Author Archives: Beth Anne Foess

Home / Articles posted by Beth Anne Foess

5-19-19 — The Spirit Network — Isaiah 43:14-21 and 1 Peter 2:2-10 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       We understand who we are by the groups we belong to. The core of our identity is shaped in childhood by the family we’re part of. One of the key developmental tasks of adolescence is defining who we are in a world that offers us many options. Joining clubs, teams, or cliques is all part of sorting out and shaping our identity. Am I a jock or a geek, do I identify with the band or the stoners, how widely can I distribute myself among different groups that reflect a part of who I am? Those are important questions we deal with as teenagers, and that’s why parents plead and pray that their teens become part of networks that are positive and healthy. It’s why they want to know who you’ve been hanging out with after school.

       And of course it doesn’t stop once we become adults. Just think how you define yourself by the groups you belong to and how you live your life guided by the claims they put on you. Your family, your country, the Steeler Nation  – they all have a claim on you.

       In his letter to those early Christians Peter reminds them that they belong to a group that is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” By the time this letter was written, Jesus’ followers were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. They lived in different countries and belonged to different ethnic groups. Some were wealthy and powerful and highly educated. Some were poor and illiterate. They belonged to trade guilds and political groups. Some were slaves and belonged to other human beings.  But what they had in common was far more significant than all their differences. They belonged to the group God had chosen to continue the work of Jesus, the work of bringing the whole creation back to God by proclaiming God’s marvelous works. Whatever other groups they belonged to, the one that defined them above all others was this holy nation chosen by God.

       Now, these days we’ve developed some skepticism about group identity. We’ve seen too many examples of how it can be manipulated by powerful leaders for selfish ends. We’ve heard too many stories of group-think causing people to give up their freedom or do horrible things in a crowd that they’d never do on their own. Some of you grew up in religious communities that squeezed the spiritual life right out of you, and you’re skeptical of any kind of religion that that has a formal organization. It can be tempting to think of our relationship with God as something purely personal that can thrive outside of a group of other Christians. Many people these days say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” They mean they’re constructing their own faith outside of any formal community that practices rituals or teaches creeds.

       Peter is reminding us that we can’t be followers of Christ without being part of a community that’s larger than ourselves. He describes those who believe in Jesus as stones, the building blocks of a spiritual house. And yet, to make it clear that we’re not faceless, mindless rocks, he calls us living stones. That’s a strange metaphor, a contradiction in terms. I’ve never seen a stone that’s alive. But that reflects the mystery and wonder of what he’s trying to convey. We belong to a group that gives us our identity as Christians. At the same time, we don’t lose ourselves mindlessly in this group. It’s by belonging to the group that we find who we truly are because we’re valued and loved for our own unique character.

       David Brooks wrote a column last week that reported on disturbing study of working-class men. Researchers interviewed people who have been left behind by the gig economy and feel isolated and alienated. In those parts of the country where the economic malaise is strongest and the opioid crisis is acute, the bonds of community seem to be fraying the most. People claim to be religious, but they are loosely attached to their churches. “Their conception of faith is so individualized that there is nobody else they could practice it with. They pray but have contempt for organized religion and do not tie themselves down to a specific community. ‘I treat church just like I treat my girlfriends,” one man said. “’I’ll stick around for a while, then I’ll go on to the next one.’”[1] Peter’s description of the community of faith is so much more than a placed we stop by occasionally on our way to constructing our own personal faith.

       Like the stones that make up a building, each one relies on the other. Each one gives strength to the others even as it receives strength and support. When one can’t bear the weight on its own, the others bear the load for it.

       Have you ever come to church on a Sunday and felt spiritually dry, as if there were no life in your spirit and everything was flat? And then as the people around you sing the hymns and bow their heads in prayer, as you join the line to come forward to receive communion or as you hear the choir sing the anthem, you feel that you’re lifted up on their songs and prayers. You leave feeling closer to God because you’ve been lifted up by the worship of others.

       Once I visited someone in the hospital from another state. She was in town for major surgery. She told me how she could feel the prayers of her church half way across the country giving her strength and courage. I have a friend who is trying to discern what God wants her to do with the next phase of her life. She’s asked people in various parts of the country to keep her in their prayers, and she says that she can feel those prayers. She’s facing her uncertain future with a confidence that’s grounded in something stronger than her own anxieties and worries.

       After Mother Teresa died, many were surprised to learn that she suffered from some real crises of faith. There were long periods of time when she did not feel God’s presence as she ministered to the poor in the streets of Calcutta. Many people have those dark nights of the soul, yet they keep on serving God because they know that they are carried on by the faith of others. They’re part of God’s people who have received mercy, and when they can’t believe, they rely on the other living stones to carry them in faith. They know that their lives are secure on the cornerstone of faith, Jesus, and he is far more reliable than our fleeting awareness of him.

       Today we have Carleen Farabaugh from the York Benevolent Association with us.  Most of the good work that a church does we do in partnership with other organizations. There is a network of people of good will spread throughout our community who work to improve the lives of our neighbors. We believe that God’s Spirit works through all those communities of good will, that it’s in our community connections that we experience the love of God that lifts us beyond ourselves and draws us into Christ’s mission of sharing God’s love.

       For a number of years I volunteered with the World Communion of Reformed Churches. That’s the organization of 180 Presbyterian and Reformed churches around the world, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Most of those 80 million Presbyterians live in the third world. I attended their annual executive committee meetings because I was helping them get a funds development effort started in North America. The 30 people in attendance were from 6 continents. We would begin each meeting checking in with each other and giving a brief update on the state of the church in his or her country. The first meeting I attended, in Geneva, Switzerland, made a powerful impression on me. The first to speak was a professor from Columbia, South America. Speaking through an interpreter, he told how his country was being debilitated by narco traffickers, but the churches there are able to stand up to the drug lords and rogue militias because of the support they get from Presbyterians from the US who would go to Columbia for two weeks at a time to as accompaniers. They would go to villages out in the country and live among the members of the church. Their presence as foreigners protected the peasants from the violence of the narco traffickers. It was dangerous for the North Americans, but it gives the Columbians strength knowing that they’re not along, and the church is thriving with that kind of support.

       A pastor from Rwanda told how leaders of his church are working alongside leaders from the church in the neighboring Congo to help mediate peace in the civil war that is raging in Congo. There was a report from China about the churches that are overflowing on Sunday mornings in that country where Christianity was once forbidden. A Christian educator from Lebanon shared her church’s concerns about the upheaval sweeping the Middle East. While we in the US were rejoicing that dictators were being toppled, she said that the Christians in those lands are worried that those who replaced the ruling despots may not be as tolerant of Christians. The dwindling number of churches were doing all they could to care for the victims of war. Toward the end of the circle, a pastor from Germany reported on his situation that is similar to one we know. The church in western Europe, even more than in the United States, is shrinking in numbers. Its influence is waning. Like us, he’s concerned about the future. He said that he needs to hear the stories of the church in Africa and Asia and South America because they remind him that his struggling church isn’t the entire story of the Christian faith today.

       The individual, personal relationship that each of has with the Lord is a precious thing. Jesus loves each and every one of us and knows the number of hairs on our head. And because he loves us so, he joins us to the whole household of faith. He gives each of us a part in the glorious work he started on Easter, the work of proclaiming the new creation where each one has received mercy and is precious to God. Our lives matter to Jesus, and because we matter, he joins us with all those who love him to form a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s chosen people.

       We’re not in this by ourselves. The folks around us aren’t perfect. We get annoyed and frustrated with them sometimes. But Jesus, the cornerstone, holds us up, and when we need it, the Holy Spirit touches us through those imperfect Christians who show us our place in that royal priesthood of living stones, made perfect in our weakness by him.


[1] David Brooks, “The Rise of the Haphazard Self,” The New York Times, May 13, 2019.

5-12-19 — Family Practice — John 13:31-35 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       On this Mother’s Day I’d like to talk with you about families, especially the importance of families for those who follow Jesus. Most families begin with a wedding. I can’t tell you how many weddings I’ve officiated at over the last 40 years, but presiding at a wedding is one of the more gratifying things about being a pastor.  I still get a lump in my throat as I stand by the groom and watch the bride walk down the aisle.  Standing there I sometimes think back to my own wedding, and what a happy day that was.   I remember the weddings of my son and my daughter, and and what a mixture of nostalgia and joy I felt.  But it’s more than sentiment that makes a wedding special. Two perfectly competent adults, doing very well on their own, stand before God, their family and friends and make a pledge to serve and to sacrifice.  They promise to give themselves freely to each other, to stand by each other in joy and in sorrow, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death do they part.  There’s no better example of the kind of love God showed us in Christ than the love that sustains marriage. 

       When two people embark on a Christian marriage, they start a family.  Whether it includes children or it’s just the two of them, they’re creating a place where they’ll practice what Jesus proclaims.  A Christian family is a model of what Jesus intends for the church.  It’s  a place where relationships are based on what you give, not what you get, on how you can serve rather than how you can be served. 

       I came across a good example of that. A while back I learned about stage coaches in the 19th century Texas.  In the days of the stagecoach there were three classes of fare.  They didn’t have to do with where you sat, because there wasn’t much room in a stagecoach.  The fare you paid determined what you did in case of an emergency.  In those days the roads weren’t paved, and it was all two strong horses could do to pull a stagecoach on a flat smooth road.  Your class of ticket had to do with what you did when the coach got stuck. If you had a first class ticket and the stagecoach got bogged down in mud or faced a steep incline, you got to stay on board while the drivers pushed and strained to free the coach.  If you paid the second-class fare, you would get out of the coach and walk around the mud and wait until the coach was dislodged.  If you paid third-class fare, you got into the mud and helped the driver push until the coach was free.[1] 

       Jesus stood first-class on its head.  In God’s realm it’s the first-class passengers who get out and serve.  It’s the third-class folks who are the ones who stay in the coach.  Jesus demonstrated that when he gathered with his disciples on the night he was arrested.  Before he talked to them about loving one another, he showed them what he meant.  They had arrived at the upper room at the end of a long day.  The streets of Jerusalem weren’t paved.  They had been walking around in sandals so their feet were hot, tired and covered with dirt.  The common practice in those days was for dinner guests to remove their sandals when they arrived at the home of their host.  The servant of the host would wash their feet.  It was a menial task – touching someone’s feet, washing them with water, and drying them with a towel.  We rarely practice it in churches today because most of us feel uncomfortable with it.  But Jesus, in the role of the servant, washed his disciples’ feet as they arrived for dinner.  Peter protested.  He said he would never let his master wash his feet.  But Jesus said that if Peter wanted to have anything to do with Jesus, he must let him wash his feet. 

       Look what Jesus’ serving got him.  Judas, one of his disciples, left the room to go betray him to the authorities who later that night arrested him, humiliated him, and the next day had him executed.  It couldn’t get any lower than that.  But what does Jesus say about his impending humiliation?  After Judas leaves to set in motion the betrayal and the death, Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” 

It’s in serving and giving himself that Jesus glorified God because that is the essence of who God is.  You can know something of God by observing God’s power and might.  You can see God’s handiwork in the glorious spring sunshine, the majestic panoply of the stars and the night sky, but you don’t really know God until you know God’s character in Jesus.  The nature of God is love, love that gives and serves.  God’s love is what we see in the life, death, resurrection and glory of Jesus.  You know people belong to Jesus when they practice that kind of love.  He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  And what better place to practice God’s love than a family?  Sometimes there’s no more challenging place to love.

       Jesus told his disciples to love all kinds of people.  He told them to love their neighbors as themselves.  He told them to love their enemies.  Those are hard instructions.  But in his last instructions to his disciples, he told them to love one another.  These people had been living with each other for three years.  They’d eaten together, slept together, scraped out a living together.  They had quarreled with each other.  On their way to Jerusalem, some of them had been fussing about who would be the greatest when Jesus brought in his kingdom. 

Our enemies and our neighbors we can love from a distance.  We can help them but we don’t really have to know them.  But we know our family, warts and all.  What they can hide from others, we see.  We know when their guard is let down.  We don’t have much say in who belongs to our family.  You can choose your spouse.  That’s the only member of your family you can choose, and even then you’re in for some surprises.  You can’t choose your parents.  You can’t choose whom your siblings are going to marry.  If you have children, you can’t choose their character or their personality.  You can influence and guide them, but you can’t determine what they’ll be like.  In a family, we’re supposed to love someone the better we get to know them, whether we like them or not. 

       In all those ways Jesus’ followers are like a family.  “You did not choose me,” he once told them, “but I chose you.”  That’s one thing that makes the church different from any other organization to which we belong.  We don’t choose who belongs, God does.  We don’t have the privilege of being with only people we like or agree with.  God brings the church together, like a family, to practice being like Christ.  We practice forgiveness, encouragement, unconditional love for each other, and love for the world.

       That’s why, for so many, their mothers are their primary teachers about God.  God is very much like a mother.  Think of all the things a mother knows about her child.  Yes, she knows how bright and sweet and beautiful he is.  But she also knows about his dirty diapers, his illnesses, his tantrums.  She knows the mistakes he’s made and the ways he’s taken her for granted.  Yet who loves someone more than his mother?  Who is always going to be there, always ready to do anything for her child at a moment’s notice, even one of the greatest acts of love, let him go, share him with the world, and let him pursue the life God has in store for him?  That’s the way God loves us.  And that’s how God wants us to love one another.

       But that love isn’t just for us and our well-being.  There’s another way Jesus wants his followers to love as he loves us.  Early in his ministry he told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.”  God came to us in Jesus because God loves the world.  The love we have for each other shows God’s love to the world.  God forms this community of love called the church for the sake of the world.  He told his disciples to love one another so the world would know they belong to him.

       And that’s true of Christian families too.  When two people are married in a service of worship, they’re affirming that, before they belong to each other, they belong to Christ.  When we belong to Christ, we participate in his mission of showing the world God’s love.  A Christian family is a place that prepares and equips its members to serve others in the name of Christ.  It’s not just a shelter from life’s difficulties.  It’s a place where its members practice Christian love so they can love the world as Christ loves it.

       Last week Jean Vanier died. He was a Canadian who after serving in the navy earned his PhD and taught in university. In 1963 he was in France and visited an institution for mentally disabled men. It was a dark, depressing and violent place, but Vanier also found something there that was beautiful and mysterious. The men asked if he would visit again. “Behind those words,” he said, “I sensed a great cry: Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not with my brothers and sisters, who are married and living in nice houses? Do you love me?”

       Vanier bought a house in a small town outside Paris and invited two men to live with him. One had meningitis as a child, and could only speak about 20 words. The other, who had encephalitis, talked over and over about the same things. Both were physically disabled.

       By living with them, Vanier began to understand what it meant to be human. “Before meeting them, my life had been governed from my head and my sense of duty,” he said. “They brought out the child in me. I began to live from my heart.”

       Vanier went on to form l’Arche, which is French for the ark, a network of homes where people with mental disabilities lived side by side with fully abled people to form communities of care and support. Today there are 154 communities in 38 countries. Another network of homes, Faith and Light, has 1500 homes. Henri Nouwen, the prolific Christian author, lived his final years in a l’Arche home and wrote about how powerfully he saw God’s Spirit at work there.

       That’s the kind of love our families should nurture in us, a love that reaches out beyond itself for others. God has many ways of creating family. We care for each other in our families so we can have the strength, the faith, the support to follow Jesus out into the world he died for. We love each other so we help each other achieve our highest calling, to take our place in the family of Jesus.

       Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”  And family is where we practice.


[1] John Claypool, “First Class Jesus Style,” 30 Good Minutes, Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Program #3919, February 11, 1996 (www.csec.org).

5-5-19 — Bursting At the Seams — John 21:1-19 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       The disciples were back in Galilee. They’d seen the risen Jesus twice in Jerusalem, so they knew he was alive. But they still didn’t know what to make of it. They weren’t sure what to do next. So they went back to doing what they had done before, what was familiar and reliable. They went back to the Sea of Tiberius, also called the Sea of Galilee, and to the work they’d left three years earlier.

       We often do that when we don’t know what else to do. We go back to what is familiar. It’s like a young adult moving back home when he can’t find the right job. It’s like going back to the work you know when the new career doesn’t take off. It’s like giving up on your diet when life gets too stressful. When we don’t know what else to do, we fall back on what we know.

       So those disciples went back to fishing, the work they were doing before Jesus called them away. And it was in that familiar place, that place where they went to regroup and start over, that Jesus came to them and called them again.

       They fished all through the night, but they caught nothing. Right after the sun came up they saw a man standing on the beach. It was Jesus, but they didn’t recognize him. He asked if they’d caught anything. They said No.

       Jesus has a way of first showing us our need for him before we can see him right in front of us. Usually we have to recognize our weakness before we’re ready to accept his strength. How many of us have come to know him because we reached out to him when there was no place left to turn? That’s why we begin every worship service with a prayer of confession. We take a moment to remember our need for Jesus before we approach him in worship.

       Jesus told them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. They did, and they were not able to haul it back in because there were so many fish.

       Now, if you were reading the gospel of John in one sitting, you’d notice that this overflowing abundance is a theme that occurs over and over. Back at the very beginning of the gospel story, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. He didn’t just change a couple of bottles. He made 180 gallons of wine. Later on, when the crowds who had come out to hear him needed food, he fed 5000 people using only five loaves of bread and two fish. It’s probably no coincidence that he did that on the shores of that same lake, not far from where they were that morning. It’s like the gospel writer is saying to us, “See? Do you get it? Jesus not only provides, he provides in abundance.”

       The disciples got ashore and Jesus told them to bring him some of the fish they’d just caught. He already had fish cooking on a fire for them, but he asked them to bring  him some of the fish he had provided them. That’s how it is with Jesus. He provides us with all we have, then he asks us to give back to him what he’s given us so he can remind us how he provides for us. That’s what we do every Sunday in the offering. We give back to Jesus what he’s already given us so he can use it to give more good things to us and to the world. We do that at this communion table. We give thanks to Jesus for giving us bread and wine, we offer it up to him, and he comes to us in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup and fills us with his Spirit.

       And it’s not just with our offerings. It’s what we do with our lives. It’s what Jesus asked of Peter after breakfast.

       Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Jesus knew the answer. Peter knew that Jesus knew. “Yes, Lord,” he replied. “You know that I love you.” Maybe Jesus was asking so Peter could assure himself how much he loved the Lord. Peter would certainly have reason to doubt himself. That night when Jesus was on trial, Peter stood outside in the courtyard and denied three times that he knew Jesus. Now Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to affirm his love. Here was yet another sign of Jesus’ overflowing love. Peter had seen it in the abundance of water changed to wine. He had seen it in the five loaves of bread that had fed the crowd so abundantly that there were twelve baskets left over. He had just seen it in the haul of fish, 153 to be exact. And now he felt it in this profusion of grace, not just one chance to put things right with Jesus, but three times for Peter to tell Jesus that he loved him.

       And not only to say it but to show it. Jesus invited Peter to show his love by joining Jesus in his work. Jesus called Peter to feed his sheep.

       Some would think that the way for Jesus to keep showing his love for Peter would be to keep showering him with more stuff – more wine, more bread, more fish. Jesus could have given Peter all those things we’re told make life worthwhile, all those things we’re supposed to strive for to achieve happiness. Jesus could have given Peter wealth and power and prestige. He could have given him those things people dream they’ll have if they win the lottery. But all of us have heard stories of people who have it all and yet are miserable. The people who seem to have it all and seem to actually enjoy life are the ones who leverage their wealth and power for the good of others, people like Bill and Melinda Gates who have dedicated their fortune and their lives to eradicating disease and educating children.

       Joy and satisfaction don’t come from having but from giving, and that seems to have little correlation with how comfortable and well off you are. Some of the most joyful people are those whose circumstances are the most difficult.  I heard an interview the other day with some Nigerians. Their country was recently ranked the happiest country in Africa. It’s still below countries in Europe and North America on the happiness scale. There is widespread poverty, and they have to deal with militant groups like Boko Haram. But these people who were interviewed said that they take joy in the gift of each day. They find satisfaction in helping those around them who are in need, and there are many. I’ve worshiped a few times in Presbyterian churches in Africa, and the joy on the faces of those Christians is unlike anything you’ll ever see on the face of someone sitting in front of a screen.

       John Calvin, one of our spiritual forebears, said that we should hold on to the things God gives us the way we would hold a thistle. You hold a thistle lightly. If you hold it tightly, it will hurt you. The things we have we hold lightly. We enjoy them for what they are, for how they can enhance life. But if we cling to them we harm our souls. If they are blown away, then we know our life doesn’t depend on them.

       Jesus’ greatest gift to Peter was the call to feed his sheep. That is Jesus’ greatest gift to us. How do we do that? In large part it’s in the attitude we take toward others. It’s an awareness of those whom others overlook. It’s in the way we relate to people, not out of deference to their position or their influence, but out of deference to them as reflections of the image of God, the image in which each person is made.

       For some of us, feeding Jesus’ sheep involves making a conscious effort to get out of our comfort zone. Jesus told Peter that what he would get for his faithfulness was an end to his life that was similar to what happened to Jesus. His faithfulness to Jesus would lead him  into the hands of those who would tie him up and take him where he did not wish to go. That’s not where faith leads all of us, but it can lead to places we’d otherwise avoid. Lots of times, for us, that is through the church. There are plenty of places many of us would never have gone if our calling as a deacon hadn’t taken us to the bedside in a nursing home or our response to an invitation from the mission committee hadn’t taken us to a neighborhood we’ve never visited to work on a Habitat house or to the homeless community to serve a meal.

       Not everyone is physically able to go out. Some of us feed Jesus’ sheep in the way we encounter the people who come to us every day, relatives or friends or helpers. Some of us have a part in feeding Jesus’ sheep in the abundance of our prayers, joining with the Holy Spirit in lifting up this world for which Jesus died.

       Right after Jesus called Peter to feed his sheep, Peter turned and looked at one of the other disciples and asked Jesus, “What about him?” Jesus said, “If I have different plans for him, what is that to you? Follow me!” Each of us hears Jesus’ call in a different way. He knows each one of us. He showers each of us with blessings we can’t begin to count. And he calls each of us to join him. “Follow me,” he says. And that is our abundant joy.

5-12-19 Bulletin

5-12-19-bulletin

5-5-19 Bulletin

5-5-19-bulletin

May Pew Points

2019_May_PewPoints_WEB

4-28-19 — Believing is Seeing — Acts 4:32-35, John 20:19-31

       It’s not news that the number of Americans who believe in God has plummeted in recent decades. A Gallup survey that came out this month shows that only 50% of Americans belong to a church, down from 70% just twenty years ago. There are many reasons for that decline in faith, but one reason is that we no longer need faith to explain how the world works. For most of human history, whenever something happened that couldn’t be explained otherwise, people fell back on God to fill the gap. When the ancients were terrorized by a thunderstorm, they explained the  lightning bolts as the spears of the gods.   When 50 million people died in Europe and Africa and Asia from bubonic plague in the 14th century, it was explained as the punishment of God. Even today, in the most advanced societies, we still attribute things we can’t predict or control to God. My car insurance policy includes coverage for what it calls “acts of God.” That covers events like a like a tree falling on my car roof or a deer that runs in front of me and smashes my fender.

       The problem with using God to fill the gaps of our knowledge is that as those gaps grow smaller, God gets crowded out. If you are in awe of God because you think that lightning bolts are God’s spears, what happens to your belief once you know that lightning bolts are sparks of electricity caused by positively and negatively charged particles that build up in clouds? If you obey God because you fear God might send some dread plague to punish you, why should you bother with God once you know that the plague is caused by bacteria carried by fleas and rodents? If biology tells me that a deer ran in front of my car because it’s mating season and he was in hot pursuit of a doe, then why should I call my dented fender an act of God when I know it’s the act of a love-crazed animal?

       If we believe in God because God is the one who conveniently fills in the gaps of our knowledge, then as our knowledge increases we have less reason to believe. This morning’s gospel lesson shows us that belief isn’t the result of some logical deduction that fills in the blanks. We believe in God because we encounter someone whom we can’t know through empirical deduction. We believe because we are confronted with awe and wonder and mystery.

After Easter the disciples told Thomas that Jesus was risen from the dead. Thomas knew that such things don’t happen in the course of nature, and he set out a list of things he had to see before he would believe. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” He had to see the evidence to be convinced.

       A week later, as Thomas and the other disciples were gathered in a room, Jesus joined them and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” That scene has been depicted in paintings showing Thomas carefully touching Jesus’ wounds, but the old masters got it wrong. The Bible doesn’t say that Thomas’ response to Jesus was a careful forensic examination to gather evidence that Jesus really was alive. According to the text, Thomas’ response was “My Lord and my God!” It was a response of wonder and awe. He believed, and in believing, he saw the risen Christ in all his power and majesty.

       The way we come to faith in Christ is different from the way we come to understand how a computer works or how to repair an automobile. Don’t get me wrong. It matters that belief is compatible with rational thought. God does not demand that we leave our brains at the door when we come to church. But for most people, it’s not a rational, well-reasoned argument that leads to an affirmation of faith like Thomas’. It’s awe and wonder and an experience of transcendent love that lets us see who Jesus really is.

       It’s that way with all of our deepest relationships. I can give you a long list of reasons why I love my wife. She has innumerable good qualities and those qualities matter. I might not have been attracted to her if she were not kind and generous and smart. But that’s not what causes love. There are probably thousands of people who have the same attributes that my wife has. But I love her and not those thousands of other people. Love is a mystery, a deep sharing, a sense of wonder that is a whole different sphere of reality.

       My wife and I were watching the British television series “Call the Midwife.” It’s about young nurses who deliver babies in the East End of London in the 1950s and 1960s. In every show, there is at least one scene of a woman giving birth, and every time we watch one of those scenes, Carol gets choked up. Now, she knows how it works. There’s nothing mysterious anymore about the science of obstetrics. Rationally, it’s the human body doing its part for the preservation of the species. But there is something beyond knowing how it works that makes it special. A birth carries with it a mystery beyond the science. It’s an affirmation of hope, of life, of love.

       Mr. Spock on Star Trek was always puzzled by the irrational things the human beings on the Starship Enterprise did. They did things that made no rational sense to his Vulcan way of seeing the universe. They would do things out of love or conviction that he couldn’t understand. Earthlings could be rational and logical; they had to be in order to run a star ship. But they also lived on  another plane of reality, one that exasperated Spock because he couldn’t see it. That is the realm of life where we encounter God, that reality that touches the depths of our human souls.

       Arnold Benz worships at the church I served in Zurich, Switzerland. He is a professor of astrophysics at the university near the church where Albert Einstein studied. He has written two books that explore the relationship between the empirical reality to which he has devoted his life’s work, the world of science and rational proof, and the reality of God that we experience as loving, feeling human beings, a reality that is beyond scientific explanation. In the preface of one of his books, he describes how he decided to become an astronomer. He was in high school, on a summer trip through southern Morocco with some friends. One night they decided to sleep under the open sky.

It was refreshingly cool… An unbelievable peace enveloped us. It was quiet: no din of civilization, no animals, no rustling in the air, nothing. The night opened the skies for us to reveal an unusual and overpowering splendor of the stars…. Because the air was totally clear, the stars hardly glittered and yet shone intensely. The sky was alive…. The bright stars gave the appearance of being closer… Interstellar space achieved a dimension of depth…. The darker the veil, the brighter the stars appeared. Everything seemed to be linked, and to constitute an impenetrable totality….

That night in the Sahara stimulated my thirst for more knowledge and assured me, too, that this knowledge needn’t stifle the sensation of amazement. With a sense of wonder, I had encountered a totally different perspective, which was not in competition with physics. On the contrary, my fascination with the quiet and mysteriously glowing stars and the prospect of pursuing new methods of scientific investigation had both captured me with their spell.

During this night in the desert, I decided to study astrophysics.[1]

For Professor Benz the galaxies and the nebulae

 became icons opening onto the perception of expansive mysteries that are beyond the reach of science. Most of us are familiar with icons. They are the small images on our computer screens that we click on to get access to an application that lets us write an email or create a spread sheet or surf the world wide web. Icons are where we enter into a world much bigger than the image on our screen.

If you go into any Orthodox Christian church, you’ll see the icons for which the symbols on our computer screens were named. From the earliest centuries of Christianity, believers have used icons to help them connect with the divine. To those of us who are unfamiliar with those religious icons, they appear flat and two dimensional. I know someone who paints icons, and she explained to me that an icon in the Orthodox faith is not supposed to be a true-to-life representation of the person it portrays, whether that’s Jesus or Mary or one of the saints. The believer meditates on the icon to open himself or herself to the presence of the Holy Spirit and let the Spirit draw the believer into closer communion with God.

For Professor Benz the galaxies and the wonders of nature do something similar. Science can explain how stars are formed from the residue of the Big Bang and how that stardust, over billions of years, came together to form you and me. For some people, that knowledge eliminates the need for God. If the origin of the universe and life can be explained by Professor Benz using science and math, then what use do we have for God if there are no more gaps in our knowledge to be filled? But for Professor Benz the more he learns, the more he is in awe of the one who is still creating galaxies we have yet to discover.

On Easter God showed how this physical world of flesh and matter is one in Christ with the realm of the Spirit, that reality that can’t be measured and is beyond our rational understanding. Jesus comes to us in our very human form and by the power of the Holy Spirit opens our perception to see him for who he is, Very God of Very God as the Nicene Creed describes him. Things that have very logical explanations, like a star shining in the sky or a recovery from a terrible disease become for us like icons that open our eyes to see another reality and exclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

We are not passive observers of that realm of the Spirit. We have a relationship with God who knows us and hears us. One of the things we Christians do is tell God our concerns and ask God’s help. We pray for those who are sick. We ask God to bring healing and comfort to those who suffer. When the people for whom we pray recover from their illness, and we give thanks to God for answered prayer. Sometimes there is a perfectly logical medical explanation for that recovery. Sometimes there is not. We know that God can intervene with nature and change the course of things. Jesus showed that when he performed miracles. But if the person for whom we pray does not recover, that does not weaken our conviction that God is there. Some of the most powerful witnesses I have ever seen to God’s goodness and mercy have been in the way friends have faced their death with dignity and courage and hope.

 Jesus sent his followers to be icons in the world so that through us the world can see what he intends for all people. In the passage we read this morning from Acts, we see the community of believers who share all things in common. “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there was no needy person among them.” People who owned land or property would sell it and give the proceeds to the community to help anyone who was in need. They did that in the spirit of God who gives so generously to us. In seeing those believers care for one another, people were drawn to see the God who offered them new life.

       Millard Fuller, who was a founder of Habitat for Humanity, was an icon who showed us Jesus. He had a successful career as a businessman in Georgia, and had become a self-made millionaire by the age of 29. But for all the success and money he had, he wasn’t satisfied. Led by a deep faith in Christ, he and his wife moved to Koinonia Farms outside Americus, a community dedicated to interracial justice. After serving five years as missionaries in Zaire, they returned to Georgia and started Habitat for Humanity. Now Jesus’ followers all over the world join together to demonstrate the love and justice of the Lord as they help people have a place to live and a new start in life. Fuller was an icon who opened the way to Jesus. When people see what we do in Jesus’ name, we are icons that point to a whole new world.

       Don’t you ever wonder why Jesus didn’t give a public display of his wounds to the crowds who demanded his murder the way he showed them to Thomas and the disciples? Why didn’t he prove to them that he was alive, that their plans to do away with him didn’t work? He knew that believing didn’t come through seeing. Seeing came through believing. The people who crucified him had seen his miracles, they had heard his teaching, but they weren’t convinced. Seeing the risen Christ is a gift given by God.  And God reveals that gift through those icons, those windows that are given to lead us into that new way of seeing.

       Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest and poet once wrote:

“Christ plays in ten thousand places,

       Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

       To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”[2]

The gaps in our knowledge of how the world works grow smaller, but God is not diminished one bit. The risen Christ appears to us in signs that we see by faith. Through nature, through prayer, through the community of faith, through signs of his power that we read in scripture or see in daily life, he comes to us, he summons us to believe, and believing we say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”   


[1] Arthur Benz, Astrophysics and Creation, trans. Martin Knoll (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2016), pp. 1-3.

[2] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44389/as-kingfishers-catch-fire.

4-28-19 Bulletin

4-28-19-Jazz-Sunday-bulletin

4-21-19 Easter Sunday Bulletin

4-21-19-Easter-Sunday-bulletin

4-21-19 — Easter Sunday — Remember — Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 24:1-12 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Fear isn’t an emotion we usually associate with Easter.  We think of Easter and we think of joy, celebration, and triumph.  But before there were any of those things there was fear.  Two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appeared to the women in the tomb, and they were terrified.  They bowed their faces to the ground and just stood there.  Like death itself, fear brings things to a halt.  It stops us in our tracks.  The great preacher Fred Craddock has captured the paralyzing power of fear:

       “Why don’t you go out for the ball team?”  “I’m afraid I won’t make it.”

“Why don’t you try out for the school play?”   “I’m afraid I won’t get a part.”

“Why did you lie to your parents?”  “I was afraid of punishment.”

“Why were you so jealous?”  “I was afraid of losing love.”[1]

On that Sunday morning just outside Jerusalem the women’s worst fears had already come true.  The master was dead.  Were these strange men going to continue the horror and sweep them up in death too? They just stood there, stuck, immobilized by fear.

Then the men spoke to them. They gave them the antidote to fear: “Remember,” they told the women.  “Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee.”  Memory is the antidote to fear.

I was watching one of the NCAA Tournament basketball games, and just before tip off the cameras took us inside the dressing room of one of the teams. The coach was giving his final talk to the team before they took to the floor. You could see the tension on the faces of the young men. Everything they’d been working for all season was on the line, in front of millions of people. They had a lot to lose. The coach told them to remember who they were. He recalled for them the victories they’d won, the teamwork they’d achieved. They remembered, and when they went out, they played like they weren’t afraid of anything.

The women stood there in the empty tomb motionless, with their heads bowed to the ground, and the angels told them, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  And they remembered, and they went out to tell the world.

You can understand why the women had to be reminded of what Jesus said to them in Galilee.  He told the disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering… and be killed, and on the third day be raised…” It didn’t fit into the story they had constructed in their minds, the story of Jesus as the one who is above such things. Peter pulled him aside and rebuked him for such talk.  Jesus suffer?  Be killed?  That’s a thought you just want to put out of your mind.  It is one of those things you don’t want to remember.  It’s too frightening to think about.

It’s funny how memory works, how selective it is. Something happens or someone says something, and you don’t notice or you put it out of our mind. Then later something triggers that memory, and an encounter or an event that had lain dormant for a long time rises up and shapes your life. There’s so much Jesus tells us we don’t remember until later.  So much of what he’s promised that we don’t even notice until the promises are fulfilled.  Faith often works like that.

The author Dan Wakefield tells how memory led him back to church. A number of years ago he was stuck. He had just ended a seven-year relationship with a woman, buried both his parents, gone broke, and moved across the country to Boston to start a new job. He was mired in chaos. Then one day he grabbed an old Bible from one of his piles of books and with a desperate instinct turned to the 23rd Psalm. In the months that followed, he recited it in his mind. It didn’t lead him back to his childhood belief in God, but it did give a sense of peace and calm.

One evening, just before Christmas, he was sitting in a neighborhood bar on Beacon Hill when a housepainter named Tony said out of the blue that he wanted to find a place to go to church on Christmas Eve. Wakefield didn’t say anything, but a thought flashed in his mind, “I’d like to do that too.”

He hadn’t been to church since he left home for college 25 years before, but on that Christmas Eve he found himself in King’s Chapel, which he selected from the ads in The Boston Globe religious page because it seemed less threatening. He assumed “Candlelight Service” meant nothing more religiously challenging than singing some carols.

He didn’t go back again until Easter, but after that he wanted to go again. And that presented a challenge. His two initial visits had been on holidays, when “regular” people went to church. But to go back again meant he’d have to cross Boston Common on a non-holiday Sunday morning, and be seen going into the church. He tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, hoping his friends would all be home doing brunch and the Sunday papers so he wouldn’t be caught in the act.

To his surprise, he recognized people he knew. He just assumed he didn’t know people who went to church, yet there they were, intellects intact, worshiping God. Once inside he understood why. He found relief connecting with the age-old rituals, reciting psalms and singing hymns. He was reminded that there’s something beyond his own flimsy physical presence, a God and a community. Wakefield joined the church, started attending a Bible study and teaching Sunday school, and began a spiritual journey that reoriented his life.[2]

Sometimes a parent whose child has grown up and left home will lament to me that her son or daughter doesn’t go to church.  “We brought him up coming every Sunday, and now he won’t have anything to do with it.”  I remind those parents that a seed was planted and memories were made.  One day, maybe an Easter Sunday, when he remembers singing the hymns, the warmth of the congregation, the love and the peace in the prayers, he’ll walk into a sanctuary like Dan Wakefield did and he’ll remember what he already knows.  He’ll remember what he learned in Sunday school, those conversations with his youth advisor, what you taught him around the dinner table.  Sometimes those memories come and they roll away the stones that keep us from entering those holy places where we encounter what God has done.

I’ve always assumed the stone was moved from Jesus’ tomb so Jesus could get out.  But it dawned on me while preparing this sermon that Jesus didn’t need to have the stone moved.  His resurrection body could pass through walls.  The stone wasn’t moved so Jesus could get out.  It was rolled away so the women could see in.  And once the women were in, the angels told them to remember, and memory rolled away the stone of their fear that paralyzed them, and they understood who Jesus was.

Those memories of Jesus, our encounters with him in worship and prayer, the way he’s lifted us out of despair, given us direction, calmed our troubled spirits, those are the deepest and most lasting memories we have.  They are embedded in the very depths of our souls.  I’ve occasionally led worship in nursing homes where a large portion of the congregation suffer from dementia.  Some of those men and women can no longer remember the names of their own family members, but when we sing a favorite hymn or say the Lord’s Prayer or recite the Apostles’ Creed, they remember every word.  Those memories, like the God they proclaim, are lasting and endure the ravages of the years. 

Many of us are afraid for the church these days. We remember a time when the Protestant Church in America had more influence, when Sunday mornings were for church, not soccer practice, when Wednesday evenings were for Bible study, and when the congregations of Donegal Presbytery had more than twice as many members as they do today. Dan Aleshire, retired Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools, has pointed out how sometimes our memories can be misleading. When the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years they looked back longingly on the time they were slaves in Egypt and had enough to eat, plenty to drink, and roofs over their heads. Whenever they wanted to go back to Egypt, their leader Moses had to remind them of the promise God had given them that they would have a land of their own. It would be different from Egypt, but better. When the Hebrews doubted that promise, Moses reminded them of God’s faithfulness to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, how God really did deliver on the promise to make them a great nation in spite of insurmountable odds.

These days the odds against the church sometimes seem insurmountable. This is when we have to remember what Jesus said to us, what he’s promised. There was an article in the paper about two new Protestant churches that were being built on the outskirts of Beijing, China.  Each will accommodate 1500 worshipers.  They were being built because the existing Protestant churches in the city couldn’t accommodate everyone who wants to worship.  In 1950, the year after the Communists took over, there were 4000 Protestants in Beijing.  For the next generation Christians all over the world feared that the gospel was a lost cause in Red China.  We feared that all the hard work and sacrifice of the missionaries was useless.  During Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s Christians were beaten and sometimes killed, and churches were turned into museums.  But now there are over 100 million Christians in China. The church is stronger now than when the Communists took over.  Jesus was never forgotten in China.  People remembered the good news of the risen Christ.  And God remembered.

Remembering what Jesus has done, remembering his words of life, gives us hope and courage because we know that he will be as faithful to us in the future as he has been in the past. But what if you have no memories to call on ? What if there’s nothing in your experience to draw from? Then you share the memories that the church holds on our behalf, the faithfulness that is proclaimed in the scriptures and the witness of Christians through the ages. Christ joins us with his church and its memories of God’s faithfulness to Abraham and Moses and David and the apostles. Those memories of God’s people through the ages become our memories. And if the memories we have fail us, we know that God’s memory never fails. God remembers us in life and in death.

Remember what he told you.  Christ is risen.  He is risen, indeed.


[1] Fred B. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2002), p. 127.

[2] Dan Wakefield, “Returning to Church,” The New York Times Magazine, December 22, 1985, pp. 16-28.