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3-10-19 — Standing in the Promise — Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Luke 13:31-35 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       We build our lives around promises.  The promises we make to each other are the building blocks of our relationships.  Without promises, we wouldn’t know how to relate to each other.  Promises are what allow us to make plans, to count on the future, to have control over our lives.

       I invite a friend to lunch, and he promises to meet me at twelve.  Because of his promise, I arrange my morning so I’ll be at the restaurant at noon.

       When you take a job, your employer promises to pay you a certain wage, and based on that promise you make other promises: to the bank that you’ll pay the mortgage, to the insurance company that you’ll cover the premiums, to the church that you’ll meet your pledge.

       Two people fall in love and get married, and they promise that they will be faithful to each other in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, till death do they part.

       Sometimes, in spite of their best efforts and most heartfelt intentions, people make promises they just can’t keep.  It began to dawn on me that my father wasn’t perfect when I was small and he promised me we would do something fun together – play ball or go to the zoo or something like that.  A business engagement came up that he couldn’t get out of, so we couldn’t do what we had planned.  There weren’t many promises he didn’t keep, but when I realized he was human, and like the rest of us didn’t have complete control over his life, I could forgive him for the promises he couldn’t keep. 

       The Bible is the book of God’s promises, promises that tell us a lot about God. One of the promises God made was to Abram.  God promised Abram that he would be the father of a great nation and that God would bless the whole earth through Abram’s children.  Now, God made that promise when Abram was 75 years old.  Years later, when Abram was still childless and his wife Sarai was long past the age when she could conceive a child, God spoke to Abram one night and said, “Don’t forget my promise, Abram.”

       “Sure, right,” Abram replied.  “The biological clock has run down, God.”

       God replied, “Go outside and count the stars if you can.  That’s how many descendants you’ll have.  You’ll have so many that they’ll fill this whole land you see before you.  Trust me.”

       “How can I trust you?” Abram asked.  “How will I know you’ll keep your promise?”

       Now, when you and I make promises, we sometimes seal them as a way of showing we intend to keep them.  We do something to show we mean what we say, something that holds us accountable for the promise we’ve made.  Most promises are sealed with our word.  I say I’ll meet you at noon, and you trust my word that I’ll be there.  Some promises we seal with a signature.  You sign a contract, maybe get it sealed by a notary, and it’s a promise that’s enforceable in a court of law.  Some promises we seal with symbols: a couple makes promises to each other in a wedding that they’ll do the best they can to make their marriage work, and they exchange rings as a sign of their promise.

       In the time of Abram the most solemn promises were sealed with a ceremony.  You would kill some of your best livestock, cut them in pieces, and lay the pieces out in two parallel columns.  Then each party in the contract would walk between the pieces of the animals as a way of saying, “If I break my promise, then may what happened to these animals happen to me.”  You backed up your most solemn promises with your life.

       That’s how God sealed the promise to Abram.  When daylight came, God told Abram to get his best livestock and a couple of birds, kill them, cut them up, and lay them out in two parallel lines.  Abram did, then he spent the rest of the day shooing away the hawks and the vultures.  When night came, Abram fell into a deep sleep, a dark and terrifying sleep.  Then he saw a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch – God passing between the pieces – and the voice of God said to him, “Abram, your descendants will fill this land, from the river of Egypt in the west to the Euphrates in the east, the breadth of the world as you know it.”  God sealed the promise with a ceremony that said, “As surely as I live, I will do this.”

       And what was Abram to do in response, this old man who gave up hope of having children years ago?  Abram was to believe.  His side of the promise was to believe God would do as God said.  That’s what was required on his part, to believe.

       Abram never saw the great nation he was promised.  He was never surrounded by dozens of grandchildren.  But he and Sarai did have a son, one son named Isaac.  And Isaac had a son named Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel.  And Israel had twelve sons and a daughter who had more children, until centuries later the descendants of Abram ruled the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates, just as God promised, and spread around the world carrying with them the promises God had made to Abram and his children.  Abram didn’t live to see it, but he believed, and God kept the promise.

       One of Abram’s descendants brought another promise from God.  Jesus came with the promise that God hasn’t forgotten about this world God made.  Jesus promised that death and evil and greed aren’t going to win, that God is preparing the earth to be the kind of place it was created to be, a place of love and peace and gentleness and justice.  But, like Abram, we need some kind of sign, something to seal such an incredible promise.  Like Abram who was aware of his age every time he moved too fast, we have lots of evidence stacked up against the promise Jesus makes, evidence that convinces us of our weakness and our frailty.  Where is this God of love who is supposed to be in control of the universe?  When the doctor tells you you’ve got cancer, when a relationship you’ve nurtured for years falls apart, when children go hungry in a world that has more than enough food to feed every person on the planet, you have to ask God the same question Abram asked, “OK, show me.  How am I supposed to believe your promise?”
       We believe because God sealed the promise to us.  God sealed it with the blood of Jesus Christ who died on the cross.  And there’s only one thing required on our part to receive that promise, to have a place in the new creation God has promised.  That is to believe, to believe that Jesus is the one who brings in this new world order, who died to make it happen, and who rose from the dead to conquer every death-dealing power in the universe.

       What we do with that promise tells us a lot about ourselves.  Not everyone who heard Jesus’ promise believed it.  The Pharisees who warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him didn’t believe him.  It wasn’t because they were bad people that they didn’t believe.  They were fine, upstanding folk.  But they thought that if good were going to triumph, it depended on them.  They believed that if you said the right prayers, made the right sacrifices, performed the right rituals, you might convince God to hurry up and make the world better.  They found Jesus irritating because he said all that’s required of you to have a part in the kingdom of God is to believe.  You can’t earn your way into it.  The Pharisees, who worked so hard at earning their way into heaven, didn’t like to hear that.  They would just as soon Jesus left them alone, so they tried to get him to go away by telling him his life was in danger.  But Jesus didn’t say thank you and run away.  He said, “Go tell that fox Herod he can’t control what I’m doing.  God will do what God will do in God’s own time.”  Herod couldn’t silence Jesus with threats, and the Pharisees couldn’t earn God’s favor with their religion.  To people who want to be in control, who want something more than a promise, Jesus can be something of a nuisance.

       The people of Jerusalem didn’t believe either.  In fact, they didn’t really see the point of the promise.  They didn’t think things were all that bad.  Life was comfortable, and whenever crackpots came along and told them they were making God angry, they ran them out of town.  They were too busy looking out for themselves to worry about anybody else.  They weren’t interested in Jesus’ promise because they already had what they wanted.  Jesus weeps over those who reject his promise.

       But God’s promise doesn’t depend on what we do with it.  God promised to change this world, and God is going to do it whether the Pharisees or the people of Jerusalem, whether you or I, believe it or not.  God made a promise, God sealed it on the cross, and it’s going to happen. 

       In Jesus God has promised to make the world a place of peace and plenty, of joy and love.  We live trusting that the promise is true.  When death looms before us like a great empty void, we know that God has promised us eternal life through Christ.  When it seems wickedness has the upper hand and that honesty, integrity and compassion are foolish, we know that God has promised a new creation where good is rewarded and evil gets what it deserves.  When our prayers don’t seem to go any higher than the ceiling and it’s hard to believe in anything beyond what we can touch and see, we know that God’s promise is more reliable than our good sense. 

We know about God by the promises God makes.  God has promised life, a full, satisfying life, where there is no pain or sadness, where there is no death or crying, life that is not tortured by greed or selfishness or evil. God has made a promise and sealed it with the blood of Christ.  God keeps promises.  Believe it.
 

3-3-19 — Passing the Mantle — 2 Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Eastminster is the tenth congregation I’ve served as a transitional pastor, and one of the things I’ve valued about interim ministry is seeing how God is at work in the midst of change. Six months ago you said goodbye to Greg as he retired from a long and fruitful ministry, and now you have a Pastor Nominating Committee working to discern the person God is calling to lead you in the years ahead.

       And as a congregation goes through change, each person who is part of the church is dealing with changes as well. That’s part of life. There are students who will be graduating in the spring, facing the big changes of starting college or a job. Some are going through significant changes in employment, some voluntary and some involuntary. Some are facing retirement, a big change in how you’ll use your time and how you’ll define yourself when people ask, “So what do you do?” And all of us who are of a certain age are aware of the change in our bodies, how steps seem to get steeper and the name of the person we just met takes a little longer to pop up in our minds.

       Today’s scripture lessons are about moments of change, points of transition. In the Old Testament lesson Elijah passes the mantle to Elisha to take over as God’s prophet in Israel. In the New Testament lesson Jesus gives three of his disciples some insight into how he is getting ready to change not just their lives but the course of all creation. There are some things those two stories can teach us about how God works through change, in our own lives and in the life of East minster.

       One thing to notice is that those changes are part of an ongoing story. Even though they marked something new, they were rooted in what had happened before.

       You may remember the story in the book of 1 Kings about God speaking to Elijah in a still small voice. Elijah had fled his persecutor Queen Jezebel and gone to a mountain in the wilderness. As he took shelter in a cave, there was a violent wind, a strong earthquake and a raging fire. Then there was a sheer silence, and in the silence God spoke to Elijah. Many sermons and devotionals have been written about how we need to be still and listen for God in silence, and I’ve contributed my share. But when God spoke in the silence, God had a message, and the message was that Elijah was to summon Elisha to carry on the work Elijah had been doing for years. Elisha was to keep on reminding Israel of their covenant with God and calling them back to it. When Elisha had that big change in his life, when he picked up the mantle of Elijah, he was part of that ongoing story of God calling Israel back to himself.

       On the Mount of the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ ministry as something completely new, unlike anything God had ever done. And God was doing a new thing in Jesus, but it was part of what God had been doing since the beginning of time. One of the earliest heresies in the church was the belief that since Jesus has come we have no more use for the Old Testament. Maybe you’ve heard people talk about the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as if they are two different gods. Remember that when Jesus said that he came to fulfill the scriptures, he meant what we call the Old Testament. The two main parts of the Old Testament are the law, which God gave through Moses, and the prophets, of whom Elijah was the greatest. At the Transfiguration, when Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah, he was making it clear that he was part of the ongoing story of God’s dealings with humanity. It was new chapter in that story, a fulfillment of what had gone before, but it was the same God and the same ancient story. That tells us something about how God works amid the changes in our lives. The God who has been with us in the past is the same God who is with us through every change.

       My son went to a university run by the Jesuits. While he was there I became intrigued by some of the spiritual practices taught by that order of Catholic priests. One practice which I’ve found helpful is called the daily examen. It works like this: At the end of each day, or first thing in the morning if you’re too tired to do it at night, you review in your mind the events of the day before. You envision the day like a movie. As you replay the movie in your mind, you notice what you did, what you saw, the people you encountered. As you do, you notice where you encountered God. Perhaps it was in some kindness that you received, some unexpected grace, maybe in a glimpse of beauty like a snowy mountain peak or the song of a bird. Each time you see in your mind’s eye some thing or some event or some person in which you get a glimpse of the work of God’s Spirit, you offer up thanks. You also notice those places where you didn’t see God’s Spirit, perhaps in some harsh words that were exchanged, or a painful loss, or something you saw in the news about human cruelty and injustice. Those things you lift up to God in prayer, asking forgiveness for the times you’ve let God down, help for those ongoing challenges you face, and God’s peace and strength for those places of suffering and need. The practice of a daily examen, where you notice what God has done in the past, helps you to notice God in the day to come.

       When we face change in our life – a new job, relocation, graduation, a loss, retirement – we can look back over our life and notice where God has been. That reminds us that our lives are not a series of disjointed episodes but part of the ongoing story of God’s mighty works.

       Another thing to notice about the stories we read today is that God is giving people a part in that ongoing story. Sometimes when we’re faced with change, we are pretty clear about what we’re leaving behind but we don’t know what to do moving forward. For Elisha the path was pretty clear. By inheriting Elijah’s mantle, he became God’s prophet in Israel. By picking up Elijah’s mantle Elisha took on his work of performing miracles and speaking God’s work of justice and purity to those in power.

       The specifics of what Peter, James and John were supposed to do once they came down from the mountain weren’t so clear. The only instruction they had on the mountain was the voice of God: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.” That instruction was pretty broad. I suspect the disciples eventually found themselves in situations where they wished they had more specific direction on what to do. There have been plenty of times when I would have welcomed clearer instructions about what God wanted me to do. Wouldn’t it be great if God had given a handbook with detailed instruction on parenting that spells out how much time a kid should spend on social media? Or there was a manual for churches that described exactly how to reach out into the community and grow in membership? But the instruction God did give, “Listen to him,” is good no matter how radically things change over 2000 years.

       We may not know where God is leading us until we’ve gotten there. Luke’s gospel says that when Jesus came down from the mountain he turned his face toward Jerusalem. He began his journey to the cross. That’s why he told his disciples to say nothing until he had risen from the dead. They could not understand what Jesus was calling them to do or what the glory of Jesus means until after he had gone through his suffering and his death on the cross.

        For most of my relatively sheltered life I was put off by the way some branches of the Christian church have crucifixes in their sanctuaries, images of Jesus suffering and bleeding on the cross. I much prefer the empty Protestant cross. It’s much cleaner, less gruesome, and after all, Jesus came down from the cross and is no longer there. But as I got more acquainted with some of the communities around the world where people live lives less sheltered from violence and suffering than the places I knew, I became more sympathetic with their focus on Jesus’ suffering, on his blood, and the on adoration of his wounds. For many of those people, violence and suffering and death are part of everyday life, and in that suffering Savior they know that the God of power and might suffers with them. Just because he is risen doesn’t mean he has left them behind. He shares their pain and their tears. In their very weakness they find the strength of God.

The hope of the gospel is that God is alongside us and sweeps us into the glorious work God is doing, the work of bringing the whole creation back to God. As it says in Romans 8, we wait along with the whole creation to be set free from bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. And often it’s in the pain and confusion of life that we’re most likely to encounter God.

       I have a friend who was a lawyer in a job that crushed her spirit. She was an alcoholic and in an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend. She hadn’t set foot in a church in years, but one Easter morning she woke up and something told her to go to church. She called her boyfriend, and there they were on the third row that Easter morning. She heard for the first time in years that story of resurrection and the new creation that Jesus has begun. To make a long story short, she and her boyfriend recommitted their lives to Christ. She used her training as a lawyer to set up a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity building homes for the poor, and through the guidance of the Spirit was led to another career that she found life giving. She started on the road to addiction recovery. She and her boyfriend realized that they were not meant for each other and moved on to other relationships. Recently she retired and can look back over the last 30 years and see how God has directed her, but when she walked into that church on Easter morning, she had no idea where that decision would take her.

       Our lives, and the life of the church, belong to Jesus. We know that the one who has been with us so far is with us now. We know that we are given a place in the work God is doing to bring peace and justice and goodness to all creation, whether that’s our classroom, the work place, or the hospital room. On the cross Jesus shows us that we matter to God. What we do matters, and one day we can look back and see where God has brought us. And we’ll know that the place he’s brought us is where we are supposed to be, in the presence of God who is with us, just as God has been all along.

2-24-19 — Uncommon Sense — Luke 6:27-36 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Really? Do you think Jesus really means for us to do all those things?

       I made a list of objections to what he said in this passage, and the list took up a whole page.

       -Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Enemies are those who want to harm you. Why would you want to do them good? It makes you look weak and encourages them to keep doing you harm.

       -Bless those who curse you. That is an affront to our honor. When someone cuts me off in traffic, that’s an insult, and I want to use that modern curse, my horn, to lay into them. What am I supposed to do when someone drives by me and makes an obscene gesture? Smile and say “Bless you”?

       -If we turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, how can there be peace and order in society? People who strike out at others have to know that they’ll suffer for it or they’ll keep striking us.

       -“Give to everyone who begs from you.” There are signs posted in downtown Lancaster asking you not to give to beggars on the street because it only enables dependence.

       -What about letting people take our property? Where would the rule of law if we couldn’t be assured of property rights?

       -Lend without expecting anything in return. How many bankers would do that? It would undermine the whole basis of our economy.

       Just imagine what it would be like if you took Jesus seriously. All those things that he tells us to do go against what we think is natural and right. It makes no sense at all.

       That’s why the older son in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was so upset. You remember the story. His younger brother had asked their father to give him whatever money he was going to inherit and then he went off and squandered it in loose living. Then he had the nerve to return home, and rather than making him pay for wasting all that money, the father welcomed him with open arms and killed the fatted calf. That appalled the older son who had done everything right and never received so much as a goat to roast so he could have a party with his friends. It was a travesty of justice that the father did not treat his sons as they deserved to be treated.

       But that’s the point. Those who follow Jesus don’t treat others the way they deserve to be treated. We treat others the way God treats us. Jesus calls God Father, and good parentsdon’t treat their children the way their children treat them.

       Imagine what it would be like if parents treated their children the way they were treated. When my children were infants and woke me up at 2:00 a.m. to face smelly diapers and screaming demands to hold them or feed them, totally oblivious to my needs, there were moments when I wanted to treat them the way they were treating me. Fortunately, there are laws that keep us from doing that.

       As children grow up, parents expect them to do what they’re is told, and there’s nothing that makes parents angrier than when a child is outright disobedient. But if a child sneaks some screen time after the parent has told her to put the device away, or snitches a cookie after being told not to have one before dinner, what parent is going to stop loving the child? The parent will be mad and discipline the child, but still  do everything in her or his power for the good of the child.

       And what if a parent’s love depended on the child’s love being returned? How would we have survived adolescence if the love of our parents had depended on the way we treated them? There’s a book by Eugene Peterson called Like Dew Your Youth that I recommend for parents of teens. Peterson encourages parents not to think of their children’s adolescence as something like the flu that will eventually go away, but instead to think of that time of life as God’s way of deepening your understanding of how strongly God loves us. Parents of teenagers develop an appreciation for what it must be like for God when we totally ignore God, live as if God didn’t exist, and treat God as if every blessing we receive is an entitlement rather than a gift of grace that springs from love.

       Treating our family the way God treats us is a wonderful thing, and would that all families treated each other that way. There are some for whom God the father is not a helpful image.  The way their fathers treated them was cruel and abusive, anything but the way God treats us. Thankfully, there are many other images in the Bible that help us think about God: a mother hen that gathers her chicks, a kind shepherd, a strong fortress. But if we want a standard for how parents should relate to their children, God’s example is the one for us to follow.

       Yet, loving your family is not what sets Jesus’ followers apart from anybody else. The Corleone family in The Godfather movies loved each other. They were criminals, but they loyal to each other and would do anything for members of their family. What makes the Jesus’ followers different is that they treat all people with love. The way God treats us is not just the model for how we treat our friends and family, it’s the model for how we treat everyone. The Golden Rule is all inclusive: “Do to others” – not just those you love –  “as you would have them do to you.” 

       Being merciful like God and treating others as we would be treated is not easy. It’s not something we can do with the flip of some internal switch. All those things Jesus tells us to do don’t come naturally to us. They’re not human nature. It’s only when our nature is changed do they make sense. On the cross Jesus reoriented the way we see things. He gives us different standards for how we relate with other people. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God showed that love is more powerful than hate, prayer more effective than abuse, forgiveness mightier than condemnation. Jesus reorients us so that we see everything in this new way. When we belong to him, we are transformed so that his new way of life makes perfect sense.

       Even with that transformed nature, even when we are a new person in Christ, it takes patience and practice to live as children of God. Forgiveness doesn’t always come quickly and easily. It often takes time to let the Holy Spirit work through us before we are ready and able to be merciful and treat others as God treats us.

       In 1987 Terry Waite was in Beirut as an envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury trying to bring peace among the warring factions of Lebanon. He was kidnapped by a radical Shiite group backed by Iran and held captive for five years. During the first year he was tortured and subjected to mock executions. For most of his captivity he was in solitary confinement. During his captivity, the Spirit of Christ worked in his heart. He developed a deep empathy with those who have no control over their lives, especially the victims of violence and war who are confined to the refugee camps he had visited in the course of his work for the church. He experienced what it is like to live year after year without control of your own life, to have every day determined by the power of others. When he was finally released after five years, he could have let bitterness control him and dedicated his life to seeking revenge for all the wrong that was done to him. Instead he devoted his life to reconciliation and peace. It took a long time for him to readjust. He had to work through his nightmares and relearn how to interact with his family. But for the next 20 years, through his writing and his teaching, he bore witness to a power that had sustained him in captivity and that continues to sustain him. It’s a power that is stronger than hatred or revenge. He was free from the burden of having to sit in judgment on those who had harmed him because he knew that God judges us all, and God is just and fair.

       Then in 2012 he knew it was time to face those who had done him so much wrong. He returned to Beirut and met with leaders of Hezbollah. They gave him a warm welcome, but denied that they had been his kidnappers. Waite wasn’t there to settle scores. He was there to exercise forgiveness, just as he knew God had forgiven him in Christ. While he was there, his former captives asked what they could do for him now, and he asked if they could use their influence to get supplies to refugees in Syria that he had visited on his way to Beirut.

       Did that encounter make up for the five years that his captors had taken from his life? No. Did it bring peace to the Middle East? Not really. But it showed that there’s more going on than what we hear about in the headlines, something like a grain of mustard seed that is small and grows in due time, like leaven in a loaf of bread that is hidden but works imperceptibly to change everything.

       Don’t let anyone deceive you into thinking that living the way Jesus tells his followers to live is easy. It takes discernment and wisdom to know if giving a dollar to that panhandler is really helping him or if would be better to give that dollar to the Rescue Mission to help get him off the street. There are times when we need to support our government when it wages war against enemies, but we do it not with triumphant glory but with a certain sadness that we are still so far from the reign of the Prince of Peace where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. That’s why we need the community of the church, the family of faith, to help us discern how we live as children of God in an imperfect world.

       What Jesus tells us defies what passes for common sense. Following him is not just sitting back and letting whatever happens happen. It’s not ignoring wrong and injustice and abuse. Following Jesus means being proactive in love, preemptive in grace. It means wielding the most powerful force in the universe, the power of God who raised Jesus from the power of death. To most people that makes no sense at all. To those who are children of God that makes uncommon sense.

2-17-19 — The World Turned Upside Down — Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Did they laugh?  Did they shake their heads in disbelief?

       Try to imagine what Jesus’ disciples expected to hear as they gathered around.  Matthew sets the stage: “His fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.  And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (Matthew 4:24-25) Something extraordinary was happening, and you can only imagine the elation his disciples felt.  They had cast their lot with Jesus, and it sure looked like their decision was paying off.  Now Jesus took the twelve aside to instruct them about what it takes to get ahead in this kingdom he was ushering in.

       “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he told them.  “Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  Jesus took everything they valued and turned it on its head.  We’ve heard these words so often that they’ve lost some of their punch.  But think about them.  They go against many of the things we value most.

       And what do we value?  If you watched the Super Bowl ads, you saw. Who doesn’t want to live the life they portray?  They appeal to our desire to be at the top of our profession – which we can achieve if we use the right office supply company.  They mirror our longing for a life that is carefree, fun and easy – which comes with drinking the right beer or taking the right pill.  They tap our desire to be free to do as we please and go where we want – and we can go in style with the right car.  They touch our concern for our future and the security of our families – which the right insurance company will help us achieve.  Those things are important to us.  But Jesus doesn’t offer help with any of those things.  He doesn’t offer success or fun or style or financial security.  He says those who are blessed are those who are poor in spirit and meek and mourning and persecuted.  He turns everything upside down.

       Carol and I always enjoy reading our friends’ Christmas letters.  We enjoy hearing about the things that gave them joy over the past year and the challenges they faced. One friend related a number of difficulties his family had during the year – the death of some relatives, some challenges in their jobs, that sort of thing.  He ended that paragraph of the letter by saying, “But we have our health, and that is the most important thing.”  I said to myself, “Yes, yes,” as I nodded my head in assent, but then I thought, “Wait a minute.  Is it really?  Is our health really the most important thing?”  I thought of some of the people who have taught me the most about life and faith and what is really important, and so many of them have taught me from a hospital bed or a room in a nursing home.  I remember one man, John, whom I visited in the hospice wing of a medical center.  John gave me lessons in how to die and how to live.  We would talk about his life, his failures and his triumphs, and he valued them all.  He could talk about his life with deep gratitude for all he had experienced and all he had learned.  He was sad to be leaving his family, but he was confident he could entrust them to God.  John was teaching me about what was really important.  He was ready for what came next and trusted that the one who blessed him in this life would be faithful in whatever came next.  John didn’t have his health but he was blessed.  He blessed me.

       Just think about it.  It’s those times we’re stripped bare of those things we’ve built our security on that we’re most likely to be filled with the power of God.  One of the most memorable worship services I’ve ever been to was the one I attended in Akobo, Sudan.  It was in the finest building in the village, a long cinderblock building with a corrugated tin roof and a dirt floor.  There were chairs in the front for those of us who led worship, but the congregation sat on the dirt floor – infants and elderly side by side.  Before we went into the service, my host, a Canadian missionary, slipped me a bar of soap to put in the offering plate.  When he saw my puzzled look, he explained that no one had money.  It was useless out there in the bush. When the offering was collected, the worshipers gave what they had: a cup of grain, a hunk of cheese, bars of soap.  Later these were distributed to those who had the least.  The music for the service was led by a blind boy who played a stringed instrument made from a giant tortoise shell.  The worshipers sang and sang and sang.  After the service was over, groups gathered in the dusty courtyard outside the church to sing some more.  They were poor.  The government in Khartoum was persecuting them for their faith.  They were blessed.

       Barbara Brown Taylor, a noted preacher from Georgia, says that when she was little she liked standing on her head.  “…By standing on my head I could liven things up a little.  Grass hung in front of my eyes like a green fringe.  Trees grew down, not up, and the sky was a blue lawn that went on forever.  For as long as I kept my balance I could tap dance on it, while birds and clouds flew under my feet….  My house seemed in danger of falling off the yard – just shooting off into space like a rocket…  I liked standing on my head because it made me see old things in a new way.  I liked it because it made life seem exciting and unpredictable.  In a world where trees grew down and houses might fall up, anything seemed possible.”[1]

       Jesus shows us a world where anything is possible.  Once some disciples of John the Baptist came to him and asked if he was the one from God for whom they were waiting or if they should keep waiting for someone else.  Jesus told them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:2-6) Anything is possible when Jesus turns the world upside down.

       His Sermon on the Mount, which begins with these beatitudes, is Jesus’ inaugural address, his state of the union message that describes how things are and what we can expect in this new world he introduces.  And everything is upside down:

       -Instead of getting ahead by accumulating accomplishments and accolades, you get ahead in this realm by emptying yourself completely so he can fill you.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

       -Instead of finding comfort and satisfaction by escaping from the world’s hurt, you go out and find the poor, the sick, the homeless and the outcast.  Your heart breaks every time you see a homeless person on the street, with every report of a new death in Syria, every time a friend tells you her child is in trouble.  Your heart is continually breaking, but breaking open to God and to others and to the power of grace and love that is the healing balm for all the world.[2]  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

       -Those who inherit the earth are not those who conquer it and exploit it and make huge profits from it.  Those to whom God will give the earth in all its pristine glory are those who are meek, those who don’t try to overcome the world but who let God care for the world through them. 

       -Those who will be vindicated won’t be those who stand up for their rights as Christians, who go to court to demand equal time in the public square, or who make the headlines because they insist that their prayers be heard in public.  No, it’s those who are persecuted that receive the kingdom, not those who try to force the kingdom on others.  It is those who will be satisfied.

       There’s more, but you get the idea.  It’s the merciful who are blessed, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for Jesus. 

       A minister friend of mine has a prayer hanging in his study.  It was allegedly found on the body of a Confederate soldier at Gettysburg. 

       “I asked God for strength that I might achieve;

              I was made weak, that I might learn to

humbly obey.

       I asked for health, that I might do great things;

              I was given infirmity, that I might do better

things.

       I asked for riches, that I might be happy;

              I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

       I asked for power, that I might have the praise of

men;

I was given weakness, that I might feel the

need of God.

       I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;

              I was given life, that I might enjoy all

things.

       I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped

for.

       Despite myself, my unspoken prayers were

answered,

       And I am, among men, most richly blessed.”

       May God bless you, and turn your world upside down.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 145.

[2] Ibid, p. xi.

2-10-19 — Body Building — 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Anyone who has been married more than three weeks knows that you have to be selective about where you put your foot down. You don’t live with your spouse long before you start to discover that she or he does some weird things. You’d always heard that there were people who squeezed the toothpaste tube in the middle without rolling it up from the bottom, but you never dreamed you’d live with one. Who in the world folds towels like that? Your family does what for Christmas? If a marriage is going to last, you have to put the relationship first, above your individual preferences. You have to go beyond thinking about how I do things or how you do things to thinking about how we do things. And since my wife isn’t here this morning, I’m going to admit that I’m really glad that she’s changed me to do lots of things her way.

       Paul was writing to people who were in a marriage of sorts, although it was more like an arranged marriage. In Corinth people from every race and class and level of education had been brought together to worship and serve Jesus Christ. Not only were they from very different backgrounds, they had come to Jesus by different ways. Some had ecstatic out of body experiences where they spoke in tongues. Some had been miraculously healed. Some of them had dramatic encounters with Jesus who turned their lives around on the spot. They could tell you the exact date and time that he had changed them forever. Others had come to him gradually, through a slow and deliberate process of learning and nurture. Each one thought his or her experience  was the one and only way to come to Jesus. For many whose experience of the Holy Spirit was so powerful, they couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to Jesus any other way. Some insisted that speaking in tongues was how you knew if a person was really a follower of Jesus. Those who could pinpoint the moment they were saved were adamant that if you couldn’t name the moment, then you weren’t a believer. Those who had been miraculously healed were certain that unless you’d experienced a miracle you hadn’t met Jesus.

       About the only thing many of the Christians in Corinth had in common with each other was their faith in Christ, and many of them weren’t sure about that. The church there was like one of those families that you look at and wonder how the siblings who are so different from one another could have been reared under the same roof. In making sense out of that diverse family of faith, the church, Paul uses a different metaphor. He describes the church as a body. Each part of a body has a different function. The eye and the ear do different things. They are put together differently and they function differently. Different parts of the body have a different perspective on things. The way your hands interact with the world up here is different from the way your feet interact with the world down on the ground. But for all their differences, the parts of the body exist for the good of the whole. A hand that is cut off from the body is useless, and the body suffers for the loss. That’s how it is with Christ’s body, the church. There is lots of diversity, but it all works for the common good.

       Now, in many ways what Paul is describing goes against nature. If you ever took physics, you learned about Newton’s laws of thermodynamics that describe how the natural world works. If there were natural laws like that describing people, one of the laws of social dynamics would be that people tend to split apart to be with others like themselves. And the longer they are together, the more they realize how different they are from each other, so there is always a shifting among groups of people trying to find those with whom they’re most comfortable.

       It’s so much easier to break apart and form separate tribes than it is to work together for the common good. We build walls to define our kind and to keep out those who are different. But the book of Ephesians in the New Testament says that Christ came to tear down the dividing wall of hostility. That is what makes the church so different. It is the place where Christ brings together those who, if they followed their natural instincts, would be apart.

Now, that doesn’t mean that in Christ we are all the same. Paul writes, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?”

If Christ’s body consists of many different parts, we need to know what makes our part distinctive so we can do our best for the common good. For instance, one of the things that make Presbyterians distinct from other parts of the church are our conviction that God calls us to service as well as salvation. We’re not saved just to get our ticket to heaven, but so we can serve the world in the name of Christ. So we’re a church that is involved in the world. We don’t just sit in our sanctuaries and enjoy being saved. Another thing that makes us distinctive is that we have a disciplined concern for order. We resonate with Paul’s advice elsewhere in 1 Corinthians that all things should be done decently and in order. We shun ostentation and try to be good stewards of God’s creation. We recognize the power of human sin and our tendency to selfishness, so we have a healthy skepticism for all human endeavors. We don’t think that any human institution, whether government or corporations or churches is perfect and beyond need of repair.

Presbyterians aren’t the only ones who value those things. We just emphasize them more than some other branches of the church do. And we have more in common with other parts of the church than we have differences. With Baptists and Episcopalians and Roman Catholics and all Christians we affirm that we know God in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We trust in the saving death of Christ on the cross and his promise of resurrection to eternal life. We affirm that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our rule for faith and for life.

Over the years, as we’ve split apart from each other, it usually seemed like the right thing to do at the time. If the church is a body, then bodies do get infections. Pathogens grow in the body that don’t belong there, and if the body is going to be healthy, it has to get rid of the germs. Elsewhere in the Bible, Paul warns against false teachings. There is such a thing as heresy and wrong doctrine. It’s important that we be vigilant and self-critical so that what we proclaim is the truth. But Paul is clear that what is most highly valued is the unity that shows the world that there is one Christ, not many versions of him. God, in God’s Providence, has made the most out of our differences. Over the years, even as we’ve divided into separate traditions and denominations and congregations, we’ve learned from one another in ways that have enriched our faith. We no longer burn heretics or drown Anabaptists like they did in centuries past. The Holy Spirit keeps showing us over and over that no one part of the church has it all, and we are strengthened by other parts of the body of Christ who do things differently.

One of the most powerful witnesses of a local congregation can be how it brings together diverse people to worship and serve the Lord. American Presbyterians don’t do too well reflecting the racial or ethnic diversity of our communities, but we often reflect a diversity of perspectives. Once I was preaching in a congregation that I admire very much. Standing in the pulpit I looked out over the congregation and sitting in one of the pews near the front was one of the presbytery’s strongest opponents of the ordination of homosexuals. Just down from him was the president of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays who was leading the fight for their ordination. In one part of the sanctuary was one of the biggest contributors to the state Republican party, and nearby was a Democratic activist. Some people say that the church has to take a stand against the culture by coming down on one side or the other on the issues of the culture wars. But that church was being truly counter-cultural. They didn’t sweep those under the rug. They had some lively discussions in their Sunday school classes about hot-button issues. But the people respect each other and trust that the Holy Spirit, working among them when they’re together, will lead them to see things and do things that they would never do on their own, separated from those who disagree with them on certain things.

Paul told the Corinthians to strive for the greater gifts. Those are the things that draw us together in love, so the world will know that there is one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all in all. To him be the glory and the power now and forever. Amen.

2-3-19 — Into The Light — Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:19-36a — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Every Sunday people come into this sanctuary wishing to see Jesus, people who are responding to some deep longing to make sense out of life, looking to find meaning and purpose in what they do. 

       I remember at one church I served, a young man would slip in the back just as worship started and slip out during the closing hymn.  I noticed him doing that for months.  He never introduced himself or signed the fellowship pad that was passed down the pew during the service.  One day I got a call from someone wanting to come by the church and talk to me.  When he came into my study I recognized him as this mysterious man.  He explained to me that he was trying to put his life back on track after some fits and starts.  He had a rough hitch in the Army after high school.  He’d tried going to college but had a hard time of it.  He had some issues with substance abuse.  He was looking for something, he wasn’t quite sure what, and wondered if what he was looking for could be found at church.  To make a long story short, he found what he was looking for and was baptized.  Soon he moved away, but I heard from him occasionally.  He got a steady job, started going to graduate school at night and joined a congregation near his new home.  What he had been looking for was given to him by Jesus, whom he encountered on those Sundays he sat in the back row.

       There’s something that draws people to Jesus, something about him that resonates with the depths of the human soul.  Right after Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, some people approached Philip, one of his disciples, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I can imagine Philip responding to that request the way people respond to so much in the John’s gospel – by misunderstanding what is going on.  John’s gospel is almost comic in that way.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that the way to eternal life is to be born again and Nicodemus thinks he’s talking about obstetrics.  Jesus tells the crowd he is the bread of life and they think he’s talking about dinner.  Philip hears some people say they wish to see Jesus and he starts to arrange a cameo celebrity appearance. 

       But Jesus always knows what’s really going on.  He knows what we are really looking for.  Those Greeks weren’t celebrity spotting. They weren’t looking to see the latest personality in the news cycle.  They were looking for life’s meaning and purpose.  They were looking for the one who could call forth in them something that they felt was there but couldn’t bring forth. So, instead of giving them his autograph, Jesus gave them life. He spoke to their deepest need.

       Jesus began by being straight with them. Soon he would die and be buried. His body would be placed in a grave, the way a seed is planted in the chilly and barren soil of spring.  Whoever wants the new life he gives has to follow him. They have to allow the old self to die. Like a seed that germinates, he would be raised, and as that seed grows, straining toward the light of the sun, it produces fruit to feed the hungry and sustain life. So, you want to see Jesus? He is on the cross. He is lifted up to be buried. He dies to be raised. We give our old self to him to receive the new self we were made to become.

       It’s a challenge to talk about all this because human language is inadequate to describe what Jesus does. Jesus uses metaphors to describe who he is and what he does, images that we can understand which lead us to a deeper meaning. He says he is a good shepherd, although he doesn’t really tend sheep. He says he is living water, but we know he’s not liquid. There are so many metaphors describing Jesus in the Bible because none of them is adequate to describe him. Sometimes he mixes metaphors in a way that my high school English teacher would disapprove. In this one passage, he switches from describing himself as seed which has to die to the metaphor of light. He tells those who are looking for him to walk in the light.

When you turn on a light in a dark room, what you thought was one thing turns out to be something different.  When something is hidden in the shadows, it fools us.  In the dark what is bad can look good and what is good can look bad.  The shadow we thought was an intruder crouching in the dark turns out to be a quilt spread over the chair.  When we see something in the light, we know it for what it really is. 

       Jesus casts light on those deep longings that draw us to him.  He shows us that what we yearn for is our deepest and truest self.  In Jesus we find who we truly are.  You see, we were created in God’s own image.  To say that we are made in the image of God doesn’t mean that God physically looks like you or I. It means that God made us to reflect the essence of God.  And God is love, love that gives for others. We see what that love looks like in Jesus, who gave himself for us. 

       It’s hard to make sense of that kind of self-giving love apart from the cross. Without the light of the cross, the love that sacrifices itself for others looks like a recipe for failure and death. 

       The novelist Ayn Rand, who wrote in the mid 20th century, has been growing in popularity in recent years. Many political leaders who have come to power lately cite her as their inspiration for the vision they offer their countries. In her books like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Rand praises individualism, maximizing the self, and advocates a Darwinian belief that the way for society to thrive is to support those who are strong and leave the weak and helpless to fend for themselves. You hear many of those positions advocated in the current political debates. A magazine devoted to Rand’s philosophy, which is called Objectivism, proclaims that “Altruism [selfless concern for others] is not good for one’s life.  If accepted and practiced consistently, it leads to death.  This is what Jesus did….  An altruist might not die from his morality – so long as he cheats on it – but nor will he live fully….  Why not live a life of happiness?  Why sacrifice at all?  What reason is there to do so?  In the entire history of philosophy, the number of answers to this question is exactly zero.”[1]

       Jesus beams light on that argument that seems to make so much common sense, that philosophy that says we have to look out for ourselves first.  He exposes it by beaming the light of love, God’s love that gives itself for us. Now, this isn’t the kind of anxious self-sacrifice that tries to win approval.  It’s not the kind of compulsive giving that wears you down because you’re desperate to be loved.  The kind of giving to which Jesus calls us is the kind of giving that brings life because you’re confident you’re already loved and accepted completely by God through Jesus. You don’t give of yourself to win love. You give of yourself because you are loved.

Six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, a group of people from the church where I was pastor in Louisville went to help with the rebuilding. They stayed in a temporary village of trailers set up by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program. The man in charge of the village was a man named Victor.  He was the one who told the other volunteers where to find the supplies they needed.  He worked alongside them all day mucking mud out of houses and tearing out wet drywall. When the others returned to the village to collapse from exhaustion, Victor pulled out the lawn mower and cut the grass. 

After the people from the church had been there a few days, someone told them Victor’s story. Victor was a homeless man from Indianapolis.  Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis had worked with him when he was out on the street, and when they put together a team to go help the hurricane victims, they invited Victor to join them.  After the team from Indianapolis had been working for a week, it was time to return home.  Victor informed the team he was going to stay for a few more weeks.  He asked the team members if they would keep an eye on his belongings that he had stashed under a bridge in Indianapolis.  This homeless man threw himself into the work of rebuilding homes for those whom the hurricanes had made like him – homeless. He saw Jesus there among those Christians who were pouring themselves out for others because Jesus poured himself out for them.

Those Greeks who wanted to see Jesus made their request to Philip because they knew he was a friend of Jesus. That young man who sat in the back of sanctuary in the church I served came to worship because he knew it was a place where he might see Jesus. Victor saw Jesus because that light shone through those whom the light of the cross led to New Orleans.

       Jesus showed the power of love when he died on the cross.  He showed how love overcomes everything that can hurt or destroy us, from the power of a category 5 hurricane to the power of addiction, to the power of human hatred.  He gave his life for us so we can give our lives for others.  It’s in that self-giving love that we discover who we are and why we are here.  It’s a light that shines on our souls and lets us see everything differently, starting with ourselves. The opening of John’s gospel says it best: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 


[1] “Rand Redux,” The New York Times, “The Week in Review,” March 26, 2006, p. 3.

1-27-19 — To the Edge With Jesus — Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 4:14-30 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       How did you first come to Jesus? Many of us first came to him for the comfort he offers.  Life was turned upside down and he offered a safe haven in the midst of turmoil.  Maybe someone we loved was taken from us by death, we found solace in his promise of eternal life.  When things were spiraling out of control, he was the one who gave meaning and purpose and order.  More than anyone else, Jesus is our source of comfort and peace. 

       But we can get too comfortable with Jesus, the way we can get too comfortable with another person if we’re not careful. A husband and a wife can become so comfortable with each other they take each other for granted.  Marriage falls into a predictable routine they don’t even have to think about.  They have each other figured out, and life plugs along the way it always has.  Then one day someone wakes up and realizes that what was reassuring comfort has drifted into stifling complacency.

       The people of Nazareth were comfortable with Jesus.  He had been reared there; they knew his family; they had watched him grow up from the time he was a youngster.  They were pleased that Jesus had made a name for himself.  He was gaining a reputation as a wise preacher, and it had even been reported that he performed miracles.  Now he had come home, a local boy made good.  They wanted to hear for themselves his teaching that had received such acclaim. Certainly he would have some encouraging words for them. He would show his appreciation by letting them know how much they meant to him and what a big part they played in his success. He would perform some miracles for them.  They knew what to expect of Jesus.  He was one of them. 

       But Jesus didn’t do what the hometown folks expected. Instead of comforting them, he upset them so badly they tried to throw him off a cliff.    The home folks weren’t upset that Jesus had come to help the poor, the blind and the oppressed.  They were pleased that Mary and Joseph’s boy cared for the down and out. It’s just that there were plenty of people right in Nazareth he should tend to first.  Charity begins at home, you know.  But instead of looking after his own people, Jesus quoted scripture to them.  He reminded them of Elijah.  While people were starving in his homeland, Elijah went to a foreign land and fed a poor widow.  He reminded them of Naaman, a foreigner, whom Elisha cured of leprosy even while there were plenty of lepers right there in Israel who needed to be healed.   What enraged the people of Nazareth was that Jesus didn’t put his own kind first. Those who knew him best did not have first claim on him.  That made them very uncomfortable. 

       Sometimes the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things we know but choose to ignore.  The strength of Martin Luther King’s message was the very thing that made so many uncomfortable with it. It was firmly rooted in the principles Americans value.  King confronted the United States with the words of the Declaration of Independence that say “all men are created equal.”  He took seriously the words of the Constitution that say the government exists to promote justice and the wellbeing of all its citizens.  He reminded white Christians that the one they worshiped as Lord said he had come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and liberty to the oppressed. 

       Jesus wasn’t telling the people of Nazareth anything new.  He was just reminding them what their scripture had been teaching them all their lives.  God has a surprising way of putting the last first, of making the weak strong, of bringing the outsiders inside.  Remember the story of Exodus.  God could have chosen a nation like Egypt to be the special people through whom God showed the world God’s power and love. Egypt was the superpower of the ancient world.  But God chose Israel, the underprivileged minority, the immigrant laborers.  It was those who had nothing whom God led into the land of milk and honey. After Israel lived in the promised land for a while, they started to take it all for granted.  They forgot that once they had been outsiders who had nothing and that God had reached out to them when they were down and out. They began to think of God’s grace as an entitlement, something they were due, rather than a free gift they had done nothing to deserve.  They ignored the poor and the handicapped. It was more important to them that they have luxuries than that the poor have basic necessities.  But God wouldn’t let them stay so self-centered. God sent prophets like Jeremiah to call them back.  And when they still didn’t listen, God sent them into exile and made the people of Israel foreigners and slaves. God made them the ones who were outcast and oppressed so they would remember that their relationship with God wasn’t something to take for granted.

       The Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about the rights of the rich and the powerful.  It’s not that God doesn’t care about them, it’s just that they will always have the money and the influence to make sure their rights are protected. The Bible does have a lot to say about those on the bottom of society’s ladder, those who don’t have enough money for a decent living or enough influence to get the attention of the movers and shakers of the world.

       But we know that. We have seen first hand that it’s in our weakness that we often know God’s power best.  Think of the times you’ve felt closest to God.  Often, they’re the times you’ve felt the weakest and most vulnerable.  It’s not that Jesus isn’t there when things are going well for us.  He is.  But it’s when we don’t have anything else to fall back on that we learn to rely on God the most.  It’s when our self-sufficiency reaches its limits that it’s easiest for us to look to Jesus, to set aside our own agendas and rely on his strength completely.

       But if we let Jesus comfort us in our weakness and that’s the extent of our relationship with him, then we’re too comfortable with him.  Jesus did come for you and for me.  He does meet us in our need.  But he thinks more of us than to keep us in our own narrow selves.  He came to lift us out of ourselves, to see that there’s more to this wonderful world God has made than ourselves.

       People often try to spiritualize what Jesus says and take away some of the punch of his message.  People have tried to avoid getting their hands dirty with real physical human needs by interpreting what Jesus said to mean he came just for the poor in spirit, that he proclaims release to those who are held captive by sin, that he restores sight to the spiritually blind, that he sets people at liberty from being oppressed by the torments of the soul.  And he does all those things.  Jesus engages us on a spiritual journey where we grow in our faith and commitment to him and in the process point others to that freedom of the spirit he gives.

       But the people of Nazareth knew Jesus meant more than that.  That’s why they were so upset.  They knew that Jesus was talking about more than God’s liberation of the spirit.  After all, when God freed Israel from Egypt, he did more than free them spiritually.  God led them in an insurrection against their captors.  The land he gave them was real land, not just the promise of a spiritual home.  The demands he put on them were more than spiritual.  He commanded them to do concrete things like leaving some of the grain in their fields after the harvest so the poor could glean it, like setting aside the first fruits of their harvest for God.  And Jesus’ ministry was more than spiritual because human beings are both spirit and body.  When he talked about being the light in the darkness of the world, he backed up his words by actually healing blind people.  When he said he was the bread of life, he showed that God intends to provide us with real food by feeding 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish.  The good news of Jesus is a liberation of the spirit.  But it also comes with liberation from poverty and sickness and real, physical injustice.

       That’s why churches have always been leaders in establishing hospitals, why widows and orphans and sick people and the elderly have always had special places in the church.  Did you know that the first life insurance company in America was set up by Presbyterians in Philadelphia as a way of caring for orphans and widows? Churches are at the forefront of feeding the poor, educating the illiterate, improving agriculture in developing countries.

       Sometimes proclaiming the liberty of Christ means more than just providing food to alleviate people’s immediate hunger or speaking consoling words to those in pain.  Sometimes proclaiming the gospel has meant changing things to get at the root causes of hunger and oppression.  The first installed pastor of the church Carol and I served in New Jersey was The Rev. Charles McKnight who died as a prisoner in the brig of a British man-of-war in New York harbor because of his advocacy of the American Revolution.  The only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence was  the Rev. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian, whose faith in Christ led him put his life in jeopardy by standing up for what was right.  It was Jesus’ proclamation of the release to the captives that put the church in the forefront of the crusade to abolish slavery before the Civil War.  It is God’s call to give liberty to the oppressed that leads Christians as diverse as Pat Robertson and the World Council of Churches to work to end human trafficking.  It’s when the church has proclaimed that message of liberty in such a way that it not only comforts the afflicted but afflicts the comfortable that it has found itself in the same place Jesus was, at the brink of the cliff, ready to be thrown over.  It’s when those who have things going their way are threatened by the reminder that Jesus came with good news for the outcast, those who are different, that we’ve found ourselves at odds with those who have power and influence in the world.

       But where does that leave us if we’re not poor or captive or blind or oppressed?  What if we’re doing alright?  Is Jesus for us?  Yes, because Jesus also liberates us from seeing the world from the narrow confines of our situation.  He gives us the eyes of faith to see life from the perspective of those who are victims of the world’s oppression and to act on the basis of what we see through their eyes.

       The good news, the news Jesus brought, is that God is bringing in a whole new world where there won’t be injustice or pain.  We can’t be part of that if we protect our possessions and privileges. Jesus invites us to join him in welcoming those who make us uncomfortable.  In doing that, we not only help set the captives free, we find that Jesus sets us free as well, free to enjoy him unencumbered by our cares, free to do what he has called us to do – serve others in his name. Even if that takes us right up to the edge.

1-20-19 — Filled to the Brim — Isaiah 62:1-5, John 2:1-11 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

   

    Al is good at what he does. He’s in information technology, but after his company downsized he was out of a job.  He got some contract work to upgrade another company’s IT system, but that contract is over soon, and ever since the calendar turned he’s been having sleepless nights. His family has always had enough, but he’s worried about this time.  Will there be something there for him a year from now?

       Nancy is going to retire soon. She’s looking forward to being free from the pressures of the working world, but she wonders if she’s ready to start living on a fixed income and worries that there will still be enough to make ends meet. 

       Julie is four years old.  A few months ago her parents had a baby.  At first, she was excited to be a big sister, but lately that baby has been taking a lot of Mommy’s attention.  It used to be that when Daddy got home from work, he played with Julie until dinner.  Now he spends some of that time holding the baby.  Julie wonders if there’s enough love for her.

       Maybe you’ve been asked to take on a challenging leadership role in the community.  Will you have enough time and talent to do it well?  Or you’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness.  Will you have enough strength and faith to keep your dignity and face whatever happens with grace?

       It’s a question we ask all the time.  Will there be enough?  Can we trust that God will provide for us?  Jesus answered that question.  He didn’t answer by just telling us.  He showed us.  Today we read about his first miracle where he changed water into wine.  Did you notice how much wine he made?  Enough to fill six stone jars, each holding 20 or 30 gallons.  That’s 180 gallons of wine for a party that was starting to wind down.  Jesus shows us something about God we need to know: God provides more than enough.  That’s the way God is.

       You don’t need to read the Bible to know that.  You can see it in nature. I like to read the question and answer box in the daily weather report in the paper.  One day the question was, “How much energy does the earth get from the sun?”  The sun gives the earth more energy in 30 days than all the energy that human beings have ever produced from fossil fuels.  God deals in abundance!

       It’s as obvious as the noonday sun, but we have a hard time believing it.  Instead of seeing things from the perspective of God’s abundance, we’re used to seeing them from the standpoint of human scarcity.  One of the great challenges facing humankind is the problem of hunger.  Every night millions of children around the world go to bed without enough food.  The problem is not that there’s a shortage of food in the world.  More than enough food exists to feed every person on the planet, but wars, political maneuvering, and just plain greed create a bizarre situation where part of the world suffers from chronic obesity while another part is dying from hunger.  The genius of organizations like Our Daily Bread is that they get those of us who have more than enough to notice how much we have to spare and let go of some of it so those who are hungry can eat.  Bread for the World works to change the political and economic structures that support inequality.

       Ever since God created us, God has been trying to get us to see how abundantly God provides.  God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and told them they could eat of every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because if they ate from it they would know death and its limits.  But which one do you think they wanted?  The one they didn’t have.  When God delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God promised them a land of milk and honey, a place bursting with fruit and grain and minerals – more riches than they could ever want.  To get there they had to go through a wilderness, but every morning God gave them manna from heaven so they were never hungry.  They had the promise of abundant wealth waiting for them and they had food to sustain them along the way, but for 40 years they complained that they didn’t have the leeks and onions that seasoned their meager stews in slavery.

       Jesus shows us life from a different perspective.  He invites us to have faith in God who has not run short of anything since God flung the stars in the sky.  Jesus asks us to trust that God is not going to give out on us now. 

       Jesus’ first miracle showed God’s abundance.  The very setting was one of joy and exuberance.  A wedding reception is not a place where you pinch pennies.  One of the hallmarks of a good party is that you feel like you’re splurging.  The food and the drink are not what you have every day.  You indulge in the host’s generosity. A wedding is the celebration of unlimited possibilities.  At a wedding the future is wide open for the bride and groom.  There are toasts expressing the expectation that they are in for only the best.  A wedding isn’t a place to worry about what you lack.  It’s a time to revel in hope and promise and plenty.

       And so it was at a wedding that Jesus did his first miracle, his first sign that points us to the one who sent him.  Try to imagine the scene.  There’s music and dancing and lively conversation.  Jesus is there, smiling and laughing, perhaps talking with a group of people who had gathered around him.  His mother comes over to him with a look of concern.  Maybe she had been talking with the mother of the groom.  Perhaps they were friends from way back who had shared the joys and concerns of rearing their sons.  Maybe the groom’s mother had come up to Mary in a panic, frightened that her family was about to lose face in front of all their friends.  Mary works her way through the crowd over to Jesus and says in a loud whisper over the music, “They have no wine.”  He asks her, “Woman, what concern is that to you or to me?”  After all, he had come to redeem humankind from the bondage of sin.  His mission was to restore creation.  He was here to confront the power of death and establish the everlasting kingdom of God.  Why should he be concerned that a wedding party had run short of wine?  But God deals in abundance.

       Jesus used that opportunity to show what God is like.  He told the servants to fill six stone jars with water.  Then he told them to draw some out and take it to the chief steward, the wedding director.  The steward tasted it, and his face lit up.  The party could go on.  There was plenty of wine.

       His disciples saw the sign and believed.  They believed that God sent Jesus to transform scarcity into abundance, limitations into possibilities, death into life. At the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus would abolish the ultimate limit, death.  Death is what puts an end to all things.  When he was glorified on the cross, Jesus removed the limit of our mortality and opened the way to eternal life.

But not everyone who saw believed.  Not everyone understood that what Jesus did was a sign pointing to God.  When the chief steward tasted the wine, he didn’t thank Jesus.  He called to the bridegroom and commended him for being such a generous host.  “Everyone serves the good wine first,” he told the groom, “and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”  The steward had a perfectly rational explanation for what he experienced, an explanation that didn’t need God or faith.  The steward’s explanation for what happened made perfect sense – and it was perfectly wrong.

       Eastminster Presbyterian Church has experienced God’s abundance. You have a generous spirit that allowed the church to meet all of its financial commitments in 2018. Last month when Rhonda Kruse from the Presbyterian Mission Agency met with the mission committee and others, I was struck with how outward-looking this church is, how much you’re committed to making a difference in the community and the world. You’ve done that through the backpack program to East York Elementary School, mission outreach to Honduras, your support of Donegal Presbytery and the global mission of the Presbyterian Church.

       Yesterday your session spent the day discerning how God wants you to use that abundance in the coming months. The elders studied scripture, prayed, and took inventory of the ways God is already using Eastminster to do the work of the kingdom. We spent half an hour listing all the things that Eastminster does, and after we’d posted all the sheets we’d filled on the wall, we were amazed at all that is happening here. Then we focused in on the things that Eastminster does especially well and the community in which God has placed us. We came up with three things to focus on in the next nine to twelve months as you prepare for you new pastor.

       We’re going to build on what God is already using Eastminster to do in working with children and to relieve hunger; we’re going to intensify our efforts to keep people involved in the ministry of the church; and we’re going to maximize our communication to the community about what God is doing here. You’ll be hearing more about those things in the weeks ahead.

The prologue of John’s gospel speaks for everyone who trusts in Jesus: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace….  No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

It’s no secret.  Jesus came so we can know God, and if we know anything about God it is this: God has more than enough.  God knows what we need.  We don’t always have it in advance.  Sometimes we have to trust, live with confidence that when the time comes, God provides what we need.  It may not be what we expect, but it’s what we need, and whatever that is, there will be enough.  Jesus revealed his glory at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  His disciples saw the sign and they believed, and from then on, their lives were full of the abundance of the Lord. That’s what God deals in, abundance, goodness and love that fills us to the brim.

1-6-19 — Three Kinds of Kings — Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       In 2018, as in every year, leaders made a difference. Our country is divided in its opinion of President Trump, but we’re in agreement that, for better or for worse, he’s made a big difference in the political landscape and America’s place in the world. Companies are closely identified with their leaders. What would the world be like today if Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t invented The Facebook when he was in college? But in 2018 we discovered that Zuckerberg’s invention isn’t an unmitigated good. He had to defend himself and the company before Congress and in the court of public opinion.  In sports it was obvious that it makes a difference who’s in charge. It looked like the Ravens were doomed to lousy season when Joe Flacco was injured, but up stepped Lamar Jackson and now they’re in the playoffs.

       It’s an old debate among historians: Does the person shape the times or do the times make the person?  Personalities aren’t the only things that shape events, but it makes a difference who’s in charge.  Just look at the three kinds of kings we read about in today’s gospel lesson.

       King Herod had the kind of authority we usually think of when we hear the word power. He had armies at his disposal. He could make anyone in Judea do whatever he wanted.  He had wealth.  He taxed at his pleasure.  He was in charge.  Nobody told King Herod what to do.

       Power like Herod’s, power based on force and coercion, has lots of appeal.  Sometimes it’s necessary to deal with threats to safety and security from those who would harm us.  We always want our police officers to be better armed than the criminals.  We want our armed forces to have the best equipment possible to give them an edge over our enemies.  But we have to be careful about our fascination with the power of force and coercion.  It can be intoxicating.  There’s a certain thrill that comes with the immediate effects of being able to impose your will on someone else by force.  But that kind of power doesn’t last.  Smart leaders know that.  One of the reasons that New York is now one of the safest cities in the nation is because of the kind of community policing that its police commissioner Bill Bratton introduced. Rather than working out of fortified bunkers like Fort Apache in the Bronx, officers walk their beats, mingle with the people, build trust, and use force only as a last resort. 

       The great strength of our country is that it isn’t founded on the power of coercive force.  We use it for self-defense, but our nation is founded on principles of freedom and democracy.  We know that coercive power, for all its immediate gratification, is limited.  Those who use force in our behalf like police officers and the military are under the authority of civilians who are elected by the people. Leaders like Herod who impose their will by force, and after him dictators and tyrants throughout history, have caused immense suffering and death, but that kind of power doesn’t last.  The pages of history are filled with the stories of empires that rose on the strength of their armies but fell because that kind of power has its limits.

       So the first kind of king in the story we read today is the one whose authority is based on raw power.  The second kind of king in the story is the magi.  Matthew doesn’t really say they were kings.  He doesn’t even tell us there were three; he just tells us the three kinds of gifts they brought to Bethlehem. But these men were regal.  In order to afford gold, frankincense and myrrh they must have been as wealthy as kings.  And they certainly knew something about leadership.  They knew their own limits and realized they needed someone greater than themselves to lead them.  The magi were looking for someone worthy of their obedience and praise, someone whom they could trust, a ruler who wouldn’t let them down.

       The magi found that king because they studied the stars.  There’s something about gazing at the stars that puts everything in a different perspective.  The magi knew from spending so much of their lives looking outward into the vast reaches of the universe that there was something other than themselves at the center of creation.  The magi knew which stars rose when and how they journeyed across the sky.  They had studied their patterns and knew from watching the heavens that there was someone greater than they who put the galaxies in motion and ordered their movements.  The magi were looking for the right kind of king. So when they saw his star, they headed for Judea.

       The magi were polite to Herod.  They respected his kind of power. When they passed through his capital, they stopped in and asked his help in finding the king they were looking for.  But they didn’t obey him.  They didn’t return to Jerusalem on their way home and tell him what he asked them to find out.  They knew the limits of Herod’s kind of power.

       What the magi were looking for, what made them wise men, was a third kind of king.  This king was completely different from Herod.  His power was a different kind, a kind that wasn’t based on the construction of alliances or the manipulation of force.  It didn’t depend on the ability to impose his will on others.  Jesus’ power comes from some place else.  Its source is the same as the power the magi saw when they looked at the stars.

       This king didn’t have any swords or riches to back him up.  He didn’t need fear to make people fall at his feet.  Nature worshiped him at his birth.  Herod had to coerce people to honor him, but the stars changed their course for Jesus.

       For this king, for Jesus, the poor and the needy weren’t helpless subjects to squeeze dry.  This kind of king was the one the Psalmist described, the one who “delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.”  This king “has pity on the weak and needy.  He redeems their life from oppression and violence.”  His power wasn’t something he seized by force; it was something given to him to spread the goodness and the love of God.

       And his power isn’t limited the way Herod’s was.  It is a power that lasts as long as the sun and moon endure.  It is not confined to one lifetime, because he overcame death that brings an end to all human power.  Death was Herod’s greatest ally.  The threat of death is what tyrants like Herod use to get their way, but death couldn’t coerce Jesus.  When Herod sought to kill the newborn king, God led the infant Jesus to Egypt.  33 years later when he was nailed him to a cross, Jesus conquered death once and for all on Easter morning.

       Jesus was the king the wise men worshiped.  They recognized him as the true king because he is the one who has true power, the power of God that made the world.  Where every other kind of power has its limits, Jesus’ power does not.  When he rules our lives, it changes who we are and what we do.

       We’re here this morning because Jesus is the right kind of king, the ruler who reigns not through coercion but through that most powerful force in the universe, love.  We are here because he is the one who presides over the course of the galaxies.  He is the one who guides and directs our lives.  He is the one who hosts us at his table where he feeds us with spiritual food and drink.  He is the head of this church, the one who has called us together to worship him, to study him, and to serve the world on his behalf.  The wise men found their way to him and laid their most precious treasures before him.  We don’t have to search or take a long journey to find him.  He has found us.  He is here.  He rules the galaxies and the course of history.  Does he rule your life? 

8-26-18 — This Is My Story — Pastor Greg Seckman

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