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4-14-19 — In Humble Majesty — Philippians 2:5-11, John 12:12-16 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

          One of the first parades I remember was in late February 1962.  I was eight years old and living outside Washington, D.C.  My father and I drove into the city and found a spot to stand along Pennsylvania Avenue.  We were there to see my boyhood hero, John Glenn.  Just days earlier Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth.  President Kennedy had escorted him from Cape Canaveral to the nation’s capital, and now he, along with the other Mercury 7 astronauts, was being honored with a parade from the White House to the Capitol where a joint meeting of Congress was waiting to pay them tribute.  I still remember the thrill of seeing those heroes drive by accompanied by the Vice President of the United States.  They symbolized all that was good and promising, all that was possible, not just for America but for the entire human race.  No longer were we bound by the confines of this planet.  The stars were within our reach.  What a marvelous day that was to be eight years old.

        We’ve accomplished a lot in the decades since that parade.  Where we invested effort, determination and ingenuity, we’ve made remarkable progress.  We met Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade.  We’ve sent spacecraft beyond the reaches of the solar system and penetrated the mysteries of a black hole.  We live longer.  Our children are healthier.  We’ve made progress in civil rights and women’s equality.  But there are some things that haven’t changed, some things that no amount of energy or grit or resolve can alter. 

We’ve figured out how to break free from the limits of the earth, but we’re still bound by the limits of our humanity.  One of the first things you realize when you’re a child is that you have limits.  That’s what makes the terrible twos so terrible.  Children discover that the world won’t accommodate their every desire on demand, and it makes them furious.  The older you get, the more aware you are of your limits.  When I was sixteen I finally admitted to myself that I would never be first chair trumpet as long as Bob and Manuel were in the high school band.  By the time you’re middle aged, you know there are certain things you dreamed of doing that you probably won’t do.  One characteristic of wisdom is recognizing our limits and learning how to live fully within them.

Neither have we figured out how to stop things from changing.  The car that made us feel so up-to-date when we bought it new starts to look drab and worn.  The fresh new-car smell gives way to that tired aroma of worn upholstery.  The best friend with whom you share everything moves away.  Children grow up.  You long to go back to those days when they bugged you to play their games, games that seemed so trivial compared to the important things you had to do.  Now they have more important things to do, and there are things you wish you could do over.  Life is transient.  You can’t hold on to anything and keep it the same, no matter how hard you try.

And we haven’t figured out how to keep from dying.  We can extend life and, in many ways, make it better, but it still ends.  Along with all the other animals, we have an instinctive aversion to death and an innate desire to survive.  But unlike other creatures, we are aware of our own death.  It casts a shadow over life.  We know that no matter what we do our days will one day come to an end.[1]

Today we remember another parade, one that took place 2000 years ago.  I suspect that the people who lined the parade route into Jerusalem were there for reasons that were similar to the reasons that took Dad and me into Washington, D.C., that damp February day in 1962.  They were there to catch a glimpse of someone who had done an incredible thing and who held out the promise of things even more amazing. 

Jesus had done many remarkable things, but what was creating all the buzz, according to John, was what he did for Lazarus.  Lazarus had been dead for four days when Jesus called him out of the tomb.  It was clear now that Jesus had God’s power on his side.   People were counting on him to use that power to restore Israel to the glory it had in the days of David and Solomon.  He would throw out the Romans.  He would set up a throne on Mt. Zion.  It would be glorious, the way Jesus would use his power.

But in the grand scheme of things what the crowds expected from Jesus was the same old thing.  The kind of glory they expected from Jesus the conquering hero eventually fades.  Other empires rise to power and dominate the world.  And not even the most powerful emperor can conquer death. 

Jesus was coming with another kind of power, power not even his disciples understood until he had died on the cross.  The power Jesus brought is the power that created the universe and breathed life into us.  It’s the power that never changes through all the changes of our years.  It is the power of God’s love, the love that gives itself completely to the ones God loves.  It is the love that transforms us from the inside out by taking on our limits, our transience and even our death.

If you were to chart the story told in the gospel of John, it would look like a great arc – an inverted parabola.  Jesus starts on high with the Father in all the glory and splendor of heaven.  He comes down and lives among us, taking on everything that makes us human except our sin.  He experiences the limitations of our human bodies.  He endures first the hosannas of the Palm Sunday parade and then the derision of the Good Friday mob.  Jesus takes on himself everything that is human and carries it to the cross.  He is anointed, but his anointing is for death.  He wears a purple robe, but it is the cloak of mockery.  He is presented to his people, and they reject him.  He is lifted up, but it is on a cross.  And on that cross he draws all people to himself.[2]  “He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

A while back I had the privilege of giving the blessing at the dedication of a new facility for homeless people in the city where I lived. The ecumenical agency that helps the homeless had acquired a former rehabilitation center and converted it into apartments. After the ceremony there was punch and cookies, and I was visiting with one of the residents of the men’s floor.  He asked if I’d like to see his new home, and I said “Of course.”  He took me down the hall of what used to be a nursing home and proudly opened the door of his room.  It was a simple place – a small room with a bed, a dresser, two chairs, a tape player and a small TV.  Over and over again he said how grateful he was for it.  That room – his home – symbolized for him his new life.  And he was emphatic that it was because of Jesus.  Jesus had reached down to him in the gutter, opened his heart, and invited him to turn his life over to God.  He did, and Jesus, working through the ministry of the shelter and the churches that supported it, rescued him from the street.

That’s where real power lies.  We can reach for the stars.  We can cure diseases.  We can improve the quality of life.  Thanks be to God for the ability we have to make the world a better place.  But only God can change lives from the inside out.  God does it by touching the depths of our souls, by coming to us in Christ and redeeming us through his grace.  And not only our souls, but all creation will one day be changed by his love that gives and gives and gives until in emptying himself he is exalted in glory.  “Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” Hosanna in the highest!

[1] From a talk by Martin E. Marty at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, March 1998.

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1966), p. 463.

4-7-19 — Always the Poor — Isaiah 43: 16-21, John 12: 1-8 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       A man bought a retriever, and when he took him out to the lake to train him, he was stunned.  He shot a duck and instead of jumping into the water and doggie paddling, the dog stepped onto the lake and ran across the surface.  The man couldn’t believe his eyes.  When he got back into town, he rounded up his hunting buddies.  He could hardly contain himself.  “Just wait till you see this new dog.  You won’t believe it.”  He piled them all into the back of his pickup and drove them out to the lake.  They hid in the blind, and before long a flock of ducks flew over.  The man shot, one went down, and he sent his dog to get it.  The dog bounded out onto the water, ran over the top of it, and was back in the blind with the duck in less than a minute.  “What do you think of that?” the man asked his friends.  One of the friends said, “I don’t blame you for being so worked up. I’d be upset too – pay good money for a dog that can’t even swim.”

       The gospel according to John is filled with stories like that.  Jesus does incredible things, things never seen before, but people who see them completely miss the point.  They’re so used to looking for one thing they can’t see anything else.

       Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine.  It was a sign he is lord over the most basic elements of the earth. To anyone who understood, it meant the creator of heaven and earth himself was in their midst.  But what did people see?  They saw what they were used to seeing.  They assumed that the host had just saved the best wine till the end of the party.

       One time, Jesus fed 5000 people with only five loaves of barley bread and two fish.  For those who understood, it was a sign that Jesus is the bread of life, the one who gives life that never ends.  But what did people see?  They saw a free meal, and when they tracked him down the next day, they weren’t looking for the bread of life.  They were looking for another handout.

       The people in John’s gospel remind me of the dog I used to have.  He loved to chase squirrels. Sometimes if I’d want to get a rise out of him, I’d point to a squirrel in the yard.  “Look, Robbie, there’s a squirrel.”  But he’d just gaze at my finger.  That’s all he saw.  He didn’t understand that he was supposed to look beyond my finger to the squirrel.  I was trying to give him the thrill of a good chase, and he was trying to figure out what’s the big deal about my finger.

       Mary had been watching Jesus.  She had seen his signs.  Recently she had seen Jesus raise her brother Lazarus who had been lying dead in a tomb for four days. People were still talking about it, still trying to figure it out. The religious leaders thought that anyone who could raise a man from the dead was a threat to their power and should be executed. Those who were looking for a revolution saw Jesus as the one who could overthrow the Romans and lead the people to freedom. But Mary got it.  Mary saw beyond the sign.  She saw what Jesus’ miracles had been pointing to.  She saw beyond the obvious to that new creation God promised in Isaiah when God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19) Mary saw that Jesus is the one whom God sent to bring in the new creation. 

Once Mary understood, once she saw beyond the signs, she did something that looked foolish – unless you understand.  She took a pound of pure nard, costly perfume worth a whole year’s wages, and she poured it on Jesus’ feet.  Then she stooped and wiped his feet with her hair. It was her way of showing that everything she had belonged to him. She belonged to him, body and soul.

       Watching this spectacle was Judas. He saw Mary pour the perfume over Jesus’ feet and asked “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 

Judas looked at that puddle of perfume in the middle of the room, its aroma filling the whole house, and he saw all the food it could buy.  He saw food that could be filling empty stomachs, food that could quiet the cries of a starving child, food that could give a destitute widow strength to make it through another day.  What a waste of God-given resources, he thought.  What a foolish waste.

       But whom did Jesus side with? What did he say was right – pouring out a year’s wages’ worth of perfume at his feet or selling it to feed the poor?  What would you say?  Who was right, Mary or Judas? 

It was Mary.  She got it. Jesus praised Mary for her extravagance, for seeing beyond the nuts and bolts practicality of feeding the poor, to the completely transformed creation where poverty and suffering and hunger and sorrow don’t even exist.  She saw that Jesus didn’t come just to feed the poor but to end poverty.  He didn’t come just to heal the sick but to put an end to sickness.  He didn’t come just to make the world a better place but to transform the whole creation.

       Judas’ strategy for fighting poverty is a prescription for frustration.  It’s the same mindset of those communist regimes that poured every resource toward the production of goods. They did away with things they considered irrational frivolities that distracted from the hard work of transforming society.  Worship, Bible study, and prayer were a waste of time. Art had to serve a practical purpose. Instead, everyone had to make a commitment to the five-year plan, the rationally considered, well-developed scheme to end poverty and human need.  And what did such a well-considered, rational plan lead to?  Poverty and deprivation.

       You see, if you carry Judas’ rational mindset to its logical end, you still arrive at the truth Jesus told Judas: “You always have the poor with you.”  No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we give, there will always be poverty and inequality and injustice.  And once you realize, through logical, rational consideration, that you always have the poor with you, where does that leave you?  You either give up in despair and end it all like Judas who hanged himself, or you turn your back on the needs of others  and don’t think of anyone but yourself. 

       Was Jesus being callous?  Was he telling us to turn our backs to the poor?  In the gospel according the Matthew Jesus tells us how we’ll be judged: by what we do to the least of those, Jesus’ brothers and sisters who are hungry and thirsty and in prison.  When Jesus told Judas the poor will be with us always, he was alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11 where God says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” 

       It’s not within the realm of human possibility to end poverty and suffering on our own.  We have to rely on a power that is greater than anything in us.  That power is Jesus Christ.  He understood Mary’s extravagant sacrifice as her anointing of his body for burial. Mary was pointing beyond that room, that dinner party, to the sacrifice Jesus would make in just a few days.  She was pointing to the cross where Jesus put to death the corruption and greed and sin that cause poverty in a world where God has given more than enough for everybody.  Mary was showing us what it takes to feed the poor in such a way that poverty really ends.  It takes more than making a donation to a good cause.  It takes more than giving what we’ve got left over after we’ve paid the bills.  It takes pouring out everything we have and all that we are at the feet of Jesus, giving ourselves as living offerings for him to use in transforming the world.

       When we give ourselves to Jesus as Mary gave herself, we do more for the poor, not less.  We don’t settle for just a year’s worth of wages.  That’s not enough.  We give ourselves and all that we have.  We proclaim the new creation he began on the cross.  When we make an offering on Sunday, we’re not just making a donation but engaging in an act of extravagant praise like Mary’s because with our offering we give ourselves.  When we help the poor and needy, we’re pointing to the one who came to end all poverty and suffering.  We do that when we give backpacks to kids at East York Elementary School.  We travel to North Carolina to help people rebuild their lives after natural disasters.  We welcome refugees who have fled to our country for their lives.  We help fill bags of food for Rise Against Hunger. Some will see what we do a commendable acts of charity, good deeds that make us feel good for having done them.  But to those who have eyes to see, to those who are as astute as Mary, they can see what we do for the poor as signs, signs that point beyond the obvious to someone greater, to Jesus Christ who poured himself out for us. To him be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.

3-31-19 — Is Anyone Listening? — Psalm 142 — Rev. Guy Dunham, guest pastor

Confessions of an Older Son — Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       It’s not easy being an older son.  Being the oldest child means you’re the keeper of the accounts, the one who makes sure things come out even.  Parents are always trying to give younger siblings things you’ve worked hard to earn.  I know.  I’m an older son.

       When I was in elementary school, my parents were strict about bedtime.  It was eight o’clock, no questions asked.  By the time I got to the sixth grade, I could stay up until nine, and on Tuesdays, the night Hogan’s Heroes was on TV, I could stay up until nine thirty.  It was a privilege I had coming to me because of my age.  But it was hard for me to enjoy Tuesday nights because my brother who was seven years younger than I got to stay up with me.  It took me eleven years to earn the right to stay up late, but he got to do it at the age of four.

       Being an older son takes hard work and a sense of responsibility.  Psychologists have discovered that older siblings tend to be high achievers.  We value hard work and determination.  We try hard to please.

       So I identify with the older son in the parable.  The party his father threw for his brother wasn’t fair.  Try to understand how irresponsible the younger brother had been.  He asked his father if he could have his inheritance before his father died – and his father gave it to him.  Imagine how that must have riled the responsible older brother.  Then he didn’t give a thought to his future – didn’t invest any of it, didn’t use it to establish himself in a career.  He completely blew it on a lifestyle that that makes the Kardashians look cheap.  Yes, he finally came to his senses – when he didn’t have any more cash to burn.  He came slinking home with his tail between his legs.  But what does he get for it?  Not even a reprimand.  He gets a party, with music, dancing, and celebration.

The older son had to set things right. “Listen!” he lectured his father.  “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” 

       The older brother was standing up for what was fair and right.  He was protesting a travesty of justice.  Sometimes a person’s true character is revealed by an offhand remark or an unintended action.  We can see what’s really bothering the older brother as he’s returning from the fields.  As he gets near the house, he hears the sound of music and dancing.  But does he quicken his pace to see why everyone is celebrating?  Does he run to find out what good news they’ve heard?  No.   He draws back.  He calls a servant over and asks what’s going on.  Didn’t he trust his father?  Didn’t he have confidence that whatever his father was celebrating was something he could celebrate too?  No.  He had to calculate whether or not his father was doing the right thing.[1]

       So the real issue wasn’t between the two brothers.  When the older brother drew back and hesitated to join his father’s party it was before he knew his brother had returned.  The real issue was between the older brother and the father.  The older brother couldn’t join the father’s celebration until he was sure it met his standards. 

       It wasn’t that the father didn’t love him.  “Son, you are always with me,” the father told him, “and all that is mine is yours.”  That wasn’t enough for the older son.  He also wanted his brother to be excluded.  Unless his brother was excluded, he could not enjoy his father’s blessings.

So who was better off in the end?  The profligate younger son who changed his ways and came back, or the older son who did everything just right but was offended by his father’s outlandish, unquestioning acceptance?  In the end, it was the older son, not the younger one, who was separated from the father.  That’s one of the dangers of staying at home and doing everything right.  If we’re not careful, we start to think God loves us for what we’ve done.  

I heard a story about a woman who died and went to heaven.  When she arrived at the pearly gates, St. Peter met her and told her that admission was based on a point system.  He told her that in order to get into heaven and spend eternity in the loving embrace of God, you had to have 200 points.  Peter asked the woman how many points she had.  She thought to herself, “This should be easy.” 

“Well,” she began, “I taught Sunday school faithfully.” 

“Great,” said Peter.  “That’s worth a point.”

The woman cringed.  “I went to church every Sunday.”

“Excellent,” Peter responded.  “That’s another point.”

The woman was getting worried.  “I cared for my elderly neighbor for years, up until she developed a heart condition and died.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Peter.  That’s worth two points.”

The woman was getting desperate.  “I tithed,” she said.

“One point,” said Peter.

Finally, in desperation, she said, “I’ll never be able to come up with enough points.  It’ll take the grace of God to get in here.”

“That’s 195 points,” cried Peter.  “Welcome.”

One thing that makes it hard for churches to welcome new people, especially people who are different from us, is all the good things we’ve done together.  We gather each week for worship.  We form friendships in our Sunday school classes and fellowship groups.  We take food to Downtown Daily Bread and sing together in the choir. 

But we’ve always got to remember that whatever we do as a church, it’s not for ourselves that we’re worshiping and learning and working.  It’s for God.  God in God’s absolute goodness blesses us when we live for God, but what we do as a church is not about us.  It’s about God, who is always welcoming people home. 

So, we keep those strong bonds we’ve built together.  We hold each other accountable for our journey of faith.  But remember, there are lots of others whom God would welcome into this, God’s church.  God loves that person who comes for the first time, anxious and shy and wondering if she’ll fit in, God loves her just as much as God loves those who have been faithfully here for years.

       Sometimes we act as if God’s love is a limited commodity.  We act as if God is gracious and loving and forgiving to everyone, there won’t be enough love and grace left for us.  But there’s enough.  My parents had enough love for my brother and for me.  It was more important for them to enjoy having the family all together on those Tuesday nights around the TV than to enforce my abstract 11 year old’s view of justice.       The father in the parable had enough love for both his sons, enough that he could celebrate having the family back together without loving the older son any less.  We can’t count or measure God’s love.  There’s more than enough for everybody. 

[1] Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001), p. 67.

3-17-19 — Easter for the Earth — Psalm 24, Romans 8:18-25 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Twice a year, Eastminster has a Celtic Sunday. One feature is that special music that comes from the western edge of Europe. Those Celtic lands, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany in France and Galicia in Spain, have cultures that are shaped by the convergence of land and sea and mountains. And that closeness to nature has also shaped Celtic spirituality. It has given us a rich appreciation for how entwined we human beings are with those forces of nature over which we so little control.

This time of year we can hardly help but notice that there are things going on all around us that remind us of the beauty of God’s creation. We wake up to the sound of birds staking out territory for a new generation. The buds on the trees and the fields showing the faintest tinge of green remind us of God’s never-ending bounty.

       Yet even as this week winter gives way to spring, the earth reminds us that it has another face. It’s not just the sweet, benign provider of hope and inspiration. Spring is a season of extremes. Melting snow and heavy rains make rivers overflow in the Midwest, leading to devastating floods. In Alabama, the change of seasons bred tornadoes that ripped homes from their foundations. New York City is making plans to extend the shoreline of lower Manhattan into the harbor and build a giant berm to keep out the sea as its level rises. Whenever we think we’ve mastered the earth, we’re reminded of just how menacing it can be.

       Since the dawn of time human beings have wrestled with how to relate to the earth that both nurtures us and threatens us. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they encountered the Canaanites who tried to come to terms with the earth by worshiping it. Their gods, the Baals, were deities of fertility whom they thought controlled nature. Those gods were found in the trees and the soil and the rain. They didn’t make any ethical demands of their worshipers such as loving and caring for one another. They just wanted to be appeased. So, without any ethical guidelines the worship of Baal led to immoral acts, such as child sacrifice and orgies at the holy places that involved temple prostitutes. One of the great theological contests of the Old Testament was whether Israel would worship the God who created nature and reigns over it or the false gods who were found in nature and could be manipulated to give favors like rain and good crops.

       So those, like us, who worship the God of Israel, have always had a healthy skepticism about the beauty and the power of nature. Like David who wrote Psalm 8, we see the grandeur and majesty of God spread across the star-spangled night sky. Like the author of Psalm 104, we marvel at how God has ordered the creation to provide for us. But we’ve always been wary of slipping over the line, of going from appreciating nature for what it shows us about God to worshiping nature like the Canaanites did. That’s why some Christians are not just skeptical of the environmental movement but actively opposed to it. They see environmentalism as akin to the worship of nature. And at some level, that concern is justified. How many people do you know who say, “I don’t have to go to church. I worship God in my garden.” Being outdoors in nature can definitely be a spiritual experience, but it can only go so far. Your garden or the beauty of the mountains can reveal the majesty and wonder of God who made them, but they don’t show us anything about the love God showed for us in Christ on the cross. Nature doesn’t tell us anything about how we are to love one another. Nature can’t form us into a community of faith that compels us to care for the poor and the outcast. Nature is an incredible gift of God as far as it goes, but it is no substitute for God.

       Unfortunately, that healthy distinction between God and nature has often led us to act as if it doesn’t really matter how we treat the earth. We read the first chapter of Genesis that tells us how God gave human beings dominion over the earth and told us to subdue it and fill it, and we’ve heard that as license to do with it whatever we want, as if God were saying, “Here, it’s yours. I don’t care what you do with it.” Genesis tells how intimately connected we are to the earth. We were formed from dirt. God told Adam to tend the earth – not to conquer it or ravage it. The third chapter of Genesis tells how the man and the woman overreached their responsibility to care for the earth by eating of the forbidden fruit. That changed their relationship to the earth. They stripped leaves from the fig tree to cover themselves and used the lushness of the garden to hide themselves from God. When God expelled them from Eden, part of their punishment was a changed relationship with the earth. God said to Adam, “Because … you have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

       We still suffer from Adam and Eve’s adversarial relationship with the earth. We mine the earth to bring forth minerals in ways that cause the earth to give us back polluted water and earthquakes caused by fracking. We put chemicals into the soil to make it bring forth more food, and the seas rebel at the runoff from our fields by choking off fisheries because of the runoff. We burn coal to heat our homes, and the polar ice caps melt as a result. It’s right there in Genesis 3. It’s a sign of our separation from God that we treat nature the way we do and that nature repays us for our abuse. And as the population of the Earth approaches 8 billion, we approach a tipping point where we threaten to destroy ourselves along with the planet.

       During this Lenten season, we look forward to Easter. Most of our celebrations at Easter center around what it means for us as human beings. We celebrate that Jesus has conquered the power of death so that we don’t have to fear what happens after we die. We rejoice that he has gone to prepare a place for us, and that we will live eternally with him. But Easter isn’t only about our own spiritual renewal. Jesus’ victory extends beyond the salvation of the human spirit. He brought new life to all creation. There’s something very physical about Easter that has implications for the earth and how we treat it.

       When his disciples saw Jesus on Easter evening in Jerusalem, they thought they were seeing a ghost, a disembodied spirit. They were thinking about Easter the way many people still do. They assumed that Jesus’ spirit had been liberated from his body. That’s a common assumption about the resurrection. People think it’s only spiritual. But Jesus made a point of showing that his body had been raised as well. The flesh and blood that was dead is now alive. “Touch me and see,” he told them, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones.” He showed them his hands and his feet, so they could see that they were the same hands and feet that had been pierced by nails, not some replacement parts. When they still didn’t believe it, he asked them for something to eat. They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it in their presence. Ghosts and disembodied spirits don’t eat. Jesus made the point very clearly: His was a physical resurrection, not just a revival of a spirit.

       That’s what we prepare to celebrate at Easter, a physical resurrection. We proclaim it when we say the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Now, what a resurrection body looks like is a mystery. When we’re buried, our bodies return to dust. When we’re cremated, the molecules that make us up are reduced to ashes. The 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians explores that mystery of our resurrection bodies. Paul compares it to a seed that’s planted in the ground and then sprouts in the spring looking completely different from what was planted. And we’re not given those resurrection bodies right away. When Christ comes again, that’s when we’ll be raised with him and given those new bodies. In the mean time, we are with God in some dimension that’s beyond time and space as we know it, in a place that our limited minds can’t comprehend.

       The promise of the resurrection is that the whole creation will be renewed. Romans 8 said, “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”  The whole creation is in this with us. It longs for redemption just as we do.

       Jesus told his disciples that his death and resurrection fulfilled everything written about him in the Old Testament. Part of that fulfillment is a restored relationship between human beings and the earth. God warned Israel not to worship the earth, but God also commanded them to care for it. Among the laws of Moses was the Sabbath for the land. Just as human beings were commanded to rest every seven days in recognition of their dependence on God for all they had, Israel was to let the earth lie fallow every seventh year so it could have a Sabbath. The earth’s Sabbath was a way not only of replenishing the soil, but also of reminding the Israelites that the earth was theirs to use but not to exploit.

       In the spirit of that earth Sabbath that God commanded Israel to observe, there are things we can do to care for the earth. We can do lots of small things like recycle, drive less, take public transportation more, eat less meat, buy locally grown produce. The Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry puts it like this, “It is not allowable to love the creation according to the purposes one has for it any more than it is allowable to love one’s neighbor in order to borrow his tools.”

       But there’s more to treating the earth with respect than just good care for God’s creation. The way we treat the earth has implications for how we treat other people. Another one of the Old Testament laws was that farmers were not to pick their fields clean of every scrap of the harvest but leave what dropped around the edges for the poor to glean. God intends the earth to provide for them. There are political and moral implications along with our environmental concerns. Democracies that depend on oil to fuel their economies wind up supporting dictators in countries that supply that oil. When tax codes make it more economical for a power plant to emit carbon and mercury and other toxic materials than to make the investment in clean energy, the true cost of pollution is not borne by the shareholders who own the company or the consumers, like you and I, who use the product, but it’s shifted onto those whose lungs are harmed from breathing polluted air. How we treat the earth has implications for how we treat others.

       All this is complex and overwhelming. You can’t help but ask yourself, What difference can I make? But when we care for the earth, when we take steps to live more responsibly and have a smaller impact on the environment, we’re participating in something bigger that’s already begun. We’re bearing witness to Easter. Jesus has renewed us body and soul, and he’s restoring the whole creation with us. The Bible ends with the vision in Revelation of a new heaven and a new earth. That’s the promise of Easter. It’s a promise of new life for you and for me, and it’s a promise for the earth. That’s a truly Celtic way to worship.

3-10-19 — Standing in the Promise — Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Luke 13:31-35 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       We build our lives around promises.  The promises we make to each other are the building blocks of our relationships.  Without promises, we wouldn’t know how to relate to each other.  Promises are what allow us to make plans, to count on the future, to have control over our lives.

       I invite a friend to lunch, and he promises to meet me at twelve.  Because of his promise, I arrange my morning so I’ll be at the restaurant at noon.

       When you take a job, your employer promises to pay you a certain wage, and based on that promise you make other promises: to the bank that you’ll pay the mortgage, to the insurance company that you’ll cover the premiums, to the church that you’ll meet your pledge.

       Two people fall in love and get married, and they promise that they will be faithful to each other in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, till death do they part.

       Sometimes, in spite of their best efforts and most heartfelt intentions, people make promises they just can’t keep.  It began to dawn on me that my father wasn’t perfect when I was small and he promised me we would do something fun together – play ball or go to the zoo or something like that.  A business engagement came up that he couldn’t get out of, so we couldn’t do what we had planned.  There weren’t many promises he didn’t keep, but when I realized he was human, and like the rest of us didn’t have complete control over his life, I could forgive him for the promises he couldn’t keep. 

       The Bible is the book of God’s promises, promises that tell us a lot about God. One of the promises God made was to Abram.  God promised Abram that he would be the father of a great nation and that God would bless the whole earth through Abram’s children.  Now, God made that promise when Abram was 75 years old.  Years later, when Abram was still childless and his wife Sarai was long past the age when she could conceive a child, God spoke to Abram one night and said, “Don’t forget my promise, Abram.”

       “Sure, right,” Abram replied.  “The biological clock has run down, God.”

       God replied, “Go outside and count the stars if you can.  That’s how many descendants you’ll have.  You’ll have so many that they’ll fill this whole land you see before you.  Trust me.”

       “How can I trust you?” Abram asked.  “How will I know you’ll keep your promise?”

       Now, when you and I make promises, we sometimes seal them as a way of showing we intend to keep them.  We do something to show we mean what we say, something that holds us accountable for the promise we’ve made.  Most promises are sealed with our word.  I say I’ll meet you at noon, and you trust my word that I’ll be there.  Some promises we seal with a signature.  You sign a contract, maybe get it sealed by a notary, and it’s a promise that’s enforceable in a court of law.  Some promises we seal with symbols: a couple makes promises to each other in a wedding that they’ll do the best they can to make their marriage work, and they exchange rings as a sign of their promise.

       In the time of Abram the most solemn promises were sealed with a ceremony.  You would kill some of your best livestock, cut them in pieces, and lay the pieces out in two parallel columns.  Then each party in the contract would walk between the pieces of the animals as a way of saying, “If I break my promise, then may what happened to these animals happen to me.”  You backed up your most solemn promises with your life.

       That’s how God sealed the promise to Abram.  When daylight came, God told Abram to get his best livestock and a couple of birds, kill them, cut them up, and lay them out in two parallel lines.  Abram did, then he spent the rest of the day shooing away the hawks and the vultures.  When night came, Abram fell into a deep sleep, a dark and terrifying sleep.  Then he saw a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch – God passing between the pieces – and the voice of God said to him, “Abram, your descendants will fill this land, from the river of Egypt in the west to the Euphrates in the east, the breadth of the world as you know it.”  God sealed the promise with a ceremony that said, “As surely as I live, I will do this.”

       And what was Abram to do in response, this old man who gave up hope of having children years ago?  Abram was to believe.  His side of the promise was to believe God would do as God said.  That’s what was required on his part, to believe.

       Abram never saw the great nation he was promised.  He was never surrounded by dozens of grandchildren.  But he and Sarai did have a son, one son named Isaac.  And Isaac had a son named Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel.  And Israel had twelve sons and a daughter who had more children, until centuries later the descendants of Abram ruled the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates, just as God promised, and spread around the world carrying with them the promises God had made to Abram and his children.  Abram didn’t live to see it, but he believed, and God kept the promise.

       One of Abram’s descendants brought another promise from God.  Jesus came with the promise that God hasn’t forgotten about this world God made.  Jesus promised that death and evil and greed aren’t going to win, that God is preparing the earth to be the kind of place it was created to be, a place of love and peace and gentleness and justice.  But, like Abram, we need some kind of sign, something to seal such an incredible promise.  Like Abram who was aware of his age every time he moved too fast, we have lots of evidence stacked up against the promise Jesus makes, evidence that convinces us of our weakness and our frailty.  Where is this God of love who is supposed to be in control of the universe?  When the doctor tells you you’ve got cancer, when a relationship you’ve nurtured for years falls apart, when children go hungry in a world that has more than enough food to feed every person on the planet, you have to ask God the same question Abram asked, “OK, show me.  How am I supposed to believe your promise?”
       We believe because God sealed the promise to us.  God sealed it with the blood of Jesus Christ who died on the cross.  And there’s only one thing required on our part to receive that promise, to have a place in the new creation God has promised.  That is to believe, to believe that Jesus is the one who brings in this new world order, who died to make it happen, and who rose from the dead to conquer every death-dealing power in the universe.

       What we do with that promise tells us a lot about ourselves.  Not everyone who heard Jesus’ promise believed it.  The Pharisees who warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him didn’t believe him.  It wasn’t because they were bad people that they didn’t believe.  They were fine, upstanding folk.  But they thought that if good were going to triumph, it depended on them.  They believed that if you said the right prayers, made the right sacrifices, performed the right rituals, you might convince God to hurry up and make the world better.  They found Jesus irritating because he said all that’s required of you to have a part in the kingdom of God is to believe.  You can’t earn your way into it.  The Pharisees, who worked so hard at earning their way into heaven, didn’t like to hear that.  They would just as soon Jesus left them alone, so they tried to get him to go away by telling him his life was in danger.  But Jesus didn’t say thank you and run away.  He said, “Go tell that fox Herod he can’t control what I’m doing.  God will do what God will do in God’s own time.”  Herod couldn’t silence Jesus with threats, and the Pharisees couldn’t earn God’s favor with their religion.  To people who want to be in control, who want something more than a promise, Jesus can be something of a nuisance.

       The people of Jerusalem didn’t believe either.  In fact, they didn’t really see the point of the promise.  They didn’t think things were all that bad.  Life was comfortable, and whenever crackpots came along and told them they were making God angry, they ran them out of town.  They were too busy looking out for themselves to worry about anybody else.  They weren’t interested in Jesus’ promise because they already had what they wanted.  Jesus weeps over those who reject his promise.

       But God’s promise doesn’t depend on what we do with it.  God promised to change this world, and God is going to do it whether the Pharisees or the people of Jerusalem, whether you or I, believe it or not.  God made a promise, God sealed it on the cross, and it’s going to happen. 

       In Jesus God has promised to make the world a place of peace and plenty, of joy and love.  We live trusting that the promise is true.  When death looms before us like a great empty void, we know that God has promised us eternal life through Christ.  When it seems wickedness has the upper hand and that honesty, integrity and compassion are foolish, we know that God has promised a new creation where good is rewarded and evil gets what it deserves.  When our prayers don’t seem to go any higher than the ceiling and it’s hard to believe in anything beyond what we can touch and see, we know that God’s promise is more reliable than our good sense. 

We know about God by the promises God makes.  God has promised life, a full, satisfying life, where there is no pain or sadness, where there is no death or crying, life that is not tortured by greed or selfishness or evil. God has made a promise and sealed it with the blood of Christ.  God keeps promises.  Believe it.

3-3-19 — Passing the Mantle — 2 Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Eastminster is the tenth congregation I’ve served as a transitional pastor, and one of the things I’ve valued about interim ministry is seeing how God is at work in the midst of change. Six months ago you said goodbye to Greg as he retired from a long and fruitful ministry, and now you have a Pastor Nominating Committee working to discern the person God is calling to lead you in the years ahead.

       And as a congregation goes through change, each person who is part of the church is dealing with changes as well. That’s part of life. There are students who will be graduating in the spring, facing the big changes of starting college or a job. Some are going through significant changes in employment, some voluntary and some involuntary. Some are facing retirement, a big change in how you’ll use your time and how you’ll define yourself when people ask, “So what do you do?” And all of us who are of a certain age are aware of the change in our bodies, how steps seem to get steeper and the name of the person we just met takes a little longer to pop up in our minds.

       Today’s scripture lessons are about moments of change, points of transition. In the Old Testament lesson Elijah passes the mantle to Elisha to take over as God’s prophet in Israel. In the New Testament lesson Jesus gives three of his disciples some insight into how he is getting ready to change not just their lives but the course of all creation. There are some things those two stories can teach us about how God works through change, in our own lives and in the life of East minster.

       One thing to notice is that those changes are part of an ongoing story. Even though they marked something new, they were rooted in what had happened before.

       You may remember the story in the book of 1 Kings about God speaking to Elijah in a still small voice. Elijah had fled his persecutor Queen Jezebel and gone to a mountain in the wilderness. As he took shelter in a cave, there was a violent wind, a strong earthquake and a raging fire. Then there was a sheer silence, and in the silence God spoke to Elijah. Many sermons and devotionals have been written about how we need to be still and listen for God in silence, and I’ve contributed my share. But when God spoke in the silence, God had a message, and the message was that Elijah was to summon Elisha to carry on the work Elijah had been doing for years. Elisha was to keep on reminding Israel of their covenant with God and calling them back to it. When Elisha had that big change in his life, when he picked up the mantle of Elijah, he was part of that ongoing story of God calling Israel back to himself.

       On the Mount of the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ ministry as something completely new, unlike anything God had ever done. And God was doing a new thing in Jesus, but it was part of what God had been doing since the beginning of time. One of the earliest heresies in the church was the belief that since Jesus has come we have no more use for the Old Testament. Maybe you’ve heard people talk about the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as if they are two different gods. Remember that when Jesus said that he came to fulfill the scriptures, he meant what we call the Old Testament. The two main parts of the Old Testament are the law, which God gave through Moses, and the prophets, of whom Elijah was the greatest. At the Transfiguration, when Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah, he was making it clear that he was part of the ongoing story of God’s dealings with humanity. It was new chapter in that story, a fulfillment of what had gone before, but it was the same God and the same ancient story. That tells us something about how God works amid the changes in our lives. The God who has been with us in the past is the same God who is with us through every change.

       My son went to a university run by the Jesuits. While he was there I became intrigued by some of the spiritual practices taught by that order of Catholic priests. One practice which I’ve found helpful is called the daily examen. It works like this: At the end of each day, or first thing in the morning if you’re too tired to do it at night, you review in your mind the events of the day before. You envision the day like a movie. As you replay the movie in your mind, you notice what you did, what you saw, the people you encountered. As you do, you notice where you encountered God. Perhaps it was in some kindness that you received, some unexpected grace, maybe in a glimpse of beauty like a snowy mountain peak or the song of a bird. Each time you see in your mind’s eye some thing or some event or some person in which you get a glimpse of the work of God’s Spirit, you offer up thanks. You also notice those places where you didn’t see God’s Spirit, perhaps in some harsh words that were exchanged, or a painful loss, or something you saw in the news about human cruelty and injustice. Those things you lift up to God in prayer, asking forgiveness for the times you’ve let God down, help for those ongoing challenges you face, and God’s peace and strength for those places of suffering and need. The practice of a daily examen, where you notice what God has done in the past, helps you to notice God in the day to come.

       When we face change in our life – a new job, relocation, graduation, a loss, retirement – we can look back over our life and notice where God has been. That reminds us that our lives are not a series of disjointed episodes but part of the ongoing story of God’s mighty works.

       Another thing to notice about the stories we read today is that God is giving people a part in that ongoing story. Sometimes when we’re faced with change, we are pretty clear about what we’re leaving behind but we don’t know what to do moving forward. For Elisha the path was pretty clear. By inheriting Elijah’s mantle, he became God’s prophet in Israel. By picking up Elijah’s mantle Elisha took on his work of performing miracles and speaking God’s work of justice and purity to those in power.

       The specifics of what Peter, James and John were supposed to do once they came down from the mountain weren’t so clear. The only instruction they had on the mountain was the voice of God: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.” That instruction was pretty broad. I suspect the disciples eventually found themselves in situations where they wished they had more specific direction on what to do. There have been plenty of times when I would have welcomed clearer instructions about what God wanted me to do. Wouldn’t it be great if God had given a handbook with detailed instruction on parenting that spells out how much time a kid should spend on social media? Or there was a manual for churches that described exactly how to reach out into the community and grow in membership? But the instruction God did give, “Listen to him,” is good no matter how radically things change over 2000 years.

       We may not know where God is leading us until we’ve gotten there. Luke’s gospel says that when Jesus came down from the mountain he turned his face toward Jerusalem. He began his journey to the cross. That’s why he told his disciples to say nothing until he had risen from the dead. They could not understand what Jesus was calling them to do or what the glory of Jesus means until after he had gone through his suffering and his death on the cross.

        For most of my relatively sheltered life I was put off by the way some branches of the Christian church have crucifixes in their sanctuaries, images of Jesus suffering and bleeding on the cross. I much prefer the empty Protestant cross. It’s much cleaner, less gruesome, and after all, Jesus came down from the cross and is no longer there. But as I got more acquainted with some of the communities around the world where people live lives less sheltered from violence and suffering than the places I knew, I became more sympathetic with their focus on Jesus’ suffering, on his blood, and the on adoration of his wounds. For many of those people, violence and suffering and death are part of everyday life, and in that suffering Savior they know that the God of power and might suffers with them. Just because he is risen doesn’t mean he has left them behind. He shares their pain and their tears. In their very weakness they find the strength of God.

The hope of the gospel is that God is alongside us and sweeps us into the glorious work God is doing, the work of bringing the whole creation back to God. As it says in Romans 8, we wait along with the whole creation to be set free from bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. And often it’s in the pain and confusion of life that we’re most likely to encounter God.

       I have a friend who was a lawyer in a job that crushed her spirit. She was an alcoholic and in an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend. She hadn’t set foot in a church in years, but one Easter morning she woke up and something told her to go to church. She called her boyfriend, and there they were on the third row that Easter morning. She heard for the first time in years that story of resurrection and the new creation that Jesus has begun. To make a long story short, she and her boyfriend recommitted their lives to Christ. She used her training as a lawyer to set up a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity building homes for the poor, and through the guidance of the Spirit was led to another career that she found life giving. She started on the road to addiction recovery. She and her boyfriend realized that they were not meant for each other and moved on to other relationships. Recently she retired and can look back over the last 30 years and see how God has directed her, but when she walked into that church on Easter morning, she had no idea where that decision would take her.

       Our lives, and the life of the church, belong to Jesus. We know that the one who has been with us so far is with us now. We know that we are given a place in the work God is doing to bring peace and justice and goodness to all creation, whether that’s our classroom, the work place, or the hospital room. On the cross Jesus shows us that we matter to God. What we do matters, and one day we can look back and see where God has brought us. And we’ll know that the place he’s brought us is where we are supposed to be, in the presence of God who is with us, just as God has been all along.

2-24-19 — Uncommon Sense — Luke 6:27-36 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Really? Do you think Jesus really means for us to do all those things?

       I made a list of objections to what he said in this passage, and the list took up a whole page.

       -Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Enemies are those who want to harm you. Why would you want to do them good? It makes you look weak and encourages them to keep doing you harm.

       -Bless those who curse you. That is an affront to our honor. When someone cuts me off in traffic, that’s an insult, and I want to use that modern curse, my horn, to lay into them. What am I supposed to do when someone drives by me and makes an obscene gesture? Smile and say “Bless you”?

       -If we turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, how can there be peace and order in society? People who strike out at others have to know that they’ll suffer for it or they’ll keep striking us.

       -“Give to everyone who begs from you.” There are signs posted in downtown Lancaster asking you not to give to beggars on the street because it only enables dependence.

       -What about letting people take our property? Where would the rule of law if we couldn’t be assured of property rights?

       -Lend without expecting anything in return. How many bankers would do that? It would undermine the whole basis of our economy.

       Just imagine what it would be like if you took Jesus seriously. All those things that he tells us to do go against what we think is natural and right. It makes no sense at all.

       That’s why the older son in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was so upset. You remember the story. His younger brother had asked their father to give him whatever money he was going to inherit and then he went off and squandered it in loose living. Then he had the nerve to return home, and rather than making him pay for wasting all that money, the father welcomed him with open arms and killed the fatted calf. That appalled the older son who had done everything right and never received so much as a goat to roast so he could have a party with his friends. It was a travesty of justice that the father did not treat his sons as they deserved to be treated.

       But that’s the point. Those who follow Jesus don’t treat others the way they deserve to be treated. We treat others the way God treats us. Jesus calls God Father, and good parentsdon’t treat their children the way their children treat them.

       Imagine what it would be like if parents treated their children the way they were treated. When my children were infants and woke me up at 2:00 a.m. to face smelly diapers and screaming demands to hold them or feed them, totally oblivious to my needs, there were moments when I wanted to treat them the way they were treating me. Fortunately, there are laws that keep us from doing that.

       As children grow up, parents expect them to do what they’re is told, and there’s nothing that makes parents angrier than when a child is outright disobedient. But if a child sneaks some screen time after the parent has told her to put the device away, or snitches a cookie after being told not to have one before dinner, what parent is going to stop loving the child? The parent will be mad and discipline the child, but still  do everything in her or his power for the good of the child.

       And what if a parent’s love depended on the child’s love being returned? How would we have survived adolescence if the love of our parents had depended on the way we treated them? There’s a book by Eugene Peterson called Like Dew Your Youth that I recommend for parents of teens. Peterson encourages parents not to think of their children’s adolescence as something like the flu that will eventually go away, but instead to think of that time of life as God’s way of deepening your understanding of how strongly God loves us. Parents of teenagers develop an appreciation for what it must be like for God when we totally ignore God, live as if God didn’t exist, and treat God as if every blessing we receive is an entitlement rather than a gift of grace that springs from love.

       Treating our family the way God treats us is a wonderful thing, and would that all families treated each other that way. There are some for whom God the father is not a helpful image.  The way their fathers treated them was cruel and abusive, anything but the way God treats us. Thankfully, there are many other images in the Bible that help us think about God: a mother hen that gathers her chicks, a kind shepherd, a strong fortress. But if we want a standard for how parents should relate to their children, God’s example is the one for us to follow.

       Yet, loving your family is not what sets Jesus’ followers apart from anybody else. The Corleone family in The Godfather movies loved each other. They were criminals, but they loyal to each other and would do anything for members of their family. What makes the Jesus’ followers different is that they treat all people with love. The way God treats us is not just the model for how we treat our friends and family, it’s the model for how we treat everyone. The Golden Rule is all inclusive: “Do to others” – not just those you love –  “as you would have them do to you.” 

       Being merciful like God and treating others as we would be treated is not easy. It’s not something we can do with the flip of some internal switch. All those things Jesus tells us to do don’t come naturally to us. They’re not human nature. It’s only when our nature is changed do they make sense. On the cross Jesus reoriented the way we see things. He gives us different standards for how we relate with other people. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God showed that love is more powerful than hate, prayer more effective than abuse, forgiveness mightier than condemnation. Jesus reorients us so that we see everything in this new way. When we belong to him, we are transformed so that his new way of life makes perfect sense.

       Even with that transformed nature, even when we are a new person in Christ, it takes patience and practice to live as children of God. Forgiveness doesn’t always come quickly and easily. It often takes time to let the Holy Spirit work through us before we are ready and able to be merciful and treat others as God treats us.

       In 1987 Terry Waite was in Beirut as an envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury trying to bring peace among the warring factions of Lebanon. He was kidnapped by a radical Shiite group backed by Iran and held captive for five years. During the first year he was tortured and subjected to mock executions. For most of his captivity he was in solitary confinement. During his captivity, the Spirit of Christ worked in his heart. He developed a deep empathy with those who have no control over their lives, especially the victims of violence and war who are confined to the refugee camps he had visited in the course of his work for the church. He experienced what it is like to live year after year without control of your own life, to have every day determined by the power of others. When he was finally released after five years, he could have let bitterness control him and dedicated his life to seeking revenge for all the wrong that was done to him. Instead he devoted his life to reconciliation and peace. It took a long time for him to readjust. He had to work through his nightmares and relearn how to interact with his family. But for the next 20 years, through his writing and his teaching, he bore witness to a power that had sustained him in captivity and that continues to sustain him. It’s a power that is stronger than hatred or revenge. He was free from the burden of having to sit in judgment on those who had harmed him because he knew that God judges us all, and God is just and fair.

       Then in 2012 he knew it was time to face those who had done him so much wrong. He returned to Beirut and met with leaders of Hezbollah. They gave him a warm welcome, but denied that they had been his kidnappers. Waite wasn’t there to settle scores. He was there to exercise forgiveness, just as he knew God had forgiven him in Christ. While he was there, his former captives asked what they could do for him now, and he asked if they could use their influence to get supplies to refugees in Syria that he had visited on his way to Beirut.

       Did that encounter make up for the five years that his captors had taken from his life? No. Did it bring peace to the Middle East? Not really. But it showed that there’s more going on than what we hear about in the headlines, something like a grain of mustard seed that is small and grows in due time, like leaven in a loaf of bread that is hidden but works imperceptibly to change everything.

       Don’t let anyone deceive you into thinking that living the way Jesus tells his followers to live is easy. It takes discernment and wisdom to know if giving a dollar to that panhandler is really helping him or if would be better to give that dollar to the Rescue Mission to help get him off the street. There are times when we need to support our government when it wages war against enemies, but we do it not with triumphant glory but with a certain sadness that we are still so far from the reign of the Prince of Peace where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. That’s why we need the community of the church, the family of faith, to help us discern how we live as children of God in an imperfect world.

       What Jesus tells us defies what passes for common sense. Following him is not just sitting back and letting whatever happens happen. It’s not ignoring wrong and injustice and abuse. Following Jesus means being proactive in love, preemptive in grace. It means wielding the most powerful force in the universe, the power of God who raised Jesus from the power of death. To most people that makes no sense at all. To those who are children of God that makes uncommon sense.

2-17-19 — The World Turned Upside Down — Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Did they laugh?  Did they shake their heads in disbelief?

       Try to imagine what Jesus’ disciples expected to hear as they gathered around.  Matthew sets the stage: “His fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.  And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (Matthew 4:24-25) Something extraordinary was happening, and you can only imagine the elation his disciples felt.  They had cast their lot with Jesus, and it sure looked like their decision was paying off.  Now Jesus took the twelve aside to instruct them about what it takes to get ahead in this kingdom he was ushering in.

       “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he told them.  “Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  Jesus took everything they valued and turned it on its head.  We’ve heard these words so often that they’ve lost some of their punch.  But think about them.  They go against many of the things we value most.

       And what do we value?  If you watched the Super Bowl ads, you saw. Who doesn’t want to live the life they portray?  They appeal to our desire to be at the top of our profession – which we can achieve if we use the right office supply company.  They mirror our longing for a life that is carefree, fun and easy – which comes with drinking the right beer or taking the right pill.  They tap our desire to be free to do as we please and go where we want – and we can go in style with the right car.  They touch our concern for our future and the security of our families – which the right insurance company will help us achieve.  Those things are important to us.  But Jesus doesn’t offer help with any of those things.  He doesn’t offer success or fun or style or financial security.  He says those who are blessed are those who are poor in spirit and meek and mourning and persecuted.  He turns everything upside down.

       Carol and I always enjoy reading our friends’ Christmas letters.  We enjoy hearing about the things that gave them joy over the past year and the challenges they faced. One friend related a number of difficulties his family had during the year – the death of some relatives, some challenges in their jobs, that sort of thing.  He ended that paragraph of the letter by saying, “But we have our health, and that is the most important thing.”  I said to myself, “Yes, yes,” as I nodded my head in assent, but then I thought, “Wait a minute.  Is it really?  Is our health really the most important thing?”  I thought of some of the people who have taught me the most about life and faith and what is really important, and so many of them have taught me from a hospital bed or a room in a nursing home.  I remember one man, John, whom I visited in the hospice wing of a medical center.  John gave me lessons in how to die and how to live.  We would talk about his life, his failures and his triumphs, and he valued them all.  He could talk about his life with deep gratitude for all he had experienced and all he had learned.  He was sad to be leaving his family, but he was confident he could entrust them to God.  John was teaching me about what was really important.  He was ready for what came next and trusted that the one who blessed him in this life would be faithful in whatever came next.  John didn’t have his health but he was blessed.  He blessed me.

       Just think about it.  It’s those times we’re stripped bare of those things we’ve built our security on that we’re most likely to be filled with the power of God.  One of the most memorable worship services I’ve ever been to was the one I attended in Akobo, Sudan.  It was in the finest building in the village, a long cinderblock building with a corrugated tin roof and a dirt floor.  There were chairs in the front for those of us who led worship, but the congregation sat on the dirt floor – infants and elderly side by side.  Before we went into the service, my host, a Canadian missionary, slipped me a bar of soap to put in the offering plate.  When he saw my puzzled look, he explained that no one had money.  It was useless out there in the bush. When the offering was collected, the worshipers gave what they had: a cup of grain, a hunk of cheese, bars of soap.  Later these were distributed to those who had the least.  The music for the service was led by a blind boy who played a stringed instrument made from a giant tortoise shell.  The worshipers sang and sang and sang.  After the service was over, groups gathered in the dusty courtyard outside the church to sing some more.  They were poor.  The government in Khartoum was persecuting them for their faith.  They were blessed.

       Barbara Brown Taylor, a noted preacher from Georgia, says that when she was little she liked standing on her head.  “…By standing on my head I could liven things up a little.  Grass hung in front of my eyes like a green fringe.  Trees grew down, not up, and the sky was a blue lawn that went on forever.  For as long as I kept my balance I could tap dance on it, while birds and clouds flew under my feet….  My house seemed in danger of falling off the yard – just shooting off into space like a rocket…  I liked standing on my head because it made me see old things in a new way.  I liked it because it made life seem exciting and unpredictable.  In a world where trees grew down and houses might fall up, anything seemed possible.”[1]

       Jesus shows us a world where anything is possible.  Once some disciples of John the Baptist came to him and asked if he was the one from God for whom they were waiting or if they should keep waiting for someone else.  Jesus told them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:2-6) Anything is possible when Jesus turns the world upside down.

       His Sermon on the Mount, which begins with these beatitudes, is Jesus’ inaugural address, his state of the union message that describes how things are and what we can expect in this new world he introduces.  And everything is upside down:

       -Instead of getting ahead by accumulating accomplishments and accolades, you get ahead in this realm by emptying yourself completely so he can fill you.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

       -Instead of finding comfort and satisfaction by escaping from the world’s hurt, you go out and find the poor, the sick, the homeless and the outcast.  Your heart breaks every time you see a homeless person on the street, with every report of a new death in Syria, every time a friend tells you her child is in trouble.  Your heart is continually breaking, but breaking open to God and to others and to the power of grace and love that is the healing balm for all the world.[2]  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

       -Those who inherit the earth are not those who conquer it and exploit it and make huge profits from it.  Those to whom God will give the earth in all its pristine glory are those who are meek, those who don’t try to overcome the world but who let God care for the world through them. 

       -Those who will be vindicated won’t be those who stand up for their rights as Christians, who go to court to demand equal time in the public square, or who make the headlines because they insist that their prayers be heard in public.  No, it’s those who are persecuted that receive the kingdom, not those who try to force the kingdom on others.  It is those who will be satisfied.

       There’s more, but you get the idea.  It’s the merciful who are blessed, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for Jesus. 

       A minister friend of mine has a prayer hanging in his study.  It was allegedly found on the body of a Confederate soldier at Gettysburg. 

       “I asked God for strength that I might achieve;

              I was made weak, that I might learn to

humbly obey.

       I asked for health, that I might do great things;

              I was given infirmity, that I might do better


       I asked for riches, that I might be happy;

              I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

       I asked for power, that I might have the praise of


I was given weakness, that I might feel the

need of God.

       I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;

              I was given life, that I might enjoy all


       I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped


       Despite myself, my unspoken prayers were


       And I am, among men, most richly blessed.”

       May God bless you, and turn your world upside down.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 145.

[2] Ibid, p. xi.

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.