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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.

9-29-19 — The Principled Fool — Luke 12:13-21 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Jesus has a way of getting to the heart of things.

       Someone came up to him and said, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Like so many families, the parents’ death had exposed the fault lines in the family system. The estate had become the focal point for deep-seated sibling rivalries. How the assets were distributed had become a matter of principle, and it’s only right to stand up for principles – especially if you have something to gain.

       So this principled man tried to enlist Jesus in his cause. He knew that Jesus is all about justice and fairness and what’s right, so obviously Jesus was going to back him up so he would get what was justly, rightfully and fairly his.

       But Jesus would have none of it. Jesus wasn’t going to arbitrate between degrees of greed. He was on his way to Jerusalem and a cross. He had far more important things to do than to get caught up in a dispute over who should get how much of a windfall. How the estate was divided may have been a matter of principle to the man, but Jesus knew it was a distraction from what really matters. That’s the danger of money.

       Studies have shown that very wealthy people give away a smaller percentage of their income than people who don’t have much money. Granted, if someone who has an income of 10 million dollars gives away 1%, they’re giving more money than someone who has an income of $10,000 and gives away 10%. The rich person who gives 1% gives away $100,000 whereas the poor person who gives away 10% only gives $1000. But the poor person is going to feel the impact of that gift more than the rich person. It’s going to be more of a sacrifice. Jesus made that point one day when he pointed to a poor widow putting a few cents in the temple offering. He told the Pharisees that her offering, given from her need, was greater in God’s eyes than a large amount of money given by someone who would hardly feel its loss.

       A study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tried to find out why there’s that difference in giving between those who have very much and those who have less. Its conclusion was that lower-income people are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others because they are more attuned to the needs of others. The greater the gap between those with large sums of money and those who are poor or struggling, the harder it is for the wealthy to relate to the less well off. When a person’s income is closer to those who are in need, they tend to take the attitude, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But as the income gap widens, those at the top lose touch with those at the bottom. Another interesting study by the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University showed that only a small percentage of the charitable giving of the wealthy actually goes to the needs of the poor. It’s mostly directed to other causes like cultural institutions or universities where gifts often return the benefit of recognition by one’s peers with such things as naming privileges or access to other influential people.[1]

       As Jesus began his ministry, he told the people of his hometown of Nazareth what his mission was. He said God had anointed him “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:18). He invites us to join him in that mission, but he warns how easy it is to let our possessions distract us from what really matters.     

       Jesus told of a farmer who had great success. His fields produced more than his barns could hold. Being a responsible man, he made plans to expand his barns to hold all the wealth he had acquired. Like someone whose life goal is to make lots of money so they can retire early and enjoy life, he sat back when he’d finally arrived and said to himself, “Ah, I’ve made it. Now I can enjoy the fruits of my labors.” And who could take issue with him? Nowadays we’d say he’d accomplished the American dream. He’d worked the system fairly, and he’d been rewarded. He was satisfied and fulfilled. But for all his success, in God’s eyes he was an idiot. God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

       Usually we picture that as a deathbed encounter with the lesson being, You’d better live right today, because you might be hit by a bus tonight. But sometimes God, in God’s mercy, demands our soul of us long before our death. God encounters us, demands our soul, and gives it back to us, redeemed.

       I have a friend named Bob who worked very hard and became an officer and a large stock holder in a local bank. His bank was bought by one of those regional banks, and he received a sum of money that set him up for the rest of his life. Still only in his 50s, he was faced with the same question as that successful farmer: What is to become of all that I’ve worked so hard to achieve? He worked on his golf game, took some great trips, and bought property in the country. He also started studying the Bible. He joined the church. He became involved in a prayer group. In response to that spiritual quest, he felt his soul was being demanded of him. Bob turned his considerable executive skills to helping the poor. He was instrumental in forming a public-private partnership that tore down one of the most depressing, crime-ridden housing projects in the city and replaced it with a mixed income community that gives poor people not only a roof over their heads but also dignity. He became active in a community center sponsored by the city’s churches, went on its board, and helped it raise significant money to expand its services. He became very active in our congregation. He taught fifth grade Sunday school, was a confirmation sponsor, and was chosen to serve as an elder. Bob was a trusted friend of mine, and when we were discussing plans for the future of the church, he would always raise the annoying question, “How does this help the poor whom Jesus came to serve?” When God demanded Bob’s soul and asked, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Bob’s answer was, “They’re yours, Lord.”

       God doesn’t have anything against wealth per se. When God delivered the Hebrews from Egypt, God promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, a place where they would prosper and flourish. Along with that wealth God also gave them the gift of the tithe, the command that they return one tenth of their wealth back to God so they wouldn’t forget where their wealth came from. The tithe was God’s way of reminding the Israelites that even their skill and their intelligence that produced wealth were gifts they hadn’t earned. God told Israel to tithe so their possessions wouldn’t possess them, so they would always put first things first.

       That’s not a bad formula for us. The benefit of a tithe, or giving away a certain percentage of our income, is that it keeps us focused in the right direction. It’s a reminder that the other 90% that we keep also is a gift to us from God and that ultimately our relationship with God is what matters, not how much stuff we have.

       Like the farmer in Jesus’ story, we’re prone to think that we deserve all the credit for our success, that it’s something we did on our own thanks to our skill and our intelligence. But it’s interesting that when Jesus tells the story of the rich farmer, he says “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” He doesn’t talk about the man’s skill or his diligence or his moral character. He’s rich because the land that God had given him prospered.

       Andrew Carnegie, who wasn’t a religious man, recognized the transience of wealth. Granted, he didn’t live a shabby lifestyle, but he’s famous for observing that “The man who dies rich is a failure.” He said he worked harder giving his wealth away than he did earning it. Warren Buffett, who’s also not very religious, recognizes the same thing. He doesn’t work so hard at being a philanthropist. He has bequeathed his fortune to the Gates Foundation because of their track record in making a difference for the poor and disposed of the world. Buffett knows he’s not totally responsible for his success. That’s why he doesn’t oppose paying taxes because he realizes that for all his brilliance as an investor, he couldn’t have achieved what he’s achieved without the infrastructure of public services and a wisely regulated marketplace.

       Philanthropists like Carnegie and Buffett and Gates aren’t necessarily motivated by faith, but they know that there’s something about the human spirit that wealth can’t satisfy. Jesus invites us to give away everything we have, even ourselves, just as he gave himself for us on the cross. That still leaves plenty of room for the great political debates of our day about the proper role of government, the burdens of taxation, and the place of regulations. But if we ask those questions with the accumulation of wealth as our highest ideal and not in pursuit of the common good, then we’re as foolish as the man who asked Jesus to arbitrate his greed.

       When Jesus warned that man about the perils of wealth, Jesus was on his way to the cross. He invites us to go to that cross with him, where all our principles, our values, our achievements and our possessions are nailed with him. We give all those things up to the cross, and what he gives back to us is life, a life that is committed to those things that don’t forsake us when our soul is demanded of us. Jesus invites us to join him in his work of peace and justice and love and righteousness and those things that last. He doesn’t invite us to join him so we can maximize ourselves. If we have wealth to bring along and contribute to that work, so be it. But don’t let your possessions, your principles, or anything else distract you. What he wants is you, and he’ll give you what you need so that you’re rich in what really matters – rich toward God. 

[1] Judith Warner, “Helping Hand?”  The New York Times Magazine, August 22, 2010, pp. 11-12.

9-22-19 — Reclaimed Faith — Joel 2:28-29, Matthew 18:1-7 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Do you adults remember when it dawned on you that you were going to grow up?  I’m not talking about those playful fantasies we had when adults would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and we replied, “A pilot,” or “A teacher,” or “A baseball player.”  I mean that awareness in your gut that one day you would no longer be a kid.

       I remember when it dawned on me.  I was in the sixth grade.  I was lying in bed one night and it hit me that the time was coming when I would be on my own.  There would be a time when I would no longer live with my parents.  I would be responsible for my own decisions.  I would have to provide for myself.  It was scary.  I wasn’t ready for all that.  How would I know how to be an adult?  Into those worried thoughts floated the voice of my father talking on the telephone in the next room.  He was talking business.  I didn’t understand what he was saying, but the sound reassured me.  The next morning he would go off to work to provide for us.  Mom would have breakfast on the table and make sure I got to school.  It wasn’t time to grow up yet.  Tomorrow I could still be a kid.  My parents were still watching over me, and when it came time for me to leave home, they’d make sure I was ready.  So I went to sleep.

       It’s an age-old story.  One generation nurtures and guides the next so it can claim its future. Each generation does its part then hands what it has done over to those who come behind.  What they’ve worked for no longer belongs to them.  It belongs to those who follow. God promised Israel through the prophet Joel that the day is coming when everyone will see the world differently, when old and young will see visions and prophecy and God will restore the whole creation to wholeness. It’s that vision of a world that isn’t defined by scarcity, and our expectations aren’t constricted by human limits. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, that new era has begun, and with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we’ve received the power to live into it. The future that we pass on to our children isn’t just one more loop in a cycle of life and death that repeats itself over and over. It’s a future that changes the way we live now because Jesus has shown us what he is preparing us for, a glory beyond all comprehension that shines back on us right now.

Of course parents have the front-line responsibility for preparing children to receive the future God has prepared for them.  When parents present their child for baptism, one of the questions they’re asked is, “Do you intend your child to study [Jesus], know him and be his faithful disciple?”  Parents start teaching children about God from birth.  One way we speak of God is as a loving parent.  Eventually a child will learn that we pray “Our Father who art in heaven.” But before we learn that God is our Father, we’ve experienced the love of our fathers or those who are like fathers to us.  Before we know God is like a mother, we’ve felt the love of our mothers or those who care for us like a mother.  Parents are the first teachers about God.  They are the first ones who prepare their children to claim the promises that God has for them in Christ.

But parents quickly learn they can’t do it alone.  Once I was talking with the mother of young children at a church supper. Her family had been sporadic in their participation in the life of the church, but lately they had been showing up at church regularly.  She wanted to explain to me why we were seeing more of them.  “My husband and I decided it’s really important for our kids to know about God,” she said.  “We have a pretty strong faith, but we realized we can’t do it on our own.  We’re so grateful for this,” she said gesturing to the people who were gathered for supper.  “We want them to be part of this.”

People who work with children and youth, Sunday school teachers and youth advisors, don’t always know the powerful impact they have on kids.  In a church I once served I got a phone call one day from one of the elders. He was getting near retirement, and he had a trust fund he wanted to deplete. He told me he was going to give it the church, but he wanted it to remain anonymous. The gift was $40,000 a year for ten years to support the work of our Sunday school teachers.  Because of his generosity our teachers received training in the summer before the new school year began.  We were able to pay the expenses of youth advisors on retreats and mission trips.  We bought furniture and supplies and technological equipment to enhance the learning in our Sunday school.  One of the stipulations of his gift was that we also help the Sunday school of an African American church.  So with the help of our executive presbyter, we approached an African American Presbyterian church in a depressed part of town and entered into a partnership.  It started with our Sunday school teachers attending training retreats together.  It developed into our participation in starting a Kids Café after school program at our partner church.  It grew into an annual joint worship service at the zoo. The partnership expanded into shared cultural events like jazz concerts for the community.  Our sessions went on retreat together. And do you know why this person chose to use his wealth in this way?  Because of Sunday school teachers.  When he first approached me about making that gift, he told me what an impact his Sunday school teachers had on him as a child.  He called them “ministering angels.”  And he was grateful for everything Sunday school teachers had done for his children and grandchildren.  Here’s a perfect example of someone putting his treasure where his heart is, and God taking that treasure and multiplying it beyond what anyone expected. Two generations later we were receiving the fruit of seeds that were planted by Sunday school teachers who would never know, at least in this life, what a powerful impact they had. 

But nurturing the next generation to receive what God has prepared for them isn’t something we can delegate to parents and Sunday school teachers.  Children don’t stop learning when they walk out of their Sunday school classes into the church corridors.  The church is the household of faith, and everyone in the house is a teacher, whether we know it or not.  Everything we adults do tells children, who are more observant than we know, something about being a disciple of Christ.  What you say to a child as you leave the sanctuary today, what a child observes about the way you welcome a stranger, what they overhear you saying about someone when you don’t think they’re listening – those are all lessons about what it means to belong to the family of God.

Children and youth are watching everything we adults do.  They want to know if this church is a place where it’s worth investing their passions.  And children and youth are passionate.  They need to care deeply about something.  They need to give their lives to something.  Woe to us if we teach them that Christ’s church isn’t a worthy place to invest themselves.  Woe to us if don’t engage their passions.  We adults can get so possessive of our traditions and our proprieties and our quarrels that we lose the passion for the gospel, the thirst for embracing the world that is the reason we’re here.  If our children look at us and decide this isn’t a worthy place to invest their passion, it’s like we’ve put a stumbling block in front of them.  And do you know what Jesus says about those who put stumbling blocks before the little ones who believe in him?  “It would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”  That’s how seriously Jesus takes what we teach our children!

This congregation has made a big investment in children.  Today we recognize the Eastminster Preschool. We welcome its staff and commission its new directors. We invest a lot of time and resources in the school. Whether they worship here or not,  we want every family to see that something different is going on here, something that reflects the beloved community that Jesus has drawn together and gives children a look at how God intends us to live together.

 But, you know, all the benefit of reaching out to children doesn’t fall to the kids or their families. The whole church benefits from investing in children and youth. We need them to teach us how to enter the kingdom of God. 

A number of years ago Carol and I were co-pastors of a church in a small town in central New Jersey.  There was an adult community nearby called Rossmoor.  Rossmoor is one of those communities you move to when the children leave home and you’re still active.  It has everything for the active senior life – a golf course, tennis courts, a clubhouse.  It even has a church, a pretty little free-standing building that looks like it was imported from colonial New England, with its own pastor and governing board and mission outreach.  But many of those Rossmoorites, as we called them, would drive the five miles over to Cranbury to go to church.  In fact, Rossmoorites were some of our most faithful members.  If you asked them why they drove all the way into town, many of them would say, “Because of the children.”  They could go all week without laying their eyes on a kid, but they needed to be with the children on Sunday.  They especially loved the coffee hour.  I often worried about it, all those kids scurrying around old folks with canes and unsteady on their feet.  But the senior citizens wanted the children there.  In fact, they would put out cookies that acted like bait.  The children gave them life and reminded them what they needed to be like to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Those retired people knew their Bible.  They knew that Jesus said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  They needed the children.  They needed them to teach them how to be humble and trusting.  They needed them to show the way into the kingdom of heaven.

Isn’t it amazing how God works?  Children need adults to teach them and provide for them and prepare them to receive the promises of God.  Children need adults to hold them and nurture them as they grow up, to guide them to the promises God has prepared for them.  Children need adults to plant the seeds that will grow into treasures they will hand on to those who follow them.  Yet we adults need the children to teach us what kind of heart we need to enter the kingdom of heaven.  We can’t cross over into the land God has prepared for us unless we become like them.  Isn’t it wonderful how God binds us together, one generation to the next?  Isn’t it amazing how we learn from one another how to grow up and claim the promises that God’s Spirit has poured out on us all? 

9-8-19 — The Story That Shapes Our Lives — Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       In the early years of his retirement my father organized decades of family photos into a dozen loose leaf binders. After he and my mother died, I loaded those binders into my car and brought them back to Pennsylvania. For six months, I used my spare time to digitize them so they would be accessible to all the members of the family. The binders were piled up in a corner of my study. After I finished with one binder, I’d move it from the “to do” stack to the “finished” stack.  About six weeks into the project I had a surprise as I opened the next binder in line to be digitized. Instead of a collection of photographs, when I opened this one I saw a page in bold print that said, “A Memoir for My Heirs by Rufus Gilbert Lytch.” I turned the page and discovered that instead of pictures, it was a collection of type written pages, arranged under headings like “Childhood,” “War Years,” “Marriage and Family,” and “My Career.” There are over 260 pages of memories and stories and reflections. Some of them I’d heard many times around the dinner table. Some answered lingering questions like, “Why did we make that move when I was six years old?” Some filled in things that couldn’t be spoken. I had heard his war stories, but these memoirs filled in some of the parts he had left out, some of the horrors that led, in Dad’s last years, to his diagnosis of PTSD. Some stories were completely new to me, like the one about his first girlfriend. He wrote a preface saying that he recorded all those stories because he wanted his great grandchildren, who would not be born for another 20 years, to know who he was. He admitted that he left some things out. There were some episodes in his life that didn’t fit in with the story. When I finished reading his memoirs, I knew even better the man I’d known my whole life. Here was his story as he knew it, the narrative that shaped his life, that guided the way he reared my brother and me, how he cared for my mother, how he claimed his place in the world.

       Every life is shaped by a story. We don’t all take the time or the energy to write it down like my father did, but we human beings make sense out of our lives by fitting them into an ongoing narrative – not just the narrative of our individual lives, but the ongoing story of the whole world. The prophet Habakkuk was struggling with what to do when the story that he had built his life on didn’t seem to make sense any more. He cries out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!”  and you will not save?” He had lived his life trusting that God was good and just and caring, yet this is what he saw: “The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” What do you make of your life if you’ve based in on the story of a God who can be counted on to uphold what is good but all around you the bad seems to have the upper hand?

       God answers that question in chapter 2. “Write the vision,” God says. “Make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” That vision is the continuation of the story of God’s dealings with God’s people. The story starts when God created human beings out of dust and entrusted us with the care of creation. The story continues when God chooses Abraham and the people of Israel to be the ones through whom God made himself know to the world. The story tells about exodus and how God delivered God’s people from slavery and defeated their oppressors. It is the story of David’s glory and the wisdom of Solomon. It is the story of God’s promise of a Messiah who would establish goodness and right and peace forever. God tells Habakkuk not to abandon that narrative. That is the story that shapes his life, a story of love and hope and peace. The competing story is a small one. That small story is what he sees all around him. It looks like wickedness and perversion and violence are the real story. If that’s the story that shapes his life, then he will live by cynicism, a “Who cares?” attitude, a goal of getting whatever he can however he can get it. That’s not God’s story. That’s not the story of the One who scattered the stars, sparks love in the human heart, and shows his power by standing for the poor and the oppressed the downtrodden. God’s story is the one that lasts. That’s the one that shapes us into the people God made us to be.  

       Within the larger narrative that shapes our lives, we follow lots of smaller ones. When we go to the polls to vote, we choose our leaders based in part on whether or not their opinions are shaped by the same narratives we use to shape ours. For instance, if you understand the story of illegal immigrants to be one of bad hombres who are flooding into our country to destroy our civilization, you’ll be inclined to vote one way. If you understand the story of illegal immigrants as one of hard working, enterprising people who contribute to America’s labor force, you’ll be inclined to vote another way. If you see gun control as part of the story of government trying to strip us of our rights to protect ourselves, you’ll be inclined one way. If you see gun control primarily as part of the story of trying to make America safe again, you’ll be inclined another way. If you see same sex marriage as an illustration in the story of America’s moral decline, you’ll be inclined to support certain candidates. If you see it as an example of America’s ongoing commitment to equality for all, you’ll be inclined another way.

       Or think how we are shaped by our understanding of the story of our family. When a husband and a wife understand their marriage as the story of two people who share experiences and values, and which will not end until death do they part, then a marriage can endure lots of challenges. Mistakes and disappointments and fights can be incorporated as incidents in a larger story of working through hard times and emerging stronger on the other side. Marriages fall apart when spouses begin to realize that the story isn’t working, that the narrative is pointing in a different direction, that the one you loved can’t fit into the story of your life after all.  

       When Paul greeted the Christians in Thessalonica, he addressed them as the church “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He said that he boasted about them to other churches for their steadfastness and faith during all their persecutions and afflictions. The church is those whose lives are guided first and foremost by the narrative of what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Our overarching story, the story into which we fit all of our other life stories, is the story of Jesus Christ. It is the story of the one God has sent to continue the story that sustained Habakkuk, the one who shows us how to live as participants in the story of what God is doing in the world. On the cross Jesus demonstrated what perfect love is. He draws us into that love and puts to death the evil, wicked part of us that is shaped by those small, false stories that beckon us and cause us to do things we are ashamed of. Those are probably the things my father chose not to record in his memoirs. Those are not the things that define us. Our mistakes and our failures happen, but they don’t define us. Our story is the story of the one who raises us with him into eternal life and makes us part of that grand story of transforming creation in love and justice and peace.

       As he ascended into heaven, Jesus said, “I am with you always.” He is not an absentee landlord who watches passively over us. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he is with us, participating in our story, taking the incidents of our lives and weaving them into his grand narrative. Becoming part of his story means that we don’t just follow rules to make sure we qualify to be snatched out of this world and escape into heaven. We know that our lives matter because we matter to God. Knowing they are part of that story leads some people to do heroic deeds. Mother Teresa lived among the poor in Calcutta. Millard Fuller gave away his fortune and started Habitat for Humanity. We can think of people, right here at Eastminster church, whose lives we’d like to emulate because they make such an impact on this world God loves. But living into the story of God’s love for creation doesn’t have to involve heroic deeds. Receiving each day with a prayer of gratitude, looking for those places that you can reveal a glimpse of Christ’s love while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, living today as a prayer offered up to God, those are ways we can glorify God by letting our lives be shaped by God’s narrative of love and grace.

       Knowing that we belong to that story allows us to complain to God, to shake our fist at God, to cry out to God like Habakkuk did, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?” The psalmist tells us that God gathers our tears in a bottle. God takes what happens and folds it into the ongoing story of life and hope. We never know the details of the story line that lie ahead, and we are continually reinterpreting the story that has already occurred. But we know where the big story is headed. That’s why Paul closes his greeting to the Thessalonians by saying, “To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

       This morning we install and commission those whom we believe God has chosen, through the voice of this congregation, to lead Eastminster as we claim our part in the story of God’s work here in East York. Those elders, deacons and trustees have accepted the call to lead us as we pray, study scripture, listen to one another, and discern what is going on around us and tell the story of what God is doing here and now. We are going to make a promise to pray for them, encourage them, respect their decisions, and follow as they guide us. Like the Thessalonians, this is a church in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We are living out his story, the one that shapes our lives.

9-1-19 — Finding Your Place — Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-28 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       The snow leopard is one of the rarest and most elusive of the great cats. It lives in the Himalayas, and it blends in so well with its surroundings that it is almost impossible to see. The naturalist Peter Matthiessen wrote a book about his quest to see the snow leopard in its native habitat. Rather than set out directly in search of the elusive animal, Matthiessen studied the Himalayan blue sheep, one of the snow leopard’s main sources of food. He spent 10 days trekking through the Himalayas with a biologist who was studying the migratory and mating patterns of the sheep hoping to catch a glimpse of the leopard off in the distance.[1]

       Sometimes that is how we encounter God. We come upon God while we’re intent on doing something else. That’s how Moses came across God. He was at work watching the sheep, doing the same thing he had done every day for years. Something caught his attention. He went to explore it. It was a bush, in flames but not burning up. God spoke to him from the bush, and his life was never the same.

       For most of our lives, the majority of our waking hours are spent doing some kind of work, and most of us want such a large segment of our lives to have some connection with what is ultimate, what is most important to us. The Bible supports that longing. We weren’t created to keep our daily labors separate from God. When God made man and woman in God’s image, God put them to work tending the garden God had planted. We were created to find purpose and fulfillment in fruitful labor that continues God’s work of making the world a place where each person enjoys the good things God has made. One of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God was that the work they did became a burden for them. After God cast then out of the Garden, the earth would still bring forth fruits and vegetables and things that were good for the woman and the man, but as a punishment for their sins, it would also bring forth thorns and thistles. As God was driving them out of the garden, God said, “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground…” (Genesis 3:19)

       Sometimes our work can seem like a curse. Sometimes we do want to “take this job and shove it.” But there is an inherent dignity in work. Our nation celebrates Labor Day to remember the dignity of work. The holiday grew out of the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was a response to the way that work had become dehumanizing, something that assaulted human dignity rather than enhanced it. As industry grew and became more mechanized, some employers viewed the people who worked at the looms and poured the steel and mined the ore as one more commodity to be maximized. Labor Day began as a reminder that human beings are not interchangeable parts. We were created by God to take part in God’s creative work.

       That’s why unemployment is not just an economic problem. A job doesn’t just provide a paycheck that puts food on the table and a roof over the head. A job gives a person purpose, a reason to get out of bed, self-esteem. One of the great political debates of our time is how best to help those who don’t have a job. At its best, public assistance sustains an unemployed person until she or he gets through a rough patch and back on the job. But is there a line where that help becomes a disincentive and deprives a person of the initiative to find work?

       At its best, work, whether we’re paid for it or not, is a gift from God that lets us have a part in the ongoing work of God’s creation. But in addition to the work of sustaining God’s creation, of building it up and being stewards of our resources, there is the work of reconciling the world to God, of freeing all people from the powers that deprive our lives of meaning and purpose, that keep us subject to those things that drain our dignity. That is the work that God called Moses to do from the burning bush. In Egypt God’s people the Israelites were slaves. To Pharaoh, they were commodities like the stones they dragged through the desert to build his pyramids. God called Moses to have a part in the work of freeing the Israelites. God was going to give them a land of their own, where they could plant vineyards whose wine they would enjoy, built homes where they could live in peace, study God’s law so they would be motivated by love and compassion rather than the whip of the overseer. The work Moses had been doing all his life prepared him for the work God gave him. His early years living in Pharaoh’s courts as the adopted son of the princess made him familiar with the ways of those in power. His later years as a shepherd, tending flocks in the wilderness, prepared him for the years he would guide the Hebrews through the wilderness.

       Moses led the Israelites from bondage to freedom. Later Jesus came to free us all from the bonds that oppress us, from sin and selfishness and hatred so we can enjoy the peace and hope that God intends for us. Along with that freedom he gives us a part in the work he is doing to restore all of God’s creation. Jesus calls us each to take up our own cross, just as he took up his, and find true joy and peace in losing our lives to him.

       Some, like Moses, are called to take on leadership God’s work of bringing people back to God by serving as pastors or full-time church workers. Jesus called 12 disciples away from their fishing boats to follow him, but most of the people who responded to Jesus he sent back to the places they lived and worked to tell their friends and neighbors and fellow laborers what they had seen and heard from the Lord. And that’s where most of Jesus’ work gets done, where we earn a living and take part in the life of our community.

       Some people shy away from Jesus because they think that following him means they have to do more. They’re afraid it will mean going to more church meetings, giving up more family time for volunteer projects, cramming even more into an already jam-packed schedule. Or they’re afraid that they’ll have to be different people – be nicer or more outgoing or more pious. Well, following Jesus is likely to mean there are changes in your life, but it often means finding who you truly are and doing what you ordinarily do, except you do it knowing that God is somehow or other in the midst of it all.[2]

       Someone once said that his job is a way of looking responsible while he tends to more important things.[3] You might say that’s what the Apostle Paul did. He was a tentmaker by trade, and as he travelled around the Roman Empire starting churches for Jesus, he made his living by continuing to make tents. Not only did that provide what was surely a needed product in the economies of Corinth or Ephesus or wherever he stayed, his encounters in the marketplace must have given him opportunities to glimpse God at work in the lives of those he met. More often than not, God works through us right where we are, in the midst of our day jobs. Maybe it’s by noticing an opportunity to offer a comforting word to someone in distress, or to pay attention to someone who is overlooked. Maybe our calling is to do our work with integrity, perhaps to point out an injustice or speak up with courage when we know something is wrong. Knowing that there is another level to our work lets us hold our jobs lightly. If we see a conflict between what our work requires us to do and what Jesus desires for his world, then we can walk away because we know that, in the end, we belong to Jesus, not our employer. When it comes time to retire, we can give thanks for what work has meant to us while realizing that we are a lot more to Jesus than our jobs.

       Frederick Buechner is famous for saying that we find our vocation where our greatest joy meets the world’s need. For some people, that is obvious. Some people feel so certain about their calling that they embrace it and can imagine themselves doing nothing else. For others, like Moses, it’s not so clear. He didn’t doubt that God was calling him, but there were plenty of times along the way that he questioned the whole enterprise. Finding his place made his life a lot more complicated. Pharaoh resisted him. His own people, the Israelites, complained against him. There were many times in the years that followed that Moses called out to God and asked why he had been given such a thankless job that caused him so much grief.

God told him from the burning bush that he would receive a sign that would affirm his call, but the sign would be a while in coming. God told Moses that the sign would be when the Israelites worshiped God in the place where he stood. After all the confrontations with Pharaoh, the complaints of the people, the tension and the agony of the exodus, that is when he would know for sure that he had done God’s work. In the meantime, Moses would have to trust. When they were finally free, he would be certain that God was in and through it all.  

Some of my best mentors in faith have been those who could reflect back on their lives and see the hand of God at work. I think of a man, I’ll call him Ted, who was in hospice care in the final stages of lung cancer. I think of the grace with which he faced his death because he could look back over his life and know that the same God who had been with him over the past 85 years, sometimes obviously and sometimes seen only in retrospect, he trusted that that same God would continue to be with him and be true to his promises even in death and beyond.

When we are baptized, we are given a place in the work that Jesus is doing. That place may not be obvious all the time. Sometimes we see it, and the one who calls us, only obliquely, like Peter Matthiesen saw the snow leopard . But even if we have a hard time finding our place, we know that Jesus has found us and has prepared a place for us, prepared a purpose for us. Even if you aren’t sure what that is, he does. He knows your place in his kingdom. Your place is with him.

[1] Belden C. Lane, “Stalking the Snow Leopard: A Reflection on Work,” The Christian Century, January 4-11, 1984, pp. 13-16.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), pp. 25ff.

[3] Lane, op. cit.

8-25-19 — The Promise of Faith — Genesis 15:1-6, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       My father took pride in our genealogy. Back in the days before, he had charts and family trees that traced our family all the way back to Scotland. In fact, he even claimed that we could trace our lineage all the way back to Robert the Bruce, one of the first kings of Scotland.

       So when he and my mother came to visit my wife and me when we were living in Edinburgh, of course we had to visit the hallowed ground where those ancestors had come from. We had to go set foot in the castle, survey the estates, get back in touch with that illustrious heritage. Dad knew that the family had immigrated from North Knapdale Parish in the west of the country. So after Carol and I had shown them around Edinburgh, we all squeezed into a little green car that I borrowed from friends and headed across Scotland to reclaim our roots.

       Now, the maps we had were vague about where North Knapdale Parish is located. We spent the night in an inn that we were pretty sure was in the general vicinity. We asked the proprietor for directions. He scratched his head, gave us a puzzled look and said, “Ach, I’ve a never heard of the place.” That evening we had supper in the pub and asked some other locals if they could direct us to our ancestral estate, and they had the same reaction.

       Well, to make a long story short, we eventually found it. North Knapdale Parish was a handful of run down cottages set among a desolate landscape of rocky hills overlooking a forbidding windswept loch. There was a small stone church by the road surrounded by a cemetery. We piled out of the car and started inspecting the grave stones for familiar names. Two older ladies appeared out of one of the cottages, walked over to us and asked, “Can we be a helping ye?” My father explained that our ancestors had migrated to North Carolina from there in the early 19th century. One of the ladies looked around at the bleak, impoverished landscape and said, “I wish my ancestors had migrated to North Carolina.”

       That put all our ancestral pride into perspective. Our ancestors wouldn’t have migrated if they hadn’t thought life wouldn’t be better for them in America than in Scotland. As we drove away, rather than feeling big headed about our supposed nobility, we were grateful for the courage and the conviction of those humble forebears who left behind everything they knew and set out toward a promise – not a guarantee or a contract, but a hope that they would find a better life in North Carolina than the one they knew in North Knapdale.

       There’s something in the human spirit that looks forward, that strives for a better place. That’s why immigration is such a hot political topic. It wouldn’t be an issue if people in Guatemala and Honduras and around the world weren’t responding to the same hope for a new start as my Scottish ancestors.

       This weekend marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the English colonies in America. One reason slavery is called America’s original sin is because so much of the work that went into making this country great was done by people who did not come here hoping for a better life but were forced to migrate against their will, for whom America was not the land of promise and opportunity, but the place of oppression and sorrow. But even as those enslaved people were forced to build great cities like Washington, D.C., they were sustained by the same hope that sustained Abraham as he left his homeland, that promise of a city whose architect and builder is God. That promise sustained Abraham’s ancestors as they escaped from slavery in Egypt and wandered forty years in the wilderness, not knowing where they would stop for the night, but knowing that their destination was the place where their descendants would live forever. It’s the promise that gave the apostles courage in that upper room as they cowered in fear after their Lord had risen into heaven, the courage to go out into the hostile streets and proclaim that God had raised Jesus from the dead and put his claim on the world that had sent him to the cross. It’s the promise that lets Christians gather for worship each week in Pakistan when threatened by terrorists, that let Syrian Presbyterians open their churches for refugees fleeing ISIS. It’s the same promise that gave my ancestors the faith to start from scratch in a new land, trusting that even though they had to work hard and maybe see few results, there was something better in store for their children and their descendants like me.

       Those who say we live in dark and troubled times are right. But what times aren’t? And the heroes of our faith are the ones who lived knowing that the threats and the hardships of the moment are not the end of the story. It was faith that kept Abraham and Sarah moving toward the land of promise. It was faith that sustained the Hebrews in the wilderness. It was faith that propelled the apostles out of that upper room and into the streets of Jerusalem. It was faith that kept enslaved Africans from falling into despair. It was faith that brought my Scottish ancestors across the sea, trusting that God would give them a new start. Theirs was not a resigned faith that if they held on long enough good times would come again by and by. It was not a faith in the great circle of life. The circle of life is fine for lions and other wild beasts. Theirs was faith that something far better was in store, faith that God is moving us forward, toward a goal, a destination that is far better than anything we have ever known. It is an assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.  

       But how do we have that faith? How do we live with that assurance? The letter to the Hebrews answers that question by reminding us of God’s track record. The way you get to know someone is by noticing the things they do over and over. After a while their actions give you a good idea about their character, and you begin to know what you can expect of them. Each story of the Bible tells us something about God. As we become familiar with God through the Bible, we become more adept at recognizing God when God is at work in our lives.

       Hebrews reminds us that by the word of God what is seen was made from things that are not visible. The Bible begins by telling us that God took nothing and made the universe out of it. From the dust of the earth, God made human beings. God took Abraham and Sarah, when they were pushing 100 years old, and gave them a baby. God took the dead body of Jesus and breathed life into it. The character of God, which we know in the scriptures, is to take nothing and make something of it, to take those things that seem useless and make them essential, to take those who are last and make them first.

       So there is something that at first seems unreasonable about committing our lives to God, about trusting that there is something better prepared for us when we entrust our lives to Christ. Trusting God requires a leap of faith. It’s like a child standing on the edge of the swimming pool, terrified to go in the water, but his mother is standing there in the water with her arms stretched out, calling his name, smiling and assuring him it’s all right. Jumping into the water goes against everything the child’s instinct and reason tell him. But he trusts his mother, so he steps off the edge, knowing she’ll catch him as she promised.

       Now, one thing we know about those biblical heroes is that many of them had the opportunity to turn around and go back. If Abraham and Sarah “had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had the opportunity to return.” We all know how the past can take on a hazy glow, especially when we find ourselves in a difficult place. I remember returning to the house where I lived when I was six years old. I remembered it as an enchanting place, with large bay windows and a sprawling back yard where my friends and I could run and play hide and seek. As an adult, I went back by that place, and I was stunned by how small it is. It’s just a normal bungalow on a normal middle class street. One reason it’s good to go to a high school reunion is that, in addition to remembering momentous events, formative teachers, and dear friends, it also reminds you of lots of the memories you may have screened out over the years, the irritating people you’ve forgotten, the petty rivalries you put behind you.

       Abraham, wandering all those years toward an unknown promise, could have returned back to Haran where he hadn’t had a bad life. The Hebrews could have turned around and gone back to Egypt where at least they had food and water, if not freedom. After he’d set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus could have changed his mind and gone home to Nazareth and taken up a peaceful life as a carpenter. After Paul had been arrested a few times and whipped he could have gone back to Tarsus and resumed his trade as a tentmaker. But they all had faith in something better, the promise of God’s heavenly kingdom that waited for them.

       That’s what sustains us when we want to give up and get discouraged with the world around us, when life seems too much to bear, when our plate is just too full of challenges and sorrows. The same God we know in the Bible, the God who sustained our ancestors in the faith, is holding us and carrying us forward.

       That’s what’s gotten Eastminster Church where you are today. Back in 1957 when Eastminster was chartered, a group of faithful people heard God calling them to start a new community of faith in the growing suburbs of East York. That vision thrived, and the congregation grew to over 1000 members. Things have changed since then. The community is different. Our culture is different. The call to ministry in 2019 is different from what it was in 1957.  Like Abraham, your sight isn’t set on what used to be. You’re grateful for your past. You learn from it and build on it. But you know you can’t go back. The future is not behind you, but ahead.

       We’d all like to know what Eastminster Church will be like five years from now, but that future is not in our hands. It’s in God’s hands.  Yes, we have to make plans, set goals, measure achievements, but we do that knowing that as we do, God has a say in it as well. We know that all we have received from God in the past has prepared us for God’s future, not to relive the past. We do our part, and we trust that God will do God’s part.  That’s what it is to live by faith, the confidence that God has prepared a place for us, and what we do now is practice for the time we arrive.  The community that gathers at 311 Haines Rd. is a milestone on that journey, pointing to the place God has prepared for us and inviting others along. That is the promise of faith that draws us forward.

8-18-19 — Divided By Jesus — Luke 12:49-56 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Jesus had been preparing for three years. From the time he was baptized by John in the Jordan he knew what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. That confrontation with Pilate, the cross on Calvary, the grave, Easter – those three days would be the culmination of everything he had done. And he wanted to get to it. “What stress I am under until it is completed!” he told his disciples. Think of a football player lined up on the 40-yard line, waiting for the kickoff of the championship game. Think of a student sitting at her desk ready for the teacher to pass out the final exam. Think of a soldier prepped for battle waiting for the order to advance. That’s how Jesus felt as he made his way toward Jerusalem.

       Jesus’ crucifixion would be the cataclysmic moment of all creation. Everything he had taught was in anticipation of what was going to happen once he got to Jerusalem. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Turn the other cheek. Return no one evil for evil. Those weren’t just wise suggestions for living a happy life. They were directions for living in the new creation that would begin on Easter day.

       Before that new creation could begin, the old creation had to be uprooted. The old reality where we look out for number one, where we ignore the poor and oppressed, where we get ahead by forcing our will on others, where we are paralyzed by fear of death, that old reality has to be removed to make room for the kingdom of God. It’s like that hedge that was in the parking lot, in front of the church office. It got to be so overgrown and infested with poison ivy that the Facilities and Maintenance Committee took it all out and replaced it with a split rail fence. The old had to go to make room for the new.

       Unfortunately, the old creation doesn’t give way as easily as an old hedge. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asked his disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division!”

       When is the last time you heard that verse quoted at Christmas? Do you think Mary and Joseph forgot to tell Jesus about those angels who sang “Peace on earth, good will to all,” the night he was born?

       Well, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, but his is the peace of life and vibrancy and joy, not the kind of peace that is passive and sullen, not the peace of those who have been defeated and given up hope, not the peace of the graveyard. I suppose that God could have forced his hand and made us all into zombies who blindly and unquestioningly do God’s will, but that’s not what God has done. Jesus’ victory on the cross over sin and death was like the victory on D-Day in 1944 that established the beachhead on Normandy. There was still a lot of struggle before the Third Reich was defeated, but the victory was assured. Jesus invites us to share his struggle against the powers of sin and evil.

       That peace doesn’t come without a cost. It’s not cheap. I know I’d like to have it both ways, to have all the glory and peace and goodwill of Christ’s kingdom without the division and the conflict. Being part of the new creation that Jesus begins means we have to leave behind what is old, and sometimes that means leaving behind those who are closest to us. We’ve heard stories of people who were raised in strict fundamentalist Muslim or Hasidic cultures whose families cut them off when they became followers of Jesus. This summer Carol and I visited the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi in Italy. Francis was from a wealthy family and had a promising career as a soldier, but after encountering Jesus he gave away his armor and all of his possessions to follow a life of poverty and service. His father had other plans for him, and was furious. Most of us haven’t been ostracized by our families for following Jesus. Many of us were brought up in the church and following Jesus is what our family expected of us. But that division between the old creation that Jesus uproots and the new creation that he begins shows itself in all kinds of ways.

When someone’s life is torn up by addiction, they won’t find peace until they break off their relationships with their drinking buddies and form new friendships in their 12 step meetings. One reason it’s hard for someone to leave an abusive relationship is that it means breaking away from her abuser, who at one level she still loves.

       Today Martin Luther King is revered by people of all political stripes as a hero of reconciliation. But many of us remember that in the 1960s he was denounced as a divider. One of King’s most famous works is “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King had been arrested for taking part in an unauthorized march against racial segregation. In the wake of all the unrest caused by the civil rights movement, eight of Birmingham’s white Protestant pastors, who were sympathetic with King’s goals of racial harmony, wrote an editorial in the local paper entitled, “A Call for Unity.” They criticized King and the other civil rights leaders for being divisive and urged him to tone things down and wait patiently for the white community to come along rather than causing such division in their community.

       King used his time sitting in his jail cell to write a response. He explained that the marches and sit-ins were drawing attention to injustices that had been tolerated for too long. Without the demonstrations, and the freedom riders, and the lunch counter sit-ins, and the other forms of civil disobedience, those injustices would still be hidden. He was exposing those deep divisions so they could be brought into the open and healed.

       We had thought those divisions were healed, but in recent years we’ve seen that they’re deeper and more pervasive than many of us thought. Back in 2008 America elected a black president, and people said that we had entered the post-racial society. His election was held up as proof that racism was a thing of the past. Since then, however, white supremacist groups have grown; it’s not Islamic fundamentalists who are terrorizing us now but white nationalists. We’re seeing divisions that we had thought were eradicated coming painfully to the surface. Our divisions are deeper than many of us thought.  

       Jesus exposes our divisions because he came to upend the old order of things and turn creation upside down. If your main goal in life is to be rich, you’re not going to warm up to the news that kingdom of God belongs to the poor. If you find your self-worth in boasting about how great you are and reveling in the belief that you’re so much better than others, then you don’t want to hear that it’s the meek who will inherit the earth. If you gain power by waging war, it’s not good news to you that blessed are the peacemakers. What is good news to some is bad news to others. If someone is held hostage, then the news that someone has come to set them free is good news for the hostage, but it’s bad news for the hostage taker.

       Now, one institution that’s known for its divisions is the church. It’s tempting to think that those divisions are a sign that we’re doing the right thing. Not long ago I preached a sermon about Christian unity and told a story about how a congregation in our area had avoided a divisive conflict when its music director wanted to marry his male partner in the church sanctuary. The pastor didn’t want to do it, so the session worked out a compromise where the associate pastor officiated and everyone was satisfied. After the service a retired pastor spoke to me, thanked me for the sermon, but said that church should not have allowed something to take place that is so clearly against the teachings of the Bible. He reminded me, “Jesus also said he came to bring division.” And I want to thank him for that reminder, because he really got me thinking about all this talk I do about our unity in Christ.

       Our challenge is that as human beings with limited understanding of God’s ways, we don’t always know just where that dividing line that Jesus makes lies. A lot of our divisions, rather than being signs that we’re on the right side with God are signs of our brokenness and sinfulness. My friendly critic and I read the Bible differently when it comes to what Jesus thinks about same sex marriage, but I think those are divisions within the body of Christ, not divisions that put one side or the other outside the household of faith.

       There are those who would disagree, but I think there are some divisions within the church family that are like the divisions between my parents and me. On the very first election day that I was eligible to vote, I spent the day working the polls for one of the candidates. Meanwhile, my mother was at home making phone calls for his opponent. When our home phone went dead around noon, she was very suspicious of me, but I promise I was innocent. In the years that followed, I don’t think we ever voted for the same candidate, but we still loved each other and enjoyed being together. We were both involved in politics because we loved our country, and we believed that Christians who live in a democracy have a responsibility to make it a better place. We had different ideas about how to do that, but we were still citizens of the same country, followers of the same Lord, and members of the same family.

       I think many church divisions are like that. I’ve served two churches that divided in the mid-nineteenth century because one side wanted to glorify God by using an organ in worship and the other side thought the organ is the instrument of the devil. All four of those churches now have organs.

       When Jesus said he came to bring division, he was talking about cataclysmic change. He was talking about tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days. He was talking about the division between what gives life and what saps the life out of us, between the old way of life that is driven by fear and scarcity and suspicion and the new way of life that is driven by love and generosity and hope. Those who belong to that new creation can welcome those whose skin is a different color from theirs, whose customs differ, whose ancestors came from a different place. That’s what happened last Sunday when the New Generation Hispanic congregation that worships in Fellowship Hall welcomed us to their worship service and gave us a new experience of praising the glory of the Lord. Those who belong to that new creation aren’t afraid to be generous with the poor because they know that in the new creation God provides all we need. Those who live in the new creation forgive those who have done them wrong because they know that holding a grudge and seeking revenge are what you do in the old creation. Those who live in the new creation face their death with courage and hope because they know that the Lord is on the other side of that greatest divide of all, the divide between life and death. He has already crossed over that, and he is there, welcoming them into the heavenly kingdom. 

8-11-19 — Ties That Bind — Philemon 1-21 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       People come to the church for lots of reasons. Some come because they’ve had a great spiritual awakening, others because they know something is missing in their lives and are trying to find it. Some come because of the programs it offers for the kids. Others are here for the music or because they like the people or they want to learn more about the Bible. I’ve known people who’ve come to church because they thought it would be a good place to network and meet people who can help further their career. Some are here because their parents bring them and they don’t have any choice.

       But whatever brought you here, if you pay attention you’ll notice that the church isn’t like any other group of people. That’s not just because we worship God and study the Bible and do other things we don’t do elsewhere. You’ll notice that when we’re at our best there’s something different about the way we relate to other people.

       Church can be more than you bargained for. It was for Philemon.

       Philemon was a wealthy member of the church in Colossae. In those days before church buildings, the church met in his house. Being a well to do landowner of the first century, he owned slaves. The slaves were the ones who got the house ready for church, prepared the food the church members would share, and cleaned up after everyone left. Slaves often joined with masters when they gathered to worship, and they heard how Jesus came to break down walls that divide people. He came with good news for the poor and the slaves that they are as beloved in God’s sight as their masters. They probably heard Paul speak those words he wrote to the Galatians that “there is no longer slave or free… for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

       One of Philemon’s slaves named Onesimus took to heart the message of Jesus he heard proclaimed in his master’s house. Onesimus believed all that talk he heard about freedom, and he ran away. Somehow, we don’t know how, he made his way to Paul and assisted the apostle in his work. When Paul was in jail, Onesimus cared for his needs and provided for him. Onesimus became like a son to Paul.

       Paul loved Onesimus and valued his help, but he was uncomfortable that Onesimus had run away from his master. And Paul was also uncomfortable that his own relationship with Philemon was hurting because he was harboring his friend’s fugitive slave. So Paul sent Onesimus back to his master with this letter appealing to Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a runaway slave who had broken the law, but to receive him as a brother in Christ. According to the law, Philemon could have punished Onesimus severely. He could have flogged him or even killed him for running away. But Paul reminded Philemon how Christ has transformed all of our relationships, including the relationship between a master and a slave.

       In some ways this is a troubling letter. People have criticized Paul because he didn’t ask, even demand, that Philemon set Onesimus and all of his slaves free. Jesus said in his first sermon in Nazareth that he had come to proclaim release to the captives and let the oppressed go free. But White slave owners in the American South before the Civil War pointed to Paul’s letter to Philemon to justify the institution of slavery.

The gospel Paul preached has the seeds that eventually undermined slavery and led Christians to become some of the most ardent abolitionists who fought to do away with it, but for all his wisdom, Paul was still a man of his times. What Paul was asking Philemon to do was radical for the time. He was asking him to receive his escaped slave as a fellow member of Christ’s church and an equal before God.

       We have two reminders of that unity that we keep in the front of the sanctuary where we see them every week. The first is the Lord’s table. When we come up to the Lord’s table and partake of the sacrament, we’re side by side with people who may be our best friends or whom we may not even know, but by taking that plate of bread and that cup of juice, we’re making a statement that we’re sinners and we need God’s forgiveness. That’s completely different from what we’re taught to do in most other areas of our life, where we’re taught to put our best foot forward and show how good we are. We’re making a statement for all to see that we can’t do it on our own, that we share our need for God with everyone else who takes communion with us.

       The other reminder is the baptismal font. Whenever we baptize someone, we’re welcoming that person into our community of faith as one of us. We promise we’ll teach them what it means to follow Jesus and to give their life to him. Baptism, a person’s entry into this community, doesn’t depend on how much someone has accomplished or how much they know about theology. Our baptism shows us that God loves us before we have done one thing to deserve that love, just as a child’s parents love her before she’s done anything to deserve it.

       That bond we have with others in Christ can be jarring, especially when we leave the beauty and comfort of the sanctuary. Between my stints as an interim pastor when we lived in Pittsburgh, Carol and I worshiped at an urban church that has people from many different races and economic classes. It was kind of a stretch for us who were both reared in white suburban congregations and served as pastors in churches like the ones where we grew up. But we liked the idea that when we worshiped there we worshiped with a wide variety of people, a visible reminder of the diversity of Christ’s church.

       One evening we went to the movies, and as we were leaving the theater, we passed a man standing by the door begging for money. We generally observe the advice of people who work with the urban poor and don’t give to beggars because that doesn’t get to the root of whatever problems they might have. We give to organizations like the Rescue Mission that set up structures to deal with the underlying issues of poverty and that know enough about the population that they can tell the difference between people who are in genuine need and scam artists.

       But after we walked past this beggar, we stopped dead in our tracks. “That’s So and So,” Carol said. “He’s the worship leader at the church’s 8:00 service. How can we walk past him? We go to the same church!”

       Most congregations don’t have the kind of diversity of the church in Colossae where slave owners worshiped along with slaves, or even the diversity of that urban congregation where a street beggar leads worship with bank executives and college professors. That’s mainly because of the way housing patterns are these days. It’s still true that 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, both by economic class and by race. But one of the great strengths of the church is the way it can nudge us to live beyond that separation and let Christ join us with people who are very different.

       A lot of that happens in partnerships with organizations that work with people whose life circumstances are different from that of many of us. That’s why the mission outreach that Eastminster does is so important, not just to the people who receive your kindness, but to the church. When you share knitted scarves and hats with children in need, you’re reminded of the bonds we have with people who live right here in our community whom we may not encounter. When you support missionaries like Sue Ann Randall, you build those ties with the church around the world.

       Don’t get me wrong. It’s vitally important to tend to the bonds here at home. We start to learn how Christ changes the world as we notice how he changes the way we relate to those who worship with us. It’s in our Bible study groups, our Sunday school classes, the friendships we make and nurture here that we find the strength and the love to be able to reach out beyond ourselves to others. We gratefully receive from one another the support and encouragement and love we need to be faithful disciples of Jesus.

       Whatever it is that causes us to join the church, once we’re part of it, it changes the way we relate to each other. Sometimes that’s a challenge. You’re not necessarily going to like everybody in the church. You’re not going to have a lot in common with everybody. But church is a place where a slave owner was expected to receive his runaway slave as a brother. Perhaps most challenging of all, it’s a place where we listen to, respect and encourage the people who worship with us week in and week out. It can be more than you bargained for, but when Jesus binds us to himself, he binds us with his church. When Jesus comes into your life, he brings his family with him, so we’re bound together with all kinds of people, whether we like it or not because, after all, it’s not your church or mine. It’s Jesus’ church, and he welcomes whomever he wants – including you and me.

8-4-19 Sermon — The Rev. Chris Blackford

7-28-19 — How To Pray — Luke 11:1-13 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Eugene Peterson tells about an encounter he had early in his ministry at the Presbyterian church in Bel Air, MD. Marilyn was a member of his church, a woman in her mid-twenties, married, starting a career in law. She was getting tests for some ailment the doctors couldn’t diagnose. All the resources of medical science and psychology were at her disposal, so when Peterson visited her, he wasn’t sure what he could do. But he asked her anyway, “Is there anything you want me to do?” Marilyn responded, “Would you teach me to pray?” At that moment she wasn’t looking for a diagnosis, or even necessarily a cure. What she was asking was how to see God in the midst of her pain. She was asking for assurance that God saw her.[1]

       When Marilyn prayed, she may well have asked for a cure, maybe even a miracle. Those do happen. But the effectiveness of prayer can’t be judged by quantifiable results, the way a company calculates return on investment or a charity shows donors measurable impact. Like every other human being who has ever lived, Marilyn’s body would one day succumb to illness or accident. Death and disability and disease don’t abide by our standards of fairness, and every person Jesus rescued from death eventually had to face it again.

       No, Marilyn wasn’t asking for a super natural formula to recite. She wanted to know the same thing Jesus’ disciples wanted to know when they asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They wanted to know how to tap into the force that created the universe, how to align with the power of the one who raised the dead.

       Jesus taught them what has come to be known as The Lord’s Prayer. Over the years, we’ve filled it in a little and added some extra phrases, but it is our model for how to pray. Its first two lines set the framework for all our prayers: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” Before we pray for ourselves or for others, we place all our requests in the context of God’s kingdom.  The kingdom of God is what Jesus’ ministry is all abaout. According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ very first words when he began his public ministry, the words that defined what he had come to do, were, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” (Mark 1:15) Jesus began God’s work of restoring all of creation to the way God intends it. The prophet Isaiah described that kingdom as the place where the wolf lies down with the lamb, swords will be beat into plows, where those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength and mount up with wings like eagles. When God raised Jesus from the dead, the power of death and corruption and all the things that keep that kingdom from coming to pass were overcome. Those who follow Jesus are enlisted in his work of fulfilling that kingdom. His resurrection is our assurance that everything we do in his name shows the world that God will prevail.  So all our prayers are raised based on that promise and expectation, that God’s kingdom is coming.

       In the context of that prayer for God’s kingdom, Jesus lists three things to pray for: our daily bread, forgiveness of sin, and deliverance from temptation. Let’s take a minute and unpack what each of those requests means when we pray them in the context of our prayer that God’s kingdom come.

       The first request is “Give us each day our daily bread.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus cautions against storing up too much that will distract us from God’s kingdom. When he sends the disciples out to do his work, he tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” He tells a parable about a man who decides to build a bigger barn to store all his goods, only to die that very night. When a rich man asks him what he needs to do to have eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all he has and distribute it to the poor. So this prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” is our request that God provide what we need for the day in order to do our part in the work of God’s kingdom. Now, by hard work or luck or maybe even some extra blessing, we may get more than our daily bread, and then we’re faced with the challenge of being good stewards of what we have. But to be a faithful follower of Jesus, all we need to pray for is “our daily bread.”

       Not everyone who claims to teach prayer agrees with that. There’s a strand of religion called the prosperity gospel. Some of its proponents you can see on TV, speaking in giant arenas packed with thousands of people. Those who tout the prosperity gospel quote Jesus’ promises without framing them in the context of the kingdom of God. Their message is that if we believe in Jesus and pray persistently, then God is obliged to give us what we ask for. After all, didn’t Jesus say in the passage we just read, “Ask and it will be given to you… for everyone who asks receives…”? What God really intends, so they say, is for you to be prosperous, and the reason you don’t drive a Jaguar or live in a mansion is that you haven’t been praying right. You haven’t been claiming the promises God has in store. And more than likely, you haven’t been sending enough money to the televangelist.

       Most of us can see through that kind of chicanery. Ever since Simon Magus tried to buy God’s blessings by paying off Peter and John (Acts 8: 14ff), people have been trying to profit from the gospel. But what about when our prayers are for those things that God couldn’t possibly be against, like healing for those we love. How could a loving God not cure my loved one’s cancer? How can a God of justice allow a mass-murderer to take the lives of innocent people? It’s when those prayers for healing or justice seem to fall on deaf ears, for things that are supposed to be Christlike and Godly, it’s in response to those seemingly unanswered prayers that so many people have given up on God altogether.

       Jana Childers, a professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, tells of a friend who had cancer. Childers and her friends took Jesus’ command seriously and prayed without ceasing for her friend. For all their prayers, her friend didn’t get healed, or enter remission, or get a sign from heaven or a visit from angels. But what her friend did get was God. She was able to let go of this life with joy and gratitude and peace, knowing that not even death could separate her from God’s eternal love and care. In her friend, Childers was able to see the kingdom of God.[2] That’s how her prayer was answered.

       Someone was once asked what he got when he prayed. He replied that it was easier for him to say what he lost – anger, worry, resentment, fear.

       That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask. Some of us are reluctant to ask God for specific things like healing or a good job or the right place to live. After all, God has so many important concerns, like keeping the planets aligned or world peace. But that’s taking things to the opposite extreme. Jesus invites us to bring all our needs to God because that’s what we do in our most intimate relationships. The Lord’s Prayer starts by addressing God as Father. A good and loving parent wants to hear even the smallest concerns of his or her child. We tell our spouse or our best friend our wildest dreams and our deepest longings. In prayer God can help us sort out what is small or petty from what is important, and God may help us see that requests we thought were insignificant might be ways that God can carry out the work of the kingdom. Sometimes even if the answer to our requests is no, taking our desires to God can shape those desires into something even better. And at the very least, I’m sure there are times that the things I’ve asked God for have kept God amused.

       We’ve talked a lot about that first petition, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and what it means to ask God for specific things. In the second petition, we pray for relationships with God and with others: “Forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Of course we know that our sins are already forgiven. God’s forgiveness doesn’t depend on us praying this prayer. Our sins were forgiven when Jesus died for us on the cross. What we’re asking is that the same power of forgiveness that has reconciled us with God, in spite of all we’ve done to disappoint God, to reconcile us with others. We symbolize that reconciliation in our worship service when we pass the peace. When we pray as Jesus taught, we bring to God all our relationships and ask that Christ be present in them so we can treat everyone, whether we like them or not, with Christlike love, the way all people will treat each other when God’s kingdom comes.  

       The third thing we ask in the Lord’s Prayer is “do not bring us to the time of trial.” As we await the kingdom, there are many troubles, toils and snares that confront us. Traditionally, we’ve said, “Lead us not into temptation,” but that sounds like God might  us by the hand and plop us down in some situation where we’re tempted to sin. A few weeks ago Pope Francis changed the wording in the Roman Catholic version of the prayer so that it says, “do not let us fall into temptation.” That new wording is true to the original Greek, and it clarifies that we’re asking God to give us the faith and strength we need so we don’t fall into temptation, not that God is setting traps for us.

       All the things we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer, our daily bread, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance from temptation, are set in the context of our prayer that God’s kingdom come. After Jesus gives that model for how to pray, he goes on to encourage us to pray consistently and boldly. He ends this teaching on prayer by saying, “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It’s God’s Spirit, speaking with our spirits, that makes prayer alive and dynamic, not just words spoken into the air.

After World War I T.E. Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, brought the chieftains of Arabia with him to the Paris Peace Conference. Those men of the desert were amazed at many things, but what amazed them most was the running water in their hotel rooms. In the desert water is scarce. They knew its value. Here it was at their fingertips, free and endless for just the turning of the tap. When the chieftains prepared to leave Paris, Lawrence found them trying to detach the faucets so they could always have water with them in their dry desert homes. He tried to explain that behind the taps were huge reservoirs. Without that supply the faucets were useless. But the chieftains insisted. They were sure they could disconnect the faucets, taken them with them back to the desert, and they would have water forever.[3]

       The power of the Holy Spirit is what makes prayer different from mindfulness. Mindfulness is very popular nowadays. You can learn about it at the Y or download apps to guide you in it. It’s like meditation. You find a quiet place, empty your mind, focus your awareness on the present moment and pay close attention to what you’re feeling and thinking even as you try to empty your mind of all distractions. Those practices are helpful when we pray, but the difference is that in prayer, as we empty our minds of all distractions, we ask the Holy Spirit to fill us. We enter into conversation with God. There are times that we may not feel God’s presence, but we know that whether we’re aware of God or not, God is there.

       Prayer taps into that great reservoir of God’s Spirit that is empowering the work of God’s kingdom. In prayer we place ourselves and all our concerns in the eternal and loving hands of God with the plea, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” May it be so.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, referenced in “Forming a People Who Pray,” by Andrew Root, Christian Century, July 3, 2019, p. 23.

[2] Jana Childers sermon, “A Shameless Path,”

[3] Samuel H. Moffett, “Where’s the Power,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. VI, Number 2, p.66.