Saturday, January 25, 2014

Worship on January 26

Due to the Polar Vortex (otherwise known as wind, snow and bitter cold), worship at Emsworth U.P. is cancelled for Sunday, January 26.  The session meeting scheduled for after worship will be held next Sunday, February 2.  Stay warm and safe, friends!

Pastor Susan

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ordinary 2A -- January 19, 2014

Lost and Found

For audio version, click below:

John 1:29-42

29The next day he (John) saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).           

One of the things I love to do when I travel to a new city is allow myself at least one afternoon to get totally lost.  On purpose. I have done this in many different cities, and I always discover something interesting I never would have discovered otherwise.  This works very well when I am traveling alone or with David.  He and I are perfectly happy to take a subway or a bus to an unknown neighborhood, and then wander around until we find something interesting to do or see or eat.  Mitchell and Rachel, on the other hand, want a schedule and a map and a YELP-approved restaurant at the end of the journey.  So when the four of us travel together, there are squabbles about how much planning to do or not do.  But I still maintain that the best moments in travel happen when and where you least expect them.  You cannot plan surprises and, last time I looked, YELP doesn’t have a serendipity rating.  Sometimes you just have to wander aimlessly to find the place you had no idea you were looking for.

This week, I have been thinking about how the disciples coped with Jesus’ tendency to sort of wander around without any sort of plan.  It’s sort of strange, isn’t it?   Jesus begins his ministry with big broad brushstrokes -- to proclaim good news to the poor and release for the captives – and here in the gospel of John, Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”   Now proclaiming good news and releasing captives and dealing with sin are all very good things to do, but you never really hear Jesus plot out how those things are going to happen.  There’s no strategic plan.  No program or curriculum.  No nothing.  Just Jesus and the disciples traveling around and showing up in towns and villages. 

The introduction of Jesus in the gospel of John is very different from what we have been hearing in the gospel of Matthew over the past few weeks.  Matthew gives us a long genealogy that connects Jesus to the Old Testament tradition beginning with Abraham and Isaac.  In Matthew, we have a birth narrative.  And in Matthew, we have a baptism during which the voice of God clearly tells us who Jesus is – the Son of God, the beloved One. 

The gospel of John does not seem so interested in history.  The writer does not include an infant narrative, nor does it include a baptism scene like we encountered last week in Matthew.  In John, Jesus just walks into the scene with no annunciation and no genealogy and no baptism, yet somehow, John immediately knows who Jesus is.  When Jesus walks toward him, John just knows that this man is not only his cousin, but also the One the world has been waiting for.  John didn’t know him, but now John he does. The Messiah has found John.

Rachel and I used to have a running joke and it goes something like this.  “Hey, Rachel, guess what? I found Jesus!”
“Yeah, he was under the sofa cushion the whole time.”
Or another variation: “Guess what? I found Jesus!” 
“Really? I didn’t know he was missing.”

I know, I know.  It’s not very funny.  I know it’s totally irreverent and horrible.  But it is nevertheless true that we think it takes a whole lot of energy and time to find Jesus, and much of our language circles around this notion that Jesus is playing some sort of hide and seek with us and if we are clever enough or good enough people, we will find him. We think we need a PLAN and a MAP to get to Jesus, when I think quite the opposite is true.  I think Jesus is pretty much everywhere, always as close to us as he was to John the Baptist when they finally met on the river bank.  I think the problem is that we are just terrible at recognizing Jesus.  And the more religious we are, the harder it is, I think, for Jesus to get to us.

One of my favorite Christian philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard points out that church people often assert that they would have most certainly recognized Jesus as the Messiah had they been living at the time of Christ.  This is absolutely ridiculous, says Kierkegaard.  One only needs a very passing knowledge of the Gospel to understand that the most religious people in Jesus’ time were the ones most likely to walk right by him or pretend they can’t see him or reject him entirely.  Doesn’t it seem in scripture that it is always the heretics, the outcasts, the deep down dirty sinners and guys possessed by demons who could take one look at Jesus and said, “Hey, it’s you!” 

But two of John’s disciples are curious enough to leave John and follow Jesus.  But in the gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me.”  He doesn’t tell them to drop their nets or say goodbye to their families.  Jesus simply asks them, what are you looking for?  The disciples seem startled, as if this was the last question they expected to hear from Jesus.  And the truth is, they probably haven’t the faintest idea what they are looking for.  So they respond with another question: “Where are you staying?”

 It is probably worth mentioning here that the Greek verb for staying – meno – can also be translated as remaining or abiding.  Meno is used to describe the Spirit “remaining” on Jesus, and it is used twice in verse 39 to refer both to where Jesus was staying and that the disciples remained with Jesus.  “Meno” isn’t just hanging out or touching base or having lunch, but about entering into a relationship deeply enough to experience life changing, life shaping stuff.   It’s moving in close and staying awhile to find out what Jesus is all about.  Which is what the two men do.  They remain with Jesus and are so changed by the experience that one of them, Andrew, invites his brother Simon to come and see Jesus. 

What are you looking for?  What does this mean to be a disciple? What does it mean to meet this fully human Jesus, who turns around and says, “What are you looking for?”

And of course, you know, Jesus has got you there.  He’s got you because he’s not asking you what you want. He’s not even asking you what you need. He’s asking the big question, the eternal question that will strip away all of that and reveal who you are.  

Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel (Ellie Veezel) tells the story of a three year old boy who keeps running into the forest.  His father wanted to know: “Why are you wasting your time in the forest?  Why do you go there?  “I am looking for God,” said the 3 year old boy. “Isn’t God everywhere?” asked the father.  “And isn’t He everywhere the same?”  “He is, but I am not,” replied the child.

In the Isaiah text this morning, we hear the words of another prophet who is also trying to move us to a place where we might be fully disclosed, that part of the forest where our true selves might be revealed by our never changing creator.  God’s intention for us is with us from before our birth, before we were formed in our mother’s wombs, and it is a true measure of our deep sinfulness that we spend so much of our lives alienated from our true selves, imagining we can play a cosmic game of hide and seek with God.  

The little boy who keeps running into the forest is onto something I think.  It’s not that we can’t find God in our offices or our classrooms, the bar or the bank, the soup kitchen or the homeless shelter.  God is there.  God made the world and exists in the world, in places both profane and sacred.

But it is here in worship, when we gather at font and table, that we are like that little boy in the forest.  Yes, God is everywhere the same.  But it is here where we put ourselves in the way of Jesus and when we do that, we are not the same..  It is here where we learn to see differently. And this is where we begin to learn how to see Jesus.

It is here that we confess our deepest sinfulness.  It is here that we receive the forgiveness that we are not at all certain we deserve.  It is here that we die to our old selves and become new creations in Christ through the sacrament of baptism.  It is here that we are lifted into participation in the very Kingdom of God through our holy communion of the bread and the cup.  It is here that we hear the living Word of God, so that the Holy Spirit may move in and shape up and shake up our lives.  It is here that we lift up our deepest sorrows, our greatest joys, our darkest fears and our most profound hopes in prayer and thanksgiving.  It is here that we are fully revealed to be exactly what we were created to be.  Children of God.   Loved and forgiven for the many and various ways we miss God’s presence and mess up. 

What are you looking for? 

“Come and see,” is every good storyteller’s plea, because until you enter into the world of the story there really is nothing to see. “Come and see,” can also be scary because it beckons us to a place we’ve never been.  A place where you have to abandon your maps and your plans and your programs, and slip into that forest where anything at all can happen if you have eyes that are open wide enough to see its wonder.   You have to get over the panic of feeling lost, because being lost isn’t the worst thing.  Getting lost, in fact, makes it easier for Jesus to get close.  The truth is that God’s presence with you has very little to do with what you feel or think.  But it has everything to do with your willingness to go into the forest and see what happens.

Not surprisingly, we would prefer to see first and then decide whether to enter the story and abide there, but eyesight is curiously deceptive in this uncommon place.  Even at the story’s end, “seeing,” falls short: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 

That’s the sort of world Jesus invited the disciples to inhabit with him.  And he’s still inviting disciples today.  To get lost on purpose.  To trust him so deeply that we are willing to truly “go with the flow” of the Holy Spirit and get ready to be surprised by the journey.

So, no, I haven’t found Jesus.  But Jesus found Andrew and Peter.  And Jesus found me.  And he found you.  And you.  And you.

The real miracle of it all, the grace that’s truly amazing, is that he keeps finding us.
We’ve traveled through the Advent streams together.  We’ve been burned and tempered by the heat and light of the Advent texts.  We’ve stumbled through the wilderness, blinking in the brilliant light of a star of wonder.  We heard the baby’s cry.  We’ve been dunked in the Jordan by a wild-eyed man preaching repentance for the sins we don’t want to admit we have.  Yet, here we are.  Face to face with the one who made us, called us, knows us, and loves us into being.  Here in the deep dark forest of our lives, we have been found. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baptism of Our Lord -- January 12, 2014

Jump In, Beloved

Audio Version can be heard at:

Matthew 3:13-17
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

One summer we were vacationing in South Carolina with some friends, and on the day we arrived at the place were staying, we got our keys and began unloading the cars to move into the condominium we had rented.  As the grown ups were lugging bags and suitcases, we somehow lost track of our friends’ youngest son who was around 5 or 6 years old at the time.  We realized he was missing when were heard shouts and whistles coming from the nearby swimming pool.  Turns out that he was so excited to go swimming that he ran to the pool, climbed up the ladder of the slide, and without bothering to take off his clothes, slid head first into the water.  Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to swim.  Fortunately, there was a lifeguard nearby to immediately scoop him out of the water.  The crazy thing is that by the time his parents got to him, he was laughing like a hyena.  The fact that he nearly drowned did not penetrate his sheer joy of going down that water slide.
That’s the thing about kids, isn’t it?  For a  five year old brain, it made perfect sense to head straight for the pool.  The sun was hot.  The water was cool and inviting.  And that big slide looked really fun and totally awesome.  He didn’t think about what would happen after he hit the water.  It never occurred to him to be afraid.  He just went for it. 
We are surrounded by water in our mother’s wombs and we are born out of water into the world.  Our bodies are mostly made of water.  Water is essential in keeping  us alive.  We see water’s negative potential when there is too much of it in floods and too little of it in droughts.  Water can make us nervous when a pipe bursts during a deep freeze or when a kid who can’t swim gets a little too close to the edge of the pool.  We experience water’s creative power when we bite into a juicy ripe tomato or take a long hot shower or drink a cool glass of lemonade on a hot day.  And water runs like babbling brook through Scripture as well, from the very beginning when God summons life itself out of the deep, separating the safety and protection of dry land from the chaos and wildness of water. 
Today, the author of Matthew directs us to the water’s edge, the shoreline of the River Jordon and plants us among a crowd of people who have been drawn there by the fiery preaching and teaching of John the Baptist.  John is not on the shore but standing waist-deep in the swirling river.  And we remember those who were there to keep an eye on the Baptizer– the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  For now, the religious leaders are content to sit and watch from their dry perch above the chaotic scene in the muddy Jordon River below. What is happening in the water below them seems careless and dangerous.  The rag tag people being baptized by John look like a bunch of ornery kids who haven’t had proper swimming lessons yet and are behaving recklessly. 
And yet that is where Jesus shows up for his first public appearance as an adult in the gospel of Matthew. And Jesus’ first public act of his ministry is to present himself for baptism to his cousin John.  I can imagine the two of them in the water together, surrounded by a teaming crowd of people bobbing in the river.  I have always imagined that scene must have looked a lot like the wave pool at Sandcastle on a really hot summer day.  Too crowded.  Too loud.  Not too clean.  A silly human soup packed with all kinds of people.  
From their perch above the river, the whole scene must look like one unholy mess to the Pharisees and Sadducees.  And from a distance, Jesus looks like just one more guy out in the water with John.  John, however, is close enough to Jesus to know who he is and immediately John recognizes that there is something entirely wrong in him  baptizing Jesus.  But Jesus says, “let it be so now,” because Jesus recognizes John’s authority to baptize Jesus as part of God’s plan. And John is nothing if not obedient to God.  So there in the midst of many, Jesus is baptized in the river by his cousin John.
And ever since, Christians have struggled with the question – why did Jesus need to be baptized at all?  Since we typically connect baptism to forgiveness of sin, why does the sinless Son of God need to be baptized?  How does John baptizing Jesus fulfill all righteousness if Jesus is already righteous? 
Although we think of baptism as simply a mechanism for forgiveness of sins, all of the gospel writers agree that baptism means something much more.  The words of Jesus’ baptismal blessing in all four gospels are exactly the same.  Baptism announces God’s favor and establishes Jesus’ identity.  Here in Matthew’s account, the voice from heaven announces that Jesus is God’s Son, the One with whom God is well pleased.  And if we look at this scene closely, baptism becomes less about forgiveness and more about preparing Jesus for his mission and ministry.  Just like us, the fully human Jesus needed to put on his baptismal identity as God’s beloved so he could go out and do the hard work of being Jesus.  Jesus will need to hold on to that identity when he goes out in the wilderness and experiences the real human thirst, the real human hunger, and the real human temptation to sell himself short and be something less than God intends Jesus to be.
Last week, Jenn talked about John’s beautiful nativity story and what it says about who we are, and that John’s nativity story is actually the story of our birth with Jesus. And Jesus blazes a path for us today to the shores of the Jordan River and the waters of baptism.  It is a path we follow all of our lives, a path that ends at the cross and resurrection.  Like Jesus, our lives are filled with the temptation to be something other than the person God created us to be.  We need to hold on to our true identity of being God’s beloved.   We too are God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.  We are created in God’s image made with water, light and love.  Jesus’ birth is our birth.  Jesus’ baptism is our baptism.  Jesus’ life is our life.  And Jesus’ death and resurrection is our death and our resurrection.
My former teacher, Craig Barnes says this: "After we baptize a child, everyone is smiling. They don’t realize that we just killed off that child. We’ve taken a new life and ended that life so a better one can be lived. In baptism, we’ve said, ‘Lord, make this child dead to everything else but you.’ The beaming parents’ dream for this damp, unknowing baby might be law school, but if your dream, Lord, is for this child to be a social worker—then, Lord, let nothing stop that from happening. Kill off anything in this child’s future that is going to prevent them from being exactly who you created them to be. Preempt any family scripting, social conditioning, limitation, agenda, or outcome that stands in the way of this, your child from being anything—anyone—but yours alone.[1]
Today we will ordain and install new church officers for the coming year.  As part of that service, we will remember and affirm the baptismal vows that were made on our behalf by our families when we were children, or vows we made ourselves as adults.  We do this to remind one another who we are, to whom we belong and to affirm that we each have a mission to fulfill that is particular for each of us and is God’s particular intention for us. 
Each time we remember our baptism and affirm those vows, we risk participating again in God’s re-creation of us.  We take the risk of jumping headfirst, down into the depths, to the chaos, to the place of where it’s hard to breathe sometimes, to an experience that feels an awful lot like death because it is death of everything that isn’t God in us. It is, in fat, the beginning of new life.
We can follow Jesus into those chaotic, murky depths and realize that he has gone before us, and the pattern of his going under the water and rising, like the pattern of his death and resurrection, gives us courage to reclaim the meaning of baptism for our lives.  To claim that we are enough for God, just as we are.  That the Holy Spirit dwells in us always, whispering to us and encouraging us. That God desires to do wonderful things for and through us.  Just as we are. 
We need to hear that.  We need to believe it.  We need to wrap our identity as God’s beloved children around us like a warm winter coat against a polar vortex world that tells us relentlessly we are not young enough, beautiful enough, rich enough, healthy enough, skinny enough, big enough or strong enough.  God has declared in our baptism that we are enough, that God accepts us.  We are God’s beloved people and God is well-pleased with us.
Today, I invite you to come forward to be anointed and hear these words:  “You are God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use you to change the world.”  Please repeat after me:
I am God’s child.
Deserving of love and respect.
And God will use me to change the world.

You are God's beloved.  With you, God is well-pleased.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Craig Barnes, Festival of Homiletics, 2010.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Annual Report -- A Look At 2013

Dear Friends and Members,

As always, I enter into this New Year with deep thankfulness for Emsworth U.P. Church and the opportunity I have been given to serve as your pastor.  After nearly three years of ministry together, I am still learning about the many gifts all of you bring to our work in fulfilling God’s call to be the hands and feet of Christ in our community.

This year marked the death of one of our beloved, long-time members, B.J. Robertson.  B.J. was so much a part of this congregation’s heart and she is so missed by all of us.  I know that this year has marked other personal transitions for many of you – some painful and some filled with joy.  As a small community of faith, we are privileged to share these burdens and these celebrations with one another, and keep each other in prayer. 

I’d like to just touch upon some of the more hopeful events of this past year.

At the end of 2012, we received a grant from Pittsburgh Presbytery to repurpose a portion of our parking lot to create a prayer garden and labyrinth.  That project is now well underway, with the first phase scheduled to be completed by Easter of this year.  What has been so gratifying about this work is the community support we have received.  The garden team has gone out to a number of community events this year to talk with our neighbors and get them excited about the project. 

The new “branch” model in Pittsburgh Presbytery is up and running, and I am convinced that this offers a great opportunity for mission partnerships between Presbyterian churches serving in nearby neighborhoods. I am working with 4 other West Branch pastors (including the new pastor at Community Presbyterian Church in Ben Avon) to develop imaginative mission opportunities for our congregations.  My hope is to involve other pastors and congregations from churches in Emsworth, Ben Avon, Avalon, Bellevue and other communities in the North Boroughs. 

In terms of mission, we have developed new relationships with local non-profits such as the Shepherd’s Door in Bellevue, and strengthened our relationship with Meals on Wheels.  We have responded to natural disasters around the world with donations to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and continue to provide support to the Malawi/South Sudan Partnership of Pittsburgh Presbytery and the jail ministry at the County Jail.  The Advent Conspiracy was a great success for a third straight year, with significant donations going to Meals on Wheels, World Vision, and young adults served by Family Services of Western Pa.

We have created new opportunities for fellowship on Sunday mornings with our coffee hour before worship, and we purchased new Presbyterian hymnals this fall to enhance our worship experience.  We have welcomed a diverse group of guest preachers over this year including folks involved in exciting new church developments in Homewood and Hazelwood.   We have tackled difficult issues like poverty and hunger in our Sunday school classes, and continued energetic Bible studies at our midweek gatherings. 

In the fall, three determined members – Joe Maguire, Paul Zende and Marge Williams completely renovated our two basement restrooms.  So many thanks to them for an incredible job!  We continue to find ways to update our facilities so that our church space is as welcoming as possible.

All of this work is made possible through your financial support and your prayers, as well as efforts of our church officers, and the great faithfulness of our staff – Marti, Cindy and Paul. 

There is no question that this is a challenging time for all churches, large and small.  Every pastor and church I know is asking the same questions about finances, viability, and what the future may look like for mainline denominations like the PC(USA).  I wish I could tell you that I have the answers to these big questions.  I don’t.  What I can promise you is that I will continue to work with you to find ways in which we can be faithful to God’s claim upon us as God’s people.  I will continue to seek out points of connection in which we can respond to Christ in our midst with other people of faith.

My prayer is that we will face 2014 with confidence that God is with us in all things, and that we can serve Jesus Christ fearlessly and creatively, knowing that our future as individuals, families, and as a church is in God’s hands. 

As we gather together to ordain and install our church officers for 2014, and enjoy our congregational meeting/lunch, let us all remember this day and every day why we have been called to this place:

Today we all are called to be Disciples of the Lord,
To help to set the captive free, make plowshare out of sword,
To feed the hungry, quench their thirst, make love and peace our fast,
To serve the poor and homeless first, our ease and comfort last.

-- Glory to God Hymnal, #757 “Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples”

Blessings and peace,

Pastor Susan

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Winter Update -- What's Going on at Emsworth U.P.??

Happy New Year! Oh wait...

Yes, we know -- it's winter in Pittsburgh.  It's cold.  It's snowy.  The rivers are frozen.  We hope you will, however bundle up, brave the polar vortex, and come out for worship, study and work at Emsworth UP Church.  There are some really exciting events coming up in the next several weeks:

Sunday, January 12
We will be ordaining and installing officers, and sharing in the Lord's Supper during worship on this first Sunday of Epiphany and observation of Jesus' baptism.  After worship, we will gather for lunch and our annual congregation meeting in the fellowship hall.  

Monday, January 20 -- Martin Luther King, Jr  Event at Greenstone UM
Greenstone U.M. Church in Avalon will be holding a "day of service" event to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, January 20th.  There will be a service of worship at 11:30 a.m., co-officiated by Rev. David Ewing and Rev. Susan Rothenberg, followed by a free lunch and assembly of food packages for food-insecure children from 12:30 - 2 p.m.  Bring individually wrapped, single serving shelf-stable food items such as individual boxes of cereal, pretzels, cheese or peanut butter crackers, juice boxes, easy mac meals, single portion fruit cups or applesauce, or goldfish crackers.  Use your imagination!  See Pastor Susan with questions or to receive more information.  

Sunday, January 26 -- Reverend Derrick Weston

On Sunday, January 26, we will welcome Reverend Derrick Weston as a guest preacher.  Derrick is DIrector of the Pittsburgh Project,  a non-profit organization based in Pittsburgh's North Side neighborhood, which operates after school and summer programs for 250 urban young people, deploys more than 2,000 people annually to perform free home repairs for Pittsburgh's elderly homeowners, and spearheads economic development and job training efforts on the North SIde.  Derrick is a graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament here in Pittsburgh.  He previously served congregations in Pittsburgh and Ohio. 

Sunday, February 2 -- Rev. Dr. Jannie Swart

On Sunday, February 2, we will welcome Reverend Dr. Jannie Swart, associate professor of world mission and evangelism at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as guest preacher.  A native of South Africa, Jannie served as a senior pastor of a mega church in Johannesburg, South Africa during their post-aparteid attempt to become more multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-lingual.  He also worked as the national director of training and development for the Democratic Party in South Africa in opposition of the apartheid polices of the National Party prior to the release of Nelson Mandela.  Before joining PTS, Jannie served as pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Oil City, Pa.