Thursday, May 30, 2013

Hallelujah! A Testimony of Healing.

     “When I sat down to put my testimony to pen and paper, the CD I was listening to started to play, “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen and I thought – ‘This must be inspiration.’
     So here goes.  Some might think a stroke and how it devastates the body is a taste of Human Hell.  But that’s not how I see it.  I see it as a Blessing.  In this life, I have found myself knocking on Heaven’s door a few times.  But this time was the first time I felt Someone on the other side turning the knob to let me in.  But alas, it was not to be, so I am thinking there must be more for me to say and do before I stand before the Throne and offer my own Hallelujahs to the King. 
     In the time remaining, I have thanks to give.  I would like to thank Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit for allowing me to feel the mercy and grace of Heaven and the Blessing of this stroke – a Blessing I’ve yet to see in the natural world, but a Blessing I feel deep in the core of me.
     Next, I would like to thank Priscilla (who I’m sure doesn’t see much of a Blessing in the hand we’ve been dealt).  She in herself is a Blessing to me.  Without her and my brother Bill, I fear the road home would have been even longer.  Last, but by no means least, a large Thank You to Rev. Susan, Keith, Tom, Carol and all of Emsworth U.P. Church.  Thank you for all the prayers.  I felt each and every one of them.”

Written by Clyde Williams and read in worship at Emsworth U.P. Church on Sunday, May 26, 2013.  May 26 was the first time Clyde was able to be in worship since he suffered a significant stroke in the early hours of December 26, 2012.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Trinity Sunday C, May 26, 2013

Higher Than Ants

Psalm 8 (NRSV)

1 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Every year around Valentine’s Day, I hear ads on the radio for a company that will sell you a star so you can name it after your beloved.  Have you ever heard any of those ads?  I went to one of their websites this week and found out that the starting price for a star naming kit is something like 50 bucks. 

Alas, I am sorry to report that like many other beautiful things in life, you cannot buy a star for love or money. The tracking and cataloging of stars is controlled by the International Astronomical Union, the recognized authority in the scientific community for naming things like stars and celestial bodies. And the International Astronomical Union stopped naming stars back in 1922. Today, stars are not named, but catalogued by number according to their positions in the sky. Even a little piece of the night sky cannot named or sold.  At least not yet. 

One of the other things we cannot buy is the kind of night sky that the writer of Psalm 8 saw when he looked up.   The starry sky described in Psalm 8 is available only to people in rural parts of Africa and Asia – people who do not have much in material things and infrastructure but have a much better view of the night sky than you and I have from our perch in America. I know some of you have seen extraordinary night skies in places like Malawi, but the rest of us have to get out of populated areas or squint through a telescope to see even a tiny percentage of the stars in the sky.

I remember spending New Year’s Eve on the beach a couple years ago and I can still recall my heart-pounding awe as we sat on the sand, listening to the roar of the sea in the darkness, and looking up at the night sky just crammed with stars.  Even that sky was nothing compared to the heavenly display people in the undeveloped world see every single night.  We may have comfortable well-lit homes and perfectly paved, well-lit roads in our part of the world, but I think we have lost some of our connection to the wonder of God’s creation.

People even in the most remote corner of our planet only receive a tiny glimpse of the existing universe.  Thanks to images provided by the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists estimate that there are at least 176 billion galaxies in the universe.  And each one of those galaxies contains 200-400 billion stars.  So that’s at least 176 billion galaxies times 200 billion stars.  I’m not doing that math because the number of galaxies, the number of stars – and these are only the ones we’ve been able to see so far – is beyond awesome.  Billions and billions of stars.  Why so many stars and galaxies?  Why couldn’t God stop at a million?  Two million?  One billion even?  Why this extravagance?  It boggles the mind.

So we might indeed share a little of the awe and wonder of the psalmist as he stares up into a night sky and feels his smallness underneath the weight of God’s abundant creativity.  This ancient poet, even without the benefit of a telescope and certainly without the knowledge that there are a trillion or more stars up in the sky, can look up and be reminded that one human being is pretty small potatoes compared to the vastness of the universe: 

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
I heard a speaker in Nashville last week echo the question of this psalm: “What are human beings?”  She said, “For the first time in human history, we do not have a real definition of what it is to be a human being.”[1] For many centuries, humanity distinguished itself as different from the rest of creation by virtue of our ability to think.  But in the 20th century, biological science established that there are other animals who can also think – animals can remember, anticipate, mourn, learn, problem-solve and even use complex language.  And as we begin to understand more and more about the human brain, we realize how much of our understanding of who we are is controlled not by consciousness but by chemistry; our sense of self resides in whatever chemical wash bathes our neurons and brain synapses. 

I know this all sounds like pretty academic stuff, right?  Billions of stars.  Billions of brain synapses.  Why waste our time pondering why there are so many stars beyond our view, or what it is that makes humans a little lower than angels but a little higher than a dolphin or a chimpanzee?

But I think that the poet who wrote Psalm 8 is engaging in exactly that kind of cosmic questioning.  He looks up at a night sky and he is absolutely blown away by the idea that there is so much he will never know beyond the simple truth that God is majestic and glorious.

And in many ways, we do not know much more than the writer of this psalm.  Even with all our scientific knowledge, we cannot add much to this meditation on the inexplicable wonder of a creation that goes infinitely on and on and on.  We cannot explain what makes us uniquely human any better than we can explain God’s lavish creativity that continues, at this very moment, to empower the multiplication of stars and galaxies beyond our comprehension and even our imagination. 

Today is Trinity Sunday, the only feast day in the Christian calendar that does not celebrate a biblical event or person, but rather a “doctrine.”  And doctrine is one of those unfortunate words that sound kind of cold and distant and unapproachable.  Which can make doctrine not only a tricky thing to preach, but also a real stumbling block for anyone who is doing their best to understand how it is that God can be one in three persons, blessed Trinity.

But I think that the Doctrine of the Trinity is a terrific example of how poets and philosophers and theologians approach unapproachable mysteries like the vastness of the universe or the intricacies of a human soul.  Science and philosophy and theology can only take us so far until we find ourselves gaping in wonder at what we cannot know. 

And that is what happened in the early church when they hit a theological wall in thinking through the biblical words – God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  The doctrine of the Trinity came about because the early church needed, desperately, to stop fighting with each other about Jesus, and begin to understand how God revealed God through Jesus.  What came out of those negotiations was a humanly imperfect but faithful description of how God can be experienced by human beings in relationship with God and with one another, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the reality of the resurrected Christ.  It was, simply put, the best that the early church could do.

And it didn’t help matters much that Jesus himself didn’t give a whole lot of thought to the problem of the triune God.   At no point in the gospels did Jesus stop to explain the intricate dance between Father, Son and Spirit.   It would have been easier if Jesus had done that, but instead, Jesus said, as we heard in the gospel reading this morning:  “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (Jn 16:12).

So what was it that Jesus followers weren’t ready to hear?  What is God holding back from us?  Why can’t we hear the rest of the story?

Barbara Brown Taylor used a phrase in a recent lecture – “We need to allow God a certain amount of privacy.”  Which is a very good way of saying that God is more transcendent and more mysterious than we can possibly imagine or our doctrines can possibly contain.  But even as we dwell in the mystery of God’s sheer otherness, we cannot toss out our doctrines, as imperfect as they are, because they invite us into God’s creative, transforming work.  The Trinity affirms that God is, indeed, mindful of human beings.  The triune God cares for us, and longs to be intimately involved in the life of all humans who are made a little lower than God out of not much more than star dust.  And as if the sheer gift of life isn’t quite enough to fill you and me and the whole family of humanity with unending awe and gratitude, we and all of our fellow mud creatures are crowned with glory and honor.

We don’t know everything and we never will.  And together with our never-ending curiosity about what everything means, we have an equally strong impulse to keep God at a distance.  We do want to allow God some privacy, maybe because we hope God will give us exactly the same thing.  Maybe we want to give God some space, because we really cannot bear to hear the whole truth about God.  Or the whole truth about ourselves. 

Maybe the ancient Hebrews really were onto something.  You can discern this tension between the eminence and intimacy of God throughout the Hebrew scriptures.  Listen to what ancient person had to say about being in the eye line of YHWH:

“What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while,
let me alone until I swallow my spittle? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
 Why have you made me your target?
 Why have I become a burden to you?  Why do you not pardon my transgression
and take away my iniquity?
 For now I shall lie in the earth;
you will seek me, but I shall not be” (Job 17:17-21). 

Job had grown weary of God’s obsessive attention for humanity and wanted nothing more than escape from God’s steady, ceaseless gaze.  And who could blame him?  The ancients knew full well the otherness of God because they remembered what happened when Moses encounters the Divine Spark burning in the desert wilderness.  Moses said: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 
 God replies: “I am who I am. …Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”…‘The Lord,the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
“I am who I am.”  That is who God says God is.  “Ehyeh aser ehyeh” in the Hebrew. Which literally means: “I will be what I will be.”  “I am who I am.”
When we have lost our ability to be in awe of “I am who I am,” we have Psalm 8 to remind us that the creator of billions of stars and billions of people is still coming close to us, while still remaining the wholly other and holy one of Israel.  Our doctrinal habit of nailing down the “whys” and the “hows” and the “whats” of the divine will never come close to disclosing the fullness of God.  So while we do not discard the doctrines, neither do we allow them to hold our imaginations hostage. 
I thought about all of this last week as Tom and I spent a sunny hour or so hanging out on George Jackson’s back porch.  We were delighted to find him enjoying a tall glass of iced coffee and gazing out at his garden that used to be the domain of his wife, Ollie.
Now, I do not know very much about gardening.  Ok, that’s not really true.  I know nothing about gardening.  But I inherited a very nice garden when we bought our house and there are two flowers in my front yard that have absolutely thrived despite my benign neglect.  The lilies of the valley are still going great guns.  And the other flower that is doing really, really well are the peonies.  They are crazy beautiful and I love them because I do not have to do a thing for them.  They just grow.
George also has peonies in his garden.  And as we were chatting, I observed that they seemed just on the verge of blooming and he said, yes that is true.  The ants are doing a really good job and the flowers should be appearing any day now.
Ants??  I was intrigued and looked a little more closely at the peony buds.  Yes, there did appear to be a quite a few big fat black ants having a lovely time on the still-closed buds. George told me that there is sweet nectar on the flower buds that the ants are crazy about.  Once the ants have done their thing in eating all that good stuff, the peonies open up and bloom.
I was absolutely delighted by this information.  Because I am an ignoramus about flowers, I had no idea that peonies depended upon the hearty appetite of ants in order to burst open in the late spring.  Ask Tom – I was giddy about this simple yet profound interaction between ant and flower.  I even took pictures.
When I got back to my office, I committed the fatal human error of not leaving mystery alone. I sat down to my computer and typed into the Google:  “Peonies and ants.”
You can guess the rest.  Turns out that George and I were both deceived by a common old wives tale.  While it’s true that there is a substance on peony buds that attracts ants, the peonies will bloom whether the ants show up or not.  So while the ants are fed by the peonies, the peonies do not need the ants in order to bloom and, in fact, if you’re not careful when you bring cut peonies into your house, you can probably count on an indoor ant infestation.
I didn’t want to know that truth.  I was happier when I was in George’s backyard, in awe of the interdependence between ant and flower, and marveling at God’s creative hand in putting bug and bud together.  I could not bear the cold, hard fact.  
We may have dominion over the works of God’s hands on earth, but we do not have control of God or how God will choose to reveal God’s self.  We cannot buy a star or fathom the universe or even really understand the mystery of the triune God.  But Jesus said the Spirit of truth will come, in its own time, in its own way, and in a billion different ways, and declare to us what it means to be human– a little lower than angels, a little higher than an ant, and wrapped in the mystery and jaw-dropping awe of God’s care and mindfulness.  And in this season of Pentecost, in this small moment, that’s all I need to know.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Phyillis Tribble, Emergence Christianity.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Presbyterian Response to Oklahoma Tornadoes

Here's a link to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance including a prayer, hymn and ways to help in the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornadoes.

Lord of mercy, hear our prayers.

Pentecost, May 19, 2013

Drunk and Disorderly

Genesis 11:1-9
Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams. 
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy. 
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
   and signs on the earth below,
     blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
   and the moon to blood,
     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Guest Preacher:  Sue Washburn

My daughter came into the world talking. That might be an exaggeration, but as a child, she talked early and she talked often, following me around like a little chatterbox. At first we couldn’t understand her words, but she was so intent with her talking we intuitively knew that they had meaning to her.

Some were easy to figure out –
Gock was sock.
Ptse was pizza.
Goobiga was a little tricky. We finally figured out that was my mother—her grandma.

The most puzzling of her words was gubadee. For weeks, she’s say gubadee. Gubadee she’s say to me or my husband and we wondered to ourselves, What does this mean? Was it a toy? Was it a person? What was she saying with gubadee?

Despite our desire to understand, gubadee remained a mystery.

Learning to speak is the cornerstone of knowing ourselves and God. It allows us to reflect on our lives and connect with others. It is through the power of the Word that we experience Christ.

The Tower of Babel and Pentecost stories are foundational to the way we encounter each other God.  In these two stories we see that language can be used to create shared understanding, keep order and unify communities. Language can also be used to create new paradigms and shift our understanding.

In the Babel story, the tower builders were seeking to create order and avoid chaos of the big, outside world. As Presbyterians, we can relate. One of our foundational understandings is that we do things decently and in order.

In the stories we can also see language can create a healthy disorder—shake up expectations so that they can be realigned in new ways. God creates disorder though language in both the Tower and Babel story and the Pentecost story. But that disorder serves a purpose. In both cases it leads to a greater understanding of who God is what God can do.

The Tower of Babel describes our fear of the unknown. Biblically, it’s placed in the Old Testament between the story of Noah’s sons and God’s call to Abram to leave his country. It describes a paradigm shift as the world becomes a much bigger place—bigger than their own tribe and their own story.

Before Babel the Bible story is about a small tribe of people and one language and after Babel it’s a multicultural world of Egyptians and Canaanites and beyond. It shows the world expanding in much the way our experience of the world is changing through cheap travel and improved communication technology.

The Hebrews build the tower to keep themselves contained, to keep them from scattering. They burn their bricks and begin piling them in a careful and orderly way to build the tower. It was their beacon. It was their boundary. It was the symbol of their unity, but it was also the symbol of their fear

They feared the big world that was beyond the edges of their knowledge.

In fact, when we read the opening of Genesis 11 we read that the whole Earth had one language and the same words, but safa, the Hebrew word for language  can also be translated as edge. The opening of the story could also be translated as the whole earth had one edge and the same words, indicating that the Hebrews were concerned with protecting their edges, their boundaries.

Who can blame them? When we go to a country beyond our own borders, there’s no telling what might happen. We might order the wrong food, end up lost or be without a restroom for far to long.  We may get sick or be unable to read the road signs. In other words, we are vulnerable.

The tower builders wanted to remain secure, not vulnerable. Their fear pulls them together and keeps them close, but God scatters them by confusing their language.

In the New Testament reading, the disciples are gathered together for Pentecost or the Jewish Festival of Weeks. The holiday brought together Jews from different cultures. The hustle and bustles of people and languages might be like visiting some of the tourist sections in New York City.

There you can see people from all over the world in a clash of fabric, language and culture. Today, you don’t even need to leave the United States to be overwhelmed by the diversity of culture.

It is into a setting like this that the Holy Spirit blows in at Pentecost. Suddenly, everybody can hear and understand the good news of Christ. People talk. Words fly. Understanding abounds. The good news of Christ’s resurrection breaks out in different languages and disorder ensues.

 The people are bewildered, amazed and astonished. This isn’t the brick by brick wall dividing people into groups because of fear. This isn’t a safe and stately sermon in the temple preserving unity. This is God at work in a holy disorder, a reorganization of expectations, a breakdown of walls. The people who witnessed the event looked on with skepticism and decided that the people in the crowd must be drunk.

When I try to picture this, I think about the joy and abandon that would take place if the Pens win the Stanley Cup. It’d be crazy and unsettling. There would be throngs in the streets and people on the sidelines shaking their heads. The more reserved among us would assume that all of the revelers are drunk and disorderly and dismiss them with a shake of the head.

It’s the same shake of the head that we in the mainline churches give to the non-denominational or Pentecostal churches because they unsettle us. Their churches may be hastily constructed in shopping malls, not made of bricks. They don’t have bulletins to tell them what comes next. They shout out of turn.  They stand and wave their arms. They may even fall down in the aisles. These Christians don’t know what might come next in worship—and they are OK with that.  They are “drunk” with Spirit and disorderly as well.  But God is there amidst all that craziness.

When I read about Babel and Pentecost, I can see the spirit of Christ weaving through them in ways that are puzzling and compelling.  They force me, and I hope you, to ask that we hear in acts: What does this mean?

What does this mean? It’s a question we ask ourselves all the time. What does my daughter’s babbling mean? What do God’s words mean for my life? What is the meaning of my illness or healing? What is the meaning of my job loss or sudden raise? Sometimes the answer reinforces what we know. Other times it breaks what we think we know wide open. It is when we experience disorder, both good and bad, that we ask this question. It is when we experience disorder that we change the most.

I confronted that question head on when my family and I went to visit the World Trade Center site. I was a little leery of visiting, fearing that there would be an undercurrent of hostility. I worried that it might be like the Tower of Babel—a monument to a culture that wanted to stay isolated, to lift itself above others, to insulate itself our of fear.

But when I got there, it wasn’t like that at all. The line was filled with people from all over the world—Arabs and Asians and Africans and Americans. The workers who took the tickets and answered questions varied were different than what I expected. Some wore headscarves and others spoke with accents and others fit the true, blue American stereotype to a T.

As I stood at the memorial pool, I traced the names that were engraved on the railing along the outside. I realized that they weren’t all traditional American names. They were names from around the world.

That visit made me realize that I was connected to all of the world, that the edges or boundaries are more often than not illusions of our own making.  Reading the names showed me how narrow my own vision was of that event. I had reduced to a polar tragedy of us versus them rather than a world event with a web of connections reaching out to all the world.

I was very much like the Tower of Babel builders in my thinking without even intending to be. In that moment, Jesus’ call to love my neighbor seemed like a much bigger endeavor. I stood there with the brand new impression of the impact of the tragedy of 9/11 and wondered, what does this mean?

That moment disordered my thinking and gave me a new understanding as to who I was as an American in the world—as a Christian in the world and who we all are in a big world that belongs to God. At that moment, I felt so connected to people I hadn’t ever met. I was moved by their loss.  My eyes filled with tears.

I was experiencing a world without edges. A world with many languages. A world that is disorderly yet loved by God. The world isn’t just my people. It is God’s people. It’s God’s world.

This experience ties in to the Babel and Pentecost stories because it caused me to think about my own boundaries. It helped me to understand God’s scattering at Babel and the joining of hearts at Pentecost happen all the time, in big and small ways all the time. We as people, nations and the world move from unity to diversity to unity in diversity as the Spirit flows among us.

That’s how we are here in this sanctuary and as Christ’s church in the world. We are united in diversity as the Holy Spirit brings us together and enables our understanding.

As individuals we are joined in our differentness by something bigger than ourselves.

As a church are connected to Christians—to people— around the world in the power of the Holy Spirit despite our different worship styles and theologies.

Sometimes this unity in diversity is decent and in order. But a lot of the time it’s disorderly. But in each moment, the Spirit, continues to call us into deeper relationships with each other and with God. The Spirit gives us new understanding of life’s events.

At the nudging and prompting of the Spirit, we ask: What does it mean? in big and small ways. It took time for me to figure out what my daughter was saying each time she said gubadee. I’d think about that word while I placed some cheerios onto her high chair tray, while I bathed her or watched her play on the living room floor while I sipped my tea. 

Then one day it happened. I put a few toys out for Sarah to play with and was sitting on the corner of the couch. I had placed my tea on the steam register to keep it warm. After a few minutes she lost interest in the toys and walked up and pointed to the cup. Gubadee, she said.

I knew exactly what she meant. Cup of tea. 

I gathered her up in my arms laughing and she looked at like I was crazy. I wasn’t drunk or even disorderly, just filled with joy. Yes, I exclaimed to her, cup of tea, enunciating it clearly over and over.

Gubadee. Cup of tea. One word or three, it didn’t matter. We were connected and communicating. And so on Pentecost, I want to thank God for the gift of language and the Spirit for enabling a greater understanding. Amen.

Sue Washburn is a freelance writer and candidate for ministry in Redstone Presbytery. For more sermon excerpts and .jpgs and random musings, check out her blog at Find out more about her freelance work at

Monday, May 20, 2013

What's Happening In May/early June?

Beginning on Thursday, May 23rd from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. we welcome a new community group who will be using our mini-meeting room to share their passion for the art of scrapbooking!  New members are always welcome.  Contact Pastor Susan with questions or for more information.  

On morning worship on Sunday, June 9th, we will welcome Rev. Dr. Sheldon Sorge to the pulpit as our guest preacher.  He is the Executive and General Minister for Pittsburgh Presbytery and a gifted preacher and teacher (as well as an extremely gifted musician/pianist).  Please make a special effort to attend worship on this day so we may extend our warmest greetings to Sheldon.

On Sunday afternoon on June 9th at 2 p.m., we will have a memorial service at the church for our beloved BJ Robertson.    

On Sunday, June 16th, we will begin our summer worship hour at 10 a.m.  We will continue to worship in the sanctuary, weather permitting.  On very warm Sundays, we will worship in the fellowship hall.  

Memorial Service for BJ Robertson

Please see the link below for information about BJ's memorial service to be held at Emsworth U.P. Church on Sunday, June 9th at 2 p.m.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Easter 7C Ascension Sunday, May 12, 2013

Empty Spaces Filled By Love

John 17:20-26

20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

I took a picture of David with my phone when he and I were at the Pirates game last Sunday afternoon to send to his cousin Allison.  Over the course of the baseball game, Allison kept sending gloating text messages to us from her perch in Northern Va. because her team, the Washington Nationals, was pretty much clobbering the Pirates.  So I sent her the picture of David, who had a big grin on his face despite the fact that the Bucs were losing badly.  I didn’t really think too much of it.  I have like 8 million pictures of David wearing his Pirates gear at PNC Park.

Later, when were home, I took a second look at the picture of David on my phone and thought, oh-my-goodness… 

Then I took another, closer look at my smiling boy and realized: “That’s my dad.” 

My brother and I both have a couple black and white photos taken of my dad when he was young, so I have a pretty good idea of what he looked like when he was around David’s age.  But more than the photos, there’s another kid in our family who really, really does bear a strong resemblance to my father and has ever since she was a baby. That would be "Little Miss Smarty-Pants the Nats are Winning" Allison.  For years, everyone in my family has agreed that my kids take after my husband’s side of the family, and my brother’s younger daughter, Erin, takes after her mother.  But Allison has always been the only one of us who resembles my father.

Until last Sunday, when I spent a long time staring at that photo of David, taken in one small moment in time.  Neither my brother nor I have any clear memories of my father as he died when we were very young.  But we have this enduring reminder of him…in Allison and David.  Though the empty space my father left remains, my brother and I are still somehow connected to him by heart in these children we love.

We have another story of departure and empty spaces and family resemblances in today’s text from John.   I’m going to begin by admitting that it is so easy to get bogged down in John’s language.  So much of it is metaphor -- and repetitive metaphor at that.  Of all the gospels, John’s is the most thickly theological.  There are fewer stories and parables because John tends to pack Jesus’ teachings into long discourses.

So where are we in John’s gospel today?  Well, we are near the end of a long farewell speech that Jesus gives to his disciples right after he washes their feet at the last dinner they have together on Maundy Thursday.  Judas has gone scampering out of the room to do what he has to do, and Jesus begins to speak like a man who knows that his time on earth is limited and thus feels compelled to offer final words of wisdom to his beloved friends.  So Jesus begins to talk; for three whole chapters he goes on and on.  The language Jesus uses is repetitive in the sort of way we are repetitive with our children when we leave them alone at home for the very first time.  “Do you know our phone number?  Do you know what number to dial if there’s a fire?  We’ll be home by 9 o’clock, do you know where the phone is?  Do you know our phone number?  Do you want me to write down our phone number?” 

In his final discourse, Jesus speaks to the disciples out of the knowledge that he’s going to be leaving them on their own for an unknown or at least undisclosed period of time, and Jesus wants to be certain they’ll be ready to carry out the work he has begun when he is no longer with them.

After three chapters of instruction directed to the disciples, Jesus turns his attention to God. Then Jesus begins to pray.  First for himself, then for the disciples in the room with him, and then – Jesus prays for us.  You and me.   The text we’ve read today in verses 20 – 26 is Jesus’ prayer for all the believers to come into the future.

And what is Jesus’ instruction and desire for us?  Jesus prays that we may all be one so that the world may see God’s claim on our lives and God’s love for us – a love as powerful as God’s love for Jesus, powerful enough to fill the empty space left by him and bind us to one another.   A love that characterizes God’s relationship with the Son.   A love so deeply woven into our lives that the world will be able to recognize Jesus in us.  That is Jesus’ final earthly prayer for us – that his future believers may become completely one so the world will recognize Christ when they look at us. 

Jesus prays for unity on a night in which things are going to quickly fall apart for the disciples.  Jesus prays for oneness in the shadowed hours of a violent, wrenching separation in which the disciples will be scattered like dust by terror and remorse.  It is this tragic loss that will to lead to denials, doubt, and the overpowering fear the disciples experience in Jesus’ absence. 

Forty days after Easter, there is another loss to come for the disciples with Christ’s ascension when the disciples truly will no longer see the risen Lord as they have seen him.  The ascension of Jesus is more peaceful than the violent disruption of a state execution, but it is no less sorrowful and no less of a loss for the friends who watch.  In the text from Acts that describes Christ’s ascension, the disciples are not nearly ready to see him go; they want him to restore Israel and do not understand how he can be leaving them so soon with things in the world still such a mess (Acts 1:1-11).

Today is the Sunday between the disappearance of Jesus into the clouds and the roaring arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  It is an in-between, liminal time, but it is in this space that we may listen closely to Jesus’ final prayer for us, and remember what he prayed for on our behalf -- that we may be held together by the oneness of love, that we may be bonded to each other by a crazy, superglue kind of love that can not and never will leave us alone.

To be Christ’s follower is to be part of a greater whole.  We do not do this on our own.  According to Jesus there are to be no solitary Christians.  We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not.  We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not.  To be a part of this body of Christ is to be a part of a community, a part of the whole and we are stuck with one another, whether we like it or not.   Paul makes this ideal of oneness clear in I Corinthians 12 when he writes:

20…there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (I Cor. 12:20-26)

In a world that is torn apart by bitterness and division, we as God’s people are to be so connected by love that we cannot be mistaken for anything else but the Body of Christ. 

Naomi Shihab Nye, an American poet born of an American mother and a Palestinian father, writes about how love fills in empty spaces, in a story from Albuquerque airport:

“Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement:  ‘If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.’  Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.  An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.

‘Help,’ said the flight service person. ‘Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.’
 I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly.  The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, ‘No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.’ We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it, why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her?

This all took up about two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies–little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts–out of her bag–and was offering them to all the women at the gate.  To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo–we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
 This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”[1]

The empty space left by crucifixion is filled by the glory of resurrection.  The empty space left by ascension is filled by the love of the Holy Spirit.  This emptying and filling happened in the Albuquerque airport just as it happens in our lives – almost always by surprise; in varying dimensions of pain; when we open ourselves to one another and find out that we the love is far stronger than anything that can possibly divide us.

Nearly 80 years ago, a little girl named Betty Jane Robertson became a member of this congregation by professing her faith in Jesus Christ.   According to her beautifully typed resume that her cousin gave me on Friday, BJ joined this church in 1934.  I have been trying to wrap my mind around that – I wasn’t born in 1934.  Even my mother wasn’t born in 1934.  For more than 90 years, BJ was a part of this community.  And now she isn’t.  Her spirit and her love will be with us for a very long time, I am certain of that.  But her death leaves with another empty space.  An empty pew.  An empty seat in the choir. 

I understand how hard it is to look around you every Sunday and see all of these empty spaces where your friends and your family used to be in this sanctuary.  And when you leave here today, you may have more empty spaces.  You may be dealing with the empty space of where something else used to be – a job, good health, a spouse, a friend.  The very fact that it’s Mother’s Day may remind you of an empty space of where your mother used to be or where a child used to be or still isn't.  All of these losses open up and leave great gaping holes in our lives.

But what will always rush in to fill the gaps is the power and love of our oneness in Christ and our unity with one another – in grief, in disagreement, in despair and even in great joy.  Our oneness comes on the wings of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost which stitches us together.  Our oneness in Christ reaches across these empty spaces, anointing us with powdered sugar, with laughter, with love, and even with one another’s tears.

This morning, I’m going to invite you all to come down front together, into these front pews.  Let us leave no empty space between us, not on this day.  Please bring a hymnal with you.

Let us have a moment of silence to remember those we miss.  Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and family.  And BJ.

Let us pray for our oneness as a congregation.

Let us pray for the church everywhere that we may be united in Christ and in our unity show the love of Christ.

And now let us sing together, “Blest Be The Tie That Binds.”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4” from Honeybee.   

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"I come to the end -- I am still with you" Psalm 139:1-18

Late last night, long time member, Betty Jane Robertson, died at St. Barnabas Nursing Home in Gibsonia.  As you may know, B.J. fell in her home a few months ago and has been struggling in her recovery.

Arrangements are not yet made, but will include a memorial service at Emsworth U.P. Church.   Please keep B.J.'s family in your prayers.

Yesterday, Tom Smart and I visited with B.J. and shared the Lord's Supper with her.  Before we prayed together, I read Psalm 23, not imagining it would be our last visit together.

But this morning I am reading Psalm 139, remembering B.J.'s goodness, generosity and faithfulness.  We have all been blessed by knowing this fearfully and wonderfully made child of God, and she will be well-remembered by this congregation and community for years to come.

With love,
Pastor Susan

Psalm 139: 1-18

To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.
Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it. 

Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you. 

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
   I come to the end—I am still with you. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Easter 6C , May 5, 2013

“Healing or Heresy?”

John 5:1-9

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.

     An essay by C.S. Lewis begins with the question, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?”  In typical, provocative C.S. Lewis style, he says that people have a lot of trouble wrapping their minds around Jesus in the gospels.  We often do not know what to make of Jesus.
      On the one hand, you have Jesus’ moral teaching and hardly anyone can argue with the content of what Jesus said.  Oh, we can quibble about loving our enemies or turning the other cheek, but even the most feverish atheist will grudgingly admit that the teachings of Jesus – those core values of love, generosity, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace – all of that is pretty non-controversial stuff.   I think most people long for the kind of peaceful, lovely world that Jesus describes as the kingdom of God, even if they don’t believe in God or Jesus.  Now a lot of atheists and even some believers will say they have a lot of problems with Christ’s followers since Jesus, but hardly anyone will argue against the notion that Jesus’ basic moral message contains deep wisdom and sanity. (1)
     But in addition to Jesus’ universally acceptable moral teachings, the gospel is filled with Jesus’ more questionable actions of bumping up against and frequently knocking over established religious rules.  He does it all the time.  And nothing about Jesus’ actions appears to be coincidental or accidental. Everything Jesus does seem calculated to elicit a response.  
      As Lewis observes, Jesus’ actions most often produce three responses throughout the gospels – adoration, fear or hatred.  And by the end of his life on earth, the public emotions swirling around Jesus were mainly that last two.  Jesus had managed to alienate pretty much everyone around him, save for the very few who stuck around long enough to see him die on the cross. 
      What are we to make of this Jesus who intentionally does and says things that run absolutely counter to people’s expectations of a proper Messiah? He comes from Galilee, where no prophet comes from.  He talks with a Samaritan woman, which no decent male Jew would do.  He eats with tax collectors and sinners.  He is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard and possessed by the devil.  And the amazing thing is that none of the negativity buzzing around him everywhere he goes seem to deter Jesus one bit.  Jesus just continues on, crossing boundaries that no self-respecting Jewish messiah should cross. 
      As we touched upon last week when we talked about Peter and Cornelius, first century Jewish identity defined community identity by three practices:  circumcision, food laws and Sabbath observance.  These practices were central to life in Jesus’ religious community and in Peter’s.  These were set boundaries and a challenge to any of them meant a challenge to the very core of membership in the community.  Peter bumped up against the practices of circumcision and food laws when he associated with the gentile Cornelius and his household in the book of Acts.  As you recall, Peter was called to account for his actions before the authorities in Jerusalem.   And Peter’s testimony about the Spirit’s power begins the important process of freeing the early church to imagine that God may very well be calling people from beyond the traditional boundaries of Jewish practice.
      And here we have Jesus at it again.  Jesus is attending a festival in Jerusalem and goes to a pool called Bethesda and sees a man lying there who has been ill for 38 years.  Actually, there are a lot of sick people lying by the pool.  The belief was that every so often the pool would be stirred up by an angel, and whoever could get to the pool first would be healed of their sickness.  So there are a lot of people there, staring at the pool, waiting for their opportunity to be first in the pool.  But for some reason, among all of these sick people, Jesus seeks out this one particular guy, someone who has been lying there for a very long time.
      Jesus sees him and asks the man if he wants to be made well.  And the man doesn’t say yes or no, but just keeps looking at that bubbling pool.  And the man tells Jesus that the competition for healing is fierce.  Nobody offers to help the man.  Every time he tries to get up, someone else gets ahead of him. The man in our text obviously has no family.  No friends.  This is a guy who has been waiting for something good to happen to him for 38 years. 
      Jesus hears and sees the man, and in that moment, Jesus has a decision to make. 
      Because, you see, it is the Sabbath.  And this man has been ill for 38 years.  It is not an emergency situation.  Jesus could sit with man until the sun goes down and use that time to counsel the man about his situation at the pool.  Jesus could preach to everyone around that pool and command them to do the right thing and let the man have a turn. Jesus could pray with the invalid and teach him the scriptures so he would have the faith he needs to be healed of his condition.  Jesus could require that the man accept him as messiah before Jesus lifts a finger to help him.
      At the very least, Jesus could WAIT to do what he’s going to do.  Jesus could at least wait until the Sabbath is over, thereby setting the scene for a healing that would be seen by everyone as perfectly acceptable and unquestionably good.  If Jesus waits until after sundown, this wonderful miracle would make everyone happy and support their expectations of a victorious messiah who had arrived to take on all the enemies of God’s people. 
      But Jesus doesn’t do any of that.  Jesus doesn’t wait until the right time to heal the man. Jesus doesn’t command the attention of the crowd.  Jesus simply tells the man to stand up, take up his mat, and walk.  And thus a major controversy is set in motion by Jesus’ action -- one that seems intentionally offensive and disruptive.
      What are we to make of Jesus Christ?
      The other people at the pool don’t know what to make of Jesus.  In fact, they don’t say a thing.  Not one of them looks up from the water.  There is no mass conversion or praise.  Nothing at all has changed as a result of this miraculous healing taking place right in front of their faces.
      The man who has been healed doesn’t know what to make of Jesus. The man is not made well because he first knows who Jesus is and believes. From the text, it is not even clear that the man wanted to be made well! He doesn’t say thank you.  He doesn’t experience a sudden faith in Jesus after his dealing.  The man doesn’t praise God or become a follower.  Later on, when the Judean leaders ask the man why he is breaking Sabbath law by carrying a mat around, the man blames it on someone else.  “Not my fault.  Some guy I don’t know told me to do it.  Don’t blame me, blame him.”   
      What are we to make of Jesus Christ?
      The Judean leaders do not know what to make of Jesus.  Well, they think they know what Jesus doing.  We need to remember that these religious leaders are not heartless as we might imagine.  The Judeans are reasonable people.  If the man by the pool had been trapped in a burning house or drowning in the pool, the religious leaders would have allowed an exception to the law.  Even on a Sabbath, it would be okay to pull someone out of a burning building. 
      But that’s not what Jesus did.  The man by the pool in Bethesda was in no immediate danger. The leaders probably knew that man and how long he’d been lying with the other beggars. 
      The Judean leaders do not know what to make of Jesus, but one thing they do know is that Jesus deliberately crossed an uncrossable boundary when he healed the man on the Sabbath.  The Judeans are not unreasonable and they aren’t stupid.  They can see exactly what Jesus is up to. 
      Or can they?  What are we to make of Jesus Christ?              
      We know how the religious and civil authorities interpreted Jesus’ actions.  They saw Jesus’ healing as a heresy.  We know what happens to Jesus as a result of this and other things he did that crossed the sacred line of the law.  Things didn't look so good for Jesus from there on.  We know exactly where this defiant behavior got him
     So here we are, many years later, and we find ourselves as Christians in a tricky position.  Yes, our life together needs to be orderly. We are people who live by the rule of law.  And we are also Presbyterians, which means we also deal with a Book of Order and a Book of Confessions that regulate our life as a church.  And we need rules and boundaries to keep our community healthy and functioning well.  No one, least of all me, is calling for anarchy.
     But Jesus embodied a radical – yes, radical -- kingdom where God is always calling us to a higher place. Given what happens to Jesus, and what has happened to so many other saints who have dared to step outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior for the sake of the gospel, we should step carefully every time we go to church or admit we are Christians and have the audacity to act like it.  Living as a Christian is tricky business, but no more tricky than it has been since the beginning with Peter and the apostles.  Our ways of being in the world are always subject to second-guessing by those who have an interest in keeping status quo protected.
     When Jesus is rejected by the authorities, it is a rejection of new and unprecedented ways of knowing God.  And we are invited in this text to examine when it is that we reject the Jesus because he is too challenging to our systems and structures.  When do our structures and rules in the church help to keep people “sick” or “stuck in their condition” rather than offering transformation like that experienced by the man at the pool? 
     Our gospel reading today has been called “the strangest miracle” and it is really is very strange.   The man at the pool wasn’t much interested in Jesus or what Jesus had to offer.  But Jesus went ahead and healed him anyway.
     What this strange miracle tells us is that God’s healing power isn’t contingent on our goodness or worthiness.  God’s love transforms us whether we ask for it or not.  And God’s transformation will come in God’s time, which is always the right time whether we realize it or not. 
     There’s a lot of good news for us in this story of this unworthy man lying helplessly by the pool in Bethesda.  It’s not comforting news, because what it tells is that only Jesus is the source of our healing, and we cannot do it for ourselves.  It’s not easy news, because it shows us that Jesus heals in a way that is often not convenient or proper or conventional. 
     But this story is good news for us because it demonstrates, yet again, who God is in Jesus.  A God who will heal when we ask, and even when we don’t.   A God who reaches out to those who are worthy, and even to those who are not.  A God who will respond when we are bubbling over with hope, and even when 38 long painful years have passed and we are so blinded by our hopelessness that we cannot see Jesus standing right there in front of us.   A God who loves across conventions, across boundaries, across our own stubborn resistance have things our way. 
     Sometimes, I just don’t know what to make of Jesus Christ.  But I invite you to live with me in breathless anticipation of what Jesus will make of us.
Thanks be to God.  Amen. 
[1]Lewis, C.S. The Joyful Christian.  Macmillian Publishing Company: New York, 1977.  72-73.