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12-8-19 — A Christmas-Sized Welcome — Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       A few months after my mother died, I drove down to South Carolina to tie up some loose ends with her estate. My brother was staying in her house, and on a bright Carolina morning we went outside so he could show me some of the things he’d done with the yard. He pointed over to the neighbor’s house and said something had changed about Tommy, the man who lives there. Tommy, his wife and two kids had lived in the house since before Mom and Dad moved into the neighborhood 25 years earlier. He was always a friendly neighbor, with a warm greeting and an offer of a helping hand as my parents aged. But according to my brother he had turned sour and sometimes downright hostile. “I can’t figure out what I’ve done to make him so unfriendly,” David said.

       Later that morning we went out to run an errand. As we drove in front of Tommy’s house, I noticed a handicap ramp leading up to the front door. I asked my brother about it, and he said that in recent years Tommy’s wife had developed a severe disability that limited her mobility. I began to wonder. I remembered how my parents had told me that Tommy had been bouncing around jobs ever since he retired from a career as a state trooper. A light went off in my head. I said to my brother, “Maybe you haven’t done anything to make him unfriendly. Maybe that’s how he deals with the losses in his life – the loss of his career to retirement, his wife’s health to disability, the kids moving away, and who knows what else.” I couldn’t know for sure, because I didn’t know Tommy that well. But you’ve seen it before: Sometimes stuff happens to a person and they turn inward. Everything seems hopeless, and it’s hard to see the point of engaging with the neighbors or anybody else.

       Later that afternoon David and I went to visit our Aunt Mattie Lee. Mattie Lee was 97 years old. She never married, and she had lived alone in the same house since our grandmother died in 1976. She was totally blind, and her mobility was limited. She relied on Meals on Wheels five days a week for food. The county’s department of senior services sent someone around every other week to help with cleaning and chores. You might think Mattie Lee had a grim life – but no. She was one of those people you visit thinking you’re doing them a favor and when you leave you realize that you’re the one who is better off. She radiated a deep joy that let you know she was genuinely glad to be with you. She kept up with the news. The deacons from her church kept her informed about what was going on in her congregation. She listened to audio books that came in the mail from the state library system. While we were there my cousin Edwin stopped by to give her two estimates he had gotten from a contractor to repair some damage caused by a tree that fell on the house. Who knew how long Mattie Lee was going to be living in that house, but she questioned Edwin thoroughly to make sure that he chose the estimate that would be the best value. Then she started asking him about their mutual acquaintances and sharing small town gossip. Mattie Lee may have been blind and housebound, but she was fully engaged in life.

       The prophet Isaiah writes about a stump. In the way that prophets do, he uses the stump as a metaphor for something else. The stump is the nation of Judah, God’s chosen people. It has been cut down and left to rot, the way Judah had been destroyed by Babylon and left empty and ravaged. You look at the stump, and you think that’s the end of the mighty tree that once towered over that spot. But the prophet said, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out his roots.” God wasn’t through with that tree yet. Even though it looked dead and barren, new life would spring from it. Even though it looked as though God’s people had been wiped off the face of the earth, God would be true to the promise God made to David. A new people would rise up, led by one who fulfills God’s promise of a new creation where the poor are treated fairly and the wicked do not hold the upper hand and even the forces of nature are no longer a threat.

       Some people, maybe people like Tommy, see the stump of what remains of their life, of the hope and promise they once had, and give up. They close in on themselves and shut out others. Others, like Mattie Lee, see that stump and see the new branch sprouting out of it. They know that their lives belong to God, the God of life and hope and promise. They reach out and embrace the world. They welcome each day, each person as a gift from God, a glimpse of God’s new creation.

       Today’s New Testament lesson says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (v.13) It’s hope that lets us reach out and embrace the world around us. It’s not a way of thinking or a mental discipline. It’s not a denial of the cold hard facts. Hope is a gift from God, something we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.  

       Paul is not touting the power of positive thinking or preaching the gospel of prosperity. He is proclaiming God’s new creation where no one will be in need, where all will be healthy and whole. But something happens before the meek and the poor are given justice. Isaiah says that the entrenched powers have to be displaced. “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Before the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the kid, before the calf and the lion and the fatling come together, those carnivores will have to make some pretty big sacrifices and changes in their lifestyle. For the little child to lead them, the grownups will have to relinquish their power. Just thinking positively, just laying claim to riches or health or happiness that are supposedly yours doesn’t make that peaceable kingdom come. The powers that oppress the poor, those illnesses that ravage our bodies, even those forces of nature that harm us, the floods and fires and storms, all those things are still with us and bring us all kinds of grief and suffering, but rather than resign ourselves to those things, God gives us hope.

       Jesus is our model for how to deal with the upheavals in our lives. He shows us how that new creation comes. He lived simply, cared for the poor, welcomed the outcast, proclaimed God’s new creation in what he said and did and how he related to other people. That perfect life was broken. He suffered pain, death and desertion. Then God raised him from that tomb, the righteous branch out of the dead stump, and gave him new life. The one who was raised is the same one who died, but through his suffering and death he proclaims the power of God for life.

       Each of our lives is a continual process of incorporating our losses into the new reality of who God is shaping us to be. Jesus gives us hope and courage so we can leave behind those parts of our lives that are over and receive what God is giving us that is new. Adolescence is such a tumultuous time because we are giving up our identity as children. But we don’t abandon who we were as children. We incorporate who we have been into the new person we are becoming as an adult. Scripture says that when we marry, we leave our father and mother and cleave unto our spouse, but it doesn’t take any longer than the first Christmas to discover that your spouse’s family, with their assumptions and traditions, is still very much part of your beloved. One of the beauties of a strong marriage is the way it takes people from two different families and blends them to become a new family. One of the challenges of retirement is figuring out who you are once you’re no longer working. Your years of work shaped you, so who are you once you’re not going to work? A successful retiree is someone who doesn’t necessarily abandon the person she or he was at work, but discovers who they are now at a new stage of life, how God is bringing forth the new from what has gone before.

       It happens in all of life’s transitions, whether it’s becoming a parent or an empty-nester, putting life together after the death of someone we love, living with an illness or a disability that turns life upside down. A life lived in Christ is the life that can welcome all changes and transitions, even our losses and our griefs, because we are sure that in Christ all things do work together for good.

       That’s one of the most important things a congregation does during the time of transition between pastors. You embody the hope of Advent, the expectation that God is going to continue being faithful to God’s promises.

       Now, Eastminster Presbyterian Church is by no means a barren stump. The vital signs that measure a congregation’s health are strong. Worship attendance is stable, giving is up, you have a mission outreach locally and globally. You’re a caring congregation that is at peace with itself. Over 100 people enjoyed the Thanksgiving feast two weeks ago.

       But there is some anxiety about the future. You look out across the congregation and see lots of gray hair. The ministry to children and youth took a big hit a few years ago, and you lost a critical mass of young families. We want more children and youth but don’t know what to do.

       That’s where Isaiah’s image of the stump of Jesse is helpful for Eastminster. This Advent season is a time to learn how to wait. The promise is that for those who wait in hope, God brings forth new things out of the old.

       We all get anxious about what the future will bring, whether it’s the college we’ll attend or the job we’ll have, our family or our finances – or the future of the church. But whenever I get anxious about the future, I always remind myself that the same God who has brought me to where I am today is the God who holds my future. I have no reason to think that God, who has been so good and faithful in the past, is going to be any different in the future. So we commend our lives, our loved ones, and our church, to God who brings forth new things. We don’t know what they will be, but Advent reminds us that sometimes the right thing to is to wait in prayerful expectation so we’ll be ready to receive God’s gift, when God is ready to give it.

12-1-19 — A Matter of Time — Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:8-14 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Do you know what time it is? Often we treat other people as if we’re living in a different time. Parents treat grown sons and daughters as if they’re still children.  Husbands and wives don’t keep up with each other as the years go by and they discover that the ways they related to each other when they first married don’t work for the new situation that exists 5, 10, or 40 years later.  A friend or coworker has offended us, and we let that insult shape the way we relate to them for years to come instead of working through differences and starting over so that we do not live in the past.

It seems to be human nature, like generals who are always fighting the last war. Eighteen years ago the attacks of 9/11 jolted us into a whole new era. We initially responded to al Qaeda the way we’d always responded to threats to our national security, by invading foreign countries with massive firepower. We expected it to work in 2001 the same way it had worked during the first Gulf War of 1991. But after a while it became clear that Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t our fathers’ wars, that the old ways of fighting were only making things worse.

       We’re good at living in the past, but today’s New Testament lesson encourages us to live for the future.  Paul reminds the Romans, “You know what time it is.”  He was speaking to those who had given their lives to Jesus Christ, reminding them that his life was more than an affirmation of peace and joy and good will.  Paul wrote to those who knew that Jesus changed the way we look at time.  Because of Jesus, we know what time it is.  It’s not the past that shapes us any more.  The future, the promise of Jesus, is what guides us.

       Just think how knowing what the future holds affects the way you live right now.  If you’re a high school senior, you know that things will be different for you after this year, so it changes the way you think about school this week.  Once a couple becomes engaged to be married, the months before the wedding are a whirlwind of preparations for what is to come.  As you approach retirement, your goals and ambitions are tailored with that retirement date in mind.  If you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, each day takes on a different character, it becomes a gift to be savored because you know in a more intimate way than the rest of us what the future holds. 

Jesus doesn’t wipe out our past.  He doesn’t eradicate our identity or our accomplishments.  He honors those things we’ve accomplished and the good we’ve done. His life fulfilled the past. It was the culmination of all the wonderful things God had done for Israel.  But it was also the promise of the future, an affirmation of what God has in store. It affects the way we relate to the people we meet every day.  We relate to people by what we know about their past – what we’ve heard about them from others, how they’ve treated us.  And all of that is important.  You can’t deny a person’s past.  But imagine what it would be like if we related to everyone in light of the promise God has given us in Jesus.  God has something wonderful in store for each and every person on the planet.

God thinks enough of that person who bothers you, that one who has hurt you, that one who makes you toss and turn at night – God thinks enough of that person to send Jesus to die for his or her sins, just as God loves you.  God wants that person to have a place at the table when the heavenly host is gathered in glory.  When you look at a person for what God desires for him or her, are you quarrels really that important?  Is it worth your time being angry?

But it’s not just a personal promise that God makes about the future. The victory Jesus won over hopelessness and hatred and death was for all the nations. Instead of resolving differences by brinksmanship or threats of force, people will look to God to guide them to be fair to everyone. Instead of resolving conflicts with weapons and wars, the time is coming when nations will look to God to resolve their differences. All our energy, our creativity, our resources will go into improving life rather than destroying it.  We’ll beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.  We’ll beat our tanks into tractors and instead of carrying bombs our airplanes will all carry food and medicine and books.  Instead of hiring baggage screeners and security officers, we’ll be hiring childcare workers and nurses and teachers.  Jesus has bigger and better things in store for us.

Church is the place where we live that promise. One reason this congregation has thrived is because it has looked for what God is doing in the world to make all things new and getting on board with it. Your commitment to serving the community is a bold affirmation of how God’s love makes all things new. You show local families the promise of Christ’s hope when you give food to the needy and Christmas gifts to kids through Bell Shelter. Your partnership with Source of Life Ministries in Haiti that we heard about last week sends the powerful message that things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been for street kids in Haiti. The compassion you show through Stephen Ministers and deacons outreach reminds our church members that Christ makes all things new. Eastminster Preschool is an investment in the future that shapes young children to respect one another and to love learning so they’ll go on to become successful students.

One of the things a congregation works on during the transition between pastors is figuring out what time it is. For Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Greg’s retirement marked the culmination of a good era. This church is strong, a real accomplishment for any congregation these days. A new era is in the works, and one of the things that happens as a congregation welcomes a new pastor is discerning what God has in mind for Eastminster Presbyterian Church here in east York and what kind of pastoral leadership you need to fulfill God’s vision for you. It’s a matter of knowing what time it is, recognizing what’s the same and what’s different, what stays the same and what has changed. That’s not something that happens fast. It takes patience and lots of prayer. It takes a commitment to keep up the good things that God is doing here now while waiting expectantly for the new things God has in store.

For the last 2000 years the western world has marked time by the birth of Jesus.  His arrival divided history into BC and AD.  In him time is different now.  The old is finished and gone.  Everything is fresh and new.  We have to make concessions for the present, for those who would harm us, for the inequalities and the injustices that plague us now.  But we don’t get stuck in the past – and what is current today will tomorrow be past. When God sent Jesus to us, God sent us the future. In Jesus we’ve already got the very best God has in store. Jesus keeps us from getting stuck in the past because he is our future.  We don’t live by what has happened but by what is yet to come.  And the one who is coming is Jesus.  He’s where your future lies.

11-24-19 — Angels: In Praise of God — Psalm 103:1-5, 19-22; Revelation 5:11-14 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Today we conclude a three-part series of sermons about angels. The first time we talked about angels we saw how they serve as messengers of God, informing human beings of the marvelous things that God is doing. Our last sermon looked at angels as God’s agents, one way that God is actively involved in the world around us. Today we’re going to talk about the third and perhaps most important function of angels in the Bible – their praise of God.

These spiritual beings without physical bodies are mysterious creatures. Even though they are mentioned often in the Bible, the scriptures don’t tell us much about angels. Much of what you read about angels in popular books are conjectures that people have made over the centuries, some based on the Bible, some taken from folklore and other religions, some straight from the imagination of the author. I suspect that the Bible doesn’t tell us much about angels so we won’t be distracted from God, whose messengers and agents the angels are.

For all that angels do in the Bible, from rescuing apostles from jail to slaying Assyrian armies, their encounters with human beings are spotty and extraordinary. When the Bible portrays angels going about their routine business, it’s not roaming the earth looking for people to help or lives to save. Angels spend most of their time doing something that may strike us as not terribly pragmatic or functional or utilitarian. Angels spend most of their time worshiping God.

When the shepherds got a glimpse of heaven on the night that Jesus was born, they saw the heavenly host praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” When Isaiah was in the temple and beheld the grandeur of God in its fullest, he saw a type of angel called seraphim surrounding the throne praising God. Psalms like the one from which we read this morning tell of angels continually praising God. And the book of Revelation, which in symbolic language describes what it will be like when history reaches its goal, tells of angels and all kinds of creatures surrounding God and giving praise.

There’s a lot we don’t know about angels, but what the Bible tells us about them it tells us for our benefit. Every once in a while we get a glimpse of how the angels spend their time so that we will know the most important thing that we can do. There are lots of important things that we do. We help other, we provide for our families, we work to make the world a better place to live, but those aren’t the most important things we do. The most important thing we do as human beings is doing what the angels do: worshiping and praising God.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a little book of questions and answers that for generations was the basic Sunday school curriculum used by Presbyterian children. It’s part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of our confessions of faith, along with The Apostles’ Creed and eight others, that we use to interpret the Bible. The very first question that the catechism asks is “What is the chief end of human beings?” and the answer is “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Our chief end isn’t to make the world a better place or to win the world for Christ. It’s to glorify and enjoy God. Of course, when we do that, all other good things follow. We naturally help others and show God’s love to all we meet and find the spiritual resources to be good parents, true friends, and faithful children. But before we can do anything else in a way that pleases God, we must first worship.

The angels in the Bible help us see what that means. As they gather around God and sing praise, they are totally focused on God. You see, it is only in God that we get the kind of purpose and focus for our lives that makes them worthwhile. Eugene Peterson says that people who do not worship “live in a vast shopping mall where they go from shop to shop, expending enormous sums of energy and making endless trips to meet first this need and then that appetite, this whim and that fancy. Life lurches from one partial satisfaction to another, interrupted by ditches of disappointment.”[1] So many things claim to offer us meaning and purpose, there is so much to do and so much to acquire that promises to make life better, so much that it often seems we don’t have the time to worship because we’re so busy doing important things.

What makes worship so powerful is that it takes us out of ourselves. When I’m worshiping God, I’m no longer the center of my universe. Worship brings us into the spiritual presence of God, where we realize that there is nothing other than God that is big enough to sustain the human spirit. Worship puts us in touch with the only one who is capable of giving our life purpose, who can strengthen us to be the kind of people we long to be.

The images of worship in the Bible are the most glorious pictures that the biblical writers could paint with words. They describe the abode of the angels as a place with streets of gold, buildings of jewels, and music of harps. Did you hear about the older couple who died and went to heaven? They were amazed by the beauty of the place. It was more spectacular than they could have ever imagined during their life. As they stood there  marveling, the husband turned to the wife and said, “You see, if you hadn’t made us eat all that high fiber, low fat food, we’d have gotten here sooner.”

When worship really works for us, when we’ve been graced by an encounter with the Holy Spirit that’s lifted our spirits right into the presence of God, we walk away feeling centered and whole, uplifted and reassured, confident and focused. Every faded tint, every wavering line of resolve is restored to original sharpness and hue.[2] If just for a brief time, we have become part of a cosmic reality, a reality that’s taking place on a plane that’s different from the one where we exist in this world. This sanctuary isn’t a place where we come to escape reality. It’s where we enter into a reality that’s more real than the places we live the rest of the week. We practice doing what it is we’re made to do, not scurrying after things that fade and pass away, but standing in the timeless presence of God. When we’ve beheld the peace, power, and joy of the one who made life and defeated death, there’s nothing in our lives that can overwhelm us.

Angels may be enough alike that they all worship the same way, but we human beings carry out our praise in as many different ways as there are human beings. Frankly, the thought of floating on a cloud playing a harp for eternity doesn’t sound all that appealing to me, but it’s been used as an image to get at the peace and fulfillment that comes with being close to God. Some of us worship best when we can be relaxed and informal. Some of us are more open to God’s Spirit in a grand and majestic setting. The Bible doesn’t describe one form of worship that is exactly right for all people all the time. What it describes is the glory and majesty of praising God.

The variety of what makes for meaningful worship is best illustrated in our reactions to hymns. There’s something about music that moves us toward God in a way that nothing else can do. That’s why the biblical descriptions of angels praising God so often have them singing. Hymns have a way of unlocking storage bins of memory in us that bring back encounters we have had with God and help us meet God again. But our experiences are different, and our beloved hymns are varied. On more than one occasion after a worship service I have had someone speak to me and say, “Thank you for choosing my very favorite hymn of all time,” only to have someone later say, about the same hymn, “Where did you find that? I hate new hymns like that.” At its best, music helps us reclaim life-changing encounters we have had with God in the past and leads us to new ways of praising God that expand our understanding of who God is.

Of all the things angels do in the Bible, there’s none more important than their praise of God. That tells us something. The hours we spend here in church, the minutes we spend each day in prayer and worship don’t earn us a living or further our career. It’s time we could spend doing for others, helping our children or serving the community. All of those are important things, things we need to do. But the time we spend when we’ve placed ourselves in the presence of God is time that we spend experiencing what it truly means to be alive so that when we depart, we live life to its fullest, as God desires. We have seen God in God’s glory so we can see God everywhere.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1991, p. 60.

[2] ibid.

11-17-19 — Angels: Agents of God — Numbers 22:22-35, Acts 12:6-11 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Wouldn’t you like to have an angel step into your life every once in a while? Have there been times when you’ve been in a predicament like Peter’s, maybe not chained in a jail cell, but in a hopeless situation with no way out, and you could have used an angel to spirit you away from your problems? Or have you been headed in a foolhardy direction, like Balaam on his way to Balak, and wish, now that you look back in hindsight, that an angel had stood in your path, waved a sword in front of you, and warned you in that convincing way that only angels can, that you had better rethink what you’re doing? That’s one reason angels have such appeal: They offer the possibility that we may not have to rely on our own wits to survive and prosper. They present the possibility that we’re not bound by the laws of nature, the actions of others, and the consequences of our own misguided decisions. Last Sunday we talked about angels as messengers of God. Today I want to talk about angels as agents of God, beings who do things, who make good things happen and prevent bad things from taking place.

       But for all the popularity of angels, many people have trouble with them. They see them as relics of an obsolete world view, one that attributed illness to demons instead of viruses and saw the earth as the flat center of a three-tiered universe. The idea of angels turns off those who have an aversion to overly large doses of sweetness and light. The popular image of heaven which the Victorian era, adorned with frills and flourishes, looks more like something from Better Homes and Gardens magazine than anything from the Bible, so that instead of declaring bone-rattling pronouncements like angels utter in scripture – sonorous words like “fear not!” – modern angels look like they are going to pat you on the knee and mutter “There, there.” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Intro.) Someone once observed that angels are so popular because people think that God is too preoccupied with more important things to be concerned about the details of our lives. So it’s reassuring to think that an angel can “make the tow truck come when you have a flat tire.” (Nora Ephron quoted in The New York Times, April 6, 1997, p. 41.) Angels who deliver tow trucks would be nice, but there’s nothing in the Bible that indicates they’re the celestial equivalent of AAA. But angels are mentioned too frequently in the Bible, and too many people I know have told me about encounters they have had with angels that I can’t dismiss them as figments of the imagination.

       Bible stories about angels tell us something about God. When we read the Bible, the most important thing we learn about God is that God acts. God isn’t a philosophical notion, a first principle, a distant ideal. God is involved in the lives of women and men, of boys and girls. God didn’t make the universe and set it in motion then step back to watch it work as in the classic image of God as a watchmaker. God is active in the world, and when God acts, God acts in love. Love isn’t something that can be coerced. God made us so we can share love with him and with others. But God gives us freedom to accept his love or reject it. There are times when we choose to do things that go against God’s purpose for us and distance us from God. And there are times when other people do things to us that aren’t in God’s loving purpose, when they hurt us and make us suffer. And there are times when things just happen, like miscarriages and strokes, that can’t be the will of God but which take place because we live in a still imperfect world. Love, at least when human beings are involved, isn’t always neat or predictable. Lots of times it’s complicated and messy.

       The Bible tells us that God is involved in this messy world, and there are times when God intervenes in extraordinary ways. The foremost example of God’s intervention in the course of history is Jesus Christ. God took on a human body in Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, taught throughout Galilee and Judea and the surrounding country, was put to death on Calvary and was raised from the dead on Easter. In Jesus God changed the whole course of human history. In him God showed us that nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even death.

       Jesus is God’s supreme intervention in the course of the world, but the Bible tells of other extraordinary interventions. There are miracles, like those that took place during the Passover and Exodus. God sent plagues on Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, plagues of blood and frogs and gnats and even death. God parted the Red Sea so God’s people could escape the Egyptian army. God sent manna and quails to feed the people in the desert during their long forty-year journey. Theologians and biblical scholar debate just how those miracles happened. Did God bend the laws of nature, or did God work within the laws of nature which we haven’t yet discovered, or were the miracles ordinary natural occurrences that happened to take place at just the right time, or did the miracles only take place in the perceptions of people of faith? Those are questions for other sermons, but the Bible is clear that sometimes God intervenes in the world through miracles.

       The Bible relates other ways that God intervenes in the world. Sometimes it’s through politics, as when God sent the Babylonians to punish Israel, then after forty years in exile God raised up Cyrus, the king of Persia, who wasn’t even aware that God was using him, to deliver them back home. Sometimes God has intervened through romance, as when Ruth and Boaz fell in love and were married and began the lineage that would lead to King David and then to Jesus. Sometimes God has intervened through dreams, as when Daniel interpreted visions for kings. And sometimes God has intervened through angels.

       Whenever angels appear in the Bible, they’re not like the fairy godmother in Cinderella. They don’t show up to grant wishes. Angels show up to carry out God’s plan for humanity. When Peter was freed from jail, it was so he could proclaim the gospel of Christ and establish the church of Christ on earth. When the angel stopped Balaam in his tracks, it was so he would do God’s work and bless Israel as they entered the Promised Land that God had promised to Moses. Angels don’t appear in the Bible in order to make dreams come true. They’re not sent as rewards for being especially good or faithful. Those whose lives are touched by an angel don’t boast about it, usually because they’re humbled that God has given them such a key spot in human history and they are awed at such a direct encounter with the Almighty.

       Biblical stories of angels are usually extraordinary, historical events, which raises the question that many of us have: Are there such things as guardian angels who occupy themselves with watching over each of us individually? Do you and I have our own angel who protects us from harm and guides us in our decisions? In favor of guardian angels are a few oblique references, such as Matthew 18:10 where Jesus tells his disciples that the angels of little ones continually see the face of his Father in heaven. After the angel leaves Peter in the story we read this morning, Peter appears to his friends who think that they’re not seeing Peter but his “angel.” But you can make strong arguments from the Bible that there aren’t guardian angels. When angels appear in the Bible, it’s for a brief time. They do their work then disappear, the way the angel did in our reading from Acts. There are no accounts in scripture of angels taking up residence with someone, continually guiding a person or looking over her shoulder. People of faith in the Bible are always aware of God’s presence with them, but only rarely does that presence take the form of an angel. I’m with that great Protestant reformer John Calvin on the question of guardian angels. He said that he just didn’t know if there are guardian angels or not.

       Angels are wonderful examples of God in action, but for some thoughtful people, their irregular appearances create more problems than hope. It’s like a sign that was on a small church in Texas. The sign read, “Come into this church to sit, to think, to look at the beauty within, to pray. It’s never too late to talk to God.” And there was a small sign below that read, “Hours 9 a.m. to Noon.” If God does sometimes intervene in the world through angels, why doesn’t God do it more often?

       For instance, Peter was rescued from prison by an angel, but why wasn’t James? I know of a person who felt an angel rescue him from death, but why do other people get cancer and die? Those are some of the most difficult questions that the human mind can come up with, and angels aren’t adequate to address them. The only one who can address hard questions like that is Jesus Christ. He could have called down legions of angels to fight off his enemies and rescue him from the cross, but he died there, suffering for us, making his death the way to eternal life. On the cross Jesus overcame the power of suffering by submitting to it.

       You see, angel visits are acts of God’s grace, and grace isn’t something we can predict or demand. Once we expect something as our right or our entitlement, it’s no longer grace. It’s more like a stipend. We know that God is good to us, that God is with us even in our suffering, that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and angels remind us of that.

       We can’t expect God to send us angels the way one came to Peter in prison, but we can expect God to send us surprises, surprises of grace that astound us as much as that angel astounded Peter. Barbara Brown Taylor tells about growing up in a small town and going to the movie theater on Saturday afternoons in the summer. All the kids tried to get to the matinee early so they could be at the front of the line. They wanted to be right there when the theater owner opened the doors and the fresh cool air from the dark theater rushed out over their hot sweaty faces. They wanted to claim the best seats, right down front, and be first in line for popcorn. And if it was an especially popular movie, they wanted to be in the front so they could be sure to get a seat. There were days when the kids in the back of the line didn’t get in at all.

       But what would it be like if one day, the day that the movie that had just won the Academy Award was opening, and the line was so long that you had to get there an hour early to make sure you got a seat in the theater? What if that day you were the last kid in line and for no reason at all other than he felt kindly toward you, the theater owner slipped out the door, walked all the way down the line to the very rear, and said to you and your friends, “You come in first today.” (“Beginning at the End,” in A Chorus of Witnesses, ed. Thomas G. Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.) That’s what grace is. It wouldn’t be grace if you expected it. It wouldn’t be grace if you thought it just might happen and took a chance of standing at the end of the line. That would be gambling. Grace is something as startling as Peter standing out in the open air and realizing that he wasn’t dreaming after all. It’s as improbable as having a donkey look up at you and tell you how to save your life.

       God intervenes in our lives in many different ways. Angels remind us of that. But they aren’t the only way God works, nor even the most common. When we profess our faith in Jesus Christ, we trust that God is intimately involved in our lives. Sometimes we get discouraged because we don’t see much evidence of God involved with us. The Psalms are full of cries asking God where in the world he is. That can be a danger of angel stories; they get our hopes up, then when we don’t see an angel, we get disillusioned. But it takes practice to recognize God’s grace when it’s staring us right in the face. It’s like other things that we work on so we recognize what we see right in front of us. If you don’t know anything about basketball, you can’t recognize a brilliant play when you see one. It looks like a bunch of people running aimlessly around a hardwood floor. But if you’ve taken the time to learn something about the game and watched it enough, you’ll recognize a pick and roll when you see one, you’ll anticipate an alley-oop on the way.

       We learn to recognize God working among us when we practice looking for God. The way to do that is to develop a discipline of daily prayer and Bible study and worship. Sometimes people think that religion is boring, but that’s often because they haven’t practiced it enough to see the excitement. So much of the time we’re like Balaam kicking and cursing his donkey while God is standing right in front of us trying to get our attention. We look high and low for angels when God is already involved and we don’t even know it.

11-10-19 — Angels: Messengers of God — Genesis 28:10-22, Hebrews 13:2 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Angels seem to be everywhere, if not the real heavenly beings, then depictions of them. Someone gave me a terra cotta angel that is perched on top of a bookcase in my study at home. You can find angels on jewelry, on coffee mugs, on greeting cards. Some of the most popular TV shows are about heavenly beings. The Good Place is about the hereafter that may or may not be so good. God Friended Me tells the adventures of a man who encounters God on his smartphone. Angels show up in movies. Even the Fonz, Henry Winkler, played an angel once, a full-loving spirit named Michael who is just one of the guys at heart.

       Our interest in angels is notable considering how little the Bible tells us about them. There’s a lot we could say about angels, but most of it comes from those books called the Apocrypha which were written in the time between the Old and New Testaments, or from the imagination of medieval artists, or from New Age fads. When we go to the Bible, our final authority in spiritual matters, we’re left with more questions about angels than answers.

       One thing you notice about angels in the Bible, and I think this gives us a clue to their popularity in modern times, is that they often appear in times of distress and despair when God seems very distant. When Jacob was fleeing Esau, having tricked his brother and deceived his father, escaping certain death and running toward and uncertain future, he saw angels going up and down a ladder at Bethel. When Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, and her son Ishmael were expelled from Abraham’s household by the jealous wife Sarah and left to die in the desert, it was an angel who guided them to water and delivered them to safety. The biblical books with the most angels, Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament, were written at times when God’s people were being persecuted violently and the faithful were in danger of giving up hope that God cared about them at all. When Jesus was alone in the wilderness and tempted by the devil, he was ministered to by angels, and as he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion, angels cared for him.

       Maybe angels are so popular today because we are in such desperate need for reminders that God is involved in the world around us. When you read about so many mass shootings, when it seems that civility and morality in public life are plummeting to ever newer lows, when drug abuse plagues even the most respectable neighborhoods, we can use some reminders that God really is involved and not looking on aloofly from the heavens.

       The Bible is more concerned with what angels do than it is concerned about who they are. In scripture angels have three functions. They communicate messages from God to human beings, they intercede with God’s people to rescue them from danger, and they offer praises to God in heaven. This morning I would like to talk about angels in general and their first function as messengers from on high. Next week I would like to discuss how they function as helpers, and on November 24 we will see how they carry out their work of praise.

       When we try to describe angels as we know them from the Bible, it’s like trying to describe a tree as you’re looking at it through a small third story window. When you look at a tree through a window, you’re going to see some branches coming into view from this way and some from that way. If you were standing out in the yard and could see the whole tree, you would see how all the branches fit together to make up a whole tree, but through a window all you can see are pieces that, from your limited perspective, look disconnected. It also makes a difference when you look at that tree. If you describe the tree in the spring, you might describe it as covered with beautiful flowers. If somebody else tells about the tree they see in the summer they’ll describe it as luscious green. In the fall it will be cloaked inflaming orange, and in the winter it will be bare and gray.

       The Bible is like our window on angels. Sometimes we see them portrayed as completely other-worldly in appearance, like the shining angel chorus that appeared to the shepherds in the sky over Bethlehem’s plain when Jesus was born. Sometimes they appear as human beings, like the three angels who appeared to Abraham and told him that he would have a son in their old age. Sometimes they are strange looking creatures that are hard to describe such as the six-winged seraphs that Isaiah saw in the temple in Jerusalem. Often there is no description at all of what they look like, as in the story we read this morning which says merely that Jacob saw a ladder with angels ascending and descending on it.

       Our popular conception of angels says as much about us as it does about angels. C.S. Lewis, that wonderfully witty writer, says that we portray angels as looking like human beings because humans are the most rational and perceptive form of life we’ve ever seen. We imagine angels as having wings as a way of symbolizing that their movement is not constrained by physical limitations the way ours is. We give angels the wings of birds and devils the wings of bats because most people like birds better than bats.

       Sometimes the Bible portrays angels as a concentration of God in one place so that when you meet an angel, you’re actually meeting God. When the angel of God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, it was God himself who was talking to Moses. Sometimes the Bible describes angels who have unique personalities of their own, distinct from God. In the book of Daniel the angel Michael fights the forces of evil on behalf of God’s people. The angel Gabriel, who also appears in Daniel, shows up again in Luke’s gospel to tell Mary that she had been chosen to be the mother of Jesus.

       However angels are portrayed in the Bible, they are of a different nature from the human beings to whom they appear. They are not the disembodied souls of the dead, like dear old Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, who had died back in the 19th century and was still trying to earn his wings in Bedford Falls in the 1940s. Angels are a separate order of creatures, made by God. You and I are beings of flesh who can’t separate our identity from our fleshly bodies. Angels, on the other hand, are purely spiritual, creatures made by God who have no fleshly bodies and never did.

       Now, that’s hard for us to conceive. Nothing in the world as we know it allows for other kinds of beings to inhabit the universe with us as purely spiritual creatures. No one can give you any scientific proof that angels exist. But, you know, the more we learn about science, the humbler we become about what we know and don’t know. There was a time when we saw the world through the eyes of Isaac Newton – it was a giant machine that was well ordered and completely rational that could be explained by a finite set of laws. But now that we know about black holes and quarks and how the speed of light bends time and a universe that is ever expanding out to who knows where, we’re a lot humbler about what we assume is possible and what is not. The more science teaches us about the complexities of our universe, the more open we should be to what the Bible has taught us all along: that God can do things and create beings that are beyond our human ability to comprehend.

       The Bible is clear that angels and human beings are different orders of creation, and the story of God as told in scripture is the story of God working among human beings. The Christian faith is not a prescription for us to become something other than what God made us to be. From beginning to end, the Bible tells us that God values this physical world in which we exist. The first chapter of Genesis tells us that when God created the world, God proclaimed it good. Instead of trying to spirit us away from the afflictions that come with living in human bodies, God took on a human body in the person of Jesus Christ who was not an angel but a human being. In Christ the sufferings of our bodies are often what lead us to rely on Jesus whose physical suffering on the cross brought us eternal life. In the resurrection we still have bodies, it’s just that they’re bodies that have been changed. They’re resurrection bodies, like Christ’s body after he was raised. We can’t say exactly what they’ll be like because we don’t have them yet.

       Yet there are stories in the Bible of these spiritual creatures called angels appearing to men and women. Their appearances aren’t predictable or controlled. Sometimes they appear to good, upright people in places you might expect an angel, the way an angel appeared to John the Baptist’s father Zechariah when he was making a sacrifice to God in the temple. Just as often they appear to unlikely people in unlikely places. Jacob, whose angel ladder we read about today, was a scoundrel who had stolen his twin brother’s birthright. The place where the angels appeared was a site that was known as a center for worshiping the pagan god Baal. One thing almost all the angel appearances have in common is that they cause fear in the person who sees them. The reaction of those who see angels isn’t like the reaction of seeing an old friend who brings relief. It’s terror that comes from being before something that’s far more powerful than you are.

       One question that bothers us is that if angels are so powerful and so effective in getting people to do what God wants them to do, then why doesn’t God use them more often? Whey doesn’t God create a corps of angels, like Monica in that series from the 1990s Touched by an Angel, who will spread out across the world and completely change the course of history?

       God’s purpose isn’t to astound us or force us into believing. Some years ago a writer did an article on angels and discovered that most people who have had encounters with angels were reluctant to talk to him about them because they knew that people are more interested in hearing about the angel than about the one who sent the angel. The Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 12 tells about an experience he had where he was caught up into what he calls the third heaven, a deeply spiritual experience, which he was reluctant to talk about and about which he said very little.

       Intensely spiritual experiences and encounters with angels are wonderful gifts, but God’s purposes aren’t to overwhelm us. What God desires in God’s dealings with us is to lead us into a relationship with him. Too much reliance on angels or flashy miracles would distract us from the one who sent them. After all, the word angel comes from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger, and the messenger is far less important than the one who sends the message.

       The more common ways that God communicates with us are through prayer and Bible study and the sacraments. Sometimes we encounter someone who may not be an angel but through whom God speaks to us if we are able to hear. Have you ever had the experience of a chance encounter or an offhand remark that changed your life? That’s how lots of people come to know God, through an undramatic invitation by a friend to return to church or a close encounter with danger that reminds them of their mortality and reframes their focus on life. Those aren’t angels speaking in those situations, but God’s Holy Spirit giving the discernment to see beyond the surface to a deeper level of meaning. God can use angels to communicate with us, but more often God works in the warp and woof of our lives to become part of our everyday experience.

       So yes, encounters with real angels are rare, and if we do see them, most of wouldn’t recognize them. But those little statues watching innocently from the corner of our living room or those cherubs adorning the mugs from which we drink our morning coffee can remind us that God does communicate with us and is not removed from our lives. Angels are meant to point us to the one from God who is always with us and who isn’t confined to experiences of supernatural glory and splendor, the one who through the power of the Holy Spirit speaks to our spirits and transforms us, body and soul, into Godly people. Angels point us to the one who is far above them in honor and in glory, to Jesus Christ, the son of God, who is with us always.

11-3-19 — Our Eternal Home — Psalm 90, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Thursday was Halloween.  It’s a hard holiday to ignore.  Halloween has evolved into the second biggest commercial holiday of the year, with only Christmas making a bigger contribution to the economy.  Most of us consider it a time for kids and for candy, a time for parties and good-natured fun.  But if we look behind the masks and the costumes, we can see something primal and serious.  Halloween originated as a way to cope with one of the most powerful forces in the human soul, our fear of death. 

Its origins are in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pron. Sow-in).  This was the day that marked the end of summer with its bounty of the life sustaining harvest and the arrival of the dark cold days of winter that were associated with death.  The Celts believed that on this night the boundary between the living and the dead was blurred.  The spirits of the dead were thought to be released from their graves to play tricks on the living and try to find a home – a haunt.  For those ancient people there was something cathartic about confronting their deepest fear for a night, then waking the next morning safe and secure.  Over the centuries Halloween has developed into a way to confront death in a lighthearted way.  It lets us laugh at ghosts and goblins, skeletons and monsters.  We jeer at death, play with it, pretend with it, and then we wake up on November 1 and say, “Whew!”  We’ve confronted our fears and we’ve survived.

       Halloween is the night we taunt death, but jeering at our mortal enemy is just a way to cope.  It doesn’t change anything.  Do you remember the movie Dead Poets Society?  It’s about a teacher in a boys’ prep school.  On the first day of the term he takes his students to the school’s trophy case.  He has the class crowd around the pictures of the school’s sports teams from 100 years ago, yellowing photographs displayed alongside tarnishing trophies and aging footballs.  The teacher says, “Look at them very carefully, boys.  They’re just like you.  Their hair is cut the same way, they’re full of vigor and ambition and hormones.  They went on to be doctors and lawyers and bankers, just like you will.  The world was their oyster.  And do you know where they are now, boys?  They’re all dead, every one of them, fertilizing daffodils.”

       It was hard for those 17-year-old boys to conceive that life wouldn’t always be a limitless vista, offering them the possibility of anything they wanted to do.  Death wasn’t something that ever troubled their minds.  And yet, no matter how young or strong or healthy we are, one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe many years from now, we’re going to die.  No matter how well you treat your body, it’s eventually going to return to the earth from which it was formed.  Psalm 90 speaks the truth when it says, “[we] are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.”

       It’s not so much the fact that we die that makes death so hard to take.  If you think about it rationally and objectively, we need death.  Where would all the people who have ever been born fit if we didn’t die?  The earth couldn’t accommodate every human body that has ever been born. One generation has to make way for the next. What makes death so hard is the way it reminds us of our weaknesses, the way it puts a limit to our loves, our passions, our dreams.  Death cuts us loose from those things that define us, the relationships that sustain us, from those things in which we find security and comfort and fulfillment. 

The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden explains why we fear death.  It tells us where death got its sting.  In the Garden of Eden God gave Adam and Eve everything they needed.  They had food.  They had companionship, so intimate and guileless they could stand before each other naked and not be ashamed.  They had a purpose in life.  Their vocation was to be stewards of all the good things God created.  The only limit on them was that they were not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  They were to trust God’s promise that God would provide for them.  To eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge evil was to try to be like God.  But you remember the story.  They reached for the forbidden fruit, grasping for life on their terms, not God’s.  Instead of trusting God, they tried to be God.  They tried to find wisdom in their limited knowledge.  They tried to find peace in their conflicted souls.  They tried to find immortality in their dying bodies. 

Whether you believe the story to be literally true doesn’t matter.  You can’t deny that what it says about humankind – what it says about you and me – is true.  Like Adam and Eve we desire to be like God, but we always fall short.  The Psalmist says it for us: “Our precious lives, so important to us, are but fleeting shadows to you and they are so full of trouble and conflict, so marked by sin and failure…” (Psalms Now)

       That’s what makes our physical death so fearsome.  It marks the end of our efforts to find meaning and purpose.  It reminds us of our weakness and our limitations.  But that fear of death can also be what saves us.  When we realize how limited we are, when it hits us that we are mortal and that one day we will die, that very fear can propel us back to God.  When it dawns on us that we can’t do it on our own, that left to our own devices there’s no hope for us, we might realize that we’re lost.  And we might notice that God is calling us home. 

Robert Frost said, “Home is that place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  Home is that place where you belong.  Eastminster is partnering with other churches to build a Habitat for Humanity home. Many of the churches I’ve served have helped build Habitat homes. One of those homes belonged to Doris Fitch. Ms. Fitch was the mother of 8 and the grandmother of 24.  At the dedication ceremony where she took possession of the house, she spoke of how hard it had been for her to raise a family without a home.  Just as they got settled in one place, they had to pick up and move.  Ms. Fitch got a new start in life when she moved into her  Habitat for Humanity home, a home that she helped build, as do all Habitat clients.  She testified how important it was to her family to have a place they finally call home.  It was a place where her grandchildren could feel safe and comfortable, a place where they could grow and prosper.

       Home is that place where what we’ve done counts for something, the place where we’re accepted for who we are.  Several years ago I returned to my family’s old home place in Robeson County, North Carolina.  It was my father’s 80th birthday, and my aunt who still lived on the farm where Dad grew up summoned the entire family – 54 people from 8 states.  I hadn’t seen some of those cousins since we were children, when we played baseball in the front yard and didn’t have to worry about cars whizzing by at 60 miles per hour when we ran across the road after fly balls because the road wasn’t paved.  One of those cousins wasn’t there.   Laurie died of a brain tumor the previous winter, the first of my generation to go.  It happened just months after she reached her life-long dream of becoming an elementary school principal.  We’d all taken different paths over the years, but shared memories and our common bond held us together.  After lunch we were all milling around the front yard while different permutations of family groupings were captured for posterity in photographs.  I was standing near my cousin Don whom I overheard telling his 7 year old son about how we would spend Thanksgivings together.  Don is a real outdoorsman.  He teaches industrial arts in high school, but he lives for deer season.  He told his son how we would go out in the yard after dinner and pick up pecans that fell from the trees our grandfather had planted when he moved there as a newly-wed in 1913.  I looked up at the tree under which we were standing.  I didn’t see any nuts forming on the branches.  Trying to show that I’m still in touch with the land, I observed sagely, “Looks like there won’t be any pecans this year.”  Don laughed and said, “Steve, that’s a white oak.  The pecan trees are over there.”  I blush every time I think about Don sitting in his deer stand telling his buddies about his cousin from the city who was looking for pecans on a white oak tree.  But home is like that.  They know who you are but they accept you anyway. 

       We’ll never all be together like that again, but for that afternoon we were home.  Each of us, as different as we were, fit in.  We weren’t defined by our failures or our shortcomings.  We belonged because we were home.

       In Jesus Christ God calls us home.  God is our dwelling place in all generations.  God is the place we began and the destination to which we’re headed.  Our home is God who created the heavens and the earth, the God to whom a thousand years are as but a passing night.  God, and God alone, is the one who blesses and prospers our efforts.  God is the one who graciously takes who we are and what we do and gives it meaning and purpose.  We still die, but death has lost its sting.  We die to all those things that keep us from our eternal home.  We die to everything false that claims to save us, and we take that final step toward home.  God is our eternal home, and Jesus has prepared a place for us there.  Forever. 

10-27-19 — Joining in God’s Community — Matthew 25:14-30, Philippians 4:12-13 — The Rev. Dr. Carol Lytch

10-20-19 — The Second Blessing — Luke 17:11-19 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Gratitude seems like it should be such a simple thing.  Someone does something for you, you’re grateful, and you say thank you.  But gratitude is more complex than that.  In the story we read from Luke, Jesus healed 10 lepers. Nine of them did exactly what Jesus told them to do.  They went to the priest to be certified that they were healed.  The tenth leper was on his way to the priest, but he stopped in his tracks, turned back, and thanked Jesus for what he had done.  Were the others not grateful? Jesus did for them exactly what he did for that tenth leper.  Why did he turn around, praising God with a loud voice and fall at Jesus’ feet with gratitude? 

It’s because the tenth leper received a second blessing. The first blessing was being healed of his disease.  The second blessing was knowing who it was that healed him. The first blessing, the gift of healing, was wonderful.  It sent nine lepers running to the priest to do their duty.  The second blessing, the gift of seeing God at work, was even better.  It sent the tenth leper running back to Jesus to fall at his feet.

       Gratitude can’t be forced.  It can’t be predicted.  There’s not always a correlation between how much someone receives and how grateful he or she is. Think of all the countries that the United States helps with foreign aid that don’t seem to have the proper gratitude for what we give them. Think of how much we’ve poured into the Middle East. You’d think that people in places like Iraq and Afghanistan would be falling all over themselves with gratitude for all the effort we’ve put into building up their societies, and yet there is widespread resentment of us among their populations. Sometimes when people receive a gift, it just makes them feel resentful toward the one who gives it. The gift emphasizes that the giver has power over the one who receives it.

       Seward Hiltner, a professor at Princeton Seminary and one of the pioneers of modern pastoral counseling, wrote about the complexity of gratitude.  He identified something he called “reactive gratitude.”  It’s that gratitude that springs up when we’ve received something wonderful but then melts away into anger and resentment.  As an example, he tells of the very wealthy man who is diagnosed with a serious illness and appeals to his surgeon to do anything possible to cure him.  Cost is no object.  The surgeon operates and informs the man that he is cured.  The man is so grateful he exclaims, “You saved my life.  When I get home, I’m going to do something significant for the hospital.”  The man gets home, and as the weeks go by, his gratitude begins to fade.  In fact, when he gets the bill, he begins to grumble about how much he has to pay the surgeon, the same man for whom only weeks before he was going to name a new wing of the hospital.  

Reactive gratitude is that reaction we have to some immediate and unexpected gift that starts out as enthusiasm but after a while turns to resentment for the power the giver has over us. The giver sees what he or she is doing as generosity, while the receiver sees it as one more example of the inequality of power. Whatever gratitude there is for what someone has done is overcome by resentment of the power that lets them do it.  Oscar Wilde summed it up when he was talking about a certain man.  “I can’t figure out why the man hates me,” Wilde said.  “I’ve never done anything for him.”[1]

       This is stewardship season at Eastminster church the time of year when we consider our pledges of financial commitment to God, one way we acknowledge that we have nothing, not even life itself, that doesn’t come from God.  So what keeps us from resenting one who has so much power over us?  What is it that lets us say thank you to God with joy and genuine gratitude, like the man who threw himself at Jesus’ feet?

       Jesus shows us that there’s something different about the power of God. He shows us that God’s power is pure, self-giving love.  The cross, where Jesus died for us, is proof of the extent to which God has gone to bless us. God doesn’t sit comfortably on the throne of heaven and give us gifts that don’t cost anything. In Jesus Christ God gives us himself, love that is extravagant and knows no bounds, love that shares our hurts, our sorrows, our grief.  In Jesus we know that the eternal power of God is for us.

       The story of the ten lepers shows how extravagant and boundless that love is. The story doesn’t tell us anything about the motives or the expectations of the ten lepers Jesus healed.  It doesn’t tell us whether or not they deserved to be healed.  If you read carefully, you’ll see they didn’t even ask to be healed.  They cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  Some may have expected him to heal them.  Some could just as likely have wanted a handout, or some words of comfort.  Some may not have known what they were asking for, but thought they’d ask for something.  Some may have seen Jesus as the Son of God.  Some may have seen him as a magician.  Some may have seen him as an easy touch.  The story tells us nothing about what the lepers thought or what they believed.  But Jesus healed every one of them.

       Jesus is just as extravagant with us.  We come to him with all kinds of motives.  Some come to Jesus because they truly believe he is the Son of God, the Savior of the world.  Some come because they want a good influence on their children.  Some come to Jesus because they’re desperate for healing or hope, and they’re willing to try anything.  Some come because they’re seeking meaning and purpose in life and they’re willing to give him a try.  Some come because it’s what their parents told them they should do.  Some come because they have nothing to lose.  The gospels never say the people Jesus blessed had pure motives and perfect understanding.  But he blessed them anyway.

       And Jesus blesses us whether we deserve it or not.  People come to church and they find peace, joy, hope, community, and the fulfillment of serving others. They encounter the power of the living God here whether they understand it or not.  And even those who don’t care a thing about God, he blesses them too.  Jesus said the rain falls on the just and the unjust.  God gives life to believers and unbelievers.  People of faith and people of no faith have loving families, purposeful jobs, experience the warmth of human love.  God’s blessings aren’t limited.  They overflow and touch everyone, believer or not. 

       Sometimes we underestimate what God has already done for us, before we even ask.  All you have to do is open your eyes, and you’ll see that God is good to you whether you believe in God or not.

       In many ways those lepers were in a better position to recognize God’s blessings than we are.  Leprosy was a horrible disease.  It disfigured its victims by afflicting them with scabby sores.  It turned their skin flaky white.  It could eat away fingers and limbs.  Not only was it physically devastating, it was a social death sentence.  Ancient law demanded that lepers leave their family and friends and live on the outskirts of towns.  They were not allowed to have jobs and had to depend on handouts for survival.  They had nothing – no money, no job, no family, no food but what they could beg.  And sometimes it’s when we realize how little we have that we’re the most grateful.

       Our image of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation is of tables overflowing with game and produce, a celebration of the bounty of a new land.  But that’s hardly the reality of the first Thanksgiving.  In the Spring of 1621 the Pilgrims planted three crops: peas, barley, and corn.  The peas were planted too late, and the sun scorched them while they were in bloom.  The barley crop was described as indifferent.  The corn was not the Silver Queen variety we feast on in the summer but native American maize, ears two to three inches long, grown without any pesticides, stuff we wouldn’t bother to pick today.  Within a few months after the first Thanksgiving another ship arrived carrying 35 new mouths to feed but no extra food.  By the time the second winter was over, they were surviving on a ration of five kernels of corn per person.  But they gave thanks anyway, not for a bountiful harvest, but for what little they had.[2]

       A rabbi who lived in a community where I once lived told about spending the night at her boyfriend’s parents’ house in an affluent New Jersey suburb.  She was asleep on the sofa in the living room when she was awakened by her boyfriend’s father padding down the steps into the kitchen.  He went into the kitchen and cut himself a slab of rye bread, then stood with it in the dining room under the shadows of the street light.  “’Chleb!’ he said finally, thrusting the bread into the air.  ‘Broit’ – he held the bread against his pajama pocked.  ‘Pan’ – he shook it.  ‘Lechem’ – kissed it.  ‘Bread’ – took a bite.”  He did it over and over, saying the word in different languages, thrusting, hugging, shaking, kissing, until finally he stood there empty handed and went back upstairs to bed.  The man was a holocaust survivor, and sometimes the contrast between what he had survived and what he had woke him in the night and he had to show his gratitude.[3]

       Just a month ago we observed the 18th anniversary of 9/11. Do you remember what a spiritual awakening there was right after that? I don’t what it was like at Eastminster church, but the church I was serving had a surge in worship attendance for weeks afterward.  That was due in large part because we were forced to see how vulnerable so many of the things we take for granted really are. Centuries ago St. Augustine observed that if you can influence something, you don’t have to be grateful for it. September 11 reminded us that there are some things in life we can’t influence.  Every time there’s a new terrorist incident or mass shooting, we’re reminded of that vulnerability again. We’re not as invincible as we like to think we are.  The proper response to that isn’t to roll over and give in to the things that can harm us or to create scapegoats and lash out blindly at those who are different, but to have a proper humility about ourselves and learn to rely on the power of God that’s stronger than anything within us. 

We see the same thing happen in our own lives. Every time we’re hit with an unexpected illness or have to face surgery, whenever we feel the effects of advancing years, we are reminded that we are not invincible and don’t have complete control over our lives. Facing the reality of our limits, the proper response is to step back and be thankful for what we have, for families and friends, for freedom and faith.  I’m not saying to give up and ignore the strengths and opportunities God gives us, but to claim that second blessing that the tenth leper received, the recognition that the blessings we have come from God and that they’re evidence that God is at work in this world through the grace of Christ – a glimpse of what God has prepared for us.

       The pledges we will be considering over the next few weeks are our claim on that second blessing, the blessing of seeing God’s hand behind all we have no matter how much or how little.  They’re our pledge that we notice God’s hand in all we have. We remember who blesses us. The tenth leper laid himself at Jesus’ feet and claimed that second blessing of seeing God’s love behind the miracle.  We lay what we have before Jesus and make our claim on that second blessing of knowing whom to thank, the blessing of faith.

[1] Seward Hiltner, Theological Dynamics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), pp. 47-48.

[2] John W. Wilson, “Preaching on Thanksgiving,” Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1992, p. 21.

[3] Susan Schnur, “On Being Grateful: Life’s Constraints Make It Possible,” The New York Times, July 25, 1985.

10-13-19 — Cleaning Up with Filthy Riches — Luke 16:1-13 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       A young minister arrived at his first parish right out of seminary.  It was a small, thriving congregation in rural Kentucky.  Full of zeal to proclaim God’s truth, he preached his first sermon on the evils of smoking.  After he had greeted the stony faces at the church door following the service, one of the elders pulled him aside and said, “Son, do you know what that stuff growing in the fields around here is?  It’s tobacco.  That’s what pays your salary.”  The next Sunday he took another tack and preached a rousing sermon denouncing the evils of drinking.  He got the same response from his congregation. The elder pulled him aside and said, “Son, don’t you notice those big buildings you drive by every day where half this congregation works?  What do you think they make in all those distilleries around here?  Holy water? You’re living in Bourbon County!”  Well, the poor minister was starting to wonder what vices he could preach against.  So the next Sunday he preached against the evils of gambling.  Same cold reaction.   Same elder pulled him aside after the service.  “Son,” he said, “you see those horses out there in the field? We don’t raise them for pony rides. Those are thoroughbreds. Haven’t you ever heard of the Kentucky Derby?” The next Sunday, it was obvious the young minister had learned his lesson.  After the service the congregation was beaming.  People told him they agreed with every word he said.  He had given them a rousing sermon against the evils of nude sunbathing in the Seychelles Islands of the Indian Ocean.

       I used to be a pastor in Kentucky, and I remembered that story every once in a while when I got my paycheck.  Sometimes I wondered where the money came from.  How much of it could be traced back to companies and financial dealings I’d rather not be associated with?  I really wanted to be pure and spotless, a true disciple among that chosen race, that royal priesthood whom Jesus has called apart from the world to holy and perfect.  So as a way of keeping my spiritual focus, every three months I took a day-long spiritual retreat to a Trappist monastery.  I’d go to get away from it all, to spend quality time with the Master.  But even there, among the brothers who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, sitting on the registration desk were full color brochures selling the line of products the monks manufacture to support their ministry.  The biggest seller?  Fudge.  Whiskey infused bourbon fudge.

       You can’t get away from money or the impurities of the world, and wherever you encounter it, there’s something ambiguous about it. The gospels reflect that ambiguity.  In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich,” yet he eats with Zacchaeus the tax collector who got rich by taking advantage of the poor. After meeting with Jesus, Zacchaeus repaid everyone he had defrauded and gave away half his fortune to the poor, but that meant he kept the other half which meant he was still pretty well off. When Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to proclaim the kingdom, he told them to take nothing with them that would encumber them on their way, but Jesus blessed those who had the means to provide for him and the disciples along the way.  Jesus proclaimed, “blessed are the poor,” yet he praised the woman who spent a lavish sum of money to anoint him with precious perfume.  And in the parable we read this morning, he commends the dishonest steward for cooking the books. Of all the things God gives us to do the work of the Kingdom, there’s nothing more freighted with ambiguity and uncertainty, nothing that carries such potential for both good and for ill as money.

       When you read through the gospels, you’ll notice that Jesus has a lot to say about money – a lot more to say than he does about sex. I think he says so much about money because he knew it would be such a big concern for his disciples. For one thing, so much of our sense of self-worth is connected with our money.  How much money we have determines if we dine on beans or steak.  It determines whether we live in cramped, inadequate housing or a spacious home in a nice community.  It determines what kind of car we drive and the education our kids receive.  We know those material things shouldn’t be connected with our sense of worth, but it’s hard not to make the connection.

       After my father-in-law died in an automobile accident several years ago, I was talking with the family lawyer about the insurance settlement. He explained that it was going to take a while to settle because we had to prove the value of my father-in-law’s life.  Showing my naiveté in these matters, I expressed my shock.  “What do you mean by the value of his life?  How can you put a value on a life?”  He explained that we had to put a cost on the loss of his law practice and the value of his care for my mother-in-law who had Alzheimer’s disease.  From the insurance company’s perspective, I understand what has to be done.  But you can see why we get so uncomfortable when we talk about money in church.  It’s not long before it gets tied up with our sense of worth.

       There’s a legend that says when certain barbarian tribes of Europe were converted to Christianity, they submitted to baptism, but when they were immersed in the water, they kept their swords raised in the air. They were willing to give over most of their lives to Jesus, but they were warriors who lived by the sword, and they didn’t want the Prince of Peace to lay claim to their swords, their livelihood. Sometimes we’re like that with our wallets. We don’t mind giving Jesus our prayers, our time, our worship, but we depend on our money for survival, so we don’t risk subjecting it to him.

       We’re conflicted, and we look to Jesus to deliver us from the unsavory things that we often associate with money. Bernard Madoff’s greed for money led him to deceive hundreds of people who lost their life savings to his dishonesty. Floods of money from special interests threaten to corrupt our democracy. We can’t win the war on drugs because so many people, from Afghanistan to York, are making fortunes off illegal drugs. There are too many stories about movie stars and sports heroes whose decency is eroded by too much money and the fame and power that come with it. 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and it makes us squeamish to think that Jesus would have anything to do with something as corrupting as money.

       But Jesus didn’t come to make us pure by removing us from the world. Rather, in Christ we’re changed into people who are fresh and new so we can live in the world for him. It’s like he gives us a new set of eyes so we can see how to use the things of this world – like money – to save the world, and to save ourselves.

       That’s what the manager in the parable did. He was about to be fired for squandering his boss’s property. Anyone who knows anything about personnel management would have fired the guy on the spot, but the boss told him first to settle up his accounts. The manager was shrewd. He marked down the bills his boss’s debtors owed so he could get on their good side and they’d provide for him when he was out on the street. Instead of condemning his dishonesty, Jesus commended the manager as an example for us. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” he said, “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

       In this world, in this life, money has power. So Jesus tells us to make the best of it and use wealth to further the kingdom, to take what can be dangerous to our spiritual welfare and use it to prepare for that time when money won’t matter.

       One way we do that is by using the money we have to make possible acts of love and mercy and healing that proclaim the reign of Christ. When we give to the church or to hospitals, seminaries, or relief organizations, we harness the power of money and put it in the service of forces for good. I admire this church’s trustees, how they bring their knowledge of money management to the task of making sure every dollar we give to the church is squeezed as tightly as possible through sound investments, good money management, and careful budgeting to make sure that the wealth we give is working as hard as it can for Jesus.

       But giving our money isn’t just about making the world a better place. Giving away our money changes us. How we use our money is a spiritual practice. If you want to know what someone’s values really are, look at how they spend their money. We can talk all we want to about what’s important to us, but how we use our money is the real proof of what we believe. And that’s where money can be our spiritual friend. If God truly is the most important thing in your life, then the first thing you’re going to do with your money is to give it away just like God gives to you.

       One big objection to giving generously is, “Well, I’ve got all these expenses. I can’t afford to give generously.” What does that say about your values and your priorities? Once you start to give generously, you’ll see how God can reshape your priorities so maybe you don’t need as much as you thought you did. It doesn’t matter how much you earn. In fact, Americans with lower incomes give a higher percentage of their income than those who are wealthy.

       Sure, the church and charities need the money you give. Over the next few weeks, you’ll see how much Eastminster Church needs. Those needs are real. But the even bigger need is our need to give. We are made in the image of God, and God gives. In our giving, we follow God. Our giving shapes us in generosity and in gratitude.  The real blessing of money isn’t what it buys us, but how we can use it to have a part in the work of Jesus, and to practice being generous, just as he is so gracious to us.

10-6-19 — Where God Meets Us — Psalm 137, Ephesians 4:25-5:2 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Psalm 137 is one of the most disturbing passages in the whole Bible.  Its closing line is what bothers me most: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”  An outburst like that seems out of place in the same book where Jesus teaches us to bless those who persecute us and forgive those who have sinned against us.

       Some have suggested that the psalm, so full of anger and hatred, shouldn’t really have a place in the Bible now that Jesus has come, that it’s made obsolete by Jesus’ gospel of love and forgiveness.  The problem is that God reveals himself to us through the entire Bible, not just those parts that suit our taste.  II Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”  There are certain practices in the Old Testament that we’re no longer bound to do now that Jesus has come.  In the New Testament the Apostle Paul said that women should keep quiet in church, but we no longer have to refrain from eating certain foods like pork or shellfish.  Those restrictions were one way the Israelites set themselves apart from other nations, and now all nations are one in Christ.  We no longer prevent women from speaking in church.  Those restrictions were accommodations to social norms of the time.  But the anger that the psalmist expresses is as real today as it was 3000 years ago.  The only difference is that now instead of having to resort to rocks and spears to avenge anger, there are missiles and tanks and car bombs to use against enemies.

       One thing that can help us understand this psalm is to remember that although the Bible is inspired by God, it was written by and for human beings. One characteristic of the Bible that makes it so valuable is that it deals with every human emotion, from lust to greed to pity to romance.  The Bible has been called “the book that reads us.”  It not only tells us about God, it also tells us about ourselves.  As we learn about who we are from the Bible, we can also learn something about the way God relates to us.

       Psalm 137 shows us what kinds of things we can bring to God in prayer.  Many of us think of prayer as something we can only do when we’re in the right frame of mind – our souls have to be fresh and scrubbed and filled with pure, clean thoughts.  Maybe that’s why many of us pray so little: we’re rarely in the right frame of mind.  We try to put away all our anger and hatred and pettiness before we come to God so God can see us at our best, and we find that so often, when we sit down to pray, we’re just not ready.

       Now, that’s a noble goal, to try to be our best before the Lord.  But one wonderful thing about God is that God invites us to come before him just as we are.  We don’t have to have our spiritual house in perfect order before we can pray.

       In the 137th psalm the psalmist makes no pretense that he has any kind thoughts toward those who burned his home, raped his sisters, and carried his nation into exile.  He doesn’t pretend to keep his sense of humor when his captors make fun of his most deeply held beliefs by forcing him to sing sacred songs intended for God as light entertainment to help them wile away the evening.  No, the psalmist doesn’t try to put a pleasant face on his feelings.  He’s totally honest with God.  He would love to see the things most precious to the Babylonians, even their children, thrown headlong against a rock.

       Sometimes we have to voice our rage before we’re able to forgive.  As one writer put it, “Grief and sorrow that go unspoken may break the heart that hugs them tight.”  (Herbert Anderson, All Our Sorrows, All Our Griefs)  And where better to take that rage than to Almighty God?  God allows us to bare our meanest, most vicious side to him.  After all, God created us and knows our deepest feelings.  We can bring God our most human emotions confident that God doesn’t reject us.  God doesn’t turn us away because we’re made of flesh and blood and not perfect angels.

       It’s important to note that the psalmist didn’t actually go out and organize a posse to murder Babylonian babies.  He told God how he felt, but didn’t act on that bitter feeling.  He cried out to God for vindication, and left it in God’s hands.  About 100 years later God did deliver the Jews from captivity.  The Persians conquered the Babylonians and let the Jews go home to Jerusalem.  But Cyrus, King of Persia, was a relatively gentle conqueror by the standards of the time.  He didn’t murder babies.  He didn’t ravage Babylon like the psalmist wanted.  God did deliver the Jews from captivity, but in God’s own way.

       Another thing this psalm tells us about ourselves is that forgiveness isn’t something that can be forced too quickly.  It would be a lot easier to accept if the psalm ended on a note of forgiveness, if we could see some peaceful resolution in the heart of the one who wrote it.  But it doesn’t resolve itself that way.  It ends on a note of bitterness and resentment.  Sometimes anger has to run its course before we’re able to forgive.  And this psalm stops before it ever gets to the point of forgiveness. 

       To those who have never lived in exile, who have never felt the cold grip of the oppressor, who have never felt completely powerless over our destiny, such unresolved anger may be hard to understand.  I find the bitterness of the psalm, well, embarrassing because it’s just not proper to be so angry.  But not everyone in the world has the luxury of forgiving easily.  This psalm is a link with those who live in situations that seem hopeless, those whose only relief in suffering is to cry out their complaint to God who hears.  Although these cries of an exile may sound harsh to us, they resonate in the ears of a Palestinian who has been deprived of her homeland and is rearing a fifth generation of children in a refugee camp.  The words of the psalm may be the words of an Honduran father whose child was killed by in a gang war.  These words could be those of a woman in Syria who has been enslaved by ISIS and forced to be the wife of someone who has murdered her family. These could even be the words someone in your neighborhood who is held emotionally captive by an abusive spouse.

       Most of us have so many things that preoccupy us that it’s easy to overlook the kind of suffering and oppression that goes on in the lives of others, especially those who are separated from us by an ocean.  When you have a job to hold down, a family to rear, bills to pay, there’s not much time or emotional energy left to give much thought to people whose situation is very different from yours.  This psalm is our link with those whose only hope is in raising their cries of anger to a just God.  It’s one way that we who are free from oppression keep from seeing our freedom as something to take for granted.   It does something to our prayers to realize that they’re heard by the same God who hears the anguished cries of those who have been abused, that our prayers are mingled in the ears of God with those who have been put down and degraded.

       In Christ we have the assurance that he will come to make all things right, to deliver this world from all pain and suffering and oppression.  We know that in him there is nothing that can overcome us.  But God doesn’t expect us always to have a smile.  There are times when smiles aren’t appropriate.  It’s comforting to know that between the promise of the resurrection and its fulfillment on the day of judgment, we can come to God with our most human emotions, even our most precious hatreds, and God will hear us.  God meets us where we are. That’s not always where we want to be, but not even our  anger, our grief, our hatred can keep God away. He hears us and draws us to this table, where we partake of his healing grace along with all who have ever called on God’s name. Come. God meets us here.