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5-17-20 Online Worship Service

 

Service for the Lord’s Day

Sunday, May 17, 2020

 

Gathering

 

Chimes

 

Welcome

 

Prelude                                                        Stand Up and Bless the Lord                             Robert Powell                     

 

Opening Sentences

 

Gathering Prayer

 

Hymn No.  379                     My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (vs. 1 and 4)                         Solid Rock

 

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

 

REFRAIN – On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand.  All other ground is singing sand.

All other ground is sinking sand.

 

When He shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in Him be found,

Dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before Thy throne.  (repeat REFRAIN)                                            

 

Confession and Pardon

 

Response                                          Goodness is Stronger Than Evil                                          John Bell

 

Goodness is stronger than evil.  Love is stronger than hate.

Light is stronger than darkness.  Life is stronger than death.

Victory is ours, victory is ours through Him who loved us!

Victory is ours, victory is ours through Him who loved us!

 

 

Word

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

Scripture

1 Peter 3:13-22

                                                                                                                                                           

Sermon                                                          In Good Conscience

 

Hymn No. 339                                              Be Thou My Vision (vs. 1 and 3)                                      Slane

 

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.  Nought be all else to me, save that Thou art.

Thou, my best thought by day or by night.  Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

 

Be Thou my wisdom, and Thou my true word.  I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord.

Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.

        

Offering

 

Offertory                                        Fairest Lord Jesus                                 arr. James Michael Stevens

Janis McCollim, flute solo             

 

 

RESPONSE                           Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart                                          Henry Smith

 

Give thanks with a grateful heart.  Give thanks to the Holy One.

Give thanks because he’s given Jesus Christ, his Son.

And now, let the weak say “I am strong.”  Let the poor say “I am rich,”

Because of what the Lord has done for us.  Give thanks!

 

Prayers of Intercession

 

     Lord’s Prayer

 

 

Sending

 

Hymn                                              I Love to Tell the Story (vs. 1 and 3)                             William Fischer

 

I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.

I love to tell the story because I know ‘tis true.  It satisfies my longings as nothing else could do.

 

REFRAIN – I love to tell the story.  ‘Twill be my theme in glory

to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

 

I love to tell the story, for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.  And when in scenes of glory I sing the new, new song,

‘twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.  (repeat REFRAIN)                                             

 

Blessing and Charge

 

Postlude                                               Cornet Voluntary                                                        John Travers                         

 

 

Next week’s sermon is “Belonging for Others.” The scripture text is John 17:6-19.

 

Thanks to Jill Duffield of The Presbyterian Outlook and The Book of Common Worship (PCUSA)  for portions of this service.

 

In Good Conscience

Everyone wants a good conscience.  Who hasn’t wrestled over right and wrong, trying to listen to what your conscience is trying to tell you?  And who hasn’t felt that pang of conscience when you’ve done something you know you shouldn’t have done?  We’ll go to great lengths to have a good conscience.  We’ll even convince ourselves that the truth is a lie so our conscience won’t bother us.  When a child is caught being naughty, she’ll point to her brother and say, “He made me do it!”  A CEO will convince himself that he didn’t know his company’s books were being cooked, even if he did conveniently look the other way.  And when people can’t have a good conscience within the accepted norms of right and wrong, they’ll construct their own system of morality.  The Sopranos lived by the mob’s code of honor.  They might grow rich by murder and extortion, but within their own moral framework, they had standards of right and wrong.  Suicide bombers in the Middle East can kill innocent bystanders in good conscience because they see their acts within the context of a skewed understanding of jihad.

A good conscience is important to us, but there is a lot working against it.  In fact, the forces working against a good conscience are so strong that we need something more than our own willpower to keep our conscience from being overwhelmed.  We face temptation, peer pressure, fear – left to itself, our poor little conscience can’t stand up for us on its own.  A set of rules or guidelines can help, but what we really need is a guide, someone who can help us see in every situation what is the right thing to do.  We need someone to give us courage to face up to all those things that overwhelm our conscience.

1 Peter was written to early Christians who were struggling with their conscience.  They were faced with difficult choices.  Their commitment to Christ put them at odds with many of the things that were accepted, even expected, in ancient times.  Their faith put them at odds with things that had been engrained in them since their birth.  For example, everyone who lived in the Roman Empire was expected to worship the emperor.  You could worship any other god you pleased, but you had to acknowledge that the emperor had supreme allegiance in your life.  Christians couldn’t do that.  To follow Christ is to make him first in your life, ahead of everything, even country.  If they didn’t worship the emperor, they could be tortured or even killed.  Their consciences were conflicted.  Should they be loyal to those values their government, their peers, even their families held, or should they be loyal to Christ?

Peter reminded those early Christians of their baptism.  Baptism was their assurance that a good conscience rests in Christ, and in Christ there is nothing that can shake it.  We share Christ’s death and we share his resurrection.  Every power that could hurt us is subject to him.  What do we have to fear by letting him guide our conscience?

One of the first Christians to show the power of a good conscience in Christ was a man named Stephen.  (He is the namesake of our Stephen Ministers.)  The story of Stephen is found in the seventh chapter of Acts.  Stephen was a deacon in the church in Jerusalem in the first years after Jesus ascended into heaven.  Deacons were those who cared for the widows and the orphans in the early church.  Stephen was clear and articulate about why he served.  He let everyone who would listen know that by serving the poor he was serving his Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, in those days the nerves of the authorities were still raw after their encounter with Jesus.  They had crucified him because they feared that his growing popularity was a threat to their power.  But things had only gotten worse for them.  More and more people believed that Jesus rose from the dead.  When Stephen spoke about Jesus, people responded and gave their lives to the Lord.  So the authorities arrested Stephen and told him to account for himself.

Don’t you ever wonder what you would do if you were arrested because of your faith in Jesus?  Do you wonder if there would even be enough evidence to convict you of being his follower?  Do you wonder if you’d have the courage to stand up for what you believe?  Stephen could have rationalized that he’d be more effective for Christ if he just kept quiet and stayed alive.  But his conscience was firmly grounded in Jesus.  He gave a long and eloquent defense of his faith, a powerful testimony to his Lord Jesus Christ.  The crowds were so angry that they picked up rocks to stone him to death, but he calmly prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  His last words were not words of anger or vindictiveness or revenge.  His last words were like those of Jesus, words of a good conscience.  “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  (Acts 7:59-60)  Stephen’s conscience was grounded in Christ.

William Sheppard had a conscience grounded in Christ.  In 1890 he became the first black Presbyterian missionary to Africa.  Sheppard went to the Congo.  In those days the Congo belonged to King Leopold of Belgium.  Leopold had vast rubber operations there.  His henchmen would force villagers who lived deep in the forests to leave their farms and work in the jungles tapping the rubber trees for sap.  That sap was processed to make rubber.   The workers lived in subhuman conditions.  Meanwhile, their families starved to death because there was no one to tend the crops.

One day in 1899 Sheppard was traveling in the bush and came across a camp of soldiers in the service of the king’s rubber company.  There was a horrible stench in the air, and in the camp were a large number of objects arrayed on racks being smoked for preservation over an open fire.  The leader of the soldiers told him they were hands – the right hands of 81 villagers who had resisted capture.  The leader told Sheppard, “I always have to cut off the right hands of those we kill in order to show the State how many we have killed.”[1]

Sheppard wrote about his discovery and other atrocities committed by the king’s rubber company in missionary journals that were widely distributed in churches in the United States and Britain.  He wrote in spite of a law forbidding anyone to write anything critical of the king or his agents.  As a result of Sheppard’s articles world opinion began to swell against the Belgian atrocities.  The Belgians put Sheppard on trial, but he was acquitted on a technicality, probably because of the presence of the American and British consuls in the courtroom.  As a result of Sheppard’s bravery, the world community put pressure on the king of Belgium to cease his forced labor.

Sheppard had plenty to fear in following his conscience and exposing those atrocities.  He broke the law in order to do it.  But the same faith that led him to brave the jungles of Africa, risk malaria, and risk instant death so he could preach the gospel to remote Bakuba people gave him the courage to speak out against the King of Belgium.  When your conscience is grounded in the everlasting God, what do you have to fear?  Sheppard ended his life as pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Louisville.  When he died so many people came to his funeral that his little church couldn’t hold them all, so the service was held at Second Presbyterian Church where, many years later, I had the privilege of serving as pastor.

That same faith guides the conscience of Christians every day.  Most of our stories aren’t as dramatic as those of Stephen or of William Sheppard.  But a conscience grounded in Christ still gives courage as it has through the ages.

A high school junior I’ll call Alice was out driving around with some friends on a Friday night.  There were five in the car.  As they were driving through a park, the girl driving the car pulled a bottle of spiced rum out of her purse and took a drink.  She passed it around.  Alice was scared.  She didn’t want her friends to ridicule her and make fun of her for being too good to do what they were doing.  She didn’t want to be cut off from them.  But she remembered what she had read in the Bible about our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit.  She knew that what she did reflected on her family and on Jesus.  She knew she didn’t have anything to fear, so she said no and asked the driver to let her off at a convenience store so she could call her parents to pick her up.

When you were baptized, God grounded your conscience in Christ.  You share his resurrection to eternal life.  Sometimes we get weary.  We forget or get distracted.  But Christ doesn’t forget.    He nourishes us and he fortifies us with his spirit.  He prepares us to stand up for him, and he stands with us, just as he stood with Stephen and William Sheppard and Alice.  He gives us a good conscience.  In Christ there’s nothing to fear.

[1] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (Boston: Mariner Books, 1999), p. 164.

5-10-20 Online Service

 

Service for the Lord’s Day

Sunday, May 10, 2020

 

Gathering

 

Chimes

 

Welcome

 

Prelude                                             All Glory Be to God on High                             arr. David Cherwien      

 

Opening Sentences

 

Gathering Prayer

 

Hymn No. 423                            Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun (vs. 1,2 and 4)           Duke Street

 

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run.

His kingdoms stretch from shore to shore till moons shall wax and wane no more.

 

To Him shall endless prayer be made, and praises throng to crown His head.

His name, like sweet perfume, shall rise with every morning sacrifice.

 

Blessings abound where’er He reigns.  The prisoners leap to lose their chains,

The weary find eternal rest, and all who suffer want are blessed.

  

Confession and Pardon

Thanks be to God.

 

Response                                                        God Be the Love                                                 Green Tyler

 

God be the love to search and keep me.  God be the prayer to move my voice.

God be the strength to now uphold me.  O Christ, surround me.  O Christ, surround me.              

 

Word

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

Scripture

Acts 1:6-14

                                                                                                                                                           

Sermon                                                       On Mother’s Prayers

 

Hymn No. 359                                   More Love to Thee, O Christ (vs. 1 and 2)        More Love to Thee

 

More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to Thee!  Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.

This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ to Thee.  More love to Thee.  More love to Thee.

 

Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest.  Now Thee alone I seek.  Give what is best.

This all my prayer shall be: More love, O Christ to Thee. More love to Thee.  More love to Thee.

                                             

Offering

 

Offertory                                          His Eye Is On the Sparrow                                     Charles Gabriel

Tania O’Hearn, solo                

 

RESPONSE                                                       A Grateful Heart                                             O Waly Waly

 

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

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

 

Prayers of Intercession

 

Lord’s Prayer

 

Sending

 

HYMN NO. 369                      I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me (vs. 1,3 and 4)                  Spiritual

 

I’m gonna live so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

I’m gonna live so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

 

I’m gonna pray so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

I’m gonna pray so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

 

I’m gonna sing so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

I’m gonna sing so God can use me anywhere, Lord anytime!

                          

Blessing and Charge

 

Postlude                                                      Fugue in G minor                                                        J.S. Bach

         

 

Next week’s sermon is “In Good Conscience” The scripture text is 1 Peter 3:13-22.

 

On Mother’s Prayers

In my family we relied on my mother’s prayers.

Once my wife and I were facing an important family decision.  We kept reminding ourselves, “Mom is praying for us.”  When the situation was resolved in a way that made us all breathe a sigh of relief, we called my parents to tell them.  My father’s first words were, “That’s your mother’s prayers at work.  She’s prayed about it at breakfast, at lunch and at supper, in our morning devotions and at bedtime.  That’s five times a day I’ve heard her, plus who knows how many other times.”  Of course, the rest of us were praying too, but there is something about my mother’s prayers that we all depended on.

We’re not the only family that relies on a mother’s prayers.  I’ve heard it from many others.  Maybe there’s something about the experience of being a mother that teaches a woman to rely on God.  What vocation demands as much as motherhood and has stakes that are so high?  Maybe it’s a mother’s unique perspective on time that teaches her how to rely on prayer.  When you’re changing diapers, cleaning up messes, reading aloud the same children’s stories over and over, the days seem to drag on forever.  But on that first day of school or that 16th birthday or watching your baby graduate from high school, the years seem to fly by at the speed of light.  You realize that your grasp on time is unreliable, that time is something that belongs to God, not to you.

It’s almost as if you develop a different set of eyes.  Frederick Buechner calls them eyes of the heart.  They’re not reserved for mothers, although mothers are good at teaching us how to see through those eyes.  Buechner describes what it’s like for him to see with the eyes of the heart:

“That day on the staircase when I met my first grandchild for the first time, what I saw with the eyes of my head was a very small boy with silvery gold hair and eyes the color of blue denim coming down toward me in his mother’s arms.  What I saw with the eyes of my heart was a life that without a moment’s hesitation I would have given my life for.”[1]

When we pray, God shows us life through the eyes of the heart.  And as we see through the eyes of the heart, we learn how to pray.

Those disciples who gathered with Jesus on Mt. Olivet outside Jerusalem were learning how to see with the eyes of the heart.  Like the rest of us, they were more accustomed to seeing with the eyes of the head.  They were hoping that Jesus was about to restore Israel to its former glory.  They expected him to claim the throne of David, throw off their Roman oppressors, and set them up as his royal advisors.  He had vindicated his claim to the Son of God.  The authorities had crucified him, but he had risen from the grave.  What couldn’t he do with that kind of power?  40 days had gone by and their expectation was building.  Was now the time when their waiting would end?  They wanted to know.  They asked Jesus if this was the time he was going to restore the kingdom of Israel.

But Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  God has a purpose, and God has a role for us in that purpose.  But time is in God’s hands, not ours.

That’s the conviction with which my mother prayed.  When she prayed for my family and me, for my brother, for the members of her church who were in the hospital, for the safety of the troops overseas or for peace in the world, she prayed with confidence that it’s all in God’s hands.

But that’s hard.  One of the biggest tests of faith is to trust that even if we don’t know, God knows.  The more we know, the more we feel in control of things.  When will I get that job?  When will the pandemic end?  When will I get well?  When, when, when?  That’s one reason the Left Behind series of novels was so popular.  There are about a dozen of them in the series, and every one went to the top of the bestseller list as soon as it was released.  People read them and felt like they knew what the future holds.  If you know what the future holds, it’s not so scary or uncertain.  The Left Behind novels give a scenario of how the world is going to come to an end.  Their premise is based on a particular way of reading the Bible known as dispensational premillennialism.   Dispensational premillennialism uses passages of scripture to construct a timetable for the world to end.  Every generation has its popular advocates of that way of reading scripture.  When I was a teenager, Hal Lindsay was its popular purveyor.  His best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth claimed that the world was going to come to an end before I became an adult.  Don’t you think that gave some incentive for me to behave myself!  But his predictions didn’t pan out.  We’re still here.  Every generation we’re reminded that the course of history is in God’s hands, and it’s not our job to try to predict exactly how things are going to go.  The Left Behind novels might be good beach reading, but they’re not good theology.  They appeal to our burning desire to predict what God is going to do, in spite of Jesus’ clear words, “It is not for you to know the times or periods” that belong to God.

It’s harder to trust without seeing, to live by the eyes of the heart.  That’s what it means to live by faith.  But Jesus gives us what we need to live by faith.  He told the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  To the eyes of the head it looked like he left them behind when he rose up on a cloud into heaven, but the eyes of the heart let us see that he’s with us now more surely than ever.  Ascended to heaven, Jesus is not confined to a particular time like the first century A.D. or to a particular place like Palestine.  The very same Jesus who healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, welcomed sinners, and gave hope to the poor is now everywhere all the time through the Holy Spirit.  He is with us, even though the eyes of the head cannot see him.

Jesus left his disciples a huge assignment – bear witness to him to the ends of the earth.  He told them to trust that he is working through them to bring his kingdom of peace and justice and love to the whole world – in his own time.  And what is the first thing they did to prepare for such a huge task?  They prayed, and not just a quick little bullet prayer, “Lord, help us.” They were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”  The first and essential thing we have to do before we can do anything for Jesus is pray.

Some have been using this time of quarantine and social distancing to pray more. For many, there are less distractions. And for most of us, we’ve been reminded just how little control we have over our lives. The pandemic has come to Eastminster during a time of transition. Back in March the pastor nominating committee was having serious conversations with candidates to be your next pastor. I was thinking about what I could be doing to help lay out the welcome mat for him or her in the early summer. The PNC is still at work, still maintaining contact with candidates, but like everything else, the process has been slowed down. But that may not be such a bad thing. We can use this time to bolster our prayers for the search committee’s discernment, for preparing the heart of the one whom God has in mind to hear the call, and for the Spirit to work among the congregation to be open to the new opportunities for ministry that will be there in that new era when we’re together again.

It’s going to take lots of planning and strategy to seize the opportunities that will be there, but more than anything it’s going to take prayer.  The temptation is always to run the church as if it’s ours, to see our ministry only with the eyes of our head.  But prayer lets us see the church for what it really is.  It is not ours but Christ’s, and he has entrusted us with its welfare.

When we see through the eyes of the heart, everything about the church looks different.  Visitors are not potential new members.  They are people whom Jesus is calling to be part of his body, friends who need Christ and whom he will use to enrich our witness.  Worship is not only a place where we come to get our needs met, to be renewed and refreshed.  It is also a place we come to glorify God and serve God with our songs and our prayers.  Sunday school and NOAH luncheons, FMC work days and choir practice are not activities for our personal enrichment, but a demonstration to the world of what the kingdom of heaven looks like when God’s people come together.

When we pray, we acknowledge that there are lots of things we don’t know, that we can only see so much with the eyes of the head. My mother assured us that is OK. Just as we relied on her when we were children to provide for everything we needed, she relied on God. She could with the eyes of the heart. May God open our eyes that we may see.

 

 

 

[1] Frederick Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), p. 165f. as quoted by the Rev. Dee Wade in Lectionary Boofay notes for Ascension Sunday 2005.

5-3-20 Online Service

 

Service for the Lord’s Day

Sunday, May 3, 2020

 

Gathering

 

Chimes

 

Welcome

 

Prelude                                          All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name                    Anthony Giamanco           

 

Opening Sentences

 

Gathering Prayer

 

HYMN NO. 108                                          Christ is Alive! (vs. 1, 3, and 5)                                   Truro

 

Christ is Alive!  Let Christians sing.  The cross stands empty to the sky.

Let streets and homes with praises ring.  Love, drowned in death, shall never die.

 

Not throned afar, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains,

But daily in the midst of life, our Savior in the Godhead reigns.

 

Christ is alive, and comes to bring good news to this and every age.

Till earth and sky and ocean ring with joy, with justice, love and praise.

 

Confession and Pardon

 

Response                                                Glory Be to the Father                                        Gloria Patri

 

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen, Amen.

 

Word

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

Scripture  Luke 24:36b-48

                                                                                                                                                           

Sermon                                         Witnesses of These Things

 

HYMN NO. 324                       Open My Eyes That I May See (vs. 1 and 2)               Clara H. Scott 

 

Open my eyes that I may see glimpses of truth Thou hast for me.

Place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free.

Silently now I wait for Thee, ready my God, Thy will to see.

Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine. 

 

Open my ears that I may hear voices of truth Thou sendest clear.

And while the wavenotes fall on my ear, everything false will disappear.

Silently now I wait for Thee, ready my God, Thy will to see.

Open my ears, illumine me, Spirit divine. 

 

 

Offering

 

Offertory                                             What a Lovely Name                                       Charles Wycuff 

Don Wonders, solo 

 

RESPONSE                              Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow                         Doxology 

 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Praise Him all creatures here below.

Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.  Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.                    

 

 

Prayers of Intercession

 

Lord’s Prayer

 

Sending

 

Hymn No. 457             I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art (vs. 1, 4 and 5)                 Toulon

 

I greet Thee, who my sure Redeemer art, my only trust and Savior of my heart.

Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake.  I pray Thee from our hearts all cares to take.

 

Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness.  No harshness hast Thou and no bitterness.

O grant to us the grace we find in Thee, that we may dwell in perfect unity.

 

Our hope is in no other save in Thee.  Our faith is built upon Thy promise free,

Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure, that in Thy strength we evermore endure.

 

                          

Blessing and Charge

 

Postlude                                           Toccata in F Major                             Dietrich Buxtehude                                        

 

 

 Next week’s sermon is “On Mother’s Prayers.” The scripture text is Acts 1:6-14

 

Witnesses of These Things

When I was interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church downtown, I was called to be a witness. The church was making an appeal before the York County Board of Assessment Appeals. The church made the case that the income it received from renting spaces in the parking lot across the alley shouldn’t be taxed because it supports the work of the church, primarily through its Caring Ministry that relieves the government from some of its burden to help those in need. Now, I know nothing about the zoning regulations of York County. I did know something about the work of First Presbyterian Church after having been interim pastor for 17 months. And that’s what the panel wanted to know from me. They wanted me to testify about the work of the church. Fortunately, the church’s gifted attorney, elder Amanda Snoke Dubbs, gave me a summary of the relevant facts ahead of time so I was prepared to testify. When the panel asked me something I didn’t understand, Amanda coached me or rephrased the question for me so I could answer in a way that made sense and helped our case. The result was that the panel granted an exemption to some of the parking spaces, so there would be a little more money in the church budget to help the community.

In the closing verses of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.” Their lives had been changed by him. They had left everything to follow him. But they were not to revel in the new life they had in Jesus and turn their backs to the rest of the world. His final charge to them was to be witnesses to what they had seen and experienced. They wouldn’t be on their own. He promised that he would be with them and that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit would guide them in their testimony.

We don’t know what went on inside each one of the disciples that caused them to follow Jesus. That’s probably a good thing. If we knew exactly what went on in the heart of Andrew as he left his fishing nets to follow Jesus, we might say, “Well, I’ve never felt that,” and ignore Jesus’ call to us. If we knew the complete back-story of Matthew’s decision to leave his post as a tax collector to be a disciple, we might decide that our story isn’t like his, so Jesus wouldn’t call us. Each one of us who follows Jesus has our own stories, our own reasons, our own motivations. Some of us follow Jesus because he has been part of our identity since birth. We can’t think of ourselves as anyone other than someone who belongs to Jesus. Some are his followers because he is how we make sense out of life and the world. We’ve tried to live without him at the center of our life and discovered that it just doesn’t work unless he is at the center of our being. Some have had a deeply personal encounter with him, literally heard him calling your name or touching the core of your being, accepting you and claiming you for all your shortcomings and your strengths. Some follow him because he is the one who gives purpose and meaning to what you do. He is the one who puts your life into a context that is larger than the moment. He is the one who assures you that there is more to life than what is right in front of you. Some have had all of these experience or more. Each of us knows Jesus in our own very personal way. Yet we hear Jesus speak to us, as he spoke to the disciples, “You are witnesses of these things” – these things that we know through him. He sends us beyond our own personal encounters to bear witness to what we’ve experienced in him.

This is where a lot of us get nervous. We feel this huge burden that it’s up to us to bring the world, or at least our corner of it, to Jesus. And if we don’t, then we’re accountable for the eternal fate of our friends and family and even the passing acquaintances we meet. Don’t get me wrong. Jesus is clear that there is urgency to proclaiming the gospel. We can’t be complacent about getting the word out to a hurting world. But in the end, you and I don’t bring people to Jesus. He brings them to himself, sometimes using us. That should relieve us of lots of the anxiety about whether or not we are faithful witnesses. For one thing, God isn’t confined to our efforts. Being a witness to what we know in Christ doesn’t mean we have to shove Jesus into every conversation at home or at work. It doesn’t mean we have to prove that Christianity is superior to every other religion. We don’t have to prove to anyone that the Bible is the Word of God. The story we read from Luke says that Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to understand the scripture. All we have to do is bear witness to what we know, that Jesus is Lord, by our words and our actions. And that is something we can always become more skilled at doing. We need to learn more about the Bible, about theology, about how God works in the world. It’s really important to pray daily, to study the Bible, to meet with other followers of Jesus so we can become more attuned to Jesus at work in our lives – and bear witness to what we see.

Some people worry about having to talk about their faith. They’re afraid they won’t be convincing or they’ll say something wrong or they’ll embarrass themselves or be considered pushy or obnoxious. The point of witnessing isn’t to always be on the lookout for how to get in a word. Sometimes our witness is in the way we relate to others. Many of us are feeling a lot more stress these days. It’s easier to notice the irritating things about those we live with if we’re with them 24/7. If we do go out, whether to work or to the grocery store, even the simplest tasks like standing in the checkout line are more complicated, and our nerves are frayed because of the threat of getting sick. And yet the way we treat others when we’re stressed is bearing witness to the one who is the prince of peace, who desires all people to live together in harmony.

God might open an opportunity to say something about the one who is the source of your peace. When we treat our coworkers and neighbors the way Jesus would treat them, people just might notice, and we may even have the chance to bear verbal testimony. But wherever we are, we are witnesses to the one who claims our lives. Some will understand that witness and others won’t, but it is Jesus who opens hearts and minds. We just say and do what we know.

And that witness isn’t stopped by age or illness. One of the things I like about meeting with Stephen Ministers is hearing their witness to the testimony they’ve received from people who receive their care. They are always very careful to preserve the anonymity of the people they care for, but their faith and witness is enriched by those people who bear witness to the power of Christ from their room in the nursing home or the bed where they are spending their final days. Some of my best teachers of the faith have been members of churches I’ve served who face illness or even death with courage and hope, knowing that the one who has sustained them through their years will sustain them into everlasting life. That helps me find peace and comfort even when that same Lord in my troubles that are small compared to theirs.

We have to be careful, though, not to limit that witness to our individual lives. When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he was speaking to the community that was his church, his body. Jesus doesn’t send us to bear witness as individuals. He sends us as members of a community. When we give our lives to him, we become part of that community, the church, that he sends to bear witness to him.

One sign of a congregation that is thriving is that it recognizes it doesn’t exist only for its own comfort or survival or support of its members. The church exists for the world. Eastminster exists because God has put you here to be a witness to this community. When I was called as a witness at the board of assessment and appeals, the members of that board weren’t interested in whether or not the church was being a faithful witness to Jesus. Theirs is a secular purpose. But we help neighbors because that is one way to bear witness to Jesus who stands with the poor and the suffering so they might have fullness of life.

Of course, if you’re a member at Eastminster, you do receive great services. You partake of quality worship, stimulating education, support and care in the fellowship of friends. But ultimately all of the internal things we receive here at the church are to equip us to be a witness for Jesus to the world, wherever we are.

Jesus is the one who opens hearts, changes lives, heals divisions, and makes us one. We are living proof that the God who created the universe loves us enough to come to us in Jesus and invites all people to live forever with him in peace and glory. We are witnesses of these things. Where are you called to testify?

4-26-20 Online Service

Service for the Lord’s Day
Sunday, April 26, 2020

GATHERING

CHIMES

WELCOME

PRELUDE — Hail, Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer! — Hugh Livingston

OPENING SENTENCES

GATHERING PRAYER

HYMN — Thine is the Glory (vs. 1,2 and refrain) — Judas Maccabeus

Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Son. Endless is the victory Thou o’er death hast won.
Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away, kept the folded grave clothes where the body lay.

Lo! Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb. Lovingly He greets us, scatters fear and gloom.
Let the church with gladness hymns of triumph sing, for the Lord now liveth. Death hath lost its sting.

Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Son. Endless is the victory Thou o’er death hast won.

CONFESSION AND PARDON

RESPONSE — Grace Greater Than Our Sin — Johnston and Towner

Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within.
Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.

WORD

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION

SCRIPTURE
Luke 24:13-35

SERMON — DEEP LONGINGS AND HOLY HUNGER

HYMN — Be Known to Us in Breaking Bread — St. Flavian

Be known to us in breaking bread, but do not then depart.
Savior, abide with us and spread Thy table in our heart.

There sup with us in love divine. Thy body and Thy blood ,
That living bread, that heavenly wine, be our immortal food.

OFFERING

OFFERTORY — My Faith Looks Up to Thee — arr. Thurston Unger

RESPONSE — With Gratitude and Humble Trust — Forest Green

With gratitude and humble trust, we bring our best to You,
Not just to serve Your cause but share Your love with neighbors too.
O God who gave Yourself to us in Jesus Christ your Son,
Help us to give ourselves each day until life’s work is done.

PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION

LORD’S PRAYER

SENDING

HYMN — The Strife is O’er (vs. 1 and 4) — Victory

The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won.
The song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!

Lord, by Your wounds on Calvary from death’s dread sting your servants free,
That we may live eternally. Alleluia!

BLESSING AND CHARGE

POSTLUDE — Fanfare — Jacques Lemmens

Next week’s sermon is “Witnesses to These Things.” The scripture text is Luke 24:36b-48

 

Deep Longings & Holy Hunger

There are some things you can prove empirically.  On February 2 the Kansas City Chiefs proved that they were the best team in football. All season long pundits speculated about which team had the most talent, the best coach, the most challenging schedule.  But over three weekends in January, 12 teams had a chance to prove they were number one, and the team that remained undefeated was crowned the Super Bowl champion.  If only believing in Jesus was so clear.

Every so often someone will come to my study and ask me, “How can I believe?”  They’ve heard the stories of Jesus, perhaps they’ve grown up in the church; they come to worship from time to time, and they want to be enveloped with a warm assurance of faith.  But something is missing.  “How can I believe?” they want to know.

How can you believe?  What makes one person take a leap of faith and another hold back?  There’s more to it than being convinced of an argument, more than understanding the doctrines of the Christian faith.  Understanding is something we do with our minds, but believing is something we do with our hearts.

Believing that Jesus is your Lord and Savior is more than agreeing with a statement of fact.  Believing in Jesus means you give him your life.  It means you trust where you can’t understand and you follow where you can’t see. It means your life is no longer your own.  Your money, your job, your family, your time – it’s all his, and you know that in giving it all to him you receive meaning, purpose and eternal life.

Believing in Jesus means trusting him for everything.  And God doesn’t give us that gift of faith until we’re ready.  Notice in the story we read this morning, Jesus was with two of his followers, two people who had seen him, heard him teach, and supported his work.  He was standing right there with them, but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”  They weren’t yet ready to believe.

If you look at the stories of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection, you’ll notice he appeared selectively to those who were ready to give their lives to him.  He didn’t appear to crowds in the streets or the synagogues; he didn’t cower people into accepting the fact that he had risen from the grave.[1]  He didn’t show himself to Pontius Pilate or to the high priests or the others who crucified him to prove to them that they were wrong.  He showed himself to Mary Magdalene in the garden.  He showed himself to Thomas who wanted to believe but whose doubts kept getting in the way.

Jesus reveals himself as Lord to those who are ready to see him.  Otherwise, people may believe, but they would believe in the wrong thing.  They might understand him for much less than he really is.

The two who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus were looking for less than Jesus had to offer.  They thought he was an uninformed stranger.  They lamented to him “we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.”  They were looking for someone to free Israel from the yoke of Roman oppression, but that was too small a thing.  Jesus came to do something far greater than that.  He came to free humanity from the yoke of death and sin.  Jesus had told them about the kingdom of heaven and the power of God’s forgiving grace.  But, like all of us do so much of the time, they heard what they wanted to hear.

Edgardo Antonio Colon-Emeric tells about a friend of his whose congregation was baptizing a family in a river that ran near the Hispanic church where he was the pastor.  “As the newly baptized members came out of the water he handed them their baptismal certificates.  Afterwards… they celebrated a fiesta.  Since the whole event occurred outdoors, the ritual and celebration were open for all to see – including a couple of men recently arrived from Mexico.  The next day these men showed up at [the] friend’s church asking if this was the church where they ‘fixed papers.’  These men naively mistook the baptismal certificates for official government papers that would legalize their status in this country.  In short, they thought that the people getting baptized were receiving green cards.”[2]  They were receiving new life in Christ, but the onlookers thought they were receiving work papers!

If we’re not ready, we believe what we want to believe.  We believe in something less than who Jesus really is – the risen Lord who gives eternal life.  But God helps us.  God gives us gifts to prepare us so that when the time is right we can see Jesus for who he really is.

One gift God gives us is the scriptures.  While Jesus was walking along the road with those two people, he interpreted for them how everything about himself was right there in the Bible.  Jesus isn’t a new invention, a substitute for the God who gave Moses the Ten Commandments.  The prophets pointed to Jesus when they warned Israel about its obligations to the poor and the widows.  So many people try to make Jesus into their own image.  You see that in our culture wars.  The right sees him as the upholder of traditional family values, as they define those values.  The left tries to claim him as the patron of social justice, as they define it.  Everyone wants Jesus on his or her side, but Jesus does not have a side.  He is free and autonomous.  It is only through the scriptures that we can understand who he is.  And not a selective reading of scripture, focusing on the parts that support our assumptions, but a serious, prayerful reading that challenges us and changes us.  Jesus interprets scripture to his followers on the road to Emmaus so they’ll see him for who he is, not who they want him to be.

Jesus gives us the scriptures to prepare us to accept him, but he doesn’t leave us on our own to understand them.  He gives us the fellowship of believers to guide us.       There is a place for individual Bible study.  We need to spend time every day studying the scriptures.  But that is no substitute for studying the Bible with others, drawing on the collective wisdom and revelation of the Spirit that guides and corrects our individual interpretations. Churches that are growing are those that have spiritual vitality, and one of the ways a congregation is spiritually vital is when its members are engaged in studying the scriptures. Eastminster’s adult Bible study class is continuing to meet online Sunday mornings at 9:00, and they welcome anyone who wants to join. Once we come back together, it will be more important than ever to reengage in circles and Sunday school classes to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the Bible.

Worship is a place where we come to have our eyes opened.  Anthropologists call worship a “thin place” where the gulf that separates the human from the divine is narrow.  In worship we cultivate an atmosphere of awe and mystery.  It’s one time in the week where God is at the center of everything we say and do.  Our hymns, our prayers, the central place of the Bible, all those things make it easier for us to experience God in worship.  We’re forced to worship in new ways during this pandemic, but as you listen to this service from your home, that same Spirit that we feel on Sundays in the sanctuary draws us together even when we are in different places and lifting our praise at different times.

The story of the walk to Emmaus shows us another gift Jesus gives us to prepare us to receive him into our lives.  He gives us the gift of broken bread.  Their eyes were opened and they recognized him when he took bread, blessed it and broke it.  It’s in the breaking of the bread that we see most clearly who Jesus is.  When we celebrate the sacrament, we join with believers across time and space to receive the gifts of life that Jesus gives us, inviting us to share his brokennness and suffering, to see his strength in his weakness. We hope to be able to have on-line communion in a few weeks when our video streaming equipment arrives, but even apart from the gathered church, the reservoir of our memories that we have from all those times we’ve broken bread together sustains our faith and our hope.

Fifteen years ago, as Pope John Paul II’s health deteriorated, he considered stepping down from the papacy in favor of a younger, more vigorous man.  Sometimes it was painful to watch him in public – his body so weak he often could not raise his arms in blessing, his hands trembling from Parkinson’s disease, his head bowed and his features drooping.  He did not step down because he saw his suffering and infirmity as a reflection of the power of Jesus.  Jesus’ glory was not in calling down armies of angels to vanquish his foes.  Jesus was glorified on the cross.  He set aside his own strength so God’s power could triumph through him.  Only when we follow the way of the cross and put aside our own strength and wisdom is there room in our lives for God.  When the disciples saw the one who suffered and died on the cross, they believed.

“How can I believe?”  Just asking the question and wanting to know means God is probably stirring up something inside of you.  God gives us gifts to prepare us – the Bible, the fellowship of believers, worship and the sacraments.  God offers us those gifts to prepare us for Jesus.  But in the end it’s not about you and me, not about what we do or accomplish.  Faith is a gift that Jesus gives us, a gift that is free and gracious.  Are you ready to receive it?

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 285.

[2] Edgardo Antonio Colon-Emeric, “Consorting with Aliens,” The Christian Century, April 5, 2005, p. 18.

4-19-20 Online Service

 

Service for the Lord’s Day

Sunday, April 19, 2020

 

Gathering

Chimes

 

Welcome

 

Prelude                                                       Sunshine in My Soul                                       arr. Mark Hayes

 

Opening Sentences

 

Gathering Prayer

 

Hymn                                     Alleluia! Sing to Jesus (vs. 1 and 4)                       Hyfrydol, arr. Bill Carter

 

Alleluia! Sing to Jesus! His the scepter, His the throne!

Alleluia! His the triumph, His the victory alone.

Hark! The songs of peaceful Zion thunder like a mighty flood.

Jesus out of every nation hath redeemed us by His blood.

 

Alleluia! King eternal, Thee the Lord of lords we own.

Alleluia! Born of Mary, earth Thy footstool, heaven Thy throne.

Thou within the veil hast entered, robed in flesh, our great High Priest.

Thou on earth both priest and victim in the Eucharistic feast.

 

 

Confession and Pardon

 

 

 Response                                     Amazing Grace                                 Columbian Harmony, 1829

 

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.

 

“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears believed.

How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.                                                         

 

 

Word

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

Scripture

Acts 5:12-16

John 20: 19-31

                                                                                                                                                           

Sermon     “Easter Rock’n’roll”

 

Hymn                                                 We Walk By Faith and Not By Sight                            Dunlap’s Creek

 

We walk by faith and not by sight.  No gracious words we hear from Christ

who spoke as none e’er spoke, but we believe Him near.

 

We may not touch His hands and side, nor follow where He trod,

but in His promise we rejoice, and cry “My Lord, My God!”

 

Help then, O Lord, our unbelief, and may our faith abound

to call on You when You are near and seek where You are found.

 

That, when our life of faith is done, in realms of clearer light,

we may behold You as You are with full and endless sight.

 

 

 

Offering

 

Offertory                              There Is a Balm in Gilead                                                          Spiritual

Marilyn Jennerjohn, solo

 

 

Response                    Behold What Manner of Love                                               Patricia Van Stine

 

Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us,

Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us.

That we should be called the children of God.

That we should be called the children of God.

 

 

Prayers of Intercession

 

     Lord’s Prayer

 

Sending

 

Hymn                                         What a Friend We Have in Jesus                             Converse, Bill Carter

 

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.

What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,

All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

 

Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?

Precious Savior, still our refuge – take it to the Lord in prayer.

Do Thy friends despise, forsake thee?  Take it to the Lord in prayer.

In His arms He’ll take and shield thee, Thou wilt find a solace there.

 

 

Blessing and Charge

 

Postlude                                                  Jesus Loves Me                                 arr. Darryl B. Moreticome

 

 

Next week’s sermon is “Deep Yearnings and Holy Hunger.”

The scripture text is Luke 24: 13-35.

 

Easter Rock ‘N’ Roll

N.T. Wright tells of the time that he was in a cab stuck in a London traffic jam. The cabbie, seeing by his clothes that he was a bishop, commented on what a difficult time the Anglicans were having over the issue of women bishops. The communion was threatening to fracture over the place of women in its leadership. But then the taxi driver turned to face Wright and said, “What I always say is this: if God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, everything else is basically rock’n’roll, i’n’it?”[1]

The cabbie didn’t give Wright the answer to the controversy, but he put it in its place. The problems that faced us two weeks ago haven’t gone away. We’re still separated, the church building is still closed, we still have to worship from our computers. The death toll from Covid-19 is still tragically high. The economy is in the tank, and the suffering from loss of jobs continues to grow, while many of those who do have jobs are stretched to the limit because of new demands. But because of Easter everything else is, well maybe not rock’n’roll, but a whole lot different. Death and fear don’t have the upper hand. We know what the risen Christ has in store.

That is what empowered the apostles in Jerusalem. Jesus’ resurrection transformed their fear and hopelessness so they could boldly do the work of that new creation. Now, that work set them up for a backlash. It’s clear how much of a threat that new creation was to the prevailing power. When you read on in Acts, you see that the apostles were arrested and thrown in jail. Their irrepressible witness led to persecution that drove them out of the city. But they knew they weren’t bound to the old way. They belonged to the New Creation. So they were not afraid of the lingering powers of death because God had raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Everything else was rock’n’roll.

It’s easy for us in 21st century America to get tripped up by the signs that pointed to that New Creation in those days after Easter. Really, now – healed by Peter’s passing shadow? Casting out unclean spirits? Those were signs that broke into an ancient worldview, signs that showed the people of that time that something more powerful was at work than the forces they were resigned to. The powers that be in ancient Jerusalem were threatened because people crowded into the city bringing the sick to be cured. Free, unrestricted health care for anyone who shows up? That’s aiming right for the heart of the powers of death and sickness. Sharing all things in common so there is no gap between the rich and the poor? That’s blasphemy against the empire of oppression that tries to keep the “in their place.” The high priest and the Saducees had given their lives to the powers that be. Those signs of Easter power threatened them because they belonged to the old creation, where death had the last word.

Those powers of death that belong to the old creation have plenty of ways to resist the New Creation. They even have a way of taking gifts God has given us and twisting them so they nudge us away from God. Reason is one of those God-given gifts that the old order of death uses to resist the new creation of life. People often think reason is in conflict with faith. Like Doubting Thomas, we believe only what we can take in with our senses, and we dismiss what we can’t touch and see and prove. That’s one of the biggest obstacles to believing in the resurrection of Jesus. But science itself keeps reminding us how limited our senses are and how narrow our reason can be. A recent example is the discovery of gravitational waves. For most of human history we have observed the universe using light that is visible to the naked eye, which the earliest stargazers saw beaming from the stars as they sat in pastures watching their sheep.  Then we invented devices that let us measure radio waves picked up from observatories perched on remote mountain peaks, or from ultraviolet and infrared light observed by the Hubble telescope. 100 years ago Albert Einstein predicted that there is another kind of wave that is not visible to the eye or the instruments that detect light. He said that there are gravitational waves, unlike any other force we’ve ever detected, coursing through the universe bending space and time. In 2015 scientists, using sophisticated instruments, detected those waves. The ones they recorded are from the collision of two black holes one billion years ago. Those waves have been coursing through us and around us all along, but only now do we know for sure that they exist.

Science and reason help us understand the world around us. Physics has shown us that a solar eclipse isn’t due to the gods upsetting the course of night and day to foretell some cataclysmic event. Geology has figured out that a volcanic eruption isn’t a sign that the spirits inside the earth are displeased. Biology shows us that the coronavirus is a microbe that has migrated from animals to humans, not a divine punishment for whatever human behavior someone thinks happens to displease God . Science and reason let us explain and to some extent control the world around us. But there is another level of what is going on, another dimension that is beyond our five senses. No matter who much we know about astronomy, the movement of the moon and the stars make us stand in awe of the one who created them, and that their creator cares for you and me. Immunologists discover medicines that cure disease, but when a loved one is restored to health, we see an example of divine grace that works against death. There is more going on than the eye can see or the mind comprehend. Christ’s resurrection takes us beyond the obvious.

Fear is another weapon that the old creation uses to fight back against Easter. On one level, fear is a good thing. The most loving thing we can do for each other right now is be wary of infections and practice social distancing. We know that some people are to be feared. When churches and schools are hiring people to work with children, they run background checks because there are bad characters out there. Acknowledging that bad things happen and taking care is a good thing. But fear can paralyze us and keep us from claiming God’s gift of life so that we settle for small things that give us false security and do not last. For example, Christ’s resurrection broke down the dividing wall of hostility so we can rejoice in the rich variety of humanity that God created, but fear causes us to look for those who are somehow different from us to blame when things go wrong. I was talking with an Asian American Presbyterian minister who described how she’s recently been the object of racial slurs from people who blame the pandemic on China and fear anyone whom they think is Chinese, even though her heritage is Korean. Easter is the triumph of that perfect love that casts out fear. Because of Easter, we have received the power of the Holy Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Easter lets us face what threatens us with courage and hope.

It’s that courage and hope of Easter that has drawn us together as Christ’s church. Like those first Christians we read about in Acts, Christ works through us to let the world know his healing and hope that takes away our fear and changes the way we see things. A while ago I was talking to a student at Lancaster Seminary who was preparing to become a hospice chaplain. She told me how she feels called to minister in a place where death is a constant presence. In the weakness she encounters every day, she sees signs of God’s strength. Amid what looks like hopelessness to some, she can find signs of life. It’s there, among those who live at the margins of our community, that she knows the presence of Christ who gives eternal life.

When we have a hard time seeing that Easter power, when the powers of death look to have the upper hand, it helps to look more broadly at what God is doing in other places. A friend of ours who is a pastor in Ghana paid us a visit. He was spending a semester in the United States as a visiting professor at a nearby seminary. He told us how tired he has become of hearing us Americans bemoan the state of the church in our country. We fret as if the gospel of Jesus Christ is in jeopardy, as if he had lost control and were no longer Lord. Churches in America may be struggling, but that’s not the whole story of the Christ’s Church. The Presbyterian congregation where our friend is pastor in Africa is thriving, filled with activity throughout the week, and spinning off congregations to accommodate the response of his community to the good news of the gospel. We think that if everything isn’t going great for us, then God has left the building. When I visited South Sudan a number of years ago, I met a pastor who had baptized 3000 people during the past year. When I asked him what he attributed that to, he responded “You in the West are shielded from the power of the gospel by your cell phones and your TVs. Here in South Sudan, we have nothing to keep us from the power of the Spirit. We confront death every day, and God is all we have to rely on.”

Craig Barnes, writing in  The Christian Century maagazine, reminds us just what it is that happens in our baptism where Christ puts his claim on us. Baptismal services of the early church were in essence funerals. Those who were about to join the church would take off their old clothes and walk into the water of baptism. The priest would immerse them in the water with the words, “Buried with him in baptism.” Then rising out of the water, the priest would say, “Risen to new life in Christ.” Then the new Christian would put on new clothes as a symbol of putting on Christ. The liturgy showed how in baptism those who joined the church confronted death and got it over with. Once they were no longer anxious about the worst that Caesar could do to them, once they had already died with Christ, they were free to boldly proclaim the gospel. Barnes observed, “You can’t scare dead people.”[2]

“If God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, everything else is basically rock’n’roll, i’n’it?” Death is over and done with. Fear has lost control. Nothing can stop us now. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), p. 207.

[2] M. Craig Barnes, “The post-anxiety church,” The Christian Century, February 3, 2016, p. 33.

Easter Sunday Online Service

 

Service for the Lord’s Day

Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020

 

Gathering

 

 

Welcome

 

Prelude                                                   Thine is the Glory                                       arr. Ryan Thomas     

 

Opening Sentences

 

Gathering Prayer

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Confession and Pardon

 

Response                                    Christ is Risen, Shout Hosanna                            Hymn to Joy

 

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

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

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

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

 

Word

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

Scripture

Old Testament Lesson – Isaiah 25:6-9

New Testament Lesson – John 20:1-18

                                                                                                                                                           

Sermon     “Called by Name”

 

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

 

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

The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.

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

Our Christ hath brought us over with hymns of victory.

 

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

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

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

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

 

Offering

 

Offertory                                           Alleluia, Christ is Risen!                                arr. James Kirby

Sarah Foess – solo

 

 

Response                                   Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow                      Doxology

 

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

 

 

Prayers of Intercession

 

     Lord’s Prayer

 

Sending

 

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

 

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

till all the world adore His sacred name.

 

Come, Christians, follow where our Savior trod.

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

 

So shall our song of triumph ever be.

Praise to the Crucified for victory. (repeat refrain)

 

 

Blessing and Charge

 

 

Postlude                                                       Prelude in C Major                                            J.S. Bach

 

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

Called By Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Friday Online Service

 

WELCOME

 

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

 

PRAYER

 

HYMN NO. 80                Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley                            Lonesome Valley

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

THE PASSION OF OUR LORD

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

            SOLO                                Were You There?                                                          Spiritual

Tim Ruth – cello

 

PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION

            The Lord’s Prayer

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Online Worship Service — 3-29-20

Service for the Lord’s Day

March 29, 2020

 

Gathering

 

Welcome

 

Prelude                                   What Wondrous Love is This                                    arr. Sarah Douglas

 

Opening Sentences

 

Gathering Prayer

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Confession and Pardon

 

Response                                Grace Greater Than Our Sin                                   Johnston, Towner

 

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

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

 

Word

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

Scripture

Numbers 21:4-9

     John 3:14-21

                                                                                                                                                           

Sermon     “Lifted UP”

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Offering

 

 

Response                            A Grateful Heart                                            English Folk Melody

 

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

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

 

Prayers of Intercession

 

 

 Lord’s Prayer

 

Sending

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Blessing and Charge

 

 

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

 

     Lifted Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online Worship Service — 3/22/20

 

Service for the Lord’s Day

March 22, 2020

 

Gathering

 

 

Welcome

 

PRELUDE – My Jesus, i Love Thee

 

Opening Sentences                                                                                                                       

 

Gathering Prayer

 

Hymn – Our God, Our Help in Ages Past

 

Confession and Pardon

     Gloria Patri

 

Word

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

Scripture

     Old Testament Lesson – Ezekiel 37:1-14

     New Testament Lesson – Romans 8:6-11

                                                                                                                                                           

Sermon     Hope in the Bones (Sermon text provided below)

 

Hymn – Breathe on me breath of god

 

Offering

Response – “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart”

 

Prayers of Intercession

     Lord’s Prayer

 

Sending

 

Hymn – To God Be the Glory

 

Blessing and Charge

 

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

 

Hope In The Bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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