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Pastor's Pen April 2009 -- Cheryl Pyrch by Chelsea Badeau on Mar 28, 9:39pm
Pastor's Pen April 2009 -- Cheryl PyrchIn April we observe the most liturgically solemn week of the year when we remember the suffering and death of Christ.  On Palm/Passion Sunday we follow Jesus as he enters Jerusalem and rides towards his death.  On Thursday night we remember his last supper with the disciples, as we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion and read the account of his trial and crucifixion in the darkening sanctuary.  On Friday we stand at the foot of the cross, listening to Jesus’ last words as the different gospel writers remember them, and reflecting on their meaning for us.

On Saturday, most of us will take a break from church and decorate eggs, sneak some chocolate a day early, or cook for Easter dinner. But around the world, many Christians will be at church holding vigil that night:  waiting for Christ to pass from death to life, keeping watch as he lay in the tomb, staying awake during his “short sleep,” in the words of St. Augustine. The Easter Vigil is a service of light -  new Christians are baptized and others renew their baptismal vows. Salvation history is recounted in readings from the Old and New Testament.  It is both a solemn and joyful service, as Christians ponder the mystery of the resurrection.

For historical reasons, few Presbyterian Churches hold an Easter Vigil -  it’s a recent “renewal” of an ancient practice. But I encourage you, in the midst of preparations, to take time on Saturday evening for quiet prayer and reflection in the spirit of a vigil, perhaps reading an account of the passion and the resurrection from your favorite gospel, preparing for our celebration the next  morning.  And you may also enjoy, and find helpful, this song from the Shaker tradition.  It was not written for the Vigil (I’m quite certain they didn’t observe it!),  but may it serve to awaken our souls, so we are ready to welcome Christ on that “great and glorious day.” 

 Wake up, wake up, ye sleepy souls,

And be alive and don’t be dead,

There is no time to sleep I say,

Now in this great and glorious day.

Don’t be sleeping there so sound,

Get up yourselves and stir around.

For if you want to keep awake,

Arise and give a mighty shake.


Shaker Song

19th Century

 

Grace and Peace,

Cheryl

Deacons Corner -- April 2009 by Chelsea Badeau on Mar 28, 9:36pm
Deacons Corner -- April 2009Most of the Deacon’s activities this month have been oriented in giving Summit service opportunities. Margaret and Chelsea have committed our church to be co-hosts to the Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network (NPIHN) homeless families for the week of March 29- April5. This involves making and serving dinner for the families and providing an adult (or 2) to sleep over with them. This is really heeding Christ’s call to work for the poor! At press time, we have 2 people signed up to provide dinners for each night, but still need a couple of people for the overnight stay. You would have your own sleeping facilities, and would be responsible for locking up at night, and getting everyone up and out by 7am the next morning. We are really proud of the Summiteers who have volunteered and hope to get the couple more needed. Remember, in Christ words “Whatever ye do for the least of these—ye do for me.” This is truly a great opportunity to serve Christ!!!

Deacon Anne Glass is coordinating the Easter flowers effort with the help of Deacon Hector Badeau. Let them know if you can help in transporting flowers or in watering them. 

Sermon: Born from Above -- March 22, 2009, Cheryl Pyrch by Anonymous on Mar 22, 6:34pm
Sermon: Born from Above -- March 22, 2009, Cheryl Pyrch Cheryl Pyrch

Summit Presbyterian Church

March 22, 2009

John 3: 1-16

 

Born from Above

 

Welcoming a baby - into the world, into a family, into the church - is always moving.  First, there's the loveliness of every baby, just as they are:  their wide eyes, their smile and laughter, their sweetness when they're sleeping - and also when they're crying.  Welcoming an older child is equally emotional - with the energy, the questions and thoughtfulness that every child brings.  Welcoming children is also exciting because of our hope for their future.  Their lives are ahead of them.  The possibilities seem endless:  what will they become?  Who will they love?  What kind of work will they do and where will they live? What place will they have in our lives and in the world?  For example, maybe Antonio will grow up to be a barber who lives in Los Angeles with three wonderful children and he'll coach their soccer teams. Or maybe he'll become a professor of chemisty in Michigan, work on a cure for cancer, and become a gourmet cook!  Perhaps Angel will be a track star in high school and go to college in North Carolina, or maybe she'll stay closer to home, raise a family and become the first woman mayor of Philadelphia.  I'm just making this up.  Anything could happen!  We could spend days imagining the possibilities! [I know there are scary possibilities, too, but today it's OK to put those fears aside]  When we imagine their future it can give us such a strong feeling of hope --  for them and for us and for the world they will bless.  Especially when they're as blessed as Angel and Antonio:  with loving parents who love them, wonderful sisters, doting grandparents, lots of aunts and uncles and cousins to play with.  With a church home to learn the stories of Jesus and know God's love.  With the chance to go to school every day, to learn ballet on the weekend, to have enough to eat. Truly, their births and their baptisms are a cause for joy.

 

But perhaps, along with the joy and excitement, you may feel a twinge of sadness - for yourself - or even envy.  After all, we don't have our whole lives ahead of us.  As adults we know the possibilities are no longer endless, if they ever were.  There are things we'll never do and never be. Opportunities lost.  Loves gone.  Paths not taken. When we're in a happy time in our lives, it's pretty easy to make peace with our past, and with the limits to our future.  Even the sad times we've known, the mistakes and the losses, can be seen as working out for the best. We're glad not to have unlimited choice ahead of us and birthdays are happy occasions.  But if we're facing a tough time:  grieving the loss of a loved one or a relationship, looking for work, struggling with health issues; if we're feeling trapped and don't know how we'll get out of it; if we're in some kind of danger or burdened with guilt for something we did or didn't do, angry with those who have mistreated or betrayed us -- then it can be hard to make peace with our past. Hard to see the hope in our future.  Easy to look at people younger than us - not just babies - and to think that they're really lucky.  They still have lots of time.  All of us long, at some point or another, for do-overs.  A chance to start anew.

 

I wonder if Nicodemus felt that longing when he came to visit Jesus at night. When he came to Jesus in the darkness and said, "Rabbi, we know that your are a teacher from God; for no one one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Nicodemus doesn't say why he came --  perhaps he was hoping for wisdom or comfort or guidance. Jesus answered him by seeming to change the subject - he does that a lot in the gospel of John - and saying something totally opaque. Something hard to understand.  He says, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.  Now, here it gets a little complicated. The Greek words that have been translated "born from above" could just as easily be translated as "born again." And apparently that's how Nicodemus understood Jesus. So he said, "How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"  Nicodemus knew that was impossible.  You're only born once.  That's your chance.  A grown man or woman isn't able to start all over again in their mother's womb.  So Jesus says more about this kind of birth: it's a birth of water and spirit, he says, of flesh and spirit.  It's mysterious, like the wind that blows but we don't know where it comes from or where it goes.  Nicodemus, understandably, is still confused.  Still skeptical:  "How can these things be?"  He knows we're born once and that's it.  There's no do-over.

 

 Nicodemus didn't understand that Jesus is making a promise here.  A promise of something miraculous when we trust in him.  A promise that we can be born again, that we can begin anew.  Not in the literal way that Nicodemus imagines -- and I for one, am glad we don't need to go through the birth canal again.  Not in the literal way we may fantasize about:  to wake up one morning and find we have a new life, with debts magically erased or jobs restored or old loves back with us.  (The movie "Family Man," made a few years ago, was something like that).  But Jesus promises that we can be born again and saved - through his work on the cross and in the resurrection, just like- in our first lesson - the  people who looked at the serpent that Moses raised up on the cross were saved. 

 

What does  being "born again" look like?  For some Christians it means a dramatic, sudden moment of conversion, when they can point to their life before and after and say that nothing was the same.  That they were lost -  to drugs or alcohol, to sin or despair or all kinds of wrongdoing - and then they were found.  That they suddenly knew the love and forgiveness of Jesus and were able to turn their lives around, no longer imprisoned by shame or guilt or compulsion. Other Christians will talk about being born again as something gradual or occasional, more stop and go, one step forward and two steps back.  They may talk about growing up in the church and having that sense of being born anew in different times of their life:  when they felt a depression lift, or when they were able to let go of long-standing anxiety or guilt.  They may talk about being born again when they had a child, or reconciled with family or found purpose in a new job or commitment.  Or when they felt God's presence in prayer and nothing was the same even though their lives were outwardly the same.  There are as many ways of being born-again as there are believers in Jesus Christ:  but the thing we all share, the thing we all know, deep down, is that this new start doesn't come from our will-power or virtue or effort. It comes from above, in a mysterious, inexplicable way.  Like the wind, which comes from we don't know where and we don't know where it goes, but we're grateful.  Such is the nature of God's grace.

 

In baptism we celebrate this promise of Jesus that we can be born again, over and over.  That in our baptism we've been marked as Christ's own forever, and through his grace we can find new life and hope even in very dark times. We may no longer have the infinite possibilities ahead of us that babies seem to have. There are times we may feel stuck and wonder when we will be born anew.  But in celebrating Antonio's and Angel's baptisms we're reminded that God's grace does break through to us in the most unlikely times and ways, no matter what our age and condition. That we can trust in God's promise.  And for that we give thanks. 

 

Sermon: Consider Your Call -- Cheryl Pyrch -- March 15, 2009 by Chelsea Badeau on Mar 15, 1:50pm
Sermon: Consider Your Call -- Cheryl Pyrch -- March 15, 2009

Cheryl Pyrch

Summit Presbyterian Church

March 15, 2009

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Consider Your Call

 

 Today's reading comes from a letter the apostle Paul wrote to a church in the Greek city of Corinth.  In those early days of the church, letters from Paul were read out loud in the congregation to teach and encourage, and Paul often addressed the challenges facing that particular church. So when scholars or preachers read these letters today, we do some detective work.  We try and figure out what was going on in that particular church by gathering clues from the letter.  Because, for example, Paul spends a lot of time talking about sexual immorality in this letter, we suspect - we don't know but we suspect - that they had some pretty wild parties in Corinth. We can also deduce that there was a lot of conflict in congregation. There were tensions at the communion table between those who came hungry and those who had plenty.  There was disagreement on what was lawful or unlawful to eat.  There were disputes over speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts.  It seems that questions of status, and power, and right knowledge were at the center of the congregation's life, causing division within it. 

 It is to this divided and fractious congregation that Paul writes. And he reminds them of a basic, shocking truth of the gospel:  that God didn't reveal God's self in a way that anyone expected.  God's good news didn't come through a powerful statesman, an accomplished religious scribe, an eloquent debater or a renown philosopher.  God was revealed through a lowly one of the world: a humble Jew of Galilee who didn't even speak Greek - the language of educated people - and who was killed on a cross as a failed and foolish pretender to power.  He was killed by that weapon of the Roman state meant to humiliate the prisoner and frighten the people.  God chose one who was weak and low and despised says Paul, in his dramatic way, to shame the powerful and wise and strong.  Paul seems to be playing a zero-sum game here, raising up the weak and lowly and those who are being saved at the expense of the powerful and wise and those who are perishing.  But he lands us all in the same place:  God has done this, he says, so no one may boast in the presence of God.  So that neither the strong nor the weak, the wise or the foolish, the Jew or the Greek, can claim the advantage - but that all the glory, and all the boasting, belong to God. 

 

 

 A pastor friend once told me a poignant story about a conversation she had with a member of her church near the end of his life, when he was ill. The man had been a deacon in the church, on and off, for over 40 years --- most of his adult life.  He was reflecting on that  when he began crying.  And he said, "I guess I just wasn't Session material." 

   We don't know for sure why he was never elected an elder.  But my friend had a guess.  The church was a large one in the suburbs, with many professionals and successful business people in the congregation. The man was a blue-collar worker, perhaps with a high school diploma. In that church, as in many churches, Elders on the Session were professionals or businesspeople.  They were among the more educated in the congregation.  It's a pattern followed by many churches - not so much at Summit in case you're getting nervous about where this is going - but it's common.  There are good reasons for this:  the Session is in charge of religious education, so it helps to have people with formal education on that board.  The Session is ultimately in charge of the finances, so it helps to have people with knowledge of the banking and financial system on it. Likewise, when there's a Board of Trustees commissioned to handle the property, it's good to have people who know something about boilers and negotiating leases.  When the deacons are commissioned with ministries of hospitality, they need people of a warm and compassionate nature who know how to cook.  But there's a danger in this typecasting. In our world, people with degrees or wealth, with knowledge of finance and real estate - especially if they have money and real estate -  have more power. They have more status and respect - and if they're white or male that power is magnified.  Therefore, if those are the only people on Session or Trustees, we're likely to give more status and respect to those boards, perhaps even power beyond their elected authority. On the other hand, the traditional work of the deacons - hospitality and cooking, caring for - not curing -  the sick, sympathetic listening, feeding the hungry -  is accorded less status in the world. Deacons and their work are often held in lower esteem. (It's worthy noting that much of the work of the deacons has historically been women's work.  And despite progress and exceptions, women have less status and power than men.  It's no accident that deacons were the offices open to women in the church). 

 Now, like I said, this is less true at Summit than it is at many churches.  I've been impressed, looking through the annual reports, at how much people rotate among the boards - that folks who are deacons now have been trustees and vice versa.  But in our status conscious, class driven society, we have to be vigilant:  and I include myself here, as pastors tend to be the worst offenders in this regard.  There's always a danger that in our church life we'll reflect the hierarchy and the power relations that exist in our world -- and the esteem and respect that go with them.  There's always a danger that we'll violate the law of love and honor some of God's people more than others.  The rich more than the poor, the highly educated more than the less educated, men more than women, whites more than blacks.  There's always a danger that we'll forget God revealed God's self through one who was weak and low and despised in the world -  a crucified Jew in the Roman Empire. There's always a danger we will give the message that so hurt the man who was never elected an elder - that some people are more valuable than others.  I should add that danger plays itself out on the other end as well.  People who are wealthy or powerful  - or perceived as such - may wonder if they're being welcomed, or elected to office, for their spiritual leadership and love of God --  or for their pledge. There's always a danger that we'll forget no one can boast in the presence of God.  To God belongs all the glory and the boasting.

 

 The Nominating Committee will soon begin its work.  This is the committee that will present a slate of possible elders, deacons and trustees to be elected by the congregation at the annual meeting in June.  They'll be asking everyone for suggestions - and it's perfectly appropriate to suggest yourself.  But when you consider your call - or  the call of someone else - consider the unexpected.  Consider someone you might not have thought to be deacon material or session material at first glance - and our witness will be stronger for it.  Not only will we be counter-cultural.  Not only will we witness to God's leveling love.  But we'll be opening another avenue for the Holy Spirit to speak to us -- and it's more practical. It's great to have teachers and principals on the Christian Education Committee.  But it's also helpful to have people who can say, "let me tell you what happens when non-professionals take the children to Sunday School."  It's necessary to have people who are comfortable with numbers on the finance committee,  but some of those charities who invested with Bernie Madoff might have avoided trouble if they had non-experts on their boards to keep asking: tell me again how you make that much money each year without doing anything?  It's important to have people informed and passionate about social justice on the deacons, but it's also helpful to have someone who likes to keep their eye on the church budget. Now, of course, it's possible to have formal education, budget-mindedness and compassion all in one person - but most of us are a little more lopsided.  We also want to enjoy the work - some people who like the hands on work of the deacons might consider a term on session as a jail sentence.  But as we consider our own call and the call of others, for elected office or for any kind of church service, let's move out of our comfort zone.  After all, most of the church's work and mission doesn't depend on any expertise.  It depends on willing hands, an open heart, careful thought and prayer. 

 And our work on a church board or committee is only one part of our call.  We are called, in all of our life, both inside and outside the church, to live in a way that gives glory to the God who chose what is weak and despised and of no account in this world.  We're called to honor all people, regardless of wordly condition.  We're called to stand with those who are poor, in jail, or otherwise looked down upon by the world.  We're called to witness to the Kingdom, where all the boasting, and all the glory, belongs to God.

 

The commentaries by J. Paul Sampley in the New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002) and Richard Carlson at www.workingpreacher.org were used in the preparation of this sermon.

March 2009 - Pastor Cheryl Pyrch's Letter by Chelsea Badeau on Mar 13, 1:03am
March 2009 - Pastor Cheryl Pyrch's Letter

A few years ago in New York City, subway riders (or at least this subway rider) were mesmerized by a new ad campaign called "Everybody Loves a Quitter." The NYC Department of Health had plastered subway cars with bright posters of smiling parents and children, couples embracing and jovial friends. Underneath the slogan would be the testimony: someone saying how happy and proud they were that their mother/son/spouse/friend had quit smoking. The power of the campaign came, of course, from the reversal of that old saying, the one your mother or father may have intoned when you threatened to drop off a team or stop playing the piano: "Everybody Hates a Quitter."

In our time and place, even more than a quitter, everybody hates a loser. "Loser" is a epithet: a harsher insult than one with four letters, a worse date than a cad or a rogue. Perhaps that's because loss brings so much pain: loss of a friend or parent or spouse, loss of a home or job, loss of health or strength or sight, loss of status or self-esteem, loss of a way of life. We want to steer clear of losers. We're afraid they'll contaminate us - like the lepers of old - bringing us more loss with its grief, shame and sadness. And don't we have enough?

But over and over in the scriptures for Lent and Holy Week, we are reminded that God loves a loser. God's beloved son was a loser: a convicted criminal, poor, abandoned by his friends, then killed in a shameful, brutal and public way. We are tempted to gloss over this, turning the Ressurection into a kind of last-quarter interception that brings the trailing home team (Christians) to glory. Or, more recently, we've worried that a focus on the cross glorifies - even sanctions - suffering and oppression, and so we turn our eyes. But the scriptures are clear: Jesus was a loser by any human standard. He was intimately acquainted with grief.

I do not believe that God wills or wishes suffering. But unlike us fearful and sinful mortals, God loves a loser; God even became a loser in Christ Jesus to be in solidarity with us. As followers of Christ, we are also called to love losers (including ourselves), and to face with courage the loss such love will bring. Loss that comes when we give our hearts to others, share our treasure, and stand with those in danger or need. Loss and pain is not the end of the story - the Ressurection is a sure sign of that - but they are part of the Christian life, a life of love for all God's children and all God's creatures. "For those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." (Mark 8:35)

Grace and Peace,

Cheryl

Sermon: Loving and Losing -- Cheryl Pyrch -- March 8, 2009 by Chelsea Badeau on Mar 9, 10:11pm
Sermon: Loving and Losing -- Cheryl Pyrch -- March 8, 2009

Cheryl Pyrch

Summit Presbyterian Church

March 8, 2009

Mark 8: 31-38

Loving and Losing

 

 In 1954, an African American couple, Andrew and Charlotte Wade, were looking for a house to buy in Louisville, Kentucky.  They wanted a modest, ranch-style house with a yard for their two children.  They looked in the "Negro Section"; but decent houses were hard to find.  When they tried to buy in white areas, they were refused. The Wades then had an idea:  to ask a white couple to buy a house and transfer ownership.  After going to a few friends, who said no for various reasons, they asked Carl and Anne Braden.  The Bradens were only casual acquaintances, but they were active in organizations opposed to segregation so the Wades hoped they might say yes.  The Bradens did, and they bought a house chosen by the Wades in a small, new, all-white development right across the city line. The Bradens transferred ownership to Andrew and Charlotte and the Wade family moved in soon after. 

 

 

 Neither the Wades nor the Bradens did this as a kind of political protest.  The Wades wanted a house; they hoped, of course, that their action would make it easier for other black families to live where they chose, but their goal was to live in a stone style ranch house in the suburbs.  They expected trouble.  They knew they might never become friends with their new neighbors, and it was not their intention to force that. But they also thought trouble would die down and they could settle in.  The Bradens were more naive.  According to Anne Braden - whose book about the incident is my source - she and her husband Carl barely gave the decision a second thought:  they were against segregation, and when anyone asked them to do something to oppose it they said yes.  As Anne said in retrospect: "Louisville's race relations, such as they were, had always been quiet.  There had been no open clashes.  One man wanted a house.  We were helping him get it.  It seemed a small thing."*

 

 

 It turned out to be no small thing and plenty of trouble followed.  When the Wades moved in a white mob gathered at their house, and at the house of the Bradens.  Both couples received constant, hostile phone calls.  In that first week men burned a cross next to the Wade house, drive-by shooters fired into it;  someone broke their front window by throwing a stone with a threatening note. The police offered little protection; many were friends of the hostile white neighbors. Supporters of the Wades took turns staying in the house with them.  A committee was formed to support the Wades.  Most of their supporters were African American, with the exception of a few dedicated white activists. Liberal white Louisville - including many on record opposing segregation - distanced themselves from the Wades and the Bradens. They criticized the Bradens for being dishonest and exercising poor judgement, of upsetting things, of moving too fast.  Anne approached the white ministers in town for support; many claimed to be sympathetic but weren't willing to take a public stand. Six weeks later the house was bombed at 1:00 in the morning.  Miraculously, no one was hurt - the Wades were up late, on the other side of the house from where the dynamite had been planted underneath the bedrooms, and their child was with grandparents. But the Wades could no longer live in the wrecked house, although they and their allies kept up a defiant around the clock presence. The police investigated the bombing in a half-hearted way.  In the course of the grand jury investigation the prosecutor came up with a remarkable theory:  that the Bradens or their friends had bombed the house themselves, to stir up trouble, and that it was "communistic inspired." Shortly, the Bradens and several other white supporters were indicted on charges of sedition -- rebellion against the government. Carl Braden was tried first.  There was no real evidence of sedition, but he had books by Karl Marx and other disreputable folks on his bookshelf.  That was enough to give him a fifteen year sentence.

 

 

 To make a long story short, Carl Braden never served time.  Andrew Wade and the Bradens organized national support - both legal and financial -  for the appeal, and eventually charges against all the defendants were dropped. That was a relief, but when Anne Braden wrote her book in 1958 - and  the epilogue in 1999 - she could not claim total victory.  The Wades were never able to live in their house; Louisville remains a largely segregated city, for all the progress that's been made. Anne was grateful for the way the struggle propelled her and her husband into a life of even deeper activism, and had no regrets.  But she names the losses. The trauma was hard on both families, especially the children.  Anne had a miscarriage in the midst of it.  The Bradens were ostracized for decades by much of the white community, including friends and liberals.  Anne had already learned not to talk politics with her parents, but buying the house estranged them further.  Anne points out that all their trouble, she and Carl were still protected by white privilege.  The arrests were so shocking because they were used to having police on their side. The, on the other hand, Wades might have been killed; it was their house that was bombed.  Andrew Wade also ran an electrical contracting business with his father that was devastated by the publicity. Banks refused to lend to large customers and smaller customers were scared off. The courageous stand of the Wades and the Bradens did lead to change.  But it came at a cost.

 

 

 Jesus said to his disciples and to the whole crowd:  "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." 

 

 

 This is one of the most challenging passages in scripture, challenging to interpret and challenging to live.  It's often been misunderstood:  used to suggest that people should accept their suffering or oppression as the will of God, as in "that's your cross to bear."  (or, "that's my cross to bear.").  Although that can be said or heard in a way that is comforting, it does not conform with the actions of Jesus:  he spent his whole ministry fighting suffering and oppression.  Healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, exorcising demons, feeding the hungry, welcoming the outcast; suffering in itself could not have been the cross he meant.  Sometimes this passage has led people to seek martyrdom, in the hopes that literally, losing one's life now would mean eternal life later.  But to seek martrydom in exchange for reward later is a kind of works-righteousness that has no place in Christian teaching.  Recently, scholars have suggested that when Jesus said the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, he didn't mean "must" in the sense of it being God's plan or will.  It meant "must" in the sense of being inevitable, given the message Jesus preached of another kingdom where all were included and the poor and raised up, given the threat that message posed to all the powers, especially the Roman state.**  It was inevitable, this interpretation goes, that the state would react at some point by crucifying Jesus and forcing him (or another victim) to carry his cross on the way to his execution. Inevitable, in this sinful world, that such preaching would lead to opposition.

 

 

 Jesus denied himself -  not for the sake of suffering or for a reward in eternity - but in the service of love, and justice.  His suffering was a tragic consequence of a life and a word that threatened, and frightened, those who exercised power over life and death of their subjects.  Jesus is warning his disciples, and the crowds, that following him could be dangerous for them as well, dangerous to the point where they could lose their life for the sake of the gospel.  In this sense we can say the Wades and the Bradens carried their cross.  Not, thankfully, on the way to their deaths.  Not in the sense of a mute and uncomplaining acceptance of suffering.  But they risked their lives, and much in their lives, for the sake of love.  For the sake of a more just world where all would live in equality. The risked their lives, and faced loss for the sake of the gospel: the gospel of God's love for all people. 

 

 

 Anne Braden was a lifetime Episcopalian from Alabama.  In her book she reflects on her upbringing in the church and how the teachings of Jesus and her experience led her to oppose segregation for the sake of both blacks and whites. These are her words in 1958 language:

 

 

 The passage from the Bible that impressed me the most deeply in my early religious training was the one from Christ's story of the Last Judgment:  For I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat, I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and yet took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not . . . Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me."  I thought about that passage a great deal; it worried me almost constantly.  And it woud have been hard not to worry about it in those days, for this was the 1930s and there was hunger everywhere.  The people I knew tried I think, according to their lights to practice what Christ taught.  My family did.  They fed many people who were hungry.  Sometimes my mother, growing weary of it, would turn away one of the beggars who came to our door and that would cause me a sleepless night worrying for fear she was going to hell; but most generally she fed them.  Especially, she and my father made sure that the Negro family who worked for us from time to time were not hungry or shelterless or naked.  If they were short of money to pay the rent, my father provided the money.  The family was always clothed because they got our castoff clothes after they were too faded and old for us to want them any more.  But something happened to me each time I looked at the Negro girl who always inherited my clothes.  Sometimes she would come to our house with her mother, wearing one of the dressed I had discarded.  The dresses never fitted her because she was [bigger] than I was.  She would sit in a straight chair in our kitchen waiting for her mother, because of course she could not sit in one of our comfortable chairs in the living room.  She would sit there looking uncomfortable, my old faded dress binding her at the waist and throat.  And some way I knew that this was not what Jesus meant when he said to clothe the naked." 

 

 

 Anne Braden knew that what Jesus meant was something more demanding.  Something more radical than well-intentioned charity.  Something more deeply loving and just.  Something more costly.  Something that would demand her life - not her death - but her life -  and something that would bring loss.  As it would demand the lives , and bring loss, for many others. 

 

 

 Jesus demands more of us, too.  As we cling to the values of a broken world (as we often say in our prayer of confession) it's often hard to see where or how. We can so easily be blind to the injustice and suffering that surrounds us.  But Jesus warns us -  discipleship does demand our lives, and it may well mean loss.  We aren't called to seek glory in suffering or in martyrdom. But we are called to take risks and face loss in the service of love, for the sake of the gospel. May we pray for the wisdom and courage to do so. 

 

 

  

 

*Anne Braden, The Wall Between:  with a new epilogue, forward by Julian Bond (Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press, 1999; first published by Monthly Review Press, 1958). 

 

 

**See Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 147, quoting Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1988).
Sermon: With the Wild Beasts -- Cheryl Pyrch -- March 1, 2009 by Chelsea Badeau on Mar 9, 10:10pm
Sermon: With the Wild Beasts -- Cheryl Pyrch -- March 1, 2009

Cheryl Pyrch

Summit Presbyterian Church

March 1, 2009

Mark 1: 9-15

 

With the Wild Beasts

 

 One of the main questions Christians have pondered, from the beginning of the church, is : "How is Jesus like us, and how is Jesus different?  How is Jesus human, and how divine? The first disciples and all who have come after agree that he was a human being:  or at the very least he appeared to be a human being.  He came out of his mother in the usual way - even if the manger and the shepherds were NOT usual. He walked and talked and ate and slept and could touch and be touched.  He suffered, died and was buried. The first disciples and all who have come after also agree that he was divine, or, at the very least had a special relationship to God.  He was a powerful healer and exorcist.  He performed signs and  miracles:  from changing water into wine to multiplying loaves to calming storms and walking on water. Most importantly, he rose from the dead: and then came back to talk and eat with his disciples before ascending into heaven. Christians have had trouble describing, precisely, how he was both human and divine, both God and Man.  In the early centuries, church council after church council was called to hammer out the details.  The bishops would, literally, beat each other up over this - once a bishop was murdered. (I should say that although the nature of Christ was the ostensible issue there were also other power politics involved!). On one end of the spectrum, some Christians have said that Jesus only appeared to be human:  that he was God in human form, but didn't really suffer or die:  or that's what some Christians have been accused of believing.  On the other end, some have said that Jesus was a great prophet and teacher, inspired by God and revealing God's will in a unique way, but not himself God:  or that's what some Christians have been accused of believing.  Most Christians, and churches, though, have held that Jesus the Christ is both:  both human and divine, both God and a Palestinian Jew of the first century. We still debate the hows and whys. When pushed we have to say "It's a mystery!"  But most Christians - not necessarily everyone here in this sanctuary  -- but most Christians and most churches have claimed what we say in the Nicene Creed: "God from God and Light from Light" but also "truly human."

 

 Our scripture today is the story we read every year on the first Sunday in Lent, the forty days before Easter when we prepare to follow Jesus to the cross and celebrate his resurrection on Easter Sunday.  It's the story of Jesus in the wilderness immediately following his baptism and before his public ministry. Mark's version is very short.  When Matthew or Luke tell the story, Satan tests Jesus with a series of questions, or dares, and Jesus passes with flying colors.  But Mark says simply that the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness; he was there for forty days; he was tempted by Satan; he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him.  Mark gives no detail.  He trusts that these few words are all we need.  Mark knows we can fill in the gaps from our experience of wilderness, temptation, of wild beasts and angels.  We can imagine what that very human experience of being tested in the wilderness was like since we so often find ourselves there.

 

 The first thing to say about the wilderness is that when we're facing the wilderness in our life, we're alone.  When we're facing hardship, our sins and our failings, suffering from loss and confusion -  in a certain sense our struggle is a solitary one.  We may have friends or family or church or therapists or peers to support us -- and that's a huge blessing.  We may learn that other people face similar struggles and we may talk with them or join forces, which is a comfort and a help. We always have God by our side - more on that later.  But in a certain sense, we face our temptations, our tests with Satan, by ourselves. Only we can face our fears; only we can feel our pain (a popular saying to the contrary), only we can stop our drinking; only we can cry our tears or work through our grief.  As we sang in the hymn, we have to walk that lonesome valley by ourselves. Jesus had to walk that lonesome valley by himself, too, at the beginning of his ministry as well as the end; he was driven into the wilderness without any human company.  New Testament scholar Sarah Heinlich points out* that the loneliness of God's servant is a theme throughout Mark's gospel; and that we see it here in these opening verses.  A very human loneliness.

 

 We also know what it's like to be tempted - or tested as it's often translated - by Satan, even if we don't believe in Satan as a creature.  Sometimes that testing can be  a temptation to do something that's pleasurable or fun but that hurts us - or others - in the long run:  eating things we shouldn't.  Gossiping.  Drinking.  Spending money we don't have. Or, on a graver note, it may be a temptation to do something that will keep us from facing the consequences of our actions, or facing reality  -- lying.  Hiding.  Pointing fingers.  We always face the temptation to do nothing in the face of evil, a temptation we usually give into.  The list could go on:  every day we are tested, lured off of God's path.  Jesus, too, was tempted; Mark does not tell us the specifics, but he knew that very human struggle.

 

 Jesus was also with the wild beasts.  He may have been the Son of God but he was on the ground - not in a palace or a fort - he was on the ground without protection from wild animals, dangerous beasts that could tear him from limb to limb.  Now, being the modern, urban creatures that we are, for the most part we don't worry about animal predators.  But we know about physical danger and what it's like to be vulnerable.  We know what it's like to fall ill physically or lose a job or an apartment. In Philadelphia we may face violence on the streets; people around the world face bombs and hunger and gunfire every day. Sometimes those wild animals may also be psychological or emotional:  wrestling with our sin - whether it's cowardice or arrogance or greed or indifference or whatever it is that separates us from God --  can feel like dangerous wrestling with a wild animal. In the wilderness, Jesus also knew danger.  The danger that comes with being human.

 

 So in the wilderness Jesus knew the human experience of loneliness, temptation and danger.  He went through what we go through  But his experience in the wilderness was also different from ours; it was an experience of divine presence.  Mark does not say Jesus was divine, but if we listen and look carefully, we see clues. Unlike us, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, but he did not succumb to Satan's charms.  Mark does not give us the dialogue, but we know the tradition that's been handed down:  Jesus was tempted but he resisted; he was tested, but he passed. Mark also says Jesus was "with" the wild animals:  not that he fought them, or captured them or hid from them.  He was with them.  So although wild animals are dangerous, and Jesus faced that danger, it seems he was with them peaceably,** in a foretaste of what it will be like on that day when the lion lies down with the lamb, or the child is able to put her hand over the snake's den.  And Mark tells us the angels waited on him. We may also know help from angels, but here they are signs of divine favor. 

 

 

 Before our prayer of confession this morning, I read words from the letter to the Hebrews that are often used to lead us into the prayer: "Remember that our Lord Jesus can sympathize with our weakness, since in every respect he was tempted as we are, yet without sin." Tempted as we are.  Knowing what it was like to be in the wilderness, to face the loneliness, the temptation and the danger that we know in the face of our own sin and that of others.  Because he knows it, he can sympathize with us:  we don't need to feel ashamed, or frightened, of anything that we bring before God in Christ Jesus, no matter what we are facing or what we have done.  Jesus has been in the wilderness, too.  We can approach his throne of grace with boldness.

 

 But Jesus is also without sin.  Not because he's a better human being, more virtuous or disciplined or spiritual.  We don't have to measure ourselves against him, feeling bad when we fall short.  (Which is good -- because who would want to come before such a being?) But because in Jesus there is no separation between the human being and God.  No rebellion against God's will.  In Jesus there is the power of the Divine, the power of God's grace, the power of forgiveness; so when we approach Christ's throne, the throne of grace, we know that we are approaching God. A God who knows, intimately, our experience of sin, alienation and loneliness; but also a God who is God, and can grant us mercy, grace and peace.

 

 During Lent, we are called to look upon, and follow Jesus; to direct our eyes to the one who has been in the wilderness and can sympathize with our weakness, but who now sits upon the throne of grace, ready, and able, to help us in our time of need. So let us look and follow Jesus, and be thankful.

 

*See www.workingpreaching.com 

**Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 535.

Sermon: The Whole Congregation, Exodus 16:2-30 by Cheryl Pyrch on Nov 13, 2:09pm
Sermon: The Whole Congregation, Exodus 16:2-30

Cheryl Pyrch
Summit Presbyterian Church
September 21, 2008
Exodus 16: 2-30

 

The Whole Congregation

 

 My official start time at Summit was this past Monday, September 15th, at 9:00 a.m. Because I had so much to do in leaving New York, and because all the books say pastors should practice self-care from the very beginning, I was careful not to do any Summit-related work until 9:00 on Monday -- with one exception. I studied the picture directory. I tried to imprint names and faces on my brain, to figure out who was related to who, to match names and faces from the directory with people I had met in August. I realize the directory's not up to date -- you may have had a child since then or changed your name. And even with all this study I’ll probably need to ask you to introduce yourself - repeatedly. But my plan and hope is to visit with each of you – at home or in a coffee shop or at the office –and to hear as much of your story as you’re willing to share. I’ll be asking : “What led you to become a Christian?,” understanding that not everyone may be so sure they are a Christian. I’ve already learned that the people of Summit do not toe a single doctrinal line, theologically or politically – and that’s a good thing. This week I’ve also started learning about the particular responsibilities of the committees and boards: that the evangelism committee is in charge of the coffee hour, that the trustees are the ones keeping their eyes on the rentals and the stained glass windows. I’m looking forward to learning more about each individual, each family, each different committee and project of the church.
 
 In our scripture this week, by contrast, when the congregation of the Israelites enters into the wilderness, Moses and Aaron do not spend time visiting, or learning the stories of individual members (not that I'm comparing myself to Moses or Aaron!) They didn't have a chance, for the whole congregation - not just a few malcontents - the whole congregation was complaining against them. Complaining that Moses and Aaron had brought them into the wilderness so the whole assembly could die of hunger. (And who can blame them, since everyone was hungry?) Likewise, when God heard their complaining, and told Moses about the bread that would rain from heaven, Moses and Aaron spoke immediately to the whole congregation -- they didn't pull aside a few trusted leaders. The whole people then looked toward the wilderness and saw the glory of the Lord. God fed the people as one. In the evening quails covered the entire camp, and the mysterious bread that appeared in the morning surrounded all of them. God instructed the congregation as one: all were to gather, each as they needed, saving none for the morning. And although different people gathered different amounts, they all had the same in the end -- just enough. It says later that those who disobeyed and acted on their own - by trying to save some for the morning, or by gathering on the sabbath - were foiled. They weren't punished, but the bread they saved rotted, and on the Sabbath there was no manna to find. The congregation heard, they saw, they gathered and they ate as one. The Israelites ate this manna forty years, and for generations a measure of it was put in a jar, and placed before the Lord, so all could remember how the whole congregation was fed in the wilderness.

 In the Bible, God always calls a people. God speaks to individuals; God comforts, scolds, challenges and teaches them. We know their names: Moses, Sarah; David, Elijah; Mary and Elizabeth, Matthew, Paul, Dorcas and many more. But none of these people are called out for the sake of their private salvation or their own spiritual journeys; they're called to serve,to join, to build up, to lead, the whole congregation, the Whole People of God. God called and continues to call the whole congregation of Israel to proclaim that God is one and to be a blessing to the nations. God calls the whole congregation of the Church to proclaim forgiveness and hope for the world in Christ. We all have a part; we have our particular gifts and vocations, our opinions and quirks, our joys and our struggles; but we're called to love and serve God as one body. That's hard for us. It's countercultural to be the Church in a world where we are urged day and night to think about our individual needs, wants, desires and investment portfolios. It's even harder when we remember that the Church includes not only the Summit congregation but the Philadelphia Presbytery; not only the Presbytery but Presbyterian churches around the country; not only Presbyterian churches but ecumenical partners around the globe --- even megachurches and orthodox communions. It's hard because we don't agree on so many things, and because other people can be difficult. But it's the way God has called God's people.

 

------------------ o ------------------

 

 In the news this week, the headlines had an air of unreality. For most of us, I'm assuming, day to day life continued as usual. But apparently, by a hair's breadth, we've escaped a world-wide financial meltdown matching the crash of 1929 -- if indeed, we have escaped it. Lawmakers from both parties are putting together the rescue operation, an operation that comes with a price: perhaps 700 billion, perhaps a trillion dollars. It's hard to know what that 700 billion will mean, especially when coupled with climate change and the continuing war. But it may be that we're entering into a wilderness time ourselves, a time when the shelter and security, even the food and water we've taken for granted may become scarce -- especially for the most vulnerable among us, and certainly for the very poor of the earth, whose situation is already dire. In the wilderness, each one for himself works even less well than in a land of milk and honey. In the wilderness, we don't really have the option of striking out on our own.

 So what a blessing that God calls us, and feeds us, in Word and Bread, together. What a blessing that we can share what we have, so that all can have enough. What a blessing that we've been given scripture in community so we can discern with one another what God is calling us to do. So as I begin my time at Summit I'm looking forward to getting to know each of you, to having many one-on-one conversations. But I'm also looking forward to getting to know you as a church. To see how, together, we'll nourish each other in prayer and study, care for those who are hurting, or in need, make decisions about money and time, and worship God as one, proclaiming the love of Christ. Please join me in prayer:


Water Walking by Jeanne Gay on Aug 12, 9:25pm
Water Walking

Water Walking

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

August 10, 2008 Summit Presbyterian Church

Matthew 14:22-33 Exodus 3:1-15


 

Good morning. I’m one of the ones who followed Jesus. One of the inside group, so to speak. The ones you think of as The Twelve.

Now, I’m not gonna tell you which one I am, because then you’re gonna get all hung up about what you know about me. Was he the one who doubted? Or one of the ones whose mom wanted to get them places next to Jesus? Or the tax collector? And then everything I say, you’re goin’ to be analyzin’ it in light of what else you think you know about me. And I don’t want you doin’ that, so I’m not tellin’ you. I’m just an anonymous disciple. It’s the story I want to tell you that’s the important part, anyway.

So here’s the story about that night. We’d gotten the news the day before that Jesus’ cousin John—the one they called The Baptist?—Herod had beheaded him. I gotta tell you, that was sad … and kinda scary. Jesus sorta wanted to get away from the crowds for a while, but they followed him and—him bein’ the kind of guy he was, he spent most of the day talkin’ with them and healin’ the ones who were sick. That healin’ thing, that may sound pretty amazing to you, but by this time we’d kinda gotten used to it.  

But that night—whew!—that was somethin’ else. We’d been gettin’ nervous about havin’ all these people way out there as night came, and we told Jesus to send them on because there sure wasn’t enough food for everybody out there. But—and you know, I still can’t quite get over this one—he took the little bit of food that was out there—a couple of fish and some bread—and, well, we fed all those thousands of people with that little bit of food! I gotta tell you, that was amazing!

We all wanted to talk with him about what had happened—at least, I know I did—but he did somethin’ he’d never done before that night. He sent us out on the boat without him. He said he’d get rid of the crowds, and I guess he wanted to be alone for a while. Maybe we were just as much pests to him sometimes as all those crowds of people. I gotta tell you, though, it hurt a little.

But anyway, we started out on the boat and, well, a lot of us had spent a lot of time on the water, but whew, there was some wind that night! You know how sometimes you can be out on a boat in the middle of the night, and it’s just as peaceful as it can be? Stars twinklin’ overhead and random noises from the shore, a little wisp of a breeze every now and then? Well, get that image out of your head because that night, well, I’ve never experienced such a wind. I can tell you that none of us was gettin’ any sleep, what with fightin’ that wind and tryin’ to keep the boat upright and bailin’ out the water that kept pourin’ in over the sides. And of course worryin’ a bit about Jesus not bein’ with us, and wonderin’ if we’d just missed something with all those people bein’ fed with that little bit of food, and bein’ sad about John. Nah, it wasn’t what you’d call a peaceful night.

And then, and then one of the guys started screamin’. “It’s a ghost! It’s a ghost!” And when we looked where he was pointin’, well, we could see somethin’ out there, kinda floatin’ over the water. Now, I remember my uncles, those old fishermen, talkin’ about the strange things they’d see when they’d been out on the water for days and nights, and I’ve got to tell you, my breath just caught up in my throat. The thing came nearer, and guys were screamin’ and yellin’, and danged if it didn’t look like a man. … Jesus!?

And then he called out to us to let us know that it was him. “Have courage!” he said, “Don’t be afraid.” And … now this is important. I know you’ve heard this story and heard that he said, “It is I,” but that wasn’t quite it. “Ego eimi,” he said. I AM.

Now, I don’t know about you folks and how much you know about the old scriptures, the Torah, but I gotta tell you, those are kicker words. I AM. That’s what Yahweh said when Moses asked him who he was. I AM. Folks, that’s God. That’s not-foolin’-around-here God. And there was Jesus, a-strollin’ across the water in the middle of the night just like it was, say, the middle of Capernaum on a sunshiny mornin’, and he’s sayin’ I AM. Jesus?

So we’re all still yellin’ and screamin’, and some of us are just about out of our minds and cryin’ and thinkin’ Jesus? I AM? And, well, you don’t know Peter the way we did, but I guess the adrenaline and all the excitement just grabbed hold of him, and he’s yellin’ out to Jesus: “If it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water,” and Jesus says, “Come on then,” and—whew—next thing you know Peter’s jumpin’ over the side—and now he’s walkin’ on the water.

Now that got us to quiet up, I’ll tell ya. Here’re these two guys, walkin’ toward each other on top of the water, and Peter’s just a starin’ at Jesus, and we’re starin’ at the two of them, and you can hear some sobbin’ here and there, and of course the wind is still just carryin’ on. And then you could see Peter start to look around, like he was lookin’ at the waves and the water and hearin’ that wind, and dang if he didn’t start to sink. Shoooot! “Save me!” he cries out, and sure enough, Jesus just reaches out a hand for him and pulls him up. “Oh you,” Jesus says, “you just didn’t quite have enough faith. Why did you doubt?” And then he brings Peter over to the boat so they can both get in.

And suddenly it was just as quiet as it could be. That wind just, well, it just stopped. And we’re all in the boat, tryin’ to get our heads around everything we’ve heard and seen, and just starin’. And then somebody said what we were all thinkin’: “Truly you are the son of God.” And then we were all sayin’ it, and bowin’ down and tryin’ to reach out and touch him and saying, “You’re the son of God!” Theou huios ei. Over and over: the son of God! You’re the son of God! theou huios ei!

~ ~ ~

Well, that’s the story. I’ll never forget it. And I’ve thought about it a lot over these years, and I’ve talked with a lot of folks about what it meant.

Now, some folks look at it like it’s a story about Peter and how he didn’t have enough faith, how he looked away from Jesus and started to fail. And yeah, that’s in there. It’s been true for me in my life—those times I got caught up in what I thought was “real” and kinda forgot about Jesus, well, those are the times I sank a bit. But you know, when you look back and call to Jesus for help, he’s always there.

And other folks, usually the ones with some kinda fancy “liberal arts” education, they tell the story like it’s a big “extended metaphor.” The boat is supposed to be the church, with all of us in it and bein’ rocked about a lot without Jesus …

Huh. I don’t know from extended metaphors, but I can tell you it happened. Just the way I said.

Now, they tell me I’m supposed to tell you what this means to you. Huh. I’ve met a bunch of ya, and I’ve got to say that y’all seem to be awful hung up on whether people walkin’ on water is scientifically possible. You do the same thing when it comes to Jesus bein’ raised from the dead, dontcha? And you’ve started thinkin’ that Jesus was a darn good preacher and teacher, and he said a lot of really good stuff, but then you kinda drop off.

Well, y’know, we weren’t so different at first—us disciples—before that couple of days. I mean, we’d seen Jesus healin’ the sick and all, but well, he wasn’t the only one could do that. Now, we didn’t know all the stuff you all know about science, but heck, we knew about water and that people just can’t walk on top of it. So it’s not like we were a bunch of gullible fools, thinkin’ well, hey, we didn’t know people could walk on water. ‘Cause they can’t. You know it and I know it—the world just doesn’t work that way.

But for Jesus, that one night, the world did work that way. And I don’t think it was because the world changed but because of who he was. Theou huios—the son of God. God, even. That guy Luke—and come on, I know you’ve heard of the books he wrote—Luke put it this way: “All things are possible with God” (Luke 1:37).

Cause God, well, God doesn’t follow the kinds of rules we know about down here—rules like “natural law,” and rules that people come up with, like how it’s best to stick to your own kind or how people who are different from us are probably out to get us.

So here’s what I’m hopin’ happens to you—that God comes to you in a way that just breaks all the rules. Things you never thought could happen that way, and then here’s God, just a-stridin’ through the waves, so to speak, and reachin’ out to you. And I hope maybe you’ll get excited, like Peter, and jump up and try to do it too, and then get pulled out of the brink by God when you get scared. Cause a life of faith can be scary sometimes. It can have you steppin’ out of the boat and takin’ off across the unknown.

I’m hopin’ that when Jesus—the Son of God—calls you, and you think, “Whoa, that’s not the way the world works,” that you’ll trust enough to jump out of the boat and go strollin’ with God. You’ll be glad you did.

Cause God’s there. In the middle of the lake, in the middle of the storm, God’s there.

I’m off now. Good to see ya.

God bless.

 

Sighs Too Deep for Words -- Jeanne Gay -- July 27th, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Jul 29, 10:38am
Sighs Too Deep for Words -- Jeanne Gay -- July 27th, 2008

Sighs Too Deep for Words

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

July 27, 2008 Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church

Romans 8:26-39

 


This passage in Acts is just packed with great stuff, isn’t it?!

There’s verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” What a comfort that can be in times of confusion—and what a confusion when it’s pretty darn hard to see just how things are working together for good.

And 29 and 30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” God has imagined us from the beginning of time, each one of us, and has called us to be God’s own—and makes us right with him and brings us into glory.

And of course the crux of verse 31: “If God is for us, who is against us?” For no one has more power than God, and with God calling and justifying and glorifying us, how could any power have power against us?

And some of the most comforting words I know: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, … For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We often hear those words at funerals and memorial services, and we will use them this morning as our statement of faith. They’re powerful words, words to inscribe on plaques to hang in our hallways, words to write on post-it notes to stick to our mirrors, words to etch on our brains: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

But I’m not going to talk about those verses this morning. I’m going to go back to the very beginning of that passage and look at the first two verses, chapter 8 verses 26 and 27: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought—and another translation of “as we ought” is “as it is necessary.” We do not know how to pray as it is necessary. I like that translation better because I don’t think Paul meant for there to be a judgment in that line. Paul wasn’t saying that we haven’t learned our lessons well, that we ought to know how to pray. Paul is saying that on our own we simply can’t pray the way it would be necessary to pray if we really were to get through to God.

That’s a bit radical, isn’t it? All the praying that goes on here in church – and in our bedrooms and at our tables and everywhere else we pray – and Paul says we can’t pray? If I were to point to you this morning and say, “You don’t know how to pray,” there’d probably be a few who’d think, “Well, geez, somebody finally figured out that I’m a fraud,” and a lot who’d think, “Excuse me, missy! What do you mean, I can’t pray! I’ve been praying for years!”

What Paul is saying is that it is humanly impossible to pray because as humans we are weaklings compared to God—how can we expect to have a one-on-one conversation with our creator?

But lest you leave this sanctuary this morning having heard only that no human can actually pray, let’s look quickly at what else Paul says here: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as it is necessary, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

When we pray, we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit within us, and the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words” or in another translation, “with inexpressible groanings.”

Theologian Paul Tillich wrote: “It is God … who prays through us, when we pray to [God]. God … in us: that is what Spirit means. Spirit is another word for ‘God present,’ with shaking, inspiring, transforming power. Something in us, which is not we ourselves, intercedes before God for us. We cannot bridge the gap between God and ourselves even through the most intensive and frequent prayers; the gap between God and ourselves can be bridged only by God.”[1]

There are some important things to remember in that. One of them is that the particular words we use in prayer don’t really matter. I’ve known a lot of people over the years who were never willing to pray out loud in front of a group because they couldn’t get the words right—they couldn’t get their mouths around that “church-y language,” they said, “or they just didn’t know what to say.” According to Paul, that doesn’t matter—for the Spirit helps us in our weakness, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

Even when we can’t find any words to pray, it’s okay. Words are, after all, a human creation, not God’s. Those times when no words come to us, those prayer droughts we get into—they’re okay, for the Spirit helps us in our weakness, the Spirit intercedes for us with inexpressible groaning.

God doesn’t need our words to hear our prayers; God is in us and knows us to the depths of our souls.

I’ve been reminded, thinking through this sermon, of the way babies communicate with their parents. Many of you know that I have a grandchild on his way—sometime around the 20th of September—and so I’ve been thinking a lot about babies these days, anyway. When my grandson is born, he’s not going to be able to talk. He’s just going to be able to cry.

That’s what babies do, right? They cry. Sometimes they cry a lot. And for those of us sitting at a nearby table in a restaurant or in a pew across the sanctuary or in the next apartment, it just sounds like crying. But to the baby’s parents, it’s different. Have you ever watched a baby’s mother or father listen to the cry and say, “Oh, she’s hungry,” or “Oh, she needs her diaper changed,” or “Oh, sweetie, do you want to be held?”

By the time my grandson is a couple of weeks old, my son and his wife will have begun to figure out what his cries mean. It helps, of course, that there are a limited number of needs that an infant has: food, cleanliness, comfort, sleep. My grandson won’t know that he wants a bottle or a clean diaper; he’ll just know that something is wrong and so he’ll cry. But his parents will know the needs behind the cries, and so they’ll be able to respond appropriately.

And when he gets older, he’ll discover the magic of words. I remember my youngest niece when she was not quite two. She’d sit with a grown-up and have long, involved conversations full of her own “words.” We had no idea what she was saying, of course, but she could keep a conversation going for a long time. “Uh-huh,” we’d say occasionally, or “really?” but even though we never quite knew what the conversation was about, we knew that her need was to practice the art of conversation, to be in relationship with an adult.

I think that’s kind of like what our praying is to God. It’s full of cries, of inexpressible groaning and sighs too deep for words, but God knows what our needs are. And when our prayers are full of words, God—that heavenly parent—understands past and through our made-up language to know our needs.

Some folks interpret that as meaning that we have no need to pray. They’re sort of like the child who didn’t talk. Two years old, three years old—no speech at all. Until finally, sometime after his fourth birthday, he looked at his mother at the breakfast table and said, “Mother, the toast is burnt.”

“You can talk!” she cried. “Why haven’t you ever said anything before?”

“The toast was never burnt before,” he said.

Let’s not be like that little boy, not praying until the toast is burnt, until there’s something wrong and we want to register a complaint.

For our prayer—like our children’s babbling—is a delight to God. And our prayer opens us up to the Spirit. Recognizing that prayer is “not our work but the activity of the Spirit who prays within us ‘with sighs too deep for words,’ our prayer is our yes to the voice of the Spirit that fills us with wordless desire and yearning.” [2] And what are we filled with wordless desire and yearning for? For wisdom, for truth—for righteousness, for justice—for mercy and intimacy.

Prayer “gives the Spirit the freedom to blow where it wills; it unleashes within us the Divine imagination, which passes all understanding.”[3]

Those of us at Summit have been praying for a year and a half for the new pastor God has in mind for us. We didn’t know who it would be, but our prayers gave the Spirit the freedom to blow where it would—our prayers unleashed in us the Divine imagination, beyond our understanding.

I don’t know what you folks at Mt.Airy have been praying for—probably lots of things. But be sure that your prayers too have given the Spirit the freedom to blow where it will, that your prayers have unleashed in you the Divine imagination.

And so it is whenever we pray. We open ourselves to the Spirit—beyond and through and around our understanding. And no matter what we say or don’t say, the Spirit speaks for us … in sighs too deep for words.



[1] Paul Tillich, “The Paradox of Prayer,” in The New Being

[2] Frank Griswold, Sermon preached at Unbound! Conference, 1999. Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2000.

[3] Ibid.

The Well-Fitted Yoke -- Jim Eby -- July 6, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Jul 15, 1:55pm
The Well-Fitted Yoke -- Jim Eby -- July 6, 2008

Summit Presbyterian Church July 6, 2008

Delivered by Jim Eby THE WELL-FITTED YOKE Matthew 11: 25-30

 

How fortunate we are to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave! Many of our ancestors came to this country from countries where freedom was not their birthright. Where liberty was not their heritage. Where freedom of speech was not protected for everyone, including those with whom we violently disagree. Where yokes of bondage chaffed their lives.

A number of years ago, our 4th of July celebration was a reunion with a friend who came to this country from Romania as a political refugee. She had two delightful young daughters. We were talking about children and the wonderful way they can sometimes help us stop and give thanks for the realities we often take for granted. She remembered the day her older daughter came in tears from the swings in their backyard where she had been playing with a friend. The mother comforted her daughter to the point that they could talk about the cause for the tears, and her daughter blurted out, "This is not a free country!" "Oh," our friend responded. "Then I guess I'll have to go back to Romania. I left Romania to come here because I believed America was a free country. What makes you say this is not a free country?"

"Sarah is breaking up my swing, and I told her to stop. She said she wouldn't, because this is a free country, and nobody can make her do anything she doesn't want to do. This is not a free country."

The young daughter was right, wasn't she? This is not a country where we are free to break up other peoples' swings. This is not a country where we are free to take whatever we want because we are bigger and stronger.

But we do want to be free, don't we? The New Hampshire license plate carries the motto, "Live free or die". We want to be free of worry, free of care, free to be ourselves. We want to be free of anything that would restrict us, even though we were created to live together in a community where we freely choose to limit ourselves, where we freely choose to carry the other's burden.

It seems to me that we have difficulty accepting the free gifts God would give us. We seem to be so hesitant to accept the role God created us to fulfill in the cosmos. We lack the wisdom of the childlike who know how to receive a gift gratefully. There was a bishop who participated in a confirmation service in a local Episcopal parish. The customary practice was to examine the confirmands before the Service of Confirmation. The pastor told the bishop that one of the students was not very bright and that he would know the answers to only a few of the usual questions. After the examination, the bishop wanted to give a gift to one of the confirmands. So he began to offer it to one and then another of them. Each one of them refused the gift, saying, "I really don't deserve the gift. I could have done better in my answers." Finally the bishop offered the gift to the child who had been described as "simple". That child reached out, took it, and said, "Thank you." That child's response is close to the secret of the Kingdom of God. That child is one who can understand the reality of the words of Jesus when he said, "...my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." A well fitted yoke.

But we're not sure we want a yoke, when we're brutally honest with ourselves. We work to break the yoke of oppression, don't we? We work to break the yoke of poverty and illness and despair. And that's good. We should. That's the task God has given us to do in Jesus who also came to break those yokes. Our problem arises when we fail to understand that we are free to choose the yoke that fits, the one that Jesus has fashioned for us.

There is a legend that Jesus made the best ox-yokes in all Galilee and that the people came to his carpenter shop from all over the country to buy the best yokes that skill could make. The yokes were made of wood; the ox was brought to the carpenter's shop, and the measurements were carefully taken. Then the yoke was roughed out and the ox was brought back to have the yoke carefully adjusted so it would fit well and not bite into the neck. The yoke was tailor-made to fit the individual animal. In those days, as now, shops had signs above the door, and it has been suggested that the sign over the carpenter's shop in Nazareth may have read: "My yokes fit well.”

That is still true today. Jesus says to us, "The life of discipleship to which I invite you is not a burden. Your task, your life, is made to measure to fit you." Whatever God sends for us to do is made to fit our needs and our abilities. God has work for every one of us, which is made to measure for us.

Many people carry unbearable loads because they have picked up loads which were not intended for them. Some of us even pick up the loads, the work, that is meant for tomorrow. In doing that, we cause anxieties to come that swamp us, that overwhelm us with loads that God never intended us to carry today. How tragic it is when we become bogged down in a swamp of worry when God intends for us to live only this day -- not to live the future that has not yet arrived. One writer expressed it this way: "No one ever sank under the burden of the day. It is when tomorrow's burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a person can bear. Never load yourself so. If you find yourself so loaded, at least remember this: It is your own doing, not God's. God begs you to leave the future to God, and mind the present.

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me..."

The deliverance Jesus offers is not deliverance from responsibility or accountability. Jesus knows full well that the issue in life is not if we shall be burdened, but rather which burdens shall we bear.

Life's greatest burden is not in having too much to do, for some of the happiest folks are those who are the busiest. Life's greatest burden is in having nothing worthwhile to do. Energy is a renewable resource. People burn out not because they have too much to do but because they become exhausted by constant engagement with the trivial and the inconsequential.

So, the issue before us cannot be if we shall be burdened, but with what shall we be burdened? Not if we shall be yoked, but to whom?

Jesus does not come to unburden us so we can be free, or liberated, or filled with self-esteem or any of the other infatuations which are themselves burdens. Jesus lifts the burdens off our backs so he can place another, removes the harness we forge for ourselves, so he can place around our necks his own yoke.

Jesus’ idea of a break with the past is not a vacation, a getting away from it all, but giving us something significant to do, namely participation with him in his ministry to the world.

How does your yoke fit? Is there joy in your work and in your play and in your worship? If not, there's every reason to suspect that you need to accept the offer and take the well-fitted yoke that Christ has shaped for you. That will enable you to carry the burden of life and give wings to your soul. Hold out your hands and like that young confirmand whom many called "simple", accept the gift Christ offers, and say, "Thank you."

Come to the table and be fed, and then, yoked together with a yoke that fits, let us be at work in the world as Christ leads us.

Our Father, help us to put off the yokes that chaff and help us accept the well-fitting yoke Christ has for us. Help us to live out the joy and peace that you intend for us as we work at the work you have for us to do. In the name of our risen Lord we ask this. Amen.

 

 

What's a Birthright Worth? -- Jim Eby -- July 15, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Jul 15, 1:41pm
What's a Birthright Worth? -- Jim Eby -- July 15, 2008

Summit Presbyterian Church July 13, 2008

Delivered by Jim Eby What’s a birthright worth? Genesis 25:19-34

 

There is always the temptation to do what will bring immediate gratification. Why wait until we have the cash in hand when we can just Acharge it@? It is hard to discipline ourselves to wait and work for that which brings fulfillment in the future. We want it when we want it, and we want it right now, thank you very much.

 

That’s sort of the way it was for Esau that day. He was a hunter, by vocation and avocation. He was very different from his twin brother Jacob. It had been apparent from the days of their childhood B almost from their birth. Esau was the outdoors man, a man of the field, and he was the apple of his father’s eye. Jacob was the second born, the one who could always be found around the tent. If there was a scholar in the family, it was Jacob, and he was his mother’s favorite. Esau was the kind who enjoyed hunting and fishing and exploring. Jacob was the kind who enjoyed reading and caring for the sheep and staying close to home.

 

What kind of a day had it been for Esau? The kind when you fished all day without success, and had counted on eating one of the freshly caught fish for strength to make the journey home? Was it one of those days when you are out hunting, and you see the animal you are hunting, but it is too far away or some other animal spooks it and you don’t bag anything B you make your way back to camp in a state of exhaustion.

 

It must have been something like that, for Esau felt like he was about to die when he finally made it back home and stumbled upon Jacob who was cooking a pot of wonderful red stuff. The scholars think Esau imagined it was blood soup, which was supposed to have almost magical qualities that would restore a person who was dying. Give me some of that red stuff, for I am famished! Esau said.

I wonder how long Jacob had been waiting for that moment. I wonder if he and his mother had discussed this very scene sometime earlier. Most of us would give our brother or sister a cup of soup, wouldn’t we? Particularly if it were lentil stew. But Jacob used Esau’s hunger and the prepared stew as a bargaining chip. First sell me your birthright.

What’s a birthright worth?

It was the inheritance of a double share of the family resources. It was the right to make decisions for the rest of the family when the father died. It was the opportunity to immediately inherit the place of responsibility in the community that the father had carried. If the father was a priest, then the eldest son was expected to be a priest. If the father was the leader of the clan, then the eldest son was expected to step into his shoes. The birthright was worth wealth and prestige but it also brought with it responsibility. In many countries today, they practice the rights of inheritance that are identical with those practiced in the days of Isaac and Jacob and Esau. The eldest son has special privileges but also special responsibilities. Even while the father is alive, if the father gets sick, it is the eldest son, not the wife or the mother, who carries the mantle of authority.

First sell me your birthright.

We don’t know what went through Esau’s mind. Maybe he thought that his father would never let such a thing happen. Maybe he felt he would rather be free to hunt and fish rather than settle arguments and take on the responsibilities of the future of the clan. We don’t know. We do know that he must have wanted what he wanted and he wanted it right now. He lost tomorrow because he snatched so greedily at today.

And we see all the examples around us. We hear the statement: “I’ll just die if I don’t get that...dress, car, computer...” -- you fill in the blank. We see it in the ads that promise comfort and ease and convenience for the individual, regardless of the long term effects or the needs of the larger community. There are those in public office who will sell a birthright of great ideals to satisfy immediate promises of a future vote.

Have we sold our birthright for a mess of immediate gratification? Is that our red soup?

We have a birthright. We are the eldest children who have already received a double portion of our family inheritance. We have the privilege of what previous generations have passed down to us in our sanctuaries that were built by previous generations; there is the inheritance of the chapels that have provided space for small services and a quiet time for prayer. There is the education wing where groups still learn today and where community groups are formed and nurtured. We have charters as a Presbyterian congregation that is our heritage from more than one hundred and twenty five years. We have funds provided by members who wanted to reach across the years to help us maintain the physical plant, and the program budget. We have a birthright and a legacy that has to do with those physical aspects of those who preceded us.

But we also have a birthright that has to do with spiritual aspects. We have a birthright that is meant to be lived out in community, caring for each other as you often do so well. In the Summit family yesterday, a memorial service celebrated the life of a young man who had special needs, and you ministered to him and his family. At the same time there was a wedding, and additional folk were there to support the new family that has been created in the exchanging of vows and rings in a covenant.

There is another aspect of the birthright which we have inherited. It’s the part that has to do with education. The study of the Bible, of course. If we don’t teach the stories to the next generation, who will?

Are you involved in the responsibilities of that birthright? Or are you selling that to gain some extra sleep or more hours before the computer or the television set? Are you one of the teachers, or one of the students, or one who has sold the birthright, with the results that the next generation will be shown by your example that they really don’t need to be involved in education B that’s not necessary in being faithful followers of our risen Lord.

Sally Brandenburg is one of those who has not sold her birthright. She is a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Tower Hill in Redbank, New Jersey. She has written:

I teach children in the church school because I care – care about them and care about sharing my faith. I would like to help all children feel good about themselves and about God’s love for them. A long time ago, I read that our purpose isn’t to make “good children” out of our girls and boys, but to make “God’s children” out of them.

You grow up in a church physically, mentally, and spiritually. If you believe, then you are compelled to share what you can. In order to share, you are compelled to learn more about what you want to share, and how best to share it. I know my teaching has to do with faith, but I think it has to do with growth as well....

The excitement of our freedom to make choices, the challenge of presenting a loving God to a growing individual, growth for children and for me that’s what teaching is all about!

A sign in our kitchen says: A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of one youth. That sums up how we feel at our house.

How do we sum up how we feel at this house? Do our actions fulfill our words. Do we still value our birthright? How are we doing with teacher recruitment for the fall? How are we doing with building maintenance?

God help us live out our special responsibilities as we enjoy our special privileges.

 

 

God, you have blessed us in Jesus Christ. You have given us a birthright. Now, by your Spirit, help us to live it out in the way we are stewards of all your good gifts – knowledge, inquisitiveness, honest doubts, sure faith. Help us care for each other and this week so we return next week with a sense of fulfillment. In Jesus name we ask it. Amen.

Free to Be, Free to Do -- Jeanne Gay -- June 29, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Jun 29, 3:05pm
Free to Be, Free to Do -- Jeanne Gay -- June 29, 2008

Free to Be, Free to Do

Sermon preached by Jeanne Gay

June 29, 2008   Summit Presbyterian Church

Romans 6:12-23 Matthew 10:40-42


 

As most of you know, I teach English composition on the college level. Mostly I teach freshmen, usually first-year-out-of-high-school kids. And when I listen to them talk or read what they’ve written about that transition from high school to college, sometimes it’s as if they’ve entered a whole new world. It used to be that their lives were ruled by bells. If they loitered in the hallways after a bell rang, they were in danger of being chastised at the least and given a detention. But now they’re in college. After three or four hours of classes during a day they’re free to go home—it’s a whole new world.

But sometimes I have students whose previous schooling took place in another country. One of the most memorable of my foreign students was a young man I’ll call Abraham. He was ex­ceedingly tall and very black—and eventually I learned that he was one of the “lost boys” of the Sudan. You may remember hearing about these “lost boys.” It’s a name given to the 27,000 boys who were displaced and/or orphaned during the Sudanese Civil War that lasted 20 years between 1983 and 2003. When government troops attacked their villages, these boys somehow escaped and, over a period of years, traveled on foot, alone or with bands of other boys, to international relief camps in Ehiopia and Kenya. Their schooling included battling wild animals and insects and somehow learning to survive thirst, starvation, and disease. By the time they arrived in the camps, the traumas they had been through were unspeakable.

And here Abraham was, in my college technical writing class. For him, being here was truly be­ing in a whole new world. A world filled with possibilities. A world in which he had value just for being himself. A world where life was possible.

In this passage from Romans, Paul is also talking about two kinds of worlds—one ruled by death and the other by life. This is not always an easy passage for us, because when he talks about slavery he’s using language that sets us on edge, but he says himself that he’s trying to explain himself in terms that his audience will understand. What we need to be about is trying to under­stand what he’s talking about—and not get hung up on the slavery imagery.

As is usually true in the Bible, it’s helpful to look at what came before the passage in question so we have some context for understanding it. And what Paul has been talking about is what we of­ten call salvation by faith (as opposed to salvation by works). He’s been saying that what liber­ates us—what redeems us—is the love shown to us in Christ. God’s goodness and generosity is what saves us, not anything we can do ourselves.  

Paul says, “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Not being “under law” means that there aren’t sets of commandments that we need to follow in order to be in a right relationship with God. When Christians tell us that there are certain things that we must do—or must not do—in order to “get right with God,” they’ve missed the point of what Paul is saying here. Paul’s saying that since we are “under grace,” God reaches right out to be in that right relationship with us because of God’s love for us.

Now Paul knew that there would be those who just wouldn’t believe him and that they would scoff and say that if we don’t have a bunch of commandments to follow then we must be allowed to sin whenever we want. And as anyone trained in rhetoric as Paul was would do, he addresses the objections he knows he’ll get so he can refute them. “What then?” Paul writes. “Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”

Being a Christian—and knowing that God loves us and accepts us just as we are—is no excuse to live any old kind of life we want. We sometimes think that “freedom” means that we can do anything we want. I remember reading about a citizen of Baghdad shortly after the beginning of the war, when Saddham had been driven out and Iraq had been “liberated.” He was caught stealing something—I can’t remember now what it was—and when he was accused, he said, “But we’re free now! We can do anything we want!” Most of us are a bit more sophisticated about the meaning of “freedom” in a democracy than that Iraqi, but we still have that sense sometimes. We hear it from teenagers (and we may remember it from ourselves as teenagers). “I can’t wait to leave home and be free! I’ll be able to do anything I want!”

But that’s not the meaning of freedom here. This is freedom from bondage. Freedom from hav­ing no real choice because sin keeps us tied up. And Paul is saying that when we say, “No, I want to be one of God’s people, not one of sin’s people,” then we are freed to live lives that lead to eternal life, not to death.

So does being under grace automatically keep us from sinning? No, that’s not what Paul is say­ing, either. Paul knows that in this life we’ve been freed to live, the old patterns and systems do not shut down. The destructive ruts and routines are still there. But what Paul is saying is that because we are under grace, we don’t have to surrender to those destructive ruts and routines—we’re not in bondage to them. This way of living can lift us beyond them.

We know about those destructive ruts and routines. We all get stuck in them from time to time. Procrastination can be one, or obsessive shopping. Pornography, gambling, drinking, using drugs, smoking, overeating. Making snap judgments. Being lazy. All those destructive ruts and routines, those patterns and systems that try to suck us in so that they become bigger and bigger parts of our lives … pulling us away from a right relationship with God.

But because God loves us—because of that salvation by faith—we aren’t stuck in those destruc­tive ruts and routines. We are certainly free to choose them, but because of God’s grace we aren’t in bondage to them. Like my student Abraham, whose life now is not in danger of being ended every minute of every day by soldiers or starvation, malice or disease, we have a new life.

“The wages of sin is death,” Paul writes. Those destructive ruts and routines only lead to a life ruled by death and fear. “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” And that eternal life doesn’t begin someday off in the future, after we’re dead. That eternal life in Jesus Christ—that life of possibility and love and growth and peace—that life begins now. We celebrate its beginning with baptism, as we’ve done this morning with Hailey and with Kristina, and we renew it every time we say, “Lord, I believe.”

And what does that freedom allow us to do? Why, to love each other as God loves us, to build each other up, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. To give the thirsty a cold cup of water. To rescue lost boys and heal lost girls. To invite others into eternal life along with us. To be God’s people.

"Fears and Phobias" -- Jim Eby -- June 22, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Jun 22, 12:20pm
"Fears and Phobias" -- Jim Eby -- June 22, 2008

Summit Presbyterian Church June 22, 2008

Delivered by Jim Eby FEARS AND PHOBIAS Matthew 10:24-33

 

What are we to do when passages in the Bible contradict each other?  Some are quick to throw away the passage that doesn't fit their personal theology.  Others are quick to throw out the Bible, because they want a guidebook for life that is consistent from cover to cover.  What shall we do when our Bible seems to contradict itself?


The Old Testament is filled with passages that describe God as one who expects all creation to fear him.  The Book of Proverbs, in the early verses says: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge..." (1:7)


Psalm 103 is one of my favorites.  And in three places it speaks of fear: "For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him...", and "as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him", and finally "But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments."[i]


Psalm 111, in the tenth verse makes the declaration: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom..."


Verse after verse in the Old Testament talks about fear.  They even seem to think it's a good idea.  Fear of the Lord seems to be a major theme of our Old Testament witness.

 

But Jesus, in this passage we read from Matthew seems to take the opposing point of view, doesn't he?  Three times, he tells his disciples not to fear.  "So have no fear of them... And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul... Fear not therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows."[ii]


Now, which are we going to believe and obey?  The Old Testament which says we'd better be fearful -- or Jesus, who says three times, "Fear not -- don't be afraid"?

 

Well, we're to believe and obey both of them. 


As members of the protestant tradition, one of our responsibilities, when we find ideas or passages that seem to conflict with one another, is to dig into them a little deeper in our attempt to understand them.  That may mean we have to come to some new understanding of them, the way Presbyterian Church has with Paul's words in which he says he would not put women in leadership positions in the church in Asia Minor.

 

And the way we do that is to follow the instructions of the church as they are recorded in the Second Helvetic Confession, written at the beginning of the time we call the Reformation, in 1566.[iii]  There we find our ancestors saying that you interpret scripture responsibly when you do all the following:

1. -- interpret scripture by other scripture -- that's primary

2. -- take into account the language in which they were written

3. -- consider the people and the places to whom and to which the words were addressed

4. --check out the passage against other passages that agree and disagree, which

 may be clearer and more numerous.


Then, those four criteria are held together with the cords of the rule of faith and love and the final test question is put: "Does this interpretation contribute to the glory of God and our salvation?"


Okay, now let's go back to our question: "Are we to be fearful, as the Old testament tells us to be, or are we to be fearless, as Jesus commands?"

 

When we use our rules for interpretation, and turn to the language in which the passage was written, we find that our Old Testament was written in which language?  Hebrew.  And when you look up the word "fear" in a concordance, you'll find ten different Hebrew words that mean fear.  Fear that means to be afraid.  Fear that means to have reverence.  Fear that means to be terrified.  Fear  that means to be cautious.  And the word that is used most often in our Old Testament, is the kind of fear that means to respect, to revere, to stand in awe.  The kind of fear that causes someone to be both obedient and thankful because that one recognizes the word of the Lord and Master, the one who give us life and gives us grace.


Now, our New Testament is written in which language?  Greek.  How many words do you suppose there are in the concordance for the Greek New Testament word that we translate "fear" in English?  Basically, just one -- and in English, we know it as the word phobia.  So all the meanings of the ten words in the Old Testament, all the differences between terror and awe and fright and caution are erased, as it were, and are combined in one Greek word -- phobia.  And unfortunately, in our English language, to have a phobia is to be frightened to the point of being terrified, almost to the point of not being able to move.  We use it in the word claustrophobia -- being afraid of becoming trapped in a small area, like a closet or an elevator.  Some one who suffers from claustrophobia is almost paralyzed when they're in a small place.  They have trouble thinking clearly; they have trouble acting in a logical way; they're almost frozen in their fear.


All of us have phobias, of one size or another.  Young children sometimes fear the dark.  Adolescents fear zits and loss of popularity.  Older adults fear the loss of health, a diminution of worth and a lessening of acceptance by others.  Those in their middle years fear a loss of income, being fired from a job, not getting the next raise or promotion.  And there are the nagging little fears; when the kids stay out past the time when they said they'd be home, or when the unexpected breakdown of the washing machine or refrigerator throws the monthly budget out of whack.  And there are the bigger ones: the fact of crime and violence in our communities, the wars and rumors of wars.  There is much of which to be afraid these days.  All of us have phobias, fears that can paralyze us from taking any action.

 

There was a French psychologist, who gave an unusual illustration in one of his lectures.  He placed a four-inch plank across the floor of the room and asked people to walk across it.  People did, willingly.  Then he had workmen place it on two well anchored pillars, twenty feet in the air, with a sturdy ladder to reach it, and asked people to climb the ladder and walk across the same plank.  No one wanted to respond to his invitation. 


Why the difference?  It was the same plank.  The muscles were the same.  The mind was the same.  The will was the same.  It was phobia that made the difference.  When the plank was on the floor, there was no mental strain.  But when folks were on their own, twenty feet up in the air, they were paralyzed with uncertainty.


Life is something like that.  When we have something solid under our feet we walk the narrow way without fear.  It is when there seems to be nothing underneath that we get panicky, phobic.  When our minds have nothing to feed upon except our own state of mind, we lose our balance.  But when we know that we are supported by a solid foundation of divine truth, outside ourselves, we gather confidence and courage.  Our restless minds are forever fearful until they find that reality that is God.  It is faith that drives out fear.  And faith comes when we know that life has divine foundations that are secure.


That's what Jesus was talking about with the disciples then.  That's what Jesus would teach you and me today in his three declarations.


Jesus' first command for his disciples was: "Don't be afraid of what people may say."


The second was similar.  "Don't be afraid of physical death."  Henry van Dyke made an astute observation when he remarked, "Some people are so afraid to die, that they never begin to live."  You and I are created to proclaim the Lordship of Christ over all of life, regardless of the cost.  There was a church Tom Boyd served in Tennessee where there as an eccentric and flamboyant elder who impressed Tom with her intense commitment to the faith.  She did not have a pietistic bone in her body, but her devotion was nonetheless clear and articulate.  One evening at a dinner party in her home, they were animatedly discussing some theological idea.  In the midst of the give and take, the woman's teen age daughter, probably frustrated with all the high-blown discussion of religion, asked, "Mother, you talk about religion all the time.  Why are you so religious anyway?"  This query brought a loud hush to the dining table.  Her mother paused dramatically, pushed her chair back from the table, stood and responded, "Every morning before you are awake, I rise and walk into the living room.  I lift my arms and ask, 'Who's in charge here?'  The answer always comes back: 'Not you!'  That's why I am religious.  Because I am not in charge!"


The final command Jesus gives shouldn't need any explanation.  "Don't' be afraid that you are valueless in God's sight."  Jesus was born, and lived and preached and healed and suffered and died and was raised from the dead so that you and I might know the "breadth and length and height and depth" of God's love even though that love is beyond our complete comprehension.  The one who created you has redeemed you and sustains you.

Those who know the reality, those who dare to hope that it is true, are the ones who can hear Jesus say, "Don't be phobic -- Don't be afraid."

 

Be awe filled.  "Fear the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul."


And then be faithful.


God, you know all that keeps us from following Jesus as you intend us to.  Remove any fear that keeps us from glorifying and serving you as you would have us serve.  Replace it with awe and reverence so all our moments and days may be filled with the joy of glorifying you and enjoying you forever.  In the name of our risen Lord we ask it.  Amen. (1755)

 

 

 

 

 

 



[i].  Verses 11, 13, 17

[ii].  Verses 26, 28, 31

[iii]. The instructions there read:  "We hold that interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves (from the nature of the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down, and expounded in the light of like and unlike passages and of many and clearer passages) and which agree with the rule of faith and love and contributes much to the glory of God and man 's salvation."  (5.010)

"HA HA HA" -- Jeanne Gay -- June 15, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Jun 16, 11:52am
"HA HA HA" -- Jeanne Gay -- June 15, 2008

HA HA HA

Sermon preached by Jeanne Gay at Summit Presbyterian Church, June 15, 2008

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 Romans 5:1-8


 

(Before beginning, I told the congregation that this would be a participatory sermon and that they would know what they needed to do when it happened.)

 

Writer Frederick Buechner has a wonderful description that goes along with our Old Testament reading this morning. “The place to start,” he writes, “is with a woman laughing. She is an old woman, and, after a lifetime in the desert, her face is cracked and rutted like a six-month drought. She hunches her shoulders around her ears and starts to shake. She squinnies her eyes shut, and her laughter is all China teeth and wheeze and tears running down as she rocks back and forth in her kitchen chair. She is laughing because she is pushing ninety-one hard and has just been told she is going to have a baby.”[1]

Isn’t that a great description? Can’t you just see her? Of course Sarah laughed. Wouldn’t you?

It’s not been an uneventful life for Sarah—formerly known as Sarai. She’s spent years on the road with Abraham. When they were in Egypt once he passed her off as his sister instead of his wife, hoping to gain Pharaoh’s favor … and then a few years later he did it again! And all this time she’s been waiting and hoping for a child, but nothing. And God has kept on promising that Abraham would be a father … until finally she suggested that Abraham get together with her servant Hagar, and of course Hagar had little Ishmael … but that whole relationship has been nothing but grief for Sarah.

And here comes an angel from God, once again, and he says she’s going to have a baby. HA HA HA. (Here’s where I asked the congregation to say HA HA HA with me.) Like that’s going to happen!

Why do we laugh at things? Sometimes we laugh because we can see what’s going to happen—it’s expected. We’re watching a comedy sketch and see someone walk down the street and drop a banana peel … and as soon as the top-lofty lady with the big hat comes in view we know what’s going to happen, and we start laughing before she even gets close. HA HA HA.

But more often we laugh because something is unexpected. There’s a twist that we didn’t see coming. My daughter’s favorite joke goes like this: “A man walked into a bar … and he said ‘ouch!’” Wasn’t what you were expecting, was it?

Why is Sarah laughing? Well it’s just so ridiculous—someone saying that she’s going to have a baby. She’s older than any of the women in our congregation except Jean L—how would you ladies who’re over 80 feel if someone told you you’d be delivering a baby in nine months? HA HA HA. Sarah knows the way the world works—she understands natural law. And women her age—women for whom menstruation is merely a memory—those women just don’t get pregnant.

But of course, the joke was on Sarah. Nine months later and here came baby Isaac. And now she was laughing for joy. “God has brought laughter for me”—and wasn’t her child named he laughs?—“everyone who hears will laugh with me.” I imagine that every time Sarah looked at her little son, every time she held him in her arms, every time she saw him lying in the shade of the tent playing with his toes … I imagine then she felt that joy come welling up inside of her, that laughter of pure joy, for hadn’t God done something completely unexpected, completely wonderful … completely miraculous? Ninety-year-old women don’t have babies … but God promised it, and Sarah did.

There are lots of miracles in the Bible. And when you think about them—the burning bush that wasn’t consumed by fire, Jesus walking on water, Lazarus raised from the dead—they’re all violations of natural law. These things “just don’t happen,” the same way 90-year-old women just don’t have babies.

Now, we live in an age of investigative journalism. We live in an age in which we know better than to take something at face value. We live in an age when the “miracles” that we hear about are medical breakthroughs, technological advancements—things that can be “proven” scientifically, which is the yardstick we use these days to determine if something is true or not. And so it’s pretty darned hard to accept these Biblical miracles at face value, and we spend a lot of time trying to come up with scientific explanations for them. In fact, when I did a Google check on the sun standing still in the book of Joshua, the first two screens worth of responses were attempts to determine scientifically whether this really could have happened or not.

Now, we could say that people in Biblical times were a lot more gullible than we are and more willing to believe in these unscientific, contrary-to-rational-thought “miracles” … but didn’t we just see that Sarah was laughing at that very thing? She may not have had a laboratory to run tests in or a computer to analyze data, but she knew the way the world worked—she understood natural law. She knew she was too old to have a baby, but have a baby she did.

And I’m guessing that Sarah’s kind of disbelieving laughter, that laughter at something that is so unexpected as to be impossible … I’m guessing that that’s how people responded to a lot of the miracles in the Bible.

The sea parted—just dried up with a nice path through it—so the Israelites could come across! What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

The sun stopped moving for almost a complete day! What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine! What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead! What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

Christ died for us so we will have eternal life! What? HA HA HA.

Wait. There’s something a bit different about that last one, isn’t there? No natural law is violated—this is of a different world entirely. There’s nothing we can see or taste, hear or smell that tells us that even though this isn’t “possible” under natural law, it happens anyway.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been taking a class on the Niebuhr brothers—Reinhold and H. Richard—who were American theologians around the middle of the twentieth century. And H. Richard Niebuhr, in a book called The Meaning of Revelation, said something interesting about this. He talked about how the central miracle of the Scriptures—that Christ died for us and rose again, and that through him we are reconciled to God and have eternal life—this central miracle “is an impenetrable mystery, no matter how much astonishment it calls forth. So miraculous Scriptures were related to miracles in the realm of nature, to a sun that stood still, a virgin-born child, to water turned by a word into wine.”[2]

There’s no way we can touch or hear or taste or see this promised miracle. It can’t be proven in a laboratory or verified with data analysis. But it is so surrounded by the “miracles in the realm of nature” that God has given us that maybe … maybe … yes! we believe it.

And here’s Paul, writing to the church in Rome … Paul, who was miraculously claimed by Jesus after he’d been persecuting the believers. And Paul says, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Us, sharing the glory of God? What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

Paul writes, “God proves God’s love for us in that while we were sinners—[while we are sinners]—Christ died for us.” Christ died for us lazy, jealous, angry, greedy, proud jerks? What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

Paul writes, “We are justified by faith.” We don’t have to lead sinless lives but just need to say, yes, we believe, and we’ll be saved from the wrath of God? What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit the world as we know it, the world in which there’s no free lunch, in which you get what you pay for. It’s unexpected. It’s a miracle.

And like old Sarah, rocking herself back and forth, tears streaming down her cheeks, we can only grin and laugh, slap our hands on our knees, and shout with joy. It’s unexpected, it’s impossible, it’s miraculous, it’s grace.

HA HA HA. Wow.  

 



[1] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth, qtd. in Don Hoffman, “F. Buechner on Sarah Laughing (Gen. 18), PRCL-L. 12 Jun 2008. 14 Jun 2008.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (Louisville, KY: WJK, 1963), p. 39.

"Abraham, Child of the Covenant" -- Jim Eby -- June 8, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Jun 16, 11:50am
"Abraham, Child of the Covenant" -- Jim Eby -- June 8, 2008

Summit Presbyterian Church June 9, 2002

Delivered by Jim Eby Abraham, child of the covenant Genesis 11:31 - 12:9

 

There’s a bit of mystery here in this passage from Genesis.  What do you suppose it was that caused Abram’s father, Terah, to pull up stakes and leave the city of Ur in Babylonia?  What caused him to leave the security and land and family and set out on a trip up and across that strip of land we call Athe fertile crescent@?  What caused Terah to take his most valued possession, his first born son, Abram, Abram’s wife Sarai, and his grandson Lot and begin the journey?  A journey of 1,000 miles.  What caused the four of them to begin that long, long pilgrimage?  Those weren’t the days when your company transferred you time after time after time so you might live in nine different places in your life time.  No, those were the times when you lived in the same place for nine generations.

Something radical must have happened to cause Terah to leave the grave-site of one son, to leave his third son and the place where he had grown up.  Something life-changing must have happened to cause Terah to take his son and daughter-in-law and grandson and begin that journey to Canaan.

What prompted that journey?  We have no record that will tell us, but I have a fantasy.  Do you suppose, is it just possible that God called Terah to make that trip?  Had Terah left hearth and home and begun that journey as a faithful response to the call of God?

That’s my fantasy.  And my further fantasy is that something interrupted that journey.  Something caused that party of four to settle down at Haran, at the top part of the fertile crescent.  Was Terah feeling old?  Was he sick?  Had something or someone blurred his vision of that call from God?  Had their resources run low?  Had they found a farm they couldn’t refuse?

We have no clue.  All the biblical record tells us is that there at Haran, the four stopped, half-way to faithfulness.  And there Terah died.

It’s an awkward place to be, isn’t it?  Half-way.  If you are on an airplane trip, it’s called the point of no return.  You are at that place where you are closer to where you are going than you are to the place from which you began your journey.  If you run into trouble, it’s smarter to go on that it is to try to turn back.


It’s an awkward place, but it’s also a place filled with promise.  You have already accomplished half of your objective.  It’s like you are on the down-hill slope, headed for the finish line.  The goal is in sight and you often develop that second wind that makes achievement possible.

Unless there are things that would hold you back, that would tempt you to spend your time and energies on something other than your original objective.

We don’t know whether that was what happened to Terah, other than the statement that he died in Haran.  And then, suddenly, almost abruptly, our narrator tells us, AThe Lord said to Abram, ALeave your native land, your relatives and your father’s home, and go to a country that I am going to show you.@A (But Abram had already done that!  These must have been the same words spoken to Terah that had not been followed obediently B so they are the words for the next generation -- Abram is invited to do what Terah didn’t.)

How did Abram know it was the Lord speaking to him?  Somehow Abram knew about this Lord who called him to continue to journey.  Again I fantasize that Terah had told him, father to son, the same way you and I tell our children that which we know about God.  And somehow, when Abram head the Lord speak to him and call him to make the journey and made a covenant with him, somehow Abram was able to recognize this was the Lord speaking, the one who was his creator and redeemer and sustainer, and Abram was able to respond with faithfulness and begin the last leg of the journey from Ur in Babylonia to the land of Canaan.

Abram wasn’t a young man any more, although he wasn’t feeble and decrepit at 75.  According to the Genesis calendar, he was to live 100 years more.  So, he was in the middle years of his life, comfortable and prosperous.  As his father’s eldest son, he, of course, inherited the lion’s share of the estate when Terah died.  He was at least prosperous, if not royally rich.  He probably owned land there in Haran; he had slaves and was respected.  And suddenly, he announced that he was going to respond to God’s instructions.  In obedience to God’s call, Abram was going to leave his country, his kindred, and sell the land he had inherited and begin this pilgrimage into the unknown B in obedience.

In obedience.  In response to the covenant God made with him.  The narrator remembers it this way: God said: AI will give you many descendants, and they will become a great nation.  I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing.@


We need to be very clear that we understand that Abram was not called, he was not selected, because he had done something meritorious.  God’s invitation to Abram was pure grace, it was an undeserved gift.  Of course, he was not called to be a pilgrim for his own sake.  He was called and given the promise of God’s blessing, for the sake of the whole world.  He was blessed that he might be a blessing.  He was named child of the covenant so that others would be drawn into that covenant.  That is always true of all of God’s gifts.  Blessings are meant to be shared.  Yeast is meant to be hidden in dough.  A lamp is meant to be put on a stand.  Salt is meant to lose itself as it provides taste.  And Abram was meant to be the prototype of faith and trust which exhibits itself in obedient pilgrimage.

It’s been a long time now, some 50 years, since one young man graduated from law school.  He was successful by the usual standards.  During the last of his years in school, he and his partner were operating a $50,000 a year business.  That was a ton of money back then.  Within a few years after graduation, he was worth $1,000,000, had a salary of $100,000 a year and had revised his goal from simply being a millionaire to that of acquiring ten million dollars.  And then his life began to crumble around him.  He was fortunate enough to have met an unusual farmer - preacher - Greek New Testament scholar named Clarence Jordan.  And when the young man’s world came unglued all around him he went to Koinonia Partners and to Clarence in Americus, Georgia.  The result of that visit was that he and his wife Linda identified a vision they felt God had given them, and they started, like Abram, on a pilgrimage.  They sold their business to which they had become enslaved and gave all the money to charitable causes.  Then they gave themselves to service at Tougaloo College, then in Americus, Georgia, and then in Zaire.  They began to organize villagers into teams that built houses out of the materials at hand, and village after village realized the joy of affordable homes that gave them a whole new way of living.

Those of you who have worked on or read the incredible story of Habitat for Humanity know that young man’s name is Millard Fuller.  His ministry since 1965 is a result of his hearing God call him to leave the image of success that was eating him up and to spend his life giving instead of getting.  He began to live in such a way that he understood the reality of Jesus’ words: AWhoever tries to gain his own life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it.@  And day by day, other lives continue to be touched and other people are beginning to experience God’s love and grace through the ministry of Habitat for Humanity. 

This Genesis passage says there is yet another observation to make about Abram B his pilgrimage was made in obedience and in worship.

The first thing they did when they got to the promised land was to build an altar there to God.  They worshiped, they gave thanks for the way God had kept covenant.  They placed a marker, a physical reminder, that it was God who had brought them safely on the long and often dangerous journey from Haran to Shechem.  It was God who had provided for their safe journey across the desert and the mountains.  It was God who had made it possible for Abram and the crew to travel in obedience.

And when they knew that, when they recognized that, they had to give thanks for the way God had kept covenant.  They worshiped and recommitted themselves to continue to journey wherever God would lead them.

Those are the appropriate responses for us to make today in answer to God’s call.  Obedience and worship.  We have not yet reached the end of our pilgrimage.  We have not yet fully matured in faith and action.  There is still work to be done and travel to be attempted until that time when we, like Paul, have completed our race, fought the good fight and are accepted as righteous.

Let us remember our own baptism.  Let us claim our heritage as children of Abraham.  Let us be about the pilgrimage he began as a child of the covenant.

Our Father, we hear your call to grow into more mature disciples of our Lord and Savior.  We know your summons to join the parade of pilgrims.  Help us to follow, even as we ask the questions B AWhere are we going?@ and AWhen will we get there?@  Help us to trust and respond.  In the name of our risen Lord we ask it.  Amen.

Rock and Water, Bread and Wine -- Jeanne Gay -- June 1, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Jun 2, 2:11pm
Rock and Water, Bread and Wine -- Jeanne Gay -- June 1, 2008

Rock and Water, Bread and Wine

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

June 1, 2008 Summit Presbyterian Church

Matthew 7:21-29 Psalm 46


 

I’m guessing that just about everyone here has built a sandcastle at some point in their lives. Yes? Part of the wonder of building sandcastles is their impermanence. The tide comes in and starts lapping at the moat we built and the ramparts, and then one good wave comes through—and everything is gone.

So this passage makes sense to us. It’s pretty obvious that rock is the better choice for a foundation if we don’t want tide and wind to destroy everything we’ve built. And we’ve got all those great songs about building on our rock. “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” “Rock of ages.” “Who trusts in God’s unchanging love / Builds on the rock that naught can move.” Ah, this verse is not so hard!

But when Jesus’ words aren’t hard, then we’re not looking deep enough.

Let’s go back and look at them again. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

It’s a little scary to think that a modern interpretation of that might have Jesus rejecting folks like us: folks who have been to worship every Sunday, invited people to church, visited the sick, prayed faithfully … even the ones who’ve gotten into the pulpit and prophesied in God’s name.

Who is it again who will enter the kingdom of heaven? “Only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Okay, so what does that involve?

We need to look at where this passage falls within the book of Matthew—it’s the end of the Sermon on the Mount. So when Jesus says, “Whoever hears these words of mine and acts on them,” he’s talking about all those words in that sermon. Words like these:

§ “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

§ “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and … if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

§ “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

§ “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

§ “Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Oh, those words. But those words are well-nigh impossible! How the heck are we supposed to be perfect—as perfect as God?

There’s a challenge, eh?

If you can manage to meet this “impossible” challenge, then you’ll be as a person who’s built her house on rock.

So does that mean that we’re all stuck with houses built on sand? What kind of a lousy trick would that be, eh? Does that mean that none of us will ever be secure, ever be safe?

There are two parts of the answer to that question. The first is that on our own, no, we can’t meet the impossible challenges of the Sermon on the Mount. Even if we could manage to work really hard to never be angry at each other, to never allow any part of ourselves to sin, and always to turn the other cheek, we’d still never manage to be perfect as God is perfect. But God doesn’t ask us to do it all on our own. Look at the psalm we read this morning, Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. … The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter. … The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

And when this psalm says, “Be still,” it’s really saying “Cease and desist. Stop all your running around. Stop all your worrying, and know that I am God.” So the first part of the answer to the impossible challenge of hearing and acting on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount is that we can’t do it by ourselves.

And the second part of the answer to the question of whether we can be as people who have built their houses on rock has to do with how we choose the rock we’re building on.

I heard a story this week about a man who, during the Vietnam War, was in the navy. Because his ship was to be sailing for weeks in dreadfully hot weather, the brass decided it should be equipped with air conditioners. Thirteen great big machines. He was part of the crew that installed the air conditioners … and part of the crew that had to take them apart when they completely slowed to a stop after two weeks. And what they discovered was that the inner workings of the air conditioners were covered with barnacles. “You know what barnacles are, right?” this man wrote. “They are little animals, distantly related to crabs and lobsters, but instead of moving around, they grab onto a rock and spend their whole lives there. There are 1200 different species of barnacles, and at least one of those species can’t tell the difference between the outside of a rock and the inside of an air conditioner. The air conditioners used salt water to cool themselves down; the barnacles moved in and clogged up the system.”[1]

We can be like those barnacles, looking desperately for a rock to cling to—and end up choosing the wrong one. We live in a culture that teaches us that a lot of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount is just completely crazy. A culture that teaches us that rather than follow Jesus’ turn-the-cheek policy we should work on the premise that the best defense is a good offense. A culture that teaches us that if our right hand causes us to sin, we should re-think our idea of sin and “if it feels good, do it.” A culture that teaches us that the best church is the one with the nicest music, the most entertaining sermons and the biggest congregations. All those teachings are rocks on which we can build our lives … but they’re not the rock that Jesus was talking about.

And sometimes we grasp the rock—we comprehend the rock—in a way that makes sense for us at a particular point in our lives, and then we’re unwilling to ever let go. A few years ago I knew a man named Bill who grew up with a very fundamentalist understanding of God. At some point in his life he’d found that understanding to be limited—and limiting—and he recognized that God was a whole lot bigger than he’d thought. His brother Joe, though, was still clinging to that childhood understanding of God. An understanding that said that if Joe didn’t toe the line, he wasn’t going to make it to heaven. An understanding that said that the line to be toed was very narrow. When Joe’s teenaged son announced that he was gay, Joe “knew” that wasn’t acceptable to God, and he threw the kid out of the house. Wouldn’t speak to his son.

Joe wasn’t a happy man. And one day he said to his brother Bill, my friend, “It feels like I’m in the middle of a rushing river, and I’m clinging as hard as I can to the rock—to God—but the river is getting stronger and stronger.”

And Bill said an amazing thing: “Have you ever considered that God is not the rock but the river?”

Perhaps God is the river. The river whose streams make glad the city of God. The water of life. Living water. Water that sustains us, water that changes us. The water of baptism that marks us as God’s children.

Water that is turned into wine. Come to the table, my friends, and celebrate God’s being the foundation beneath your feet and the host of the table beside you—the push behind you to grow and the pull in front of you to worship.



[1] Don Hoffman. “Draft – Like a Bunch of Barnacles.” PRCL-L. 5/31/08. < http://mail.google.com/mail/?ui=2#inbox/11a401c87c8dc5b7>

"Resting in Confidence and Love" -- Jeanne Gay -- May 25, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on May 25, 12:52pm
"Resting in Confidence and Love" -- Jeanne Gay -- May 25, 2008

Resting in Confidence and Love

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

May 25, 2008 Summit Presbyterian Church

Matthew 6:24-34 Psalm 131


 

Consider the lilies. It’s a lovely passage, isn’t it? “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Ah.

“If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you—you of little faith.” Ah yes.

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” And some of us start to cringe—here it comes, the warning not to be anxious. And how can we help being anxious when the news is full of the mortgage crisis and the recession (even though we’re not supposed to call it that), and gas prices are predicted to hit $5.00/gallon this summer, and companies are laying people off!

And what kind of lives would we be living anyway, if we just sat back and waited for God to provide? Aren’t we supposed to study hard in school in preparation for our futures? Aren’t we supposed to work hard so that our families can be secure, so that we won’t have to rely too heavily on our children for support when we’re old? Aren’t we supposed to take this world seriously so that we can get to work to make it a better place? Huh? Huh? Are we supposed to just kick back, have a tall cold drink, start singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” and expect that everything we need is going to fall into our laps? Doesn’t the Bible also tell us that God helps those who help themselves? Huh? Huh?

Well, actually, the Bible doesn’t say that God helps those who help themselves, though about two-thirds of Americans think it does. That’s where what some of my professors call our American civic religion diverges from Christianity. Our culture does tell us to get out there and hustle if we think we’ve got any chance of making it in this world … and that if we aren’t successful, it’s because we didn’t hustle hard enough.

But the Bible doesn’t say that. The Bible says, “Consider the lilies of the field” and “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” It’s the next line after that one that we really need to pay attention to: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Strive first—not necessarily first chronologically but first as in “above all else” for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness (and the Greek there—dikaiosunen—can also be translated justice). Strive above all for the kingdom of God and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Okay. So we’re not supposed to be anxious, though that doesn’t mean we’re not supposed to work. All right.

There’s a lovely image of that lack of anxiety in the Psalm that Ben read this morning, Psalm 131. I’ll admit that somehow I’d never noticed this psalm until I started preparing for this morning. But I have to say that it’s a keeper.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul within me is like a weaned child.

O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

Like a weaned child with its mother. My soul is like a weaned child.

Those of you who have had experience with breastfed babies have probably noticed something that I learned 28 years ago when my son was an infant. You cannot hold a breastfed baby cradled in front of you. Or at least not my babies. Because what do they do in that position? They start rooting around for something to eat! It’s worst with the mother, of course, but I’ve seen babies going after daddies, grandfathers, twelve-year-old babysitters …

But this is a weaned child. A child who no longer expects food when held in his mother’s arms or on her lap, but a child who finds comfort and peace in that position.

And this is a child, not a baby. In Old Testament times they didn’t generally wean babies at three months or six months and then switch them to bottled formula. No, those babies were probably nursed for at least two years and likely longer. There are references in the Bible to babies being nursed for three years, and we know that Samuel’s mother took him to the temple and handed him over to Eli once she had weaned him. I doubt Eli wanted a toddler in the temple—Samuel may well have been four or five years old.

So this weaned child that the psalmist compares himself to is not a helpless infant but a child old enough to get up and run around, to explore the world ... old enough to have chores to do: help set the table at dinner time, put his own pajamas on after his bath … old enough to want more—to bang his older sister over the head with his toy truck or grab the red crayon out of his friend’s fingers or climb to the top of the bookshelves to find the candy hidden there. This child is old enough to start worrying about whether he’s getting his share of the time with a favorite toy, anxious about getting hold of the right crayon for coloring his picture of an apple, old enough to be upset about not getting enough candy. But in his mother’s arms this child is calm and quiet. He calms and quiets himself in her lap. He knows he’s safe there. He can rest in her love.

There are things he needs to do in his world, child chores to finish and little kid connections to make. But there’s a safe place for him to rest, and a mother who knows that he needs all of these things, whether he’s scrambling after them or not.

The psalmist says that he is not trying to be king of the world—“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, / my eyes are not raised too high”—and he is not trying to run the world—“I do not occupy myself with things / too great and too marvelous for me.” But he has calmed and quieted his soul; his trust and his hope are in God’s arms.

And that’s what Jesus is saying in our text from Matthew as well: Do not worry about your life, do not think that without you the earth will not spin on its axis; do not assume that without your fretting the hungry of the world will never be fed, the soldiers will never beat their swords into plowshares, and the prisoners will never be set free. Go out and work for these things, yes, for this is God’s justice, but first sit in God’s lap. Calm and quiet your soul like a weaned child resting in her mother’s arms. There are things you need to do, yes, but remember that God’s arms are waiting there for you … and that, ultimately, the salvation of the world is in God’s hands, not yours.

We all have things we fret over. I learned a few weeks ago that I won’t be able to start looking for a call to a new church early this fall as I had been planning (thinking I’d be able to start in a new position at the beginning of the new year). Instead I’ll need to wait to start circulating my dossier until at least December if not January or February. “Oh, no,” I thought. But what if I can’t stay in my apartment at the seminary after I’ve finished taking classes? And how will I know whether to sign on for a complete semester of teaching in the spring, in case a church wants me before May? And what if, and how, and when and where … ?

And then I remembered the summer of 2006, when I was looking for a church to do my field education in and couldn’t find any place and then didn’t want to come to Summit because Bill Levering said they couldn’t pay me, but gee, that’s the only place I could find … and by January I had a part-time paid position in a church that I love, with people who are working hard to be God’s hands and arms in the world, getting amazing experience that will help immeasurably when it’s time to find a church. Indeed my heavenly Parent knew that I needed all these things.

And so now I’m practicing crawling into God’s lap and resting there; I’m practicing resting confidently in the knowledge that God knows what I need and has a plan for me; I’m practicing not being anxious over how and when and where I’ll find a church.

Yes, we all have things we fret over. Things that keep us awake at night as we toss them and turn them in our minds. Worries that keep us focused on them instead of on God. You know what yours are—I’ll bet there isn’t a person here (except maybe some of our youngest children) who doesn’t have some of those worries. And so I’m going to invite you right now to close your eyes and picture God sitting in a rocking chair and holding out those loving arms to you. Crawl up into God’s lap for a few moments now, and let God hold you and rock you. You can even suck your thumb if you want. Quiet your soul.

[long pause]

Let us pray:
Gracious Mother/Father God, thank you for holding us as your beloved weaned children. Thank you for calming our anxieties and soothing our worries. Help us, like confident children, to seek you first and then go into the world striving for your kingdom and your righteousness, knowing that you know what we need. Amen, and amen.

Burnin', Blowin', Shakin', Squawkin' -- Jeanne Gay -- May 11, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on May 16, 12:39pm
Burnin', Blowin', Shakin', Squawkin' -- Jeanne Gay -- May 11, 2008

Burnin’, Blowin’, Shakin’, Squawkin’:
A Participatory Sermon for Pentecost and Mother’s Day

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

May 11, 2008 Summit Presbyterian Church

Numbers 11:24-30 Acts 2:1-2


 

It's Pentecost! The church's birthday!

You know the story. The disciples have been hanging around waiting, and suddenly—on the Jewish festival of the first fruits, when Jerusalem was full—there’s wind! There’s fire! People can understand what the disciples are preaching even though they speak different languages. Someone said to me recently, “Think about it – Peter preaches a one-paragraph sermon that includes the word drunk, and 3000 people immediately become Christians.”

I know the Holy Spirit was involved there, because I’m telling you as a preacher that I don’t believe that one-paragraph sermon with 3000 converts is possible for the most amazing of preachers, all on their own. (Of course, pretty much nothing that happens here from the pulpit happens just because of the preacher who’s in it. The Holy Spirit is always active when a sermon speaks to us.)

Let’s look at the images the scripture uses to describe the Holy Spirit’s being there that morning: “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” Wind and fire!

What did that mean, that there were tongues of flame resting on them? Flame on them—but they weren’t burned up. Hm. Remember the burning bush? Fire in the Bible was often a sign of God’s presence. Even the seraphim, the angels who attended God—their name means the burning ones. So the fire meant that God was there.

And wind. The Old and New Testament words for windruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek—these were also the words for breath. And because for the ancient Hebrews breath was life (for without breath there is no life), then wind is breath and it’s the spirit of life. So the wind meant that the spirit, the spirit of life was there.

What was happening here at this birth day of the church? What gifts were we given from this very beginning? Why, the gift of God’s presence and the gift of the spirit of life.

The spirit of life. Life, not death. Jesus said that he came so that all would live … and live abundantly. Abundant life. Living large, as we sometimes hear.

“Living large” is something that Celtic Christianity knows about. This is the form of Christianity that sprang up early on in the British Isles, particularly Scotland and Ireland. (St. Patrick was an early missionary planting the seeds there.) This is a Christianity that was very close to nature. And the image they have of the Holy Spirit is the wild goose. From the Bible we also get an image of the Holy Spirit as a bird, but there it’s a dove. Doves are gentle, and they make that nice coo coo sound. But wild geese! They don’t coo; they squawk! They honk! And they’re not gentle and peaceful—they’re loud and untamable.

What a great image for the Holy Spirit! Strong and challenging, strident and unnerving, like a wild goose the Spirit stirs us up … it challenges us … it says get up and live.

There’s a poem by Ronald Meredith about wild geese flying over a farm and the effect they had on the tame ducks on the pond. It ends this way:

They heard the wild call they had once known.
The honking out of the night
sent little arrows of prompting deep into their wild yesterdays.
Their wings fluttered a feeble response.
The urge to fly—
to take their place in the sky for which God made them
—was sounding in their feathered breasts,
but they never raised from the water.

The matter had been settled long ago.
The corn of the barnyard was too tempting.[1]

The corn of the barnyard was too tempting.

We’ve had that experience, haven’t we. The corn of our barnyards—our traditions, our “we never did it that way befores,” our houses that we’re fixing up, those lovely antiques we inherited from our ancestors—all the things, good and bad, that keep us tied down are the “corn” that tempts us to stay where we are, to do as we’ve always done, to think as we’ve always thought.

But the wild goose keeps calling! And the Holy Spirit—that great wild goose—doesn’t want us to live narrow lives but to live abundantly, to live large, to live lives that dance and fly, lives filled with joy.

Lives that love God and love our neighbors. Lives that are creative forces for good in the world.

150 years ago, a woman named Anna Reeves Jarvis, a homemaker in Appalachia, lived such a life. She organized a day she called Mother’s Work Day, a day to raise awareness of poor health conditions in her community. It was a cause she felt mothers would be the best advocates for. Throughout the years of the Civil War, she kept on organizing. She worked with women on both sides of the conflict to encourage better care for all the wounded, and after the war she worked for reconciliation between Union and Confederate neighbors.

135 years ago, Julia Ward Howe, author of the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a pacifist and suffragist in Boston, heard about Anna Reeves Jarvis’s work and wrote a poem called “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which called for a Mother’s Day for Peace.

And that’s the origin of the Mother’s Day we celebrate today. It wasn’t originally supposed to be a “lovely dove” kind of a day, a take-your-mother-out-to-dinner day, but a wild goose day. A day filled with passion for peace and health and love of neighbor. A day filled with wind and fire!

Sort of like a day of giving birth.

Sort of like Pentecost, the birth day of the church.

The Holy Spirit was there on that birth day, birthing the church itself. And the Holy Spirit—that great mothering Spirit—is with us today and every day, calling us with that wild goose cry to be born again to lives of passion and peace … perhaps to march next Sunday in the Peace Walk, or visit someone from church who hasn't been able to get here for a while.

That great mothering Spirit calls us to be born again to live abundantly, to live large … to know that there is enough for all—more than enough—and that we are called to give out of our bounty, perhaps to Presbyterian Disaster Relief for the survivors of the cyclone in Myanmar, or perhaps to a student you know who needs some help buying books for next semester, or perhaps to a family in your neighborhood who could use someone to watch the kids for a couple of hours.

That great mothering Spirit births us again, and again and again, in fire and wind to live lives filled with God and to spread God’s love throughout our families, our neighborhoods, our city, our country, our world.

The Holy Spirit is here, my friends. In the sunlight shining through the windows and alighting like flames on our heads … in the breeze that is the spirit of life … in the call of the children that is the call to life abundant … in the women and men who have nurtured us. The Spirit is gentle and kind, like a dove. And the spirit is loud and messy and insistent – like fire and wind, like a wild goose, like your mother calling! All at the same time!

Amen, and Amen.

 

Note: When I said wind or fire, everyone waved a flame-colored cloth. When I said wild goose/geese, everyone honked (and the children waved their arms). When I said mother, everyone patted or hugged some (or themselves if sitting alone).


[1] Meredith, Ronald. “Wild Geese Flying”

God, in Whom We Have Our Being -- Jeanne Gay -- April 27, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on May 16, 12:24pm
God, in Whom We Have Our Being -- Jeanne Gay -- April 27, 2008

God, in Whom We Have Our Being

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

April 27, 2008 Summit Presbyterian Church

Acts 17:22-31 John 14:15-21


 

I’ve always loved this story in Acts. Here’s Paul in the midst of the most sophisticated thinkers of his time—you know, the ones who like to think they’re really open-minded but look down on folks who aren’t quite as cool as they are all the same. This is the spot where the best debaters go to discuss whatever’s new. I suppose in many ways it was like Point-Counterpoint or Larry King, or maybe The McNeil Hour or some such. If you wanted to be really up on the latest thinking, you went to hang around the Areopagus.

And here comes Paul. Now we know that Paul had Roman citizenship and had been trained in rhetoric and the best of Jewish thinking, but it always makes me a little nervous to think of him in Athens, amongst the best and brightest philosophers of his day. I have a second cousin in Nebraska who’s married to a lawyer. Now, he’s really bright and knows a heck of a lot more about agricultural law than most East Coast lawyers, but he’s told me about the condescension he gets from attorneys in this part of the world. And that’s kind of the way I see Paul in Athens.

But Paul manages to get to these sophisticated Athenians on their own turf, because he’s found this altar to an unknown God, and it’s a great opening to tell them about his God. And he does it brilliantly, doesn’t he? He starts by complimenting them on being “extremely religious in every way” and telling about how he had gone through the city looking carefully at all the evidence of their religious worship. And then he tells them that he’s going to tell them about this unknown God they’ve got—not introducing a new god into their panoply but just filling them in on one they’ve already got, even though they don’t really know this god.

We could look at this as a nice story about something that happened a long time ago by someone long since gone. But there are a few things that Paul says to the Athenians that bear emphasizing to the Mt.Airyans of today. Actually, all of what he says in this passage is a great introduction to who God is, but I’m going to highlight just three today.

Paul starts by describing God as the one “who made the world and everything in it, [the one] who is the Lord of heaven and earth” and tells the people there that this God “does not live in shrines made by human hands.” We’re not likely to erect little shrines for God to live in, these days, at least, not physical shrines. But I think we do erect mental shrines for God. We define God, and by defining God, we limit God. That’s the origin of the word define—to set limits or boundaries.

It’s a very human need—to define. We like to “get a handle” on things, and we like to get a handle on God. Think about it: when you have a handle for something, you can carry it around—it’s in your power. But what Paul is reminding us here is that God cannot be “handled”; God cannot be tamed; God cannot be confined in a shrine of our making. We can never fully define God, because once we’ve done so to our satisfaction, we’ve enshrined God. And that’s not where God lives.

We’ve all tried to get a handle on God at various times in our lives. When I was a small child, I thought I had a pretty good picture of God—he had a long white beard, and he lived “up there” where people didn’t go … and if you were good, at Christmas time he would drop through the chimney and leave you presents.

Sometimes people get stuck on a God who is always looking over their shoulder to find out when they’re doing the wrong thing, just waiting to punish them. Or a God who blesses their country—whether it be Germany or Israel or the United States.

But all of these, my friends, are shrines made by human hands. God can’t be tamed and put in our boxes. God’s way bigger than that.

Paul continues, saying that “From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth” All of us are made by God, and we come from the same source. The Athenians are not the only ones created by God, and neither are the Jews. Nor are the Americans the only ones so blessed. Nor the Presbyterians … or the Christians for that matter. Nor the Democrats, nor the liberals, nor those who recycle. All nations. All people.

We get this one, right? Whether it’s from Adam and Eve or from chimpanzees, we know that humans are all created the same. No problem. But I think we sometimes have trouble living this one out. Because, y’know, we’re good people here. Just look around you—pretty good people here at Summit Presbyterian Church in Mt.Airy this morning. People who’ve come out on a rainy morning to worship God. And we know that there are an awful lot of bad people in the world. Don’t we watch the news? So surely God likes our part of the family better, right?

It’s a sign that we’ve got God boxed up—enshrined—if God seems to look down on all the same people we do. That would be defining God in our image. And that’s not the way it works.

Paul goes on, saying that not only did God make all the peoples, but God “allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us.”

Ah. Interesting. God created us with limitations and boundaries. God has no boundaries, but we do. And one of the effects of those limitations is that we all have a hunger for God.

The Athenians demonstrated that hunger with a city full of shrines to many gods, including this Unknown God.

In 21st century America, how do we demonstrate our hunger for God? Sometimes it’s by coming to church, or mosque or synagogue. Sometimes it’s by adopting Native American practices … or Tibetan or Wiccan or ancient Celtic practices. Sometimes it’s by loving nature. Sometimes it’s by looking for organizations or movements that inspire us.

We all have that hunger in us. Augustine called it the “God-shaped hole” in us. Sometimes we fill it up with other things—drugs and alcohol, maybe, or success and wealth, or the Perfect Relationship—or family … maybe even with church activities. But the hunger that we were created with is for God.

We are created to “search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being.’” Perhaps this was radical news for the ancient Athenians. Perhaps the reason they’d built shrines for all their gods was so they could feel close to divinity. But Paul is saying that that’s unnecessary, because God is “not far from each of us.” Indeed, it is in God that we live and move and have our being. We live in God. Whether we know it or not, we live in God.”

I found a story about a small fish who went to his mother one day and said, “I keep hearing about this thing called water, but I can’t figure out what it is. In school today [get it? School of fish?] they were talking about it, so I swam all around looking for this thing called water, but I couldn’t find it. I swam to the top of the ocean, but I couldn’t find it. I swam into the depths of the sea and I couldn’t find it. I swam to where the ocean met the land—I can’t find it. Where is this thing called water?”

As the fish lives and moves and has its being in water, so we live and move and have our being in God. Whether we recognize that God is there or not, we live in God. Whether we try to define God or not, we move in God. Whether we try to reject God or not, we have our being in God.

And what is our response? Why, thankfulness. Thankfulness that God surrounds us every day, all day. Surrounds us with love, surrounds us with the desire that we would follow God’s will. Surrounds us with sorrow when life goes against us. Surrounds us with hope that a better day will come. Creates in us a longing to find God—and all we have to do is open our eyes.

 

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