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7-28-19 — How To Pray — Luke 11:1-13 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Eugene Peterson tells about an encounter he had early in his ministry at the Presbyterian church in Bel Air, MD. Marilyn was a member of his church, a woman in her mid-twenties, married, starting a career in law. She was getting tests for some ailment the doctors couldn’t diagnose. All the resources of medical science and psychology were at her disposal, so when Peterson visited her, he wasn’t sure what he could do. But he asked her anyway, “Is there anything you want me to do?” Marilyn responded, “Would you teach me to pray?” At that moment she wasn’t looking for a diagnosis, or even necessarily a cure. What she was asking was how to see God in the midst of her pain. She was asking for assurance that God saw her.[1]

       When Marilyn prayed, she may well have asked for a cure, maybe even a miracle. Those do happen. But the effectiveness of prayer can’t be judged by quantifiable results, the way a company calculates return on investment or a charity shows donors measurable impact. Like every other human being who has ever lived, Marilyn’s body would one day succumb to illness or accident. Death and disability and disease don’t abide by our standards of fairness, and every person Jesus rescued from death eventually had to face it again.

       No, Marilyn wasn’t asking for a super natural formula to recite. She wanted to know the same thing Jesus’ disciples wanted to know when they asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They wanted to know how to tap into the force that created the universe, how to align with the power of the one who raised the dead.

       Jesus taught them what has come to be known as The Lord’s Prayer. Over the years, we’ve filled it in a little and added some extra phrases, but it is our model for how to pray. Its first two lines set the framework for all our prayers: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” Before we pray for ourselves or for others, we place all our requests in the context of God’s kingdom.  The kingdom of God is what Jesus’ ministry is all abaout. According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ very first words when he began his public ministry, the words that defined what he had come to do, were, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” (Mark 1:15) Jesus began God’s work of restoring all of creation to the way God intends it. The prophet Isaiah described that kingdom as the place where the wolf lies down with the lamb, swords will be beat into plows, where those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength and mount up with wings like eagles. When God raised Jesus from the dead, the power of death and corruption and all the things that keep that kingdom from coming to pass were overcome. Those who follow Jesus are enlisted in his work of fulfilling that kingdom. His resurrection is our assurance that everything we do in his name shows the world that God will prevail.  So all our prayers are raised based on that promise and expectation, that God’s kingdom is coming.

       In the context of that prayer for God’s kingdom, Jesus lists three things to pray for: our daily bread, forgiveness of sin, and deliverance from temptation. Let’s take a minute and unpack what each of those requests means when we pray them in the context of our prayer that God’s kingdom come.

       The first request is “Give us each day our daily bread.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus cautions against storing up too much that will distract us from God’s kingdom. When he sends the disciples out to do his work, he tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” He tells a parable about a man who decides to build a bigger barn to store all his goods, only to die that very night. When a rich man asks him what he needs to do to have eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all he has and distribute it to the poor. So this prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” is our request that God provide what we need for the day in order to do our part in the work of God’s kingdom. Now, by hard work or luck or maybe even some extra blessing, we may get more than our daily bread, and then we’re faced with the challenge of being good stewards of what we have. But to be a faithful follower of Jesus, all we need to pray for is “our daily bread.”

       Not everyone who claims to teach prayer agrees with that. There’s a strand of religion called the prosperity gospel. Some of its proponents you can see on TV, speaking in giant arenas packed with thousands of people. Those who tout the prosperity gospel quote Jesus’ promises without framing them in the context of the kingdom of God. Their message is that if we believe in Jesus and pray persistently, then God is obliged to give us what we ask for. After all, didn’t Jesus say in the passage we just read, “Ask and it will be given to you… for everyone who asks receives…”? What God really intends, so they say, is for you to be prosperous, and the reason you don’t drive a Jaguar or live in a mansion is that you haven’t been praying right. You haven’t been claiming the promises God has in store. And more than likely, you haven’t been sending enough money to the televangelist.

       Most of us can see through that kind of chicanery. Ever since Simon Magus tried to buy God’s blessings by paying off Peter and John (Acts 8: 14ff), people have been trying to profit from the gospel. But what about when our prayers are for those things that God couldn’t possibly be against, like healing for those we love. How could a loving God not cure my loved one’s cancer? How can a God of justice allow a mass-murderer to take the lives of innocent people? It’s when those prayers for healing or justice seem to fall on deaf ears, for things that are supposed to be Christlike and Godly, it’s in response to those seemingly unanswered prayers that so many people have given up on God altogether.

       Jana Childers, a professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, tells of a friend who had cancer. Childers and her friends took Jesus’ command seriously and prayed without ceasing for her friend. For all their prayers, her friend didn’t get healed, or enter remission, or get a sign from heaven or a visit from angels. But what her friend did get was God. She was able to let go of this life with joy and gratitude and peace, knowing that not even death could separate her from God’s eternal love and care. In her friend, Childers was able to see the kingdom of God.[2] That’s how her prayer was answered.

       Someone was once asked what he got when he prayed. He replied that it was easier for him to say what he lost – anger, worry, resentment, fear.

       That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask. Some of us are reluctant to ask God for specific things like healing or a good job or the right place to live. After all, God has so many important concerns, like keeping the planets aligned or world peace. But that’s taking things to the opposite extreme. Jesus invites us to bring all our needs to God because that’s what we do in our most intimate relationships. The Lord’s Prayer starts by addressing God as Father. A good and loving parent wants to hear even the smallest concerns of his or her child. We tell our spouse or our best friend our wildest dreams and our deepest longings. In prayer God can help us sort out what is small or petty from what is important, and God may help us see that requests we thought were insignificant might be ways that God can carry out the work of the kingdom. Sometimes even if the answer to our requests is no, taking our desires to God can shape those desires into something even better. And at the very least, I’m sure there are times that the things I’ve asked God for have kept God amused.

       We’ve talked a lot about that first petition, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and what it means to ask God for specific things. In the second petition, we pray for relationships with God and with others: “Forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Of course we know that our sins are already forgiven. God’s forgiveness doesn’t depend on us praying this prayer. Our sins were forgiven when Jesus died for us on the cross. What we’re asking is that the same power of forgiveness that has reconciled us with God, in spite of all we’ve done to disappoint God, to reconcile us with others. We symbolize that reconciliation in our worship service when we pass the peace. When we pray as Jesus taught, we bring to God all our relationships and ask that Christ be present in them so we can treat everyone, whether we like them or not, with Christlike love, the way all people will treat each other when God’s kingdom comes.  

       The third thing we ask in the Lord’s Prayer is “do not bring us to the time of trial.” As we await the kingdom, there are many troubles, toils and snares that confront us. Traditionally, we’ve said, “Lead us not into temptation,” but that sounds like God might  us by the hand and plop us down in some situation where we’re tempted to sin. A few weeks ago Pope Francis changed the wording in the Roman Catholic version of the prayer so that it says, “do not let us fall into temptation.” That new wording is true to the original Greek, and it clarifies that we’re asking God to give us the faith and strength we need so we don’t fall into temptation, not that God is setting traps for us.

       All the things we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer, our daily bread, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance from temptation, are set in the context of our prayer that God’s kingdom come. After Jesus gives that model for how to pray, he goes on to encourage us to pray consistently and boldly. He ends this teaching on prayer by saying, “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It’s God’s Spirit, speaking with our spirits, that makes prayer alive and dynamic, not just words spoken into the air.

After World War I T.E. Lawrence, known as 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, taken them with them back to the desert, and they would have water forever.[3]

       The power of the Holy Spirit is what makes prayer different from mindfulness. Mindfulness is very popular nowadays. You can learn about it at the Y or download apps to guide you in it. It’s like meditation. You find a quiet place, empty your mind, focus your awareness on the present moment and pay close attention to what you’re feeling and thinking even as you try to empty your mind of all distractions. Those practices are helpful when we pray, but the difference is that in prayer, as we empty our minds of all distractions, we ask the Holy Spirit to fill us. We enter into conversation with God. There are times that we may not feel God’s presence, but we know that whether we’re aware of God or not, God is there.

       Prayer taps into that great reservoir of God’s Spirit that is empowering the work of God’s kingdom. In prayer we place ourselves and all our concerns in the eternal and loving hands of God with the plea, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” May it be so.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, referenced in “Forming a People Who Pray,” by Andrew Root, Christian Century, July 3, 2019, p. 23.

[2] Jana Childers sermon, “A Shameless Path,”

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

7-21-19 — Fruit of the Spirit — Galatians 5:1, 13-25 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Where are the young people?

       That’s a question that’s been troubling churches for years now. For a while many congregations thought that if they could just call a young pastor with an attractive wife and the national average of 2.3 kids – and even better, if he could play the guitar – then the youth would come flocking back. Eventually, social scientists picked up the question of the missing millennials and tried to answer it using data rather than hunches. So over the last few years, a number of studies have been done trying to figure out just what is going on with religion in America. Why is church membership declining and, more particularly, where are all the young people? Why is it that just one third of millennials who grew up in main-line Protestant churches are still involved?

       Robert Putnam and David Campbell did a comprehensive study of the state of religion in America and published it in a book called American Grace. One of the main reasons they discovered for millennials staying away from church is their perception that church is intolerant and rigid. That doesn’t mean they’ve given up on faith. Most still claim that they believe that the life of the spirit is important. But a lot of what they see among God’s people isn’t what scripture calls the fruit of the Spirit – love, peace, kindness, generosity, gentleness – but what scripture calls works of the flesh – enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions.

       Now, a lot of that strife has come about because of good intentions, a desire to live holy and upright lives that follow the law of God. Laws and rules are good. We can’t live without them. Anyone who thinks we can live without laws should look at Somalia or Libya or other failed states where life and property are at the mercy of whoever is the strongest and most ruthless. Without laws, rules and guidelines we’d live in chaos. When God led the Hebrews out of Egypt, their first stop was at Mount Sinai where God gave them the law. The law that God gave is complex. It goes into great detail about how the Hebrews were supposed to live when they entered the Promised Land. It told them how to harvest their barley fields, what to do if their ox fell into a well, how to deal with those who didn’t observe the Sabbath as a day of rest. The law is condensed in the Ten Commandments and summarized in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the verse that Paul quoted in today’s scripture lesson, and it is what Jesus said when he was asked what is the most important of all God’s commandments. Everything about God’s law is intended to show us how to treat our neighbors with love. When we try to follow God’s law without remembering why God gave it, then we pervert it and the law becomes harmful to us. In fact, apart from love the law can actually lead us away from God.

       Let me give you an example of what happens when we try to follow God’s law to the letter without remembering its spirit. In the last presidential campaign,  one of the candidates was asked, “What is your favorite Bible verse?” Wanting to show how tough he was, he answered, “An eye for an eye.”  The way many people see it, that verse is a  command that whenever someone harms us, we have a moral obligation to retaliate. If we don’t seek revenge when someone has done us wrong, then we are disobeying the Bible. But look what happens when we read that verse, not as an isolated command to seek vengeance, but in light of the greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “An eye for an eye” appears three times in the Old Testament. In Leviticus it reads: “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” (Lev. 24:19-20) This law is actually given to limit retaliation. If someone takes out your eye, you can take out that person’s eye, but you can’t take their eye and their tooth. “An eye for an eye” isn’t a demand for retribution. Human nature doesn’t need any law to encourage us to get even. It’s a restraint on what we can do to those who harm us so that even when we carry out justice, it’s tempered by love.

       One of the reasons the religious leaders had Jesus killed was that they thought he was trying to overthrow God’s law. But Jesus was clear that God did not send him to do away with God’s law but to fulfill it. His Sermon on the Mount describes what it looks like when we truly follow God’s law which God gave so we can love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In Matthew 5:38 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

       Jesus not only shows us the true meaning of God’s law, he shows us how hard it is to live by it. In fact, when he teaches the true meaning of the law, he shows that we can’t follow it. When I try to follow God’s law, I realize I just don’t have it in me to love even my family as I should let alone my enemies as the law commands. But instead of changing God’s law, Jesus changes us. On the cross, he puts to death the old person who tries so hard to follow each and every demand of the law, and he transforms us into new persons who live by the spirit of that law. We don’t throw out the rules. In Christ, we use those rules as a way to help us love our neighbors as ourselves. He gives us the Holy Spirit that lives within us, guiding us and emboldening us so we can be that new person who is free to love others the way Christ loves us.

       When we try to be good and righteous and holy without the power of the Holy Spirit, then we are constrained by the flesh. And it shows in our life together, which is one of the reasons so many millennials are turned off to church. We often make the mistake of equating the flesh with sex, and when we talk about sin, sometimes the first thing we think about is sex. Just look at how many of the church’s divisions have to do with sexuality and reproductive issues. Sex matters. It is one of the most powerful human drives. But when the apostle Paul refers to the flesh he is talking about anything that is passing. It is shorthand for what dies with us and comes to an end once we are put in the grave. In the passage we read today, Paul spells out some of what he calls the works of the flesh. Only three of those works are related to sex – fornication, impurity and licentiousness. Two have to do with false worship – sorcery and idolatry. Two have to do with unruly behavior – drunkenness and carousing. Eight, the majority of the works of the flesh he lists, have to do with life within the community – enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions and envy. Paul is telling communities of faith – congregations, presbyteries, denominations – that if we try to focus on living perfect lives without loving our neighbor, then we produce the works of the flesh. And that is what has turned off so many young people to the church. They have enough spiritual savvy to recognize the works of the flesh when they see them.

       On the other hand, when we have put the flesh to death on the cross, we aren’t preoccupied with dissension and factions and quarrels. We become like a garden where the fruit of the Spirit is cultivated. Jesus said “the tree is known by its fruit,” (Mt. 12:33) and Paul lists some of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those are the things you’ll see in a church that is emboldened by the Holy Spirit.

       That doesn’t mean we don’t disagree or that we don’t have principles that we stand on. What it means is that as we try to figure out what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves in a world that is always changing, our disagreements will be guided by the Spirit, not by the flesh. Acts 15 describes one of the early church conflicts, when Paul made the case to the leaders of the church that the gospel of Jesus was for all people. Peter and the other apostles assumed that before you could follow Christ you first had to be a good Jew and follow all the details of the law of Torah like circumcision and eating kosher. They argued. They disagreed. But their disagreement was guided by respect and by love, and when it was resolved everyone respected each other.  

       I saw an example of that kind of Spirit filled disagreement at a church in Lancaster. The church’s music director asked to marry his same sex partner at a wedding in the church sanctuary. The senior pastor of the church was opposed to same sex marriage. He spoke against it forcefully when the issue was debated on the floor of presbytery. But when the music director made his request, rather than make it into a divisive issue, the session and the pastor allowed the wedding to take place and one of the associate pastors, who is OK with same sex marriage, officiated. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but to the public the message was: This is a community of faith that respects differences of opinion and strives to cultivate the spiritual gifts that show Christ’s love.

       Don’t misunderstand. It takes work to tend a thriving spiritual garden. You have to cultivate, prune and weed. Paul speaks of being free in Christ, and freedom takes discipline. A running back subjects himself to hours of rigorous training every day so that once he is on the football field he can run freely to advance the ball. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, writes about how those of us who are older can make the most out of the second half of our lives. He notes that we devote the first half of life to working hard, proving our worth, defining our values. If we’ve done a good job at building that structure, then the second half of life is devoted to living in our true selves. We know the rules, but we also know which ones matter and which ones don’t. We are less concerned about getting every little thing just right than we are about being true to ourselves, to our neighbors and to God.

       One of the great things about the heritage of Eastminster Church is that you have a history of providing that kind of solid background in biblical knowledge and ethical thinking. You have a legacy of giving kids the kind of structure where the fruit of the Spirit can grow. The bitterness that turns off so many young people doesn’t have a place here, but because a religion of divisiveness is what has the loudest voice in today’s culture, you have to work harder to show that there is an alternative. You have older saints to be models of why we cultivate that knowledge of God’s Word and why we pursue a holy and upright life., people who have lived a life filled with the Spirit, who have been models of peace, patience, kindness and generosity. That’s where the future of the church lies, in cultivating the fruit of the spirit that permeates Eastminster so young and old alike can see that there’s another way to live together than to fight for power and demean each other. It used to sound trite, but now it almost sounds radical: This is a place where we treat all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or political persuasion, as those created in the image of God. We cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. We do things differently here.

7-7-19 Sermon — Rev. Chris Blackford

6-30-19 Sermon — Rev. Guy Dunham

6-23-19 Sermon — Rev. Guy Dunham

6-16-19 — Hope’s Long View — Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 & Romans 5:1-5 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Back in 1978 a team of psychologists set out to study happiness. They gathered a group of people who had won between $50,000 to $1 million in the lottery, a group who were victims of devastating accidents that left them paralyzed, and a group chosen at random from the phone book to be a control group. As you might expect, the lottery winners said that winning was a highly positive experience and the victims of paralysis saw their accidents as highly negative. But to the surprise of the researchers, the lottery winners didn’t score any higher on scales of happiness than the control group and they actually took less pleasure in daily activities than the accident victims. Other research has shown that Americans’ feeling of well-being is no greater today than it was back in the 1950s when real per capita income was less than half of what it is today. And international researchers have found that people in Nigeria rate themselves happier than the Japanese whose income is 25 times greater.[1]

       Now, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter whether or not people are poor. There are lots of things associated with having more money that improve the quality of life, like health, nutrition, and education. But the point is that once basic needs are met there’s not a correlation between the things so many people invest their lives in, like money or success, and a sense of happiness and well-being.

       That’s not news. Philosophers have been telling us that since the time of the ancient Greeks. True happiness, or that deeper more pervasive sense of joy, comes when we’re in touch with what we’re made to be. It’s something that comes from inside, but it’s not something we can create. It’s not something we achieve. It’s something we receive.

       Proverbs tells us what delight there was when God created the world. I can imagine God shouting with joy at the grandeur of the Big Bang. God basked in sheer gladness watching the earth take shape and the dinosaurs evolve. And God’s crowning joy was sharing all that was made with the beloved human beings. God made us so there would be someone to share all the wonder of creation. The universe resounded with joy and delight when God made us.

       So many people think of God as a stern taskmaster whose main goal is to make sure that human beings don’t enjoy themselves. If they were offered a chance to spend a vacation with God, they’d respectfully decline, imagining that it would be a horrible time hearing about how much you disappoint God and how much more you should be doing. That’s not how it would be at all. If you went on vacation with God, it would be the most delightful time you could imagine. God would be interested in you and show you all kinds of things you couldn’t see on your own.[2]

       I think of God as being like the Eastminster Preschool teachers. I look at some of those teachers who have been teaching here at the school for many years. I doubt there’s anything they haven’t seen from the hundreds of children that have come through their classes. Yet you can see that every child is special to them. They’re genuinely interested in each new discovery. They grimace with each skinned knee. The school runs so well because they’ve developed procedures and plans and know what works and what doesn’t, yet nothing is routine, no child is taken for granted. Sure, they put limits on what the children can do. They don’t let them jump out windows or treat other children unkindly. But that’s because they care about those children and take delight in them. They want to give them the best the school has to offer. That’s the point of the rules.

       God created us to take that kind of delight in the world. We’ve been given the capacity to see life and find joy and delight, and yet we keep trying to find it in all the wrong places – like in ourselves.

       Several years ago as part of a sabbatical grant my wife and I went to Britain. It happened to be our 25th wedding anniversary, so we used some of the grant to came home on the Queen Mary 2. Crossing the Atlantic by ship was one of the things on my bucket list, and it turned out to be even more fun and enriching than I had imagined. There were lectures on naval history, dance lessons, and best of all the feel of the ocean’s vastness you can only get when you cross it on the surface. Carol and I were assigned to a table where we took our evening meal, and the other guests seemed to be having as delightful a time as we were. Except one couple. They had retired early and were spending their retirement cruising. They lived on ships. When the Queen Mary 2 got to New York, they were going to get on a cruise ship to the Caribbean. From there they would get on another ship for some other destination. They did this all year, year in and year out. And they put a damper on our dinners. Each evening they’d tell us some new deficiency they’d discovered about the ship, some new way that their needs weren’t being met. The Grand Concourse was too small. The food wasn’t as good as it was on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Room service was slow. They had chosen to live their lives in this hermetically sealed environment, where they didn’t have to deal with any concerns of the world, with a crew of hundreds paid to meet their every need, and they were some of the most miserable people I’ve ever met.

       I compare them with a young woman I know who graduated from nursing school. She spent her last summer in nursing school working at a mission hospital in Cameroon, West Africa. The conditions were awful. It was hot, no indoor plumbing, the medical supplies were rudimentary, the people she worked with were mostly AIDS patients whose life span was short. But when she came home in September, she was radiant. She couldn’t say enough about what a wonderful experience she’d had, the people she’d met, how gratifying it was for her to use her newly developed nursing skills to help those people dying from AIDS. She was given the grace of seeing the power of hope in the midst of all that suffering. With so much of the comfort and security she was used to stripped away, she could see what it was that really sustained her.

       There’s nothing good about suffering or poverty or illness. Jesus spent his earthly ministry relieving people of their suffering. Pain and deprivation can embitter us and narrow our focus. But sometimes it’s in suffering that we see where our hope lies. When we have nothing else to rely on, often that’s when we know who it is that sustains us and we’re polished and refined to become more like the person God created us to be. That’s why Paul could boast in his suffering because suffering produces endurance and endurance character and character hope and hope does not disappoint us.

       That’s why the best mentors in faith are so often those who have been around a while. Age inevitably brings some degree of suffering. The longer you’re around the more hits you take, the more disappointments you experience, the more pain your body endures. Several years ago I preached at the little country church where my father grew up. It was a miserably hot North Carolina day with the temperature and the humidity well into the 90s by the time church started. Fortunately, the cotton farmers had a good crop a few years earlier and the sanctuary was air-conditioned. Sitting in the front pew was Miss Carrie Mae Smith, my grandmother’s best friend. She was 105. She used a walker to get around, and she depended on church members to get her groceries and take her to her doctors. Miss Carrie Mae was with my grandmother when my father was born in the front room of the farm house in 1924. After the service I spoke to her. She said, “I can hardly see, and I couldn’t hear a word of your sermon, but the Lord knows I’m here.” Here was a wise woman. Who knows how many preachers she’d lived through, how many arguments over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary and the order of worship. For more than a century she had been through a lot that could have made her cynical. She was with my grandparents when their six year old son, the uncle I never knew, died of a ruptured appendix. She had seen scandal and betrayal. She became more and more familiar with pain as her body grew older. But she was there most Sundays at Midway Presbyterian Church to find hope.

       By his grace, Jesus changes us so that we find delight in what God has created. We practice seeing the world through God’s eyes here in church. We practice so we’re ready when God fills us with the Holy Spirit that sends us out into the world where we see the power of God at work redeeming the creation. This church thrives because God has sent you out to confront suffering without being intimidated by it. It’s because God delights in us and wants us to know God’s power that God sends us out into the world.

       Not everybody goes on a mission trip or serves a meal to the homeless at the soup kitchen. Some use their gifts to support and build up the community of faith by leading worship or helping with Sunday School or organizing a fellowship dinner. But God’s gift to us is that when Jesus joins us to his church, he’s not sheltering us from the world’s suffering or pain. He’s equipping us to do his work of engaging life head-on. And when we engage the world’s pain and suffering, whether it’s in York or in Honduras or in the person sitting just down the pew, the Holy Spirit pours God’s love into us, that same love that was there when the world was formed, that was there on Calvary when Jesus took the brunt of death for us, that was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost. That’s where our delight is; that’s where our hope is, and hope doesn’t disappoint us.

[1] Elizabeth Kolbert, “Everybody Have Fun,” The New Yorker, March 22, 2010, pp. 72-74.

[2] Howard Gray, S.J., lecture at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, April 16, 2010.

6-2-19 — Jesus in the Marketplace — Acts 17:16-34 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Some of us remember when Christian faith was the only choice we had. Where I grew up you assumed your neighbors were Protestant.  Roman Catholics were the novelty. In the summer between fourth and fifth grade my mother and my brother and I went to the neighborhood pool every day with the Origlios who lived in the apartment building next to ours. We were fascinated with the meatless sandwiches they would bring for lunch on Friday in those pre-Vatican II days.  I’d never heard of anyone eating a cream cheese and jelly sandwich.  Sometimes they would invite me to have pasta with them for Tuesday dinner. Mr. Origilio would ask me to say grace – it was his way of reminding us kids that we all worshiped the same Lord. They would bow their heads just like my family did, except after I said Amen they would all cross themselves.  That was my exposure to religious diversity as a kid.

       Leaving home was a religious shock.  By the time I got to high school I had a few Jewish friends, but they fit quite well into my worldview.  After all, Jesus was a Jew.  But once at college it was a whole new world.  I’d read in Time magazine about the growing interest in eastern religions, but I’d never actually met someone who practiced Buddhism.  Hare Krishnas tried to engage me in conversation in the student union.  One day my roommate, a nice Methodist boy, made it clear to me he was an atheist.

       Kids today don’t have to wait until they leave home to be exposed to a world of beliefs.  Our shrinking globe has brought many of the world’s religions into our neighborhoods and our schools.   It’s socially acceptable nowadays to practice no religion.  In fact, it’s a common step in a young person’s spiritual journey to abandon religious practice once he or she leaves home.  Faced with so many claims of spiritual truth many people put their own faith on the shelf until some life-changing event like having a child wakes them up and brings them back. 

        One of the great challenges for Christians today is holding fast to what we believe in the great marketplace of ideas that is the world in the 21st century. It’s like living in a superstore of beliefs.  You can’t just walk into the Giant and buy ice cream. You have a whole aisle of frozen confections to choose from.  Which of the 50 flavors do you want?  Do you want premium or store brand?  The kind you scoop or bars?  Low fat or extra creamy?  The choices are overwhelming. 

       Athens was an ancient marketplace of ideas.  Just about any philosophy or religion known to the western mind could be found there.  Acts tells us “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”  So when Paul arrived from Israel with a religion they’d never heard of, they were delighted.  Here was something new to add to their inventory. 

       Paul had been sent to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in Europe. There were communities of Jews around the Mediterranean. His practice was to speak in the synagogues of the cities he visited.  Paul and the Jews spoke the same language, literally and figuratively.  Paul could show his fellow Jews how Jesus was the fulfillment of their own Hebrew prophecy, the culmination of God’s promises to their forefather Abraham.  They had a common starting point, and they worked from the same scriptures. 

In Athens Paul was struck with how religious the non-Jews were.  They were what we might call seekers.  They were looking for something to fill that empty place in the spirit of every person, and they gave every option a hearing.  So Paul began to speak in the agora or marketplace about Jesus.  Now, if we see someone standing on the street corner in downtown York preaching to passersby, we think he or she is a little off.  But such a practice was common in ancient Athens. There was no Internet where you could go to keep up with the world.  People got their exposure to new ideas in the marketplace. 

       Some of the leading philosophers of Athens were so intrigued by what Paul said that they invited him to go with them to the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill.  You can still go there today.  It’s a small rocky outcrop at the foot of the Acropolis, removed from the bustle in the heart of the city.  There they could have a more serious discussion. 

But now Paul wasn’t talking to the Jews. The Ten Commandments didn’t mean a thing to the Greeks.  They didn’t have a clue what the Old Testament prophets had said. Paul couldn’t appeal to a tradition they had grown up with, one that their grandparents taught them.  Paul had brought Jesus to the ancient marketplace of ideas.  He has a lot to teach us who follow Christ in an increasingly diverse world. 

       First, Paul saw the connection between the questions the Athenians were asking and the answers Jesus gave.  Athens was full of statues of gods the Greeks worshiped: Zeus, Athena, Ares, Artemis.  Among those statues, Paul had noticed one labeled, “to an unknown god.”  They wanted to be sure they hadn’t offended some god by overlooking him, so this statue covered their bases.

       Every religion and every philosophy, every human endeavor seeks to satisfy the longings of the heart.  Everyone who has ever seen a picture from the Hubble telescope has been struck with the realization of how small we really are compared to the vast reaches of the universe. Whether we try to fill our needs through eastern religion or philosophy, through consumerism or drugs, the human need for God is the same no matter how we try to meet it.  So that’s where Paul started, with what every human being has in common, that need for forgiveness, for acceptance, for love, for purpose, for meaning.

       Paul then explained to them that what we hunger and thirst for is God.  But we don’t have to wander through the marketplace of religions, gathering a little here and a little there to fill that need. God sent Jesus to bring us home to God, to that one in whom we live and move and have our being.  The proof of that love is that Jesus died for us and that God raised him from the dead so we can share that eternal life.  This is what struck the Athenians as so novel.  They had never heard of anything like the resurrection from the dead. 

       There is a lot Christian faith shares with other religions: belief in a supreme creator, the value of human love, respect for the earth, a recognition that we need something from outside us to live good and righteous lives.  The thing that sets Christian faith apart from all other beliefs is the resurrection and our commitment to the risen Christ.  That’s not something you can prove intellectually.  It’s not something that fits in with other beliefs.  The only way you can really know the power of the resurrected Christ is to commit your life to him, to let him work in you and through and bring you to God.  He judges all the options that the marketplace of life sets before us.  He helps us know what leads us to God and what leads us away.  

Paul identified the need the Athenians shared with people of every time and every place.  He proclaimed the good news that Jesus Christ fills that need.  Then he left the results to God.  We can take heart knowing that the reaction our proclamation of the gospel receives is not going to be that different from the reaction of the Athenians to Paul.  Some scoffed at this idea of a resurrection.  It didn’t fit into their well-constructed understanding of how things are, so they dismissed it out of hand.  Others found it interesting, intellectually stimulating, and said they’d be back to hear more. They were fascinated by the varieties of religious experience and studied religion the way you might study different species of fish. These were the ones for whom religion is a fascinating pastime that’s done at a safe distance, but not something that changes their life.  A few, however, people like Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, became believers.  What they heard changed their lives.

       These different reactions shouldn’t surprise us.  Jesus spoke of the different ways people would react to him in the parable of the soils. Different people are like different soils, some hard and unfertile, some choked with weeds, some fertile and productive. God’s word falls on different people with different results. Whether it flourishes or withers doesn’t depend on the truth of the seed but on the receptivity of the soil. 

       It’s easy for us to lament we can’t take it for granted that we live in a world where everyone shares our faith.  Some people react by trying to force what we believe on others.  They try to post the Ten Commandments in public places and legislate prayers in schools.  But that’s not the approach Paul took in Athens.  He started with what everyone has in common – our need for spiritual fulfillment.  He wasn’t timid about proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ.  And he knew that the results of his efforts didn’t depend on him but on the Holy Spirit working in those who heard him. 

Our world today is in some ways more like ancient Athens than the neighborhood of my childhood where religious diversity meant different kinds of Christianity. But that doesn’t have to threaten us. God is the same, and God’s Spirit works in the hearts of people no matter what the religious context is. Our work is to do like Paul, speak the truth that we know in Christ, through the words we share and the love we show, trusting that God will do the rest. Jesus is present in the marketplace, in the school, in the world, whether the people around us know it or not. Our job is to let the world know what we know. God will do the rest.

5-26-19 — Jesus: Coming and Going — Acts 1:6-14 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

            There are some places where the distance between heaven and earth seems to narrow. They’re often called thin places.

       I first heard that term several years ago as I was approaching Iona, a remote island off the west coast of Scotland. To reach Iona, you have to take two ferries and cross the desolate Isle of Mull. I had struck up a conversation with a man who, like me, was headed for the restored medieval abbey where we would be spending a week on a spiritual retreat. He looked out over the barren windswept fields with the sea glistening in the background and said to me, “This really is a thin place.” As the week went by, I discovered what he meant. Living in that abbey, which was established by the Irish monks who brought Christianity to Scotland, where Christians had been martyred by marauding Vikings, which had been renovated during the 1930s by unemployed masons from the slums of Glasgow, and which resonated with prayers of the faithful who came from all over the world, it really did feel like the distance between heaven and earth had shrunk. It was easier to pray, easier to feel God’s presence. That’s what my companion meant by calling it a thin place.

       Maybe you’ve been to a thin place. Perhaps this sanctuary is one for you. Maybe the prayers and the songs that have echoed off these walls have brought heaven closer. Maybe one of your thin places is church camp where you first felt the warm glow of God’s Spirit inside you, or maybe it’s a lakeshore or a mountaintop where you feel closer to God.

       Surely that hilltop outside Jerusalem where Jesus left his disciples was a thin place. As Jesus was speaking to his disciples, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. They stood there looking up after him, transfixed in that place where heaven and earth intersected. Then two men clothed in white came beside them and asked why they were standing there looking up into heaven. Jesus had told them to go from there to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth to tell what they had seen over the past three years. That thin place wasn’t a stopping place.

       One of the assurances we have when we leave the places where we feel close to heaven is that Jesus goes with us when we leave those places. According to the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus left his disciples he told them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” How is it that Jesus, who was taken away, can still be right with us? How can Jesus, who has ascended into heaven, be part of your life and mine, our host at the communion table, our comforter and our guide in the daily grind of this earthly life? How can he be all of those things for us if he’s ascended to the right hand of God?

       That mystery that God is both present with us and absent from us is often depicted in the Bible with a cloud. God led the Israelites through the wilderness by guiding them with a cloud. They would camp someplace for days or weeks to rest and regroup, then when it was time to move on, the cloud would appear to lead them on their way. God summoned Moses to the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments by covering the mountain with clouds and speaking to him from the clouds. The Old Testament prophets depict God coming to earth on clouds, and in New Testament prophecies, it is promised that Jesus will come again on clouds. You can see a cloud. It’s obvious to the sight. But clouds also hide. You can’t see through them. That’s why they’re so often a symbol of one of the great mysteries of our faith.

       Any time we talk about heaven, we’re talking about a mystery. A mystery, in the biblical sense, is something we can’t completely understand. The reason we don’t understand it isn’t that we don’t know enough. The reason we don’t understand is because it is something that we are incapable of understanding. I might say that it’s a mystery to me how a neurosurgeon can do brain surgery, but it’s not truly a mystery. The facts on how to do brain surgery are available to me and to anyone who wants to learn them. In theory at least, I could understand brain surgery if I had the aptitude and applied myself to learning about it. A mystery, on the other hand, is something that we don’t know because we aren’t capable of comprehending it. Other people, even those to whom we’re the closest, will always be something of a mystery. Even if we know our loved ones’ thoughts and habits and desires, we can never know what it is to be another person.

       Heaven is a mystery because we are incapable of grasping it fully. We know it is there, but it’s like it is covered by a cloud. One reason we want so badly to understand it is because we want to know what is like for those who have died. The night my mother called me to tell me my father had died, the first thing she said when I answered the phone was, “Dad’s in heaven.”

I really believe that, but what does it mean? Does going to heaven mean that we’re transported to another world where we keep on living as we do now but in another dimension? Jesus told the thief from the cross, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” That’s what Colton Burpo claimed happened to him in the book Heaven Is for Real. He told his parents that he went to heaven and met his great grandfather, his sister who had died in the womb, and they welcomed him to another life.

Or does going to heaven mean that we enter into a kind of suspended animation outside of the dimension of time where we wait until we are raised at the last day and are given new, heavenly bodies? That is what Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 15. He says that dying is like planting a seed that rests until the time it puts on its new, heavenly body.   Death is something like sleep. “Listen,” he writes, “I will tell you a mystery! We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”

       But just because something is a mystery doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about it. It doesn’t mean that a mystery can’t have a profound effect on our lives. Jesus told his followers to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. A witness is someone who tells what she or he has seen and heard. A witness bears testimony to what they know. The disciples knew Jesus. They had seen him perform signs and miracles that showed what God’s heavenly reign is like. It’s a place where there is no pain or suffering. Jesus showed that when he healed people. It’s a place where there is no hunger or want. Jesus showed that when he fed the hungry. It’s a place where there is no prejudice or discrimination or exclusion. Jesus showed that when he touched the lepers and welcomed the outcasts. It’s a place where there is no death. Jesus showed that when he was raised the dead.

       What we know from our past affects the way we receive the future, even if we know that the future won’t be exactly the same. I look forward to vacations at the beach when the whole family gets together. I look forward to it because I remember how wonderful it has been in the past – the dinners with all our loved ones around the table, the warm afternoons reading a novel, morning walks along the shore, the fun of building sandcastles with the children. But I know the next time we get together it won’t be exactly the same. There won’t be anyone there from my parents’ generation. The children will have new interests. Things that fascinated them in the past they’ll find boring. I know enough from experience to look forward to what is ahead, but I can’t tell you exactly what it is going to be like.

       That’s kind of how it is with heaven. Jesus has shown us what it is like. But it’s not just something that we wait for in the future. For all its mystery, heaven is still accessible to us in an imperfect way. 1 Corinthians 13 says that now we see as in a mirror dimly. C.S. Lewis appealed to our imaginations in his Narnia Chronicles when he depicted that parallel universe where Aslan reigned and was accessible to children through the door of an old wardrobe. Whatever heaven is like, Jesus is there, preparing a place for us, and all the while abiding with us in this life of flesh and blood, of schedules and deadlines, of weariness and frustrations.

       Prayer is how we stay connected with that mystery. When the disciples left that hilltop where they saw Jesus taken off in a cloud, they returned to Jerusalem where they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. Prayer is how we acclimatize ourselves to that other realm. It’s how we learn the language of the holy, stay in touch with the reality of heaven so we’re not limited to the reality of earth.

If you’ve ever tried to learn another language, you know that it’s not enough to study about it. It’s not enough to learn the grammar and memorize the vocabulary. You have to immerse yourself in it if you’re really going to understand it and be fluent in it. Ever since my daughter announced her engagement to a Spaniard, I’ve been studying Spanish. For twelve years I’ve been taking classes, watching Spanish movies. Every day I spend ½ hour reading Spanish out loud or writing in Spanish. But every time I visit my son-in-law’s family in Madrid I can keep up with what they’re saying for about two minutes then I’m lost. Once I attended a first communion party for a niece. 50 people were there, few of whom spoke English. In typical Spanish fashion, lunch wasn’t served until 4 p.m. When I first arrived in the restaurant, I could hardly understand a word anyone was saying. But the more I heard them talk, the more I tried to talk with them, the more I understood what they were saying. By the end of the party, I could understand about 30% of what was going on, but if I’d stayed there and immersed myself in the language for a few months, I’d get better and better. To understand the language and the culture, I’d have to live in it and immerse myself in it.

       That’s what the disciples were doing in that upper room as they waited for the Holy Spirit to send them out into the world. They were immersing themselves in the language of heaven. They were living in that mystery so they could go out and tell the world that there is another realm, another existence. There is another dimension that’s different from the one we’re used to.

       We aren’t in heaven yet, but because we know Jesus, because we belong to him who lives in heaven, we aren’t bound by the fears that keep us from living like heaven is our true home. Jesus promises that in heaven there is no fear, so why should we be afraid of anything? Sure, we still live in this world so we have to take precautions. We still have to strap our children into their car seats, get our regular medical exams, provide for our families and our retirement. But we don’t have to be afraid of living in a way that bears witness to Jesus. We don’t have to be afraid to tell the truth when telling a lie looks like the safest thing to do. We don’t have to be afraid of standing up for the poor or the oppressed when doing that puts us at odds with the powers that be or costs us some of our wealth. We don’t have to be afraid of losing our lives because we know that when we lose our lives to Christ, that’s when we find ourselves. Congregations can try new things, new ways of reaching out and doing ministry. Even our most cherished ways of doing things, those things that have brought us close to God through the years, are passing away and are just a glimpse of what Jesus has in store for us in the heavenly realms.

       Any place that we encounter Jesus can be a thin place, a place where heaven and earth come close together. It can be a hospital bedside, the soup kitchen, the very spot where you’re sitting now. Any place that you encounter the love and mercy and justice of Jesus is a place where heaven and earth are a little closer, a thin place where Jesus meets us coming and going.

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 (