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2-10-19 — Body Building — 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Anyone who has been married more than three weeks knows that you have to be selective about where you put your foot down. You don’t live with your spouse long before you start to discover that she or he does some weird things. You’d always heard that there were people who squeezed the toothpaste tube in the middle without rolling it up from the bottom, but you never dreamed you’d live with one. Who in the world folds towels like that? Your family does what for Christmas? If a marriage is going to last, you have to put the relationship first, above your individual preferences. You have to go beyond thinking about how I do things or how you do things to thinking about how we do things. And since my wife isn’t here this morning, I’m going to admit that I’m really glad that she’s changed me to do lots of things her way.

       Paul was writing to people who were in a marriage of sorts, although it was more like an arranged marriage. In Corinth people from every race and class and level of education had been brought together to worship and serve Jesus Christ. Not only were they from very different backgrounds, they had come to Jesus by different ways. Some had ecstatic out of body experiences where they spoke in tongues. Some had been miraculously healed. Some of them had dramatic encounters with Jesus who turned their lives around on the spot. They could tell you the exact date and time that he had changed them forever. Others had come to him gradually, through a slow and deliberate process of learning and nurture. Each one thought his or her experience  was the one and only way to come to Jesus. For many whose experience of the Holy Spirit was so powerful, they couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to Jesus any other way. Some insisted that speaking in tongues was how you knew if a person was really a follower of Jesus. Those who could pinpoint the moment they were saved were adamant that if you couldn’t name the moment, then you weren’t a believer. Those who had been miraculously healed were certain that unless you’d experienced a miracle you hadn’t met Jesus.

       About the only thing many of the Christians in Corinth had in common with each other was their faith in Christ, and many of them weren’t sure about that. The church there was like one of those families that you look at and wonder how the siblings who are so different from one another could have been reared under the same roof. In making sense out of that diverse family of faith, the church, Paul uses a different metaphor. He describes the church as a body. Each part of a body has a different function. The eye and the ear do different things. They are put together differently and they function differently. Different parts of the body have a different perspective on things. The way your hands interact with the world up here is different from the way your feet interact with the world down on the ground. But for all their differences, the parts of the body exist for the good of the whole. A hand that is cut off from the body is useless, and the body suffers for the loss. That’s how it is with Christ’s body, the church. There is lots of diversity, but it all works for the common good.

       Now, in many ways what Paul is describing goes against nature. If you ever took physics, you learned about Newton’s laws of thermodynamics that describe how the natural world works. If there were natural laws like that describing people, one of the laws of social dynamics would be that people tend to split apart to be with others like themselves. And the longer they are together, the more they realize how different they are from each other, so there is always a shifting among groups of people trying to find those with whom they’re most comfortable.

       It’s so much easier to break apart and form separate tribes than it is to work together for the common good. We build walls to define our kind and to keep out those who are different. But the book of Ephesians in the New Testament says that Christ came to tear down the dividing wall of hostility. That is what makes the church so different. It is the place where Christ brings together those who, if they followed their natural instincts, would be apart.

Now, that doesn’t mean that in Christ we are all the same. Paul writes, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?”

If Christ’s body consists of many different parts, we need to know what makes our part distinctive so we can do our best for the common good. For instance, one of the things that make Presbyterians distinct from other parts of the church are our conviction that God calls us to service as well as salvation. We’re not saved just to get our ticket to heaven, but so we can serve the world in the name of Christ. So we’re a church that is involved in the world. We don’t just sit in our sanctuaries and enjoy being saved. Another thing that makes us distinctive is that we have a disciplined concern for order. We resonate with Paul’s advice elsewhere in 1 Corinthians that all things should be done decently and in order. We shun ostentation and try to be good stewards of God’s creation. We recognize the power of human sin and our tendency to selfishness, so we have a healthy skepticism for all human endeavors. We don’t think that any human institution, whether government or corporations or churches is perfect and beyond need of repair.

Presbyterians aren’t the only ones who value those things. We just emphasize them more than some other branches of the church do. And we have more in common with other parts of the church than we have differences. With Baptists and Episcopalians and Roman Catholics and all Christians we affirm that we know God in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We trust in the saving death of Christ on the cross and his promise of resurrection to eternal life. We affirm that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our rule for faith and for life.

Over the years, as we’ve split apart from each other, it usually seemed like the right thing to do at the time. If the church is a body, then bodies do get infections. Pathogens grow in the body that don’t belong there, and if the body is going to be healthy, it has to get rid of the germs. Elsewhere in the Bible, Paul warns against false teachings. There is such a thing as heresy and wrong doctrine. It’s important that we be vigilant and self-critical so that what we proclaim is the truth. But Paul is clear that what is most highly valued is the unity that shows the world that there is one Christ, not many versions of him. God, in God’s Providence, has made the most out of our differences. Over the years, even as we’ve divided into separate traditions and denominations and congregations, we’ve learned from one another in ways that have enriched our faith. We no longer burn heretics or drown Anabaptists like they did in centuries past. The Holy Spirit keeps showing us over and over that no one part of the church has it all, and we are strengthened by other parts of the body of Christ who do things differently.

One of the most powerful witnesses of a local congregation can be how it brings together diverse people to worship and serve the Lord. American Presbyterians don’t do too well reflecting the racial or ethnic diversity of our communities, but we often reflect a diversity of perspectives. Once I was preaching in a congregation that I admire very much. Standing in the pulpit I looked out over the congregation and sitting in one of the pews near the front was one of the presbytery’s strongest opponents of the ordination of homosexuals. Just down from him was the president of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays who was leading the fight for their ordination. In one part of the sanctuary was one of the biggest contributors to the state Republican party, and nearby was a Democratic activist. Some people say that the church has to take a stand against the culture by coming down on one side or the other on the issues of the culture wars. But that church was being truly counter-cultural. They didn’t sweep those under the rug. They had some lively discussions in their Sunday school classes about hot-button issues. But the people respect each other and trust that the Holy Spirit, working among them when they’re together, will lead them to see things and do things that they would never do on their own, separated from those who disagree with them on certain things.

Paul told the Corinthians to strive for the greater gifts. Those are the things that draw us together in love, so the world will know that there is one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all in all. To him be the glory and the power now and forever. Amen.

2-3-19 — Into The Light — Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:19-36a — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Every Sunday people come into this sanctuary wishing to see Jesus, people who are responding to some deep longing to make sense out of life, looking to find meaning and purpose in what they do. 

       I remember at one church I served, a young man would slip in the back just as worship started and slip out during the closing hymn.  I noticed him doing that for months.  He never introduced himself or signed the fellowship pad that was passed down the pew during the service.  One day I got a call from someone wanting to come by the church and talk to me.  When he came into my study I recognized him as this mysterious man.  He explained to me that he was trying to put his life back on track after some fits and starts.  He had a rough hitch in the Army after high school.  He’d tried going to college but had a hard time of it.  He had some issues with substance abuse.  He was looking for something, he wasn’t quite sure what, and wondered if what he was looking for could be found at church.  To make a long story short, he found what he was looking for and was baptized.  Soon he moved away, but I heard from him occasionally.  He got a steady job, started going to graduate school at night and joined a congregation near his new home.  What he had been looking for was given to him by Jesus, whom he encountered on those Sundays he sat in the back row.

       There’s something that draws people to Jesus, something about him that resonates with the depths of the human soul.  Right after Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, some people approached Philip, one of his disciples, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I can imagine Philip responding to that request the way people respond to so much in the John’s gospel – by misunderstanding what is going on.  John’s gospel is almost comic in that way.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that the way to eternal life is to be born again and Nicodemus thinks he’s talking about obstetrics.  Jesus tells the crowd he is the bread of life and they think he’s talking about dinner.  Philip hears some people say they wish to see Jesus and he starts to arrange a cameo celebrity appearance. 

       But Jesus always knows what’s really going on.  He knows what we are really looking for.  Those Greeks weren’t celebrity spotting. They weren’t looking to see the latest personality in the news cycle.  They were looking for life’s meaning and purpose.  They were looking for the one who could call forth in them something that they felt was there but couldn’t bring forth. So, instead of giving them his autograph, Jesus gave them life. He spoke to their deepest need.

       Jesus began by being straight with them. Soon he would die and be buried. His body would be placed in a grave, the way a seed is planted in the chilly and barren soil of spring.  Whoever wants the new life he gives has to follow him. They have to allow the old self to die. Like a seed that germinates, he would be raised, and as that seed grows, straining toward the light of the sun, it produces fruit to feed the hungry and sustain life. So, you want to see Jesus? He is on the cross. He is lifted up to be buried. He dies to be raised. We give our old self to him to receive the new self we were made to become.

       It’s a challenge to talk about all this because human language is inadequate to describe what Jesus does. Jesus uses metaphors to describe who he is and what he does, images that we can understand which lead us to a deeper meaning. He says he is a good shepherd, although he doesn’t really tend sheep. He says he is living water, but we know he’s not liquid. There are so many metaphors describing Jesus in the Bible because none of them is adequate to describe him. Sometimes he mixes metaphors in a way that my high school English teacher would disapprove. In this one passage, he switches from describing himself as seed which has to die to the metaphor of light. He tells those who are looking for him to walk in the light.

When you turn on a light in a dark room, what you thought was one thing turns out to be something different.  When something is hidden in the shadows, it fools us.  In the dark what is bad can look good and what is good can look bad.  The shadow we thought was an intruder crouching in the dark turns out to be a quilt spread over the chair.  When we see something in the light, we know it for what it really is. 

       Jesus casts light on those deep longings that draw us to him.  He shows us that what we yearn for is our deepest and truest self.  In Jesus we find who we truly are.  You see, we were created in God’s own image.  To say that we are made in the image of God doesn’t mean that God physically looks like you or I. It means that God made us to reflect the essence of God.  And God is love, love that gives for others. We see what that love looks like in Jesus, who gave himself for us. 

       It’s hard to make sense of that kind of self-giving love apart from the cross. Without the light of the cross, the love that sacrifices itself for others looks like a recipe for failure and death. 

       The novelist Ayn Rand, who wrote in the mid 20th century, has been growing in popularity in recent years. Many political leaders who have come to power lately cite her as their inspiration for the vision they offer their countries. In her books like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Rand praises individualism, maximizing the self, and advocates a Darwinian belief that the way for society to thrive is to support those who are strong and leave the weak and helpless to fend for themselves. You hear many of those positions advocated in the current political debates. A magazine devoted to Rand’s philosophy, which is called Objectivism, proclaims that “Altruism [selfless concern for others] is not good for one’s life.  If accepted and practiced consistently, it leads to death.  This is what Jesus did….  An altruist might not die from his morality – so long as he cheats on it – but nor will he live fully….  Why not live a life of happiness?  Why sacrifice at all?  What reason is there to do so?  In the entire history of philosophy, the number of answers to this question is exactly zero.”[1]

       Jesus beams light on that argument that seems to make so much common sense, that philosophy that says we have to look out for ourselves first.  He exposes it by beaming the light of love, God’s love that gives itself for us. Now, this isn’t the kind of anxious self-sacrifice that tries to win approval.  It’s not the kind of compulsive giving that wears you down because you’re desperate to be loved.  The kind of giving to which Jesus calls us is the kind of giving that brings life because you’re confident you’re already loved and accepted completely by God through Jesus. You don’t give of yourself to win love. You give of yourself because you are loved.

Six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, a group of people from the church where I was pastor in Louisville went to help with the rebuilding. They stayed in a temporary village of trailers set up by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program. The man in charge of the village was a man named Victor.  He was the one who told the other volunteers where to find the supplies they needed.  He worked alongside them all day mucking mud out of houses and tearing out wet drywall. When the others returned to the village to collapse from exhaustion, Victor pulled out the lawn mower and cut the grass. 

After the people from the church had been there a few days, someone told them Victor’s story. Victor was a homeless man from Indianapolis.  Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis had worked with him when he was out on the street, and when they put together a team to go help the hurricane victims, they invited Victor to join them.  After the team from Indianapolis had been working for a week, it was time to return home.  Victor informed the team he was going to stay for a few more weeks.  He asked the team members if they would keep an eye on his belongings that he had stashed under a bridge in Indianapolis.  This homeless man threw himself into the work of rebuilding homes for those whom the hurricanes had made like him – homeless. He saw Jesus there among those Christians who were pouring themselves out for others because Jesus poured himself out for them.

Those Greeks who wanted to see Jesus made their request to Philip because they knew he was a friend of Jesus. That young man who sat in the back of sanctuary in the church I served came to worship because he knew it was a place where he might see Jesus. Victor saw Jesus because that light shone through those whom the light of the cross led to New Orleans.

       Jesus showed the power of love when he died on the cross.  He showed how love overcomes everything that can hurt or destroy us, from the power of a category 5 hurricane to the power of addiction, to the power of human hatred.  He gave his life for us so we can give our lives for others.  It’s in that self-giving love that we discover who we are and why we are here.  It’s a light that shines on our souls and lets us see everything differently, starting with ourselves. The opening of John’s gospel says it best: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 


[1] “Rand Redux,” The New York Times, “The Week in Review,” March 26, 2006, p. 3.

1-27-19 — To the Edge With Jesus — Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 4:14-30 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       How did you first come to Jesus? Many of us first came to him for the comfort he offers.  Life was turned upside down and he offered a safe haven in the midst of turmoil.  Maybe someone we loved was taken from us by death, we found solace in his promise of eternal life.  When things were spiraling out of control, he was the one who gave meaning and purpose and order.  More than anyone else, Jesus is our source of comfort and peace. 

       But we can get too comfortable with Jesus, the way we can get too comfortable with another person if we’re not careful. A husband and a wife can become so comfortable with each other they take each other for granted.  Marriage falls into a predictable routine they don’t even have to think about.  They have each other figured out, and life plugs along the way it always has.  Then one day someone wakes up and realizes that what was reassuring comfort has drifted into stifling complacency.

       The people of Nazareth were comfortable with Jesus.  He had been reared there; they knew his family; they had watched him grow up from the time he was a youngster.  They were pleased that Jesus had made a name for himself.  He was gaining a reputation as a wise preacher, and it had even been reported that he performed miracles.  Now he had come home, a local boy made good.  They wanted to hear for themselves his teaching that had received such acclaim. Certainly he would have some encouraging words for them. He would show his appreciation by letting them know how much they meant to him and what a big part they played in his success. He would perform some miracles for them.  They knew what to expect of Jesus.  He was one of them. 

       But Jesus didn’t do what the hometown folks expected. Instead of comforting them, he upset them so badly they tried to throw him off a cliff.    The home folks weren’t upset that Jesus had come to help the poor, the blind and the oppressed.  They were pleased that Mary and Joseph’s boy cared for the down and out. It’s just that there were plenty of people right in Nazareth he should tend to first.  Charity begins at home, you know.  But instead of looking after his own people, Jesus quoted scripture to them.  He reminded them of Elijah.  While people were starving in his homeland, Elijah went to a foreign land and fed a poor widow.  He reminded them of Naaman, a foreigner, whom Elisha cured of leprosy even while there were plenty of lepers right there in Israel who needed to be healed.   What enraged the people of Nazareth was that Jesus didn’t put his own kind first. Those who knew him best did not have first claim on him.  That made them very uncomfortable. 

       Sometimes the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things we know but choose to ignore.  The strength of Martin Luther King’s message was the very thing that made so many uncomfortable with it. It was firmly rooted in the principles Americans value.  King confronted the United States with the words of the Declaration of Independence that say “all men are created equal.”  He took seriously the words of the Constitution that say the government exists to promote justice and the wellbeing of all its citizens.  He reminded white Christians that the one they worshiped as Lord said he had come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and liberty to the oppressed. 

       Jesus wasn’t telling the people of Nazareth anything new.  He was just reminding them what their scripture had been teaching them all their lives.  God has a surprising way of putting the last first, of making the weak strong, of bringing the outsiders inside.  Remember the story of Exodus.  God could have chosen a nation like Egypt to be the special people through whom God showed the world God’s power and love. Egypt was the superpower of the ancient world.  But God chose Israel, the underprivileged minority, the immigrant laborers.  It was those who had nothing whom God led into the land of milk and honey. After Israel lived in the promised land for a while, they started to take it all for granted.  They forgot that once they had been outsiders who had nothing and that God had reached out to them when they were down and out. They began to think of God’s grace as an entitlement, something they were due, rather than a free gift they had done nothing to deserve.  They ignored the poor and the handicapped. It was more important to them that they have luxuries than that the poor have basic necessities.  But God wouldn’t let them stay so self-centered. God sent prophets like Jeremiah to call them back.  And when they still didn’t listen, God sent them into exile and made the people of Israel foreigners and slaves. God made them the ones who were outcast and oppressed so they would remember that their relationship with God wasn’t something to take for granted.

       The Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about the rights of the rich and the powerful.  It’s not that God doesn’t care about them, it’s just that they will always have the money and the influence to make sure their rights are protected. The Bible does have a lot to say about those on the bottom of society’s ladder, those who don’t have enough money for a decent living or enough influence to get the attention of the movers and shakers of the world.

       But we know that. We have seen first hand that it’s in our weakness that we often know God’s power best.  Think of the times you’ve felt closest to God.  Often, they’re the times you’ve felt the weakest and most vulnerable.  It’s not that Jesus isn’t there when things are going well for us.  He is.  But it’s when we don’t have anything else to fall back on that we learn to rely on God the most.  It’s when our self-sufficiency reaches its limits that it’s easiest for us to look to Jesus, to set aside our own agendas and rely on his strength completely.

       But if we let Jesus comfort us in our weakness and that’s the extent of our relationship with him, then we’re too comfortable with him.  Jesus did come for you and for me.  He does meet us in our need.  But he thinks more of us than to keep us in our own narrow selves.  He came to lift us out of ourselves, to see that there’s more to this wonderful world God has made than ourselves.

       People often try to spiritualize what Jesus says and take away some of the punch of his message.  People have tried to avoid getting their hands dirty with real physical human needs by interpreting what Jesus said to mean he came just for the poor in spirit, that he proclaims release to those who are held captive by sin, that he restores sight to the spiritually blind, that he sets people at liberty from being oppressed by the torments of the soul.  And he does all those things.  Jesus engages us on a spiritual journey where we grow in our faith and commitment to him and in the process point others to that freedom of the spirit he gives.

       But the people of Nazareth knew Jesus meant more than that.  That’s why they were so upset.  They knew that Jesus was talking about more than God’s liberation of the spirit.  After all, when God freed Israel from Egypt, he did more than free them spiritually.  God led them in an insurrection against their captors.  The land he gave them was real land, not just the promise of a spiritual home.  The demands he put on them were more than spiritual.  He commanded them to do concrete things like leaving some of the grain in their fields after the harvest so the poor could glean it, like setting aside the first fruits of their harvest for God.  And Jesus’ ministry was more than spiritual because human beings are both spirit and body.  When he talked about being the light in the darkness of the world, he backed up his words by actually healing blind people.  When he said he was the bread of life, he showed that God intends to provide us with real food by feeding 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish.  The good news of Jesus is a liberation of the spirit.  But it also comes with liberation from poverty and sickness and real, physical injustice.

       That’s why churches have always been leaders in establishing hospitals, why widows and orphans and sick people and the elderly have always had special places in the church.  Did you know that the first life insurance company in America was set up by Presbyterians in Philadelphia as a way of caring for orphans and widows? Churches are at the forefront of feeding the poor, educating the illiterate, improving agriculture in developing countries.

       Sometimes proclaiming the liberty of Christ means more than just providing food to alleviate people’s immediate hunger or speaking consoling words to those in pain.  Sometimes proclaiming the gospel has meant changing things to get at the root causes of hunger and oppression.  The first installed pastor of the church Carol and I served in New Jersey was The Rev. Charles McKnight who died as a prisoner in the brig of a British man-of-war in New York harbor because of his advocacy of the American Revolution.  The only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence was  the Rev. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian, whose faith in Christ led him put his life in jeopardy by standing up for what was right.  It was Jesus’ proclamation of the release to the captives that put the church in the forefront of the crusade to abolish slavery before the Civil War.  It is God’s call to give liberty to the oppressed that leads Christians as diverse as Pat Robertson and the World Council of Churches to work to end human trafficking.  It’s when the church has proclaimed that message of liberty in such a way that it not only comforts the afflicted but afflicts the comfortable that it has found itself in the same place Jesus was, at the brink of the cliff, ready to be thrown over.  It’s when those who have things going their way are threatened by the reminder that Jesus came with good news for the outcast, those who are different, that we’ve found ourselves at odds with those who have power and influence in the world.

       But where does that leave us if we’re not poor or captive or blind or oppressed?  What if we’re doing alright?  Is Jesus for us?  Yes, because Jesus also liberates us from seeing the world from the narrow confines of our situation.  He gives us the eyes of faith to see life from the perspective of those who are victims of the world’s oppression and to act on the basis of what we see through their eyes.

       The good news, the news Jesus brought, is that God is bringing in a whole new world where there won’t be injustice or pain.  We can’t be part of that if we protect our possessions and privileges. Jesus invites us to join him in welcoming those who make us uncomfortable.  In doing that, we not only help set the captives free, we find that Jesus sets us free as well, free to enjoy him unencumbered by our cares, free to do what he has called us to do – serve others in his name. Even if that takes us right up to the edge.

1-20-19 — Filled to the Brim — Isaiah 62:1-5, John 2:1-11 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

   

    Al is good at what he does. He’s in information technology, but after his company downsized he was out of a job.  He got some contract work to upgrade another company’s IT system, but that contract is over soon, and ever since the calendar turned he’s been having sleepless nights. His family has always had enough, but he’s worried about this time.  Will there be something there for him a year from now?

       Nancy is going to retire soon. She’s looking forward to being free from the pressures of the working world, but she wonders if she’s ready to start living on a fixed income and worries that there will still be enough to make ends meet. 

       Julie is four years old.  A few months ago her parents had a baby.  At first, she was excited to be a big sister, but lately that baby has been taking a lot of Mommy’s attention.  It used to be that when Daddy got home from work, he played with Julie until dinner.  Now he spends some of that time holding the baby.  Julie wonders if there’s enough love for her.

       Maybe you’ve been asked to take on a challenging leadership role in the community.  Will you have enough time and talent to do it well?  Or you’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness.  Will you have enough strength and faith to keep your dignity and face whatever happens with grace?

       It’s a question we ask all the time.  Will there be enough?  Can we trust that God will provide for us?  Jesus answered that question.  He didn’t answer by just telling us.  He showed us.  Today we read about his first miracle where he changed water into wine.  Did you notice how much wine he made?  Enough to fill six stone jars, each holding 20 or 30 gallons.  That’s 180 gallons of wine for a party that was starting to wind down.  Jesus shows us something about God we need to know: God provides more than enough.  That’s the way God is.

       You don’t need to read the Bible to know that.  You can see it in nature. I like to read the question and answer box in the daily weather report in the paper.  One day the question was, “How much energy does the earth get from the sun?”  The sun gives the earth more energy in 30 days than all the energy that human beings have ever produced from fossil fuels.  God deals in abundance!

       It’s as obvious as the noonday sun, but we have a hard time believing it.  Instead of seeing things from the perspective of God’s abundance, we’re used to seeing them from the standpoint of human scarcity.  One of the great challenges facing humankind is the problem of hunger.  Every night millions of children around the world go to bed without enough food.  The problem is not that there’s a shortage of food in the world.  More than enough food exists to feed every person on the planet, but wars, political maneuvering, and just plain greed create a bizarre situation where part of the world suffers from chronic obesity while another part is dying from hunger.  The genius of organizations like Our Daily Bread is that they get those of us who have more than enough to notice how much we have to spare and let go of some of it so those who are hungry can eat.  Bread for the World works to change the political and economic structures that support inequality.

       Ever since God created us, God has been trying to get us to see how abundantly God provides.  God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and told them they could eat of every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because if they ate from it they would know death and its limits.  But which one do you think they wanted?  The one they didn’t have.  When God delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God promised them a land of milk and honey, a place bursting with fruit and grain and minerals – more riches than they could ever want.  To get there they had to go through a wilderness, but every morning God gave them manna from heaven so they were never hungry.  They had the promise of abundant wealth waiting for them and they had food to sustain them along the way, but for 40 years they complained that they didn’t have the leeks and onions that seasoned their meager stews in slavery.

       Jesus shows us life from a different perspective.  He invites us to have faith in God who has not run short of anything since God flung the stars in the sky.  Jesus asks us to trust that God is not going to give out on us now. 

       Jesus’ first miracle showed God’s abundance.  The very setting was one of joy and exuberance.  A wedding reception is not a place where you pinch pennies.  One of the hallmarks of a good party is that you feel like you’re splurging.  The food and the drink are not what you have every day.  You indulge in the host’s generosity. A wedding is the celebration of unlimited possibilities.  At a wedding the future is wide open for the bride and groom.  There are toasts expressing the expectation that they are in for only the best.  A wedding isn’t a place to worry about what you lack.  It’s a time to revel in hope and promise and plenty.

       And so it was at a wedding that Jesus did his first miracle, his first sign that points us to the one who sent him.  Try to imagine the scene.  There’s music and dancing and lively conversation.  Jesus is there, smiling and laughing, perhaps talking with a group of people who had gathered around him.  His mother comes over to him with a look of concern.  Maybe she had been talking with the mother of the groom.  Perhaps they were friends from way back who had shared the joys and concerns of rearing their sons.  Maybe the groom’s mother had come up to Mary in a panic, frightened that her family was about to lose face in front of all their friends.  Mary works her way through the crowd over to Jesus and says in a loud whisper over the music, “They have no wine.”  He asks her, “Woman, what concern is that to you or to me?”  After all, he had come to redeem humankind from the bondage of sin.  His mission was to restore creation.  He was here to confront the power of death and establish the everlasting kingdom of God.  Why should he be concerned that a wedding party had run short of wine?  But God deals in abundance.

       Jesus used that opportunity to show what God is like.  He told the servants to fill six stone jars with water.  Then he told them to draw some out and take it to the chief steward, the wedding director.  The steward tasted it, and his face lit up.  The party could go on.  There was plenty of wine.

       His disciples saw the sign and believed.  They believed that God sent Jesus to transform scarcity into abundance, limitations into possibilities, death into life. At the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus would abolish the ultimate limit, death.  Death is what puts an end to all things.  When he was glorified on the cross, Jesus removed the limit of our mortality and opened the way to eternal life.

But not everyone who saw believed.  Not everyone understood that what Jesus did was a sign pointing to God.  When the chief steward tasted the wine, he didn’t thank Jesus.  He called to the bridegroom and commended him for being such a generous host.  “Everyone serves the good wine first,” he told the groom, “and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”  The steward had a perfectly rational explanation for what he experienced, an explanation that didn’t need God or faith.  The steward’s explanation for what happened made perfect sense – and it was perfectly wrong.

       Eastminster Presbyterian Church has experienced God’s abundance. You have a generous spirit that allowed the church to meet all of its financial commitments in 2018. Last month when Rhonda Kruse from the Presbyterian Mission Agency met with the mission committee and others, I was struck with how outward-looking this church is, how much you’re committed to making a difference in the community and the world. You’ve done that through the backpack program to East York Elementary School, mission outreach to Honduras, your support of Donegal Presbytery and the global mission of the Presbyterian Church.

       Yesterday your session spent the day discerning how God wants you to use that abundance in the coming months. The elders studied scripture, prayed, and took inventory of the ways God is already using Eastminster to do the work of the kingdom. We spent half an hour listing all the things that Eastminster does, and after we’d posted all the sheets we’d filled on the wall, we were amazed at all that is happening here. Then we focused in on the things that Eastminster does especially well and the community in which God has placed us. We came up with three things to focus on in the next nine to twelve months as you prepare for you new pastor.

       We’re going to build on what God is already using Eastminster to do in working with children and to relieve hunger; we’re going to intensify our efforts to keep people involved in the ministry of the church; and we’re going to maximize our communication to the community about what God is doing here. You’ll be hearing more about those things in the weeks ahead.

The prologue of John’s gospel speaks for everyone who trusts in Jesus: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace….  No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

It’s no secret.  Jesus came so we can know God, and if we know anything about God it is this: God has more than enough.  God knows what we need.  We don’t always have it in advance.  Sometimes we have to trust, live with confidence that when the time comes, God provides what we need.  It may not be what we expect, but it’s what we need, and whatever that is, there will be enough.  Jesus revealed his glory at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  His disciples saw the sign and they believed, and from then on, their lives were full of the abundance of the Lord. That’s what God deals in, abundance, goodness and love that fills us to the brim.

1-6-19 — Three Kinds of Kings — Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       In 2018, as in every year, leaders made a difference. Our country is divided in its opinion of President Trump, but we’re in agreement that, for better or for worse, he’s made a big difference in the political landscape and America’s place in the world. Companies are closely identified with their leaders. What would the world be like today if Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t invented The Facebook when he was in college? But in 2018 we discovered that Zuckerberg’s invention isn’t an unmitigated good. He had to defend himself and the company before Congress and in the court of public opinion.  In sports it was obvious that it makes a difference who’s in charge. It looked like the Ravens were doomed to lousy season when Joe Flacco was injured, but up stepped Lamar Jackson and now they’re in the playoffs.

       It’s an old debate among historians: Does the person shape the times or do the times make the person?  Personalities aren’t the only things that shape events, but it makes a difference who’s in charge.  Just look at the three kinds of kings we read about in today’s gospel lesson.

       King Herod had the kind of authority we usually think of when we hear the word power. He had armies at his disposal. He could make anyone in Judea do whatever he wanted.  He had wealth.  He taxed at his pleasure.  He was in charge.  Nobody told King Herod what to do.

       Power like Herod’s, power based on force and coercion, has lots of appeal.  Sometimes it’s necessary to deal with threats to safety and security from those who would harm us.  We always want our police officers to be better armed than the criminals.  We want our armed forces to have the best equipment possible to give them an edge over our enemies.  But we have to be careful about our fascination with the power of force and coercion.  It can be intoxicating.  There’s a certain thrill that comes with the immediate effects of being able to impose your will on someone else by force.  But that kind of power doesn’t last.  Smart leaders know that.  One of the reasons that New York is now one of the safest cities in the nation is because of the kind of community policing that its police commissioner Bill Bratton introduced. Rather than working out of fortified bunkers like Fort Apache in the Bronx, officers walk their beats, mingle with the people, build trust, and use force only as a last resort. 

       The great strength of our country is that it isn’t founded on the power of coercive force.  We use it for self-defense, but our nation is founded on principles of freedom and democracy.  We know that coercive power, for all its immediate gratification, is limited.  Those who use force in our behalf like police officers and the military are under the authority of civilians who are elected by the people. Leaders like Herod who impose their will by force, and after him dictators and tyrants throughout history, have caused immense suffering and death, but that kind of power doesn’t last.  The pages of history are filled with the stories of empires that rose on the strength of their armies but fell because that kind of power has its limits.

       So the first kind of king in the story we read today is the one whose authority is based on raw power.  The second kind of king in the story is the magi.  Matthew doesn’t really say they were kings.  He doesn’t even tell us there were three; he just tells us the three kinds of gifts they brought to Bethlehem. But these men were regal.  In order to afford gold, frankincense and myrrh they must have been as wealthy as kings.  And they certainly knew something about leadership.  They knew their own limits and realized they needed someone greater than themselves to lead them.  The magi were looking for someone worthy of their obedience and praise, someone whom they could trust, a ruler who wouldn’t let them down.

       The magi found that king because they studied the stars.  There’s something about gazing at the stars that puts everything in a different perspective.  The magi knew from spending so much of their lives looking outward into the vast reaches of the universe that there was something other than themselves at the center of creation.  The magi knew which stars rose when and how they journeyed across the sky.  They had studied their patterns and knew from watching the heavens that there was someone greater than they who put the galaxies in motion and ordered their movements.  The magi were looking for the right kind of king. So when they saw his star, they headed for Judea.

       The magi were polite to Herod.  They respected his kind of power. When they passed through his capital, they stopped in and asked his help in finding the king they were looking for.  But they didn’t obey him.  They didn’t return to Jerusalem on their way home and tell him what he asked them to find out.  They knew the limits of Herod’s kind of power.

       What the magi were looking for, what made them wise men, was a third kind of king.  This king was completely different from Herod.  His power was a different kind, a kind that wasn’t based on the construction of alliances or the manipulation of force.  It didn’t depend on the ability to impose his will on others.  Jesus’ power comes from some place else.  Its source is the same as the power the magi saw when they looked at the stars.

       This king didn’t have any swords or riches to back him up.  He didn’t need fear to make people fall at his feet.  Nature worshiped him at his birth.  Herod had to coerce people to honor him, but the stars changed their course for Jesus.

       For this king, for Jesus, the poor and the needy weren’t helpless subjects to squeeze dry.  This kind of king was the one the Psalmist described, the one who “delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.”  This king “has pity on the weak and needy.  He redeems their life from oppression and violence.”  His power wasn’t something he seized by force; it was something given to him to spread the goodness and the love of God.

       And his power isn’t limited the way Herod’s was.  It is a power that lasts as long as the sun and moon endure.  It is not confined to one lifetime, because he overcame death that brings an end to all human power.  Death was Herod’s greatest ally.  The threat of death is what tyrants like Herod use to get their way, but death couldn’t coerce Jesus.  When Herod sought to kill the newborn king, God led the infant Jesus to Egypt.  33 years later when he was nailed him to a cross, Jesus conquered death once and for all on Easter morning.

       Jesus was the king the wise men worshiped.  They recognized him as the true king because he is the one who has true power, the power of God that made the world.  Where every other kind of power has its limits, Jesus’ power does not.  When he rules our lives, it changes who we are and what we do.

       We’re here this morning because Jesus is the right kind of king, the ruler who reigns not through coercion but through that most powerful force in the universe, love.  We are here because he is the one who presides over the course of the galaxies.  He is the one who guides and directs our lives.  He is the one who hosts us at his table where he feeds us with spiritual food and drink.  He is the head of this church, the one who has called us together to worship him, to study him, and to serve the world on his behalf.  The wise men found their way to him and laid their most precious treasures before him.  We don’t have to search or take a long journey to find him.  He has found us.  He is here.  He rules the galaxies and the course of history.  Does he rule your life? 

12-23-18 — The Perfect Gift — Micah 5:2-5, Hebrews 10:5-10 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

      

When I was a pastor in Louisville, the church I served had a nursery school, like the preschool here at Eastminster. One of the things I looked forward to every December was telling the story of Christmas to our nursery school students.  The children would file quietly into the sanctuary and sit in the front pews.  I brought our nativity scene from home, and as each character entered the story, I placed the figure on the table that was set up where they can see it.  One year was especially memorable because of a boy I’ll call Scot.  I knew Scot from Sunday mornings when he would come join me for the Children’s Message in worship.  He was a sweet little boy, but on this day he was showing another side of his character.  As I was trying to tell the story of Christmas to all the polite, well-behaved children, Scot kept butting in with his commentary:  “How do you think Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem?” I asked the children.  Scot yelled out, “On a motorcycle.”  I ignored him and got the holy couple to Bethlehem properly, on a donkey.  When it was time for the figure of the Christ child to appear, I said, “There wasn’t a crib in the stable so Mary laid the baby Jesus in a…”  “Jacuzzi!” shouted Scot, full of himself.  It was downhill from there.  He started crawling over the child sitting next to him, and I was becoming more irrelevant to those children by the second until a teacher gently led Scot out the door for a quiet talk. 

       If you’ve been around children very much, you’ve seen your share of kids like Scot.  He wasn’t a bad child.  He just wanted what we all want.  He wanted to be noticed.  If he couldn’t get noticed for sitting quietly and raising his hand, he’d get noticed for being a smart aleck.  The Psalmist speaks for Scot and for all of us when he cries out, “Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.” (Psalm 65:15)  In other words, Notice me. 

       Yet as much as we want to be noticed, one of the things we fear most is being noticed.  What if we are noticed and it doesn’t matter?  What if everyone sees you and concludes, “She’s worthless, not even worth noticing?”  One reason the movie It’s a Wonderful Life resonates with us is because it speaks to our fear that we don’t really matter.  George Bailey is convinced he’s not worth a thing.  He’s ready to throw himself off the bridge when the angel Clarence shows him what the town of Bedford Falls would be like if George had never lived. 

We need to be reassured, like George Bailey, that we matter.  Deep down inside we know none of us has to be here.  If certain things hadn’t happened just the way they did, we might not have even been born, and who would notice our absence?  On more than one Hiroshima Day, that day in August that marks the anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, my father told me, “If it weren’t for the atomic bomb, you probably wouldn’t be here.”  In August 1945 he was a Marine in the Philippines training for the invasion of Japan. Now, historians have recently discovered evidence that indicates that Japan might well have been ready to surrender before we dropped the bomb, but Dad’s point is well taken. After he got home from the Pacific Dad went to visit his uncle in Maxton, NC.  He met a young woman who was boarding there while working at the local air base, and she just happened to join them for dinner.  What if Mom had been out that day and they had never met? Would it have mattered?

And the things we accomplish in this life – how can we be sure they really matter?  We work hard to achieve success.  We might acquire money and fame and knowledge, but what if it all amounts to no more than the achievements of Ephraim?  Those ancient people of the Bible worked hard to build up their treasures of wealth and knowledge, but the prophet Isaiah’s judgment on them was this: “’Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little there a little;’ in order that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.’” Those ancient Israelites thought they were doing great stuff, but what they were doing didn’t matter to God. (Isaiah 28:13)

       We long to be noticed, yet we’re afraid.  We fear we’ll be judged not worth noticing.  We’re like Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit.  When they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil their eyes were opened and they saw what an awful thing they had done.  They sewed fig leaves together to hide from each other.  When God passed by they ducked behind the bushes so God wouldn’t notice them. 

       We need to be noticed, but we need to be noticed and found worthy.  We want to be noticed the way our parents looked on us in the delivery room.  They didn’t think of the long nights that lay ahead, the midnight feedings, the anxiety we would cause them as we explored the world by putting things into our mouths and toddling into dangerous places, the rebellions of adolescence.  They looked on us in sheer joy and wonder.  We want to be noticed by that mother, that father who looks at us and judges us worthwhile.  It’s in that unconditional acceptance by someone who truly matters that we get confidence to face life.[1] 

       Parents or other important adults give us what we need to get started.  Their acceptance and love give us courage to face the world.  But they can’t do it all.  One of the hard discoveries of growing up is realizing your parents aren’t perfect.  Their judgment is sometimes suspect because they have so much invested in you.  Every time my mother heard me preach she told me what a good sermon I gave.  I loved to hear that, but I know it wasn’t true all the time.  She heard me preach some duds. We need to know we’re noticed and judged worthy by one who is impartial, who without bias judges right from wrong and good from bad.  That’s why we need to be noticed and found worthy by God.  God gives us the ultimate assessment of who we are, the objective opinion on whether we’re worthy or not.

       In the Old Testament priests offered sacrifices to make sure God noticed the people of Israel and judged them worthy.  Day after day, week after week, year after year, the priests would go into the temple and offer grain or roast a lamb on behalf of Israel.  Did God need those sacrifices?  Of course not.  God wasn’t going to starve to death if the priests didn’t slay a bull on the altar.  We can’t make God love us by what we do or don’t do.  But in any healthy relationship there must be two sides.  When a child disobeys a parent, the parent isn’t going to stop loving the child, but it sure helps restore the relationship if the child apologizes and offers to do the dishes after supper.  Sacrifices were Israel’s way of keeping up their side of the relationship.

       But what kind of a relationship would it be if you had to keep proving yourself over and over to your friend? You don’t buy a nice Christmas present for your spouse as a payment to keep the marriage going.  You give them something special because you love them. 

       That’s how it is with our relationship with God.  God showed us once for all that we are noticed.  We are important to God and we are worthy of God’s friendship.  One night about 2000 years ago God came to live among us.  Jesus showed us what a perfect life is.  He lived just as we do yet without sin.  There was nothing about Jesus that was unworthy – no selfishness, no greed, no impure thoughts.  By showing us a perfectly worthy life, he also showed us how far we fall short.  So in an act of perfect love, Jesus died for us.  Whatever price there is to pay for disobeying our maker, for striving after things that don’t really matter in the end, for hiding from the one who loves us, whatever punishment we deserve, Jesus took on himself.  He died on the cross and made the perfect sacrifice once for all.  Through him we know that God notices us and loves us.  God loves us so much that the Almighty One wants to spend eternity with us.

       We don’t have to keep working to get God to notice us.  That’s why we Presbyterians don’t have altars in our churches.  That furniture where we lay out the Lord’s Supper is called a communion table.  An altar is where you make a sacrifice, and the sacrifice was made once for all on the cross.  We don’t have to prove to ourselves or anyone else that we’re worthwhile.  Jesus has already proven that for us.  That frees us to do what is truly worthwhile.  Instead of working to prove ourselves, we can join Jesus in the work of justice and love and peace that he has called us to do.

       We put forth our best for him every week when we gather for worship, every day when we visit the nursing home or comfort a friend or write our Senator urging justice and peace.  God continually gives us the strength, through the Holy Spirit, to live up to God’s expectations.

       The very best gifts we’ll receive at Christmas are the ones that say, “You matter to me.  You’re important. I value you enough that I’m thinking about you and you mean something to me.”  That’s the gift God gave at Christmas.   In Jesus God shows you just how much you matter.  You’re worth so much that he left the splendor of heaven to live here, with us.  God would not have done that if you weren’t worth it.  You’re worth the perfect gift of Christmas.


[1] Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1999), p. 89.

12-16-18 — A Clean Sweep — Luke 3:7-18 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       One of the new ideas for Christmas gifts this year is the DNA testing kit. You send off a swab from inside your cheek and you receive back a report that traces your ethnic heritage. Its popularity builds on the success of genealogy databases like Ancestry.com that can identify your ancestors going back generations.

       My father would have loved to have access to that kind of information. He was fascinated with our family tree. He was especially proud that he could trace our lineage all the way back to the great emperor Charlemagne. So when he and my mother came to visit Carol and me when we were living in Edinburgh early in our marriage, he was thrilled by the opportunity to actually visit the place to which he had traced back our Scottish roots.

       Some friends from church let us borrow a car, and a couple of days after Mom and Dad arrived, we all piled in and drove to the west coast of Scotland in search of our roots. We were looking for the parish of North Knapdale, which for some strange reason wasn’t on the map. From family records we knew the general area where it was located, but no one we asked, whether at gas stations or taverns or hotels, had ever heard of that illustrious place. After some difficulty, we finally found the small parish church of North Knapdale perched on a desolate hill overlooking the sea. We piled out of the car and started searching the gravestones for familiar names. After a few minutes, two older ladies emerged from a nearby cottage and walked over to us. “Can we help ye,” one of them asked. My father proudly told them, “We’re looking for the Leitch family. They’re our ancestors who migrated to North Carolina in the 1840s.” One of them looked around at the barren hillsides, the small weathered cottages, the windswept coast, and said, “Ach! I wish my ancestors had migrated to North Carolina!”

       That was a sobering reminder that most Europeans who migrated to America left their homes for a reason. They didn’t have much to lose. And I received another humbling swipe at my family’s claim to genealogical fame this summer, when I read that everyone with European ancestry can trace their lineage back to Charlemagne. You only have to go back a couple of hundred years until you find that everyone from Europe is related.

       It’s fun to know where we came from, and it helps us understand who we are and what has shaped us. But as John the Baptist emphasized in the story we just read, at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter all that much to God. It doesn’t count much in God’s eyes whether we’re American or Scottish or Nigerian or Mexican. What matters is what we do with what we have. Are our lives aligned with God who gives life and peace and joy to all people? Do we live for what really matters, or do we try to build our lives on things that don’t mean that much in the end?

       One of the things that makes it hard to talk about John the Baptist in this season of joy and cheer before Christmas is how judgmental he is. You’d think he would be pleased with all the people who came out into the wilderness to hear him, but he calls them a brood of vipers. Rather than affirming whatever good things they might have done, he says that the ax is laid to the root of the tree and all the things in which they pride themselves will be cut down. He gives this alarming picture of the Messiah coming with a giant pitchfork to separate the wheat from the chaff and throwing the chaff into eternal fire. I’ve yet to see a Hallmark Christmas special on that!

       All that talk of judgment and repentance is hard to stomach. One of the worst things we can say about someone these days is that they’re judgmental. John the Baptist talks about judgment, and he calls it good news.

       Notice that it isn’t you or I that he’s talking about making the judgments. It’s this Messiah that is going to be the judge and do the sorting. And sometimes there has to be a cleansing out before we can move on to something better. The point isn’t to burn the chaff but to gather the wheat. Often, it’s painful. Before you can be cured of cancer you have to endure painful chemotherapy. If you want to get out from under stifling debt, you have to tighten your belt and give up some things you want. To escape the grip of addiction you have to go through the torture of withdrawal.

       John the Baptist was telling the people to give up what was dear to them so they could receive something better. Some of what he was telling them to give up they had no idea it was doing them harm.

       He told those who had two coats to share with anyone who had none. I thought of that command last week. We were getting ready for a reception at our house, and I was clearing out the coat closet by the front door, hauling my wife’s and my coats upstairs to the guest bedroom to make room for the coats of the people we were entertaining. On the second trip up the stairs I thought to myself, “Good grief! How did we get so many coats?” We didn’t buy all those coats so people would be cold. And you can make the case that if somebody needs a coat, there are plenty of places they can get one. That’s probably just what those folks listening to John by the River Jordan were thinking too, but sharing their coat wasn’t just about helping a poor person stay warm. It was also for the sake of the soul of the person with two coats.

       To the tax collectors he told them to collect no more than the amount prescribed for them.That was how they made their living. It was a job creator. They weren’t doing anything illegal. A tax collector was commissioned by Rome to collect what was owed the government. What they could get over that was their profit margin. To do what John the Baptist said would mean a decline in their standard of living. It wouldn’t overhaul the system, but it  makes a difference to those they collected from, and it would put their lives in alignment with the Messiah who was coming to champion the poor and the oppressed. Did they want to line their pockets or save their souls?

       The people who came out to hear John the Baptist had a rich heritage. Their ancestors had been the chosen people. John was telling them not to take it for granted the way things were was the way they would always be. Jesus was coming to make major changes, especially in the way we relate to the poor and those in need. Taking pride in what their forebears had done wasn’t going to get them anywhere.

       Last week when we had our staff meeting in the Multipurpose Room we were surrounded by Christmas presents on their way to Bell Shelter and the Community Progress Council that the members of Eastminster collected. Last Thursday a dozen people were in the Fellowship Hall to hear Rhonda Kruse from the Presbyterian Mission Agency talk about ways Eastminster can expand its mission outreach. Those things were fruits worthy of repentance. They were indications of how Eastminster is trying to align with what Jesus came into the world to do, to proclaim good news to the poor and release to those who are captive.

       That doesn’t mean that your rich heritage isn’t important. It should be a source of pride how so many people gathered together almost 60 years ago to start a new community of faith in this expanding area of York. The gallery of photographs of past spiritual leaders in the Haines House tells a story of faithful witness to the one whom John the Baptist proclaimed. What’s happened here over the years is like the roots of that tree of faith. Roots are important, but they aren’t the fruit for which the tree exists. Those presents in the Multipurpose Room, the care that the deacons and Stephen Ministers give to those who suffer, the lives that are touched and transformed when they come here to worship, those are the fruits that are worthy of repentance. That is what we have to show when the Holy Spirit breathes through us and clears out old ways of doing things to make room for what is fresh and new.        

       Heritage is important. I was a history major in college, and I value knowing our past and honoring it. But everything from our past that keeps us from preparing for the new creation, Jesus sweeps away to make room for him. It only matters to God when it prepares us to claim our part in what God is doing to bring justice and peace into the world. Are you ready?

Works in Progress — Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 1:3-11 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Have you ever noticed that there’s something in the human spirit that keeps us looking beyond today, that plans for the future, that inspires us to live more fully and generously than self-interest would dictate? Even as we remember a year marked with terrorism and violence, we light our Christmas trees. Even as we mourn loved ones who have died over the past year, we anticipate the joy of Christmas and the promise of a New Year. There’s something that keeps us pressing forward to be better than we are now, to make the world better than it is now. It’s called hope. We can’t see hope, but we know it’s there because without it life doesn’t make sense. Hope is embedded in the human spirit. It’s like quarks.
Quarks are subatomic bits of matter that hold the universe together. The physicists who discovered them received a Nobel prize, but they never laid eyes on them. A number of years ago scientists were studying the structure of matter and recognized that particles could be arranged in simple patterns. Those patterns could be interpreted as showing that the objects they observed were made out of combinations of things they could not observe, things they called quarks. The scientists set up experiments where they fired very fast projectiles at the particles they knew about. Those subatomic missiles bounced back, as if they were hitting something inside the targets. When they analyzed the data, the properties of those little bits of unseen matter were just like those of the theoretical things they called quarks. Even though they never laid eyes on a quark, they proved that quarks had to be there. Without the existence of those unseen bits of matter, the things they could see made no sense.
Hope is just as real as quarks, just as integral to the human spirit as quarks are to matter. It is grounded in something about which we can be certain, but we cannot see.
Hope is essential to the human spirit, but how do we know there are grounds for our hope? How do we know hope is real and not just wishful thinking? Jesus shows us the basis for the hope that keeps us going. He shows us what is to come, where creation is headed. When he healed the sick, he showed what it’s going to be like when there is no sickness. When he fed the hungry, he showed what it’s going to be like when there is no hunger. When he blessed the peacemakers, he pointed to that time when there will be no war. When he rose from the tomb, he guaranteed that time when there will be no death.
But you know, to see what the future holds is at the same time to see how far we are from it and to know just how much we have to do to prepare. Marjorie Suchocki tells of a young person ready to graduate from high school who meets an impressive person who is an architect. This girl always appreciated buildings. She loves to stroll through downtown and look at the structure of the various buildings. She likes to imagine what the floor plans are of those buildings, and she wonders how you put one together. She tells the architect about those interests, and the architect says to her, “Why don’t you become an architect?”
The girl is thrilled with the idea – not only to admire buildings, but to design them, to know how they work inside and out! But then reality crashes in. She’s just about ready to graduate from high school, and without any goal, she’s not paid much attention to her studies. The architect sees her despair and says, “There’s always summer school, and you know you can make up for the studies you’ve neglected – and you can go to community college and do well enough to get into a four-year school and take what you need to prepare for the profession.” That encouragement strengthens the girl to prepare for the future. The hope of becoming an architect awakens in her a vision of what she can be while at the same time showing her just how far she has to go.
Jesus shows us our goal, our purpose in being here. He shows us who God has created us to be. “I am confident of this,” says Paul to those Christians in Philippi, “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” The hope of what Christ has in store sustains us when hope seems a foolish delusion.
And there is a powerful force that discourages hope. Death lies between us and the hope we have in Christ. Whatever we do will come to an end one day. Whatever we acquire we’ll have to leave behind. Some people downplay the power of death by spiritualizing it. A widespread conception of death, based more in Greek philosophy than in scripture, is that it is the soul’s release from the body. This view sees death as the moment when the essence of who we are is transferred into another realm while what we leave behind is forgotten and left to continue toward decay. In that way of looking at things, our hope lies in a quick escape from this world.
The hope Jesus brings is different. Jesus doesn’t dismiss our bodies or anything in all creation as if they don’t matter. He gives hope for the whole creation, physical and spiritual. And each of those aspects of us is intertwined. The way you feel physically affects your spiritual well-being, and your spiritual health is connected with your physical health. From the time Jesus healed the sick, churches have been about the business of physical healing. Some of the best hospitals in the world bear the name of churches. Just down the street from my house in Pittsburgh was Presbyterian Hospital, now part of UPMC. Many congregations employ a parish nurse, someone to care for the physical needs of the community while the church supports their spiritual needs. Why would churches do that unless we believed that the body is not just a worthless shell that will be tossed away one day?
John Polkinghorne explains that what truly makes us who we are is the complex pattern in which we’re put together, body, mind and spirit. Our bodies deteriorate. Our minds wear out. We don’t function at age 80 the way we did when we were 20. But regardless of how well the parts are working, the pattern that makes each of us unique is there. It all stops at death, but God does not forget who we are. God holds us in God’s memory until that day when Christ comes again at the close of history and God resurrects us, body, mind and spirit. That is what happened to Jesus at the resurrection, why he is called the first fruits of the dead. What God did to Jesus, who died and was raised, is what God will do for us. Our hope in Jesus is stronger even than death. The good work God has begun in us will be completed by the day of Jesus Christ, the day he raises us from death, reunites us with those we love and restores the whole creation to perfection.
One of the images the Bible uses for that day is the image of a heavenly banquet. When Christ comes, not only will he reconstitute each of us, he’ll make right the whole human race and the entire creation. We’ll delight in each other’s company. We’ll share freely with all. We’ll encourage one another. The differences that now divide us will be sources of pleasure and affirmation.
Hope like that needs encouragement. The power of death is so great that it continually works against the hope we have. Death permeates life. It is served by hatred, greed, warfare, dishonesty, lust. All those things that keep us from living in God’s ways serve death and discourage us from hope that the day of Christ will come.
The church exists as the place where we practice hope. God put us here so all can see what it’s going to look like around that heavenly banquet. No, that doesn’t mean the church is a perfect place. It doesn’t mean that people don’t hurt each other or disappoint each other. It doesn’t mean there’s no greed or dishonesty or selfish motive in the church. There are. But God put the church here to live in hope. That’s why we gather here every Sunday – because we believe Christ is alive and will come again. That’s why we study the scriptures together in circles or Sunday school – to learn how God is working to bring that hope about. We trust that the good news of this hope we have to share is contagious and that people will continue to be drawn to it. That’s why Eastminster’s mission committee is hosting a representative from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s World Mission Division to help us see how God wants us to be involve in the world. Through the PCUSA, we support missionaries in some of the world’s most challenging places like South Sudan and Pakistan – God sends us out into the world to show this hope.
You can’t see hope, but when we live in hope, life works. As we let our love overflow and gain knowledge and insight into what Christ has in store, our lives make sense. Christ has shown us what is to come. It’s a work in progress.

8-26-18 — This Is My Story — Pastor Greg Seckman

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