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6-28-20 — A Test of Faith — Genesis 22:1-18, Matthew 10:34-39 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

What kind of God would do such a thing?  Abraham had waited a lifetime to have a son; he had staked all he had on his faith that God would be true to God’s word.  How could God watch as Abraham saddled his donkey, cut the firewood, and walked for three days toward Moriah; as he unloaded the wood from the donkey, laid it on the boy’s back, took the fire and knife in hand, and climbed the mountain?  How could God stand the silence of those footsteps, broken only when Isaac asked, full of innocence and trust, “Father, here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” What kind of God could watch as Abraham gathered stones to build an altar, placed the wood in order, bound the boy with cords and laid him on the pyre, as the father reached out his hand and took the knife and raised it high above his head to plunge it into the flesh of his son?  What kind of a God is that?

And what kind of man was Abraham? How could Abraham do it, even if God did tell him to, how could he raise a knife over his son, his only son, the son he loved?

This story makes me shudder.  In fact, it’s an embarrassment to moderate people like us, we who run from excess and paint our pictures of God in bright, pastel shades.  Most of us are easy-going about our religion.  We confess our minimal sins and give God what we consider a reasonable return.  But we try to be careful about going overboard with it.

And yet this God we worship so carefully is the same God who told Abraham to sacrifice his son.  What does that tell us about God?  What does that tell us about ourselves? Maybe our revulsion at Abraham’s sacrifice isn’t an indictment of Abraham’s zeal or God’s demand.  Maybe our horror is an indictment of us.  Maybe we do not take God seriously enough.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis is a series of fantasies about some children who enter a strange and wonderful world as they are playing in an old wardrobe.  One of the characters in the Chronicles is a lion named Aslan who is a figure for Christ.  In this passage from the book The Silver Chair one of the children named Jill confronts the lion by a sparkling brook.

 

“Are you thirsty?” said the Lion.

“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl.  And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion.  It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry.  It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer.  “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.  [1]

 

How hard we try to tame the Lion.  How hard we try to domesticate God.  We would be more comfortable with Abraham if he had stood up to God, if instead of replying, “Here I am,” he had said, “No.  I will not give you my son.  He is mine to protect and to rear.  I will not give him back.” We would understand if Abraham were willing to sacrifice almost anything to God, but drew the line at his son.  Yet God asked Abraham, “Will you trust me with the gift I have given you, the most precious thing in your life?”

Now, you and I know as we read the story that it was a test.  The Bible makes it clear from the start, when it says, “God tested Abraham.”  God forbade human sacrifice, and Abraham knew that.  That’s what made his obedience all the more remarkable.  He was willing to lay aside even his understanding of right and wrong to be obedient to God.

There are people today who believe God asks for human sacrifice.  They are the people who with all good intentions say to a bereaved parent, “God needed your child in a better place,” or “God is doing this to you to strengthen you.” The message underneath that well-intentioned attempt at comfort is “God made your child die.” God doesn’t cause innocent people to die.  Evil causes innocent people to die, evil that we see in illness, war, violence, random suffering.  There was only one son God asked as a sacrifice, God’s own son who died on the cross.  God put Abraham to the test, not because God kills innocent people, but to show us the kind of faith God demands.

This story of Abraham isn’t a story of child sacrifice, but a story of faith, faith that offers God’s most precious gifts back to God.  But why are we appalled at that?  If we take seriously the vows we make before God, we might shudder at what God asks us to do as much as we shudder at the command God gave Abraham.  Every one of us who has professed our faith in Jesus Christ has made a commitment to God as radical as Abraham’s.  On that day we gave our lives back to God, not as burnt offerings, but as living sacrifices.  We put everything we own, all our relationships, not on an altar, but on a cross, and committed everything we love to God as surely as Abraham committed Isaac.

There are other times we answer God’s command to lay the things we love most before God.  Those of us who were married in a service of worship offered God what is most precious in our lives, the love for those we married.  When we exchange vows in the context of a worship service, it’s a promise that a commitment to God comes before all else, even before each other, knowing that only when God comes first can you really love one another the way you want to love.

If you ever presented a child for baptism, you offered your child to God as surely as Abraham offered his.  You took a vow to raise your child for God.  You promised you would show your child that God is at the dinner table, in the playroom, at the bedside.  You promised you would rear your children, not to fulfill the dreams you have for them that they be successful or talented.  You promised that you would raise them so they will know Jesus Christ and fulfill the plans God has for them.

From time to time we hear God calling us to go and offer up important things, things we value most.  Maybe it’s a job, one you’ve loved and enjoyed, but you know God is now calling you to pull up your roots and go to a new place to do new work among new people, and the response of faith is the same one Abraham made when he heard God’s call: “Here I am,” trusting that what we receive is going to be far more precious than what we give up.

The things God gives us are our most precious things: our lives, our loves, our children, our church, our nation, our vocation.  How tempting it is to make them into idols that control our lives, to hold firmly as if they were ours by legal title rather than by grace.  How easy it is to put our hope in the things God has given us rather than in the one who gives them.

The breathtaking thing about the kind of faith God requires is that when we give back to God the most precious gifts we have received, when we return them trusting that God will provide, God multiplies our blessing many times over.  Abraham offered Isaac to God, and God gave him back with this promise: “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.  And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves.”  Jesus said it another way: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

What kind of God is this?  This is a God who demands all that we have, and gives back more than we can ever imagine, who asks everything of us and gives us himself.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, pp. 16-17.

July Pew Points

2020_JULY_PewPoints_WEB

6-21-20 — From the Outside Looking In — Genesis 21:8-21, Matthew 15:21-28 – The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

One of the things that makes the Bible such a powerful book, a book that you keep coming back to again and again, is the way it can surprise you.  You think you have it pretty well figured out so you’re comfortable with it, then you come across stories like the ones we read this morning that draw you up short and take your breath away because they’re so different from what you’d expect in the Bible.

God uses surprising stories like these to shake us up.  We develop assumptions about the way God should do things, assumptions that usually mirror the way we would run the world if it were ours to control.  Every once in a while we have to be reminded that God doesn’t always conform to the way we think things ought to be.  These two stories – the story of Hagar and Ishmael and the story of the Canaanite woman – challenge us to reconsider our view of outsiders, those different from us.  And for those who feel like they’re on the outside, they offer a word of hope and encouragement.

The story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar grabs your attention from the start.  It sounds scandalous to our modern ears. Let me give you some background: Abraham and Sarah couldn’t have children, so Sarah told Abraham to have a child by Sarah’s servant, an Egyptian woman named Hagar.  Abraham and Hagar had a son and named him Ishmael. Eventually Sarah and Abraham had a son whose name was Isaac.  One day, when Isaac was a little boy, Sarah saw him playing with his half-brother Ishmael.  The jealousy that had been brewing in her flashed. Sarah demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Now, what I would expect the Bible to say is that Abraham told Sarah we should all get along. But that’s not how the story goes. No, Abraham gets up early one morning, lifts the boy on Hagar’s shoulder, and sends them out into the wilderness with nothing more than a skin filled with water.  That’s not exactly the kind of parenting we want to celebrate on Father’s Day.

The lesson we read from the New Testament is just as hard.  A Canaanite woman comes up to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter.  You remember the Canaanites. The Old Testament is constantly warning the people of Israel to avoid them because they worshiped fertility gods and idols. You’d expect Jesus to put all that aside, welcome this foreigner with open arms and gladly heal her daughter.  But Jesus ignored her.  Then his disciples told him to send her away because she was a nuisance.  Finally Jesus spoke to her, and told her he had come to save the children of Abraham.  “It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he told her, implying that outsiders like herself were dogs.

These stories are shocking because they don’t start out with the kind of behavior we try to teach our kids.  They grate against our civility and open mindedness.  But if you’ve ever been on the outside looking in, they may not sound so foreign. They portray a pretty realistic picture of what it’s like to be out of the mainstream. If you’ve ever felt cut off, wandering, not sure how you’re going to make it from week to week, feeling like people treat you like you’re not up to par, you might be able to identify with Hagar. Hagar has become something of a symbol for single mothers who feel they have been cast out with no support.  If you’re a member of a racial ethnic minority, you might resonate with the Canaanite woman.  Anyone who’s ever been told, either outright or in those subtle, indirect ways “You’re not one of us” knows that what the Canaanite woman experienced isn’t so unusual.  People run into that all the time.

These stories are for anyone who’s ever felt on the outside.  They’re for children and teenagers who feel shut out because they’re not old enough.  They’re for anyone who’s ever felt out of place in church because of something in your past.  If you’ve ever been on the outside, there might be something about these women that resonates with you.

But the really surprising thing about Hagar and Ishmael and the Canaanite woman isn’t the way those outsiders were treated by those on the inside.  What’s really surprising is the way God treated them.  You see, the way God treats outsiders is a lot different from the way we usually do.  When we’re on the inside, we tend to think that what we see and experience is the norm for everyone else.  I once heard a retired Presbyterian missionary to Korea lament how hard it is for him to keep up with what’s going on in the world now that he’s home.  He pointed out that except for three or four newspapers in a handful of major cites, international news gets little more coverage than a couple of half pages buried deep in the paper.  It’s only human nature to assume that what’s happening to us is what’s most important in the world.

Hagar’s story shows that the Israelites weren’t the only ones God was looking out for.  The Israelites are the insiders in the Bible.  The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with them.  The story of Hagar and Ishmael is a reminder to those insiders that God isn’t confined to them. God looked out for those on the margins.  Hagar and Ishmael wandered in the wilderness until their water gave out.  Hagar placed her son under a bush so at least he would be sheltered from the direct heat of the sun as he died.  But as she cried in despair, an angel of the Lord came to her and said that God had heard her son’s voice.  God was going to bless Ishmael by making him the father of a nation.  Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well.  She and her son drank and survived until they settled in the land of Paran.  The last we hear of Ishmael, he had grown into a strong hunter and married an Egyptian woman like his mother.  God was caring for the outsider.

Sometimes God turns the tables and makes those who are outside the inner circle.  Jesus ignored the Canaanite woman when she first approached him because his mission was to the children of Abraham.  Everyone assumed that the way you had a part in that blessing was by your ancestry.  It was something you were born into, a right you inherited.  But Jesus showed that the way you become a child of Abraham is through faith.  It doesn’t matter what your genealogy is.  By that definition it was this faithful foreigner who was the insider, and it was those who considered themselves the insiders, who found out that they were on the outside.

A few years ago a friend of mine went on a mission trip to Haiti with a group from his Baptist church.  Some of the people he went with were going to help at a weekday Bible school for children.  Others were going to help erect a school building. When David left for Haiti he considered himself an insider on mission of mercy to help those on the outside.  He had grown up in the church, was a deacon, taught Sunday school, and had built a successful law practice with a fairly good income.  He considered himself blessed. But when David came back, he was a changed person.  The depth of faith he saw in the Haitians with whom he worked was unlike anything he had ever experienced.  Removed from the pressures of getting ahead and protecting a nest egg, without the security of a democratic government and an investment portfolio, the people David met had to rely on faith for survival much more than he ever had.  He realized he wasn’t quite as far inside with God as he had thought, and it was those whom he considered on the outside that reached out and drew him deeper into his relationship with Christ.

William Willimon, former dean of the chapel at Duke University, writes about a friend of his who went on a tour of Russia in the 1970s with an ecumenical group of church leaders.  When his friend came back, he lamented, “The church in Russia is irrelevant.  It has no one in it but old ladies.”  The church of Jesus Christ appeared to be dying off because it had no insiders, no one with power or influence or the vigor of youth.  It only had little old ladies, people with no clout who were outside the mainstream.  (Peculiar Speech, p. 90)

When Communism collapsed, the churches began to burst at the seams.  New churches opened every day.  People flocked to the church looking for meaning and purpose in life.  And who kept those churches alive through the decades of persecution when religion was irrelevant to anyone who wanted to get ahead in the Communist regime?  Little old ladies, people outside the mainstream.  It makes you wonder who was really on the inside and who was on the outside.

There’s something about us human beings that needs to know who is in and who is out.  We need to be able to identify those with whom we have things in common and those who are different.  But God’s goodness can’t be contained to one group, even if it’s the group God has chosen to be God’s own.  And sometimes, God surprises us by showing us that those whom we thought were so obviously on the outside are really the insiders, and those who thought they were in don’t have it made quite like they thought. I’m glad this one whom we worship isn’t confined to doing things the way I think they ought to be done.  That would be a pretty small God to worship. God is so much bigger than that.

6-14-20 — How Faith Works — Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

The way you get to know someone is by noticing the things they do over and over.  After a while their actions give you a good idea about their character, and you begin to know what you can expect of them. The Pastor Nominating Committee has been receiving resumes from ministers who want to be considered for pastor of this church. What the PNC scrutinizes most carefully is what each one has done in the past. They review each person’s accomplishments and contact their references. They find out what each one has done in the past because that’s the best predictor of what he or she will do in the future.

Each story in the Bible tells us something about God.  As we become familiar with God through the Bible, we become more adept at recognizing God when God is at work in our lives. One thing we see God doing throughout the Bible is making something out of nothing. At the beginning of time God took nothing and made the universe out of it.  God took dust from the earth and made human beings out it.  In the story we read this morning, God promised a couple who were almost 100 years old that they would have a baby – and they did. God took the dead body of Jesus and breathed life into it on Easter. Romans 4:17 summarizes what the Bible tells us about God: “God… gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  God takes nothing and makes something out of it.  God takes those things that seem useless and makes them important.  God takes those who are last and makes them first.

That’s one reason so many people have trouble with the Bible; it’s one reason so many have difficulty trusting in God. So often what God does goes against common sense. There’s something that at first seems unreasonable about committing our lives to God, as unreasonable as a woman in her nineties having a baby. To trust God enough to give our lives to God requires a leap of faith.  It’s like a child standing on the edge of the swimming pool, terrified to go in the water, but his mother is standing there in the water with her arms stretched out, calling his name, smiling and assuring him it’s all right.  Jumping into the water goes against everything the child’s instinct and reason tell him.  But he trusts his mother, so he steps off the edge, knowing she’ll catch him as she has promised. That’s how faith works.

The Bible is filled with stories of those who trusted in God and found God to be faithful.  Abraham trusted that God would be faithful to God’s promise to make him the father of a great nation, so he picked up and migrated to a foreign land.  Joseph, whose brothers sold him into slavery, trusted that God would bring good out of his brothers’ treachery, even as he languished in Pharaoh’s prison.  Jesus trusted that God was with him, even as he faced death on the cross.  As we learn about God’s character through those stories in the Bible, we develop the ability to identify God when we see God at work in the world today.  The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said that faith is like looking at the sun and then looking elsewhere.  Everywhere you look you see the sun. Through faith, we can see God in the darkest times.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to faith is the expectation that if we have enough faith, God will spare us from pain and suffering. I know a woman whose father was diagnosed with cancer.  She prayed with all her heart that he would be cured of his illness.  When her father died, she was so angry with God that she gave up her faith altogether.  Now, it’s not unusual to be angry with God.  There are times when we all get angry with those we love most dearly.  But she assumed that God was supposed to spare her from the grief and pain that even Jesus had to go through, so she missed the strength and courage and hope that God did hold out for her.  The 23rd Psalm doesn’t say “you keep me out of the valley of the shadow of death.”  It says, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.”  Through faith we know that God is with us because that’s how God works.

That faith that God is actively involved in the world gives parents the confidence to send their children out into the world.  It allows parents to entrust their children into God’s care to see them through the temptations and challenges of those first years away.  Faith gives us the conviction to continue to stand up for what’s right and good and fair, even when it seems like we’re the only ones who care.  Faith is what gives us courage to face death, knowing that the same God who brings life out of death has promised us eternal life.

What we know about God from scripture guides our response to the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the massive demonstrations that are taking place in reaction. Throughout the Bible, God has lifted up those who are overlooked, put down, and silenced. God chose Abraham, an uninvited 90 year old immigrant to the land of Canaan, to be the father of a great nation and a blessing to the whole world. God led enslaved people out of Egypt, Hebrews who had lived under the lash for 400 years. Throughout his ministry, Jesus reached out to those on the margins of society, to Samaritans who were considered a lesser race, to lepers, who were forced to live on the edges of towns and assumed to be unclean, to tax collectors who were despised agents of a foreign power. This God we know through scripture is always showing up with those who have been discounted and dismissed.

Every Monday and Thursday since the beginning of the pandemic there has a Zoom meeting for leaders of congregations in Donegal Presbytery to discuss how churches are ministering during these difficult times. Last week the discussion also included how churches are addressing the conversation that’s going on in our country about systemic racism. For the first time the clerk of session of Second Presbyterian Church of West Chester, a small African American congregation, joined the discussion along with his wife. He’s a middle aged businessman. When it was his turn to speak, he said, “It’s great to see all of you having this conversation. It’s something we (meaning the African American community of Second Presbyterian Church) live with all the time. It’s news to you, but I’ve dealt with [systemic racism] all my life.”

A Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a statement that I’m sure Eastminster has recited in worship, says, “… the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of people long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”

The Holy Spirit, through faith in Christ, give us courage to hear the voices of Second Presbyterian Church in West Chester. The temptation is to give in to fear, to build walls and fences around our symbols of freedom, to station soldiers on the steps of our monuments to liberty, to hold up the Bible as a totem of dominance rather than to open it and let it speak as the voice of truth. The Spirit gives us courage to see that what ails us is not a few bad apples, but a system that privileges someone who looks like me over my brother Presbyterian for whom George Floyd’s death is a magnification of something that he lives with every day. And friends, it takes courage to recognize that and not to give in to the temptation of fear. Fear is not where the Spirit lives.

You see, at the heart of faith is the conviction that nothing is impossible for God. God’s promise to Abraham was the promise of a son, and faith is what kept Abraham going when there was no reason to believe he and Sarah would ever have a child.  Faith is what keeps Christ’s church speaking up for those who are neglected and ignored. It’s not faith in the system. It’s not faith that our preferred political party is going to make it all right. Our faith is the assurance that God is working to make all things new. That’s not going to be finished until Christ comes again in glory. But it’s faith that we are called to show the world what God intends for everyone, so that in seeing our love and our commitment to justice, our listening to voices long silences, the world gets a glimpse of what God has in store for us all. We believe in original sin, the reality that each and every one of us is subject to powers that we don’t choose and that we can’t control. Systemic racism is a manifestation of original sin, something we don’t choose but that drags us down anyway. So we commit our lives to the One who has shown us that our sin is not the last word. The last word is with God who gives us courage to confront hard truths about ourselves and who gives us faith that changes us.

Our natural tendency is to hold tightly to what we’re familiar with, like the child afraid to jump into the water. But faith is like muscles – it grows stronger as we use it.  We have to look for those opportunities God sets before us to step outside of what is familiar and comfortable and to trust what God has in store for us.

Faith balances our desire to be in control, to hold onto what is familiar with the assurance that God is waiting to give us something better than we can even imagine.  It’s what lets us step outside of ourselves, trusting God to be as faithful to us as God was to Abraham and Sarah.  Faith knows that God has no limits, that God can bring into being whatever God needs to keep God’s promises.  God made a couple in their nineties parents.  God makes sinners righteous.  Just think what God can make out of you and me.

6-7-20 — Who Is God? — Genesis 1:1-5, 26-2:4a; Matthew 28:16-20 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Who is God?  That’s not an academic question that concerns just the professional theologians.  It’s a question our children ask; it’s one we all need to ask because the answer makes all the difference in the world. Our answer to that question affects the way we live.  It affects what guides our life, what hope we have for the future, our very understanding of who we are and why we’re here.  It matters that we know who God is.

On one level the answer to the question Who is God? is simple.  1 John 4:8 says “God is love.”  But understanding the depth of that love, how it affects us, what difference it makes is complex.  If we want to know who God is in all God’s fullness, we have to know God in different ways, all at the same time.  The word that we use to describe God’s rich and varied nature is Trinity.  The traditional terms the church has used to name each member of the Trinity are Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each a distinctive and unique way that we know the one true God.

It’s always been a challenge to understand how God can be three and yet one.  Modern science gives us some practice in meeting that intellectual challenge.  Physics has shown us that light is composed of photons.  A photon is both a particle and a wave, two very different things. We haven’t yet completely explained how that can be, but that’s how it is.  And it’s similar with God.  If we know God in all three of God’s persons, we can come closer to living as God created us – in God’s image.

One way we know God is as the one who created the universe.  When my son was little, sometimes on a warm, clear summer night we would lie on our backs in the front yard and look up at the sky.  That boundless expanse draws you out of yourself. Whatever has been troubling you throughout the day seems insignificant compared to the canopy overhead.  And the more we learn about the universe, the more stunning it becomes.  It’s humbling to know that the light from many of those stars you’re seeing left its source millions of years ago when dinosaurs walked the earth and is only now reaching earth.  Pictures from the Hubble telescope have shown us galaxies being formed, and as you gaze into space, you realize that somewhere out there something very much like the story of creation in Genesis is taking place at this very moment.

But if God were only the creator, God would be distant and removed. Part of the power of looking at the night sky is realizing how humble and small we are.  The forces of the galaxy move without the least concern for us, for what moves us to tears or sparks us to laughter.  So why should the force who set it all in motion care anything about you or me? Yet we know that God is more than just the powerful force far away that rules the cosmos.  God showed us who God is when God came to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus was born just like we were.  He grew up, learning from his parents, depending on them for his safety and his welfare.  He was subject to the same physical constraints we are.  He had to eat.  He got thirsty.  He celebrated weddings and holidays with his friends and his family.  He cried when he was sad.  In Jesus God showed us that the one who created the stars cares deeply about each one of us, that human beings matter, that you and I matter.  And to show the depth of that love, Jesus died on a cross in order to overcome every power that keeps us from God’s love, even the power of death. Jesus could have called down the forces of heaven to rescue him, but his love was perfect and he gave himself for us.

But if God were contained in a single person who lived 2000 years ago, how could we relate to God now?  When Jesus walked the earth, he prayed to God.  He wasn’t talking to himself.  God was both in Jesus and everywhere else. So we also know God as the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is that warmth we feel inside when we worship.  The Holy Spirit is that conviction when we know just what we should be doing.  The Holy Spirit is what draws us out of ourselves when we gaze at the stars, it’s the Spirit of love that binds us with others, it’s the awareness that lets us know God, it’s that power at work continuing Christ’s work of doing good, proclaiming God’s word.  We see the Spirit at work any time we see enemies reconciled, prejudice overcome, justice carried out, comfort given, hope restored.  The Holy Spirit sends us out into the world to reclaim it for God.

We call these three parts of the Trinity Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And it would be easy to understand the Trinity if we could just say that the Father describes the creative activity of God, the Son describes God we as the one who redeemed the world on the cross, and the Holy Spirit as that power that sustains us.  But we can’t divide God like that.  The Trinity isn’t a description of the roles of God.  My parents know me as a son, my wife knows me as a husband, and my children know me as a parent.  I’m the same person, but I have three different roles.  But it’s not like that with God because each of us knows God as Father, we each know God as Son, and we each know God as Holy Spirit.

It wasn’t just the Father who created the world.  Genesis 1 tells us that the Spirit of God brooded on the waters at the very beginning of time.  John 1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  By the Word John means Jesus Christ.  We can’t say that it’s just Jesus who saves us from our sins.  It was the power of God, that same power that created the universe that raised Jesus from the dead.  Jesus told his disciples that he would send the Spirit upon them, that his gift to them after he left them would be the Holy Spirit.  But we can’t say it’s just the Holy Spirit that sustains us through life. Like a loving parent, the creative power of God provides food.  Jesus himself sustains us with the communion meal where the bread is spiritual food and the cup is spiritual drink.

The ancient Orthodox Church described the Trinity as the dance of God.  All three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are like three dancers holding hands, dancing around together in harmonious, joyful freedom.[1] Modern science gives us another way of approaching an understanding of the Trinity.  There’s a theory that says certain subatomic particles can be anywhere at anytime, and it’s only in the act of observing them that they are actually in a certain location.  Sometimes we know God as the loving parent, sometimes we know God as the obedient Son, and sometimes we know God as the refreshing Holy Spirit.  But no matter how we know God, God is always all three persons of the Trinity, relating to each other in love, a love that is so powerful and complete that it spills outside of itself and fills the whole creation.

Just as Jesus sent his disciples from that mountaintop in Galilee, he sends us to baptize in his name, to teach what he commanded, and to love as he loves.

So often we’re tempted to define our lives by what’s best for us.  We put ourselves at the center of our existence and define our life’s story as the story of how we satisfy ourselves.  But the self is a very narrow path, and the more of our life story we devote to ourselves and our needs, the more trivial our story becomes.[2]  God invites us to become part of that joyful dance of the Trinity, that life that defines itself by love.  God invites us to see ourselves as part of something significant, important, cosmic – created by the same God who set the sun and the moon and the stars and guides their course, the God who made each one of us in God’s image.  God invites us to find ourselves by losing ourselves in love and service, just as Jesus gave himself in perfect obedience and led the way to everlasting life.  God invites us to trust the ever-present power that is in us and around us and before us, the power of the Holy Spirit that breathed life into Adam and Eve and is always, always there for us.

Who is God? God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, our creator, redeemer and sustainer. We are invited to meet our triune God at the table that has been prepared and join in that joyful dance of creation.

[1] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 91.

[2] Thomas W. Currie, “The Significance of the Doctrine of the Trinity for the Life of the Local Congregation,” Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary, Vol. 111, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 33 ff.

5-31-20 — Streams of Living Water — John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-11 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

There’s a yearning these days for spiritual renewal. Maybe it’s because the pandemic has reminded us how vulnerable we are. Maybe it’s because people have had more time to think and reflect on the meaning of life. Churches have reported increases in the number of people worshiping online.

Frequently, I’ll hear people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Even those who don’t want to have anything to do with a church acknowledge there is grandeur and mystery beyond what we human beings can comprehend.  Spiritual practices like meditation and mindfulness have grown in popularity. There is a life-giving force in the universe that cannot be contained by any creed or institution, a power that transcends every effort to define it or contain it.  We know there is someone or something greater than ourselves.  The apostle Paul begins his letter to the Romans in the New Testament acknowledging that we are capable of comprehending more than we do.  “For what can be known about God is plain….  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:19-20) There is something greater beyond us, ready to fulfill our deepest longings and satisfy our desires.  It’s there, but we don’t always get it.  William Blake, the Romantic poet who had an uncanny gift of seeing things others missed wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is – infinite.”

There is spiritual thirst all around us, but if our spirits are going to be revived, we have to be in touch with the source of our renewal.  It’s not something we can construct for ourselves.  It’s not something we can pick off the shelf and carry home.  After World War I T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, brought the chieftains of Arabia with him to the Paris Peace Conference.  Those men of the desert were amazed at many things, but what amazed them most was the running water in their hotel rooms.  In the desert water is scarce.  They knew its value.  Here it was at their fingertips, free and endless for just the turning of the tap.  When the chieftains prepared to leave Paris, Lawrence found them trying to detach the faucets so they could always have water with them in their dry desert homes.  He tried to explain that behind the taps were huge reservoirs.  Without that supply the faucets were useless.  But the chieftains insisted.  They were sure they could disconnect the faucets, take them back to the desert, and they would have water forever.[1]

What our spirits thirst for is the Spirit of God that flows from the source of life itself.  That’s what Jesus offered the crowds at the temple in Jerusalem.  “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,” he said, “and let the one who believes in me drink.”  He is the one who satisfies our spiritual longings, our connection with the spring of life itself. He is the source of all we long for, the one who gives us truth and grace and life.

In the Bible a stream of water is often used to describe the life-giving grace of God.  The Bible was written in a dry land.  People thought about water a lot because it was scarce.  Here in Pennsylvania we don’t have that problem. We have reservoirs and lakes and the mighty Susquehanna River that provide a continuing and reliable source of water.  It’s always there and it never runs dry. All we have to do is pump it out, filter it, purify it, and deliver it.

But if the pipes get clogged, we don’t have access to that abundant supply of water.  A while back the water pressure in the shower in the bathroom at our house almost disappeared so that when you turned on the faucet all you got was a dribble of water.  We called the plumber, and he discovered that debris had fallen into the pipe.  To fix it he had to cut out a piece of drywall in the adjoining room, remove a section of pipe, and replace it.  Then we had to replace the drywall and paint the room.  It was a big job, but unless we did it, the water wouldn’t flow.

Sometimes we need to tend to our connections to the water of life.  Jesus was clear that there’s more to the Christian life than just accepting him as Lord and savior. Those of us who have been Jesus’ disciples long enough know that the life of the spirit has its dry moments.  There are times when you find it hard to pray.  There are stretches when you don’t think much about God.  There are moments when you wish God didn’t know about some of the things you’ve done.  We all have times like that, times when our connection to the Spirit seems clogged or disconnected. Growing in the life of faith is not something that happens automatically.  We have to tend to it the way we tend to the plumbing in our house.

In his letter to the Colossians Paul says, “Let your roots grow down deeply in Christ Jesus and draw up nourishment from him.  See that you go on growing in the Lord, and become strong and vigorous in the truth you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”  (Colossians 2:6-7)

That spiritual renewal isn’t something we can force.  We can’t program the Holy Spirit to work on our timetable or at our convenience.  Belden Lane once wrote about stalking the snow leopard in the Himalayas. Their coloring is white with gray spots so they blend in with the snow of their native landscape.  If you want to see a snow leopard in its natural surroundings, you can’t go looking for it directly.  It blends in so well that you’ll never notice it.  The way to find a snow leopard is to stalk its prey.  You follow the rabbits and other small animals that it hunts, knowing it’s nearby, until you catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of your eye.  If you look for it too hard, you’ll miss it.  You have to let it come to you and then be ready when it comes.

That’s often how we encounter the Spirit of God.  We can’t control the Spirit, but we can remove those things that distract us.  We go to those places where we have encountered the Spirit before –in worship, in nature, in times devoted to prayer, in books.  Or we put ourselves in new places where others have encountered God in the hope that we will experience God there too, places like a mission project or a Sunday school class or a circle.  We open our hearts to prayer.  We take time to savor the words of scripture.  The Spirit can’t be forced.  It blows where it wills.  But we can prepare ourselves for it.  We can open ourselves to it.  We can make sure that when the Spirit blows our way, we are ready for it.

That’s why it’s important to practice spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study and worship – not to force the Holy Spirit to pour out on us but to make sure that when it does, we’re ready for it. The Spirit is active – sometimes in ways you just don’t notice unless you’re ready to see it.

Many of you know Doug Baker. He’s a member of Donegal Presbytery who recently retired as a Presbyterian mission coworker in Northern Ireland where, for over 40 years, he has been working to bring peace and reconciliation to that troubled land. A while back he was home and reported on his work to our local churches. He told how lots of progress had been made in bringing reconciliation between the Protestant and Catholic communities. Historians and political scientists will focus on how peace came to Northern Ireland through negotiations and threats and political breakthroughs. But the most powerful force for peace may have been prayer and the work like Doug does through the churches.

A number of years ago Carol and I visited the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland where Doug was working at the time. It’s in a beautiful spot on the Antrim coast that serves as a retreat center where Protestants and Catholics could leave the tensions of the cities and drink deeply from the waters of the Spirit together. While we were there, we shared the facility with a group of middle-aged women from Belfast. They were Catholics and Protestants, some of whom lived just blocks apart, and yet for most of them it was the first time in their lives they had sat in the same room with someone from the other side, let alone prayed together. They were pipelines through which the Holy Spirit gently watered the soil of Ireland so that the Spirit of Peace could take root.

Prayer changes things, but the thing that is most often changed when we pray is ourselves. Prayer is as much about listening to God as it is about talking. When we open ourselves to God in prayer, the Holy Spirit interacts with our spirits to make us more like Christ. I think that’s one reason Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. Maybe not only to change our enemies, but to change us. Have you ever prayed for someone with whom you’ve had a conflict? I usually find that in praying about it, in lifting up the other person in prayer, I discover something I’ve done to contribute to the conflict. I often get some insight into why the other person has been so difficult, if not because of something I’ve done, then maybe because of something else going in that person’s life that makes them hard to get along with. Or maybe I’ve resolved that the thing to do is to call them to account for some inappropriate behavior, not so I’ll be vindicated but so that they can be true to their identity as a person created in the image of God. And sometimes the Spirit has led me to just leave it alone and let God take care of it. Prayer helps us look at others as God sees them. We can’t completely shed our prejudices and preconceptions, but through prayer the Holy Spirit gives us a broader and more loving perspective on life. We can see things more the way Jesus sees them.

When we pray or read scripture or worship together we position ourselves to receive the Spirit of God. We open the tap. Jesus gives us streams of life-giving water, flowing from the heart of those who believe in him. That living water renews and refreshes us. It lifts us up and gives us life. Drink deeply from that water and let it satisfy your deepest thirst.

[1] Samuel H. Moffett, “Where’s the Power,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. VI, Number 2, p. 66.