Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ordinary 26C, September 29, 2013

Risky Business

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

6Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” 8Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. 9And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

We return to the book of Jeremiah this morning not because things are looking any better for Judah than they did last week.  Last week, we heard Jeremiah weeping a fountain of tears over a people who had pretty much messed up in every way it is possible to mess up.  Today, Judah’s future is looking even more bleak.

For more than 20 years, Jeremiah preached to the careless and forgetful people.  He preached judgment because the people kept turning to the many false idols that they had created for themselves.  Jeremiah called the people to turn back to YHWH for their security.  Jeremiah warned them over and over again of doom and gloom, telling the leaders and the people of Judah that if they kept going in the direction they were going, they would most certainly lose everything dear to them --  their land, their independence, their very identity as a nation of God’s chosen people. And despite Jeremiah’s prophetic tenacity and fervor, nobody wanted to hear what he had to say. 

And in today’s text, it’s all coming to a head.  It is the end for Judah, just as Jeremiah had warned them.  The army of Babylon is beginning its siege of Jerusalem. Very soon, most of the people who either hadn’t heard or completely tuned out Jeremiah’s warnings will be exiled from the land and dragged into captivity.  The nation of Judah has no foreseeable future.  The land they had cultivated for generations will be worthless.  The temple will fall.  Everything Jeremiah foretold has come to pass. 

And in this moment of national crisis, where is Jeremiah?  The great prophet is in jail.  Jeremiah told King Zedekiah something that no ruler ever wants to hear – that his power is worthless and his enemies will prevail.  Such talk tagged the prophet as a traitor.  Zedekiah had quite enough of Jeremiah’s nay-saying and threw Jeremiah into prison.  Unfortunately, for the king and everyone else in Judah, Jeremiah’s predictions are unfolding before their eyes. 

And then the strangest thing happens.

Out of the gathering storm clouds, Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel emerges.  Hanamel comes to see Jeremiah in prison to ask him if he would be willing to buy a piece of family property in Anathoth.  Jeremiah seems to have foreseen this offer from his cousin coming – in fact, Jeremiah prophesizes that his cousin is going to come to him and offer to sell him this property.  But Jeremiah’s response to his cousin’s offer is really very strange.  

Because this is Jeremiah, after all.  This is the guy who has been preaching doom and gloom for years, a prophet who sees nothing but ruin in Judah’s foreseeable future.  And yet, Jeremiah does something very strange.  Jeremiah not only agrees to buy the property, but also agrees to pay full price for land that is most certainly going to be worthless within a matter of hours, days or weeks.  Hanamel looks like a total genius in dumping the property and Jeremiah’s decision to buy it seems utterly foolish.

After all, it’s not like God directly told Jeremiah to agree to the deal.  God did give Jeremiah advance notice that his cousin would be coming with the offer to sell the land to Jeremiah.  But notice, the word of the Lord doesn’t include instructions on what Jeremiah is to do.  The word of the Lord only tells Jeremiah that the opportunity will present itself.

And this raises a very interesting question for all of us.  How do we discern what God would have us do when it seems as though the smartest, safest, most intelligent option would be to say, “no?”   What would God have us do when we are presented with something that seems, on its surface, totally reckless and foolish?

Jeremiah’s decision to purchase the property from his cousin is like someone paying full price for a piece of uninsured beachfront property on a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina when a category 5 hurricane is roaring toward shore.  It is like saying yes to buying a house next to a vacant field that is slated to become a toxic waste dump.  In other words, Jeremiah saying “yes” to his cousin is probably the most spectacularly stupid thing that Jeremiah could possibly do at that moment.  Given what he knew was going to happen momentarily, the smartest, sanest thing for Jeremiah to do would be to keep the shekels he had and get ready for the coming invasion. Who could blame Jeremiah if he had said “no way” to his shrewd cousin’s blatantly self-serving plan to dump a soon-to-be-worthless real estate holding into Jeremiah’s lap for seventeen shekels of cold, hard, silver cash money?  Buying a piece of land in a war zone was about the dumbest thing Jeremiah could do. 

And it is exactly the kind of stupid thing that the people of God are called to do ALL THE TIME.  God is always calling God’s people to do things that look like utter and complete foolishness.  

Think about Abraham and Sarah leaving a pretty sweet and stable gig in Ur to follow the voice of YHWH.  Think about Moses taking on the most powerful man in Egypt just because a burning bush told him to do it.  Think about a young, unmarried girl named Mary being asked to take part in this incredibly bizarre plan presented to her out of nowhere by an angel.  I could go on and on with these examples of ordinary people agreeing to do blatantly foolish and sometimes even dangerous things in response to God’s call.  But God has a history of calling out ordinary people who just sitting around, minding their own business.  And God trusts that at least some of them will say “Yes” to God’s crazy plans which frequently require them to do something that most people would consider very, very ill-considered.  

If fact, it is rather astonishing that God ever gets anything done with any of us at all.  We’d all rather look wise than faithfully foolish.  We’d much rather hedge our bets than go all-in the way Jeremiah goes all-in on God’s vision for the future. 

Given what was going on all around Jeremiah, he had more than enough reason to say no to his cousin’s offer.  He had ample evidence to just take what was left of his shekels and go on to Babylon and spend the rest of his days telling those faithless people of Judah that he told them so.  That’s what I would do.  Maybe that’s what you would do.  That’s what a lot of people do.  At one time or another, we are so stressed out about what looks like an absolutely hopeless future that we are ready to just give in, give up, put our money in the mattress, stock up on guns and bottled water, and hunker down to protect what we have.

But not Jeremiah.  After all those years of preaching nothing but doom and gloom, God gives Jeremiah a brand new sermon to take to the people of Judah.  After years of despair, Jeremiah is given a tiny glimpse of something that looks an awful lot like – dare I say it -- hope.  In the midst of Judah’s past and present crumbling all around him, Jeremiah decides to engage in the risky business of investing in God’s future.  Jeremiah catches a glimpse of God’s deep desire to begin again.  Even with feckless, faithless Judah.  Somehow Jeremiah spies a future lying beneath the nation’s dismal present.  A future with houses, flourishing fields and verdant vineyards.

What I find most poignant about this story is that Jeremiah is investing in a future he will never see.  And I think Jeremiah knows this, which is why he instructs Baruch to take the paperwork involving the transfer of the property and put them in an earthenware jar so they can last for a long time.  Jeremiah makes this foolish investment in a future he will never see, but there is one thing he knows for sure.  The future for him, for the people of Judah, for the people of God in every time and place is always in God’s sure and loving hands.  Jeremiah’s strength is not in his power of positive thinking or Pollyanna optimism.  Jeremiah’s resilience is rooted in his willingness to be so honest about the darkness that he can also perceive the light that is beginning to creep back in. 

One of my favorite things to do when I am alone in the church is to walk around and look at the old pictures hanging on the walls.  I especially love the pictures of the old Sunday school classes and the pictures of the church building when it was newly constructed.  I realized this week that we are only two years away from the 150th anniversary of the founding of this church as well as the 120th anniversary of the building. 

I sometimes look at those pictures of people who invested their time and money and energy into that new church in the 19th century and I wonder – what did they envision for the future?  What would they think if they saw us now?  Would they be dismayed that the church is no longer filled to bursting or would they be amazed that we’re even still here?  Did that investment of 150 years ago pay off in the way they imagined it would?

At the presbytery meeting this week, we learned that Dormont Presbyterian Church will soon sell their building to Northway Christian Community.  You probably know something about Northway – it is a huge mega-church with satellite campuses all over the Pittsburgh area. Dormont Presbyterian Church was once one of the largest churches in Pittsburgh Presbytery with a membership in the thousands.  Nearly every person I’ve run into has a Dormont story.  Nearly everybody in the presbytery knows somebody who was a member, baptized, married or confirmed in the Dormont Presbyterian Church.  It has been a sad, hard time for that congregation.  Selling the building was a painful, but necessary step in their life as a community.

Yet, there will still be ministry happening on that corner in Dormont, but not a Presbyterian ministry.  There will not be the sort of traditional worship services that have been there for the past 100 years.  What will be in that space is nothing at all what the original founders of that church could have possibly imagined.  A coffee bar?  Computer screens? 

The Dormont Presbyterian congregation has a future, although it is a future still unfolding.  Without the idol of a giant, expensive building weighing them down, the people of Dormont Presbyterian have been set free to turn toward God’s future for them, wherever that may lead them.

From that perspective, I do not see what is happening in any of the churches in this presbytery or in this denomination as a cautionary tale to hunker down and stop making investments in the future.  If anything, I think the prophet Jeremiah calls us to go all-in on the investment our ancestors made on our behalf long ago.  I think Jeremiah tells us that we should be confident and crazy enough to invest our souls, our spirit, our energies, our creativity and, yes, our money into something that even I will admit doesn’t look entirely promising – the PCUSA.  But we can take chances and dream big knowing that God has a future in mind for us, as Jeremiah says in chapter 29: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope (Jer. 29:11).

Jeremiah’s risky and seemingly ridiculous real estate transaction is a radical act of hope for the people of Israel.

The war and destruction they see around them will not have the final say.
The failure of the political system and religious structures will not have the final say.
The death of a denomination or even death on a cross is not God’s final judgment on God’s people.

God’s final judgment is forgiveness.  God’s final judgment is grace.  God’s final judgment is not the church visible with all our flaws and foibles and fiascos, but the church triumphant when we will finally see exactly what God has had in mind for us all along.

We can say no.  We can say yes.  We can say no to God’s future and stick with the idols that will drag us down.  Or we can say yes and make a deep commitment to a future that we can hardly imagine and may not live to see, but can trust as God’s good plan for God’s people.  Deep commitment brings deep healing, and deep healing brings deep generosity. Commitment allows us to take the lids off the earthenware jars that are our lives, and helps us to embrace change.[1]

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]  September 28, 2013. “Living into Change.”

Prayer Garden Kickoff at Avon Club Fall Festival

Many, many thanks to everyone helped out at the Avon Fall Festival on September 28th!  The community's response to our plans for a neighborhood prayer garden including an outdoor labyrinth was amazing and encouraging.  We gave out more than 200 balloons with our labyrinth logo, dozens of dog treats, lollipops, and talked with so many members of the community that we were hoarse by the end of the afternoon!  Kids and adults alike loved walking our "temporary" labyrinth that was skillfully crafted by Jon Stellfox.  Many neighbors offered to donate plants, time and prayers to help our vision for a beautiful contemplative space a reality in our little corner in Emsworth.

Special thanks to Bez Stellfox, Donna Hunter, Erin Williams, Dan Williams, Tom Smart, Marti Smart and everyone who helped make the day such a wonderful success!  Keep watching your bulletin, newsletter and this blog for more information as the prayer garden moves forward.  For more information about what's going on and how you can help, please contact Pastor Susan or leave a comment below!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ordinary 25C, September 22, 2013

The Balm in Gilead Looks Like My iPhone

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

 My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:“Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” 
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) 
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
 For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
 O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

The process of preparing a sermon each week is a strange and odd thing.  I suspect that sermon preparation is something most people would rather not see…sort of like sausage-making or open-heart surgery. All of you have arrived here this morning expecting to hear a word from the Lord spoken by your thoroughly imperfect, occasionally inelegant, but always earnest pastor.  When you listen to my sermons or anyone’s sermons, you probably don’t have a strong curiosity about how it got written, as long as I show up with something reasonably reasonable when 11:15 rolls around.

Well, today I’m going to take the risk of telling you about the ugly process I went through this week. I promise, there is a point to the stupid story you are about to hear about my stupid week.  This was a week in which I was gob-smacked more than usual by the Holy Spirit and now that it’s Sunday and I’m standing up here before you, I feel compelled to honestly confess that I totally deserve every blessed moment of the week’s misery. 

But despite, or maybe because of my stupidity, I think I learned something important about idolatry, grief, and the unbelievable power of human self-delusion and denial.  And all of these lessons were cheerfully delivered to me by the Holy Spirit via the comedian Louis CK, Bruce Springsteen, and my local Apple Store.  And, believe it or not, all of these have something to do with the text from Jeremiah.  Because Jeremiah is really, at its heart, a book about idolatry, grief, and the power of human self-delusion and idolatry. 

Here’s what Jeremiah asks in our text this morning.  Is there no balm in Gilead?  What a totally silly question.  Of course there is.   I even brought it with me.  (Hold up the new iPhone).

Do you know what this is?  This is an iPhone 5s, the new phone released this past Friday by Apple.  My balm in Gilead is this phone.  It is my idol.  It is the healing balm for which I stood in line for 3 ½ hours on Friday morning.  And so did a lot of other people all around the country. 

Understand that I did not plan this expedition. I’m not that crazy.  I was sort of forced into line by circumstance.  Two days before releasing the new iPhones, Apple released a new operating system for all their iPhones. I downloaded the new system to my old phone because I thought it would help my old phone run a little better.  

Well, that was a really terrible idea.  Installing this new software on my old phone was the final insult to its system.  All dayThursday, I missed a bunch of calls, received texts hours after they were sent, couldn’t access my email or my calendar, totally lost track of who was liking what on Facebook, and couldn’t a score for the Pirates game.  I was totally and utterly rudderless.  Well-played Apple.  Well-played.

When I woke on Friday morning, I hadn’t planned on getting a new phone.  I thought I could wait a couple days.  But when my friend called to tell me that she was in line at the Apple store to get a new phone and did I want to come join her, I hesitated for about a minute and said, sure…how long could it take?  My balm was on the horizon.  A shiny new idol.  How I could I resist? 

It took 3 ½  hours.  But finally…I had it.  (Hold up the phone again)  Isn’t it beautiful?  Shiny?  Fast?  And look…it can read my fingerprint so I don’t have to put in a passcode.  So it’s magic too.

After standing in line for 3 ½ hours, I went to a meeting at the seminary and by mid-afternoon on Friday, I was heading home to finish the sermon which I had mostly done on Monday. 

I got home, went to my computer, turned it on and instead of the comforting “boing” of a laptop booting up, I heard alarm bells.  I never knew laptops could make that sound, but evidently they do when the hard drive is completely fried. 

To make a long story shorter, Jesus saves and so do I, but the last back up I had done on my computer was two weeks ago.  Which meant my mostly written sermon from Monday was gone.  Kaput.  All gone.

So, on Saturday afternoon, once I had a functioning computer, I had to begin this sermon all over again.   I had to start all over again with the weeping prophet Jeremiah and this beautiful yet haunting passage about what happens when a group of people get so caught up with the things that seem important, that they lose track of what really matters.   I had to face the fact that idols come in all shapes and sizes, and I was as guilty as anyone of slobbering over all of the external things I think are critical to keeping my life running smoothly.

Which is, of course, what happened in Judah.   They got caught up in the day to day struggle of trying to keep their lives running smoothly – which for the people of Israel meant trying to scratch out an existence as a small country surrounded by much bigger and much more powerful enemies.  The people in Judah, as spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, motivated by anxiety and fear, had lost sight of their covenant with YHWH and wandered off to go after worthless things and, in the process, had become worthless themselves (Jer. 2:5).  The people had given in to the easy and less-demanding comfort of false idols, all the while deluding themselves with a false sense of security they would always be ok because YHWH lived in Zion. As Jeremiah puts it, they became stupid children with no understanding who had become skilled in doing evil and did not know how to do good (Jer. 4:22).

God looks down on the earth and what does God see?  People standing in line for iPhones. 

Like every human being who has walked this earth since Judah fell in 587 B.C., the people of Judah fell hard for all the shiny things that they imagined would make them secure.  And human beings sure do love shiny things.  Bombs.  Guns.  New cars.  The soothing balms of food and alcohol.  The idols of money and power.   All of those things we imagine can protect us or make us feel good.  In every generation, you can observe the way in which all of us, every one of us, are lured to the things that fill us up as we attempt to fill in the hole that is God-shaped in every human being.  

As St. Augustine so astutely observed, we are cranky, anxious creatures with restless hearts, endlessly searching for a place to land.  Until we come to the place when we understand that no other idol is going to fill our God-shaped spaces, our hearts will wander restlessly until they rest in God. 

The people of Judah found this out the hard way.  Despite the warnings of prophets like Jeremiah, the people of Judah drifted so far away from being the people God desired them to be, there was nothing left for God to do but let the rug be pulled out from under them by an invading army. The Babylonians hit Judah like a ton of bricks.  The once fruitful land became a desert.  All the cities were laid in ruins (Jer. 4:26). 

The alarm bells of broken idols are ringing loud and clear in our text today.  And the voice of God asks in sorrow, why did they do it? “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”

Why indeed?  Why did they not listen?  Why do we not listen?  Why do we not listen to the sirens that sound around us every day, warning us that we’re staking our faith on idols and balms that cannot save us?

The onerous drone that we hear every day can become overwhelming.  An economy still sputtering.  Families facing cuts in food stamps.  People struggling to pay their bills.  Friends and family struggling with physical and mental illness in a fractured and frustrating system of health care.  Just this week, think about what have we had to wrap our tired minds around?  The continuing impasse in Washington, D.C.  Chemical weapons and unreliable allies.  Old wars, civil wars and the very real prospect of new wars.  The death of dozens in Chicago.  A mall bomb in Nairobi. The deaths of thousands in Syria. 

Given what is going on in the world, it is small wonder we turn to balms and idols and anything we can get our hands on. It is not surprising that we rely upon easy, comfortable balms when there seems to be no answer to hard questions. We cling to idols when everyday anxiety threatens to choke us up and leave us weeping like Jeremiah.  Nobody wants to wade into the muck of deep human misery that Jeremiah experiences.

 My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick…
O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

On Saturday afternoon, as I was floundering around, trying to recreate my sermon, I watched a clip from the Conan show on Friday night.  Conan’s guest was Louis C.K. who is a really great comedian.  Louis was talking about his decision not to allow his teenage daughters to have a smart phone because he thinks they are thoroughly toxic for the human soul.  Although he didn’t use the word, “idol,” his description of what smart phones do to us as human beings really resonated with me given the week I had with technology.  And what he said also resonated with the kind of deep down grief you hear in this text from Jeremiah. 

What idols do – whether they are iPhone or foreign gods or sports teams or anything else – is take away our ability to just be who we are without doing something to distract us from the very real pain that life hands to us.  The average Judean lived in constant anxiety about weather, flooding, drought, children dying in infancy, epidemics and other harsh realities of ancient agrarian existence.  Living with tension and anxiety certainly made turning to idols an almost an irresistible force. Our lives in the 21st century are certainly less precarious than those of the ancients, but we do live with anxieties that are simply a part of being human.

On the Conan show, Louis CK described those everyday moments in which we feel a deep sadness.  And when those moments wash over us, Louis says we turn to the closest idol available.  For me, it’s this (hold up the iPhone).  For you, it may be something else.  But it’s what we do when we feel lost and vulnerable. 

Louis CK said that one day he was in his car and a Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio and while listening to it, he was filled an almost unspeakable sadness and longing.  He said he had to try hard to resist the urge to pick up his phone, maybe text a few friends, and find a distraction that would make the sadness go away.   And he said he realized that it is so hard for us just to allow ourselves to be sad, to just cry about things that really deserve to be cried about.  About the loss of a friend or a job.  The absurdity of old age and the stress of trying to find our way in youth.  About the terrible beauty of raising children and the awful pain of letting them go. 

We can make an idol out of anything.  A spouse or a lover.  A miraculous healing or a chronic illness.  An imagined hurt or a real one.  Anytime we’re in a place in which we turn away from who we are meant to be before God, we are worshipping an idol.  Anything that distracts us from being fully present to the Creator who loves us, and fully engaged in the world God entrusted us to care for and love on God’s behalf is a balm that will ultimately disappoint us in the end.  

There is no balm in Gilead.  There are no easy answers for the healing of a sin sick world.  The balm that will ultimately heal us is beyond our ability to prescribe, procure or even purchase, no matter how long we’re willing to stand in line.  We can not escape the terror of simply being human while we traipse upon this earth.  The only meaning we can hope to claim as sure and lasting is the identity we have as children of God and as brothers and sisters in Christ.  That is the only promise in which our hearts may find rest.  This is the reality that lays beneath every other reality -- the peace of Christ, the love of God and the gob-smacking companionship of the Holy Spirit which comforts us, challenges us, weeps with us and invites us into God’s future. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Here's Louis CK on Conan (9/20/13)

And a bonus song:  "Jungleland"  from "Born to Run" released in 1975.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What's Happening? September and October at Emsworth U.P.

New Hymnal Arriving in the Pews In Late September!

The last time Emsworth U.P. purchased a new hymnal was in the mid-1970’s.  Today we have Hymns for the Living Church, as well as The Hymnbook, published in 1955 by the Presbyterian church, in our pews.  

Our current hymnals give us a wide selection of sacred music that well represents the musical styles, tastes and theological concerns (and vocal range!) of the American Presbyterian church in the 1950’s – 1980’s.  For most of us born before 1970, the hymnals we already have fairly represent the music many of us grew up singing in the church. 

A hymnal, however, is never a collection of “favorite songs” or “heart songs” for one particular congregation in one particular time.  Rather, a denominational hymnal is meant to honor the music of our heritage while connecting us to our brothers and sisters in different generations, races, cultures and musical traditions.  We honor Christians who are “different” from us when we sing music that may sound “different” to us.  Being a little uncomfortable with unfamiliar words and tunes can stretch our imaginations, causing us to remember that we are only part of God’s larger faith community.  The new songs we sing in worship today, even if they feel uncomfortable to us at first, may well become the “heart songs” of future Presbyterians.  With time and repetition, you may even find yourself humming a new tune!

Glory to God will contain a wide variety of hymns -- old and new, familiar and unfamiliar -- representing the rich diversity of the Body of Christ throughout the world.  It will contain more than 800 hymns, songs and spiritual songs, music from 6 continents, and all musical styles.  We will also be purchasing an accompanist’s edition, as well as an enlarged print edition we can photocopy each week for those who are visually impaired.  Electronic editions will also be available.

If you have more questions or are just curious about knowing more about Glory to God before it arrives, there is a great on-line

New Hours on Sunday Mornings

Sunday School:  9:45 a.m. - 10:30 with Mark Shannon and Pastor Susan sharing teaching duties.  
Fellowship Time:  10:30 a.m. - 10:50 a.m. with light refreshments and a time to catch up before worship.  We have a fancy new coffee machine and a wide variety of coffees/teas/hot chocolate is available.  You'll think you've stumbled into Starbucks! Well, maybe not Starbucks...
Cards will also be available for prayer requests you would like offered up during the prayers of the people. If you have a prayer need, please hand your card to Susan or Jon Stellfox.
Weekly Announcements:  10:50 a.m. -- 11:00 a.m.  Informal time of announcements and information about what's going on at Emsworth U.P. 
Worship  Begins at 11:00 a.m. 

North Boros Crop Walk

The North Boros Crop Walk is scheduled for Sunday, October 6 beginning at Greenstone United Methodist Church, 939 California Avenue.  Registration begins at 1:30 p.m. and the walk begins at 2:00 p.m.   This is a great way to support efforts end hunger in community, country and around the world.  For more information and to register, email Pastor Susan at or pick up a registration form in the Narthex.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ordinary 24C -- September 15, 2013

Wandering Toward Home

Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I keep having the same dream.  Actually, it isn’t a dream – more like variations on the same nightmare.  Every few months, a terrifying dream will wake me up in the middle of the night for three or four nights in a row. 

All of these bad dreams have a similar trajectory.  One or both of my children are missing. Sometimes in my dream we are in a big, crowded, scary place and both of them slip away from me.  Or I dream that I wake up in the morning to find David’s bed empty and he’s gone without a trace.  Or we’re on vacation and Rachel doesn’t meet us where she promised to meet us and I look for her everywhere I can think of in an unfamiliar city.  But she’s gone.   Sometimes, in my dream, I am paralyzed and can’t even dial a phone to call the police to help me find my missing children. 

The power of these dreams to mess with me is really startling.  Even as I describe them out loud here today, my heart is pounding and my eyes are tearing up.  If a fleeting dream of losing someone precious is enough to cut me to the core, how much more shattering is it to experience real loss in real time, in real life? I know many of you could tell me stories of losses that have shaken you beyond what you could imagine surviving.  

That kind of lump in your throat, ache in your gut loss that messes up everything in your life is at the heart of the story we’re gently unwrapping today in the gospel of Luke.  Especially as we hold up this image of the woman in a darkened house, on her hands and knees, panic-stricken, looking everywhere, in corners, under chairs, in the garbage can, in coat pockets, in crevices on the floor, frantically searching for that one small coin.  A small coin of enormous value to the woman, because it is a coin that may be all that stands between her family and starvation.   The image of this unnamed woman quietly lurks in the gospel of Luke between two, much more famous stories of lost sheep and a prodigal son, and it’s easy to overlook her if you’re not paying attention.

And I wonder…if we can so easily see God as a shepherd leaving behind 99 sheep to find the one that is lost, and if we know God as the father welcoming back the prodigal son, then maybe we can also imagine God as a woman – maybe a very old woman – who has experienced the loss of something so precious that she will not rest until she find it.  Perhaps she can give us courage to proclaim that the treasures we believe are lost forever are not lost at all.  Perhaps she offers us the comfort in knowing that all our losses are precious to God, because God has been down on the floor with us on our hands and knees, searching and hoping that the lost coin will turn up. 

Just for a moment this morning, let us imagine God as this woman, an old woman.  Imagine a woman who is growing older, her face covered with lines, her steps slowed, her eyes tired and red from weeping.  Her hearing is not what it used to be and she must strain to hear even familiar voices.  Yet, she remembers everything.

The old woman pulls a scrapbook from her shelf, opens it, and slowly begins turning its pages, looking at the faces of her children, seeing all the beautiful colors of their skin, all of the varied sizes and shapes of their bodies.  She can still remember with incredible clarity when the world was brand new and her children were young.  And she marvels at their accomplishments over the thousands of years – the music they have written, the gardens they have planted, the skyscrapers they have built, the art they have created, the amazing and beautiful ideas they have spun over time.  Their philosophies and theologies and their vague, sometimes desperate stabs at truth-telling.  Every moment when the old woman thinks she cannot possibly love her children any more than she already does, she recalls something else about them – their bad jokes, their readiness to come to the aid of someone in need, their earnestness in trying to do good – she thinks of all their unique gifts and she loves every one of her children even more. 

But there are also pages in her memory book the old woman would rather skip.  There is so much she wishes she could forget about her beloved ones.  She remembers her children spoiling the beautiful home she created for them and all the ways in which they put one another in chains.  She sees her children racing down dangerous roads, unable to stop them.  She remembers the dreams she had for them that they never fulfilled because her children were too fearful or too stubborn.  And the old woman’s eyes fill with tears as they always do when she remembers the names – too many names – of her children lost through war and famine, earthquake and accident, disease and suicide. 

God remembers all the times she has sat alone and wept of love for her children because she could not, would not stop the process she set in motion.  It is God who gave her children an freedom out of her love and respect for them.  And in return, God endures the pain they have managed to create out of that great gift of free will.  

So when God goes looking for her children, she isn’t at all surprised that we do our best not to be found.  She isn’t the least bit put off by every excuse we give about why we stay away.  “We’re busy, “ we say.  “We’d love to see you but we just can’t come tonight.  Too much to do.  Too many responsibilities to juggle.”  

God knows that we avoid being found because we don’t want to look at that aging face.  God understands that we are disappointed.  She knows that we have a hard time facing a God of our childhood expectations.  God didn’t give us everything we wanted.  We didn’t get the success we wanted from our work.  We didn’t get triumph in every battle or a life free from pain and loss.  The old woman understands that we would much rather stay lost because we don’t want her to see our disappointment.  God knows all of this, she knows we’re tired and hurting and sick of sin, and yet her deepest desire is to see us, face to face. 

And what if we did allow ourselves to face God?  What would it be like to finally be found?  I mean really, really found?  What is it like to be caught in the light of God? What happens when we step out blinking into the brightest of lights after spending months or years in darkness, concealed like a sticky old penny in the seat cushions? 

If we imagine God as that old, old woman, we might imagine that she would invite us into her warm, comfortable kitchen and pour us a cup of tea.  We might be nervous about what she might say to us, but we might be even more afraid of silence.  I imagine we would fill the first hour or so with lots and lots of chatter.   

Even as we sat there, sipping tea, chattering away about nothing, God would see everything.  She would see us newly born and dying.  She would see our birth and our death and all the years between.  Our years when we were young and thought there was nothing we couldn’t do.  She would see our middle years when our energy was unlimited and every moment had a purpose.  When we worked and cooked and fixed and wrote and volunteered and cleaned and drove and it seemed like everyone needed us and we had no time to sleep, although what we really, really needed more than anything was to sleep.  And then God could see us in our later years when the chaos is replaced by relentless quiet when we no longer feel needed by anyone and we are lucky to sleep at all and when finally fall into a fitful sleep the nightmares awaken us and leave us shaken and makes us wonder if we truly are lost to everyone, even to ourselves.

God sees things about us that we have forgotten and things we do not yet know.  For no matter how hard we try to hide from God, nothing about us is hidden from God’s sight. 

When God has finished looking at us, she might say, “So tell me.  How are you?”  That is when our chattering stops and we are struck dumb.  We are literally frozen, afraid to open our mouths and tell her what she really matters about us:  whom we love, where we hurt, what we have messed up or lost completely, what we wanted to be when we grew up, how far away we are from being the people we wanted to become and how far away we are from the being the people our God intended us to be.

When we look into the deeply lined face of the old woman, all we can sputter out is, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”  And the old woman looks right back at us, the beloved child she’s been waiting for, longing for, even dying to see…and utters the only words we have ever needed to hear:  “I forgive you.”

Those three words make everything new.  And unbelievably awesome.

“I forgive you,” are the words uttered by the thoroughly exasperated yet utterly relieved shepherd when he finally manages to find, probably for the third time this week, that one, pesky, ornery lamb who keeps wandering off to find adventure and always manages to get himself good and lost. 

 “I forgive you,” are the words uttered by the father who finally wakes up from the unspeakable nightmare of the lost child he thought he’d never, ever see again but look – there he is! – that lovable goofball trudging up the hill toward home – no longer a reckless youth, certainly older and hopefully wiser.  How long do you think that prodigal son will stay?  Although the story doesn’t say so, I’m willing to bet that after a couple of months or years, that same reckless son will probably go back out into the world and maybe even get lost again. 

And even when we are in the company of the wise old woman who has spent our lifetime waiting for us to get it together, we will eventually get the itch to be lost again.  I am afraid that is just how we are made as human beings – full of curiosity, aching to learn and create and notice and wander into trouble as easily as we draw breath.  The old woman knows this better than anyone.  Yet, when we get up to leave, we promise her that this time we’ll do better.  We won’t let so much time pass between visits. 

But as we are about to leave, God will stop us, draw us very close to her, and hold our face in her two hands and say:

“Do not be afraid.  I will be faithful to the promise I made to you when you were young.  I will be with you.  Even to your old age I still will be with you.  When you are grey headed, still I will hold you.  I gave birth to you.  I carried you.  I will hold you still.  When you are lost, you will find me.  Because I am here.  I am here.  I am here. You are never lost from me.  No matter what happens, I will find you.  You are mine.”

I heard an interview this week with one of my favorite pastors, Nadia Bolz Weber who serves a church in Denver, Colorado.  What I love about her church is that they are very, very faithful to a traditional liturgy in worship, yet they innovate in ways that really make sense to even a traditionalist like me.  For example: her church celebrates the Easter vigil on the Saturday night before Easter using an ancient liturgy  -- a three, three-and-a-half-hour-long service at night. The service happens outside in the parking lot of the church and everyone gathers around a new fire burning in the darkness.  As it gets close to midnight, the congregation parades up to the front door of the church.  They bang on the door, it opens up and everyone parades into the sanctuary where all the lilies are out and there are candles burning and all the people sing "Alleluia!" for the first time since Lent started.  They have communion together and baptisms. 
And then they have a huge dance party right there in the sanctuary. I mean, a huge party. As Nadia says, she and her congregation feel like nothing says Christ is Risen like a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font,.
9When she found it, the woman calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and even the lost son all end with a party.  When the lost ones finally turn up, Jesus conjures up this great celebration of friends and families.  Because with God, the lost never stay lost.  What looks like death is redeemed and reclaimed and restored into a bright new life worthy of a really great party complete with dancing and laughter and bread and wine and maybe even a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font. 
We can grumble like Pharisees about the guest list and stare with resentment at this seemingly random crowd of sinners and saints that keep showing up with Jesus.
Or, we can consider ourselves blessed just to have found our way back home.  Again.
“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”[1]
Thanks be to God.  Amen.
(Parts of this sermon were inspired by and adapted from,“God is a Woman And She Is Growing Older,” by Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, in Reformed Judaism, Fall 1992, pages 26-28, 44)

[1] Buechner, Frederick.  Godric. cf. “Tom Steagald’s Preaching Journal.” on 9/14/13.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Ordinary 23C -- September 8, 2013

No One Left Behind

Luke 14:1, 7-14 
(Gospel reading from Ordinary 22C preached on September 8)

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.
 7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Let us begin with prayer:  Oh Holy God, we know we are your creation, filled with value, fully loved and known by you.  Give us strength, we pray, to allow ourselves to be known and loved by others.  Through Christ, we pray.  Amen.

I’m not sure that every couple has this problem, but it’s been a big one for my husband and me.  Mitchell is a surgeon and I am a minister, so we move in quite different worlds during our workweeks and have friends with very different backgrounds.  We do not entertain often – maybe once or twice a year -- so when we invite people over it’s impossible to limit the guest list to only “my friends” or “your friends” or even “our friends.”  Our parties usually end up being a big mishmash of guests, most of who have very little if anything in common other than being friends with one of us. We’ve hosted stockbrokers, bagpipe players, therapists, college professors, seminary students, teachers, attorneys, stay at home moms, physicians assistants, secretaries, ministers, doctors, rich people, poor people, white people, black people, Chinese people, hipsters, vegans, vegetarians, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, kids, babies, teenagers, college kids, little old ladies, gay people, straight people, atheist, Hindu, Christian, Jew – very often all of them at the same time, in the same house, occasionally watching Steelers football which, I must say, is the great social equalizer and spiritual unifier on Sundays in Pittsburgh.  I am pretty sure Jesus will let me get away with saying that this week because everybody knows that God is a Steelers fan.  

Well, maybe not this year.

But it’s always risky business.  When you throw different people together as haphazardly as we do, there’s always the risk that the polite Emily Post dinner party we envisioned can devolve into something more like a fiasco.  There’s always the distinct possibility that somebody is going to say or do something that causes an impolite quibble. Even when I limit the liquor and try to head disaster off at the pass with a whispered warning to potential troublemakers while collecting coats. 

But sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. Like when the attorney for a school district got into a heated debate with a high school teacher who just happened to be the head of the local teachers union.  That was fun.  Or when the president of a synagogue met up over the buffet table with a pro-Palestinian seminary student who had just returned from Israel.   Those are the sort of evenings when I wish I had required our guests to wear a nametag with their name, rank and serial number and a list of acceptable conversation topics that won’t lead to mayhem over the Buffalo wings.

But you know whom I really would think about leaving off the guest list?  Jesus, that’s who.  Because Jesus doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who reads Emily Post.  Jesus doesn’t innocently wander into uncomfortable conversations. Jesus creates uncomfortable conversations. In fact, you can’t invite Jesus anywhere in the gospel of Luke.  He always manages to make a scene when he shows up for dinner.

For example, in chapter 5 of Luke, Jesus goes to the home of Levi for a big party with a guest list including tax collectors and other offensive sinners.  This sketchy gathering stirs up all kinds of issues for the Pharisees who end up calling Jesus and his friends a bunch of drunks and gluttons.  Then, in Luke chapter 7, Jesus is at another dinner party and this uninvited crazy lady shows up.  Most people would send such an unwelcome guest out the door, but Jesus lets her cry all over his feet and it’s all so embarrassing and sort of weird that the Pharisees end up madder than hornets.  A couple of weeks ago, we saw how Martha and Mary practically got into a fistfight when they invited Jesus to dinner.  And of course, in Luke 22, at the last dinner party Jesus hosted, he ends up getting betrayed, arrested, and dragged off to prison in handcuffs, bringing an otherwise very pleasant evening to a very abrupt end.

Even though he has proven himself to be just about the worst party guest ever, Jesus has been invited – again -- to a Sabbath dinner at the home of a Pharisee and from the get go Jesus is not behaving as the sort of guest who hopes to be ever invited back.  Jesus does not really care much for small talk.  He does not bite his lip or hold back on offering an opinion, especially an opinion that is apt to tick off his host.  Instead Jesus quickly hones in on the dining customs of his hosts and Jesus decides he doesn’t much like what he sees.  Because what Jesus sees is a social hierarchy in which everyone knows their place based upon the seat they are assigned at dinner.  The most important people in the group, the people holding the highest honor, are seated on the right and left of the host.  The host didn’t necessarily have to like those people seated next to him; those were simply the seats for the guests who called the shots in the community. 

And Jesus begins innocently enough by saying that nobody should come into a dinner party assuming they’ll receive the seats of honor.  That would be, I don’t know, sort of show-offy and nobody likes a show-off, even Pharisees. No, Jesus says – better to be humble and head for the peanut gallery rather than to automatically go to the head of the table and risk looking like an idiot when somebody asks you to move.  You can imagine the guests who hear this parable murmuring in polite agreement with Jesus.  After all, there’s nothing controversial in feigning humility.   In fact, everyone thinks it’s kind of charming when someone important or famous demonstrates how very humble they are, really.  It’s like that section in People Magazine: “The Stars – They’re Just Like Us!”  They go to the grocery store!  They take their kids to the playground!  They go to baseball games!  They carry their own luggage through the airport!  Everyone admires important people who pretend they’re not really as important as everyone thinks they are.  Even if nobody actually believes that Ben Affleck carries his own suitcase through LaGuardia Airport.   Really, if you were Ben Affleck, would you carry your own suitcase?

Everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled.  And those who humble themselves will be an exalted.  It’s all a little game for these Pharisees.  Jesus knows that it’s all an act.  Jesus knows that while he’s watching the social maneuvering of the party guests, the Pharisees are watching him closely– again – to see how Jesus behaves.  This isn’t about who sits where at dinner.  It’s about the larger power structure that Jesus has been poking at since his first sermon back in Nazareth.  And the Pharisees are watching Jesus and wondering:  has Jesus decided, finally, to play along?  Has Jesus decided to behave like a good rabbi and stop coming so dangerously close to upending a carefully constructed hierarchy?  Is Jesus going to keep making trouble for the guys who already have the game rigged in their favor?

Well, it is Jesus we’re talking about here.  Jesus is that terrible dinner guest you regret inviting because he ends up ruining everything.  The guest who insults the cook and informs the host that the people at this party are no fun at all and he needs to find some better friends.  

Who does Jesus tell us to invite?  The poor, the blind, the crippled and the lame.  And this is where Jesus gets in trouble with the Pharisees – again – and with most of us if we’re being honest.  This is the part of the story where we become either defensive or…well…even more defensive.  Because who does that? Who invites the most feeble people you can imagine to a party?  Who invites a homeless guy to their house for dinner?  I spent most of this week feeling really defensive and sort of put out because I would much rather give away all my possessions and go live like a monk in a cave than invite people I don’t know to my house.  Jesus is really asking too much of us here, isn’t he?

Then it came to me.  Jesus isn’t talking about the dinner party he wants us to give.  He’s talking about the dinner party we are called to receive – that great and crazy banquet God throws for all of us.  All of us who are truly are, deep down, blind, lame, poor, insecure, frightened, broken and dysfunctional people who waste enormous amounts of energy pretending that we are not.  All of us who need to stop depending on something, anything, everything outside of ourselves to tell us who we are.  We are all invited guests at God’s table of grace, whether we like the other people at the party or not.  If you’re going to have dinner with Jesus, the food will be incredible and the wine will never run out, but you will also probably find yourself at the table with other people with whom you'd never choose to have a meal, much less an eternal banquet.  That’s the great joy of the kingdom of God and also the great pain in the butt of it.

The film Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a girl, Olive, who has been chosen as a finalist in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest. So she and her incredibly nutty family head off for an 800 mile road trip to the pageant in a Volkswagen van that barely works.  In fact, in order to get the van moving, the family has to push the van until it reaches a speed of 20 miles per hour and then they all jump in and turn on the engine.

Olive is a chubby little girl with big glasses. At one point Olive says: “I don’t want to be a loser because Daddy hates losers.”  Olive’s father is a failed motivational speaker and most of what he says in the movie consists of clich├ęd aphorisms that make fun of people for being losers. The irony, of course, is that it’s absolutely clear to the audience that Olive’s father is a total loser and by most standards, so is the rest of the family.   When Olive’s father says, “There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers,” the camera pans round the people in the van: his foul-mouthed father, his suicidal brother-in-law, his son who refuses to speak, his exhausted wife who is trying to hold them all together, and himself, the failed businessman.

But there’s a great moment in the film when the family discovers that Olive isn’t in the van because they’ve left her behind at a gas station. We see the van moving across the screen in one direction and the whole family whisks her up into the vehicle without stopping because at this point, if they stop they won’t be able to restart the van at all. Then we hear the father’s voice: "No-one gets left behind, no-one gets left behind."

And I think that’s sort of the point that Jesus is making in this parable he unloads on the dinner guests.  In the kingdom of God, no one gets left behind.  No matter how broken.  No matter how difficult or annoying.  Which means that gotta reach out and pull one another in and then hold on for dear life in this broken down, sputtering old van that we call the church. 

It’s like that game people sometimes play when they’re on a boring road trip.  You know this one.  If you were able to invite three people to have dinner with you, living or dead, who would you pick?  That’s always a hard one.  Since you’re in church, you’d probably pick Jesus as one of your guests.  Then maybe George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.  Maybe Ben Affleck.  Who knows?

But if Jesus were playing the game, you’d ask:  “Jesus, if you could invite any three people to dinner, alive or dead, who would they be?”  And Jesus would reply, “That’s easy,” and go on to give us a full glimpse of who Jesus is and who he cares about.  “The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”  “But Jesus, that’s four!  You only get three.”

“Oh in that case, the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, your mother, your jag off brother, that guy you can’t stand at work, Bashar al-Assad, Barack Obama, Mother Theresa, Mister Rogers…”

The list goes on.  And on.  And on.  When Jesus throws a dinner party, the guest list is everyone. And that’s good news for us.

Jesus is establishing a new humanity that has no place for our insecurities and hang-ups and prejudices and craving for order.  That is why Jesus was so frightening to those who had a stake in keeping the higher ups high and the lowly low.  That is why those who were invested in a social pecking order – which, of course is all of us -- eventually put Jesus to death.  But this is the Jesus who came back and lifted his hands up in an eternal blessing, inviting all of us to a new vision where there is enough for everyone, no first or last, no honor or shame, just us, bound to one another in God’s abundant love and grace.  So we can show love and give all we have -- even to those who have nothing to give us in return. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.