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8-9-20 — A Basket Of Hope — Exodus 2:1-10, Romans 8:28-30 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Life would be a lot easier if we could tell without a doubt when good is good and bad is bad.  Life would be as easy as snipping the dead blossoms off my marigolds.  There’s no question about what stays and what goes with them.  I pluck off the dead discolored blossoms and what I have left is a healthy colorful bed of flowers.

It’s hard to know just what will result in good and what will result in bad.  Good and bad are so jumbled together.  The Nazi Holocaust was the most vivid example of evil you can imagine, yet out of its ashes rose the modern state of Israel, a haven for Jews who suffered centuries of persecution and the only stable democracy in the Middle East.  Yet the establishment of Israel meant that thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homes. Generations have grown up in refugee camps, and young people have so little hope they sign up to be suicide bombers.

But it’s not just on the world stage that good and bad are jumbled together.  Our own lives sometimes seem a random mix of good and bad over which we have little control.  A marriage that starts out as the most exhilarating, liberating thing that’s ever happened to a person ends in a divorce that’s the worst ordeal a person has ever been through.  No one ever suspected that the happiness of those first years could hold the seeds of such pain later on.  But then the person who emerges from the pain of the divorce is someone stronger and more mature than he ever thought he could be.  The agony of a ruptured marriage turns out to be the cocoon from which a new and better person emerges.  Was it meant to be?  Was there some overriding purpose to it all?  Or was it just a series of random events?

One of the things that makes us human is our effort to find patterns in the events of our lives.  We try to make sense out of the mixture of good and bad.  We look for themes, for purpose, for meaning, but that can be difficult because sometimes it’s so hard tell.

The Bible trains us to find meaning in the jumble of events that swirl around us.  It helps us see that there is a purpose to things that look so random and meaningless.  Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  Just as a trained musician can hear the theme woven in a Bach fugue, the Bible trains us to notice God’s purpose in the complexities of life.  Just as a parent can hear her child’s voice over the random noises of the playground, the Bible acquaints us with the voice of God so we can hear it over the din of clashing forces.

As we read the Bible, we practice recognizing God at work.  Sometimes it’s in unlikely places, through unlikely people.  We see that what looks one way on the surface looks completely different when you see it from the perspective of faith.  We see God being faithful to God’s promises, even after God’s people had given up on them.

The book of Exodus is a great place to practice detecting God at work.  It shows how God acts on the world stage where nations compete with one another for power, and it shows how God’s hand is in the most intimate affairs of families.  Reading scripture helps us improve our capacity to see what God is up to in what so often looks to us like a random jumble of good and bad, compassion and cruelty.

Exodus is the story of God freeing the Hebrews from slavery. 500 years before the story begins, God promised Abraham that his descendants would be the chosen nation that God would use to bring humanity back to God.  God had told Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore.  Through them, God would bless all the nations of the earth.

As the story of Exodus opens, God’s promise to Abraham seemed to have faded into the mists of history.  The Hebrews had been in Egypt 400 years.  Abraham’s descendants had grown numerous.  In fact, they were so numerous they were a threat to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.  But it looked like God had forgotten them. Pharaoh had enslaved the Hebrews and forced them to build his pyramids and palaces.  “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of hard labor.  They were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them.”

That age-old hatred of those who are different from us was as powerful back then as it is today.  People who had lived together in peace for hundreds of years suddenly feel threatened by their neighbors and turned on them with a vengeance.  Serbs and Croats, Tutsis and Hutus, the story repeats itself in every century.  Hierarchies of worth are so engrained that we don’t notice them until something flares, then those who are different are seen as a threat. In order to eliminate the threat, those who are different have to be seen as less than human. They dehumanize each other so they can treat those who threaten them as less than full human beings.

That’s what Pharaoh did.  At first he tried to keep his genocide quiet, to cover it up so it looked like a natural phenomenon.  There were two women, Shiphrah and Puah, who were midwives to the Hebrew women.  Whenever a woman was about to give birth, she would summon Shiphrah or Puah to help her deliver. Pharaoh told Shiphrah and Puah to kill all the boy babies as soon as they were born.  But Shiphrah and Puah didn’t fear Pharaoh.  They respected God.  In a clever ruse, they told Pharaoh the Hebrew women were so vigorous they gave birth before the midwives could arrive.

So Pharaoh took a bolder step.  He rallied the whole nation to take part in his slaughter. He demanded that every time an Egyptian came across a Hebrew baby boy, the Egyptian must throw the baby into the Nile River.  We don’t know all the tactics Hebrew parents took to protect their sons.  We can only imagine the panic and terror that swept through the land of Goshen where the Hebrews lived.  But we know what one woman did.  She hid her baby as long as she could until after three months she could hide him no longer.  Then she made a basket of papyrus.  She sealed it with bitumen and pitch.  She put the baby in the basket and placed it in the reeds along the Nile where Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe.

Now, the Egyptians could ignore the plight of the Hebrews as long as they were faceless and impersonal. They could lump them all together as shiftless or lazy or unworthy of the respect due to an Egyptian. But once they encountered a Hebrew not as “one of those people” but as a fellow human being who needs food and shelter and respect just like themselves, then it was hard to write them off and ignore their plight.

One of the reasons that the death of George Floyd has become such a flashpoint for our country is the gap that exists between the way White people and Black people experience life in America. A friend of mine, a Black man, is the retired Episcopal bishop of Harrisburg.  In 2001 he was the dean of National Cathedral where he presided over the national service of mourning after 9/11. A couple of months ago he was driving to his home in an upscale suburb of Harrisburg late one evening after a church event. He was pulled over by a police car ½ mile from his home and asked for his license and registration. When asked why he’d been pulled over, he got no response. The officer returned to the patrol car., and my friend Nathat sat in his car for 20 minutes waiting. When the officer returned his documents Nathan again asked why he’d been pulled over. The response was, “Your left tail light is burned out. Get it replaced.” Nathan told that story as just one example of what he has experienced numerous times throughout his life, something that has not happened to me once. The officer probabaly wasn’t what we’d call a racist. He was relating to Nathan the way our society had engrained him to react to a Black man driving late at night in a predominantly White neighborhood.

Nathan’s feelings of humiliaiton and anger are hard for a lot of White folks to understand. Some might ask why he just didn’t just get over it and move on. They question why people immediately take to the streets to demonstrate after an event like the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville when the facts of the matter are still in dispute. But the facts of the particular case aren’t really what’s been at issue during this summer of discontent in our streets, and it’s hard to understand for those of us who have never experienced the kind of subtle, even unconscious discrimination that my friend Nathan has encountered all his life as a Black man.

A crucial role that the church has to play in all this is being the place where we do the hard work of trying to understand each other, of going way outside of our comfort zones to listen, really listen, to each other and because God might be trying to tell us something about treating others with love. The fact that this White congregation reaches out to the broader community gives you a chance to lead in that work of reconciliation, of becoming involved in the lives of those who resonate most deeply with the anger and frustration that we’ve seen this summer. God chooses the church to show the world where God is working for good and to take its place in God’s work. Eastminster has experienced God leading it through some internal struggles and bringing hope and strength out of conflict. That is a gift to take outside of this campus, to proclaim far and wide that God heals divisions and reconciles those who are at odds. What God has done for God’s people God longs to do for the whole world.

When Pharaoh’s daughter discovered the Hebrew baby in the basket along the river, she didn’t see what her father saw.  She didn’t see someone from a different class and ethnic group who lived in a ghetto. She didn’t see a threat to her way of life. She saw a cute little baby whose smile won her over.  So she adopted the baby.  The baby’s sister Miriam happened to be watching from nearby, and she told Pharaoh’s daughter she knew of a woman who would be willing to nurse the baby for her.  It just happened to be the baby’s mother, but she didn’t tell Pharaoh’s daughter that.  So the princess brought the baby’s mother into her palace.  The baby was brought up with all the privileges of royalty – education, courtly manners, familiarity with the corridors of power.  Yet every night his nursemaid, his mother, sang him the songs of his people, told him the promise to Abraham, trained him to know the God of his mothers and fathers – to remember who he was.

Right in the midst of the most heartless persecution you could imagine, God was preparing the one who would be the greatest of all the Hebrews to lead his people out of oppression.  The princess named the baby Moses because she drew him out of the water.  Moses, you see, means “draw out.”  Little did Pharaoh’s daughter know that Moses would be the one to draw out God’s people from slavery.  No one knew the significance of any of it at the time, but we know how the story ended.  Looking back, we can see that God was at work for good right in the midst of Pharaoh’s evil.

All through the Bible there are stories like that, stories of God working good in the midst of what is bad, sometimes even using the worst things to bring about good.  Jesus died on a cross, a despised outsider who threatened those in authority, and although he was the son of God he was spared none of the hurt and disappointment the cross brought with it.  The fact that he rose on the third day doesn’t make the pain and suffering that we experience any less real, or our losses and disappointments any less poignant.  But because he rose, we know God’s power is greater than any power that can hurt us.

Life is a compound of the noble and the ignoble, the sacred and the profane, of anxiety and relief, of crucifixions and resurrections.  Hope may shine brightly at times, and at times it may seem to disappear.  We’re faced with hard choices, and we don’t always know if we make the right ones.  The promise of the Bible is that God is always there working for good.  God is tending the garden God created at the beginning of time.  There are weeds.  There are pests.  There is wilting and death, drought and flood and scorching heat.  But God is always tending, never losing sight of the harvest that is to come.  God may be as hidden as a papyrus basket among the reeds by the river, but God is there. May we have the eyes of faith so we can see, and seeing hope, and having hope have courage to do our part.

8-23-20 Bulletin

8-23-20 bulletin

8-16-20 Bulletin

8-16-20 bulletin

8-9-20 Bulletin

8-9-20 bulletin

8-2-20 — The Perfection Trap — Psalm 119:105-112, Romans 8:1-4 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

We’ve all had them, those dreams that make you wake up in a cold sweat because you’re required to do something it’s impossible to do. In one of those dreams, you’re a student and you walk into class to discover to your horror that it’s the day of the final exam and you haven’t cracked a book. Preachers often have a version of it where they walk into the pulpit on a Sunday morning and the wind blows away their notes so they’re left standing in front of hundreds of people with no clue what to say. Dreams like that reflect a conflict that goes on in each of us at some level, that conflict between knowing what we’re supposed to do and realizing we can’t do it.

And not just in our dreams. Even when we try our best to do what’s right, there’s something that keeps us from it. Paul put his finger on that inner conflict when he wrote in Romans 7:21-23, “ I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

Once, when I was at a meeting of Pittsburgh Presbytery, I heard a good example of that. A young man was being examined on the floor of presbytery for ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. One of his professors from Pittsburgh Seminary asked him a theoretical question about our need for God continually to renew our lives. The candidate gave a concrete example from his own life. He and his wife wanted to show their Christian solidarity with the poor, so they bought a house in Garfield, one of the more depressed neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. They made that decision about where to live based on deep faith and a desire to follow Jesus’ example of going straight to the heart of human suffering. But after they moved into their house in Garfield, they noticed that they weren’t welcomed as the good-hearted champions of justice they were trying to be. They were met with resentment by neighbors who saw them as forerunners of a wave of outsiders who were going to jack up housing prices, force the poor long-term residents to move out, and uproot their community. Their act of individual goodness became, in the larger context, an indication of a broader injustice.

One way to try and make sure we do what is right is to make more and more rules to guide our behavior. That’s what we Presbyterians did over the years. Every year the General Assembly would send out for approval a booklet of proposed revisions to our constitution spelling out ever more detailed ways to deal with circumstances that might come up in the church, everything from how to call a congregational meeting to how to keep the church rolls. We finally got to the point that we realized that we had been putting energy into keeping the rules that we should have been putting into spreading the gospel, so we did an overhaul the Form of Government and reduced it to less than half of what it was.

Ideally, rules are like the trellises in a rose garden. They provide the support and the structure so that relationships can grow and prosper. Mike Krzyzewski, coach of the Duke University basketball team, says in his book on leadership that he only has two rules for his players. They’re to show up where they’re supposed to be on time, and if they can’t be there when they’re supposed to, they let him know. The way he enforces discipline is by building relationships among the team. A sure sign of a relationship that’s deteriorating is one that keeps focusing on the rules. You see that in marriages. It’s good for a married couple to agree on things they expect from each other – who’s going to do the laundry, who takes out the garbage, who pays the bills. You need those understandings to live together. But once a couple starts keeping score, it’s time to sit down and talk about the relationship.

One of the things that makes it hard for many people to read the Old Testament is all of the rules. Lot’s of people resolve to read the Bible from cover to cover and make it through Genesis and the first 20 chapters of Exodus just fine. There are lots of exciting and sometimes racy stories that grip you. But then they get past the Ten Commandments and enter into a quagmire of rules and regulations. There’s a rule for everything from how to discipline your children to how to cut your hair. God gave those rules so God’s people Israel would know how to live a life that pleased God, and the Jewish people have always delighted in those laws.  Psalm 119:111 says, “Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” If you’ve ever been to a Sabbath service at a synagogue, you’ve seen the reverence with which the rabbi handles the Torah and how it is kept in a place of honor at the front of the sanctuary. Lots of Christians believe that Jesus did away with all those laws, but he didn’t. Jesus said he didn’t come to do away with one stroke of God’s law but rather to fulfill it. And he did that by showing us just how hard it is to keep the law.

That law is summarized in the Ten Commandments, and on the surface they look easy enough to keep. Few people commit murder, most don’t steal, and we try to limit our lying. But Jesus reminded us that the Commandments have deep implications. He said if anyone hates another person, they’ve committed murder in the heart. If anyone looks on someone with lustful thoughts, they’ve committed adultery in their heart. If we have more than we need while others are starving, then we are committing theft of God’s good creation. The bottom line is: We don’t have it in us to keep the Ten Commandments. No one can follow God’s rules as we should. In fact, they’re so elaborate and complex in order that we can recognize the futility of trying to keep them to perfection. It’s beyond our human capacity.

One way to react to something that’s impossible to do is to disregard it. That’s what’s happened to the fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries we Presbyterians were renowned for being sabbatarians, or those who were zealous about observing the Sabbath. My father’s memories of Sundays as a child were excruciating. The children weren’t allowed to play. They had to get dressed up and sit quietly through boring visits with elderly relatives. Anything that smacked of fun was forbidden. I remember as a child visiting my grandparents on their farm in South Carolina. One Sunday afternoon my cousins and I were playing cards on the front porch. My uncle found us and yelled at us for breaking the Sabbath. He made us stop right away. Now, he loosened up in later years, but there was no joy in that Sabbath. God gave the commandment to free us from having to work and worry for one day out of seven, to revel in God’s generous love without having to do anything all day long, and we managed to take it and make it a burdensome chore. It’s an example of how we can’t help taking something intended for good and twisting it for harm. So as a reaction to that sabbatarianism, nowadays we are more likely to look at Sunday as just like any other day of the week. In fact, people who would be perfectly ashamed of breaking the 6th Commandment, you shall not commit adultery, brag about how busy they are breaking the 4th, you shall remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

God’s laws make us realize that we’re incapable of living as God wants us to live. What we need is a completely new heart and a mind that is renewed. That’s what Jesus gives us. Jesus came from God and took on our human weakness. Paul calls it our flesh. Flesh is something that continually reminds us of our limits. We want to be chaste, but urges from deep within our bodies drive us to do things we regret. We resolve to be sober, but our addictions are stronger than our wills. We long for health, but our bodies fail us in surprising ways. Jesus took on that weakness, and not just that weakness. He took on that distortion of our humanity we call sin, that force in us that is like a cancer. Cancer works its destructive power by invading healthy cells and redirecting them toward uncontrolled growth that tries to take over the body and put it to death. That’s what sin does. It takes our desire to do what is good and perverts it so that we end up doing evil. Jesus takes on that power of sin and puts it to death on the cross. He draws us to himself, his perfect self who fulfills God’s law, so that we’re made right before God. We don’t have to prove ourselves to God or to others or to ourselves. We’re changed, so that instead of trying to over-perform and prove ourselves, we accept God’s forgiveness and open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. A new mind takes root in us so our deepest desire becomes the desire to please God. God’s law becomes for us the trellis upon which we grow and flourish in faith and not a burden that drags us down.

So how do we deal with all those laws in the Old Testament? The Holy Spirit which we receive from Christ helps us read God’s law from the perspective of love and discern which parts were given for certain times and which parts are essential for all times. Like in a family, there are certain rules that never change – you’ll always treat each other with respect and honor, you’ll always speak truthfully in love, you’ll always put each other’s best interests first. And there are some rules that families live by for a while and then no longer need – the children will go to bed at a certain time, you won’t use the dial-up modem to check your email while someone is expecting a phone call on the same line. The Spirit helps us discern which laws are essential, like the Ten Commandments, and which were given for a certain time, such as those that forbid the eating of pork and shellfish or the laws that required a widow to marry her husband’s oldest brother. That’s why the church reconsidered same sex marriages. The Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality was given for a time when homosexuality was equated with promiscuity, a time when committed same sex relationships seemed as unnatural as women pastors. Now we have seen how people of the same sex can have a relationship of love and commitment as strong as any between a man and a woman that models Christ’s love for the church.

As long as we’re alive, we’ll feel that conflict within us between wanting to do what is right, but not being able to do it. We’ll never completely escape the unintended consequences that happen when we try to do right but wind up doing wrong. But we’ve been released from the trap of trying to be perfect human beings. God loves us in our weaknesses and our strengths, loves us enough that God continually renews our minds so our greatest joy comes from pleasing God.

Jesus summed up God’s law like this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do that, and the rest will follow.