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|10/9/16 - Nine Out of Ten by Donna Williams on Oct 11, 11:16am|
|10/9/16 - Nine Out of Ten|
Summit Presbyterian Church
October 9, 2016
Luke 17: 11-19
Nine Out of Ten
“But the other nine, where are they?” So Jesus asked when the one returned. It’s a rhetorical question because Jesus knew very well where they were — on their way to see the priest. Just as he had told them! On the way to see the priest, who would see that they were healed, and prescribe an offering for them to make. On the way to see the priest so he could certify they were clean, ritually and physically. Able to join their family and neighbors in their homes, at the table, in the fields, in the synagogue. They would no longer have to keep their distance; they could touch and be touched. The other nine, where were they? On their way to a new life.
But as we said, this is a rhetorical question. Jesus isn’t asking where they are. He’s asking “why aren’t they here?” Why didn’t they turn back and praise God, like the Samaritan, the one. Now, if, like me, you’re one of the nine out of ten people who always did as the teacher said, listening carefully to directions; who was “sent to the bench” on the playground only once in kindergarten, when you went over to play on the jungle gym and the other kids said the teacher went inside and told us not to play on the jungle gym until she got back (this was 1965; I guess teachers sometimes left the playground) but she didn’t say we couldn’t sit on it; if you’re one of those people who sat on the jungle gym and still remembers sitting on the bench 51 years later; — if, like me, you’re a Martha; in the kitchen setting out the crudite and hummus, watching the quiche in the oven, putting the dishes to soak and wondering where the heck Mary is, even as Jesus is radiating holiness, wisdom and love in the living room; — if, like me, you’re an older brother, working like a slave day in and day out, never disobeying the command of your father, while younger brother runs off to midnight parties, cocaine binges and expensive sports cars; — if, like me, you’d never prostrate yourself before Jesus but would write a carefully worded thank-you note two weeks later on 80% cotton stationary; if - you - are - like - me you may be protesting, even hurt, on behalf of the nine out of ten. Jesus, why the harsh words? They were doing what they were supposed to do. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do! Listening to our teachers, parents and supervisors. Seeking to be obedient disciples. Following instructions. Isn’t that what you want?
Well, it seems that’s not what Jesus wants. Or, more precisely, that’s not only what Jesus wants. Jesus wants us to do as he says, to show ourselves to the priest, but Jesus also wants us to praise God with a loud voice, giving thanks. Not to make God feel good — although our praise may do that. Not because Jesus requires it— he didn’t withdraw his healing from the other nine. But because, as we say in our communion liturgy: “it is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise, O Lord our God, creator and ruler of the universe.” Jesus wants us to praise God because it will make us well. It will make us joyful. It’s part of the healing. “Your faith has made you well,” says Jesus to the one who returned. Not only the faith that led him to call out to Jesus in the first place, but also the faith that turned to God in thanks and praise. The faith that no longer kept its distance, but came close and lay down before Jesus in adoration. The faith that recognized grace and healing and blessing and responded from the heart.
So the other nine, where were they? What kept them from turning back to do the right and the joyful thing?
Where were the nine? They could have been in many places, with many reasons that kept them from turning back and praising God.
What keeps us from turning back? Why are we so often absent from the praise choir? A sense of duty that keeps us looking down? An obsession with our to-do list? Fear? Entitlement? A pre-occupation with our life and all that’s happening in it — even, or perhaps especially, when things are going well and filled with promise. Or do we dare not give thanks, when there is so much wrong with the world, so much yet to do.
Jesus is calling us back. Calling us to let go of all those reasons not to. Calling us to praise God, to remember all God’s benefits. For it’s never either/or. We can be responsible, and thankful. We can work to right wrongs, and still praise God. We can be Martha and Mary, we can be the older brother and still join the party. The Samaritan, after giving thanks, was then sent on his way: to work and serve and love. But only after his faith, the faith that gave thanks and praise, had made him well. Such a faith will make us well, too. A faith that stops short to look up at a harvest moon and whisper “praise be to God.” A faith that says grace before a meal, and means it. A faith that sings a beloved hymn in church. A faith that says “thank you” when our children are home safe at night. Such a faith doesn’t mean that all our troubles, or the troubles of the world, are over. We may still be waiting and praying for physical and emotional healing. We may still be waiting and praying and working for justice, for the kingdom of God. But praise brings us closer to God. Thanksgiving brings joy. It makes us well. So, let’s pause and look at the beauty and grace that surrounds us, and count our blessings. For it is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise, eternal God, creator and ruler of the universe . . . . as we join our voices with angel and archangels and with all the faithful of every time and place, forever singing to the glory of your name. Amen.
|9/25/16 - Living in the Shelter of God by Donna Williams on Oct 11, 11:14am|
|9/25/16 - Living in the Shelter of God|
Summit Presbyterian Church
September 25, 2016
Lamentations 3:19-26; Psalm 91
Living in the Shelter of God
As we get ready to watch the debate between Clinton and Trump tomorrow night, many of us will be looking to the “Truth-O-Meter” of the Politifact website, a project of the Tampa Bay Times. You may have heard of it. The folks at Politifact research statements made by candidates and rate them: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False and Pants on Fire: as in Liar, Liar. Now, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of their ratings, but they’ve been busy lately. Lots to check out. And I’m glad they’re busy. Because if they weren’t, they might be tempted to start rating some older campaign promises. Claims made by people long gone that are now in ancient manuscripts. Like our psalm. For as I was reflecting on it this week, I couldn’t help but wonder: what rating would Politifact give Psalm 91?
It claims that God offers protection to the faithful. That God will deliver them — us — from the snare of the fowler and the deadly pestilence. That under God’s wings we’ll find refuge; that we needn't fear destruction, or terror, at noonday or night. That if we take refuge in God, no evil shall befall us. According to the psalmist, Gods says for those who love me I will deliver. I will protect, answer, rescue, honor and be with them in trouble. I will satisfy them with long life, and show them my salvation.
These are big promises, and it wouldn’t take long for Politifact to find the many times that God didn’t keep them — or at least didn’t seem to keep them. But we don’t need the Truth-O-Meter. We all know faithful, loving people who have been felled by deadly pestilence, by fatal illness, long before their time: cancer, AIDS, a tragic accident, mental illness. We all know people — or we may be people — who love God but who haven’t been rescued from trouble. Whether that trouble is crime, homelessness, death of a parent at a young age, bankruptcy, addiction, violence. And if we don’t have enough examples from our own lives, we only have to look at the past week. Terrence Crutcher sang in his church choir every Sunday, but that didn’t protect him from the snare of the fowler. God didn’t keep Police Sargent Sylvia Young from being shot in West Philly last week, or Sarah Salih from begin killed. Keith Lamont Scott. God didn’t satisfy with long life the five people who killed in Seattle on Friday. And although I’m lifting up the victims of shootings, I’d like to lodge a complaint against God on behalf of the shooters as well. Police must be held accountable for their actions, policing has to change . . . but officers are also the point people for a system, for a culture, that teaches so many falsehoods about so many people, but especially black people. The police are point guard in a society that stokes fear of the other, that idolizes guns and insists that white people have the right to be armed to the teeth. A culture where children without families are at the mercy of an underfunded and often chaotic system, and where young people in prison can be thrown into solitary. Those who kill need to be brought to justice, but there are always many fingers on any given trigger; where are God’s wings for all her troubled children? Now, we can defend Psalm 91 by pointing out that it promises protection for those who love God, and not everyone does. But just think about the carnage of the last century, and all that is happening today to the young and innocent, including faithful Christians. Looking at the facts, at best the truth-o-meter could only rate Psalm 91 as “half true.”
And yet. And yet. At our retreat last weekend, the first question we dove into was, “Why are you a Christian?” Or — since this is Summit, with our wide range of theological views — “Why are you a person of faith?” It was a wonderful conversation, with people speaking from the heart, and with many different experiences to share. Some of us were nurtured in the faith since childhood and never lost it; others are latecomers, or struggling, and we’re all on some kind of journey. But I was struck by how often people talked about the help they received from God. Help from God when they were in trouble — all kinds of trouble. One person said, “I’m a person of faith because I can’t imagine getting through life without the help of God.” That help may have come as answered prayer; through dramatic and unexpected healing; through the experience of grace at a loved one’s deathbed, through the kindness of a stranger or the love of a parent; in the God-given power to overcome an addiction. People talked about the comfort and strength that comes from simply being in the presence of God. In worship, in prayer, in the dark watches of the night and the first light of the morning. It may be that Psalm 91 is only “half true,” but that half truth makes all the difference. The difference between life and death, hope and despair, a terrible loneliness or love and connection. The psalmist knew that difference. He testifies to it.
But this is another half to the half truth, a hard half. We often have to wait on God. God does protect, deliver, answer, rescue and honor all who love God (and, perhaps, even those who don’t believe in her). But not always on our time, or even in our lifetimes. We must wait. For God has given human beings freedom and created a world with limits and boundaries. So we all see trouble, know suffering and encounter evil. We all have pain that can’t be fixed. Jesus was no exception. As he hung on the cross, tortured, thirsty, near death, people called him to come down. If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross they said! Just like the devil tempted Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, quoting this psalm (verse 12j), daring him to jump off the parapet of the temple, to show that God would not let him dash his foot against a stone. But Jesus waited. Like us, he took the protection and deliverance of God on faith. But he rose from the grave to show us God’s salvation. He rose from the dead to show us that God’s promises are trustworthy, even if they contradict the facts as we see them.
So let us call Christ to mind, and have hope. Let us call Christ to mind, and take courage. Living in the shelter of the Lord, and putting our trust in God as we face the pain and struggles in our life. And as we do the hard and sometimes frightening work of testifying to God’s love and justice. As we say, “Black Lives Matter,” because all lives matter; as we call folks to lay down their arms in the nation of gun-lust; as we speak up for our children and grandchildren, and those who are poor, who will suffer so much climate change. As we face down terror and seek peace. Such discipleship isn’t easy. It’s not comfortable, or even always safe. But we can trust that God is with us; that God does protect and deliver her beloved children. In this world, and in the Kingdom of God that is coming.
I’d like to end by reading, again our first Lesson, Lamentation 3: 19-26
|9/18/16 - Prayer in this Election Season by Donna Williams on Sep 26, 9:49am|
|9/18/16 - Prayer in this Election Season|
Summit Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2016
Psalm 113, Amos 8:4-7 and 1 Timothy 2: 1-17
Prayer in this Election Season
In the past several months, during joys and concerns, people have often alluded to something election-related that happened in the past week – the speech of a candidate, a nasty debate, another lie or scandal – and then said something like “I don’t want to name names … or I’m not sure what to say . . . but our nation needs prayer.” It's hard to know exactly what to pray for in an election season, especially in church, when we may not all be on the same page. But we do need prayer. Especially this election season.
There are a few dilemmas when it comes to election season prayers. The prayers on our hearts, our most honest petitions (and God knows them, whether we say them or not) may not be — charitable. They may not seem Christlike, given that Jesus said to pray for our enemies. They may involve horrible things happening to the candidates we oppose. We also may be praying — fervently — that our candidate win. But is that OK? Aren’t we always to ask that God’s will be done? (and not necessarily assume we know what that is!) Other kinds of prayers raise other questions. We can pray for national healing and learning to work together across the aisle. It’s hard to argue with such a prayer. But is it a prayer for all times and places? Aren’t there times when we just need to pray that evil be conquered, even if our friends and family are voting for it? And how do we interpret the times?
Our scriptures today can help us. The writer of first Timothy begins by naming different types of prayers: supplications, intercessions and thanksgivings. To do a vocabulary review: prayers of thanksgiving are just that, thanking God for blessings and gifts. Thanksgiving is related to praise, where we we name God’s attributes and remember God’s deeds and marvel at God’s creation. Supplications are when we ask God for something, for ourselves or others. Supplications we make for others we call intercessions. (As an aside — when we say Christ or the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, in sighs too deep for words, we’re saying that Christ and the Spirit pray for us). Supplications, intercessions and thanksgiving aren’t the only kinds of prayer, but they’re our most common ones. Paul then says such prayers should be made for everyone. Everyone. Including kings. Including people in high places. I believe that would include presidents of all kinds, Generals, CEOs, the Pope. Candidates for national office. Everyone. Prayers of intercession and thanksgiving.
Paul then says why: so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. A quiet and peaceable life needs order: in the state, in the home, in the church. In the rest of the letter, Paul urges these new Christians to put themselves in order. He tells men not to argue. He tells women to dress modestly and listen in silence. He tells deacons to be serious. (Deacons did you hear that?). He tells bishops to be above reproach. Most troubling, he tells those who are under the yoke of slavery to regard their masters as worthy of honor. Mary, mother of Jesus, praised God for turning the world upside down; the writer of this letter welcomes stability. It’s not my favorite letter, given the inequalities recommended in it. But before we call Paul a reactionary, we should remember that he was speaking to a small, embattled church, and he wanted them to concentrate on God and to thrive. And before we call him a sell-out, we should note he wasn’t telling people to pray to the King — which is what the Roman Emperor wanted — but for all those in high places. And before we accuse him of being indifferent to the poor, he’s the one who says, later in the letter, that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. So Paul urges us to pray for everyone, including kings and all in high places so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life. Raising families, coming to church, working hard. A life that most people yearn for. Especially when they’re running from violence. Or fearing a knock on the door. Or having to worry about their next meal. It is good to pray for kings and Presidents and elected officials of all stripes so they may serve well, allowing everyone to live a quiet and peaceable life, in godliness and dignity.
But Paul goes further. He says that praying for everyone is right and acceptable in the sight of God, because God desires everyone to be saved. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want the candidate that I’m against to be saved. I want to keep making fun. I want to enjoy my outrage. But Paul says that God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth. And so those who are the most truth-impaired are those who need our intercessions the most. That they may come to the truth. And the truth will set them free. As it sets us free.
Because although God desires the salvation of all, that doesn’t mean God wants us all to keep doing what we’re doing. In fact, God’s grace calls us to repentance. The other scriptures this morning give us a sense of what that might mean. The psalm that Ben read praises God for who God is: high above all nations, looking far down on the heavens and the earth. And yet — also raising the poor from the dust, lifting the needy from the ash heap, making them sit with princes, the princes of God’s people. This God, according to Amos, also remembers those who trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land. Our God notices those who practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat. So God is not a supporter of status quo, or all the status quo. God desires that we be honest. God desires that the poor be lifted up. We may have different ideas of how to do that. But when we’re all sitting together, no one oppressing another, everyone with enough to eat, no longer divided in the many ways we are divided, we will be free. And we’ll be able to live quiet and peaceable lives.
And there’s one other supplication I want to talk about in this election season. Our final hymn is Eternal Father, Strong to Save. I first heard it when Bunny Hughes requested it at a hymn sing. We sang it a Dave Greene’s Memorial service. It’s also called the Navy Hymn and has been adopted by the US Marine Corp. We don’t sing it often on Sunday mornings because it’s such a specific prayer: for those in peril on the sea.
But in this election season, that includes us. For we are all in peril: all of us on this small but precious water-covered rock amongst the stars. In peril on the sea of our lives and on the sea of history. In peril from the hate and suspicion, the racism and xenophobia that’s raging across the globe, stoked by politicians of many nations and ideologies and faiths. In peril from nuclear war, and nuclear terror. In peril from climate change. That peril is unprecedented. Unprecedented in scale: as billions of people face floods and drought, heat waves and hunger, and all the death, chaos and violence that will come with it. Unprecedented because if the eco-system collapses we won’t be able to recover as we’ve recovered from other disasters. One candidate and most of his party refuses to even acknowledge the danger; the others are alarmingly quiet. We need our Eternal Father, our Eternal God, strong to save. God cannot or will not simply keep down the heat and the damage no matter what we do — God has given us freedom. But if we pray for God’s protection, and grace and courage; if we lift up everyone — high and low, rich and poor, north and south, east and west - the Spirit can bring us together to fight this danger and build a more just world. Across party lines. Across lines of class and race and nation. Under the Trinity of love and power, who hears our prayers and who wishes all to be saved and to come to the truth.
|9/11/16 - Reason for a Party by Donna Williams on Sep 13, 8:41pm|
|9/11/16 - Reason for a Party|
Summit Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2016
Reason for a Party
Recently I read a memoir called Consequence by Eric Fair. Fair was an American interrogator with a private security firm under contract to the US army in Iraq. His book recounts the decisions and events and accidents and good intentions that led him there — and what he finds when he arrives. Violence. Disorganization. Fear. I won’t recount his downward slide, but eventually he becomes a practitioner of what’s euphemistically call “enhanced interrogation technique.” Towards the end of his time in Iraq, when he is at his lowest point, Fair says: “I am not disgusted by my actions. I am disgusted by how good it felt to wield power . . . I am terrified of where else that feeling might take me. In Iraq, I have not just taken the wrong path. I have walked in the wrong direction entirely.” He then describes what happens when he returns: his troubled mind and soul, his drinking, his anger, the call he hears to suicide. His bad heart and near death; a heart transplant at Penn; the birth of his son. Throughout, he talks about God. He talks about his faith and his lack of it. He is a Presbyterian. A cradle Presbyterian, raised in the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, PA, very active in the youth group and deeply influenced by his youth pastor. He even goes to Princeton Seminary, briefly, after Iraq. The church and its teaching are a touchstone. But the church didn’t keep him from walking in the wrong direction and it also doesn’t save him from pain and guilt on his return. Even when he begins to speak out, to try and make amends, there’s no neat resolution. No “born again” experience, no moment of Amazing Grace when he feels, as Paul puts, it, thaat the past is finished and gone; everything has become fresh and new. He doesn’t buy the argument that Christ has “paid” for our sins and we are therefore redeemed (I don’t blame him. The argument is problematic, especially in its more simplistic form). “I am a torturer,” says Fair. “I have not turned a corner or found my way back. I have not been redeemed. I do not believe that I ever will be. But I am still obligated to try.” (239). He finds hope in the idea of “earning” his way back. He writes his book, he visits regularly with a Rabbi, he raises his son and brings him to church and loves his wife. He comes to a limited peace with his past, an acceptance of his humanity, but he’s still haunted by what he’s done in Iraq. And that, he feels, is as it should be.
He also talks the reaction of others to his disclosure of torture and the part he played in it. After he wrote a couple of newspaper columns, the emails started coming in. He says many of them lauded his courage and honesty. He deleted those. Others said things like “I hope you die,” or “You’d be doing the world a favor by removing yourself from the gene pool.” He said he kept reading those. He also received an email with the subject line “welcome.” This is what it said: Welcome to the club bro. I was in the infantry in Vietnam in 1968. I murdered an NVA soldier who was trying to surrender. I gave the go ahead for two of our artillerymen to gun down those two soldiers. All I had to do was tell them not to but instead said “Fuck it!” This has been a burden for thirty-nine years and will continue to be so until I die. I don’t believe in any religion, I do believe in an Infinite Intelligence and perhaps our punishment is carrying this guilt to our grave. I just want to let you know you have plenty of company. Welcome.”
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This is a familiar and comforting passage for many of us, including the two parables that follow. We like to think of Jesus inviting everyone to the lunch table. But maybe we haven’t thought about it enough, at what it means to welcome sinners. When I’ve heard this word “sinner” in this passage, I’ve thought prostitutes, as sinners often does mean prostitutes in the Bible. When I’ve heard “tax collectors,” I’ve pictured government bureaucrats, corrupt, perhaps, even collaborators with the Roman overlords, but not that bad. I’ve thought of those people coming near to Jesus as outsiders rather than insiders, on the margin rather than the center, but —especially in the case of prostitutes — victims more than evil-doers. And the parables that follow reinforce this “soft” view: perhaps because the sheep and the coin and even the prodigal are lost but harmless. They don’t torture or abuse or kill anyone. So it’s easy to see those Pharisees as judgmental and hypocritical folks who deserve to be scolded.
But if we think of sinner in it’s full meaning, it’s graver, darker, and also more inclusive. It includes all of us, of course. We may feel we’ve managed, through righteousness or luck or both, to avoid committing sins that can’t be forgiven. But we’re all complicit, to some degree, through the sin of silence as well as speech or action, of allowing all kinds of evil to go unchallenged. Of letting young well-intentioned men and women go to war and do things that will haunt them for the rest of their life. “Sinners” also includes those among us who have tortured, like Fair; or who have dropped bombs or planted bombs or flown planes into buildings. Or who have abused children, or stolen large sums of money from widows and orphans, or executed political prisoners or beaten their wives. Most of us have some category of sin that we feel puts someone beyond the pale, even if they’ve stopped sinning in that particular way. We may feel that we belong in that category. We may point to others. We may not want them sitting at the table, or we may feel that we don’t belong ourselves.
But Jesus says welcome — Welcome, brother. Welcome, sister. You have company. He says welcome to all sinners, not just every-day ones. And he goes further — he claims that when a sinner repents there is joy in heaven; More joy over one sinner than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (although I can’t imagine who those people would be!). Not just a grudging acceptance for those who have served their time. Not just a seat at the end of the table. But rejoicing. A party. Yes, repentance is needed — which means turning to God who calls us to make amends, to work for justice and reconciliation through Christ. But then there’s joy.
It’s hard for us to accept that — for ourselves or others. We feel guilt over those we have hurt, or indignant on behalf of those who have been hurt. It doesn’t seem right, or just, that serious sinners should be received joyfully into the arms of God. But that’s because we’re human beings. We can’t fully grasp the mercy of God - so much wider than the sea. We can’t grasp the justice of God, which is perfect, not like ours, which often substitutes one injustice for another. We can’t fathom the depths of God’s love, for every creature on this earth. We’re not God. But we have met Jesus: the one who welcomes all sinners to the table. The one who asked forgiveness for those who tortured him. The one who rose from the dead, showing that love is far stronger than the evil he suffered. The one, who even now, calls each one of us to joyful fellowship. We may never be able to let go of the past entirely on this side of the grave. It may haunt us now matter how many amends we make how how much we try to forgive. But Jesus assures us that when we turn to God, when any sinner returns to God, the heavens rejoice. So let’s join the party — accepting God’s love and rejoicing in all of the guests.
|9/4/16 - Shaped by God by Donna Williams on Sep 13, 8:39pm|
|9/4/16 - Shaped by God|
Summit Presbyterian Church
September 4, 2016
Psalm 1; Jeremiah 18: 1-11
Shaped by God
In Ireland this summer — and this is the only sermon where I’ll talk about my vacation, which I think can be a little obnoxious — In Ireland this summer my friend and I spent a lot of time searching out and wandering through abandoned churches. We saw one church over a thousand years old that was still in near-perfect condition. Small, one room, dark — a hole for a window — bare and dry, it had been made by laying flat stones on top of one another at a precise angle to ward off the rain, much like the stone beehive huts that people lived in at the time. We traipsed through early monasteries, villages really, with tall stone celtic crosses carved with figures from the Bible and early saints. Many of these structures were ruins, single walls or four walls open to the sky, with the still beautiful mosaics and carvings and paintings now worn and faded. Some of these churches were large tourist sites; others were in the middle of towns or at the edge of the sea. The churches had fallen into ruin for many reasons. Over the centuries churches and monasteries were looted, destroyed, shut down or abandoned in wars between Kings, in Viking attacks, with the English conquest. People also emigrated, or starved, or buildings just fell down. But as some churches were abandoned, others were converted — from Catholic to Protestant and back again — and new ones built. My favorite new church was the Roman Catholic Galway Cathedral, official title Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicolas, built in the 1960s. It’s a large stone structure evoking the great European cathedrals with magnificent high ceilings and light streaming in. There were all different kinds of stained glass windows, mosaics, paintings and posters, all bright and beautiful, a feast for the eyes and spirit. (Although I should tell you that when I was googling it yesterday, to refresh my memory, I came across an article in the Irish Times. They had invited their readers to send in nominations of buildings in Ireland that deserved the wrecking ball. You guessed it - Galway Cathedral was near the top of the list. So it’s not everyone’s favorite!) So in one small country, churches were built and planted, plucked up, broken down and reshaped. And the buildings are just traces, the fossils, of the people of God who have worshipped and taught and learned and served and been shaped in so many different ways since St. Patrick set off for Ireland about 1600 years ago.
Building and planting, breaking down and reworking - “I am a potter,” says God, in Jeremiah’s prophesy to the people of Israel. God has called Jeremiah to the home of a potter to illustrate his point — much like a children’s sermon with an object lesson. The potter has smushed the pot he was working on — or perhaps it fell upon itself because it was too thin or lopsided. The spoiled pot is in his hand but he doesn’t throw out the clay — he reworks it into another vessel as seems good to him. When Jeremiah sees this, the Word of the Lord comes to him, saying “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” Jeremiah goes on to warn the people: God will build and pluck up and destroy, depending on what they do. If they do evil, God will break down and destroy — but if they listen to God, God will build and plant. Underneath this dire warning, there’s a word of encouragement: Listen, O people, to God and do good: then God can make a beautiful and useful pot of you. Also, although Jeremiah doesn’t say it is this: if you don’t listen, God doesn’t give up. God puts the clay back on the wheel, reshaping a new pot as seems good to him.
It’s a beautiful image, one of the most well-known in the Bible. But as with any metaphor we find in scripture, God the Potter captures only in part the mystery of the immortal, invisible God only wise. God will not be reduced to an image, even if she offers it herself. So we can’t carry this too far: God may shape and build and destroy but it doesn’t necessarily follow that God directed violence against Israel (although that’s what Jeremiah preached), or that loss is God’s punishment. It also doesn’t follow that we’re helpless putty in God’s hands. To return to Ireland, it doesn’t mean that God was behind the destruction of monasteries and churches or even necessarily, the building of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Nicholas. . . . But there’s wisdom in this scripture. We’re told what to do. Listen to God, says Jeremiah. Turn from evil. Or in the words of Isaiah, Turn from evil, do good; seek peace and pursue it. Or in the words of Jesus, quoting Moses: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. And as we listen to God, God will shape us, through the Holy Spirit, into a church that seems good to her. The form will change over time and place: in terms of doctrine, church government, worship, and yes, buildings. As we say in Presbyterian speak, we’re a church reformed and always reforming. But this scripture reminds us our first question is not: What should the church look like? What form should it take? It’s “what is God calling us to be and do?” and in the Bible, God isn’t particularly interested in buildings or church government. (Although God does give detailed instructions on the making of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and God does commission leaders. Sometimes I wish you all couldn’t read the Bible on your own. Then I wouldn’t have to acknowledge those parts of the Bible that don’t support my point!). Mostly, God is concerned that the people worship God, not idols; that we feed the hungry, protect widows and children, forgive enemies, release captives, bring good news to the poor, love one another. If we keep ourselves focused on God’s voice, the form of the church will follow. And as we see when we look at the global church, across the centuries, those forms are many and diverse, falling into ruin and also rising from the ashes. Beautiful, useful pots and vases and jars of all sizes, shapes and colors.
Today we lifted up in prayer Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, whose building burned down this week. Good Shepherd is a small Presbyterian congregation, but there were four other congregations worshiping there and also a children’s program and other ministries. They will be forced to wrestle directly with the question that faces the church in all times and places. What next? What is God calling us to be and do? Kevin Porter, the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery, said this after the fire: “There are things about a 1912 structure that are not the best conduit for ministry in 2016. We need to pause, hear God’s voice, see the gifts God has given to those who are here today and determine what the needs are and what is appropriate moving forward.” The language is a twenty-first century, but in Kevin’s gentle way he’s channeling Jeremiah: Pause. Hear God’s Voice. Trust that the Holy Spirit will form us as we follow God’s call. In the case of Good Shepherd it may be rebuilding a similar church on the same corner; or it could mean something entirely different. We’ll keep them in prayer, remembering that we’re in need of prayer too, along with the church universal, what we also call the holy, catholic church. Praying that we may always listen to God’s voice. Turning from evil, doing good, and letting God shape us, in a way that seems good to God.
|8/28/16 - Our Place at the Table by Donna Williams on Sep 13, 8:37pm|
|8/28/16 - Our Place at the Table|
Summit Presbyterian Church
August 28, 2016
Luke 14: 1, 7-14 Our Place at the Table
The seats in the Hastings on Hudson Middle School cafeteria were all alike. Long white formica benches attached to long white formica tables set in identical rows. There were no assigned seats. No special tables for honor students or athletes, no seats at the head or foot of any table. To the uninitiated it may have looked like a democratic, egalitarian arrangement. But every seventh grader knew better. Every seventh grader knew what some adults may have denied, that there were seats of honor and seats of shame. Seats of honor and seats of shame with many gradations in between, depending on who sat where. For among the seventh grade girls, at least, — the boys might have been different — there was an exact social hierarchy that everyone understood. A class ranking more public and less debatable than any grade point average. I don’t think we could have explained what put the top girl at the top or how we each found our place. It was some mixture of looks and class and personality and associations. To be fair, there wasn’t a simple correlation of wealth or beauty or brains or popularity with rank. The girls at the top could be kind as well as mean, the girls at the bottom stylish or not. But as resistant to explanation as the ranking may have been, it was there — so to be invited to sit next to a top girl was to be honored. To seek a seat above your station and be ignored was to be disgraced. Lunchtime was stressful - and not only for those on the lower rungs.
The ancient world also had an exact social hierarchy that everyone understood. Family, wealth, gender, work, and health made some folks more distinguished than others. There were seats of honor at every table, and seats that were lower, although being invited at all was an honor. It’s not clear from our scripture how people chose their places at this particular sabbath meal, but Jesus was watching them. As they were watching him. So he offers a parable. At first hearing, the parable doesn’t challenge the social hierarchy or the seating arrangements. Indeed, he seems to be telling folks how to work the system so they’ll always be honored rather than disgraced. Go low, he says, so the host can bring you high, honoring you before guests. When Jesus then talks about the ideal guest list, again, he seems to be accepting the status quo and telling his host how to get ahead. Rather than inviting friends and being repaid now, invite the poor and the lame so you’ll be rewarded in the resurrection of the righteous. I’m guessing anyone who was poor, lame or blind and invited to a party for this reason probably didn’t have a very good time.
But on second hearing, it’s not that simple. For Jesus is talking about more than the dinner party we may be planning for next week, the garden club luncheon, or even the church potluck. He’s talking about the eschatological feast (to throw in a big theological word). That heavenly banquet when Christ will gather all the faithful from east and west, north and south to sit at the table in the Kingdom of God. That feast where we will celebrate the redemption of all creation, when peace and righteousness will kiss each other, and the lion will lie down with the lamb (not, I trust, on our dinner plates). But the feast is not all Kumbaya. There’s a warning here. Jesus says the humble will be exalted the exalted will be humbled. So, if we choose that top spot now, if we cling to our titles, our status, our first class tickets and insist on the head of the table, on that great day Christ may say to us, “give this person your place,” and in disgrace we’ll have to take a lower place. That is, assuming we make it to the banquet at all. For if we’ve been paid and re-paid here on earth; if we’ve enjoyed dinners at the houses of rich neighbors, family and friends, while closing the door on those who for whatever reason can’t extend an invitation, who knows where we’ll be at the resurrection of the righteous.
So Jesus promises a turning of the tables. His mother Mary sang about it when Jesus was still in her womb: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” It’s hard to argue with the justice of that, but still . . . does the eschatological feast have to be like a Middle School lunchroom or that Sabbath dinner so long ago? With high seats and low seats, some eating their fill and others going hungry? Even if it’s justice? Even if the hungry and the full are different people than they were on earth?
The answer is no. It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way because Jesus tells us what to do. He gives the same instruction to everyone, for all to hear: take the low seat. Humble yourself. Don’t seek the honor of that special place. Now Jesus isn’t saying “debase yourself.” Jesus isn’t saying, let others put you in the low place so they can take the high. He isn’t saying, go to the kitchen and eat only crumbs, so that you’ll have pie in the sky. I think he’s saying, just sit down. Find a seat without checking out the scene and worrying about where you rank in relation to others. Sit down gratefully. Acknowledge that God, creator of the universe and source of all good, is the ultimate host of every banquet. And if we all take the low place, if we all just sit down and make sure that everyone’s invited, we’ll all be exalted on that glorious day. Shown by Christ Jesus to our seats, with good things before us. Basking in everlasting love.
But this is the thing about the Reign of God. It’s in the future, but it’s also now. It’s not yet, but it’s also here. We don’t have to wait until Christ comes again for a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. We taste it here, at Holy Communion, when we invite all to the table that Christ has prepared. We taste it too, when we stop thinking about each other in terms of what you can do for me: whether it’s a dinner invitation or a look of admiration. We taste it when we stop thinking about those we are helping as points in our favor, a chance to show off our righteousness. When Jesus tells his host to invite those who could not repay him - in that time and place it would have been the poor, the crippled, the lame or the blind — he was suggesting a guest list for a truly joyful luncheon. A meal where no one would be fighting for the seat of honor - since the guests were not distinguished in the eyes of the world. A meal where folks wouldn’t be fawning over each another in the hopes of a dinner invitation, since no one could offer one. A meal with no networking, no ranking, no matchmaking of the joining family dynasties kind. A luncheon where Jane Austen or Julian Fellows would have nothing to write about. A meal where everyone could just relax, enjoying the company of fellow pilgrims, grateful for God’s bounty, watching one another closely in love, not judgement. A meal quite different than the one on that particular Sabbath. A meal quite different than all those lunches in the Hastings Middle School Cafeteria.
But to go back to Middle School. The Holy Spirit works hard among Seventh graders, and even within a few years, things got better. Social ranking — although still there — was less precise, less hierarchical, as we began growing up and saw each other more clearly. In high school we were still anxious about making friends and finding our place, but there was more back and forth, more openness, more charity — at least as I remember it. And now, as Hastings Alum are Facebook Friends, although of course we’re still caught up in the honoring that the world gives, the Seventh Grade Hierarchy is a thing of the past. Through God’s grace we’ve moved a little closer to being a beloved community. And that’s just Facebook. Here in church, the body of Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Jesus, we can host some wonderful meals. (Real meals and metaphorical meals). Loving one another and inviting all to the table, as we wait in hope for the heavenly banquet where all God’s children, from North and South, East and West may be exalted together.
|8/21/16 - “I Am Only . . . . .” by Donna Williams on Aug 23, 6:47pm|
|8/21/16 - “I Am Only . . . . .”|
Summit Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2016
“I Am Only . . . . .”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is one of the first questions we’re asked as children. Our first answers are often fantasy based. Mermaid. Superhero. But soon the the grown-ups in our lives encourage us to think along more professional lines — doctor or lawyer, nurse or teacher, police officer or computer programmer. As we grow older - and some of us ask this question into our 60s — our answers change, as we learn about the world and ourselves. What we’re good at and what we’re not. What we like and what we don’t. What’s open to us and what’s not. We learn that our choices are limited by the world around us. By our past, our financial resources, our connections, discrimination. Of course, asking the question at all reflects a degree of freedom and privilege — and generally speaking, the more privilege the more possibilities. But everyone makes choices, and in our culture we’re told it’s important to make good choices: to fulfill our potential, find a career path, nurture our gifts, discern a vocation, work towards a goal. Some young people struggle for years with the question of what they’re going to be or do. In mid-life we often reassess and make changes, not always wise ones. As we get older, we sometimes struggle with regrets, feeling like we missed our call or never fulfilled our early promise or made poor choices, whether they involved career or family or geography. If we’re pray-ers we pray for God to tell us what we should be when we grow up, or if we’re grown, where are we called. We like to think God has a particular path in mind, a particular purpose, if we can just discern what it is.
God had a particular path in mind for Jeremiah. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God had a particular plan but Jeremiah wasn’t trying to figure out what it was. He was just a boy: minding his own business, doing boy things. In that time and place people didn’t ask children what they wanted be when they grew up, if they were one of the lucky few to grow up — that had been pretty much decided at birth by their station in life. So Jeremiah wasn’t looking for his “call” — and when the call comes Jeremiah is reluctant, as most biblical prophets are: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Was Jeremiah awed by this call, lacking confidence, afraid of failure? Or was Jeremiah looking for an excuse because he knew what was coming? A difficult and challenging life, where a lot of folks would hate him, as he spoke words of judgement and doom to the leaders of Israel. God would also give Jeremiah words of hope and assurance but those would come later, and there would be fewer of them. But whether Jeremiah was feeling humble, frightened or both, it doesn’t matter to God. Jeremiah doesn’t need to be gifted with words because God will give them. Jeremiah doesn’t need to know where to go, because God will send him. Jeremiah doesn’t even need to be afraid, because God will be with him. This call is not about Jeremiah’s talent, or skill, or passion. It’s not about Jeremiah, period. It’s about speaking the words that God will put in his mouth, and going where God tells him.
None of us are Jeremiah, or even a 21st century Jeremiah, I think it’s fair to say. He was a singular prophet. Given a particularly difficult Word to speak at a particularly challenging time, a word that would be recorded in scripture for all of God’s people to hear. One that warned of danger and suffering and ruin. Words that spoke of God’s judgement and anger and even violence, although the ultimate message in Jeremiah is one of compassion and love for God’s people. Although Jeremiah spoke for God, it doesn’t mean every word in the book of Jeremiah is the literal word of God, spoken through Jeremiah as though he were possessed. Nor is every word in the book of Jeremiah necessarily one the prophet himself spoke. The scriptures were written years later. But God spoke through Jeremiah, to the people of Israel and now to us. God called Jeremiah. God used Jeremiah.
None of us are Jeremiah, thank God. But God also calls us and uses us in much the same way — by giving us words to speak. By putting words in our mouth. Not the pure Word of God — none of us can speak that Word, our words always get mixed up with God’s. But God uses us by putting words in our mouth that speak of God’s kindness. Of God’s presence with us in Jesus Christ. God uses us by putting words in our mouths that reflect God’s grace and mercy. Words that warn of danger, and tell of God’s justice. Words that reflect the tender love of God, even when God isn’t mentioned. Those words may be parental words. They may be romantic words. They may be religious words or political words. They may be technical words, words that help us solve problems or ease suffering. They may be scientific words, poetic words, short words and long words, English words or Russian words, G rated words and R rated words, on rare occasions they may even be acronyms. God gives us words no matter who we are, what career we’ve chosen, how educated (or not) we may be, how old or young, rich or poor. Sometimes the words God gives us may not even be words we speak, but words that are communicated through smiles, eyes and touch. Not all the words we speak are put in our mouth by God, not by a longshot. I shudder when I think of the ratio of Cheryl words to God words that come out of my mouth, especially in sermons. But we can increase the chances that we’ll speak at least some of those words if we listen: through prayer, silence, worship, reading the Bible, listening to one another, learning about the world around us. And the more we speak the words that God is trying to put in our mouths, the more God can use us The more we’ll be following our vocation.
Because our Christian vocation is more basic than a career we may have the privilege to choose, or a job we may enjoy, or a even a ministry that suits us. Our vocation is to speak the words that God puts in our mouth, to do the work that God puts in our hands, and to sing the songs that God puts in our hearts. And those words and works and songs are given to us every day — no matter what we decided to be when we grew up, or if we’re still deciding. God doesn’t wait for us to choose a major. God doesn’t work only through professionals. What we become when we grow up may help us to speak and sing and work for the glory of God, but we don’t need to “be” anything to answer God’s call. For God gives us words (and works and songs) every day as disciples of Christ, as members of Christ’s body: words (and songs and works) so that we may pluck up what needs plucking, and plant what needs planting. For God formed each us in the womb and has consecrated us for the holy task of showing forth God’s love. In the words of the psalmist who offers this prayer: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, Oh God, my rock and my redeemer.”
|8/7/16 - Kingdom’s Coming (Ready or Not) by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:14am|
|8/7/16 - Kingdom’s Coming (Ready or Not)|
Summit Presbyterian Church
August 7, 2016
Luke 12: 32-40
Kingdom’s Coming (Ready or Not)
Our scripture this week continues the theme of our relationship to money and possessions in light of the Kingdom of God. It’s a big subject, and I’d like to enter into it by talking about one of my possessions. Now, preacher’s aren’t supposed to use sermons to process their personal stuff. We’re told not to reveal Too Much Information as it can distract from the gospel message. I’m ignoring that good advice this morning. You’re going to have to listen to the story of my car. Or rather (sadly) my two cars.
As you know, until I came to Philadelphia eight years ago I lived in New York City and was a happy user of the subway, bus and train. Although I had a license, I never drove or owned a car. But I knew I’d want one in Philadelphia. It has a great bus system, but as a pastor I’d need to get around to lots of different places quickly. A few weeks before I moved I was walking in my neighborhood and saw a little white car parked at the curb with a sign in the window: Prius for Sale. Call Owner. I had already decided I wasn’t going to get a Prius. I didn’t like their funny shape. I didn’t like the dashboard that looked like a spaceship. I knew it was a responsible choice, but they were expensive and intimidating and had a pretentious air about them. But this car didn’t look like a Prius. It looked like a Corolla. It had a conventional looking dashboard and a couple of NYC dings on the front. It was very cute. It turns out the early Prii — (P-R-I-I that’s the official plural of Prius, in case you missed the Prius Goes Plural Voting Campaign of 2011) - the early Prii looked like Corollas. So I called the owner and after weeks of deliberation I bought it. I didn’t even look at another. The owner— a massage therapist, peace activist, and spiritual but not religious person who had a Buddha on the dashboard — had taken meticulous care of it. Every service record was in a folder. She was also a kind-hearted soul who drove it to Philadelphia for me, since I was afraid to do so.
I grew to love that car. I grew to love driving. I was proud of my 2002 Prius. It took me a long time to learn the routine of filling up the gas tank because I didn’t have to do it very often. I hoped to drive it for a long time. But that was not to be. About six weeks ago the Master Warning Light starting coming on. You know, the one that says take it to A Toyota Dealer Right Now or You May Die. So I took it into Conicelli, and was told I’d need a new Hybrid battery for $3,000. I was ready to do it, figuring it could last another 100,000 miles, but then they opened the trunk to get at it and found a disaster. The trunk was wet. Mold was growing and ants had invaded. The rubber gasket that lines the cover had dried up and gotten dislodged. Rain had gotten in. And since Prii electronics are all in the trunk it was a goner. Even the insurance company declared it “totaled,” calling it an Act of Nature.
My poor baby! I was surprised at the intensity of my grief. It wasn’t just that I had to shell out more money for a new car. I had become attached. I identified with it: environmentally responsible! Smart yet unpretentious. Rare and special - you don’t see to many First Generation Prii on the road. Just the right size. Or so I like to think of myself. When I went to the Conicelli parking lot to clean it out, and sat in the front seat, practically in tears, emptying the change drawer and collecting the 15 pens in the glove box along with an ossified chocolate chip cookie, I wondered if I had become too attached. I had put a lot of treasure into the car, and my heart with it. Didn’t Jesus warn against that? Didn’t he say to sell possessions and give alms? To make purses for ourselves in heaven, where thieves do not break in, nor moths consume, nor rainstorms destroy. To complicate matters — for someone who claimed to love their car, I hadn’t taken great care of it. I had it serviced regularly, but the interior was a mess, and there were a few ominous spots of rust. Truth be told, I knew something was wrong for a while. But not wanting to spend money or time I had ignored that funny smell and gone into denial. So I also felt a wave of regret, even guilt, as I bade farewell to my Beloved, on the way to the scrapyard, to be dismembered and crushed before its time.
And then I had to get another — with the daily rental car fee piling up, there was no time to waste. Of course no other car could compare to my first, and the fear of buying a lemon nearly paralyzed me. But I settled on a 2005 Prius with 73,000 miles, also with a single meticulous owner and a spotless service record. It’s not the same. It’s silver and has that funny shape. It has that annoying new key system where you press a button to turn on the car. But as I prepared to drive away, and surveyed the spotless interior; as I adjusted the mirrors, figured out the lights and gave the windshield a wash, I felt ready. Ready to drive to home. Ready to drive to church. Ready to drive to the hospital for some pastoral visits, ready to drive to the Presbytery meeting at Church on the Mall, ready to drive to my Mother’s house, ready to give my neighbor a lift to the store, ready to go to a friend’s house for dinner. Ready to drive to a voter registration center to see if I could volunteer. Ready to drive to State College for the Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light meeting in October. In short — ready, I hoped, for the Kingdom. Not the second coming of Christ, where the King will sit on the throne, sorting the sheep from the goats, with my woebegone Prius I standing to condemn me (and believe me, she’s the least of my worries!). I may never be ready for that. But ready for the Kingdom at hand, the kingdom of love, and justice and peace on earth. The kingdom that we’re invited to enter by giving generously to neighbors in need. The kingdom where we care for one another, in sickness and in health, in times of joy and grief and loneliness. The kingdom where we build homes for those without and all children have loving parents. The kingdom where we march or walk for a living wage, or climate action, or racial justice or a cure for breast cancer. The kingdom where we worship God. The kingdom where we eat joyfully together, inviting children and strangers to the table. That kingdom that may seem to be in peril, threatened by evil or indifference, but whose ultimate victory is assured. The kingdom where Christ greets us, at unexpected times and places, through unexpected people. So keep your lamps lit, your engines tuned and your gas tanks filled, said Jesus, for you do not know when the master will be coming. And blessed are all who are ready.
As twenty-first century Christians living in North America, practicing discipleship with our possessions and money is one of the biggest spiritual challenges we face. The temptation is great to put too much of our treasure and too much of our heart into things and bank accounts. We’re constantly told that the more we have the safer we are; that our wealth reflects our worth; that our “lifestyle” says something significant about who we are. Although this is not true for everyone, as a nation we share very little of our money beyond taxes — even Christians give only a few percent of their disposable income, mostly to churches and colleges. So when Jesus says sell your possessions and give alms, when Jesus says be rich towards God and make yourself purses in heaven, he’s speaking to us.
But that doesn’t mean to give away all our possessions and all our money. Very few Christians have taught that — not even monks and nuns and Mennonites. For money and possessions are also blessings. Blessings that keep us in good health, that provide shelter and strength and a measure of security. Blessings that give us leisure for learning and even fun so we can be refreshed for the work of Christ. Blessings that can help us be ready for the Kingdom. Ready to work for peace and justice and to love our neighbors near and far.
So that’s the challenge: finding the sweet spot, the right relationship to our money and stuff. And so I covet your prayers for me and my Prius. That I may receive it with thanksgiving, appreciating all who built it and the metals that were mined from the earth to make it. That I may care for it, keeping it in good form, ready to help me in service to the kingdom and keeping it out of a landfill as long as possible. But also that I save my love for God and neighbor. That I don’t confuse the Prius with myself, so I’m ready to sell it and give alms when I no longer need it. That I — that all of us — may trust in God and not in our stuff, remembering the words of Jesus: “Do not be Afraid.”
|7/10/16 - No Excuses by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:12am|
|7/10/16 - No Excuses|
Summit Presbyterian Church
July 10, 2016
Deuteronomy 30:8-14; Luke 10: 25-37
The parable we call the Good Samaritan is so compelling we usually dive right in and overlook the exchange between Jesus and a lawyer that prompted it. But that’s what I want to focus on today. Luke says that the lawyer — a scholar of religious law - stood up to test Jesus. He asked a question that any good rabbi ought to be able to answer: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus turns the question back to him and asks what’s written in the law. The man combines verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him he gave the right answer. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live.
Everyone could have gone home happy at this point, but the lawyer doesn’t stop there. He asks, “who is my neighbor?” Now that was a legitimate question. In a world with so many people - family, friends, foes and peoples across the sea; in a world with so many languages and customs, religions and boundaries (a world like our own) surely he wasn’t required to love everyone like himself.
It’s a legitimate question — but. The lawyer wasn’t an earnest student seeking wisdom, or an inquiring mind wanting to know. Luke says he asked the question because he wanted to “justify” himself. Perhaps he hoped to trap Jesus, to show himself to be the better scholar. Who doesn’t want to be the smartest one in the room? Or maybe he wanted to reassure himself that he was a good and righteous person, that he was already loving everyone he needed to love. Perhaps he was overwhelmed — finding it hard enough to love his wife and kids and the folks next door, and the people in his synagogue and the beggar who wandered into town. He may have been looking for permission to just draw a smaller circle. He could have had any one of these ordinary motives. We know what it’s like to want to justify ourselves. We’re always looking for excuses.
But, Jesus doesn’t give him what he wants - or seems to want. Instead, he tells a story. A parable that implies his neighbor may be someone who’s not of his tribe, or religion, or city; someone he may think of as an enemy, “Lesser” in some way: less human, less righteous. The story also suggests his neighbor could be someone he’s afraid of — a man on the street who’s been in a fight, and maybe even have started it. Someone who looks like they’ll need money and who knows where that will end. In short, it may be someone he doesn't want to love. Jesus also points out that being a neighbor demands action: the Samaritan went out of his way, delayed his trip for days, touched the man, bandaged wounds, gave money and even came back later. So it’s a hard commandment, one few of us could say we follow fully or consistently. But although Jesus challenges the lawyer he doesn’t shame him: indeed, he gives him the chance to answer the question, to show that he gets it. And then Jesus simply says go and do likewise. The road to eternal life lies before you. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
This week has shown that in this world we’re a long way from loving our neighbors as ourselves; it’s been a week of heartbreak, tension, fear. The shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castillo were two more needless deaths, more evidence that many police see and treat African Americans differently, especially African American males; that racism is still a strong and destructive force in this country, that we need to keep saying Black Lives Matter - because too often they’re treated like they don’t. And then there were the deaths of the five police in Dallas, an example of anger turning to hate, when the shooter no longer saw the humanity of the police; here we have to affirm to that Blue Lives Matter, that all deaths matter. But we didn’t need the events of this week to know that racism still has a tenacious hold in this country. We didn’t need these deaths to know that we’re far from being a beloved community of loving neighbors. Why can’t we get this right?
There are many reasons, of course. Racism is an institutional evil with deep historical roots and shows itself in complex ways. But today that lawyer haunts me. He seemed to be asking one question - who is my neighbor? - but was really concerned with another: how can I justify myself? Now, in this upcoming sermon illustration I’m going to be talking about white people. I’ll be speaking broadly. I know it may not apply to all white people; and maybe other folks will find it applies to them in different situations. But here it is: too often we seem to be asking one question: how can I combat racism, for example — when really we’re concerned with another: how can I prove, to myself and others, that I’m not racist? How can I justify myself in this unjust system? And then the gymnastics begins. So just as the lawyer was looking for a definition of “neighbor” that would allow him to feel good about himself and right with God, we look for a definition of racism that allows us to feel OK about ourselves — and we may not realize that’s what we’re doing. Maybe we define it as a feeling of hate or contempt, and can honestly say that doesn’t apply to us. Or we point to the police, or to certain politicians with orange hair, or to people in less enlightened neighborhoods than Mt. Airy as the problem. Or we look for other reasons for the hardships that African Americans face and find that class, too many guns, a low minimum wage, all play a role, which is true, but rather than letting those factors deepen our understanding, we use them to pivot from race, thereby defining racism as something less central than it is. We step back, we close our ears — even when we think we’re listening — we move on to other matters, we don’t read and study like we could. And so we do not love our neighbor as ourself, and things don’t change, or change enough. Because change needs every one of us.
But this is the good news of Jesus Christ, for all people: we don’t need to justify ourselves. We’re all sacred children of the most high, beloved in God’s sight. We don’t need to prove that we’re good people, or righteous Christians — our worth lies in simply being created in God’s image. Yes, God wants us to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and our neighbor as ourself. God wants us to listen to the commandments placed in our hearts, to follow the teachings of Jesus. But when we don’t — when we stray — Jesus offers us grace. We can repent - or our racism, our greed, or addictions or whatever else we need to turn from — and find our way back. In the words of Ta’Nehisi Coates, who I am paraphrasing, we don’t need to be obsessed with the politics of self-exoneration. We can lay that burden down. Which will be a relief to everyone.
And then, listening to others, we can face the truth of racism, in ourselves and our nation and our world, and see what we can do to help. We - all of us together - can end it. The secret is not on Pluto that we need to send a spaceship; the answers are not 10,000 leagues under the sea, that we need to send down submersibles. The answers are in the Word that God has placed on our hearts, in our thinking and learning and listening; in our willingness to make changes. Some of us will need to let go of privileges; others fears. We’ll disagree on what exactly needs to be done — that’s politics. And of course racism isn’t the only challenge we all face — it isn’t the only obstacle to life. But it’s a big one. And although in the short term such change may feel like a loss, even a threat, in the long run we’ll all be blessed.
|7/3/16 - Reading Round the World by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:11am|
|7/3/16 - Reading Round the World|
Summit Presbyterian Church
July 3, 2016
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20; Isaiah 66:10-14
Reading Round the World
Several years ago, for an Earth Day Service, we invited everyone to bring a picture of a place they loved where they felt connected to God. We pinned the photographs on a board, and I remember pictures of purple mountains and woodlands and ocean beaches and coastlines. My favorite was a picture of Don White tending his garden, especially since I think it also came with some zucchini. I wasn’t here for Reinhart’s sermon last week, but I understand he also talked about encountering God in the beauty of the natural world. God speaks to us, thrills us, comforts us and grants us peace through God’s creation. For many of us, places of natural beauty are the place where we feel the divine presence most intensely. God comes to us through such places.
In our scripture today, Isaiah speaks of God coming to the people through a different kind of place: a city. The holy city of Jerusalem, also called Zion. Jerusalem was the site of the temple, the center of the small nation of Israel, home of the Jewish people; Jerusalem represented the people and the country. Our reading comes at the very end of the book of Isaiah. It was written about 500 years before Jesus was born. Persia had just conquered Jerusalem, which was actually good news. Sixty years earlier Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon, and in their pacification policy Babylon had sent Jerusalem’s leaders, the educated of the city, to other parts of the Empire. Those 60 years are known as the Babylonian Exile, or the Babylonian Captivity. You may know the line from Psalm 137, where where it says By the rivers of Babylon we wept when we remembered Zion. But when the up and coming empire of Persia took Jerusalem, the Persian King Cyrus allowed the exiles to return. It was a time of rejoicing. Isaiah praised Cyrus, calling him an instrument of God. But even with this change in fortune, all was not well. The dreams of return were not matched by reality. The city was still in ruins, the temple gone. There were tensions between the returning exiles and those who remained. The people were still poor, hungry, and struggling. They were still under the yoke of an Empire, even if was a more benevolent one. So it’s in this difficult time, when the people are exhausted, that God speaks a word of hope through Isaiah.
God tells all who love Jerusalem to rejoice with her for they will be nursed and satisfied from her consoling breast. They will drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. They will be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. Like a mother comforts her child, says God, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. Prosperity will be extended to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream. You and Jerusalem will flourish. The Jerusalem that the exiles loved and longed for. The Jerusalem for whom the people sang hymns. The Jerusalem that was then still suffering. But, indeed, things did get better, at least for a while. Israel was never again independent, except for a brief period: first the Greeks came, and then the Romans. But the temple was rebuilt. The people enjoyed a measure peace. God’s promises were not completely fulfilled — we’re still waiting — but the people were comforted and nourished.
A simple, straightforward reading of this passage - and much of Isaiah — suggests that God favors Jerusalem above other places, and the people of Israel over other peoples. After all, it says the wealth of other nations will flow to it . . . . . and also fortells destruction of Israel’s enemies. But if we read deeper in the Bible, before and after this passage, it gets more complicated. God also promises to draw people from other nations to God’s Holy Mountain; and from the beginning God said other nations would be blessed through Israel. God is also understood, in Isaiah, to have permitted if not commissioned the destruction of Jerusalem, as punishment for unfaithfulness and injustice among her people — so being from Israel didn’t give anyone a pass. We might be tempted to portray God as a patriot of Zion, but God refuses. And then in Luke, Jesus sends out the 70 apostles to gentiles as well as Jews. After he has risen, he will tell the disciples to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the nations — and the Holy Spirit will send the apostles to the ends of the earth. It’s part of God’s plan to bring the Word, including these words from Isaiah, to all peoples and all nations. So how do we understand this scripture, knowing that it’s being read around the world?
Our tendency is to think that since God is speaking to us, too, and Jerusalem is also symbolic, we can substitute the “United States” for Jerusalem, and to think of God promising peace and prosperity and comfort to us through our country, and to our city. I think that’s fair: God does promise to all God’s people, including us, comfort and joy. But the temptation is to then think that God is speaking these words only to us, and that God favors this country like we do. But French Christians are also reading this word, and likely replacing, “France” or “Paris” for Jerusalem. Congolese Christians are reading these words and probably substituting, “Kinshasa” or the “Democratic Republic of the Congo” for Jerusalem. Venezuelan Christians are surely thinking of “Caracas” and Venezuela” when hearing these promises. And in all of these nations it’s not just Christians, it’s not just the native born, who love their country and their cities. God promises in time, the comfort of a mother’s breast, prosperity and joy for all who love their cities, and their countries, but who are looking at ruins, fearful of bombs, worshipping in secret, exhausted from hunger. In Jerusalem, Philadelphia, Baghdad, Beijing, Mumbai, Istanbul, Brussels, Dhaka, Damascus.
God comes to us where we live, where our feet are planted, and also where we roam or where we have fled. God comes to us in specific times and places, and promises the restoration of places that we love, not necessarily as they were before — the Jerusalem of King David was gone — but as places where we may know joy and receive comfort. God comes to us in the cities and countries that we’ve built, where we work and worship and live. So we can love our city, and our country. As long as we remember that others love their cities and their countries, and that God makes promises of comfort and hope to them, too. If God calls us to work and pray for the well-being of all cities and countries and peoples of this world. For we’re bound together, like it or not: through the global economy, through the threat of climate change, nuclear war, and terror; through social media; through the church, and through other world-wide faiths. Most important, we’re bound together through the love of God. We know God through the grace of Jesus Christ, but we can trust that God works in many ways to bring love and comfort and joy to all who love their countries, and their cities around the world.
This is my prayer, O God of all the nations,
a prayer of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations,
a prayer of peace for their land and for mine. Lloyd Stone, 1921 (adapted)
|6/19/16 - No More of This! by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:10am|
|6/19/16 - No More of This!|
Summit Presbyterian Church
June 19, 2016
Luke 6:27-36; 22: 47-53
No More of This!
Last Sunday, the night after the Orlando shootings, the musical “Hamilton” won eleven Tony awards. Now some of you know my secret: that I stopped listening to musicals when I became an adult. Until Alvina Ransaw did an intervention a couple of years ago I had never even heard - to my knowledge - any songs from Phantom or Les Mis or the Lion King. But after seeing a clip of the opening from Hamilton, I ordered the Original Broadway Soundtrack. To say I’m obsessed is putting it too strongly - captivated is a better word. For those of you who haven’t heard, Hamilton’s a musical about Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, founder of the national bank, chief staff aide to George Washington during the war, defender of the constitution. I’m not going to tell his story, but the play is based on a popular but respected biography and for musical, there’s not much poetic license. The history is fairly conventional: it’s about those white men we call the founding fathers. It’s sympathetic to them and their cause. Women are included - they have great songs — but they’re secondary; Africans and slavery get only passing if pointed references. What makes it different from a high school history class is that it’s told primarily by African American and Latino actors; the music is mostly hip hop. It’s powerful to see the telling of history turned upside down. For until recently, it was white men who told other people’s stories — at least the official versions — or chose not to tell them. And the play is brilliant, and brainy, and heartbreaking and the music is totally convincing — you can really imagine Thomas Jefferson rapping at a cabinet meeting.
When I listened to it for the first time what struck me most was how gun violence was so central to Hamilton’s story, and to the story of our country from the very beginning. I’m not just talking about the violence of slavery at the point of a gun. Or about the violence of a revolutionary war fought with guns. Or about the violence that comes from using guns to take territory from people with less lethal weapons. I’m talking about the personal I’m going to shoot you because you disrespected me kind of gun violence that we may think of as more contemporary - or urban to use code. I’m talking about the gun violence of angry men trying to preserve their honor. Of angry men taking revenge or trying to be heroes. For Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel. He was killed by Aaron Burr, the vice-president of the United States at the time, who was never prosecuted for the crime, although his reputation and career suffered. Burr and Hamilton were long-time personal and political foes. They had insulted each other many times, until Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, and he accepted. Historians aren’t clear on exactly what happened, but Burr shot Hamilton dead. And this duel was not an isolated incident; Hamilton’s 19 year old son was killed in a duel, defending his father’s honor. Hamilton and Burr had both participated in other duels, although they had not shot before. Now, I learned in the number “Ten Dual Commandments” that there was a protocol for duels. You sent your second, also called your lieutenant into negotiations and most disputes ended without anyone being shot. But the negotiations were done under the threat of the gun. Because nasty and vehement political debates, and they were even nastier back then - — weren’t enough. Because bitter, hard fought battles for President or Governor couldn’t just end when the winner was declared. Honor demanded satisfaction. Satisfaction demanded violence. Not from everyone all the time, but enough to establish that those wealthy white men who wore funny wigs and frilly shirts could shoot to kill. And they did.
Some folks think of those early years as the time we were a truly Christian nation. And in some ways, perhaps, we were. But this model of honor is very un-Christlike. Gun violence — or sword violence - is very un-Christlike. When we look at Jesus in all four gospels he never throws a stone, or draws a sword, or even throws a punch. His words could be harsh towards his opponents, even insulting— at least as his followers remembered them. But he never gets in a duel, he never defends his honor or demands satisfaction. Instead, he heals. He heals people of sickness and expels their demons. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. He welcomes outsiders and eats with those who are shunned, tax collectors and sinners. He feeds the hungry, he speaks with women. He has words of foreboding about God’s judgement, but he never calls his followers to violence: He tells them to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, to visit those in prison, and to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty. And when he’s betrayed — when a so-called friend delivers him to the enemy with a kiss, he doesn’t try and defend his life or his honor. His followers are ready to do so — they ask can they please take up their swords — but he says no. And when one of them takes his up anyway, and slices off the ear of a servant of the High Priest, Jesus says, “No more of this!” and touches his ear and heals him. Jesus didn’t seek martyrdom, but he also refused to answer violence with violence, or terror with terror. He loved his enemies, he didn’t shoot them.
It’s a week since the shooting in Orlando, and the pain of those who were hurt, the grief of the family and friends of those who were killed, is still raw and intense. Many of us are still reeling. There are so many layers of evil to the crime. Many places where we may look for cause and lay blame. There’s the hateful rhetoric and the destructive violence of ISIS that Omar Mateen adopted, even though it seems he had no concrete connection with any terror group. There are the conditions that gave birth to ISIS, which are very complex with many responsible parties. There’s the internet culture, where people can immerse themselves in all kinds of hateful propaganda and fantasy worlds, without the reality check that comes when you’re interacting face to face. There’s homophobia and the denigration of women: two closely connected, cross-cultural, cross-faith phenomena. American life and church teaching still has plenty of both, especially in certain quarters. There’s the idea, taught explicitly and primarily to boys but girls also pick up on it — that brandishing a gun is honorable and satisfying. Many fantasies grow out of this idea. There’s the fantasy of being a hero, defending women and children against the next crazed gunman who walks into a classroom, or a theatre or a nightclub. There’s the fantasy of defending one’s honor, of defending one’s manhood by answering an insult with a shot. There’s the fantasy of taking out those evil Christians or Americans or Muslims or women or gays or Latinos that you’ve learned are responsible for all that’s wrong in the world and all that’s wrong in your life. We don’t know much about Omar Matteen, we may never understand his motivations, but we do know he was angry and troubled since childhood and it was easy for him to get his gun.
Now, you may be thinking, wait a second, is Cheryl comparing the Burr-Hamilton duel with the Orlando mass shooting? — and I guess I am. Of course they’re different. Neither Burr nor Hamilton went out shooting scores of people they didn’t know. They didn’t abuse their wives, they weren’t frustrated out of control loners, and they also didn’t have access to AK-15s, because machine guns hadn’t been invented. They both did much good in life, especially Hamilton. But there is a common thread. A thread which I believe underlies not only the gun violence we see in this country, but a reluctance among so many folks to put any restrictions on anyone obtaining any kind of gun. It’s idolatry of guns. It’s idolatry of violence and it can take ahold of even peaceable people who would never place the first shot.
As Christians, we have to say, “No More of This!” “No More of This!” We need to let go of our national romance with guns which keeps us from passing even the mildest legislation to regulate them. We need to live honorably without turning honor into something that must be defended to the death — usually someone else’s death. We need to point to the one who asked God to forgive those who hung him on the cross, rather than plotting his revenge at the final judgement. We need to look to the one who invited to dinner those who were shunned — tax collectors and so-called sinners - but who ate with Pharisees, too. We need to look to the one who touched to heal and to serve — never to hurt.
It’s not easy. Jesus said it would be hard when he spoke in his sermon on the plain, telling his followers to love their enemies, to bless those who curse them, to pray for those who abuse them. It’s hard because we want to hurt those who hurt us, we don’t want to love them or pray for them. It’s also hard because although Jesus said pray for those who abuse you he wants no one to be abused, so we have to learn to love without accepting harm to us or giving in. In Hamilton one of the refrains is “winning is easy, governing’s harder.” Also, “dying is easy, living is harder.” We could also add “shooting is easy, healing’s harder.” and “hating is easy, loving is harder.” Hard but not impossible, for nothing is impossible with God. Nothing is impossible when we believe and trust in the love of Christ. When we trust in that love we don’t need honor from others. We can rest in the knowledge that we are loved and honored by the one who came for us and the whole world. The one who died for us, the one who rose for us, and the one who prays for us, now and forevermore.
|5/22/16 - Live into Hope by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:08am|
|5/22/16 - Live into Hope|
Summit Presbyterian Church
May 22, 2016
Live Into Hope
This passage states the core beliefs of our faith in one short, packed paragraph. One: we’re justified — which is another way of saying accepted, or saved — through faith rather than through the things we do. God tells us how to live, but we don’t earn God’s love through moral perfection. We don’t need to be always seeking God’s approval or fearing God’s anger. Two: we have this peace with God through Jesus Christ, who offers the grace, or forgiveness, in which we stand. Jesus Christ who suffered and died, but who also forgave those who persecuted him and rose from the dead. Three: we have hope in sharing in the glory of God, in God’s kingdom of peace, love and joy, that is now at hand and one day will be complete. In the meantime, God pours love into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peace, faith, hope, and love . . . . through God, Christ and Holy Spirit. The perfect scripture for Trinity Sunday.
But I’m not going to preach on the Trinity — I hope that’s OK with you. (I know some of you wait all year with bated for Trinity Sunday — and for my illuminating sermons on the three in one and one in three!) So I’m not going to preach on the Trinity but I’m going to talk about the most beautiful but also the most dangerous sentence of this scripture. “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . . and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given us.”
It’s a long sentence. It goes from suffering to hope and it leads to a troubling question: — is Paul saying that suffering is a good thing? Something we should seek and boast about because it’s character building? The New International Version, translates it as “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance” (A different translation doesn’t always help). There’s a stream of Christian tradition and theology that has sought martyrdom and suffering. That’s seen it as a spiritual discipline, even as occasion for boasting or rejoicing. I’m thinking of monks in the Middle Ages who practiced mortification of the flesh by whipping themselves or wearing hair shirts. Worse, the idea that suffering is redemptive has sometimes been taught to people who are suffering as a way to keep them submissive — as when abused women or slaves or the poor have been counseled to “bear their cross” with a promise of heaven to console them. Now, it’s true that God works through suffering, and that we often learn perseverance and build character through it. But Paul’s words are dangerous when they’re used to support injustice, or to accept unnecessary suffering in ourselves or in the world. Jesus opposed both.
But that’s not what these words mean. Paul’s describing how hope is born. That it’s born in suffering and endurance. We may be optimistic without suffering, but optimism is different. To be optimistic is to see a bright future, to look at the glass half full rather than half empty, to believe things are going to work out. Some of us are blessed with a more optimistic temperament than others, but we all find it easier to be optimistic when things are going well. When there’s evidence to support a positive outlook. Hope is what we have when the evidence supports a negative outlook. Hope is born when things are going badly, when we’re suffering or weak or discouraged but still believe things can be different.
Let’s take, as an example, our children. I’m using the first person plural just like Paul, but when I say “our” children I don’t just mean children that we’ve birthed or raised, but nieces and nephews, students, friends — our collective children. We can be optimistic when they’re doing well. Bringing home good report cards. In good health, having fun on the soccer field, bringing home friends, being polite at the dinner table. We have reason to believe their futures will be happy. They’re happy, we’re happy — it’s wonderful when we can be optimistic. But often it’s not like that with children. At least not all of the time. They bring home bad report cards and the principal calls us. They don’t seem to have friends, they withdrawal to their room and spend too much time on the computer, they complain of stomach aches. They start talking back or slamming doors or waking up with nightmares. They may turn to alcohol or drugs, or find other kinds of trouble, ending up in jail or on the street or dangerously depressed. They suffer. We suffer. We have to endure as we learn we don’t have control. But it’s in that suffering we also can receive the gift of hope. The hope that despite evidence to the contrary, despite all the hurt — change and new life is possible. For our children, and for us. We may have to change expectations — they may never have the life that we dreamed for them when they were infants. But we can hope that ultimately, all will be well because of God’s loving care. That hope is a gift. It comes from the love that’s been poured out to us through the the Holy Spirit. The love which sustains us and helps us to keep loving children in trouble. Not necessarily by doing what they want— often love means saying “no.” So we can rejoice, and proclaim if not boast, that in suffering we have hope, hope in the God who raised Christ from the dead.
Or, to step back and think globally, take the issue of climate change. The time for optimism is past: a relaxed and untroubled cheerfulness about the future is no longer reality-based. The signs are that we’re still moving too slowly to avoid catastrophe. We may take heart from the Paris agreement, but that’s only a beginning, and it’s far from certain the nations will follow through. In our Congress the chair of the Science, Space and Technology Committee is still harassing scientists. We may soon have a President who snidely tweets about it and denies it for political gain. The suffering has already begun: record breaking temperatures and drought in India and wildfires in Canada are only this month’s news. But as Christians we can dare to hope that hearts and minds will change. Hope that we can turn from wasteful ways and fossil fuels and build a new energy future. We’ll need perseverance and character — but Paul assures us our hope will not disappoint because it’s based on the love of God. Love that is poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Hope based on the peace we have with God through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s reality based.
It may not seem that way to others. And we have to admit that the story of Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, rising from the dead after three days in the tomb may sound like fantasy. But if we live in hope we’ll be making that hope real, for ourselves and others. By loving our children and other people’s children. By working for a more just world. By caring for all creation. By trusting in the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by proclaiming that peace to all.
|5/15/16 Pentecost: Students of the Spirit by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:07am|
|5/15/16 Pentecost: Students of the Spirit|
Summit Presbyterian Church
Acts 2: 1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-26
May 15, 2016 (Pentecost)
Students of the Spirit
At our last “conversations on race” meeting on Wednesday, inspired by the film, we talked a bit about the American history we learned in school. Our experience differed depending on how old we were and where we went to school. But those of us who spoke felt we weren’t taught the truth, or taught enough of it, when it came to slavery, racism, the African American experience. College was better, but even now, much is left out or distorted in what young people learn about our collective history. Now, historians tell us there’s no such thing as “pure” history, no single truth about the past. History reflects the understanding and interests of those who teach and write it — which is true, and why we need to expand the circle of historians and always re-examine what we think we know. But we can’t deny it: the history most of us learned underplayed the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and discrimination in the North. It understated the achievements of Reconstruction and African Americans, left out the stories of many peoples or told them in simplistic ways: women, native Americans, Asian Americans. Those stories are being told more and more, but even when we seek them out we don’t necessarily explore what they mean for the present. Or, to paraphrase Faulkner: we haven’t reckoned with the truth that the past is not even past.
There are many reasons for this. Sometimes they’re economic. The film explored how theories of race were developed to justify slavery and the removal of American Indians from the land. It’s not that white scientists or anthropologists said I’m going to make up a theory to justify slavery: but they asked questions that would give them the answers they expected and wanted. There’s nothing like greed, or fear of not having enough to keep people from facing the truth. Grappling with truth, especially an inconvenient truth — and most truth is inconvenient for somebody - also means change. Change is hard. Learning and facing truth takes work: listening, studying, observing - and we don’t always know for sure where truth lies. It brings conflict. Not only in presidential debates, but among family, friends, and congregations. It’s no wonder that the world cannot receive it — and that world often includes us.
After our discussion Wednesday, I remembered a time when I taught second and third grade, about 20 years ago. I taught in a progressive, teacher college-affiliated elementary school, with largely white, middle and upper middle class students. It was Black History Month — or maybe the Martin Luther, King Jr. holiday. We had been learning about the Montgomery bus boycott — a developmentally appropriate topic, as all second and third graders care passionately about where they sit on a bus. I gave a homework assignment to be discussed in class the next day. I can’t remember exactly how I phrased the question, but it was something like: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus because she knew it was unfair. Is there something in the world today that you think is unfair? (use at least four sentences and don’t forget to capitalize the first word in each sentence). I took care to phrase it in a neutral way. I told them it could be about anything they thought was unfair. . . I was trepidatious. I expected several of them to bring up an intimate experience of racism and economic injustice: The fact that their caregivers - their nannies — and the caregivers of their friends and neighbors were almost always black, and they were white. Their caregivers were almost always less well off than them. Their caregiver’s children probably didn’t see their mothers as much as my students saw them, as the children often lived far away, in Barbados or the Bahamas. I wondered what my students would say, and how I would handle the discussion. I wasn’t going to deny that it was unfair: 500 years after Columbus arrived on San Salvador island, a combination of racism, imperialism, sexism, etc. had led to this state of affairs. At the same time, I wanted to honor the relationships that the caregivers and the children had, with deep love often going in both directions. I wanted to affirm that caring for children was important, skilled and even joyful work — not something that anyone who had a choice would avoid. I wanted to respect the decisions of all parties given the constraints of our world. It felt very complicated and very fraught. I wondered if I should give the assignment: but I thought, if after discussing the Montgomery Bus Boycott we couldn’t ask such a straightforward question, what was the point?
And sure enough, a few children did write about it. Children are observant and honest. I have no memory of the discussion itself, except that I tried to listen and it also included issues like the unfairness of losing choice time if you talked too much in the hallway. I may have done more harm than good with the assignment. If I were to do it again I would have prayed and consulted more beforehand. (Have I said - recently - that pastoring is easier than teaching?) Truly: discerning truth, hearing it, teaching it, is no easy thing.
So it’s no accident that when Jesus says the Father will send the disciples an Advocate to be with them forever, he calls it the Spirit of Truth. He promises that they will know this Holy Spirit; that it will abide in them. This Spirit will teach them everything, and remind them of all that Jesus has said to them.
Today we give thanks for that Spirit of Truth, the Advocate that abides not only in those first disciples, but in all who love Jesus and seek to follow him. The Spirit of truth which reminds us of all that Jesus said. This Spirit of Truth guided the gospel writers. This Spirit of truth that helps us understand what Jesus’s words mean for us, not only in our personal lives but as the church today — it’s not always evident. Even though this Spirit abides in us, we don’t always understand it, or listen. But when we do, it brings us to Christ because it’s the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of Christ who teaches us the way we should go and who also gives us peace. Not the peace of silence in the face of injustice. Not the peace that comes from avoiding conflict or change by going along with the majority opinion. Not the peace that comes from a life of ease: Jesus never promised discipleship would be easy. But it’s the peace grounded in the love and grace of God. The peace that offers forgiveness and new life time and again. The peace that assures us of our sacred worth in the eyes of God. The peace that tells us all will be well, as the world is being redeemed. The peace that we can rely on even in the midst of change or conflict that comes with truth telling. The peace we can rely on when learn that the things we thought to be true, knew to be true may not be so. The peace that gives us courage to seek truth and teach it, even when our hearts are afraid. For, as Jesus also said, “the truth will set you free.”
|3/27/16 Easter Sunday - A Living Hope by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:05am|
|3/27/16 Easter Sunday - A Living Hope|
Summit Presbyterian Church
March 27, 2016 - Easter Sunday
Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 23:50-24:12
A Living Hope
I’d like to begin this morning by talking about Mary Magdalene. I know she’s not the main character in the Easter story. She’s neither Lord nor Savior, and it’s not her resurrection we’re celebrating. But she is one of the first witnesses. In the gospel of John she’s the first to see the risen Christ, and in Luke she’s among the women who find the tomb empty, hear the angelic pronouncement, and run to tell the others. Mark and Matthew also place her at the tomb and among the first to bring the news.
All we know of Mary comes from the gospels. They don’t say much, and they don’t agree in all ways, but we know one thing for sure: she wasn’t a prostitute — at least none of the gospels even hint at that. That legend may have started when early Christians got the stories of New Testament women mixed up. It also may have begun as a kind of character smear - not necessarily intentional- that undermined her reputation as an early disciple and leader. After all, you didn’t want other women getting ideas! We know from her name that she probably came from the town of Magdala, and Luke gives two other details. She was one of the women from Galilee who followed Jesus and provided for him out of her resources. And Jesus had driven seven demons out of her.
Seven demons is a lot of demons (if they’re your personal demons). It’s not as much as a legion — that’s what the Geresene demoniac had, if you remember that story. He lived naked among the tombs, chained and shackled, except when the demons were feeling especially feisty and drove him into the wild. But he was an exception: most people who were troubled by demons had just one. And one demon could do a lot of damage: make you mute. Throw you into a fire. Seven demons would have been life-threatening and life-wrecking. Now, we don’t believe in demons the way ancient peoples did. If we met Mary Magdalene before Jesus healed her we might have said she had schizophrenia, or a severe case of epilepsy, or some other painful and debilitating illness. So when Jesus drove out those seven demons it’s no wonder she stayed close. It’s no wonder she provided for him out of her resources. She would have been grateful. She would have wanted others to be healed, and she also would have wanted protection. What if the demons tried to return? So when Jesus was arrested and crucified and laid in the tomb, Mary would not only have grieved a friend and the life-changing healing love she knew in him. She would have been frightened. Had Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons, won after all? It must have seemed that way when she saw the Roman soldiers leading Jesus away. It must have seemed that way when she heard the cries of the crucified men on Golgatha. With Beelzebub rising, would the demons take her prisoner again? As she rested on that Sabbath day, did she anxiously watch for them creeping out from the corners or slipping under her door?
But frightened or no, she and the other women had one more thing to do. They had seen where Jesus was laid; they had prepared spices and ointments. They would touch him one last time. They would wash and anoint the body. When they saw the stone rolled away, and the body missing, they didn’t know what to make of it. Had it been moved or stolen? But then two men in dazzling clothes - the uniform of divine messengers - told them that Jesus was alive. He had risen! Didn’t they remember what he said? And then they did remember: Jesus had told them he would be killed, but then rise again . . . . they just hadn’t been able to get their head around it. They still couldn’t, really: they had yet to meet the Risen Christ, to eat with him, to see him ascend into heaven and then to receive the power of the Holy Spirit. But the empty tomb and the angelic visitation was enough to give them hope. If he was alive, it wasn’t over. Beelzebub hadn’t won. How relieved, how grateful Mary must have been! If Christ was alive, surely the demons could be kept at bay. She, too would live. And so she ran to tell the others.
I wonder if God chose Mary Magdalene as one of the first witnesses because she knew what was at stake. Mary had up close and personal experience with the demonic. She didn’t just watch demons from a distance or hear about their work. She knew them intimately. She knew how very destructive they were. So she would get immediately what miraculous good news it was that they had not overcome the Lord. She would truly understand what miraculous good news it was that Christ had risen. So what if the disciples thought she was telling an idle tale! It wouldn’t stop her. She would tell everyone the news. Christ is alive! Her hope was alive, too.
And so Mary testifies to us, through the living word of Scripture, that Christ is alive. For that living hope is for us, also. Because demons have not left the scene. In fact, they are very busy. Taking possession of folks through drugs or alcohol. Tearing apart marriages. Finding their way into young men or women who should be going to school, learning a trade or spending time with their children but who are instead making bombs or shooting guns. Demons are worming their way into congressional debates where climate change is denied, women are belittled, and peoples are threatened with carpet bombing. Demons are working the levers and greasing the wheels of systems we call racism or fascism or communism. Demons are doing their best to plant in all of us a sense of despair, so we’ll throw up our hands and hand over the goods.
But Christ is Risen! Life won over death! God is more powerful than Beelzebub, love is more powerful than hate. God is doing a new thing, even if the new creation hasn’t come in all its fullness and there’s still a battle ahead. We have the right one on our side: the risen Christ is working through us, in the Holy Spirit. Mending relationships, healing the wounded, teaching us truth. Planting in us compassion for those who are lost or in need. Giving us a yearning for justice and peace, so that one day all who plant vineyards shall eat their fruit and all who build houses will inhabit them. So that one day no one will labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. So that one day even the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and no one shall hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain. We’re not likely to see that day in the 10 or 40 or even 60 mortal years we each have before us. But that’s not our timeline. Our timeline is the eternal life promised in the resurrection. And as we wait and work for that day, signs of that new creation all around us, signs that Christ, indeed has risen: when our loved ones recover from illness or emerge from depression or stay sober. When children - and adults - are baptized. When nations sign peace agreements. When refugees are welcomed. When new inventions bring well-being and prosperity. When slaves are freed and rights are won.
I’m going to end by reading the last verse of our final hymn — because sometimes when we’re singing it’s hard to also listen:
Christ is risen!
Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation, where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim, demonic chorus: “Christ is risen! Get you gone!
God the first and last is with us. Sing Hosanna, everyone!
|3/25/16 Good Friday Service by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:03am|
|3/25/16 Good Friday Service|
Oxford Presbyterian Church
Joint Good Friday Service
March 25, 2016
Luke 23: 39-43
Several years ago a parishioner asked me to play a song by Kris Kristofferson at her funeral, called “Why me Lord?” Why me Lord, it begins, What have I ever done to deserve even one of the blessings I’ve known. Why me Lord?, it continues, What did I ever do? That was worth love from You and the kindness You’ve shown.” I listened to the song for the first time after her death, and was startled at the word “blessing” — which, of course, is what the songwriter intended, knowing that most of us only ask, Why me Lord? when we’re facing loss, or misfortune, or suffering. We ask “what did I do?” and either search our past for the crime which explains it, or - understandably - feel angry at God. For we like to believe that if we’re going to church and keeping away from drugs and doing our best to treat people well, we deserve a good life. A good job, a good marriage, well-behaved children (hah!), a nice home. The cosmetic firm L’Oreal knew this, when they sold hair coloring with the tagline “you’re worth it,” a variation on the them of “you deserve it.”
Of course, we can also go in the other direction, feeling we don’t deserve any blessings. Especially if we’ve been abused as children, or never knew the love of a parent, it can be hard to shake the belief that we’re undeserving of love, forgiveness, or success. If we’ve committed a grave wrong, we may feel that we should be paying for it the rest of our lives. And if we stop expecting anything good we often do things to fulfill that expectation, in a downward spiral of poor choices. Most of us, I think, are a confused mixture: sometimes feeling we deserve the good and sometimes the bad, ricocheting between shame and entitlement, two sides of the same coin, and underneath it all a desire for control. We want to feel the good or bad is up to us. So we ask, “Why me Lord?” when things don’t go the way we think they should.
But not everyone. Not the Penitent thief, as the second criminal is often called. He didn’t ask, “Why me Lord?” The Lord was right next to him — it was a good opportunity — but the criminal already knew, or thought he knew why. His deeds put him on the cross : he tells the other criminal their punishment is just, that they deserve what they’re getting. So he doesn’t ask Jesus why me: instead, he rebukes his fellow criminal. He then asks Jesus to remember him. Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
And so, through the centuries, people have held up the “penitent thief” as a model: even the worst of sinners, this interpretation goes, will receive mercy if they turn to Christ and ask forgiveness. Now, that’s true: even the worst of sinners will receive mercy if they turn to Christ and ask forgiveness. But I’d like to stop the action here just for a minute. These three men are being tortured. Crucifixion was cruel and unusual punishment by anyone’s definition. The pain was excruciating. It went on for hours, often days. It was public. Men were hung naked — the pictures are wrong — and death could come in any number of horrible ways. The crucified didn’t have calm conversations. If anything, they screamed. Their bodies were usually left on the cross, denied a proper burial, something very important to people in the ancient world. Now some of them may have committed heinous crimes. But we know from the trial of Jesus that the Roman justice system hardly ensured “due process”: and those who were guilty may have been guilty of a crime like escaping slavery and stealing bread. Or they might have been guilty of leading a rebellion, killing Roman soldiers, a crime that would have made them heroes if they had been on the Roman side. Tens of thousands were crucified by the Romans — and the Romans weren’t the only people to use this punishment. It doesn’t matter what they did: no one, no one, no one, deserves to be crucified. It breaks my heart to hear the criminal talk about himself that way.
So when Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” I don’t think he’s simply assuring the penitent thief — or us - that we will be saved if we turn to Jesus, although we will be. Jesus is telling the crucified man that his pain, and his death, is not the last thing that he will know. For he’s not getting what he deserved. Torture is not the will of God. Jesus assures us, from the cross, that God’s will is stronger than Rome. God’s will is to welcome people to paradise because God’s love is greater than anything we may do. Including taunting Jesus when we are in excruciating pain. Because we don’t get what we deserve, at least in this life. Yes, our actions have consequences, good and bad, and we need to take responsibility for that. And yes, for protection and order we need a criminal justice system. And yes, everyone “deserves,” if we use that word, food to eat, a safe home, freedom. And yes, I do believe we’ll be judged by the one who is both merciful and just. But we are neither blessed nor cursed according to our “deserving”; we are simply loved. Loved by one who, in solidarity with us, did not get what he deserved. Loved by one, who, in his teaching and healing sought to bring wholeness and peace to all peoples —and call us to do the same. Loved by one, who, today and forever, will be with us in paradise — the paradise we glimpse here on earth, the paradise we will know when we see Christ face to face. The paradise all peoples will know when Jerusalem descends from the heavens, and the tree of life is planted by the living stream, with leaves for the healing of the nations. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
|3/24/16 Tenebrae Service by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:02am|
|3/24/16 Tenebrae Service|
Summit Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2016
Several years ago a minister came before the New York City Presbytery to be examined for a call. (For those of you who aren’t up on Presbyterian polity, when an ordained minister - also called a Teaching Elder - is called to a position in a different Presbytery, the new Presbytery is required to question him or her on their faith and then vote on whether to let them take the job). Her statement of faith was a perfectly fine Presbyterian statement, except for the paragraph on Holy Communion. She had neglected to say anything about the special nature of the bread and wine or the presence of Christ in the sacrament. It sounded suspiciously Baptist. In Baptist understanding, communion is a time to remember the last supper and the sacrifice of Christ, but the bread and wine are strictly symbols, and in no way embody the presence of Christ, let alone turn into his body and blood. (And if you’re thinking, uh oh, I may be a Baptist when it comes to communion, don’t worry, most of us are, even those of us who are Roman Catholic — but that’s another discussion). Anyhow, a couple of senior ministers from the big churches stood up and questioned her. She didn’t seem to understand where they were coming from — it’s hard when you’re up there - so she didn’t respond in a way that satisfied them. Other ministers tried to give her the answer by asking how was Christ present in communion (by the way, just in case you’re ever examined before Presbytery, you should say that in the Lord’s Supper we encounter the “real presence of Christ”). Anyhow, this back and forth went on for some time before the examination was arrested. She was admitted, but by a narrow vote.
Now, I agree it’s important for Presbyterian ministers to understand the Reformed theology of communion — at least kind of — so the questions weren’t inappropriate. And although I imagine she found the experience traumatic, it wasn’t like we burned her at the stake, which is what Christians used to do with folks who didn’t preach the correct doctrine on this issue. But it’s worth noting that in our scripture this evening, or in any of Paul’s letters, he has no interest in the exact nature of the elements, or in the metaphysical way in which Christ is present. Paul has bigger fish to fry.
Paul’s concerned about the way Corinthians treat each other when they come together for the Lord’s supper. Reading between the lines, and knowing what we do about the customs of that time, this is what scholars think those early suppers were like. The communion meal would be held in the home of a wealthier member. His friends, members of his social class, would be invited to come first, and would enjoy plenty of good food at a table in an inner room. Others — slaves, servants and folks of modest means — would come later, after they had finished their duties at home. They would be relegated to the outer rooms, and not served dinner. Probably everyone then came together for a ritual with bread and wine, but by then some would be stuffed, others would be hungry. A few may had too much wine to know what was happening, we can imagine it was all a bit disheveled. It would be humiliating for the poor and the hungry as they stood near their social betters. In this matter, said Paul, I do not commend you.
Paul reminds them what was handed on: that the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, began with thanks, — even as he faced death. He then gave himself fully, without reservation, to his friends, as he broke the bread and poured the wine. There was no plates piled high with food while others were passed over. No hoarding, no shaming, no good seats and bad seats — all were gathered at the Passover table, even the one who was to betray him. The meal and all that followed was love poured out. Jesus was fully aware of what lay ahead, and still was the host. That’s the meal they’re to remember, and that’s the love they’re to reflect.
So later in the letter, after stern warnings against eating the bread or drinking the cup in an unworthy manner, Paul gives some practical advice: when you come together, wait for one another. If you’re too hungry to wait, eat at home, rather than in front of your sister or brother who has none. Social distinctions have no place at the table.
We can take it a step further. Just as we’re to reflect the broad and deep love of Christ at the table, we’re invited to extend that table to the world. So that one day no one will go hungry while another is full. So that one day no one will be humiliated for having nothing while others engage in excess. So that we can eat the bread and drink the wine without our theological differences getting in the way of coming together and treating each other with respect and kindness. So that one day all peoples may give thanks together: for the abundance of creation, for the blessing of God’s love, for the gift of God’s grace that we know through the real presence of Christ who is with us in our eating and our drinking, on this Holy Night and always.
|3/1/15 Sermon: A High and Human Calling - Cheryl Pyrch by Chelsea Badeau on Mar 3, 3:38pm|
|3/1/15 Sermon: A High and Human Calling - Cheryl Pyrch|
Summit Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2015
Matthew 9: 35-38
A High and Human Calling
When I was in seminary I spent a summer in Berea, Kentucky in a program to help students learn more about Appalachia and the joys and challenges of rural ministry. I lived on a dairy farm for a while and also visited a number of small family tobacco farms. I learned something about the growing of tobacco. I learned that most farmers are caught in a moral dilemma. They know that tobacco is poison. They know it hurts their families and those who harvest it; but quitting or switching is no easy matter. Tobacco farming is labor-intensive but can be done on small plots; most farms in that area were too small to cultivate other crops commercially. (On one farm a young man who stayed in the family business was primarily farming organic vegetables; but he kept a small plot of tobacco to subsidize the vegetables). It was also hard to let go of a way of a way of life, a culture, that had sustained their families for decades; folks were grieving. I also learned something about the way you grow and process tobacco. I learned there’s a narrow window of time in which to harvest it. It has to be harvested after the leaves are large enough to be worthwhile, but before an early frost, a storm, or some other problem hurts the crop. There are decisions to be made about exactly when to plant and harvest, decisions which involve judgment, experience and luck – for the weather is not predictable. When it’s time to harvest, it’s urgent. Folks drop everything to get it in the crop and there’s a job for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest – farmers showed us pictures of themselves standing on stools to work with tobacco leaves, when they were as young as five. By 1997, when I was there, most young people had left the countryside. They knew there was no future in farming. Extended family and neighbors simply weren’t there to help. Workers from Mexico came for the harvest – folks struggling even harder than the small tobacco farmers -- but everyone worried that there wouldn’t be enough people to get the crop in.
After this short time in Appalachia, I had a deeper appreciation for the harvest parables in the Bible. The disciples would have gotten it: when the harvest is plentiful, there’s no time to waste. All hands on deck! Everyone has a part to play. Work hard and fast or the crop may waste on the vine or be ruined in a hailstorm and then everyone’s in trouble. Pray that you have enough workers.
In scripture, harvest parables have an eschatological dimension. (Eschatological is the theological word for the end of times and final judgment). Christ will be coming to separate the wheat from the tares. Christ will gather the wheat into the barn, and bind the weeds into bundles to be burned. Christ will be coming at the harvest, this line of interpretation goes, to separate the faithful from idolators, the righteous from the disobedient, and so we must go forth and proclaim the good news, urging all to believe in Christ and follow in his way, before the great and terrible day of the Lord.
But these parables aren’t only about the final judgement. We don’t even have to believe in a final sorting to understand the urgency in them. We don’t have to believe that some folks are going to heaven and others to hell to appreciate the urgency of going out into the field and proclaiming the gospel, in word and in deed. Jesus told the disciples this parable because he had compassion on the crowd. They were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd. The need was urgent. People were hurting: suffering from disease and sickness, battling all kinds of demons. They were losing hope: burdened by guilt, by overseers, taxes, poverty. Jesus had been teaching, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. But even he couldn’t do it alone: “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” he says. And then — in the next paragraph - he summons the twelve disciples and gives them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and also authority to cure every disease and every sickness. He then sends them out. The harvest was plentiful; the laborers were ready.
And so it is for us, too. The harvest is plentiful and the time is now. The return of Christ and the full redemption of the world is probably a long ways off, no one knows that day or hour. But for the child who is hungry now, in Germantown or Bangladesh, the need is urgent. For the young man in prison, in despair about his future, the need is urgent. For young people in danger of going to prison, and their families, the need is urgent — for ways to avoid it and for a more just system. For the older person who is lonely, yearning for friendship, the need is urgent — there may not be much time left. For children and families pulled this way and that by school demands or financial troubles, by the internet, by peer pressures — the need is urgent — for stability, for community, for guidance. For nations on the brink of war, such as our own, the need is urgent — for diplomacy, for peaceful solutions. For refugees from Syria, or Mexico, the need is urgent — the need for freedom and safety. And finally, for creation, for those who are poor around the world and for future generations, the need is urgent — the need to turn from fossil fuels and the greed and fear that keeps us clinging to them — so that future harvests - future harvests of wheat and vegetables — may indeed be plentiful. Everywhere the need is urgent: for hope, for new life, for a helping hand, for justice, for peace.
And just as Jesus called and equipped the disciples, Christ calls and equips us. To proclaim and teach the Word, so all may hear the invitation to forgiveness and new life in Christ, and hear God’s instructions for abundant life. Christ equips us to help and heal those who are hurting, in body, mind and spirit: through prayer, through loving community, through the sharing of our treasurer. Christ calls and equips us to cast out unclean spirits: the unclean spirits of greed and violence, of envy and hate, or ignorance and prejudice, so we may live in a world where peace and justice reign. It’s a high and human calling — angels can’t do it. Christ needs hearts and heads and hands on earth to gather the harvest.
Today we give thanks to God for calling and equipping some among us for what we call the “ordered ministries” of the church, serving as deacons and elders — and in our congregation, also trustees. We’re grateful for their gifts; we’re grateful for their willingness to come to meetings, to make tough decisions, to organize things so the church may grow and thrive. But it’s not just officers who are called and equipped: we all are. Some among us may be called to pray or comfort those who are grieving; others to teach our children; others to offer hospitality at the coffee hour or Elder Diner; others to lead the congregation in song; others to work with young people at REACH; others to witness against gun violence or racism or mass incarceration (or climate change). And some of us may not feel called to do any of those things — but we do them anyway. For the harvest is plentiful; the need is great; the time is short.
And now . . . .
|2/22/15 Sermon: Lent is For Learning - Cheryl Pyrch by Chelsea Badeau on Mar 3, 3:38pm|
|2/22/15 Sermon: Lent is For Learning - Cheryl Pyrch|
Summit Presbyterian Church
February 22, 2015
Psalm 25 - Lent 1
Lent is For Learning
If you’re a college student, or know of someone who is, you may be familiar with a site called rateyourprofessors.com On this site, students rate their professors for helpfulness, clarity, easiness and something called “hotness.” They also post comments. I never had a reason to look at it and I’m opposed to using the internet to publicly praise or shame, but recently my curiosity got the better of me. So I looked up a friend who’s a college professor. I’d heard her laugh about the site and she even quoted it once, so I figured she wouldn’t mind. My friend had a solid “B” rating, and the comments were revealing. Positive ratings generally spoke about how you could get a good grade if you followed her instructions; negative ratings said it was hard to get a good grade because she was bad prof, and sadly but predictably, the better someone’s grammar, punctuation and spelling, the more likely they were to rate my friend highly. There were also helpful tips for anyone thinking of taking her class: be on time, do the reading, “TURN OFF YOUR CELLPHONE!!!!” (all caps, lots of exclamation points). Some of the students on rateyourprofessors - I browsed a bit - spoke about the excitement of learning and the expertise of their teachers. But most spoke about their professors in terms of how easy (or not) it was to get good grades. It’s understandable — we tell students scores matter more than anything else from a very early age. Most college students are in debt and need the degree. But it’s a limited view of teachers and students and learning.
It’s also very different from the way the psalmist speaks about her teacher, the Lord. The psalmist praises God as trustworthy, able to protect her from shame. She praises God as merciful, and ask that he remember her, not her transgressions or the sins of her youth. She trusts that God will lead her in the truth, that God’s paths are steadfast love and faithfulness; that God teaches the humble what is right. It may seem odd: talking about God’s love and mercy in the same breath as talking about God as a teacher, but the two are connected. As a 2nd grade teacher I knew that children learned best when they felt safe, loved, and cared for, at home and in school. Shame and anxiety impedes learning. Of course, in a safe, caring classroom or home there are rules and deadlines and consequences for misbehavior or not doing homework. Not learning also has consequences, and we have to be honest about that. But honesty is different than trying to motivate children through ridicule, or standardized test scores or a rigid tracking system that tells some students they’ll never make it. Learning can be hard; it requires courage and trust; we learn better when we know we’re loved and protected. You wouldn’t know that listening to some preachers, who seem to think we learn best through threats of hellfire and damnation. But the psalmist is wiser: she knows God’s teaching cannot be separated from God’s mercy and love.
The psalmist also has a different view of learning and of her role as a student than your typical rateyourprofessor user. She begins by saying she lifts up her soul to God. She trusts in God, she waits for God, she asks to be led in what is right and true. Although she says later in the psalm that those who follow the way of God will prosper, that’s not her focus. Her desire is to learn: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” She promises to listen for God, to pray, to wait patiently and to approach God with humility, recognizing that there’s much she doesn’t know and that she’s often strayed. She offers her life to God; she longs to be his student.
Now, in comparing ratemyprofessor with psalm 25 I”m not suggesting that college students should think of their professors as God. Nor is this a sermon on educational reform or the problems with standardized testing — although I’m always ready to talk about that. But this is the first Sunday in Lent, and this psalm offers us an alternative way to think about our Lenten journey. Lent is a season of repentance, of turning. Often we “give something up” that’s getting in the way of our relationship with God. It could be something sinful, that we hope to keep abstaining from beyond Lent — such as unkind gossip. Or maybe it’s giving up something pleasureable, such as sweets or alcohol, that will help us learn what it’s like to do without and to focus on God instead. Some folks like to add something during Lent, a prayer discipline or volunteer work or weekly giving beyond their pledge. In my Ash Wednesday sermon I encouraged us to attend to communal disciplines: worship and Bible study. But a third way to conceptualize our Lenten journey is to ask: what can I learn in these 40 days that will help me in my Christian journey?
This way of thinking about Lent opens up exciting and rewarding possibilities — for learning is exciting and rewarding, and maybe we should think about Lent more like the first day of Kindergarten rather than the first day of a difficult diet and exercise regime. I had fun thinking of possibilities. One project could be to learn more about the life of Christ by reading or re-reading a gospel from start to finish. (This year we’re reading Mark and it’s the shortest gospel if you wanted to start there). On Wednesday nights we’ll learn what Barbara Brown Taylor says about Sin and the lost language of Salvation, to better discern what God may be saying. A Lenten project could be learning a prayer discipline that will help open your heart and mind to the promptings of the Spirit. It could be learning to make some new vegetarian or even vegan dishes, for good stewardship of both health and planet. It could mean learning something about the world — a piece of history, or more about a troubling issue, because understanding God’s path includes understanding God’s world as best we can.
And as we embark on this learning adventure,it helps us to remember that the wideness of God’s mercy is like the wideness of the sea. That God’s paths are steadfast love and faithfulness. Christ will not meet us on judgement day with standardized test scores. We don’t need to fear failure as we seek to learn more, nor do we need to let past failures burden us with regret and keep us from God. In those 40 days with the wild beasts we can be sure Jesus learned much, just as the people of Israel received God’s instruction in the wilderness. In this season of Lent may we good students, allowing ourselves to be schooled in God’s ways.
|2/18/15 - Hidden in Plain Sight - Cheryl Pyrch by Chelsea Badeau on Mar 3, 3:37pm|
|2/18/15 - Hidden in Plain Sight - Cheryl Pyrch|
February 18, 2015
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18
Hidden in Plain Sight
Lent is here, which means it’s the time many of us choose a personal spiritual discipline that we hope will bring us closer to God, perhaps by letting go of something we desire a little too much. I came up with my 2015 Lenten disciple the other night as I was fighting my desire to stay up late and watch another episode of “The Good Wife,” on Amazon Prime. For those of you who watch TV in real time rather on the computer, you may not realize that on the computer you can find out what happens next right away, by watching day after day or even hour after hour. So, no binge-watching of “The Good Wife” for 40 days: no watching of “The Good Wife” at all - I’ll have to wait until Easter Sunday to find out whether Callinda kills her husband, who we only learned existed about 5 minutes before she loaded her gun. This discipline fits the Lenten criteria of a promise to God which will be hard to keep, and theoretically opens up space in my life for prayer or study. Last year my discipline was more traditional: a fast from meat. This also had an ethical dimension, as eating meat is very ecologically expensive (carbon and water intensive) and most of us should eat less of it. I called my Lenten diet “Vegan with Loopholes.” No meat, eggs or dairy except for the half in half in my coffee, or when I was served meat or cheese, because accepting hospitality trumps my diet, and of course Sundays are always feast days not fast days so then was it better to eat the leftovers during the week so that nothing was wasted — you can see I ate a lot of meat over the 40 days.
Now by sharing these personal disciplines with you I am violating the clear teaching of Jesus not to practice (or talk about) piety before others in order to be seen (or heard) by them: whether it’s praying, or fasting, or the giving of alms. But I’m not the only one: people now share their Lenten disciplines on Facebook. Last year several of my Facebook friends were decluttering their house for Lent: 40 days, 40 drawers or closets or corners cleared out. Now fasting, turning off the TV and decluttering are all worthy practices. They can open up space or time in our lives for God, especially if we practice them with integrity. But those personal practices also may tempt us with external rewards: such as a “like”on Facebook, the 21st Century equivalent of praying on a street corner to be seen by others. Or by the losing of weight (something people in the first century never tried to do). Or by a tidy house (few people in the first century had possessions they could throw out). We know, as followers of John Calvin, that we have mixed motives for everything and our sinful natures may make it impossible to practice a spiritual discipline solely for the reward of nurturing our relationship with God. But are there disciplines we can practice that have fewer extrinsic rewards? What might the 21st century equivalent be of praying in our room or fasting with oil on our head?
Most of us heard, in elementary school, the story of the mystery of the purloined letter, first told by Edgar Allan Poe. A man has stolen a letter from an acquaintance that he’s using it to blackmail her. She hires detectives to find it: so they go to the suspect’s house and search high and low, looking behind bookshelves, tearing up floorboards, and so on without success. But the hero of the story goes to the house and finds it the letter casually placed with the week’s mail, disguised just a little — hidden in plain sight among all the other letters. The other detectives didn’t see it when they saw it because it was unremarkable.
One way to pray, or to give alms, or to fast without being seen, is to do so in the company of other prayers, givers and fasters. One way to practice our piety without sounding a trumpet and without receiving praise is to do it with others who are also practicing their piety in the same way, so no one gets to boast. The people in church who see you in church are also in church so no one gets extra credit. And frankly, people who aren’t in church generally aren’t impressed with people who are — which is fine. Coming to church these days also doesn’t bring much in the way of extrinsic rewards: some treats at coffee hour. Friendship — although caring for one another in Christian friendship is arguably a form of worship. Of course, this does not apply to pastors and organists who are rewarded with a paycheck for coming to worship, but for most folks it’s more rewarding — in the worldly sense — to sleep in or go out to brunch. The reward for coming to church, for worship or Bible study, is the one given by God: not a ticket to heaven, but a chance to commune with God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
So if you’re still looking for a Lenten discipline, I suggest coming to church: Every Sunday. Now if you’re here for an Ash Wednesday service chances are you already do that, but it bears repeating: come to church, every Sunday. In addition, both of our congregations offer another chance to practice our piety together during Lent. At Summit we have soup and study suppers at 6:30 on Wednesday evenings. We’re reading the book, “Speaking of Sin,” by Barbara Brown Taylor and anyone from First Church is warmly welcomed — let me know after the service and I’ll order a book. I also noticed that here at First Church you have Bible study at 11:30 — which is the perfect time for anyone at Summit who’s not able to come on Wednesdays to study the word, for we begin our service just 15 minutes before yours and that gives anyone at Summit time to come join you at First Church. And give, generously, to the One Great Hour of Sharing — perhaps by saving for it throughout Lent, giving up some other spending so you may give your alms. And giving to the One Great Hour of Sharing is practically like giving in secret because no one except the financial secretary will know what you’ve given — your envelope will be one among many, hidden in plain sight.
So, if you find an individual Lenten practice helpful, do it. Now is the time. But don’t neglect to practice your piety before others and with others. You will not receive the admiration of others: but your heavenly Father, our God, will see you, and you will see her, and so our hearts will be where they belong.
|Christmas Reflection 12/24/14 by Chelsea Badeau on Jan 8, 7:04pm|
|Christmas Reflection 12/24/14|
Peace on Earth
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors.”
As suddenly as they appear, the angels are gone. The shepherds don’t linger in the field to marvel about the heavenly host – they’re too preoccupied with getting to Bethlehem. Luke doesn’t describe them. So in the years since, artists and musicians and writers have filled in the details. The heavenly host – the Greek word is army - becomes a choir. The angels hover on wings. Often, especially among painters of the Hallmark school, they’re blond girls. (That’s not in the text). The words of the angels have also been debated: Peace on earth, goodwill toward men? Peace on Earth, goodwill among people? or – as our translation has it – on earth peace among those whom God favors? That could mean, I think it does mean the whole earth, allowing that God favors all God’s creatures.
My favorite extra-biblical vision of these angels comes from the hymn we just sang. Its author, Edmund Hamilton Sears, was a Unitarian minister. He was considered a conservative Unitarian because he believed in the divinity of Christ; but he was considered a very liberal Protestant, and critics of this hymn have pointed out that he doesn’t mention Jesus. But the truth he tells – what he gets right -- is that the angels haven’t stopped singing. “Still through cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their heavenly music floats O’er all the weary world.” Just as the birth of Jesus is not in the past only, but happens again and again when Christ is born in our hearts and in the world; and just as the teachings of Jesus are not ancient lessons only, bound to their place and time, but living words for us; and just as the resurrection wasn’t a miracle for those first disciples only, but one we also know, as we encounter the Risen Christ through the Holy Spirit; so still, the angels sing.
We have trouble hearing them. It’s hard to believe they’re even there, as we look at this world where peace – a just peace - is so elusive. There’s a fourth verse to this carol that our hymnal leaves out. It’s not well known and the editors might have thought it too harsh for Christmas. But left-out verses are often the best, and usually the most subversive, so I’ll recite it now: “Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong; and man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”
These words were written in 1849. You could argue that the world has only become noisier with woes of sin and strife. There have been victories, there has been progress, but the wrong keeps rolling on. Hamilton Sears was an abolitionist, and he saw the end of slavery – but its legacy is still with us. Warfare has become even more brutal; since 1849 we’ve added trench warfare, carpet bombing, nuclear weapons, and drones to our repertoire; our weapons of mass destruction have put the whole earth in peril. And then there’s the climate –- changing because of our heedless ways. A catastrophe that promises more violence, if we don’t heed the warnings. Will we ever hush the noise to hear the angels sing?
What the hymn also gets right, the truth it tells, is that the angels will keep singing and their song will win out. That the days are hastening on when peace shall o’er all the earth its ancient splendors fling. Our psalm describes that day: the day when Lord will come to judge the earth with righteousness and the people with equity and truth. On that day the earth will rejoice; the seas will roar and the fields exult; the trees of the forest will sing for joy. On that day, as Isaiah has said, swords will be turned into plowshares and nations will learn war no more. On that day all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire; for a child has been born for us. A child who lived among us, and died from human sin and strife, but was not bound by death. Showing us that sin and strife, violence and death, will not have the last word.
In the meantime, we’re called to join the angels in their love-song of peace and joy. To join them with our voices, and also with our lives, working for that day of peace whose coming is sure. Joining the multitude of heavenly host, so much more multitudinous than Hallmark cards suggest. Joining the choir which includes the young and old, men and women, peoples of every tribe and race and nation. Joining the choir which includes the powerful who have been pulled from their thrones and the lowly who have been lifted up: the whole world, heaven and nature, giving back the song which now the angels sing.