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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Professor Benz the galaxies and the nebulae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Christ plays in ten thousand places,

       Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

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

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

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

[2] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3-31-19 — Is Anyone Listening? — Psalm 142 — Rev. Guy Dunham, guest pastor

Confessions of an Older Son — Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       It’s not easy being an older son.  Being the oldest child means you’re the keeper of the accounts, the one who makes sure things come out even.  Parents are always trying to give younger siblings things you’ve worked hard to earn.  I know.  I’m an older son.

       When I was in elementary school, my parents were strict about bedtime.  It was eight o’clock, no questions asked.  By the time I got to the sixth grade, I could stay up until nine, and on Tuesdays, the night Hogan’s Heroes was on TV, I could stay up until nine thirty.  It was a privilege I had coming to me because of my age.  But it was hard for me to enjoy Tuesday nights because my brother who was seven years younger than I got to stay up with me.  It took me eleven years to earn the right to stay up late, but he got to do it at the age of four.

       Being an older son takes hard work and a sense of responsibility.  Psychologists have discovered that older siblings tend to be high achievers.  We value hard work and determination.  We try hard to please.

       So I identify with the older son in the parable.  The party his father threw for his brother wasn’t fair.  Try to understand how irresponsible the younger brother had been.  He asked his father if he could have his inheritance before his father died – and his father gave it to him.  Imagine how that must have riled the responsible older brother.  Then he didn’t give a thought to his future – didn’t invest any of it, didn’t use it to establish himself in a career.  He completely blew it on a lifestyle that that makes the Kardashians look cheap.  Yes, he finally came to his senses – when he didn’t have any more cash to burn.  He came slinking home with his tail between his legs.  But what does he get for it?  Not even a reprimand.  He gets a party, with music, dancing, and celebration.

The older son had to set things right. “Listen!” he lectured his father.  “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” 

       The older brother was standing up for what was fair and right.  He was protesting a travesty of justice.  Sometimes a person’s true character is revealed by an offhand remark or an unintended action.  We can see what’s really bothering the older brother as he’s returning from the fields.  As he gets near the house, he hears the sound of music and dancing.  But does he quicken his pace to see why everyone is celebrating?  Does he run to find out what good news they’ve heard?  No.   He draws back.  He calls a servant over and asks what’s going on.  Didn’t he trust his father?  Didn’t he have confidence that whatever his father was celebrating was something he could celebrate too?  No.  He had to calculate whether or not his father was doing the right thing.[1]

       So the real issue wasn’t between the two brothers.  When the older brother drew back and hesitated to join his father’s party it was before he knew his brother had returned.  The real issue was between the older brother and the father.  The older brother couldn’t join the father’s celebration until he was sure it met his standards. 

       It wasn’t that the father didn’t love him.  “Son, you are always with me,” the father told him, “and all that is mine is yours.”  That wasn’t enough for the older son.  He also wanted his brother to be excluded.  Unless his brother was excluded, he could not enjoy his father’s blessings.

So who was better off in the end?  The profligate younger son who changed his ways and came back, or the older son who did everything just right but was offended by his father’s outlandish, unquestioning acceptance?  In the end, it was the older son, not the younger one, who was separated from the father.  That’s one of the dangers of staying at home and doing everything right.  If we’re not careful, we start to think God loves us for what we’ve done.  

I heard a story about a woman who died and went to heaven.  When she arrived at the pearly gates, St. Peter met her and told her that admission was based on a point system.  He told her that in order to get into heaven and spend eternity in the loving embrace of God, you had to have 200 points.  Peter asked the woman how many points she had.  She thought to herself, “This should be easy.” 

“Well,” she began, “I taught Sunday school faithfully.” 

“Great,” said Peter.  “That’s worth a point.”

The woman cringed.  “I went to church every Sunday.”

“Excellent,” Peter responded.  “That’s another point.”

The woman was getting worried.  “I cared for my elderly neighbor for years, up until she developed a heart condition and died.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Peter.  That’s worth two points.”

The woman was getting desperate.  “I tithed,” she said.

“One point,” said Peter.

Finally, in desperation, she said, “I’ll never be able to come up with enough points.  It’ll take the grace of God to get in here.”

“That’s 195 points,” cried Peter.  “Welcome.”

One thing that makes it hard for churches to welcome new people, especially people who are different from us, is all the good things we’ve done together.  We gather each week for worship.  We form friendships in our Sunday school classes and fellowship groups.  We take food to Downtown Daily Bread and sing together in the choir. 

But we’ve always got to remember that whatever we do as a church, it’s not for ourselves that we’re worshiping and learning and working.  It’s for God.  God in God’s absolute goodness blesses us when we live for God, but what we do as a church is not about us.  It’s about God, who is always welcoming people home. 

So, we keep those strong bonds we’ve built together.  We hold each other accountable for our journey of faith.  But remember, there are lots of others whom God would welcome into this, God’s church.  God loves that person who comes for the first time, anxious and shy and wondering if she’ll fit in, God loves her just as much as God loves those who have been faithfully here for years.

       Sometimes we act as if God’s love is a limited commodity.  We act as if God is gracious and loving and forgiving to everyone, there won’t be enough love and grace left for us.  But there’s enough.  My parents had enough love for my brother and for me.  It was more important for them to enjoy having the family all together on those Tuesday nights around the TV than to enforce my abstract 11 year old’s view of justice.       The father in the parable had enough love for both his sons, enough that he could celebrate having the family back together without loving the older son any less.  We can’t count or measure God’s love.  There’s more than enough for everybody. 

[1] Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001), p. 67.

3-17-19 — Easter for the Earth — Psalm 24, Romans 8:18-25 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Twice a year, Eastminster has a Celtic Sunday. One feature is that special music that comes from the western edge of Europe. Those Celtic lands, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany in France and Galicia in Spain, have cultures that are shaped by the convergence of land and sea and mountains. And that closeness to nature has also shaped Celtic spirituality. It has given us a rich appreciation for how entwined we human beings are with those forces of nature over which we so little control.

This time of year we can hardly help but notice that there are things going on all around us that remind us of the beauty of God’s creation. We wake up to the sound of birds staking out territory for a new generation. The buds on the trees and the fields showing the faintest tinge of green remind us of God’s never-ending bounty.

       Yet even as this week winter gives way to spring, the earth reminds us that it has another face. It’s not just the sweet, benign provider of hope and inspiration. Spring is a season of extremes. Melting snow and heavy rains make rivers overflow in the Midwest, leading to devastating floods. In Alabama, the change of seasons bred tornadoes that ripped homes from their foundations. New York City is making plans to extend the shoreline of lower Manhattan into the harbor and build a giant berm to keep out the sea as its level rises. Whenever we think we’ve mastered the earth, we’re reminded of just how menacing it can be.

       Since the dawn of time human beings have wrestled with how to relate to the earth that both nurtures us and threatens us. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they encountered the Canaanites who tried to come to terms with the earth by worshiping it. Their gods, the Baals, were deities of fertility whom they thought controlled nature. Those gods were found in the trees and the soil and the rain. They didn’t make any ethical demands of their worshipers such as loving and caring for one another. They just wanted to be appeased. So, without any ethical guidelines the worship of Baal led to immoral acts, such as child sacrifice and orgies at the holy places that involved temple prostitutes. One of the great theological contests of the Old Testament was whether Israel would worship the God who created nature and reigns over it or the false gods who were found in nature and could be manipulated to give favors like rain and good crops.

       So those, like us, who worship the God of Israel, have always had a healthy skepticism about the beauty and the power of nature. Like David who wrote Psalm 8, we see the grandeur and majesty of God spread across the star-spangled night sky. Like the author of Psalm 104, we marvel at how God has ordered the creation to provide for us. But we’ve always been wary of slipping over the line, of going from appreciating nature for what it shows us about God to worshiping nature like the Canaanites did. That’s why some Christians are not just skeptical of the environmental movement but actively opposed to it. They see environmentalism as akin to the worship of nature. And at some level, that concern is justified. How many people do you know who say, “I don’t have to go to church. I worship God in my garden.” Being outdoors in nature can definitely be a spiritual experience, but it can only go so far. Your garden or the beauty of the mountains can reveal the majesty and wonder of God who made them, but they don’t show us anything about the love God showed for us in Christ on the cross. Nature doesn’t tell us anything about how we are to love one another. Nature can’t form us into a community of faith that compels us to care for the poor and the outcast. Nature is an incredible gift of God as far as it goes, but it is no substitute for God.

       Unfortunately, that healthy distinction between God and nature has often led us to act as if it doesn’t really matter how we treat the earth. We read the first chapter of Genesis that tells us how God gave human beings dominion over the earth and told us to subdue it and fill it, and we’ve heard that as license to do with it whatever we want, as if God were saying, “Here, it’s yours. I don’t care what you do with it.” Genesis tells how intimately connected we are to the earth. We were formed from dirt. God told Adam to tend the earth – not to conquer it or ravage it. The third chapter of Genesis tells how the man and the woman overreached their responsibility to care for the earth by eating of the forbidden fruit. That changed their relationship to the earth. They stripped leaves from the fig tree to cover themselves and used the lushness of the garden to hide themselves from God. When God expelled them from Eden, part of their punishment was a changed relationship with the earth. God said to Adam, “Because … you have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

       We still suffer from Adam and Eve’s adversarial relationship with the earth. We mine the earth to bring forth minerals in ways that cause the earth to give us back polluted water and earthquakes caused by fracking. We put chemicals into the soil to make it bring forth more food, and the seas rebel at the runoff from our fields by choking off fisheries because of the runoff. We burn coal to heat our homes, and the polar ice caps melt as a result. It’s right there in Genesis 3. It’s a sign of our separation from God that we treat nature the way we do and that nature repays us for our abuse. And as the population of the Earth approaches 8 billion, we approach a tipping point where we threaten to destroy ourselves along with the planet.

       During this Lenten season, we look forward to Easter. Most of our celebrations at Easter center around what it means for us as human beings. We celebrate that Jesus has conquered the power of death so that we don’t have to fear what happens after we die. We rejoice that he has gone to prepare a place for us, and that we will live eternally with him. But Easter isn’t only about our own spiritual renewal. Jesus’ victory extends beyond the salvation of the human spirit. He brought new life to all creation. There’s something very physical about Easter that has implications for the earth and how we treat it.

       When his disciples saw Jesus on Easter evening in Jerusalem, they thought they were seeing a ghost, a disembodied spirit. They were thinking about Easter the way many people still do. They assumed that Jesus’ spirit had been liberated from his body. That’s a common assumption about the resurrection. People think it’s only spiritual. But Jesus made a point of showing that his body had been raised as well. The flesh and blood that was dead is now alive. “Touch me and see,” he told them, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones.” He showed them his hands and his feet, so they could see that they were the same hands and feet that had been pierced by nails, not some replacement parts. When they still didn’t believe it, he asked them for something to eat. They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it in their presence. Ghosts and disembodied spirits don’t eat. Jesus made the point very clearly: His was a physical resurrection, not just a revival of a spirit.

       That’s what we prepare to celebrate at Easter, a physical resurrection. We proclaim it when we say the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Now, what a resurrection body looks like is a mystery. When we’re buried, our bodies return to dust. When we’re cremated, the molecules that make us up are reduced to ashes. The 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians explores that mystery of our resurrection bodies. Paul compares it to a seed that’s planted in the ground and then sprouts in the spring looking completely different from what was planted. And we’re not given those resurrection bodies right away. When Christ comes again, that’s when we’ll be raised with him and given those new bodies. In the mean time, we are with God in some dimension that’s beyond time and space as we know it, in a place that our limited minds can’t comprehend.

       The promise of the resurrection is that the whole creation will be renewed. Romans 8 said, “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”  The whole creation is in this with us. It longs for redemption just as we do.

       Jesus told his disciples that his death and resurrection fulfilled everything written about him in the Old Testament. Part of that fulfillment is a restored relationship between human beings and the earth. God warned Israel not to worship the earth, but God also commanded them to care for it. Among the laws of Moses was the Sabbath for the land. Just as human beings were commanded to rest every seven days in recognition of their dependence on God for all they had, Israel was to let the earth lie fallow every seventh year so it could have a Sabbath. The earth’s Sabbath was a way not only of replenishing the soil, but also of reminding the Israelites that the earth was theirs to use but not to exploit.

       In the spirit of that earth Sabbath that God commanded Israel to observe, there are things we can do to care for the earth. We can do lots of small things like recycle, drive less, take public transportation more, eat less meat, buy locally grown produce. The Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry puts it like this, “It is not allowable to love the creation according to the purposes one has for it any more than it is allowable to love one’s neighbor in order to borrow his tools.”

       But there’s more to treating the earth with respect than just good care for God’s creation. The way we treat the earth has implications for how we treat other people. Another one of the Old Testament laws was that farmers were not to pick their fields clean of every scrap of the harvest but leave what dropped around the edges for the poor to glean. God intends the earth to provide for them. There are political and moral implications along with our environmental concerns. Democracies that depend on oil to fuel their economies wind up supporting dictators in countries that supply that oil. When tax codes make it more economical for a power plant to emit carbon and mercury and other toxic materials than to make the investment in clean energy, the true cost of pollution is not borne by the shareholders who own the company or the consumers, like you and I, who use the product, but it’s shifted onto those whose lungs are harmed from breathing polluted air. How we treat the earth has implications for how we treat others.

       All this is complex and overwhelming. You can’t help but ask yourself, What difference can I make? But when we care for the earth, when we take steps to live more responsibly and have a smaller impact on the environment, we’re participating in something bigger that’s already begun. We’re bearing witness to Easter. Jesus has renewed us body and soul, and he’s restoring the whole creation with us. The Bible ends with the vision in Revelation of a new heaven and a new earth. That’s the promise of Easter. It’s a promise of new life for you and for me, and it’s a promise for the earth. That’s a truly Celtic way to worship.

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.