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10-4-20 — Building With Stone — Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Building with Stone

Isaiah 5:1-7

Matthew 21:33-46



In the early 1980’s the King of Jordan Hussein bin Talal, was informed by his security police that a group of 75 Jordanian army officers were at that moment meeting in a barracks, plotting to overthrow him. The security officers were requesting permission to storm the barracks and arrest the plotters. The king paused and said bring me a small helicopter. The king climbed into the helicopter and they flew to the barracks landing on the roof. The king told the pilot, “if you hear gun shots, fly away at once without me.” The king completely unarmed and without security walked down two flights of stairs and appeared in the room.

He said to them. “Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that you are meeting here tonight to finalize your plans to overthrow the government, take over the country and install a military dictator. If you do this, the army will break apart and the country will be plunged into civil war. Tens of thousands of innocent people will die. There is no need for this. Here I am! Kill me and proceed. That way, only one man will die.

The men stood in stunned silence. They all reaffirmed their allegiance to their king and their country. This was an act of total vulnerability that appealed to their sense of Honor.

In our texts today, we hear two stories about vineyards. The first from Isaiah is a fascinating piece of poetry. The prophet begins by proposing to sing a song. The song begins as a traditional piece of poetry, utilizing the image of a vineyard. The vineyard has not yielded what was expected. It has yield wild grapes, not what was sown or painstakingly cared for. The prophet makes clear this is not a song to a beloved but a moment of judgement. God has cared deeply for this vineyard and God expected justice but saw bloodshed. God longed for righteousness, but instead heard the cries of those in need.

Jesus is in the temple, just a paragraph or two before Jesus has cleared the temple driving out the money changers.  Commanding authority over the temple. The chief priests and elders are gathered around him. They question him, asking on what authority he has done these things. Which honestly feels like a pretty controlled response if you consider his actions the day before.  Jesus responds with his own question, wanting to know if John’s baptism was from God or human origin. These leaders are caught, they can’t respond.

Jesus begins with two parables. The first parable is much shorter. A man had two sons, he said to the first son “Go and work in the vineyard today” the son answered, ‘I will not’. But later that son changed his mind and went work. The father asked the second son the same question and he answered, ‘I will go father’; but he never went. Jesus asks them who did the will of the Father. They respond that the first did the will of the Father. Jesus always one to make friends, lets them know the outcasts of the culture will make into in the kingdom before they will, because they heard God’s call in John’s baptism.

If that wasn’t enough he begins with second parable. A landowner plants a vineyard and then puts a fence around it, digs a wine press, and builds a watch tower.  The landowner leases the land and moves out of town. As the harvest rolls around. The landowner sends slaves to collect his portion of the produce. But the tenants abuse the slaves, beating one, killing one, and stoning another. This very patient landlord sends another round of slaves. The results are the same. Finally, this landlord sends his son, thinking surely, they will respect my son. The tenants consider this as an opportunity to kill the landowner’s heir, so they seize him and kill him. This response from the tenants isn’t as shocking as it sounds, the common understanding of the law at this time was “possession is determined by occupancy”. They occupy the land and want to own it. Jesus raises the question what should be done with these tenants? The crowd answers that they should be put to death and new loyal tenants should be given the lease.

One scholar listed twelve different reading of this parable. You can concentrate on the behavior of the tenants and see how badly they have acted, rejecting messenger after messenger. Committing violence against the landowner. You can also concentrate on the behavior of the landowner. In the Isaiah passage, the landowner allows vineyard to be overtaken and destroyed, but in Matthew the response is very different. The landowner shows a tremendous amount of trust, traveling to another country allowing the tenants the freedom work the land. Their response to his trust is violence. The landlord could have responded to their violence with even further violence.   But instead he gives them chance after chance. If you are the landlord what are you to do? The landlord has the right to contact the authorities who at his request will send a heavily armed company of men to storm the vineyard. The landlord has the right to be angry, they murdered his servants, his son. He is in a position of power but will he allow their violence to dictate his own response? No; perpetually the owner acts in a way we would not expect or predict. In fact the owner gives up his rights. One commentator described the behavior of the landlord as “Halim.” This Arabic word has no English equivalent, but it is an act of patience, longsuffering, risk-taking, compassionate, self-emptying. This owner has the right and the power yet the owner endures.[1]

In his book Welcome Home, Alan Gram, founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, an organization that shares the love of God with those experiencing homelessness, tells the story of Danny. Danny had a successful carpet cleaning and installation business, then through a series events ended up on the street. First he was living out of his car and then when his car died, he was living in a tent. Danny is a Vietnam veteran and said he had never been that scared as the first night he spent on the street. Danny thought, “I just need a job.” Over his 15-year career he had helped several guys start their own business, adjusting their hours so they could save money and start their carpet cleaning business. Danny was proud of the way he had helped people and thought surely one of these guys will help him. But no one would help him.  Danny fell into a depression that quickly morphed into a drug addiction. A couple of street friends eventually helped him sober up. Danny made it his life’s work to show compassion to others. When Texas experienced a hurricane, people on the streets lost literally everything. He worked with a non-profit to start a FEMA like response unit that would care for those experiencing homelessness after a disaster. If he had money, he would share it with those who had less. He became known as preacher, not so much because of his words, but because of his actions.  One night while living in a camp he knocked on his neighbors’ tent. Saying: “Claire, y home?” She was asleep and wasn’t thrilled about being woken up. A few hours later around 4am he heard “Dan! Dan! Wake up!” He woke up startled and said, “Yes, Claire, I’m awake.” Claire responded, “Good now don’t ever bother me again!”  Danny waited a few moments and said “Claire.” Are you serious? What do you want now? You hungry?” “Yeah, so what? I ain’t got no money.” Dan said, “I’ll buy you breakfast! Let’s go.” She was blown away by the response. They sat at Denny’s and had a Grand Slam.  This act of compassion from Dan helped eventually lead Claire to a new life. Just like an act of compassion led Dan to a new life.  [2]

On this day as we unite with the world in communion we should focus on the character of the owner of the vineyard, on God. God whose love for us is endless, on God whose love for us is unchanging, God who shows us compassion after compassion, even while we rebel against God.


[1] Bailey, Ken Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, pg 410

[2] Alan Graham, Welcome Home. Pg 67

9-27-20 — The Way — Matthew 22:34-40 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

The Way                                           


In his book Dangerous Wonder Mike Yaconelli, one of the fathers of modern Youth Ministry shares a story about how he worked hard to fulfill the command of loving his neighbor. They had just moved into the neighborhood in a very small town. The neighbors had heard Mike was a pastor and kept their distance.  They would wave on occasion but generally avoided them. One night Mike was sitting outside with his wife Karla on the deck. It was about ten o’clock at night and the teenage boys next door were playing basketball and it was getting a little loud. Their parents were clearly out for the night because one of the boys had parked the truck on the front lawn and was blasting music from the truck. Mike thought this was funny and decided to add a little more life to the evening. He looked at his wife and said “July Fourth was two weeks ago,” She responded “Glad to see you are in the same month as the rest of us.”  He said, “No, no. I mean I have a few fireworks left. Do you want to throw a firecracker over the fence and see what happens.” She looked at him sternly. “Are you serious?” With a mischievous smile Mike said “Yes”.  They threw a firecracker over the fence. Then ran behind the tree. No response. So, Mike lit a string of firecrackers and tossed them over the fence, being careful to avoid anyone. Bang! Bang-bang-bang-bang! Suddenly the music stopped. Mike and Karla could hear whispering; the boys were trying to figure out what was going on. Mike and Karla stayed hiding behind the trees. Suddenly they saw several flashlights coming into the yard. One of the boys said it must be Jessica or Jonathan (Mike and Karla’s kids). Mike and Karla stood watching from the behind the tree, when suddenly one of the boys caught sight of them. He stood there for moment mouth hanging open, processing what he was seeing. Suddenly he yelled, “Oh my gosh! It’s the parents!” Ten minutes later Mike and Karla looked out the window and the boys were lobbing toilet paper over the house. Mike and Karla filled up some water guns and water balloons and responded.  Needless to say, the neighbors stopped avoiding Mike and Karla and they were able they were able to demonstrate the love of God to them.[1]

Our new testament passage is a familiar story and familiar setup. The Pharisees are trying to debate Jesus. They had heard how he had silenced the Sadducees and wanted to test him. They ask him what the greatest commandment is. There were 613 commandments for him to choose from. This would have been a very safe answer, most would have agreed with Jesus’s interpretation. In fact, this commandment is part of the Shema; a prayer that is prayed twice daily by devout Jews worldwide.

Jesus says the command to Love God and neighbor is the key to understanding the law and the prophets, and I would argue it is the key to understanding all of life. When framed this way we can see how challenging it is. A challenge to love God with our heart, mind, and soul! A challenge to love our neighbor in the same way. We are living in a moment when it seems common civility has been thrown out the window. Just the other day I was driving down route 30 coming home to York from visiting with family and a car pulled in front of me. It was covered in stickers, and one in particular caught my eye; it was the image of hand with one finger extended. Talk about first impressions. The outrage machine rewards the loudest and most outlandish comments. But in the midst of this, God calls us to love. Love is the call, Love is the challenge, Love is the key to navigating this world.

At times it may be frustrating to wear a mask when in public, but it is a way we can show our love toward the most vulnerable among us.

We may not understand institutional racism or how it has affected and shaped the world around us. We may not understand the experience that someone else has lived, but we are called to love. And that love should push us toward action.

We may not have experienced hunger or poverty, but we are called to Love. And that love should push us toward action.

We may not understand what it is like to fear for our own safety or to flee an unjust society. But we are called. And that love should push us toward action.

Love is the guiding principal; Love is an invitation to a new way of life in which, bit by bit, hatred and pride can be left behind, and love should become our new reality. Love is a call from God to strive for Justice and Unity to show the world a better way. That we can silence the outrage machine and love one another.

As I part of this sermon, I want to offer to you a tool that I have found helpful over the years in my spiritual journey. Jared Boyd wrote a book called Imaginative prayer: Year Long Guide to Your Child’s Spiritual Formation. In this book participants are invited to imagine the words of the prayer and place themselves in the middle the prayer. While this a book written for children, this is an exercise we can all benefit from.  In a moment you will want to get into a position that is pretty comfortable for you. Then I am going to invite you to close your eyes, yes this is dangerous on wet Sunday morning. But I want you to breathe slowly and imagine with me.  There will be several pauses or moments of silence in this prayer, I would invite you to embrace that silence and allow God to fill you…

Close your eyes and let’s take a few breaths and focus.

God, I pray that you will release our imagination and help us to hear you speak to us during this time together. We open our hands to you. We open our ears to you. Come, Holy Spirit.  Breathe in the Spirit and exhale the love of God.


(pause 8-10 seconds)


Imagine with me for a moment that you are part of a club.


(pause 5 seconds)


Imagine you are part of a club, but it isn’t a secret club—it’s a club anyone can join. There are no secret passwords. There are no secret handshakes. There are no secret knocks on the door of a treehouse. Everyone is welcome.


There are no special things for you to buy to be a part of this club. There are no monthly dues to pay.


Imagine you are at a club meeting when a discussion is going on about how to let people know that you are part of the club. Some people suggest that everyone wear green scarves. Imagine being in a club where everyone had to wear a green scarf. Imagine yourself wearing a green scarf.


Everyone decides that this is a fun idea, but some decide that scarfs are not the best, some suggest hats, or necklaces, or bracelets.


What do you think should be the thing that sets your special club apart? What do you think club members should do to let everyone else know that you are part of this special club?


(pause 5-8 seconds)


Do you think it should be about something you wear? Or maybe it should be something that you all do? Perhaps you could all learn the same dance or have a special song that everyone sings.


Imagine with me that someone has drawn a picture of a button. Imagine this person wants everyone to wear a button on their shirt to let everyone else know that they are a part of the club. This is another good idea, but there still is something missing. It just doesn’t seem to fit.


Some people want to create a list of rules for the club. They want to say that members of the club can’t wear the color orange, for example. One person wants all the members of the club to only eat with their hands—no forks, no knives, no spoons. Just hands.


What would you suggest?


(pause 5-8 seconds)


Imagine now that someone stands up in front of everyone else. You are curious what this person might say, and you are curious because this is the leader of the club. This is the person who started the club in the first place.


Everyone is quiet and silent, waiting for the leader of the club to speak.


(pause 5 seconds)


The leader begins to speak:  “I know that many of you are wondering what sort of button or special handshake we might have for our club. I too have been thinking about this—and I have an idea.


“What if people could know we all belong together and are all a part of the same club simply because of our love?  What if we loved each other so well that people would notice? What if when people saw us loving each other, they would know that we are members of the club?”


Think about this for a moment. What would it feel like to be a part of a club where the special thing that held you all together was your love?


(pause 5-8 seconds)


Everyone in the club is thinking about this suggestion. The people take off their hats. The people with scarves take off their scarves. The people making buttons set down their art supplies. Everyone is listening to the leader who begins to speak again. “Imagine if all of us simply love each other so well that people will want to join the club. Imagine if we welcomed everyone.”


(pause 5 seconds)


That love becomes your badge of membership.


You see people around you serving each other, helping, and saying nice things about each other.


This is the command that Jesus gave us when he invited us all to follow him.


He said:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’


Love looks like being patient and kind and not making a list of people’s mistakes.


Love looks like inviting people who may be left out.


Love looks like taking care of people when they need help.


We love others with the love that God pours into us.


People will know that we are followers of Jesus because of our love for each other.[2]



[1] Yaconelli, Mike, Dangerous Wonder, The Adventure of Childlike Faith, NavPress, pg. 69-70

[2] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation . InterVarsity Press. Pg. 108-111.


9-20-20 — The Resurrection and the Life — Ezekiel 37: 1-10, John 11:17-27 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

The Resurrection and the Life

Ezekiel 37:1-10

John 11:17-27



It was a great first week in the office. I learned a few things already. I learned that we have some truly wonderful amazing volunteers. I looked out my office window on Monday morning and saw people working to beautify the campus, and throughout the week I saw faithful groups of volunteers go about the business of the church both in person and on zoom.  I also learned how truly wonderful the staff is at EPC. It has been a joy getting to know them and spending time with them this week.

One of things that is fascinating about our call process is you get to know a small group from a church very well, but you really don’t know anyone else. In an effort to get to know everyone better I hope to do two things the first is to have something called Tree Chats. This will be an informal opportunity to chat and get to know folks. We will meet here under the trees as well as on Zoom. There will be several different times offered and folks will need to sign-up so we can keep the groups small. We will have sign-up information out next week. The second is over the next the two weeks I hope to share with you to share with you two themes of scripture that are close to my heart and central to how understand the gospel and the world. Hearing these themes will give you a glimpse into my own journey that has led me to this moment.

In his memoir called “the Pastor”. Eugene Peterson tells a story about his son coming home from college. His son, Leif was sharing with his father what he had learned over the last year, and one of things he said was that “Dad, novelists only write one book. They find their voice, their book. And write it over and over.” Several days later, Leif said to his father, “Remember what I said about novelists writing only one book? Dad I have realized you only preach one sermon.” Eugene Peterson was hurt by this comment. He didn’t repeat himself in the pulpit. He preached through the entirety of the Scriptures, handling different genres, different modes of application to his people. One Sunday morning, though, after hearing his father preach, Leif said, “Well, Dad, that was your sermon. I’ve been listening to that sermon all of my life, your one sermon, your signature sermon.” Leif went on to say, it was so hard to find a church near his college town. “Most of those other pastors had not yet found their sermon. ”[1] While I would never compare myself to Eugene Peterson, I think his son makes a point. Eugene Peterson worked his entire life to share the story of Jesus, to share his awe of Jesus. I hope this is the story that my children hear, my church hears, and the strangers I meet hear. The story of Jesus.

We enter into a familiar text in the book of John. Jesus had been traveling and his friend Lazarus has died. Jesus goes back to the family but is not in any sort of obvious hurry. Martha rushes to confront Jesus while Mary stays at home. Many of us are like that at times, rushing off to confront God. If only you had been here my brother may not have died. What “if only” statements do you need to express to God?  “ if only” they hadn’t gotten sick, “if only” that job had worked out… “if only” fill in your blank…. Know that when you ask these questions you are in good company.  Our psalms are filled with these moments where God is invited into our pain.

Jesus invites Martha to try something different to look to the future. To see her brother through the eyes of Isaiah chapter 65, “ For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people, no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.”[2] Martha’s response to Jesus is very flat, she is not feeling comforted by this moment.  Jesus invites her forward. The new creation is standing in front of her moving from the end of all time to that moment and he invites her to recognize it. Jesus says to her “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Resurrection isn’t just a doctrine the Church teaches –resurrection is a lived-out reality. Resurrection is the understanding that God always has the final word. Resurrection is the understanding that God may surprise us in the midst of difficult circumstances. Resurrection is the understanding that what causes us to weep, causes God to weep; it is the understanding that people can change, that addictions can be managed, that new starts can be had. We are invited to this lived reality. How will you accept Jesus’ invitation to see and live the resurrection?

It goes without saying we are living in unprecedented times. The larger Church and EPC is navigating difficult cultural and societal landscapes as we live through another divisive election season and as we continue to navigate this pandemic. Moments like these should draw us together and remind us how much we need one another. Several years ago, I took a group of kids on a week of high adventure. We went caving, repelling, mountain biking, it was an amazing trip and toward the end of the week we went white-water rafting. We were in our rafts going down the river. It was beautiful, fun, and exciting but part way down the river we came to a series of rocks that were very difficult to navigate. I was in the front of the raft. If you have never been white water rafting, they tell you if a corner of the boats hits a rock and starts to pop up, jump on it.  As we entered the rapid you need to zig zag and start by paddling to the left and then almost immediately start paddling to the right. We made it past the first rock but some members on the boat missed the fact that we needed to change directions and were actually paddling the wrong direction, we hit a rock, and the boat started to pop up. I jumped at the corner of where we struck the rock.  It also happened to be the location of one of my students. I think she was a little frightened at the sight of her youth pastor jumping toward her, and rather than help me, she shoved me out of the boat into the river. Needless to say, the raft flipped over. I remember panicking and counting heads, and what I saw was truly heartening — all the kids were helping each other, reminding each other to pull up their feet and float with the river; not to fight but to allow it to take you and avoid the rocks. They worked hard to stay together and when we were clear of the rapids we collected our raft, our pride, and climbed back in and worked together as a team to navigate rapids. Suddenly we all understood how critical it was to work together.

This is our call as a church to see and live the resurrection and work together to be faithful to that call from Jesus. To navigate the difficult waters we are presented with, to not put our feet down and get pulled under, but to work together to see where God will take us. I am excited to be on this journey with you!




[2] Isaiah 65:17-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Easter Sunday Online Service


Service for the Lord’s Day

Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020







Prelude                                                   Thine is the Glory                                       arr. Ryan Thomas     


Opening Sentences


Gathering Prayer


Hymn                                              Jesus Christ is Risen Today (vs. 1 and 4)                   Easter Hymn


Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!  Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!

Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!  Suffer to redeem our loss, Alleluia!


Sing we to our God above, Alleluia!  Praise eternal as God’s love, Alleluia!

Praise our God, ye heavenly host, Alleluia!  Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Alleluia!


Confession and Pardon


Response                                    Christ is Risen, Shout Hosanna                            Hymn to Joy


Christ is risen!  Shout Hosanna!  Celebrate this days of days.

Christ is risen!  Hush in wonder.  All creation is amazed.

In the desert all surrounding, see, a spreading tree has grown.

Healing leaves of grace abounding bring a taste of love unknown.




Prayer for Illumination



Old Testament Lesson – Isaiah 25:6-9

New Testament Lesson – John 20:1-18


Sermon     “Called by Name”


Hymn                                              The Day of Resurrection (vs. 1 and 3)                            Lancashire


The day of resurrection!  Earth, tell it out abroad.

The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.

From death to life eternal, from this world to the sky,

Our Christ hath brought us over with hymns of victory.


Now let the heavens be joyful, let earth the song begin.

Let the round world keep triumph and all that is therin.

Let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend.

For Christ the Lord is risen, our joy that hath no end.




Offertory                                           Alleluia, Christ is Risen!                                arr. James Kirby

Sarah Foess – solo



Response                                   Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow                      Doxology


Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Praise Him all creatures here below.  Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.  Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  Amen.



Prayers of Intercession


     Lord’s Prayer




Hymn                                                        Lift High the Cross (vs. 1 and 4)                                Crucifer


REFRAIN – Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim

till all the world adore His sacred name.


Come, Christians, follow where our Savior trod.

The Lamb victorious, Christ the Son of God. (repeat refrain)


So shall our song of triumph ever be.

Praise to the Crucified for victory. (repeat refrain)



Blessing and Charge



Postlude                                                       Prelude in C Major                                            J.S. Bach


Next Sunday, April 19, Dr. Lytch’s sermon is “Easter Rock n’ Roll.”  The scripture text is Acts 5: 12-16.

Called By Name

That first Easter morning, in the twilight of dawn, Mary Magdalene stood before a tomb where she had come to mourn.  Like so many who have been numbed by the death of one they love, she sought comfort in performing the rituals her society prescribed for those who have buried their dead.  The other gospels tell us she had come to anoint Jesus’ body that had been laid to rest in haste before the Sabbath began on Friday evening.  Nowadays we call it settling the estate or cleaning out the closets, but every age has found ways for those who are left behind to do something to deal with their grief, tasks that help ease the pain and begin to adjust to life without the one who gave purpose and meaning.

What a picture of how overwhelming grief is.  When Mary looked into the tomb, she saw two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had lain.  “Woman,” they asked her, “why are you weeping?”  But those messengers from heaven did nothing for her.  “Woman,” they called her.  She didn’t need an impersonal revelation, even from angels.  She needed the one who knew her, the one who understood her better than she understood herself, the one to whom she was not just “woman” but Mary, Mary of Magdala, Mary whose heart and soul longed for Jesus.

Then she saw the man standing there.  He was not dressed in white like an angel from heaven.  There was nothing celestial about his appearance.  She thought he was the gardener, come early on the first day of the week to tend to his springtime chores.  And then he said her name – “Mary.”  That’s when she recognized him.  The Lord said her name, and she believed.

What is it about a name?  A name is the first gift we give a child.  It’s the first thing we share about ourselves when we meet someone new.  Our names carry with them our identity, our history, our heritage.

Things aren’t complete until they have a name.  The first task God gave Adam was naming the animals.  Giving names was part of the work of creation.  When God spoke to Moses in the burning bush, God revealed the divine name.  Before that the Hebrews knew God only as an impersonal force shrouded in mystery.  But when God led God’s people out of slavery, God established an intimate relationship with them, and you can’t have a relationship unless you know someone’s name.  God spoke the name – YHWH, which means, “I am who I am.”

Names have power.  Just think of the power your name carries for you.  When I was in the tenth grade, I tried out for the high school basketball team. I worked all summer and into the fall running, jumping rope, lifting weights, trying to master free throws and the lay ups.  When it came time for tryouts, I made the first two cuts.  Finally the day came when the coach posted the list of those who made the team.  After school I crowded around the bulletin board in the locker room with the other boys, anxiously scanning the list for my name.  I didn’t see it.  I studied it a second time, and a third.  I was devastated.  My name wasn’t there.

Not many of us have heard Jesus call our names the way he called Mary that morning in the garden.  But many of us have heard him calling to us in the depths of our hearts, calling us to a different way of life, calling us from the things that limit us and hold us back from the life he sets before us.  With all the other things calling to us, with all our other commitments and temptations, sometimes it’s hard to recognize the voice of Jesus calling our name above all the other noise that clamors for our attention.

Sometimes it’s in our very longing that he is calling us.  Sometimes Jesus calls to us by stirring up in us dissatisfaction with things the way they are.  He draws us to him by making us long for something we’re not sure how to name.

A few years ago The Wall Street Journal did a profile of Marykay Powell.  She stopped going to church when she left home.  She got a job in the movie industry, and faith and matters of the spirit didn’t seem relevant.  She made it to the top in Hollywood.  She produced movies like Barbarians at the Gate and Harriet the Spy, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  On weekends she would be in a private jet headed for resorts in Mexico or Arizona.  But along the way, unease set in, something she couldn’t put her finger on.  Then it hit her.  “I’m separated from God,” she realized.  It was like a faint call.  She tried a number of different paths to fill her emptiness.  She went to New Age lectures.  She studied the Dalai Lama.  She took courses in Buddhism at UCLA.  Then a religion professor convinced her to join a Bible study he was teaching at a local church.  That was the beginning of her return to Christ.  She didn’t hear Jesus speak her name like he spoke the name of Mary on Easter.  But she felt he knew her, and it was like being recognized by an old friend.  “I’m going to sound nuts,” she said, but it wasn’t until she asked God to forgive her for being away that she was comfortable going back to church again.  “I had to say, ‘Please take me back.  Please help me.’”[1]

Some people think that Jesus would never call their name.  They don’t fit the mold of what they think people Jesus calls are supposed to be like.  Some think that because they haven’t called on the name of Jesus in years he has forgotten their name.  Some think that because they don’t have all the answers to their questions about God or because they don’t know the Bible very well or because they have questions about faith, then Jesus wouldn’t call their name.  Some haven’t lived the kind of life they’re proud for Jesus to see, and they think Jesus would never call the name of someone who has done some of the things they have done.

A few years ago I attended the Midwinter Lectures at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas. I had the privilege of meeting Hans-Richard Nevermann.  He was at the seminary to be honored at the 50th reunion his graduating class.  We spent several hours together over the course of three days, mostly at meal times.  We talked about our churches – mine in the United States and his in Germany.  We discussed world affairs.  We told about our families and even discovered we had a mutual friend.  He was missing one arm, but I never asked him how he lost it.  I had to leave Austin before the closing banquet, so I didn’t know why he was being honored. A couple of months after I returned home I learned.  I received the Austin Seminary quarterly magazine, and it told his story.

As a teenager Nevermann was a member of the Hitler Youth.  In 1942 he joined the German army and was sent to the Russian front.  “Traveling on the troop train from Berlin to Russia across the Polish frontier, he saw from the window a scene of human carnage; some alive but dying, reaching out their hands for aid.  He was told by a sergeant that they were unimportant because they were Poles, probably Jews, and not to take notice.”  In Russia he was injured.  For two weeks he wandered in the barren Russian landscape with only snow to eat.  Desperate and close to death, he was taken in by a peasant couple who tended his wounds and prayed for him.  The experience of that grace, of hearing his name lifted to God in prayer, led to a profound change in his life.  His arm was amputated, and after the war he spent time in a Russian prisoner of war camp.  While he was in the camp, he became a Christian, and in 1950 he entered seminary in West Berlin.  “A year later, as he was looking up at his reflection in the ceiling light fixture, he lifted up his arm and a repressed memory from the troop train assailed him.  He remembered looking out the train window and seeing the wounded and dying with their arms outstretched for help.  He turned to a seminary professor for counsel and received his life’s commission: ‘What you did not do at that time, do now.’”

At Austin Nevermann was being honored for his lifetime of ministry dedicated to reconciliation in countries hurt by that terrible war.  One of his first projects was constructing a center for adults and children with disabilities.  He organized the Action Reconciliation-Service for Peace with projects in thirteen countries, rebuilding what had been destroyed.  One project of special importance to Nevermann was an international youth center in Auschwitz.  In 2003 he and his wife Karin participated in the ceremony for the signing of the first ever accord between the government and the German Jewish community.[2]

The name Jesus means “he saves.”  That’s how we know him, through his name that saves us.  When he rose from the grave on Easter morning, he overcame every power that can defile our names.  When we call in faith on the name of the risen Lord, he gives us all the power he brought to humankind on Easter day.  He gives us the power of that name that is above all names, the name of the one who spoke and the world was formed.  In Jesus Christ our name isn’t a passing breath that is spoken for a brief time and then disappears like the morning mist.  Our name is recorded in eternity with him.

Whatever your name is, listen. Listen for Jesus calling your name.  You don’t always hear it with your ears.  More often, you hear it in your heart, a sense of being recognized for who you are, of being loved and accepted and forgiven, of gladness that you are in the presence of someone who knows your name, knows you.

Hearing our name we turn to him, like Mary Magdalene.  We call on his name, and that name lifts all our sorrows.  It fills us with joy.  In that name we have victory over death, over sin and suffering and everything that can harm us.  God has raised him from the grave and he calls us to himself. Listen.  He is calling, calling your name.

[1] Lisa Miller, “Can You Go Back?” The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 1998, p. W1.

[2] “Former Nazi soldier, Hispanic leader honored with 2006 ASA Award,” Windows (Austin, Texas: Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Spring 2006), p. 24.

Good Friday Online Service




PRELUDE                        O Sacred Head Now Wounded                                 arr. J.G. Walther




HYMN NO. 80                Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley                            Lonesome Valley


Jesus walked this lonesome valley.  He had to walk it by Himself.

O, nobody else could walk it for Him.  He had to walk it by Himself.


We must walk this lonesome valley.  We have to walk it by ourselves.

O, nobody else can walk it for us.  We have to walk it by ourselves.


You must go and stand your trial.  You have to stand it by yourself.

O, nobody else can stand it for you.  You have to stand it by yourself.





HYMN NO. 97                Go to Dark Gethsemane (vs. 1 and 2)                            Redhead


Go to dark Gethsemane, all who feel the tempter’s power.

Your Redeemer’s conflict see.  Watch with Him one bitter hour.

Turn not from His griefs away.  Learn from Jesus Christ to pray.


Follow to the judgement hall.  View the Lord of life arraigned.

O the wormwood and the gall!  O the pangs His soul sustained.

Shun not suffering, shame or loss.  Learn from Christ to bear the cross.



            HYMN NO. 93           Ah, Holy Jesus (vs. 1 and 3)                                  Herzliebster Jesu


Ah, holy Jesus, how have you offended, that mortal judgement on You descended?

By foes derided, by Your own rejected, O most afflicted!


For me, dear Jesus, was Your incarnation, Your mortal sorrow, and Your life’s oblation,

Your death of anguish and Your bitter passion, for my salvation.



            SOLO                                Were You There?                                                          Spiritual

Tim Ruth – cello



            The Lord’s Prayer


HYMN NO. 85                           What Wondrous Love Is This?                             Wondrous Love


What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?  What wondrous love is this, O my soul?

What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the heavy cross for my soul,

for my soul, to bear the heavy cross for my soul?


To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing.  To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.

To God and to the Lamb who is the great I Am, while millions join the theme I will sing,

I will sing, while millions join the theme, I will sing!


And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.  And when from death I’m free,

I’ll sing on.  And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be.  And through eternity,

I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.  And through eternity, I’ll sing on!

Online Worship Service — 3-29-20

Service for the Lord’s Day

March 29, 2020






Prelude                                   What Wondrous Love is This                                    arr. Sarah Douglas


Opening Sentences


Gathering Prayer


Hymn                                    Beneath the Cross of Jesus (vs. 1 and 3)                            St. Christopher


Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand, the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land; a home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way, from the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.


I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place.  I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face; content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss, my sinful self, my only shame, my glory all the cross.


Confession and Pardon


Response                                Grace Greater Than Our Sin                                   Johnston, Towner


Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within;

Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.




Prayer for Illumination



Numbers 21:4-9

     John 3:14-21


Sermon     “Lifted UP”


Hymn                                  There Is a Balm in Gilead (vs. 1 and 3)           African-American spiritual


REFRAIN – There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.


Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain,

but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. (repeat refrain)


If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,

you can tell the love of Jesus and say “He died for all.” (repeat refrain)





Response                            A Grateful Heart                                            English Folk Melody


A grateful heart is what I bring, a song of praise, my offering.

Among the saints, I lift my voice.  In you, O God, I will rejoice.


Prayers of Intercession



 Lord’s Prayer




Hymn                    When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (vs. 1 and 4)                                  Hamburg


When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died,

My richest gain, I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.


Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.

Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.



Blessing and Charge



Postlude                What a Friend We Have in Jesus                                   arr. Donatello Noboddi


     Lifted Up

Lately, some things in the Bible that seemed so foreign to us have become disturbingly relevant. Like plagues. The story we read this morning from the Old Testament tells about an epidemic that infected the Hebrews in the wilderness. Their affliction wasn’t carried by a coronavirus but by snakes, yet they felt the same helplessness and vulnerability, the same fear that grips us any time we’re faced with a threat that seems beyond our control.

Moses prayed for his people, and God told Moses to make a replica of a poisonous serpent out of bronze and lift it up on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten by a snake, they were to look up at the bronze serpent and they would live.

Oh, how we wish we had that cure for our generation’s plague. People are working around the clock to find it. And their symbol is two serpents wound around a pole – the caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession and  the doctors and nurses and researchers who are mobilized to find a vaccine and a cure.

The plague that struck the Hebrews was not just a physical affliction. It grew out of the resentment and anger that infected them the longer they had to endure the hardships of the wilderness. As they grew weary of the manna that God provided them day after day, they thought back on what they had in the old days, back in Egypt. They remembered the fish they used to eat, “the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…” (Num. 11:5) Yes, it had been the fare of slaves, but at least it had flavor, and they weren’t hungry all the time. And they remembered when they could have all the water they wanted. Granted, they drank a lot because of their forced labor in the burning sun, but now they were in the desert, and they didn’t know where their next drink was coming from.

Our pestilence does not grow out of spiritual sickness. It comes from a microscopic virus surrounded by crown-like spikes that jumped from a wild animal to a human being and afflicts good and bad alike, just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust. But in a mirror image of the sickness that afflicted the Hebrews, whose spiritual disorder led to physical sickness, this pandemic can run the opposite direction. We have to make sure that our physical sickness doesn’t lead to spiritual disorder.

David Brooks, in an essay that was published on Friday, observed, “It can all seem so meaningless. Some random biological mutation sweeps across the globe, murdering thousands, lacerating families and pulverizing dreams. Life and death can seem completely arbitrary…. Without the inspiration of a higher meaning, selfishness takes over. This mindset is the temptation of the hour.”[1]

On Tuesday I took part in a conference call for pastors with the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine. During the call, Dr. Levine emphasized several times how important churches are in fighting the pandemic. She reminded us that churches are not included in Gov. Wolf’s order to close all non-essential services. She reiterated that just as doctors and researchers have crucial roles in fighting COVID-19, churches have their essential part to play.

Eastminster is discovering its part. Deacons have been staying in touch with the members in their care groups. We can all reach out to each other. A phone call doesn’t have to be long to be effective. Just five minutes to let someone know you’re thinking about them reminds them, and you, that we’re still connected and that we matter to each other. We’re learning how to use technology so we can worship together while we’re apart. We’re finding creative ways to continue our mission to the community and the world. This year Easter food baskets to struggling families will consist of gift cards. Thanks to your continuing generosity, we’re maintaining our support for organizations that feed the hungry and comfort the lonely, including the broader church. Donegal Presbytery has approved no interest loans to small churches that can’t meet their bills, and grants to churches that don’t have the resources to record or stream worship to their members.

In the passage we read today from John, Jesus compared himself to the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness to heal the sickness of the people. Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” That’s our part in this pandemic. We tell a different story, one that is not about fear and despair, but one of life and hope. We point to the one who was raised up for us.

pointing to the one who has been lifted up for eternal life so that all can see him.

Jesus carries with him to the cross all of our anxiety and our fear. Jesus wept when those he loved were stricken with disease. He trembled when faced with death. He cried out when he felt abandoned. He lifts us up with him and takes us to the Father where we find healing and redemption and life.

But true healing goes deep. It doesn’t treat the symptoms. It gets to the root of what ails us. Jesus shines light on the depths of our souls so we can see ourselves for who we are and come to his healing grace. David Brooks observes, “This particular plague hits us at exactly the spots where we are weakest and exposes exactly those ills we had lazily come to tolerate. We’re already a divided nation, and the plague makes us distance from one another. We define ourselves too much by our careers, and the plague threatens to sweep them away. We’re a morally inarticulate culture, and now the fundamental moral questions apply.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned some things about myself over these last two weeks. I tell myself that I care for everyone, but I noticed how tempting it was to horde extra toilet paper when it was available before anyone else could get it. I tell myself that I trust God to provide, but it’s tempting to cut back on my giving to charity, not because I don’t have the money that’s desperately needed for immediate needs but because maybe I won’t have as much later on. I always thought I had sympathy for people whose lives have been upended by circumstances beyond their control, but I’ve gotten a little more empathy for refugees in Syria whose homes were destroyed by somebody else’s war, for people in Puerto Rico living in shelters whose towns were wiped out by a hurricane, for families that are going to be coming to our local foodbanks because the pandemic has wiped out their jobs. Jesus told Nicodemus: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil….But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Again, David Brooks: “We learn more about ourselves in these hard periods. The differences between red and blue don’t seem as acute on the gurneys of the E.R., but the inequality in the world seems more obscene when the difference between rich and poor is life or death.” Lifted up on the cross and shining on us, the Light of the World exposes how much we need healing, and he draws us to himself, for God so loved the world – not just me, not just the people I care about, but the world.

And that light also exposes graces that we would never see, signs of healing that give us hope and draw us to the one who gives life. In the light of Christ, small graces are revealed to us. Our presbytery is holding twice weekly Zoom conferences for pastors to check in with one another, and I’ve learned just how gifted and loving so many of my colleagues are. I’ve been in touch with friends and relatives I haven’t heard from in decades. Many of us have had conversations with loved ones, in person on the phone or through a social medium, where we’ve learned of fears and hopes we never knew they had. Words of love have flowed more freely. We’ve seen the dedication and sacrifice of so many people who are making sure the elderly and those with compromised health conditions have what they need, and our confidence in the human spirit has been boosted.

One day things will get back to normal. And one day we’ll be absorbed in doing whatever absorbs us in that new normal. But the Son of Man will still be lifted high over us, calling us to the light. And we’ll know more surely than ever, from our time in the wilderness, that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

[1] David Brooks, “The Moral Meaning of the Plague,” The New York Times, March 27, 2020, p. A26.

Online Worship Service — 3/22/20


Service for the Lord’s Day

March 22, 2020







PRELUDE – My Jesus, i Love Thee


Opening Sentences                                                                                                                       


Gathering Prayer


Hymn – Our God, Our Help in Ages Past


Confession and Pardon

     Gloria Patri




Prayer for Illumination



     Old Testament Lesson – Ezekiel 37:1-14

     New Testament Lesson – Romans 8:6-11


Sermon     Hope in the Bones (Sermon text provided below)


Hymn – Breathe on me breath of god



Response – “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart”


Prayers of Intercession

     Lord’s Prayer




Hymn – To God Be the Glory


Blessing and Charge


Postlude – He’s Got the Whole World in his hands


Hope In The Bones

Israel had been riding high. They had been among the most powerful and prosperous people in the world. They had plenty. They gathered with their friends as they pleased. They could do whatever they wanted. Then all of a sudden they couldn’t. The world as they knew it came to a screeching halt. Babylon had conquered them, carried them away. The world as they knew it was gone. And now here they were – the valley of dry bones.

Most of us have at least gotten a glimpse of the valley of the dry bones.  It’s that place where the future looks bleak, where we feel helpless and hopeless. It’s where we might find ourselves after a loved one dies or we get laid off or something we thought was secure gives way. We’ve certainly gotten a glimpse of that valley over the last week. Who could have imagined a month ago that we could not even go to church? We’re reminded just how precarious life is, how easy it is to slip into the valley of the dry bones. If we forgot just how fragile life is, how fleeting is our prosperity, the coronavirus has given us a cold hard dose of reality. The Psalmist was right: “All flesh is grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades…”

Paul sums it up in the 8th chapter of Romans: “To set the mind on flesh is death.”  That doesn’t mean that our bodies are bad.  Elsewhere in the New Testament Paul affirms that our bodies are temples of the Spirit.  We should treat them with respect and honor.  But to live by the flesh means we define ourselves by our limitations. We don’t hope for much beyond the obvious.  And if we set our minds on the flesh, where can that lead us but to the valley of dry bones?

God offers us an alternative to the flesh, but we’re reluctant to take it.  You can understand why.  We’re afraid.  Afraid to let go of a mindset, a way of living that most of the world relies on and that we’ve been taught from birth. It’s only natural.  As I was writing this sermon, I was sitting at my desk and a movement outside my window caught my attention.  It was two bright red cardinals flitting from branch to branch in a tree not ten feet from where I sat.  They were fighting, establishing dominance.  The stakes were huge: mating rights, territory, food, survival.  They fluttered and pecked each other until one of them gave up and flew away.  That’s the way our flesh protects and provides for itself.  We fight those things that threaten us.  We hoard. We blame. We despair. And the valley of bones grows fuller and fuller. Flesh upon flesh upon flesh.

That’s why fear is such a common reaction whenever God comes to a person and offers another way.  The way of the Spirit is so different from the way we are taught to live. When God called to Moses from the burning bush, Moses’ first reaction was fear.  When Gabriel came to Mary to tell her she would be the mother of the Savior whom God was sending to show us another way, the first thing the angel had to say to her was, “Fear not.” When Jesus appeared to his disciples after he had conquered the power of death on Easter, he had to tell them not to be afraid.  We fear to give up those things that have served us for a lifetime.  We’re genetically programmed to stay out of the valley as long as we can.  To let go of what we know, what we’re familiar with, what’s tried and true even if it’s not ultimately effective, that is terrifying.  The risk is too great.  So we cling to the flesh that promises protection, the flesh that is headed for the valley just as surely as the flower fades.

But there is another way.  It’s not hidden or secret.  Everyone has experienced it, if even for a fleeting moment. Death and evil can’t squelch it. We see evidence of it even in these threatening times. We see it in those who are working so hard to provide food for the needy, care for the stricken, those who pray for the anxious. The way of flesh is not the only way.  There’s something else going on.

Ezekiel saw it in his vision.  He spoke the word of the Lord to the dry bones.  He saw the power of that word to join the bones together, to connect them with sinews, to cover them with flesh, to restore their skin. And then the Spirit came into the valley.  It came from the four winds, from every corner of the sky, as mysterious and as powerful as it came into the clay that God had fashioned into a human body on the sixth day of creation and gave life to Adam. And God told Ezekiel, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live… then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and will act, says the Lord.”

There’s another way, the way of the Spirit, and that’s how we know the Lord. Some see hope and joy as exceptions to the hard and fast ways of the flesh.  They see acts of love and grace and mercy and justice as oases along the way to the valley of the dry bones, as resting spots to revive us for a short while on our weary way.  That’s goodness looks through the eyes of the flesh.  But for those who live in the Spirit, those signs of love and compassion show us another destination.  They’re not exceptions to the rule of the flesh, but alternatives to it.  Yes, we acknowledge the flesh and its weakness, but we see that it’s not the flesh that holds our destiny.  It’s the Spirit that transforms the flesh, just as it transformed the flesh of Jesus on the day of his resurrection.

Jesus took on the flesh with all its weakness and limitation, with its viruses and even its death.  But Jesus, as human as you and I, did not set his mind on the flesh.  He did not live by the flesh.  He set his mind on the Spirit. With his mind set on the Spirit, he could entrust his body completely to God. On the cross he experienced death as complete and final as those bones in Ezekiel’s valley.  But that same Spirit that breathed life into Adam, that breathed over the valley of death, that same Spirit breathed life into the body of Jesus who is our risen Lord.

Romans 8:9 says, “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you…. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”  Christ changes our destination.  It’s not the valley of dry bones.  It’s the mountain of the living Lord.  We see that goodness and love and courage are not exceptions to the rule of death but evidence that the Spirit is at work overcoming everything that can separate us from God, even death.

I have a friend named Genuta who runs a ministry for orphans in Romania. Genuta is a lawyer who one cold October day was looking out the window of her law office and saw some girls lying on a blanket on the ground.  She thought they were just playing around, but then discovered that the blanket was the girls’ home.  They had grown up in a local orphanage, but once they got too old to stay there, they had no place to go.  Over the next few years, Genuta felt God’s Spirit shaping and preparing her to minister with the orphans. Eventually Genuta saw what she was to do.  She took six teenage girls under her care and opened a transition home for them where they learn how to live on their own, how to shop and cook and find jobs – their alternative to living on a blanket in the cold.  Had Genuta seen those girls living on a blanket through the eyes of the flesh, she would have thought, “What a shame.”  But through the eyes of the Spirit she saw God calling her to do something about it.

We see evidence of the power of the Spirit all around us.  It takes courage to give our lives to it, to give up the convictions of the flesh with which we’re so familiar. The power of the flesh, of hatred and violence and self-interest is easy to see.  But Christ gives us the power of the Spirit.  We know where the real power is. That power is with us even when we’re separated from one another in “social distancing.” In Christ life wins.  Always.  There is hope for those bones.


3-8-20 — An Eye For God — Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

When I was a boy I would go raccoon hunting with my cousins and uncles in the briar-covered woods of Robeson County, North Carolina.  Sometimes we’d take with us a wizened man in his fifties named Charlie.  Charlie was a Lumbee Indian.  The Lumbees make up about a third of the population of Robeson County.  Their origin is shrouded in mystery.  Some say they are descendants of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony.  Legend has it that the colonists thought they had been abandoned by the mother country.  When their ship failed to return from England with supplies – it was delayed due to the Spanish Armada of 1588 – the colonists mingled with the local Indian tribe and migrated 150 miles south to what is now Robeson County.  Whatever their origin, the Lumbees have lived for centuries at the margins of that county.  Their ancestors were neither landowners like the whites nor slaves like the African-Americans.  Their generations survived by farming small patches of land and living off the bounty of the forests and swamps that cover the landscape.  So it was good to have a Lumbee like Charlie along when you went ‘coon hunting in Robeson County.

In case you don’t know, ‘coon hunting is a nighttime sport.  We’d leave my grandfather’s house about 8:00 on a winter night with my uncle’s dogs loaded in the back of the pickup truck.  We’d drive to the ramshackle Lumbee settlement and pick up Charlie.  Then we’d drive a little further and pull off to the side of the road where we would release the dogs into the woods.  Then we’d follow a path to a clearing and build a fire.  We’d sit around the fire and listen to the dogs barking in the distance.  I was a city boy, and all I heard was a bunch of dogs barking.  But Charlie heard a story.  He could tell from the sound of their bark when they picked up the trail of an animal – and he could tell if they were tracking a raccoon or a ‘possum or a fox.  He knew just where the dogs were.  “Ole Sally’s working over there by the branch.  That Tom’s gotten sidetracked over by the McCrimmon place.”  When the pitch of their barking changed, he knew they’d treed a ‘coon, and that’s when we got up, doused the fire, and followed him through the pitch- black woods, fighting off brambles, until we came to the tree where the dogs were barking at their prey.

The most remarkable thing I remember about Charlie was one night at the end of the hunt.  We were walking down a narrow path back to the pickup truck, and he stopped dead in his tracks.  He lifted his head, sniffed the air and said, “There’s a possum in that tree.”  We boys shined our lights up into the tree, and sure enough, cowering on an upper branch, was a fat opossum.  We caught it, and it was supper for Charlie’s family the next night.

For me the woods were a dark, foreboding place.  Set me loose in them at night, and I’d be lost before I could turn around.  But Charlie knew every contour and could interpret every sound.  The swamps that were dangerous and threatening to me were the source of food and life for him and his people.  He was born on the edge of those thickets, and they were home for him.

One night a man named Nicodemus came to Jesus.  Nicodemus was a learned man.  He was a teacher and a respected scholar.  He wanted to know more about Jesus.  He had heard about the things Jesus had done.  “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” Nicodemus observed.  Jesus replied, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus didn’t find that very helpful.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asked Jesus.  “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  It would be as if I said to Charlie, “Explain to me the ways of the forest and the swamps, the secrets of the ‘coons and the ‘possums and the foxes,” and he said, “You can’t see what I see unless you’re born a Lumbee.”  A lot of good that would do me.  I’m born who I am, and there’s no going back.

There are some things about ourselves we have to live with.  I’ll never be a Lumbee Indian.  Even if I study the ways of the forest, it can never be home for me the way it was for Charlie. But I don’t have to remain a stranger to the ways of God or to the kingdom of heaven.

Awhile back I was in a buffet line at a reception following a funeral.  A woman about my age was across the table from me.  We were both picking at the salad.  She said, “That was a comforting service, even for an agnostic like me.”  “Thank you,” I said.  I explained how our friend, the deceased, had put a lot of thought into it.  “I admired her faith,” the woman said.  “It gave her something solid to stand on.  There’s a God out there, but I’ve got so many questions.”  “Our friend had lots of questions, too,” I said.  “For her faith wasn’t having all the answers but trusting in God even with the questions.”  “That’s very comforting,” the woman said, and she moved along to the beverage table.

That woman was so much like Nicodemus.  She saw the signs of heaven’s kingdom.  She saw them in the life of our friend whom we’d just buried.  She saw them in the service we’d just celebrated.  She saw them, but they were not hers.  She was not born again.

That phrase “born again” is a tricky one.  The louder and more aggressive of our sisters and brothers in Christ have defined it to mean a conversion experience, a moment of spiritual rebirth you can identify and document the way you can document the time and place of your physical birth.  For some people it happens that way.  You can pinpoint the time and the place where your life was changed forever by a spiritual rebirth that ushered you into the realm of God.  For others it’s different.  The Greek word for “born again” is also translated “born from above.”  Some of us are born from above as we’re nurtured in our homes and in Sunday school.  We come to know the kingdom of God from childhood, like Charlie came to know the forest from the generations of his ancestors.  Some, like the writer C.S. Lewis, are born from above as the result of an intellectual quest, studying and examining literature and finding God in the midst of ideas.  For some it’s a matter of progressing through the stages of life, acquiring wisdom each step of the way, a process of maturing into the fullness of Christ.  Jesus told Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Those who are born of the Spirit see what others miss.  The signs of the kingdom confirm what they already know.  When the sick are healed, when the grieving are comforted, when the poor are fed, when the elderly are respected – those who are born of the Spirit see signs of God’s kingdom that is all around.  And when there are no signs, when the world is as dark and close and foreboding as a December night in the swamps of eastern North Carolina, they know that the Spirit is there.  They are at home in God’s everlasting dwelling place, and they have nothing to fear.

Many years ago I spent the summer as a hospital chaplain in Oklahoma City.  Every few weeks it was my turn to be on call.  I slept in a small room on the top floor of the hospital where the on-call residents stayed.  One night about 1:30 a.m. the phone rang.  It was the hospital operator saying I was needed in the Emergency Room immediately.  I threw on my clothes and hurried downstairs.  When I entered the Emergency Room I saw about 20 people wailing and wringing their hands.  The head nurse pulled me aside and explained there had been a motorcycle accident.  Two young men in their early twenties had been injured.  One was not going to make it.  The other would probably live, but his left leg was 95% severed.  These were their families in the waiting room.

I went to the families and introduced myself as the chaplain on call.  They asked me to read the 23rd Psalm and lead them in the Lord’s Prayer.  I did, and a calm settled over the room.  When we opened our eyes, you could see courage.  There was still fear, but along with it was confidence and hope that there was more going on there than tragedy and loss and pain.  The nurse then asked me to go into the room where the young man with the severed leg was.  It was a gruesome sight, one I’ll never forget.  We were there alone.  The entire medical staff was in an adjoining room trying valiantly to save his friend’s life.  He asked me to pray with him.  He held my hand and squeezed so tightly it hurt.  We prayed, and a feeling of peace enveloped us.  Then the orderlies came to wheel him to surgery.  He gave me a look of confidence.

He lost his leg, and his friend died.  I won’t lie to you and tell you any of it was easy for anyone.  But we were upheld by something not of this world.  We remembered that the Lord is our shepherd.  In the valley of the shadow of death we feared no evil.  Even in the deepest darkness, you can see the one who is already there – you have an eye for God.