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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Professor Benz the galaxies and the nebulae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Christ plays in ten thousand places,

       Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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