Monday, May 26, 2014

Easter 6A -- May 25, 2014, Guest Preacher Jay Poliziani

Matthew 25:37-40
37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”

On Sunday, May 25th, we were overjoyed to welcome Mr. Jay Poliziani to our pulpit.  Jay has been the Director of Northside Common Ministries for three years. NCM is an affiliate operation of Goodwill of Southwestern PA and Jay has worked for Goodwill for over two decades in various social service roles.

Jay is a single father of one teenage son, and his educational background includes degrees in education, marketing and theology, all of which have proven to be helpful in different ways in his work at NCM.

Listen to Jay's message here:

You can read more about Northside Common Ministries by going to their website:

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Easter 5A -- May 18, 2014

The Ram In The Thicket

Acts 7:55 – 8:1a
55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he (Stephen) gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.1And Saul approved of their killing him.                       
Let us begin with prayer:  Lord of creation, we come to you with open hearts and eager ears.  Increase our understanding of your Word and gift us with faith to courageously live into your claim on our lives.  In Christ, we pray.  Amen.           
I have always thought the most horrifying text in all of scripture is the one in which we are led to believe that God is the kind of deity that tortures a devoted father by allowing him to believe for three horrible days that his beloved son must die.  And the part that really gets to me is that Abraham has to wrap his mind around the terrible idea that he has no choice but to murder Isaac in order to prove his faithfulness to God.  My question for the longest time was this – what kind of God would torture a person like that?  And – more to the point -- is that the kind of God I want to follow, must less love and trust with my whole heart? 

For years, I couldn’t read Genesis 22 without breaking into tears, but managed to get through it dry-eyed only after I realized that it is not the story of God’s cruelty, but a story about how we torture ourselves trying to figure out what God wants from us, and how very often we get it wrong.  I think the story of Abraham and Isaac tells us that violence is not an inevitable fact of our lives, and certainly not the will of God in the Old or New testaments.  Violence and vengeance are terrible choices we make all on our own, and they break God’s heart.  So much so, that God provides a ram in a thicket if we have imagination and courage enough to see it.  And even when we make the most terrible choice, God will do what God always does – create new life out of the bloody messes human beings create.   We see that truth most clearly on the cross.  And we see it today in another pretty horrible story from scripture.  The story of Stephen’s stoning in the book of Acts.

At first glance, there’s absolutely nothing good to say about this text.  Stoning is a barbaric and horrible act, and if we were actually standing in this story while Stephen was being stoned to death, we’d have to avert our eyes.  Although scripture is riddled with references to stoning as proper punishment for any number of crimes from being a wizard to being a thief, it doesn’t change the fact that death by stoning is an unspeakably horrible way to die.  In our own time, stoning is still legal in Afghanistan, Iran, sections of Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. Women in particular have been threatened by religious authorities with this hideous punishment as a way of controlling their behavior and keeping them in line.  And I’m sure it’s a deterrent that works very well.

So there isn’t much to celebrate in this story.  Stephen was a devoted apostle, whose primary responsibility in the early church was to care for the widows and others who could not care for themselves.  Stephen was one of the original deacons of the church, in fact, and when he wasn’t doing compassionate deeds in the name of Jesus Christ, he spread the word about Jesus Christ.   Stephen healed and preached and did what he could to not only talk about how Jesus changed his life, but also demonstrate through his life what kind of difference Jesus made in him.  And as we see in this text, all of this good work got Stephen into a boatload of trouble with the Jewish authorities.  Stephen’s speech in his defense when he is brought in for trial is what sealed the deal.  It’s a long speech that you can read for yourself in Acts 7, verses 1 – 54, but the long and the short of what Stephen said to the Jewish leaders is that God’s chosen people had been a troublesome lot from day one.  They had a long history of being stiff-necked and mean, and had never met a prophet that didn’t want to push off a cliff, run out of town or crucify.  Moses had found the chosen people nearly impossible to lead, and Jesus had been just the latest example of God’s messengers that the religious leaders had been only too happy to reject.  In other words, Stephen spoke the honest truth, just as Jesus had done, and got a similar result.  Stephen held up a mirror to his accusers and it made them so angry that they couldn’t resist the impulse to smash Stephen into a million bloody pieces.

Stephen was only the first of many Christians who met violent ends simply because they spoke and lived the truth as best as they could manage it.  In fact, from that day on when Stephen was killed, many of the new Christian/Jews skee-daddled out of Jerusalem and scattered like so many fertile seeds across the landscape of the Roman Empire.  For centuries, the fledgling church survived but just barely.  Christianity was continually in hiding, or on the run, or in big trouble with somebody who found the message about Jesus bothersome.  But somehow the church managed to grow and kept on growing. A couple centuries later, Christianity became so successful that it became the official church of the empire and stopped being any real trouble to anyone at all.  Over time, Christians were no longer the persecuted ones, but became the ones doing the persecuting of other faiths.  And as history has taught us, horrific violence against individuals, communities, tribes and whole countries has been committed in the name of one god or another has been raging ever since.  Atrocities have been inflicted by people of faith, as well as on them.  The bloody result of religious zealotry looks pretty much the same regardless of which god is being vindicated.

Can it be that our God really as cruel as the cruelty we inflict upon one another?  Or is there something else to explain why humanity hasn’t stopped stoning one another since the beginning of time?  In our advanced culture here in America, our weapons of choice have become a little more sophisticated than sticks and stones.  Instead, we use bombs.  Lethal injections.  Drones.  Automatic weapons.  Humanity still hasn’t kicked our brutal habit of leaving behind a bloody path in the name of justice.

It’s tempting to focus only upon Stephen’s peaceful countenance as he dreamily stares up into space while men are gathering around him ready to crush his skull and tear open his body. That’s certainly what the church has historically done with martyrs like Stephen.  We focus on the worthiness of their deaths, their fearlessness in facing down rocks and knives and lions.  But we avert our eyes from the carnage.  None of us can bear to see Stephen being stoned to death anymore than the disciples could bear to see Jesus suffer on the cross.   We close our eyes to the violence, blame the bloodshed on God’s plan, and quickly move on to resurrection and sainthood for at least some of the victims.  As for the rest, well, that’s just how the world works.

I hate this story about Stephen’s death, but I also think there may be a sliver of light here that looks an awful lot like grace here if you look closely.  There he is, standing on the sideline, with his eyes wide open, watching every moment of Stephen’s agony.  Saul.  Saul is there on the scene, helpfully holding the coats of the guys stoning Stephen. Because, you know, stoning a young healthy man like Stephen takes a while.  Better to strip down to the undergarments, because stoning is hard, sweaty work even with a cooperative victim like Stephen.

And of course, Saul heartily approves of this execution.  He loves it.  It could be that Saul even had something to do with making sure this death would happen.  Saul not only approves of the killing of this one particular troublemaker, but he will go on -- as Acts chapter 8 tells us -- to ravage the new Christians by entering house after house to drag off men and women, committing them to prison or worse.  Saul is every inch the true believer, a real zealot in maintaining the purity of the Jewish faith.  Saul is the most persistent of persecutors and continues to be so until Acts chapter 9 when he will have his life turned upside down by the murdered Christ himself.  After that, Saul is no longer who he was; he is transformed into Paul – the apostle who will not longer measure truth by how closely it’s protected and guarded by religious insiders.  In fact, Paul breaks open the message of Jesus to everyone he can get to listen to him – Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. 

And Paul never forgets Stephen.  We know he didn’t, because Paul soon found himself in a position similar to Stephen’s and had to defend himself in front of another zealous crowd who just couldn’t wait to stone Paul.  And in that moment, Paul calls upon the memory of Stephen.  He tells his accusers he remembers standing there, holding the coats of Stephen’s executioners and seeing the blood pour out of Stephen’s body.  Paul is no longer who he was, but he still carries that memory of who he used to be.  The memory must have haunted him.  But it is a memory that shapes Paul’s ministry, and you can see it in Paul’s writings.  When Paul’s Jewish brothers and sisters refuse to accept that Jesus is, in fact, their Messiah, Paul does not seek to harm or destroy the enemies of his new faith.  Instead he struggles with their refusal in genuine pain and prays that all of Israel may find its way into the arms of Jesus. 

Despite all the violence he committed against Stephen and others in his past, Paul is finally able to see the God’s better way.  Paul finally saw the ram in the thicket that God had been waiting for him discover the whole time.  Paul’s path was diverted from proving his faithfulness through persecution of the impure.   Instead, Paul proclaimed the faith of Jesus Christ, an open and welcoming faith that is secure not in its’ ability to defend itself from enemies.  The security of Christianity is not rooted in our willingness to defend it from its enemies, but in the One who has already passed through death and brought us to life everlasting.  The One who taught us words of forgiveness.  The One who is indeed our rock and our fortress.  Though we are tempted to hide behind barricades, guns and bombs, stories such as this one remind us of the One who overcame evil not be defeating the enemy, but by loving the enemy and thus defeating death itself.

So there is light in this story after all.  We see it in the Christ-like forgiveness demonstrated by Stephen and how his words were absorbed through the eyes and ears of Saul.  Perhaps the seeds of Saul’s transformation were sowed right there, in that horrible moment where God took the heartbreak of human violence and transformed it into something life-giving that would open up the gospel beyond what anyone could imagine.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Reverend Walt Everett and hearing him speak at Sixth Presbyterian Church.  In 1987, a man named Mike Carlucci shot and killed Rev. Everett’s 24-year old son, Scott.   For a year afterward, Rev. Everett was unable to work at all.  Everett saw his life spiral downward, seemingly out of his control. He felt despair, rage, depression. His marriage, already on shaky ground, cracked under the strain. Everett prayed to God, beseeching him to show him a way out of the darkness. But Everett discerned no response. He attended a support group meeting with other family members of murder victims—the only people, he figured, who could possibly understand the anguish that consumed him. One night he heard a woman in the group say that anyone who committed murder “should be taken out and shot immediately.” Then he learned that the woman’s son had been killed 14 years earlier. He wondered if that’s what his life would be like for the next 14 years.

Eleven months and two weeks after the murder of his son, Everett sat in a courtroom in Bridgeport for Carlucci’s sentencing. Everett had never before set eyes on his son’s killer, who arrived at the courthouse three hours late, having indulged in one last cocaine binge before prison. The judge asked Everett if he wished to make a statement. Everett rose and spoke for 10 minutes, though he doesn’t remember a word of what he said. Then the judge asked Carlucci if he would like to speak. Carlucci stood and said:
“I’m sorry I killed Scott Everett. I wish I could bring him back. Obviously, I can’t. These must sound like empty words to the Everetts. I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry.”
That simple expression of remorse would change the course of Everett’s life. “It was,” he said, “as though at that moment God said, ‘I’ve been asking you to wait. This is what I’ve been asking you to wait for.’”  It was the ram in the thicket moment for Everett.  That moment when he glimpsed a better way to manage his heartbreak.  His decision to forgive Carlucci, he says, was not meant to ease the guilt that weighed on the soul of his son’s killer. It was more selfish than that. He says he offered forgiveness to save his own life.

Amazingly, the two men struck up a correspondence that morphed into a friendship.  Carlucci cleaned up his act and his life, and Reverend Everett eventually presided at Carlucci’s wedding.  Everett says, “I can never forget what happened to Scott,” he said. “It has forever changed my life. But when I look at Mike, I don’t see the person who harmed Scott. I see somebody who’s been changed by God, and I celebrate that.”(1)

A broken heart is an avenue, a crack for life to come in, a place for God to plant the seed of new life.   We do not need violence to protect us.  We do not need violence to express our shattered souls.  We do not need violence to bring justice.  The myth of redemptive violence is just that – a fable that can only destroy us. 

There is a better way now that Easter has come again for us.  The world does not need another martyr, willing to die for their faith.  It needs more Rev. Everett’s and Sauls who are willing to live out their faith.  The world needs more people who are able to see the ram in the thicket.  People who are willing to take the different and even more dangerous path to the peace and forgiveness and openness of Jesus Christ.   May we be those people. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

(1)All quotes are from "Forgiving the Murderer" by Paul Solotaroff in Rolling Stone Magazine, June 24, 2004. Downloaded on May 16, 2014.'s.htm

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Because we're all hungry for something.

Find out what God is up to in Pittsburgh's North Side and South Side neighborhoods as we welcome two individuals deeply involved in Christ's mission of feeding the hungry.

May 25 -- Jay Poliziani, Director of North Side Common Ministries

June 1 -- Jennifer Frayer-Griggs, Coordinator of The Table Ministry at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Easter 4A -- May 11, 2014

Tender Shepherd

John 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Let us begin with prayer:  Holy and Gracious God, you call us by name, Beloved, and beckon us to follow you.  May we hear your voice clearly today, through your grace.  We pray in Christ’s name.  Amen.

Ok, folks.  Here’s a true story for you. My Uncle Tom is known in our family to be rather eccentric, but I am pretty sure he’s also the only person I know who has had hands-on experience in being something like a modern day shepherd.  I remember visiting him at his farm in Chester County a few years ago and noticing that he no longer had sheep grazing in his fields.  “Oh yes,” he said.  “I finally sold them, and boy was I happy to get rid of those sheep.  In fact, once we got them loaded on the truck and the man who bought them drove away, I was so relieved that I got into a hot bath and drank a whole can of Hawaiian Punch.”

I told you.  A little eccentric.  I couldn’t make that story up if I tried.

 I read an article this week in which another disillusioned shepherd put it this way:  “Sheep are either suicidal or stupid—probably both. Sheep are just born looking for a way to die.  Sheep are forever putting themselves in unnecessary peril, much of which could usually be avoided by doing something simple like turning around.”[1]

 People who deal with the care and tending of sheep know the trials and tribulations of shepherding very well.  They will tell you that sheep are, quite simply, a pain. More urban creatures like us -- who have neither tended nor been traumatized in caring for the animals -- may have a hard time understanding exactly what Jesus is up to in our scripture passage today.  

I imagine that we are much like the cast of characters listening to Jesus.  His audience is a mixed bunch of disciples, Pharisees and the family and neighbors of the formerly blind man whom Jesus has just healed in the previous chapter.  In fact, John 9:1-10:21 is all one massive textual unit that follows the pattern used elsewhere in the gospel of John of sign -- dialogue -- discourse. Jesus performs a sign, which is followed by a dialogue as its onlookers try to figure out what the sign means, and concludes with Jesus’ discourse or interpretation of the sign he has performed. 

In a mixed group such as the one listening to Jesus in this text, it’s very likely that only a few of them have first hand experience in being a shepherd sheep.  As usual, I think the people who most understand Jesus are the ordinary folks. Not the religious professionals. Not the Pharisees or the fisherman, but the people who know what it is like to coax a whole bunch of pesky, stupid sheep to keep moving until they are safely in the pasture or wherever else they need to be.  The Pharisees and the fisherman without first hand shepherd experience probably don’t get Jesus’ joke at all.  The family and neighbors of the blind man, however, are probably laughing with amazement and gratitude.  

The ordinary people get the joke Jesus is telling them because they know that all of this talk about sheep obediently doing anything is ridiculous.  The last thing sheep will do is follow along obediently.  Sometimes they’ll follow for a time, but very often they will wander off into a jagger bush.  The shepherd will go after the straggling sheep, coax him out of the jagger bush, and pick all the thorns out of the sheep’s wool coat until his fingers are bleeding, all the while knowing that the sheep has probably not learned a blessed thing from the experience and will end up in another jagger bush tomorrow.

The ordinary people get the joke because they know most sheep will happily follow a stranger, at least for a little while, until the stranger has decided the sheep has become more trouble than it’s worth and ditches the sheep for a more manageable animal like a cow or horse.  The shepherd will then pick up the sheep from whatever ditch in which the stranger has abandoned the sheep and deliver the panicky animal to safety.  The shepherd will do that knowing full well that, given half a chance, the sheep will take off again when the next sheep thief comes around.

You see, I don’t think this is a story about what kind of dirty, rotten sheep we are, and if we just clean up our act, we’ll be able find the shepherd.  I think it’s a story about the kind of shepherd Jesus is. 

Jesus is the kind of shepherd who isn’t about to sell us out to thieves and bandits out of sheer frustration, then go have himself a bath and a can of Hawaiian Punch.  Jesus is the kind of shepherd who will wait patiently for us to discern his voice among all the other voices that attract and distract and ultimately disappoint us.  This isn’t really a story about sheep, but about a shepherd who doesn’t give up on the sheep he loves, but keeps the gate open and the lights on and will even throw a big party complete with a big old slab of roast beef when we somehow stumble home.  This is a story about a shepherd who doesn’t just turn water into a couple bottles of wine, but hundreds of gallons to keep the party going for days. This is a story about a shepherd who, when he sees one of his sheep suffering, isn’t above improvising with a handful of ordinary dirt, mixed up with a big healthy wad of spit, to bring a blind sheep back to life on the spot.  This is a story about a shepherd who is in crazy, long-suffering love with the most ridiculous animals God saw fit to put on this earth.  Yes, that would be you and me, and the rest of ridiculous humanity.

I can’t help it.  When I think about shepherds, I think about the lovely song from the Broadway show “Peter Pan” – Tender Shepherd. Tender Shepherd is one of the loveliest songs I’ve ever heard.  It is one of the first lullabies I can remember my mother singing to me, and it is one of the first lullabies I can remember singing to baby Rachel.  If there was an official song for Mother’s Day, I would nominate Tender Shepherd.  The lyrics are simple and lovely – “Tender shepherd, tender shepherd.  Watches over all his sheep.  One in the garden.  Two in the meadow.  Three in the nursery, fast asleep.”  And then, when she got a little older, Rachel and I made up new lyrics:  “Tender shepherd, tender shepherd.  I’m a very little sheep.  One for my mommy, two for my daddy, three for the Rachel Ann, fast asleep.  Fast asleep.”  During Rachel’s nursery years, her dad and her mom were Rachel’s gate and green pasture.  Every night we carried her back into the safety of the sheepfold of her bedroom.  Ours were the voices Rachel could hear and trust to chase away the thieves and bandits.  The problem is that we do not stay in the nursery for very long and the voices of mommy and daddy are eventually replaced by other voices. 

Jesus doesn’t tell us what the tender shepherd’s voice sounds like.  Learning to hear his voice is something we must do for ourselves and practice every day.  And the problem, of course, is that the only way to learn to listen to Jesus is to listen to other people.  To rephrase the famous Theresa of Avila quote, if “Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours,” it follows that Jesus has no voice on earth but the voices of ordinary human beings.[2]  And listening well is a skill that comes about as easily to us as it comes to sheep.  Which is to say, not easily at all.   And considering the many and varied voices that hit us from every direction, I’d say it’s getting harder all the time to distinguish the voice of Jesus from the cacaphony.  

But our tender shepherd gives us a clue in our text today about what his voice does not sound like, and maybe that’s a good place to begin.  The tender shepherd’s voice will not come as words of scarcity that tells us that we better get all we can because there isn’t enough.  The tender shepherd’s voice will not deceive us into believing we are too lost and covered with thorns to be worthy of love.  The tender shepherds voice will not lead us to the place where we decide it’s so much safer to be cynically shutdown than hopefully openhearted.  The tender shepherd’s voice will not tear us down, but build us up.  And, most amazing, the tender shepherd’s voice will not call us by any other name than the only name that matters -- beloved. 

It may have occurred to you that if the only way we can hear Jesus’ voice is by listening to the voices of other people, then the only way other people can hear the voice of the tender shepherd is by listening to us.  And that’s where the rubber hits the road, because the only thing we Christian sheep are worse at than listening carefully is speaking carefully.  In fact, I read another observation this week by a shepherd who really knows his sheep.  It is only lambs that bleat a gentle "bahhh." Sheep blurt a disturbing "BLAGHGAGHHAGHAFFTT!!!!!" [3]  I am such a city kid that I had to go to a You Tube video to learn that sound.[4]  It is tough for a human voice to replicate that terrible noise, but it does drive home the point that we should resist bleating so loudly in our native tongue and learn to speak the tender shepherd’s gentle, but courageous language of love, forgiveness, and encouragement. 

I don’t often speak on the floor of Pittsburgh Presbytery meetings.  I don’t know if it’s because I was so freaked out after my oral parts of trial 3 years ago, or whether I’ve just displayed enormous good sense in not adding my voice to the BLAGHGAGHHAGHAFFTT that often passes for debate in some of our less shining moments.  I think presbytery can be a scary place sometimes for some ministers.  Although we begin each gathering with worship that is always rich and deep, the meeting that follows too often devolves into polity and politics.  Pittsburgh Presbytery can be a place of pretty pesky sheep.

But on the Wednesday night before the meeting, while watching the Pens game and scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post by a minister in Chicago that contained 260 names of the more than 300 young women who were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria and are now being sold as “wives” for $12 a piece by the terrorists who captured them.[5]  Now, you recall that I prayed for all the missing girls last Sunday and I continued praying for them through the week.  But there was something – I don’t know – startling and moving about seeing their names on my computer screen.  An abstract situation of global concern became a living, breathing, and strangely personal tragedy. 

So I used my voice on the floor of the presbytery on Thursday afternoon.  I passed out the names of the girls and asked those who were in attendance to pray not for a situation, but for a particular young woman.  And because the young women have been robbed of their voice, I asked the presbytery to use its voice to publicly proclaim that we join with our colleagues in the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations to call upon the government of Nigeria to use all available peaceful resources to rescue the young women kidnapped on April 15, 2014 and other occasions. We are grateful for the work of the Presbyterian Ministry to United Nations for expressing the concerns of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) within the United Nations community for the girls who have been abducted in recent weeks, for the education of all Nigeria's children, and for peace and justice to prevail in the country.  Further, we pledge to pray without ceasing for peace to reign in areas of the world where women cannot be safely educated, acknowledging that the empowerment and education of women, especially young women, is the most powerful weapon in the fight against terror, violence, poverty and injustice in the developing world.  In this resolution, Pittsburgh Presbytery responds to Christ’s call to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free.

The thieves and the bandits think their voices can drown out the voices of justice, but we are the tender shepherds that God has called to prove them wrong.  The thieves and bandits think they can hurt and exploit God’s children and nobody will notice, but we are the tender shepherds God has called to speak against evil wherever it exists -- halfway around the world or down the street. The thieves and the bandits think they can frighten us into silence, but we will not remain quiet when justice requires we speak.  The thieves and the bandits believe they can bully us into settling for a whispering scarcity, but we will insist upon abundant life for all of God’s children.   We will use our voices – in prayer, in writing, in speaking, in worship, and even in sometimes choosing not to speak -- to be the voice of the tender shepherd in a world of lost and captive and hurting and broken sheep.  So all of God’s beloved may have life, and have it abundantly.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What's Happening at Emsworth U.P.? -- May, 2014 (Pucks and Bucs Edition)

Pastor's Letter

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Last Sunday, I preached about one of my favorite stories in scripture – the story of the two disciples and the well-worn path between Jerusalem and Emmaus (Luke 24:13 -35).  The two disciples in the text retreat (perhaps rather hastily) from Jerusalem, feeling like the entire world has come crashing down on their heads.  For them, the facts of the matter are quite clear. Jesus is dead. The women who say they saw an empty tomb and spoke with angels are full of baloney.  Cleopas and the unnamed disciple are so filled with misery, they don’t even notice the stranger who joins them.

The disciples were so busy dwelling in the events of the past, they didn’t even realize the stranger walking beside them was the Resurrected Christ. 

It seems that everyone has an opinion on why the North American Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) in particular, is having significant difficulties.  Like the disciples on the Emmaus Road, many of us are so focused on who or what is to blame – the culture, the millennials, the “spiritual but not religious,” the media, the liberals, the conservatives, you name it – that even if Jesus came along and smacked us in the head, I’m not sure we’d recognize him.  What the Emmaus story shows us is that the question we need to ask ourselves is not, “What happened?” and “Why did this happen?”  Instead, the church of the Resurrected Christ needs to be asking, “What’s next?” and “Where is Jesus leading us today?” 

A few months ago, your session and pastor decided to start asking forward-thinking questions about the future mission and ministry of Emsworth U.P.  Through our participation in a PCUSA pilot project, “The Unglued Church,” we hope to discover what God would have us do to proclaim an unchanging gospel in a world that is changing rapidly.  Although Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, it is clear that the way in which faith communities practice, worship, and communicate their faith will be changing significantly in form and function. 

Eight churches in Pittsburgh Presbytery are participating in the “Unglued Church” process, which was conceived by a group of pastors here in Pittsburgh, drawing upon the assistance of two Presbyterian ministers in California who have significant experience in adaptive change work for churches like ours.  

The project began last month when assessors from the PCUSA spent a day with each of the churches to help us develop a clear and objective portrait of our communities, our congregations, and our resources.  Many of you participated in a discussion with the assessor here on the evening of April 21.  At the end of May, representatives from all eight churches will gather to receive the finished report and begin the next steps in doing the important work of adaptive change in our congregations for the sake of the gospel.

There is no predetermined outcome in this process. Nobody will tell a congregation “what to do.”  My hope is that throughout the process we may look at alternatives that have never crossed anyone’s mind.  In fact, adaptive change means that what happens next in our life as a faith community may, indeed, look quite different in 5 years.  My hope is that many of you will be part of these conversations over the next two years as we meet in one another’s homes, at the church, at coffee shops – to work out our faithful purpose as people of God. 

It is important as we go through the “Unglued Church” process that we listen to one another carefully, pray deeply as individuals and in community, study scripture together and joyfully expect to hear God’s word for us as we gather in worship.  Over the summer months, we will participate in worship that will be designed to draw us closer together as the Body of Christ.  We will hear each other’s stories and share the Lord’s Supper frequently.  As the year goes on, we will continue to invite guest preachers and laypeople to help us see how Jesus is already at work in our community and how we are being called to serve alongside him.

Change can be frightening.  Change can feel threatening.  But I am convinced that if we are faithful to the Gospel, and committed to one another, this journey on which we are embarking will be life saving and life-sustaining for all of us.

Next year marks the 120th anniversary of this church.  I can think of no better way to honor the legacy of the saints who came before us in this place than to do the hard work of living into our call to ministry for the next generation of God’s people. 

Thank you, as always, for all you do for this church – your work, your prayers, and your contributions of time and talent.  It all matters deeply in this small corner of God’s kingdom.

In shared ministry with you,

Pastor Susan

Thank You for your Generosity!  In the first quarter of 2014, Emsworth U.P. made the following mission gifts:

Meals on Wheels:  $278.75
Shepherd's Door:  $250.00
Board of Pensions Assistance Program (PCUSA):  $100.00
One Great Hour of Sharing:  $572.00
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance:  $200.00
Pittsburgh Presbytery Mission:  $200.00

Summer Reading Pastor Susan will be leading a summer book discussion around Barbara Brown Taylor’s New York Times bestseller, Learning to Walk in the Dark. We will gather on four evenings:  Wednesday June 11, 25 and July 9, 23 at 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.  The book is available now for purchase from, or at your favorite bookstore.  Read a description of the book at Amazon by clicking this link:

Flip Flop Summer Worship Watch for more information about summer worship as Pastor Susan at Emsworth U.P. and Pastor Donna at Community Presbyterian invite our congregations to a flip flop summer of worship, story and song beginning in July through Labor Day weekend.   The June issue of Happenings will have a complete summer worship schedule. 

Clean Up Is Progressing Work on the clearing the overgrowth parking curb side of Hiland Avenue is progressing. 

Guest Preacher on May 25th We will welcome Jay Poliziani, Director of Northside Common Ministries (, to our pulpit on Sunday, May 25.  Make it a point to be at worship on the 25th to personally welcome Jay to our church. 

The Unglued Church Our work has begun!  The next phase of the process  will continue on May 30-31 with meetings at Presbytery on Friday from 5:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m., and Saturday from 8 a.m. - 3 p.m..  If you are interested in serving our church in this process and helping shape our future ministry here in Emsworth, please contact Pastor Susan. 

Pastor's Schedule  Susan will be attending the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis for her 2014 continuing education on May 19 – May 24.  For pastoral assistance during her absence, please contact Jon Stellfox, Clerk of Session

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Easter 3A -- May 4, 2014

It Never Crossed My Mind

Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.

But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him."

Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

If you had asked me at age 16 what I hoped for my future, I would have answered quickly and clearly.  I hoped to be a great stage actress.  I had it all planned out – studying at Carnegie Mellon, moving to New York, getting an agent, auditioning, and winning a Tony award.  I had every reason to hope that my life might turn out that way – I was a pretty good actress.  At the ripe old age of 16, it never crossed my mind that I might end up with a future different than the one I envisioned, because I was so entirely focused on a career in the theatre.  I had hoped for one thing.  What actually happened never crossed my mind.

If you ask a parent holding their newborn baby for the first time what he or she hopes for their child’s future, they will answer quickly and clearly.  Happiness.  Health.  A good job and a loving family.  The new parent so easily imagine that tiny baby’s future rolling out before him – first day of school, first driver’s license, first date.  College.  Marriage.  Grandchildren.  It’s every parent’s reasonable hope for his or her newborn child, because everything seems possible.  In those first precious moments, it never crosses their mind that their son or daughter might become sick or disabled, or killed in a war, or drop out of school or become addicted to drugs.  The parent hopes for one thing.  What actually happens never crosses his or her mind.

If you had asked a group of people dedicating their brand new church building on January 17, 1895 what they hoped for their future, they would have answered quickly and clearly.  They wanted to continue growing, just as they had been experiencing since their days as a little Sabbath School in an old stone schoolhouse.  Their new church had started out with just a couple dozen people and a part time pastor at the old Fleming United Presbyterian Church, and now look at them!  A full time pastor!  A beautiful new building! So many people!  In 1895, it never crossed their minds that more than 100 years later, their church would have a couple dozen people in worship and a part time pastor.  A part time, FEMALE pastor.  They had hoped for one thing.  What actually happened never crossed their minds.

And when day came, Jesus called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. He came down with (the 12) and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” (Lk. 6:12-19) 

If you asked the disciples what they hoped that day, as they watched Jesus heal the diseases and unclean spirits of every person in that enormous crowd from all over, they would have given you a clear and quick answer.  They would say that they hoped Jesus would be the Messiah, the one who would overthrow Roman rule and establish a new authority to redeem Israel.  The disciples spent three years watching Jesus interact with the religious authorities, following Jesus to villages and towns, hearing him preach, seeing him heal and forgive and eat with sinners.  After three years of seeing Jesus in action, the disciples had every reason to believe that Jesus would fulfill their deep hopes of freedom for the Jewish people, and maybe a little bit of fame and fortune for themselves.  It never crossed their minds that Jesus would die a painful death, and even after it happened, it never crossed their minds that Jesus could be resurrected.    The disciples had hoped for one thing.  What actually happened never crossed their minds, despite all that Jesus had told them.

So today when we see these two disciples making the seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, we see them doing exactly what we do when things haven’t worked out quite the way we had hoped.  We look back over all the events that led us to this disastrous point, trying to figure out what we could have done differently.  Did somebody make a poor decision or mess up?  Did we pick the wrong leader?  Did we spend too much money on the wrong things or not enough money on the right things?  Were we lazy or less than energetic in the task we were assigned?  Why did we fall asleep?  Did we not pray enough?  Were we not faithful enough?  What could we have done differently?

The disciples are deep into their forensic analysis, so it probably takes them a while to realize that a stranger has sidled up next to them.  And this particular stranger is strangely clueless about the disaster that has just occurred in Jerusalem.  So to bring the guy up to speed, the disciples tell the stranger everything.  About the 3 years of ministry and what they hoped would be the glorious outcome of all their hard work.  Then they tell him about happened to Jesus and how his death crushed their dreams.  They tell him the women’s idle tale about empty tombs and visions of angels.  They even admit to feeling a bit like they were misled by Jesus.  But that’s neither here nor there.  It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this but, there you have it.  Boom, all gone.

But there’s one thought that has not yet crossed the disciples’ minds.  What hasn’t occurred to them is the possibility that -- it’s true!  The disciple’s hope in Jesus was not misplaced or empty.  That Jesus had, indeed, been the one who redeemed Israel.  It never crossed the disciple’s minds that the women’s tale was no idle story but was, in fact, gospel truth.   

Despite the disciples’ doubt and disgust, Jesus shows up to walk and talk with the disciples during their long trek from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  He takes the time to listen to their version of what had happened.  He reminds them of scripture they knew well.  Jesus knows that what they need is a way to wrap their minds around what could not possibly cross their minds, so he gives them words and stories and space to help them do just that.

But this conversation on the road was just a prelude.  The conversation was important, but it wasn’t the place where the disciples finally recognized Jesus.  Jesus gave them the time and the space and the words to help them process everything that had happened.  And I think that time prepared the disciples to see beyond their old hopes for what they wanted Jesus to be, and be able to finally see Jesus as he really is.  By the time they get to the breaking of the bread, they are astonished to find themselves face to face with resurrected Lord.  It never crossed their minds that the stranger with them was Jesus.

And, as we know, Jesus didn’t stop there at that dinner table.  Jesus keeps showing up in places of dashed hopes, deep disappointment, and horrible disillusionment.  He shows up in different ways – in ways that may never cross our minds – but in time, we may recognize him.  Sometimes we will recognize the work of Jesus in the moment itself, and sometimes only in retrospect.

When you are crawling through the pit of despair, Jesus may show up as the high school English teacher who helps you put together a last minute application to the college you never even considered.  And even after you’ve dropped out of college, Jesus may show up as the first boss who gives you opportunities to try and to fail, and Jesus may show up later still as the minister who encourages you to think about seminary even though you’re pushing 40 years old and are about to have a second baby.

Jesus keeps showing up.

He may show up as the social worker who miraculously finds the last available bed in the only rehab center in town for your adult child who has started using again after promising to stop and didn’t return your phone calls for weeks until one of his friends called you to tell you he is in the hospital after nearly dying from an overdose.  This will be his fourth time for rehab, but the social worker says with a confidence that you can’t even fake anymore, “I just know he’s gonna do it this time.”

Jesus keeps showing up.

When you are crumbling with grief, Jesus may show up as the man at the bank who slowly and patiently leads you through the awful red tape of wills, insurance claims, and safety deposit boxes. 

Jesus keeps showing up.

When you are anxious about the future of your church, Jesus may show up in the voice of a stranger who walks with you and talks with you, and reminds you why you are here, what you’ve overcome and before you know it, you’re part of a new model for ministry that never before crossed anyone’s mind in 149 years. 

Jesus keeps showing up.

Breaking the bread.  That was what did it for the disciples covered with dust from the Emmaus Road.  It wasn’t a sermon or a theology or a bible study that made them sit up and say, “Aha!”  All of that prepared the disciples to see the newness of Christ.  But it was in the breaking of the bread that they knew for sure that Jesus had shown up, just as he had promised them all along. 

Jesus keeps showing up.  Even when we feed stupid and blind and stumbling.  Even when we are doubtful and fearful and ready to just give it all up.  As she considers this story, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

“Jesus seems to prefer working with broken people, with broken dreams, in a broken world.  If someone hands him a whole loaf, he will take it, bless it, break it, and give it, and he will do the same thing with his own flesh and blood, because that is the way of life God has shown him to show the rest of us: to take what we have been given, whether we like it or not, and to (say thank you) for it, whether it is the sweet, satisfying bread of success or the tear soaked bread of sorrow…so that the broken loaf may bring all of us broken ones together into one body, where we may recognize the broken Lord in our midst.”[1]

Jesus does not give us false hope, but hope grounded in the reality of God’s vision for God’s people, all of us, in communities large and small, families formed and fractured, sinners and saints, blessed and broken, all of us doing our best to work out God’s purpose.  No matter what we do or do not do, we cannot lose Jesus.  No matter how disconnected or disillusioned we become, there is one place for sure we know we will see him.  At this table.  In the breaking of the bread.  In the pouring of the wine.  He promised to be here, and even if we end up crawling on hands and knees to make it here, it is worth the long hike. 

It may be when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.[2]
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995, 22-23.