No. 423                            Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun (vs. 1,2 and 4)           Duke Street

 

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run.

His kingdoms stretch from shore to shore till moons shall wax and wane no more.

 

To Him shall endless prayer be made, and praises throng to crown His head.

His name, like sweet perfume, shall rise with every morning sacrifice.

 

Blessings abound where’er He reigns.  The prisoners leap to lose their chains,

The weary find eternal rest, and all who suffer want are blessed.

  

Confession and Pardon

Thanks be to God.

 

Response                                                        God Be the Love                                                 Green Tyler

 

God be the love to search and keep me.  God be the prayer to move my voice.

God be the strength to now uphold me.  O Christ, surround me.  O Christ, surround me.              

 

Word

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

Scripture

Acts 1:6-14

                                                                                                                                                           

Sermon                                                       On Mother’s Prayers

 

Hymn No. 359                                   More Love to Thee, O Christ (vs. 1 and 2)        More Love to Thee

 

More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to Thee!  Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.

This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ to Thee.  More love to Thee.  More love to Thee.

 

Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest.  Now Thee alone I seek.  Give what is best.

This all my prayer shall be: More love, O Christ to Thee. More love to Thee.  More love to Thee.

                                             

Offering

 

Offertory                                          His Eye Is On the Sparrow                                     Charles Gabriel

Tania O’Hearn, solo                

 

RESPONSE                                                       A Grateful Heart                                             O Waly Waly

 

A grateful heart is what I bring, a song of praise, my offering.

Among the saints I lift my voice.  In you, O God, I will rejoice.

 

Prayers of Intercession

 

Lord’s Prayer

 

Sending

 

HYMN NO. 369                      I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me (vs. 1,3 and 4)                  Spiritual

 

I’m gonna live so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

I’m gonna live so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

 

I’m gonna pray so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

I’m gonna pray so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

 

I’m gonna sing so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

I’m gonna sing so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

                          

Blessing and Charge

 

Postlude                                                      Fugue in G minor                                                        J.S. Bach

         

 

Next week’s sermon is “In Good Conscience” The scripture text is 1 Peter 3:13-22.

 

On Mother’s Prayers

In my family we relied on my mother’s prayers.

Once my wife and I were facing an important family decision.  We kept reminding ourselves, “Mom is praying for us.”  When the situation was resolved in a way that made us all breathe a sigh of relief, we called my parents to tell them.  My father’s first words were, “That’s your mother’s prayers at work.  She’s prayed about it at breakfast, at lunch and at supper, in our morning devotions and at bedtime.  That’s five times a day I’ve heard her, plus who knows how many other times.”  Of course, the rest of us were praying too, but there is something about my mother’s prayers that we all depended on.

We’re not the only family that relies on a mother’s prayers.  I’ve heard it from many others.  Maybe there’s something about the experience of being a mother that teaches a woman to rely on God.  What vocation demands as much as motherhood and has stakes that are so high?  Maybe it’s a mother’s unique perspective on time that teaches her how to rely on prayer.  When you’re changing diapers, cleaning up messes, reading aloud the same children’s stories over and over, the days seem to drag on forever.  But on that first day of school or that 16th birthday or watching your baby graduate from high school, the years seem to fly by at the speed of light.  You realize that your grasp on time is unreliable, that time is something that belongs to God, not to you.

It’s almost as if you develop a different set of eyes.  Frederick Buechner calls them eyes of the heart.  They’re not reserved for mothers, although mothers are good at teaching us how to see through those eyes.  Buechner describes what it’s like for him to see with the eyes of the heart:

“That day on the staircase when I met my first grandchild for the first time, what I saw with the eyes of my head was a very small boy with silvery gold hair and eyes the color of blue denim coming down toward me in his mother’s arms.  What I saw with the eyes of my heart was a life that without a moment’s hesitation I would have given my life for.”[1]

When we pray, God shows us life through the eyes of the heart.  And as we see through the eyes of the heart, we learn how to pray.

Those disciples who gathered with Jesus on Mt. Olivet outside Jerusalem were learning how to see with the eyes of the heart.  Like the rest of us, they were more accustomed to seeing with the eyes of the head.  They were hoping that Jesus was about to restore Israel to its former glory.  They expected him to claim the throne of David, throw off their Roman oppressors, and set them up as his royal advisors.  He had vindicated his claim to the Son of God.  The authorities had crucified him, but he had risen from the grave.  What couldn’t he do with that kind of power?  40 days had gone by and their expectation was building.  Was now the time when their waiting would end?  They wanted to know.  They asked Jesus if this was the time he was going to restore the kingdom of Israel.

But Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  God has a purpose, and God has a role for us in that purpose.  But time is in God’s hands, not ours.

That’s the conviction with which my mother prayed.  When she prayed for my family and me, for my brother, for the members of her church who were in the hospital, for the safety of the troops overseas or for peace in the world, she prayed with confidence that it’s all in God’s hands.

But that’s hard.  One of the biggest tests of faith is to trust that even if we don’t know, God knows.  The more we know, the more we feel in control of things.  When will I get that job?  When will the pandemic end?  When will I get well?  When, when, when?  That’s one reason the Left Behind series of novels was so popular.  There are about a dozen of them in the series, and every one went to the top of the bestseller list as soon as it was released.  People read them and felt like they knew what the future holds.  If you know what the future holds, it’s not so scary or uncertain.  The Left Behind novels give a scenario of how the world is going to come to an end.  Their premise is based on a particular way of reading the Bible known as dispensational premillennialism.   Dispensational premillennialism uses passages of scripture to construct a timetable for the world to end.  Every generation has its popular advocates of that way of reading scripture.  When I was a teenager, Hal Lindsay was its popular purveyor.  His best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth claimed that the world was going to come to an end before I became an adult.  Don’t you think that gave some incentive for me to behave myself!  But his predictions didn’t pan out.  We’re still here.  Every generation we’re reminded that the course of history is in God’s hands, and it’s not our job to try to predict exactly how things are going to go.  The Left Behind novels might be good beach reading, but they’re not good theology.  They appeal to our burning desire to predict what God is going to do, in spite of Jesus’ clear words, “It is not for you to know the times or periods” that belong to God.

It’s harder to trust without seeing, to live by the eyes of the heart.  That’s what it means to live by faith.  But Jesus gives us what we need to live by faith.  He told the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  To the eyes of the head it looked like he left them behind when he rose up on a cloud into heaven, but the eyes of the heart let us see that he’s with us now more surely than ever.  Ascended to heaven, Jesus is not confined to a particular time like the first century A.D. or to a particular place like Palestine.  The very same Jesus who healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, welcomed sinners, and gave hope to the poor is now everywhere all the time through the Holy Spirit.  He is with us, even though the eyes of the head cannot see him.

Jesus left his disciples a huge assignment – bear witness to him to the ends of the earth.  He told them to trust that he is working through them to bring his kingdom of peace and justice and love to the whole world – in his own time.  And what is the first thing they did to prepare for such a huge task?  They prayed, and not just a quick little bullet prayer, “Lord, help us.” They were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”  The first and essential thing we have to do before we can do anything for Jesus is pray.

Some have been using this time of quarantine and social distancing to pray more. For many, there are less distractions. And for most of us, we’ve been reminded just how little control we have over our lives. The pandemic has come to Eastminster during a time of transition. Back in March the pastor nominating committee was having serious conversations with candidates to be your next pastor. I was thinking about what I could be doing to help lay out the welcome mat for him or her in the early summer. The PNC is still at work, still maintaining contact with candidates, but like everything else, the process has been slowed down. But that may not be such a bad thing. We can use this time to bolster our prayers for the search committee’s discernment, for preparing the heart of the one whom God has in mind to hear the call, and for the Spirit to work among the congregation to be open to the new opportunities for ministry that will be there in that new era when we’re together again.

It’s going to take lots of planning and strategy to seize the opportunities that will be there, but more than anything it’s going to take prayer.  The temptation is always to run the church as if it’s ours, to see our ministry only with the eyes of our head.  But prayer lets us see the church for what it really is.  It is not ours but Christ’s, and he has entrusted us with its welfare.

When we see through the eyes of the heart, everything about the church looks different.  Visitors are not potential new members.  They are people whom Jesus is calling to be part of his body, friends who need Christ and whom he will use to enrich our witness.  Worship is not only a place where we come to get our needs met, to be renewed and refreshed.  It is also a place we come to glorify God and serve God with our songs and our prayers.  Sunday school and NOAH luncheons, FMC work days and choir practice are not activities for our personal enrichment, but a demonstration to the world of what the kingdom of heaven looks like when God’s people come together.

When we pray, we acknowledge that there are lots of things we don’t know, that we can only see so much with the eyes of the head. My mother assured us that is OK. Just as we relied on her when we were children to provide for everything we needed, she relied on God. She could with the eyes of the heart. May God open our eyes that we may see.

 

 

 

[1] Frederick Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), p. 165f. as quoted by the Rev. Dee Wade in Lectionary Boofay notes for Ascension Sunday 2005.

5-3-20 Online Service

 

Service for the Lord’s Day

Sunday, May 3, 2020

 

Gathering

 

Chimes

 

Welcome

 

Prelude                                          All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name                    Anthony Giamanco           

 

Opening Sentences

 

Gathering Prayer

 

HYMN NO. 108                                          Christ is Alive! (vs. 1, 3, and 5)                                   Truro

 

Christ is Alive!  Let Christians sing.  The cross stands empty to the sky.

Let streets and homes with praises ring.  Love, drowned in death, shall never die.

 

Not throned afar, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains,

But daily in the midst of life, our Savior in the Godhead reigns.

 

Christ is alive, and comes to bring good news to this and every age.

Till earth and sky and ocean ring with joy, with justice, love and praise.

 

Confession and Pardon

 

Response                                                Glory Be to the Father                                        Gloria Patri

 

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen, Amen.

 

Word

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

Scripture  Luke 24:36b-48

                                                                                                                                                           

Sermon                                         Witnesses of These Things

 

HYMN NO. 324                       Open My Eyes That I May See (vs. 1 and 2)               Clara H. Scott 

 

Open my eyes that I may see glimpses of truth Thou hast for me.

Place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free.

Silently now I wait for Thee, ready my God, Thy will to see.

Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine. 

 

Open my ears that I may hear voices of truth Thou sendest clear.

And while the wavenotes fall on my ear, everything false will disappear.

Silently now I wait for Thee, ready my God, Thy will to see.

Open my ears, illumine me, Spirit divine. 

 

 

Offering

 

Offertory                                             What a Lovely Name                                       Charles Wycuff 

Don Wonders, solo 

 

RESPONSE                              Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow                         Doxology 

 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Praise Him all creatures here below.

Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.  Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.                    

 

 

Prayers of Intercession

 

Lord’s Prayer

 

Sending

 

Hymn No. 457             I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art (vs. 1, 4 and 5)                 Toulon

 

I greet Thee, who my sure Redeemer art, my only trust and Savior of my heart.

Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake.  I pray Thee from our hearts all cares to take.

 

Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness.  No harshness hast Thou and no bitterness.

O grant to us the grace we find in Thee, that we may dwell in perfect unity.

 

Our hope is in no other save in Thee.  Our faith is built upon Thy promise free,

Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure, that in Thy strength we evermore endure.

 

                          

Blessing and Charge

 

Postlude                                           Toccata in F Major                             Dietrich Buxtehude                                        

 

 

 Next week’s sermon is “On Mother’s Prayers.” The scripture text is Acts 1:6-14

 

Witnesses of These Things

When I was interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church downtown, I was called to be a witness. The church was making an appeal before the York County Board of Assessment Appeals. The church made the case that the income it received from renting spaces in the parking lot across the alley shouldn’t be taxed because it supports the work of the church, primarily through its Caring Ministry that relieves the government from some of its burden to help those in need. Now, I know nothing about the zoning regulations of York County. I did know something about the work of First Presbyterian Church after having been interim pastor for 17 months. And that’s what the panel wanted to know from me. They wanted me to testify about the work of the church. Fortunately, the church’s gifted attorney, elder Amanda Snoke Dubbs, gave me a summary of the relevant facts ahead of time so I was prepared to testify. When the panel asked me something I didn’t understand, Amanda coached me or rephrased the question for me so I could answer in a way that made sense and helped our case. The result was that the panel granted an exemption to some of the parking spaces, so there would be a little more money in the church budget to help the community.

In the closing verses of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.” Their lives had been changed by him. They had left everything to follow him. But they were not to revel in the new life they had in Jesus and turn their backs to the rest of the world. His final charge to them was to be witnesses to what they had seen and experienced. They wouldn’t be on their own. He promised that he would be with them and that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit would guide them in their testimony.

We don’t know what went on inside each one of the disciples that caused them to follow Jesus. That’s probably a good thing. If we knew exactly what went on in the heart of Andrew as he left his fishing nets to follow Jesus, we might say, “Well, I’ve never felt that,” and ignore Jesus’ call to us. If we knew the complete back-story of Matthew’s decision to leave his post as a tax collector to be a disciple, we might decide that our story isn’t like his, so Jesus wouldn’t call us. Each one of us who follows Jesus has our own stories, our own reasons, our own motivations. Some of us follow Jesus because he has been part of our identity since birth. We can’t think of ourselves as anyone other than someone who belongs to Jesus. Some are his followers because he is how we make sense out of life and the world. We’ve tried to live without him at the center of our life and discovered that it just doesn’t work unless he is at the center of our being. Some have had a deeply personal encounter with him, literally heard him calling your name or touching the core of your being, accepting you and claiming you for all your shortcomings and your strengths. Some follow him because he is the one who gives purpose and meaning to what you do. He is the one who puts your life into a context that is larger than the moment. He is the one who assures you that there is more to life than what is right in front of you. Some have had all of these experience or more. Each of us knows Jesus in our own very personal way. Yet we hear Jesus speak to us, as he spoke to the disciples, “You are witnesses of these things” – these things that we know through him. He sends us beyond our own personal encounters to bear witness to what we’ve experienced in him.

This is where a lot of us get nervous. We feel this huge burden that it’s up to us to bring the world, or at least our corner of it, to Jesus. And if we don’t, then we’re accountable for the eternal fate of our friends and family and even the passing acquaintances we meet. Don’t get me wrong. Jesus is clear that there is urgency to proclaiming the gospel. We can’t be complacent about getting the word out to a hurting world. But in the end, you and I don’t bring people to Jesus. He brings them to himself, sometimes using us. That should relieve us of lots of the anxiety about whether or not we are faithful witnesses. For one thing, God isn’t confined to our efforts. Being a witness to what we know in Christ doesn’t mean we have to shove Jesus into every conversation at home or at work. It doesn’t mean we have to prove that Christianity is superior to every other religion. We don’t have to prove to anyone that the Bible is the Word of God. The story we read from Luke says that Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to understand the scripture. All we have to do is bear witness to what we know, that Jesus is Lord, by our words and our actions. And that is something we can always become more skilled at doing. We need to learn more about the Bible, about theology, about how God works in the world. It’s really important to pray daily, to study the Bible, to meet with other followers of Jesus so we can become more attuned to Jesus at work in our lives – and bear witness to what we see.

Some people worry about having to talk about their faith. They’re afraid they won’t be convincing or they’ll say something wrong or they’ll embarrass themselves or be considered pushy or obnoxious. The point of witnessing isn’t to always be on the lookout for how to get in a word. Sometimes our witness is in the way we relate to others. Many of us are feeling a lot more stress these days. It’s easier to notice the irritating things about those we live with if we’re with them 24/7. If we do go out, whether to work or to the grocery store, even the simplest tasks like standing in the checkout line are more complicated, and our nerves are frayed because of the threat of getting sick. And yet the way we treat others when we’re stressed is bearing witness to the one who is the prince of peace, who desires all people to live together in harmony.

God might open an opportunity to say something about the one who is the source of your peace. When we treat our coworkers and neighbors the way Jesus would treat them, people just might notice, and we may even have the chance to bear verbal testimony. But wherever we are, we are witnesses to the one who claims our lives. Some will understand that witness and others won’t, but it is Jesus who opens hearts and minds. We just say and do what we know.

And that witness isn’t stopped by age or illness. One of the things I like about meeting with Stephen Ministers is hearing their witness to the testimony they’ve received from people who receive their care. They are always very careful to preserve the anonymity of the people they care for, but their faith and witness is enriched by those people who bear witness to the power of Christ from their room in the nursing home or the bed where they are spending their final days. Some of my best teachers of the faith have been members of churches I’ve served who face illness or even death with courage and hope, knowing that the one who has sustained them through their years will sustain them into everlasting life. That helps me find peace and comfort even when that same Lord in my troubles that are small compared to theirs.

We have to be careful, though, not to limit that witness to our individual lives. When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he was speaking to the community that was his church, his body. Jesus doesn’t send us to bear witness as individuals. He sends us as members of a community. When we give our lives to him, we become part of that community, the church, that he sends to bear witness to him.

One sign of a congregation that is thriving is that it recognizes it doesn’t exist only for its own comfort or survival or support of its members. The church exists for the world. Eastminster exists because God has put you here to be a witness to this community. When I was called as a witness at the board of assessment and appeals, the members of that board weren’t interested in whether or not the church was being a faithful witness to Jesus. Theirs is a secular purpose. But we help neighbors because that is one way to bear witness to Jesus who stands with the poor and the suffering so they might have fullness of life.

Of course, if you’re a member at Eastminster, you do receive great services. You partake of quality worship, stimulating education, support and care in the fellowship of friends. But ultimately all of the internal things we receive here at the church are to equip us to be a witness for Jesus to the world, wherever we are.

Jesus is the one who opens hearts, changes lives, heals divisions, and makes us one. We are living proof that the God who created the universe loves us enough to come to us in Jesus and invites all people to live forever with him in peace and glory. We are witnesses of these things. Where are you called to testify?