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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.

 

On the Road -- Jim Eby -- April 6, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on May 16, 12:15pm
On the Road -- Jim Eby -- April 6, 2008

Summit Presbyterian Church April 6, 2008

Delivered by Jim Eby ON THE ROAD AGAIN Luke 24:13-35

Why were they going to Emmaus?  Cleopas and the other one.  Why were they making that seven mile journey, walking west into the sun late in the afternoon? 

It was near the end of the first day of the week.  It must have felt like a life-time ago they had left Emmaus to journey to Jerusalem.  Perhaps they had come for the celebration of the Passover and had stayed with friends to eat the meal that celebrated the faithfulness of their redeeming God.

Perhaps they stayed on with those friends so they wouldn't break the law about traveling on the Sabbath.  Perhaps they been so devastated by the crucifixion of their Lord that they could not travel, not even the familiar road to Emmaus. 

I fantasize they were there that morning when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women came running back just after dawn and told them of the tomb that was empty.  They must have been amazed by the report of the women of the conversation with the angels who announced that Jesus was not there, but was risen, just as he had said he would while he was with them in Galilee.

So now, in the late part of the afternoon, while they walked, they talked about all those reports that mystified them so.  They tried to sort out their grief and make sense out of all the non-sense.  They walked west into the sunset, and some have suggested that the setting sun so dazzled them that they could not see the face of the person who may have had the hood of his cloak over his head as a sun screen.  Is that why they did not recognize the one who caught up with them on the road and walked with them?  How did they fail to feel the familiar as they walked and talked with this man who was on the road again, preaching and teaching the common folk, going to them in their houses and synagogues, not waiting or expecting them to come to him?

Maybe they were so convinced that Jesus was bound in the grasp of death that they could not recognize the one who came and joined them as they walked wearily home.  They had seen Jesus crucified.  They knew the trustworthiness of the women who had gone with Joseph of Arimathea as he took to body and provided it a decent burial.  They knew the reality of a closed and sealed tomb.  Maybe they were so convinced by the reality of that death that they couldn't remember the words Jesus had spoken.  Or perhaps they had believed that Jesus was speaking in parables again, as he spoke of "rising to life after three days."


They were astonished when the stranger asked them what they were talking about as they journeyed.  It probably took the better part of an hour, as the two disciples interrupted each other to explain the facts and the experiences.  And after they had tried to explain their deep sadness, the words came, and I believe they came with compassion and love: "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!"  And the stranger proceeded to explain how Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of all the promises, hopes and dreams of God's people from the time of Moses, from the time of the Passover they had just celebrated.

That's not something new for Jesus to do, is it?  Jesus always seems to come into the very ordinary moment, into the places we least expect to find him.  Even in the midst of a meal, in the midst of the breaking of the bread.

And it was the breaking of the bread that opened their eyes.  They had arrived at Emmaus, and when their new found friend began to say good-bye, to walk on, they invited him to spend the night with them.  That is the usual thing that happens in that part of the world.  It's the law of hospitality.  And as they sat down at the table, the visitor did something very unusual.  HE assumed the role of the head of the household.  HE took the role of the host.  It was as if he were welcoming them into HIS house.  For it was HE who said the blessing, it was HE who broke the bread.  It was HE who distributed the food that would nourish and refresh them.  And Luke tells us, "their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight."

It was now night, and they had already traveled the road at least once before that day, but they could not keep this life-changing news to themselves.  They had to share it, and so, like Jesus and the women and Peter, they found themselves on the road again, traveling as fast as they could to that new creation that was becoming the body of Christ.  And when they got there and shared the news, "The Lord is risen!", they received the response which has been the response of the Christian community down through the ages, "The Lord is risen indeed!"


The experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus demonstrates that in the midst of the deepest valleys of our life, the times of confusion, the times of feeling deserted, the times of feeling all alone, we are in the presence of the risen Christ.  We don't fully understand the Emmaus road experience.  But we can understand that there is an amazing and mysterious Christ who comes to us.  Who doesn't leave us floundering on the road alone.  Who is sometimes beyond our understanding and always the Lord, not at our command at all.  But the one who comes to be with us.  And the one who calls us to be on the road again.  The one who commissions us to preach this good news to all nations, to bring good news for the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty for the oppressed.  And as we do that work obediently, we find the risen Christ in our midst, once again taking the bread and breaking it, and we recognize him there.


Wendell Berry is a farmer and essayist.  For all of his life, he has lived and worked and written in the hills of Kentucky.  He is a faithful witness as he has watched the intricate ecological balance fall out of whack.  He is a faithful witness as he has watched the roles of women and men take somersaults.  As he has watched the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, he has proclaimed God's truth in his poems and in his furrows, in his essays and in his harvest.  He has these words of instruction:  So, friends, every day do something that won't compute.  Love the Lord.  Love the world.  Work for nothing.  Take all that you have and be poor.  Love someone who does not deserve it.  Expect the end of the world.  Laugh.  Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

One of the wonders of the resurrected Christ is that he is not limited to one place and one time, the way you and I are.  You are going to have lunch somewhere today, and the risen Christ will be there in the breaking of bread.  The risen Christ will be there, on the road again, with you as you work and play, as you act out your stewardship of the moments and the hours you have been given.  Use them wisely and well.

 

God our creator, help us to be disciples who grow this week; disciples who search for your spirit in the midst of our relationships at home, at school, at work, wherever we are.  Give us new insight, give us a growing faith, open our eyes so we may recognize and serve you.  In the name of our risen Lord we ask it.  Amen.

Listen First -- Jim Eby -- April 13 by Jeanne Gay on May 16, 12:07pm
Listen First -- Jim Eby -- April 13

Summit Presbyterian Church April 13, 2008

Delivered by Jim Eby Listen first John 10:1-10

 

September 11th continues to be recalled all too easily.  A word, a phrase, and the images come back into focus in our minds eye.  We have seen evil.  We have witnessed the work of the demonic, and we have reason to be fearful.  How are we to continue to deal with this?  Where do we find our center, our refuge and our strength?

 

We can never return to a prior state of innocence.  We cannot deny that we know what we know and pretend the nightmare never happened.

 

We cannot change that.  But we do have a choice.  We can become calloused; we can tune out and turn off as some will choose to do.  We can do that, or we can choose to continue to feel the pain of brokenness, we can continue to feel the need to do something, we can search for the way we can act out our beliefs and demonstrate what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

 

If we are going to do the latter, if we are to keep the commandments Christ has given us to love one another as he has loved and continues to love us, then we will have to start with the admission that there is evil at work.  We have to begin with that recognition, but we need to put that in context.  Recall the words of the sacrament of Baptism this morning that so clearly announced:

 

Before we were born, God made us.

Before we were born, God died for us.

Before we even knew what sin is, God provided the antidote for us.

God loves us.

God is for us.

God has come in Jesus to tell us of his love.


But also listen to and mark what is placed early in the questions to the parents:


Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?

 


We have to acknowledge the awesome power of the demonic in our midst.  We must not fall into the trap of believing we can defeat evil.  We will not overcome the demonic, some day.  I don=t believe that is what the Civil Rights hymn of the >60's is about.  We sang it over and over, AWe shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday...@  Our human strength will never overcome the demonic.  Our human strength will never solve the problems.  We are not smart enough or strong enough nor do we have the span of time in which to overcome the evil we recognize.


What then are we to do?  Throw up our hands?  Throw in the towel?  Find a safe place to hide by never reading or watching another news account?  NO!


Listen first.  Listen before anything else.


Listen to the words of scripture.  Listen to the words Jesus shares with his disciples that expose the demonic, the thief and the robber.  Listen so you can recognize and know who it is that is calling.  Listen so you can hear and identify the voice of the shepherd who calls us by name and leads us out.  The shepherd who came that we might have life and have it abundantly.  The one who comes to us and says in those words so reminiscent in Genesis, of God to Moses:  AI am!@  AI am the door ...  I am the good shepherd!@


Begin by listening, and remembering that we are the sheep, not the shepherd.


Then be involved in the singing of songs.  Like AAmazing Grace that saved a wretch like me.@  Like AWe shall overcome...@  And we shall, with the strength of the Shepherd who has the power to make it happen.


We shall overcome our confusion that we are the Christ, rather than the disciples.  With God=s help, we shall overcome our confusion that we are the master rather than the steward, the servant


We shall overcome our fears, with God=s help. Fears of going into the city, because neighborhoods have changed from that with which some remember as safe.


Listen.  Sing.  And then pray.


Pray with a confession of faith like that one we used this morning from the Heidelberg Confession.  The very first question and answer is an antidote to any terror we may feel when we see the power of the demonic.


What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

That I belong‑‑body and soul, in life and in death‑‑not to myself

but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ,

who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins

and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil;

that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven

not a hair can fall from my head;

indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation.

Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life,

and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on

to live for him.


Our prayers need to start with the confession that God=s power, God=s love is sufficient.  God=s abundance is always greater than the myth of scarcity.  The demonic in our midst would have us believe there is not enough:

not enough land to go around

not enough money to go around

not enough power to go around

not enough love for all of us to be loved with amazing grace.


And when we listen to the whisper of the demonic, then we become greedy, then we have to hoard and then we have to be sure we get what we want, whatever the cost to others or to the world our home.  We begin to think that we have to elbow our way to the front of the line in order to receive the love we so desperately desire.  We begin to work to make a name for ourselves, and before long, we find that we are acting out of a belief in the myth of scarcity.  And suddenly, we feel helpless and hopeless.


The antidote?  Listen first.  Sing the songs of faith.  And then pray, confessing that in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God has demonstrated power over everything we fear, everything that may hurt or divide us.


Listen, sing, pray, and finally, care for those who are far away by sharing resources that are portable, like money and blankets, while at the same time, caring for those who are close by with a listening ear, helping them to hear the voice of the one who loves them with a love that will not let them go.  Be a conduit of the love of Christ.  Live in such a way that you are a mirror in which those around see

how loved and valued they are by their risen Lord as well as by us.

Remember your baptism.

 

God, our Shepherd, we give thanks for Jesus who helps us recognize your voice and the fields of labor in which you nourish us.  Use what we do this week so that as we depend upon you for all our wants, others may see and recognize that you provide for their wants as well.  Help us in all we do to glorify you.  In the name of our risen Lord we ask it.  Amen.

"A New Commandment" -- 3/20/08, Maundy Thursday -- Jeanne Gay by Jeanne Gay on Mar 29, 11:06am
"A New Commandment" -- 3/20/08, Maundy Thursday -- Jeanne Gay

A New Commandment

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

March 20, 2008 (Maundy Thursday) Summit Presbyterian Church

John 13:31-35

 


It’s the end. Jesus knows it’s the end. Judas has gone to do what he needs to do, and Jesus knows that this is it.

In the Gospel of John, he goes on for another three chapters with final messages for the disciples before they actually leave for the garden, but he starts with what he calls a “new commandment” for them. Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Loving each other—this is the mark of our discipleship, of our being Christ’s people. Notice that he didn’t say that we must believe in him but that we must love each other.

Love one another just as I loved you.

Jesus demonstrated his love in a very physical way earlier that same evening: He washed the disciples’ feet. Remember that? “Jesus … got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” Foot washing isn’t something we generally do for our guests today, but it definitely was at that time—though servants were the ones who generally did the job.

I’d like you to think about washing someone’s feet. Imagine that the lights are dim, and there’s soft music playing in the background, and people have removed their socks and shoes and carefully placed them off to the side. They’re sitting in chairs, and you’re kneeling in front of them with some nice warm water and a fluffy towel. Some people’s feet will be cold and some will be kind of sweaty … and a few may even smell a bit, having been stuffed in sneakers a bit too long. And you may think, “What a lovely thing this is to do for someone.”

But that foot washing probably isn’t much like the foot washing that happened in first-century Palestine. Those folks hadn’t showered before coming. They’d been barefoot or in sandals all their lives—think calluses, scars, newly healed scrapes. And all day they’d walked around where centurions’ horses and peasants’ donkeys, not to mention stray chickens and neighborhood dogs, had been before them. Think, um, manure between some toes and crusted on the backs of heels.

These were not lovely feet, folks. Washing these feet was a difficult and disgusting chore—and one that gave immeasurable pleasure to the person whose feet were cleansed. No wonder Peter jumped up and said, “You will never wash my feet”!

But Jesus did. He loved those disciples. Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

We’re called to wash each other’s feet—to do things for them that are not easy, not lovely, not comfortable.

And we’re also called to let them wash our feet, to do for us at times. Because there are times when we’re like Peter, protesting that someone else shouldn’t be doing that for us. I know a woman named Mary, who is a pillar in her community and an always eager volunteer in her church. But if something needs to be done, people know they can call on Mary. A lot of you remind me of her, actually. She’s also proudly self-sufficient, and I’ve got to say that sometimes her refusal to rely on anyone else drives me a little bit crazy. Like when she put off having her second knee operation for far too many months “because everyone was so helpful last time.” She didn’t want to be in the position of needing people to help. She didn’t want them to help her up the stairs or bring her meals. She didn’t want them to wash her feet.

She wanted to be the one in control, the one who helped others.

But allowing other people to help—allowing them to give us their gifts—is also an act of love. We’re called on, like Peter, to be ministered to as well as to minister. To love one another just as Jesus has loved us means that sometimes we wash others’ feet, and sometimes they wash ours.

And washing feet, of course, can mean a lot of things. Sometimes it’s helping others, sometimes it’s giving them wise counsel, sometimes it’s acknowledging that they are right and we are wrong. Sometimes it’s saying we’re sorry. Sometimes it’s listening, and sometimes it’s speaking up. Sometimes it’s picking up the tab at lunch, and sometimes it’s allowing someone else to pay. Sometimes it’s being the strong one, and sometimes it’s admitting that we are weak.

And sometimes it’s coming to the table and saying, We need to be fed. We’re broken and weak, and we need the love of each other—the body of Christ, the broken body of Christ—in order to be whole.

Friends, let us prepare to come to the table that we might be fed. And in being fed, may we know we are loved. And may we love others, just as Jesus loves us.

Amen.  

 

"Who Is This Guy?" -- Palm Sunday, 3/17/08 -- Jeanne Gay by Jeanne Gay on Mar 29, 11:02am
"Who Is This Guy?" -- Palm Sunday, 3/17/08 -- Jeanne Gay

 

Who Is This Guy?

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

March 16, 2008 (Palm Sunday) Summit Presbyterian Church
Matthew 21:1-11 Philippians 2:5-11

Palm Sunday. Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a donkey, and the people line the streets. They throw tree branches and clothing on the street to make it softer for him. The crowd shouts “Hosanna”!

Palm Sunday is a little weird for a lot of us. That “Hosanna” thing—when else during the year do you say that word? I asked the kids to give us a more contemporary version of this procession, because “Hosanna” does really mean “Yay” or (in Philadelphia) “Yo.” I’m guess that if Jesus were coming into town today, the crowd would sound more like one at a parade for a sports team that actually won the title. (That is, if Philadelphia ever had winning sports teams.)

Let’s practice, though. I’m going to ask the kids to wave their streamers and noisemakers again, and the rest of you can wave your palms. I want to hear excitement! Here comes Jesus! Whowee!

 

One of the things I noticed as I worked with this text is that the people are never described as individuals: “A very large crowd spread their cloaks,” it says. “The crowds … were shouting. … The whole city was in turmoil.” This was a mob scene!

And what were a lot of them saying, in between their hosannas? “Who is this man?” I’m not sure all of them knew any more about who they were shouting Hosanna for than I would be if I got caught up in a parade for whatever Philadelphia team ever did win their championship.

The other problem with Palm Sunday is that we know what’s coming, don’t we? This crowd that’s shouting “Hosanna” today will be screaming “Crucify him!” just a few days from now. Shame on them for being so two-faced, huh?

We know too much. We can’t be fully present to what this day means because we know what’s coming. We see Palm Sunday in terms of Good Friday, just as we see Christmas in terms of Easter, and Pentecost in terms of whatever we know about early church history. It’s an important skill to have, this being able to hold two or more things in our minds simultaneously.

I remember the Easter when my son, Andrew, was three. We had gone through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, and then after the Easter celebration, he turned to us and said, “But I thought Jesus was a baby!” I spent a couple of awful moments trying to get the image of a crucified infant out of my head, and then I realized that Andrew was young enough to have just figured out a little about this “Jesus” only a couple of months earlier when we did indeed talk a lot about Baby Jesus, and he didn’t yet know how to hold both images of Jesus in his head without getting them confused.

Let’s try looking at Palm Sunday for a few minutes here without confusing ourselves with everything that we know is coming.

We’ve got Jesus coming into Jerusalem and the crowd shouting for him. They quote Psalm 118: “Hosanna to the Son of David! / Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! / Hosanna in the highest heaven!” And they say, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Friends, this crowd in Jerusalem didn’t know Jesus like we know Jesus. “Who is this guy?” they were saying to each other. And the best answer that came was, “a prophet out of Galilee.”

CNN not being very reliable in those days, most of these folks would never have heard of Jesus. There would have been a lot of out-of-towners in Jerusalem that day—in the big city for the Passover celebration. Some of them would have encountered Jesus, others would have heard a little about him, but many would have been clueless.

And what would they know if they did know something about Jesus? Well, they might have heard that he was a teacher with some mighty radical things to say. It’s very likely that they would have heard that he had healed some people. “A prophet out of Galilee”—okay. These were people who were not unacquainted with prophets: Elijah, for example, had also taught and healed, and there had been others in the more recent past, so this image of Jesus would have been in the realm of the familiar.

If they had unusually close access to the people who had been following Jesus for the past months or years—the disciples and others—they just might have heard whispers that this was the Messiah. ha mesiach! God’s anointed one, the one who would rescue the Jews from Rome’s control and bring back the glory days of David and Solomon. Now this really was exciting!

“Who is this guy?” A prophet, maybe even the messiah!

But have you noticed what’s missing? What about Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Redeemer? They didn’t have a clue—and how could they? It was in dying that Jesus redeemed our sins, right? Jesus the Savior was raised from the dead—and that hadn’t happened yet!

So they were excited about a man, a special man, a prophet, perhaps even the messiah. But they didn’t know the Jesus we know—Jesus the Lamb of God, the Alpha and Omega, the Author of Salvation, the Light of the World. Our Lord.

 

The question I have for you is, “Who is the Jesus you know?”

It’s possible that some of us are like many of the folks in the Palm Sunday story, just going along with the crowd: “Well, other people seem to be excited about this guy, so I guess he must be pretty special.”

You may be like my son at three, stuck on Jesus only as the powerless, innocent baby of the nativity. Tender and mild, no crying he makes.

Or maybe you know a bit about him and figure he’s a pretty impressive spiritual guru. “That Jesus, he really had it all together!”

Perhaps you know him as a wise teacher, something like Mohammed or Buddha, only more so.

Or maybe you’ve latched onto the radical compassion of his teachings and are inspired to overthrow the status quo in response to his demand that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

On the other hand, some of you may be much more eager to know what some of the folks who’ve been studying the historical Jesus call the “post-Easter” Jesus. The Jesus who died so that our sins could be forgiven. The Jesus who brings comfort to our souls. The Jesus who answers prayers and intercedes with God on our behalf. The Jesus who will come again in the end days.

I’ve been reading about Christianity in Asia or Africa, as I have over the last few months, and I’ve been struck by the many different ways of seeing Jesus expressed in those cultural contexts. In parts of Africa where ancestor worship has long been part of the local religion, where people’s ancestors are the ones who intercede with the gods on their behalf, Jesus is known as the Great Ancestor. Among the very poor in Korea, called the minjung, Jesus is a shaman who takes away people’s shame in the face of oppression. One of the things that has struck me about Christians in other parts of the world is that aren’t hesitating to ask, “Who is Jesus for us in our culture and at our time?” They don’t limit themselves to the historical Jesus of first-century Palestine or to Jesus as the WesternChurch has taught about him for the last two millennia.

Who is the Jesus we know? Are you “limiting” Jesus so that he is a pale image in your mind? Are you stuck with residues of the way people understood Jesus centuries ago—ways that may not work for you? Like King Jesus or Jesus as Lord—in a country where we have no kings or lords and don’t have the same understand of those terms as people used to.

We all need to go back to the Bible to read what Jesus said and did, and rediscover him for ourselves—more fully. Because if we’re stuck with a single understanding of Jesus, or if we’re stuck because the image we have of Jesus doesn’t really make sense to us, then we are, eventually, betraying Jesus in the same way that those folks in that original Palm Sunday procession eventually betrayed Jesus.

Who is the real Jesus? Here’s something that Choan-Seng Song, Professor of Theology and Asian Cultures at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, wrote in answer to that question:

The real Jesus is not that cement Jesus pieta with a gold crown. The ready-made Jesus encased in a statue, enshrined in a cathedral, endorsed by church traditions and doctrines, is not the real Jesus.
Jesus is the love of God that creates the miracle of life in the world.
Jesus is the pain of God mingled with the pain of humanity.
Jesus is the hope of God that people show in the midst of despair.
Jesus is the eternal life of God which people live in the midst of death.
Jesus is, lives, becomes real when God and people reach for each other to bring about a new world out of the ruins of the old world.
Jesus is the light of God’s salvation [that] men and women kindle in the darkness of hell.[1]

So here’s the question for you: Who is the Jesus you know? Who is the Jesus you have a relationship with?

Knowing Jesus can be easy: Here he comes! Yay, Jesus! But really knowing Jesus, having a relationship with Jesus in all his aspects, is a narrower path.

It’s the beginning of Holy Week. We’re on our way from the excitement of Palm Sunday through the mystery of the Last Supper, the shock of Judas’s betrayal and the agony of the crucifixion, to the glory of the resurrection. It’s time to go back to holding all the Christian holidays—all that we know about our faith and our Lord—in our minds at the same time. It’s time to let go of our easy relationships with Jesus and look toward the glory of living completely in him. It’s time to welcome into our lives ALL that Jesus is.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Let us pray.

Lord: Like the crowds in Jerusalem, we like to shout your praises. Hosanna! Yay, Jesus! But we also know that we have not always been willing to see you clearly and know you completely. Much that you are is a challenge to us, and so we focus on the parts that are easy for us to understand and live with.

As we begin this Holy Week, make your compleat presence, the fullness-of-you, known to each of us. And inspire us as individuals and as a church to continue to strive to see you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly.

Amen.



[1] C.S. Song, “Oh, Jesus, Here With Us” in R.S. Sugirtharajah, ed. Asian Faces of Jesus. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997, p. 146.

"Called By Name" -- Easter, 3/23/08 -- Jim Eby by Jeanne Gay on Mar 29, 10:57am
"Called By Name" -- Easter, 3/23/08 -- Jim Eby

Summit Presbyterian Church March 23, 2008

Delivered by Jim Eby Called By Name John 20:1-18

It was about 1930, the historians say, when Bukharin, the Bolshevik leader, traveled from Moscow to Kiev.  His purpose was to speak to a huge assembly.  His subject was atheism.  For a solid hour, he aimed his heavy artillery at what he called the fable of the Christian faith.  He used ridicule and argument after argument.  Finally, believing he had reduced the nonsensical faith to rubble, he asked, AAre there any questions?@

A single man rose and asked permission to speak.  He walked up the steps and onto the platform and stood before the huge audience close to Bukharin.  The crowd was breathlessly silent as the man looked at those on his left and then turned and looked at those on his right.  And finally he shouted the ancient Orthodox Church greeting, AChrist is risen!@  And the whole assembly stood as one and shouted back the response like the sound of an avalanche, Christ is risen indeed!@ Bukharin had been answered.  Christians in Russia and around the world shout that affirmation and statement of faith yet today.

Take away that fact we proclaim this morning to each other and the world, take away that fact and what is there that sets us apart from all those in our world who are caring and kind?  If you take away the resurrection of Jesus, there is no New Covenant and no New Testament.  And without that promise made by God in Jesus, the band of followers of the carpenter from Nazareth would have died out long years ago.

But, the fact is, a crucial part of our faith is, that Jesus was raised from the dead.  And that transforms all life.

It transformed the life of the disciple who is called Athe other disciple whom Jesus loved.@  If you read the Gospel of John, you=ll find that phrase a number of times.  And each time, it=s a statement of reality, it=s an affirmation of something the disciple knew.  It=s not a boastful statement, it=s not a statement of pride.  It=s the witness of faith of someone who can joyfully sing, AJesus loves me, this I know.@  The disciple describes himself, not with a name, but by his relationship to Jesus, a relationship that Jesus wants to have with each person, with each disciple.  I believe this disciple is named John, the author of the Gospel from which we read on Thursday night and again this morning.

How important it is that we listen to what the Scriptures have to say to us.  How often we fill in any empty spot with our own understanding and our own information.  When we do that, however, we can lose the unique perspective of the gospel writer.  And I think in our passage this morning we have just such a case in point.


You know the story well.  Perhaps too well.  Mary had come with the word that destroyed everything.  She came to where John lived and she went to where Simon Peter lived and she reported, AThey have taken the Lord from the tomb and we don=t know where they have put him!@

And of course the two of them went charging out the door, running for Joseph=s garden and the tomb.  John arrive first, and tells us he distinctly remembers he did not go into the hole that had been chiseled out of the rock.  He simply bent down and looked in, and saw for himself what Mary had told him.  The linen burial cloths lay on the shelf where the body of Jesus had been placed on Friday, before sundown.

What would that sight have said to you?  I thing John was stunned by what he saw and must have stood there in amazement.  The empty tomb was like a sign, like an arrow pointing.  But where was it pointing?  What was it=s significance?

As he stood there, Peter came charging up, and without breaking stride, ducked his head and rushed right on in.  And then, John says, A...the other disciple also went in and saw and believed.@

And we know what he believed, don=t we?  It=s obvious he must have believed that Jesus was raised from the dead.  That=s what the passage of scripture says, isn=t it?

Listen again to verse 8, and listen very carefully to verse 9.  AThen the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.@

This is what shocks me.  I believe John is telling us he didn=t yet believe Jesus had been raised from the dead.  I think John believed what we read in verse 2, when Mary came and reported, AThey have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.@

John saw and believed the body was gone, somewhere.  Nothing more and nothing less, verse 10 tells us.  For in that verse you heard the words: AThen the disciples went back to their homes.@

They simply and quietly went back home.  No exuberant running, no joyful shouting, no Ahigh fives.@  Just more mystery, more worry, less reason for hope.  And in that fear and worry and depression, I believe he and Peter returned to their separate homes.  They returned home and left Mary alone in her confusion and frustration and helplessness and hopelessness.

The watchmen who appeared to Mary were two angels.  She showed no fear or excitement at their shining appearance.  Perhaps she was still in shock, perhaps she was too numb, perhaps there were too many tears that clouded her vision.  And when they asked her why she was crying, perhaps it was with resignation that she responded, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." 

And then that other person asked the same, dumb question: "Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom do you seek?"  Couldn't anyone understand?  Why did everyone need to ask silly questions?  Didn't they know the most important person in her world had suddenly been snatched away?

And then Jesus said to her, "Mary."  He simply said, "Mary."  He called her by name, and darkness was turned into dawn.  He said, "Mary."  He called her by name, and the promises he had made about his resurrection came into focus.  He said, "Mary."  He called her by name, and once again she knew wholeness and boundless joy and thanksgiving for God who cares for her and cares for you and cares for me.

That's the reality of Easter.  Jesus calls each of us by name, our very own name.  And as we hear him call our name, then like Mary, each of us can declare, "I have seen the Lord!" 

Mary went searching for some answer, any answer to her pain and her grief and her helplessness and her hopelessness.  She went searching for an answer, and she discovered THE answer.  She discovered the risen Lord, no longer confined to flesh and blood, to time and space.  She discovered that Lord who abides with us, even today, calling us by name, valuing us, forgiving us, praying for us, so we can mature into the disciples, into the children of God we were created to be.  She discovered the Lord who is true to his promises, "Lo, I am with you always, to the end of time."  The Lord who declares, "I will never forsake you."

And then she was given a task.  She was told to go and tell the disciples what she had seen and heard.  She was commissioned as an evangelist to those who will become evangelists.  And we are the beneficiaries of her faithfulness.  Because of Mary, we know how to listen for the voice of Jesus as he calls our individual names.  Beginning with Bianca Adger, and moving to Melanie Wright, this congregation is confronted today with a risen Christ who calls us to come to him, to accept the gift of Easter, to accept the knowledge of a gracious, loving God who grants life, eternal life, to all who will receive it.  As Jesus was resurrected from the grave, so you and I experience new life through him.  That is the gift he offers you and me, to each of us and all of us. 

Are you still identified with Mary, before Jesus spoke her name?  Are you still peering anxiously into an empty tomb this morning?  Don't give up.  There is a friend closer than you think.  He is calling your name.  He is offering you a gift -- the gift of abundant and eternal life.  And it is available to all who will receive it.

Take that gift, and then let us join hands and go out into the world that needs to know God's love.  Let us go out proclaiming, "He is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!"

 

 

 

 

God, continue to open each of us as you opened the tomb so long ago.  Open us to share the good news that Christ is raised from the dead, as you promised.  Fill our lives with your Spirit so we are not an empty tomb, but a demonstration of your new life.  In the name of our risen Lord we ask it.  Amen.

 

 

"The End of the Beginning" -- 3/9/08 -- Jim Eby by Jeanne Gay on Mar 29, 10:54am
"The End of the Beginning" -- 3/9/08 -- Jim Eby

Summit Presbyterian Church March 9, 2008

Delivered by Jim Eby The End of the Beginning John 11:17-45

 

It was more than just another miracle.  It was the end of the beginning.

It appeared simply to be the mourning of the death of a loved one, but it was the curtain on the first act of a two act play.  It is drama that leaves you sitting on the edge of your seat wondering how the second act will unfold.

The first act began in John's Gospel with the wedding at Cana and the water turned to wine. Remember that event was so the disciples might have faith.  Then there was the sign of the loaves and fishes and enough left to fill twelve baskets.  And soon after, the sign of the Samaritan woman at the well.  The sign of the lame man healed came next.  And then the sign of the man born blind.  It was that last sign which ratcheted the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities to the next level.

And through out John's Gospel, that statement again and again and again, "I am...."  "I am the bread of life; I am the living water; I am the light of the world."  And now this magnificent statement, "I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."

John seems to be saying to us: "This sign of resurrection of Lazarus and this claim of Jesus - 'I am the resurrection and the life' - these point to the coming resurrection of Jesus and the fact that he really is the Word of God that took on human flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.  This resurrection of Lazarus and the promises Jesus made are validated when Jesus is resurrected from the dead and shows us the shape and the form and the future God intends for each of us."  And we are pointed toward the future.

The future is a little bit scary, isn't it?  When we're honest, we can admit that we're comfortable with the past.  We've dealt with the joys and the disappointments of the choices we made, and we are able to cope with the present.  The past is over and we've survived it.  We often accomplished wonderful things because God worked through us.  The present is at least bearable. 

 

But the future?  That's unknown, and that's scary.  It's going to bring change, it's going to bring growth in ways we may not think we want or need.  It's going to bring challenges, and we're sometimes frightened that we won't live through those changes.  And sometimes when change comes that can be growth, we're frightened, we're concerned that people are saying the past was bad.  We worry that people think the wonderful accomplishments were not really so wonderful after all.  Those are the fears that change can bring.  But change can also bring the next step in our growth, on that pilgrimage which God leads.  And that’s part of the reality of this interim time.  To prepare ourselves for the change that is going to come.  To realize that while it may be uncomfortable, it can be the next growth point for us as individuals and as a congregation.

Sometimes I wish we had a time machine.  Wouldn't it be fascinating to go back and talk with Lazarus?  What were his feelings and insights about what it means to be alive after his friends and relations had unwrapped the burial cloths that bound him so tightly in death?  What were his joys and fears as he reentered this life of flesh and blood?  Those who have come back from near death experiences speak of the light and warmth that is experienced in the next life, the peace and joy that is there.  They come back knowing that there is something yet for them to contribute in this life, but they never again fear death or the life that is to come.  Their present is different, because they have experienced the realities of the promise we have been given by God in Jesus.  They know they are not headed for a tomb, covered with a stone placed over the entrance where they will remain for all eternity. 

We are the Easter people.  We are those who live with an image of what the future will bring.  We can dare to live in the promise Jesus gave all his disciples, for all time, when he said, "Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  I am the resurrection and the life." 

The promise is there so you and I never need to worry any more about dying.  Oh yes, we will have to leave these physical bodies behind someday, these wonderful, magnificent, complicated bodies that slowly wear out and eventually are no longer fit to live in.  But what happens then doesn't really deserve to be called death or defeat.  For we go right on living with Christ, like the caterpillar who turns into a butterfly, we go right on living into an even more wonderful state than we have ever experienced before.

And when we know the truth of that, then we can experience, right here, right now, that real life, that real living that God intends for us.  Then we can spend ourselves for each other.  Then we can stop living just for ourselves, our interest, our advantage, our success; and we can begin to live more fully for him.  Then we can be used as God's reconcilers, as God's peacemakers.  Then we can open our hands that too often grasp things we think we want to own or possess.  Then we can be like those at the tomb of Lazarus who saw the body wrapped in grave cloths like the ones that would later wrap the body of Jesus.  Then we can be like those who saw a cloth around the face of Lazarus.  And then we can be like those who heard the command of Jesus: "Unbind him and let him go."

Lazarus lived, after Jesus called, "Lazarus, come out!"  He lived, but he couldn't move.  Wrapped in a linen grave cloth, he was spiral bound, and there is no way he could have done much more than sit up.  And so Jesus told the crowd, "Unbind him and let him go."

 

Oh, I'm sure Jesus could have caused the cloths to disintegrate or to disappear somehow.  But he chose the people who had seen the sign to become involved with and to become involved in that sign of the raising of Lazarus.  He gave those people a job to do.  They were to be stewards of this new life Lazarus experienced.  They were to untie him and let him go.

And that's our job description still today.  That's the work God has given me and given you to do.  "Untie him, and let him go."

 

Sometimes that work of untying and letting go seems very sublime.  Jaime Potter-Miller tells of the time when her children were preschoolers.  "One fall afternoon, our son, Jordan, came running to me," she remembers.  "Tears were pouring from his big blue eyes.  The cry was one of pain and frustration (often parents know the shades of difference among cries) as he toddled to me holding out a pudgy arm.  Jordan was eleven months old.  He had six teeth, four on the top and two on the bottom.  On his arm was a vicious bite, already turning purple, with a full set of teeth marks.  Our 3-year-old daughter, Janna, was found and reprimanded in my characteristic manner.  I'd cradle her cheeks in my hands, grasp her ear lobes between my thumb and forefinger, and speak slowly, 'Now watch my mouth, Janna, this is important!' She was solemnly but lightly spanked with instructions to never, ever again bite her poor baby brother and was denied

Sesame Street
privileges for the rest of the day.

That evening as I was helping her get ready for bed, I pulled off her coveralls and ran her bath water.  When I lifted her into the tub, I noticed an ugly bruise on her little bottom.  Surrounding the center of the bruise were six, distinct teeth marks.  Four on the top, two on the bottom.  I heard myself asking the kind of question I'd dreaded as a child, the kind you know parents already know the answer to.  I said, 'Janna, honey, how did you get that bruise?'  She looked up and stated matter-of-factly, 'That's where Jordan bit me before I bit him.  I continued, 'Honey, why didn't you tell me?'  She answered, 'You didn't ask me, Mommy.'

 

I told her that I had been a bad mommy and that she could spank me if she wanted to.  She took my face in her little, wet hands and said, 'Watch my mouth, this is important.  It's okay.'   A daughter untied her mother and let her go.

You and I are forgiven sinners.  We stand on this side of the empty tomb of Jesus.  We know we live in a time that is the new beginning God has caused to happen.  And we know that, as forgiven sinners, we must be involved in forgiving one another.  Unforgiven sin binds and restricts relationships more than grave cloths can bind a body.

 

Each time we pray the prayer Jesus gave us, we pray: "Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins, the wrongs we have done as we forgive the wrongs others have done us."  This week, as you live out the reality of God's love for you, forgive at least one sin, one wrong that has been done to you.  Take one relationship, and forgive the pain, the hurt that's there.  Untie the other person who is bound up in the tomb, needing the gift you have been given by God.

Do that, and prepare for next Sunday when we will celebrate the coming of the King, with the waving of the palms and the joyful song, "Praise God!  God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord!  God bless the coming kingdom of King David our father!  Praise be to God.

 

 

 

God, our creator, our redeemer; you have already shown your love for us in Jesus.  Help us to hear his call to come out of the tomb into new life, and help us untie each other so we can be signs of your power and love.  In the name of Jesus we ask it.  Amen. 

 

Listen and You Will See -- Jeanne Gay, March 2, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Mar 2, 2:16pm
Listen and You Will See -- Jeanne Gay, March 2, 2008

Listen and You Will See

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

March 2, 2008 Summit Presbyterian Church

1 Samuel 16:1-13 Ephesians 5:8-14


 

This story was a source of great embarrassment for me at one time in my life When I was in high school, I helped out with the Sunday School class at my church, and one week our lesson was on Samuel’s anointing of David. Wanting to make sure my young stu­dents understood what anointing was, I impulsively picked up what I thought was an empty flower vase and upended it over one young boy’s head. Unfortunately, it wasn’t empty. There had been flowers in it some unknown weeks—or maybe even months—before, and what came spilling out over this child was the nasty green water left over from those flowers. My lesson did make an impres­sion, but boy, did that kid stink!

There was drama in the original story, too, and though I doubt that David jumped and shrieked when Samuel anointed him—like my student did—there were certainly a lot of surprised people. After all, as we see so many times in the Bible, God chose the youngest brother, the “least of these.”

The people of Israel had been desperate for a king so they could be like other countries, and God had finally—many years before this story—directed the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul as king. Saul was a tall and handsome man, and he ruled for many years, but eventually he disobeyed God, and God rejected him as king.

At the beginning of this passage, Samuel is grieving about Saul, but God has other plans. “How long will you grieve over Saul?” God says. God is ready to move on. “Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” That sounds pretty straightforward, but I want to stop and look at the Hebrew for a moment. That “I have provided”? That’s rā’îhî—I have seen. God has seen; God has dis­cerned—out of the thousands of available people—one young man who is to be king.

After quibbling a bit about just how safe it might not be to go anoint a new king with Saul still on the throne, and being assured that God will be with him every step along the way, Samuel gets to Jesse’s home and asks him to bring all of his sons together on the pretence of having a ritual sacrifice. In comes Eliab, and Samuel immediately figures that this is the one. Samuel looks at him, and what does he see? A tall, good-looking young man, just like Saul had been. Samuel thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed (his māsîah) is now before the Lord.”

But God has other ideas, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.” God rejects Eliab the same way God rejected Saul. “For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they see the outward appearance, but the Lord sees the heart.” This is the key to the passage, folks: The Lord does not see as people see.

We’re back to seeing. Remember that Hebrew word that was used when God “saw” a king?—same one here. But when God tells Samuel not to look on the “outward” Eliab, it’s a different verb. Samuel’s “looking” is different from “seeing.” It’s as if God is saying, “Samuel, you’re looking but not seeing.”

Samuel is not seeing what God is seeing, for “the Lord looks on the heart.” For the Hebrews, the heart was not the seat of the emotions but of the whole character. God sees the inner person—the person inside, good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, righteous and sinful. In fact, the Hebrew word that we translate as heart—lēvāv—can also be translated as the inner person. God looks to the heart. God sees who we are.

And how is it that people see? We see the same way Samuel did, by looking at the outward appearance. We can do no more. We look, but we don’t necessarily see.

Now, some of us like to think that, although we’re limited to a person’s outward appearance, we can tell a lot about him or her by what we see; we can look in that person’s eyes and know what kind of a person he or she is. The Hebrews thought so, too. In fact, the word we translate as “outward appearance” is actually eyes—(hā’ādām yire’eh la‘ênayim) Humans look to the eyes.

We can debate just how well one can know people by looking at their eyes (and you may be remembering with me George W. Bush assuring us that President Putin of Russia was a straightforward and trustworthy man, as he’d seen it in his eyes). But what’s clear is that our seeing does not come close to God’s seeing. And this is the situation Samuel found him­self in. Eliab wasn’t the māsîah, even though he looked like a “chosen one” to Samuel. And nei­ther was Abinadab, nor Shammah, nor any of the other of Jesse’s seven older sons. Of each one, Samuel said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one,” until finally he had Jesse call in “the kid” who was out with the sheep.

But how is it that Samuel knew that the Lord had not chosen any of the first seven? Samuel listened to God. All through this story, Samuel listens to God. In fact, God tells him what to do, every step of the way. It’s not that Samuel is incapable of acting on his own—just as none of us is incapable of acting on our own—but what he would have done on his own was radically different from what he did following God’s directions.

At the beginning of this passage, Samuel would have been perfectly happy to sit around and grieve about Saul’s failure as a king, but the Lord was having none of that. The last thing Samuel would have done under his own initiative was to traipse off to Bethlehem. And he wouldn’t have gone looking for a new king to anoint. That was treason! No reasonable man would do that! And finally, given seven sons, at least one of whom really looked like a king, Samuel would never have pressed Jesse for “one more son” and then halted the proceedings until that son could be brought in from the fields.

No, what God told Samuel to do made no human sense. We can imagine Samuel saying, “Lord, I just can’t see it.” But God could see it. God could see the need to move Israel away from Saul, and God could see King David out in the fields, hanging with the sheep. And Samuel listened to God.

It’s a good question to ask ourselves, isn’t it. Do we listen to discern what God sees—praying, reading the Bible, talking with other Christians? Or do we go by what we can see on our own? Do we let our fears—for safety, for security, for looking good—get in the way of hearing God tell us to strike out through “enemy territory” and discover something wonderful?

Sometimes, what God sees is so radically different from what we see that we have a hard time believing it. The Bible is full of these stories. Didn’t God give Sarah and Abraham a son when they were well past childbearing age? Didn’t God see Jesse’s youngest son, the one they all saw as being the most worthless, as King David? Didn’t God allow his only son to be sacrificed in order to save all of us?

No rational human being would have done those things! No, only God.

Friends, what blessings are there for you in your life that no rational human being could ever dis­cern, that you cannot see? In what “illogical” directions is God calling you?

As the Pastoral Nominating Committee begins phone interviews, we pray that they will be able to listen to God’s direction so they can see the candidate God would have them choose.

Today is Communion Sunday. As we come to the table, I pray that we will be able to hear God’s voice and see what God would have us see.

Listen, my friends, and you will see.

Amen.

 

Blown Away by God -- Jeanne Gay -- Feb. 17, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Feb 17, 6:12pm
Blown Away by God -- Jeanne Gay -- Feb. 17, 2008

Blown Away by God

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

February 17, 2008 Summit Presbyterian Church

John 3:1-17 Genesis 12:1-9

 


There’s a story about a woman who was seeking Truth—the meaning of life. She had been brought up in the BaptistChurch, but when she was a teenager, she decided they just weren’t mystical enough, so she tried the Catholic Church. But after a while she realized that it was too hierarchal. Next were the Presbyterians, but she didn’t like the minister … and the Unitarians … and then the Buddhists, and the New Agers. She flirted with reincarnationism and became a Wiccan for a while … And though she was picking up little bits of Truth here and there, and though she’d met a lot of wise people, there were still questions wiggling around in the corners of her brain.

One day she heard of a wise guru—one who, she was told, was a master of the Ultimate Truth. He was definitely a source for the Meaning of Life. So she booked a plane and took several trains and ended up hitching a ride on a donkey cart, and finally she arrived at the guru’s tiny house. He greeted her at the door, and right away she could tell that this was a holy man, a wise man.

“Oh, I know you’ll be able to answer my questions!” she said.

“Tea?” he replied. “Would you like some tea?”

She was pretty eager to get to the good stuff, but she thought it would be only polite to accept his offer, so she said sure. While he busied himself preparing the tea, she started telling him of her journey and all she had learned, the people she’d met, the books she’d read, the great philosophies she’d encountered …

And as she was talking, he handed her a teacup and began pouring. And pouring. And the tea spilled over the edges of the cup and slopped off the saucer and onto her hand. “Ow!” she cried. “It’s full—no more will fit in!”

“Exactly,” the guru said. “Just so. You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no room in your cup. Come back when it is empty, and then we will talk.”

That woman is a bit like Nicodemus, who came to Jesus full of knowledge. He was one of the leaders in the temple, you know—a learned man who lived in a world of other learned people. And in their discussions they had considered this Jesus and his works and determined—given the evidence and in light of their great learning—that he must be a teacher come from God.

Nicodemus is full. Full of the best thinking of his people. He’d still like to pin this down, though, so he comes to Jesus at night—and interestingly, in John night is always a time of confusion, of seeing but not seeing. And Nicodemus starts in with what his cadre of learned men has determined: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Uh-huh, says Jesus. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

“Say what?” says Nicodemus. That doesn’t make sense! It doesn’t fit reality as I know it.

Can’t you just see Jesus with a teapot?

I think what Jesus is saying is “Nicodemus, when you’ve got it all figured out, when everything is organized and reasoned—with careful walls built between right and wrong, between orthodoxy and heresy, between ‘God-ly’ and ‘abomination’—well, then, you don’t see God’s kingdom. You can’t really know God. Because the process of coming to know God is messy, uncomfortable, even ritually impure.

“You have to be born from above, Nicodemus. You have to come out like a baby—knowing just how much you depend on your heavenly parent, ready to love, open to learn.”

“What is born of the sarkos is sarkos,” Jesus says. The New Revised Standard Version we use translates sarkos as ‘flesh’“What is born of the flesh is flesh.” Another translation, though, is ‘human nature,’ so we could read, “What is born of human nature is human nature.” And human nature craves order and admires rationality and reasonableness and wants to know what’s what. Human nature likes to fill itself up with knowing.

“And what is born of the pneuma is pneuma,” Jesus continues. Pneuma, that Greek word that means either ‘wind’ or ‘spirit’—both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit.’ And “the pneuma blows where it chooses.” The Spirit blows where it chooses, and though we may hear it, we cannot know its comings and goings. The Spirit surprises us.

And like birth, it can be a bit messy at times. Not reasonable. Not schedulable. Uncomfortable—even painful, right? And always—always—a blessing.

We’re like Nicodemus in a lot of ways. We want to know how. when. what. who. why. How will that troubled child turn his life around? When will my neighbor wake up and stop taking her husband for granted? Why aren’t those church committee members doing the job I think they should be doing?

I imagine the Pastor Nominating Committee is hearing a lot of these questions from Summit folks these days: What are you folks doing every Wednesday night? When will we have a new pastor? Who will she or he be? How will we know this is the right person?

Those are not bad questions, my friends. But we have to remember that they are questions born not out of pneuma, the Spirit, but of sarkos, human nature. Questions born out of our very human need to be in control of our lives. To know the answers.

And Jesus tells us that we will never have all the answers, the ultimate answers, the kingdom-of-God answers unless we are born from above. Emptied out of some of that human striving for control, for knowing. Light enough to be blown about by the spirit.

And it’s not a one-shot deal, this being born from above. It’s not something that we can point to and say, “Oh yeah, I was born from above on April 22, 1993, once and for all.” Saying that means that we’re in control—that we know. No, being born from above happens over and over again, throughout our lives. It’s when we have big exciting conversion experiences and little ah-ha moments. It’s when we get a glimpse of the movement of the Spirit—when someone else’s faith astounds us, or when we hear about the work of Church World Service and cry a little, or when someone we had given up on comes back to church—when life doesn’t go the way it should, according to our plans, but turns out to have beauty and power that we couldn’t have imagined.

That’s what happened to Nicodemus that day. He knew how life was supposed to go. He’d talk to Jesus and get his answers and then go back to his life. But Jesus didn’t cooperate with his plans.

Sometimes we get a picture of Jesus in our heads where Jesus is a kind of wimp. Meek, long-suffering, lover of little children, turner of the other cheek. But the Jesus Nicodemus encountered was no wimp. He was confusing. Challenging. I came across a song this week, written by some folks at the Iona Community, (an ecumenical Christian group based off the coast of Scotland) that struck me as showing Jesus as someone who invites us to be born from above.

Firstborn of Mary,
Provocative preacher,
Itinerant teacher,
Outsiders’ choice;
Jesus inspires and disarms and confuses
Whoever he chooses to hear his voice.

Nicodemus was one whom Jesus inspired and disarmed and confused, one who heard Jesus’ voice. For John tells us that after Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial, bringing about a hundred pounds of spices to be placed between the folds of the burial cloth.

My prayer is that all of us as well will be inspired and disarmed and confused. And that each time, we will be born from above—our teacups emptied of our human answers so there’s room inside us for God’s answers. My prayer is that all of us will be blown about by the Spirit. Blown away by God.

Temptation at Forty -- Jim Eby -- by Jeanne Gay on Feb 17, 6:09pm
Temptation at Forty -- Jim Eby --
Morphed, Transformed, Transfigured -- Jeanne Gay -- Feb. 3, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Feb 4, 1:43pm
Morphed, Transformed, Transfigured -- Jeanne Gay -- Feb. 3, 2008

Morphed, Transformed, Transfigured

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

February 3, 2008 Summit Presbyterian Church

Matthew 17:1-9 Exodus 24:12-18


 

What’s the last church holiday—the last significant day in the church calendar—that you remember over the last couple of months? Anybody?

Let’s see—Christmas, of course. And New Year’s? Martin Luther King Sunday?

What we may have missed is that the last month and a half have been filled with commemorations of events in the life of Jesus, events that the gospel writer Matthew recorded to show us who Jesus was. There’s Jesus’ birth, of course, and an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream and telling him that the child his fiancée is to bear was “conceived … from the Holy Spirit” and that he was to be called Emmanuel—God with us.

And then there’s Epiphany, when we celebrate the magi following a star to find the King of the Jews.

So there are two names for Jesus—Emmanuel and King of the Jews.

And then there’s the baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove, and God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

And now we have the Transfiguration. This happens much later in Jesus’ life, after he has been with the disciples for a while. In the chapter before, Peter calls Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” and Jesus begins to teach the disciples that there is great suffering ahead—persecution and his death.

It’s a turning point of sorts. We don’t know for sure why the disciples had been following Jesus. We just know that somehow they felt compelled to do so—no questions, no doubts that we know about. Maybe they got excited about him, the way some of us do when we read a new author and go out and read everything that person has written. Or we get into yoga—or Pilates or weight-lifting or bowling—and it becomes the focus of our lives for a while. Or maybe it’s a political leader who gets us stirred up and we think, yes, this is what we’ve been needing.

But what would we think if late one night, sitting in a hotel bar, perhaps, one of our fellow groupies admitted that she thought this person was God’s son, and he turned to her and said, Blessed are you—you didn’t get this understanding from people but from God, my Dad. And then he started talking about the persecution and death that were coming. How would we react?

We tend to look back at the disciples and think, “Well, they somehow knew this. It couldn’t have been a big surprise to them.” But I wonder. I don’t think people at that time were any more likely to believe without questions than we are today.

But anyway, not quite a week after this, Jesus takes Peter and James and John up to the top of a high mountain. And Matthew’s gospel says, “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Wow!

And no sooner has that happened but Moses and Elijah show up to talk with Jesus. And then God speaks out of a cloud and says, just as was heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, my Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” And the disciples—those three—they fall to the ground, overcome by fear.

Whatever reasons they had to follow Jesus, I don’t imagine those reasons included seeing the Great Lawgiver and the Most Important Prophet—and hearing God’s voice booming out on the top of a mountain. Before this experience they may have seen Jesus as a prophet—or as a healer or a wise teacher or the best hope of a political future—but now they know. They know that this guy’s lineage goes way past anything they can imagine. They know that he may be a regular guy, but he’s also the son of God.

Y’know, we call this story the Transfiguration, and Jesus’ face and clothing were certainly transformed, but I think that the real transfiguration happened to the disciples. And although the word used in Greek—metemorfwvqh [metemorphothé]—has to do with a change in form, the change for the disciples was in their heads and hearts. They saw the totality of who Jesus was, and their lives were transformed.

And what did this transformation do for them? It didn’t suddenly turn them into different people. But of course, Jesus’ transformation—transfiguration—didn’t do that either. Jesus’ transfiguration revealed something that was deeply true but that had previously been hidden, something vital that had been unknown, invisible, just behind the veil of the ordinary. And I think the same thing happened to the disciples. Something in them that was really important, really true, something that had been hidden in them behind the veil of the ordinary, the day-to-day, the way the world is.

Something that God knew was there but that they didn’t begin to see in themselves until they had encountered God on the mountaintop.

And the same is true for us, I believe. I believe that within all of us humans there is something beyond the ordinary, something that God knows about us, that we probably won’t ever be able to see until we allow ourselves to encounter God, to know God more fully. What is that something? Why it’s God speaking through us, God in us.

Jim Eby shared with me a story from Susan Andrews, a past moderator of General Assembly, about an experience she had while doing Clinical Pastoral Education—CPE—a time when seminary students intern as chaplains in hospitals. In a ward for mentally ill patients with severe medical problems, she came into a room one day where she found a new patient—a man in isolation—all alone and hanging between life and death. Both his legs were amputated, but gangrene still crept through his body. She could smell the stench of his decay, and the man moaned and sweated in miserable delirium.

For an hour she wandered up and down the hall outside his room, resisting going in to see him—nauseated by his disease and at a total loss as to what to do. Here she was, a naïve 25-year-old woman. What could she possibly do or say to ease his suffering?

Finally, she walked into the room, took the man’s hand, and started saying the words of the Lord’s Prayer. “And that’s when it happened,” she wrote later. “That’s when the holy broke into the human—when God took over and grace flowed through me. This man stopped moaning, his eyes stopped rolling, his body stopped shaking. He turned to look at me and then started repeating the words of the Lord’s Prayer with me. For a moment, time stood still. There was, in that room, a peace that passes all understanding. A few minutes later, after I left the room, that man’s suffering ended. He died, finding his own peace at last.”

For Susan Andrews, that was a transfiguring moment, a holy moment, a moment when God truly spoke in her and through her, a moment when God was there.

In those transfiguring moments in our lives, be they startlingly clear or of the wait—did-something-just-happen variety, we see God … and we become more than we could ever be on our own. And they happen when we allow ourselves to see God. Perhaps through Bible study … or prayer … or singing hymns on Sunday morning … or teaching Sunday School. Or maybe by coming out on Wednesday evenings in Lent for communal meals and prayer and meditation services. We are transfigured when we come to know God in more ways than before, however it is that that happens for us.

This morning, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, let us remember that in this sacramental moment, God is with us. This is an opportunity to know God more fully. In the bread and the cup we encounter the body and blood—the essence—of Christ. Let us be open to the opportunity to be transfigured, to undergo a metamorphosis, to be transformed.

In the Beginning ... -- Jim Eby -- January 27, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Feb 4, 1:42pm
In the Beginning ... -- Jim Eby -- January 27, 2008

Summit Presbyterian Church January 27, 2008

Delivered by Jim Eby IN THE BEGINNING.... Matthew 4:12-23

 

There is a small chapel on the north end of the Sea of Galilee.  It’s there, tradition tells us, that Jesus appeared in his risen form to the disciples and invited them to breakfast after their long night of fishing without any success.  It is there that Peter was asked three times, "Peter, do you love me?"  And finally, when Peter had declared his love as many times as he had denied in the dark of the night of the betrayal he had never seen the man Jesus, when Peter had done that, Jesus said to him, "Follow me."

I can’t help but wonder if that was also the spot where Peter and Andrew, where James and John had first heard the voice of Jesus say, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men and women."  Did that familiar spot on the shoreline have an alpha and omega feeling about it for them in the final days of their life?

In my fantasy, I want to believe it was the same spot.  Places have meaning for us, as much meaning as words some times.  I'm convinced that Jesus had been there before.  He was no stranger to Capernaum. And I believe that Peter and Andrew and James and John had some pretty good idea about who this Jesus of Nazareth was when he arrived that day of our scripture lesson.  As you read the Gospel of John, you discover that some of those whom Jesus called to follow him were already disciples of John the Baptist, one of the cousins of Jesus.  I think they had already talked about Jesus, and had probably heard him preach.  The arrest of John was the signal for Jesus to begin his ministry, and Jesus began to gather the disciples about him.  Our text shows that this was the moment of decision, and they were ready to respond.  "Immediately", the text says, "they left their boats and nets and followed." 

What is it that Jesus is calling you and me to become and do this new year?

Jesus called four men, ordinary fishermen, and promised he would make them fishers of people.  He took the everyday work of their lives and in three years, transformed it.  The transformation began when they heard his call and followed.  And as they listened to what he had to say, as they saw what God was able to do through his faithfulness, they grew with him, and after the resurrection, they also, were able to do extraordinary things.  Things which you and I are also called to do.



I don't remember anywhere in my Bible that Jesus said that we would ever come to the end of the fishing business.  As a matter of fact, as I look at the society and the ethics and morals that some accept as okay, I am convinced that we need to be more active as fishers of people.

You know that when people are asked why they are not active in a church, the primary reason given is -- no one ever asked me.  They don't say, "Well, I don't really believe in one of the sentences in the Apostles' Creed."  They don't say, "The reason I don't come to church is that I have some hermeneutical disagreement with the church's interpretation of scripture."  They just say, "No one ever asked me."

When was the last time you went fishing with Jesus?

 

Oh, I know the kinds of fears that come when we even think about being fisher folk.  We don't want to force our faith on someone else.  It's always a risky thing to talk with others about the important things in life.  You don't know what kind of response you might get.  We tend to keep life compartmentalized, hermetically sealed.  Over here, we are religious, over there we go to school or to work.  We separate things out, but when we look at what Jesus did, he didn't keep things separate.  He met his future disciples where they were, at work or at play or at a meal.

Others of us say, "I'm  just not that good at talking about my faith.  I don't know what words to use.  I get all tongue tied."  It's clear that the church could do a much better job equipping people to share their faith, in words.  But in this scripture passage, Jesus doesn't ask them to go right out and preach.  He doesn't tell James and John "Come follow me and I will teach you to have intelligent religious discussions."  Instead, his expectations for the disciples is much more active, much more earthly, much more mundane.  He says to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."  He builds on something they already know how to do.  Along the way, he will give them other gifts, but for now, he tells them that he will transform what they already know how to do.

How did you come to be part of this community of faith called the church?  I wish it was because of some brilliant pulpit work by one of the long line of pastors.  But you didn't.  Many of you came because your mother and your father brought you.  And after you found that your involvement in the congregation, in church school and the choir and the youth group was not a negotiable item, many of you discovered that this is where your closest friends are.  This is where many have met their life partners. 

It's so easy to slip out of the fishing business, to be most concerned with the members that are here, to keep house, to evaluate the church almost exclusively on how it looks from the inside, rather than how it looks on the outside.

Will Willimon once heard a pastor say how his attitude was transformed by something as ordinary as the church softball team.  "Before, we always had a rule that you weren't allowed to play on the church softball team unless you were a member of a Sunday school class.  Then we realized that we were overlooking a great opportunity for evangelism.  Now we have the rule that no softball team could draw more than half of its players from the membership of the church.  Each team had to go out and recruit at least half of its members from people who were not involved in any church."



How can we be imaginative like that this year?  How could we take what we do well and use it to invite others?  We do have eyes to see the children in our neighborhood.  Children who will be more ready for kindergarten if they have a positive pre-school experience.  We house an excellent pre-school right here at Summit.  Why not take one of the brochures and registration blanks to a neighbor who has a child who might benefit from the gifts we have to offer the community?  Who knows the fish you might catch by simply sharing what we do well as a congregation by housing community organizations.

 

It was in the beginning of his ministry, that Jesus confronted the four with that life-changing invitation, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men and women."  That is the invitation and the promise with which you and I are confronted today.  Do we dare to trust it?  Do we dare to follow where our risen Christ calls us to minister?

Grab a fishing pole, and let's go fishing.

God of all goodness, you sent your son to call the disciples to follow him.  Then by your spirit, you transformed them into apostles.  Help us to hear your call and to be transformed so we may follow as well.  In the name of our risen Lord we ask it.  Amen. 

 

 

 

For What Do You Listen? -- Jim Eby, Jan. 13, 2008 by Jeanne Gay on Jan 15, 5:01pm
For What Do You Listen? -- Jim Eby, Jan. 13, 2008

Summit Presbyterian Church January 13, 2008

Delivered by Jim Eby FOR WHAT DO YOU LISTEN? 1 Samuel 3:1-10

 

It's a wonderful story, isn't it?  I can imagine Hollywood making a movie out of it, or at least a special for TV.

There's an old minister, Eli, whose sons have gone astray.  They won't be around to carry on the family tradition of being the religious leaders of the community.  It's the story of the younger generation marching to a different drummer, a drummer that leads them into deep trouble.

It's a story of an older, childless, married woman, Hannah, who wants to have a baby in the worst way, for until she bears a child, preferably a son, she is worthless in the eyes of the community in which she lives.  She is so desperate in her prayers to God, she promises God that if she gets pregnant and gives birth to a son, she will give him up to the work of ministry.  One day at the Temple, she pours herself into those prayers so much that the old minister thinks she's drunk and rebukes her.  She is able to convince the old minister that she has not been drinking, that she was simply praying with all her heart, and so he consoles her and sends her away with a benediction.

And sure enough, God answers her prayer with pregnancy, and she gives birth to a child, a son, and names him Samuel, and when he's old enough to leave home, she takes him to Shiloh and dedicates him to the service of the Lord.  Samuel stays there and takes care of the old minister, becoming the faithful son that the old minister's sons have never been.

It's a wonderful story, isn't it?  It even has a happy ending.


If this were the ending.  But it's not the end.  It's another of the frank accounts about the people of God down through the centuries.  It's another illustration of the way that we take the wonderful gift of choice, of free will, and misuse it.  It's another illustration of the way that God takes our disobedience and judges it and comes up with a contingency plan to accomplish what God intends to accomplish, the reconciliation of the world with God.  God has not given up on the mess that we make of things.  God continues to call and to give instructions for you and for me to be the instruments through which God will bring into being the vision God has for this world.

And it begins with God calling our name.  You did hear it, didn't you?  You heard God call your name, as clearly as the young boy Samuel heard the voice in the night, not once, but four times.  You heard God call your name.  It was in your baptism.  That is when you were named and claimed by God.  That is when you were called to a consecrated life of faithfulness.

Of course consecrated life is not something you do all by yourself.  You have to continue to look to God for the spirit and the strength and the direction to live life faithfully.

If you're like me, you have lots of examples of the times when you tried to do it alone, all by yourself, and found how weak we really are, how easy it is for us to stumble in false pride and despair and hopelessness.  You know how hard it is to do the right thing when we pretend that we rule the world.  And you know the good news.  You know how God can come in after we've made a mess of the kitchen and the recipe and convert our mess into something good.  You know that.  You know the good things accomplished in this world are accomplished by God working through us, God living through those moments when we have answered as Samuel did: "Speak, for your servant is listening."

But there is so much that seems to get in the way of our listening

For some of us, it is our inability to say "No!"  We attempt to be faithful by doing everything.  We never say "No!", we never admit to the reality that we have just 24 hours in each day.  We try to be Wonder Woman and Super Man.  And we reach the point where, when someone says "I need a volunteer to do this or to do that", we're the one who pushes other people away, people who could and would do a better job, or at least as good a job as we, we push them aside in our attempt to be faithful, or what we feel is faithful.  We always say, "Yes!", and that gets in the way of our listening to what God would have us do.

Some of the rest of us are worried that if we do say "Yes" to one thing, that will encourage folks to ask and ask and ask until we may burnout because of over-commitment.  In our fear, we hold back and procrastinate.  We always say, "No!", even when it is God that is calling us to a particular task.

We are like Garfield the cat in the cartoon who is shown resting in his bed and thinking to himself: "One of my pet peeves is people who never finish what they start."  But then smiling he says in the next frame of the cartoon, "I am not one of those people."  The last frame shows him under the bedcovers saying, "My philosophy is, 'never start anything.'”

There is a bit of Garfield in all of us.  And that gets in the way of our listening for the call of God.

Others of us are concerned about being in control.  Being in control of our lives, being in control of our children, being in control of our church, being in control of our world.  We are so busy trying to make everything go right that we can't hear the words of the song we sing, "This is my Father's world."  This is my Father's world.  Not mine.  This is my Father's world.  I don't have to correct all the injustice.  This is my Father's world.  I don't have to make everyone be good.  This is my Father's world.  I don't have to rule the world.  This is my Father's world.

Sometimes trying to be in control gets in the way of our listening for the call of God.

And sometimes, we don't want to hear God because we just know that the voice of the living Lord is going to ask us to spend ourselves sacrificially.  It's okay for Samuel to do that, for Paul to do that, for Jesus to do that, but we're not sure we want to do that, spend ourselves sacrificially.  Surely there must be another way to accomplish the bringing of the kingdom of God into our midst.  Surely there must be another way to bring an end to racism and sexism and all the other isms that God would eradicate.  Maybe if we just wait patiently, a little longer, God will call someone else's name to do that work.

It was in the early 1960's, at the height of the civil rights movement, a group of white ministers issued a public statement urging Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the name of the Christian faith, to be more patient in his quest for justice and to relax the relentless struggle for civil rights.  Dr. King's response came in the form of the famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail."  In the letter, Dr. King wrote that he had received similar requests for such a delay, indeed, that he had just gotten a letter from a "white brother in Texas" who wrote, "... It is possible you are in too great a religious hurry....The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth."  Dr. King replied that such an attitude stemmed from a sad misunderstanding of time, the notion that time itself cures all ills.  Time, Dr. King argued, could be used for good or for evil.  Human progress, he said, is not inevitable, but rather ... "....it comes trough the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.  We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."

Dr. King knew that complete justice must await the coming of God.  That was the theme of his last sermon in which he proclaimed, "I've been to the mountaintop.  I've seen the promised land."  But Dr. King was persuaded that while we wait, "the time is always ripe to do right."

God is calling you.  God called you by name in your baptism.  And then God calls you wherever you are, whether in the temple or in your office or as you bake bread or as you wash the dishes.  God calls you.  After this story of the call of Samuel, you can't say things like, "I'm only fourteen, so God has no work for me."  Or, "I'm just a member of the congregation.  I'm not a Deacon or a Pastor."  Or, "I'm no expert on the Bible."  Think of Samuel.

Think of Samuel and remember four things:

First, God will probably call you when you least expect it, at the least convenient time, in some unlikely situation.  Keep your ears open.  Listen!

Second, God may have to call you more than once before God gets your attention.  God had to call Samuel three times before he started listening.  God's voice is consistent, and because there are so many other voices calling our names, God usually needs to call our names a number of times before it starts to sink in our thick skulls.

Third, when God calls, God calls us by our very own name.  God calls us the way God calls us, calling us by our own individual name, not somebody else's.  Not everybody is called the same way.  There is no one way to get called.

Fourth, nobody is too small, too inexperienced, too unimportant not to be used by God for big, important work.  In fact, judging from the many stories of people in the Bible who were called and used by God, it appears God takes particular delight in calling the "little people" of this world to do big things for God.  Think of all the "little people", the ordinary tax collectors, fishermen, women who cook and keep house, the widows, those who have lost things.  It was those whom Jesus called to be his disciples.


You are called, and you are called by name.  Your very own name.  Are you listening?  Is there anything else that keeps you from setting out on the work, on the journey God intends for you? 

If there is, maybe you can find comfort and encouragement in the true story of Roy L. Smith's fear of the dark when he was a boy.  Late one evening, his father asked him to go to the barn for some tools.  Roy begged his father not to send him, admitting he was deathly afraid of the dark.  His father put a kerosene lantern into his hand.  "How far can you see, son?"  "As far as the mulberry tree," he replied.  "Then go to the mulberry tree."  When he got there, his father asked, "Now how far can you see?"  "I can see to the currant bush," Roy said.  When he arrive at the currant bush, his father asked again: "How far can you see from there?"  This time it was the henhouse.  Next it was the hayloft, and finally the barn.  And so Roy Smith, step by step, made it to the barn -- and back again, safely.

This is our Father's world.  We are called by name.  In Jesus our Lord, we have the light of the lantern that will show us the next mark on our journey.  Let us take each other's hands and be on the journey, using "time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."

God, we give thanks for the way you called Samuel, and Isaiah, and Jesus, and Peter and Paul -- Hannah and Deborah, Mary and Martha.  We give thanks for the way you call each of us, by our own name, to do the work you have for us to do.  Help us to dedicate ourselves as Martin Luther King, Jr., did, to spend all we are and all we have following the leading of Jesus, our Lord.  Help us to do that today, and tomorrow and each day of our life.  In the name of our risen Lord we ask it.  Amen. 

 

 

 

 

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