Monday, June 30, 2014

A Whole New Ballgame -- The New Beginnings/Unglued Church Process

Isaiah 40:21-31         

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
 Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; 
23 who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.25 To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, 
‘My way is hidden from the Lord, 
 and my right is disregarded by my God’? 
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, 
 the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; 
 his understanding is unsearchable. 29 He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

To begin understanding the challenge facing most mainline congregations in the United States, the following scene from the movie, "Moneyball" is a great introduction (warning: there is a one-word expletive in the scene)

If you are reading this on a mobile device or email, you may need to click this link to see the video:

What is the problem in the mainline church?  Low attendance?  Dwindling finances?  Buildings too big and congregations too small? As GM Billy Beane would say, "Wrong!" These are the just the symptoms that many congregations are feeling as a result of a much deeper shift in religious attitudes and practices in the United States.  Some scholars believe that Christianity is undergoing a seismic shift not felt since the Reformation. And Emsworth U.P. Church is not alone in feeling the symptoms.

On Sunday, June 29 during worship, the Emsworth congregation heard the results of the New Beginnings assessment, and will soon begin a series of house meetings to discuss the report and its implications for its ministry.  To begin the conversation, we watched this broadcast from CBS' Sunday Morning which discusses the Pew Report on American Religion.

If you are reading this on a mobile device or email, you may need to click this link to see the video:

Then we looked at the difference between technical solutions and adaptive change, as well as the specific results from the New Beginnings study for the church:

Our next step is a series of small group "house meetings" which will begin the week of July 13th.  The final schedule will be available soon, but will include weeknight, weekday and Sunday times so as many folks can participate as possible.  

Keep watching for more information as the summer unfolds.  Have questions?  Please call Pastor Susan at 412-585-1219 or email her at

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ordinary 12A -- June 22, 2014

Lord, Make Me A Laughingstock


Matthew 10:24-39               
 24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.           

Let us begin with prayer:  God of grace and love, we seek to not only know your will, but also to have the courage and strength to do your will.  Fill us with your Word this day, and let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and redeemer.  Amen.

I confess that I spent much too much time this week staring at my computer screen, watching the proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I attended the last two assemblies in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, so I felt sort of pouty and left out of all the fun taking place in Detroit this week.  Many of people who go to General Assembly refer to it as a big Presbyterian family reunion, and that’s a pretty good description.  Although the denomination has almost 1.8 million members, and more than 1000 attend GA, it does feel like everyone pretty much knows everyone.  And as is typical when big families get together, this year there were a few issues that caused a few tense conversations at the Presbyterian dinner table.  Perhaps you’ve already read reports of these disagreements in the newspaper.

But it has ever been so with our Presbyterian clan.  In fact, let me put it this way.  If Jesus really meant it when he said he came to “… set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” he is probably not shocked by our family feuds at General Assembly this year.  Or any year.  It seems that every Presbyterian family gathering since 1789 has had at least a few moments of people going at each other’s throats.  And every assembly seems to end with at least a few good and faithful Presbyterians threatening to file for divorce or cut the rest of us out of their wills.  Even a report which called for “Peace, Unity and Purity” in the PCUSA stirred up another hornets nest a few years ago.

People get upset when they read the reports about General Assembly.  People see fellow Presbyterians having disagreements on issues that strike at the heart how we see ourselves as Christians.  And it’s easy to forget that everyone at General Assembly are just ordinary people doing the best they can to follow Jesus and be faithful to the teachings of the Bible and our confessions.   These fights are hard to watch.  I am a generally conflict-averse person, so I there are times when my stomach churns as I see my brothers and sisters accuse each other of heresy or anti-Semitism or worse.  I am certain that many of the harsh words are soon regretted.  But I admit I sometimes watch General Assembly proceedings the way some people watch horror movies.  With my hands over my ears and my eyes squeezed shut.

Life is hard, and we want our life together in the church to be as peaceful, pure and unified on earth as we hope it is in Heaven.  We want church to be a place where we can avoid divisiveness and anxiety.  But our Kumbaya dreams are blown to bits when Jesus drops this bomb on us:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” 

As a conflict averse Presbyterian, this is a sword-swinging Jesus I’d rather avoid. What I want is peace.  What I want is the one thing Jesus said he couldn’t or wouldn’t bring. Peace.  Peace is what we want.  We’ll even settle for a false peace if it means we can avoid unpleasant conversations and bitter disputes.  We’ll do pretty much anything to maintain the illusion that everything is hunky dory.  

And here comes Jesus, ruining everything by telling us that he is not only the Prince of Peace, but also the king who’s going to cause trouble for all of us.  So what do we do with that?  What have we gotten ourselves into?

This sword-wielding Jesus makes me wonder if even his first disciples knew what they were getting into.   When he picked them out of their fishing boats, all Jesus said to them was, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.”  That’s all they knew at the beginning – fish for people.  But at this point in the gospel we read this morning, the focus is beginning to shift away from Jesus and toward the disciples who are going to take up the work Jesus has begun.  And the future Jesus promises to the disciples is anything but secure and peaceful.  He says: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues…and you will be dragged before governors and kings and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Mt. 10:16-17, 22a).   

Wolves and flogging and hatred?  Sort of makes your average General Assembly sound like a Sunday school picnic in comparison, doesn’t it?  I wonder if we can even begin to imagine what we’re getting into when we sing, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  No turning back.  No.  Turning.  Back.

Following Jesus clearly isn’t about “going along to get along.”  We cannot follow Jesus and bury our heads in the sand.  If we are whole-heartedly invested in our faith, if we are serious about justice like Jesus is serious about justice, we will run into opposition. And the hardest part will be disagreements within the family circle.  There will be situations that set us back on our heels and make us wonder if we ever truly knew our brother or sister in Christ because what is coming out of their mouths sounds like complete nonsense. 

And, worst of all, Jesus says that we don’t dare avoid conflicts, even to keep the peace.  Because as much as we love our family, we can’t love them more than we love Jesus.   We can’t put our desire to keep peace in the family above our commitment to follow Jesus. 

But here’s the thing – we also can’t walk away.  We can’t stop loving our brother and sister even when we are in conflict.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say in this text to hate our mother or our father or our son or our daughter or anyone else.  He doesn’t tell us to walk away from them.  All he says is that faith will lead us into conflict.  And we will occasionally be forced to bear the awful cross of living with people with whom we disagree.   That’s the hardest cross of all.  Walking away would be so much easier.  As one of my seminary professors once said, “Jesus is a handful.”

This text from Matthew reminds us that Jesus was much more than a predictable do-gooder.   Nor was Jesus merely a bothersome moral scold.   This texts reminds us yet again of the challenges and complexity of Jesus’ teaching. 

The Jesus the first disciples followed is a trouble-maker, a rabble rouser, who was called appalling names not suitable for a Sunday sermon.  The disciples followed a flesh and blood Jesus who upset the established order in families and communities, challenged the powerful and privileged, threw the church into chaos, and ended up on a cross for his trouble.  In other words, Jesus did not lead the disciples to a peaceful, predictable and boring place.  Jesus never attempted to reach a polite consensus.  Jesus led his followers headlong into a place of conflict and danger where literally losing their lives was a very real possibility.  

And since most of us haven’t been able to break the habit of actually kind of liking our lives and our churches and our family relationships the way they are, we need to think really hard about how committed we are to following Jesus.  Are we really ready for a faith so interesting it might kill us?  How uncomfortable are we willing to be for the sake of the gospel?  How willing are we to risk people not liking us?  And how willing are we to stick with and love the family members we don’t like?

There’s a line in the text from the Old Testament reading this morning that hits even closer to home.  Jeremiah had the distinct misfortune of living in a time of great social upheaval and unrest, just like us.  In fact, Jeremiah is mightily ticked off that he’s been given the task of being God’s prophet in an age when prophets are the least popular people at any party.  Nobody is very much interested in what Jeremiah has to say which makes Jeremiah’s job pretty difficult.  As a result, Jeremiah has made clear to God that he’s doing this impossible job under protest.

And Jeremiah’s friends can’t wait for him to give up and become a reasonable person.  They keep rooting for Jeremiah to fail.  What Jeremiah is suffering is the most horrible fate anyone can suffer.  Jeremiah is a laughingstock.  People make fun of him.  And it’s hard to imagine anything worse than being ridiculed.  I don’t mind people ignoring me.  I don’t even mind people arguing with me.  But there’s nothing worse than playing what looks like a fool.  And that seems to be Jeremiah’s chief complaint about his job.

But Jeremiah can’t help himself.  He cannot stop speaking God’s word. Even when people laugh at him.  Even when he feels absolutely alone and alienated from friends and families who wish he would just shut up already and go along to get along.  Jeremiah can’t help it.  The word of God has sunk into his bones and his heart so deeply that he cannot remain silent.  No matter the cost.  No matter the embarrassment.  No turning back.  No turning back.

So, I will not deny that there’s a part of me this morning just itching to pick a fight.  Or preach from a housetop. Or at the very least make you feel a little bit uncomfortable. Because I take my faith very seriously.  I take these words Jesus speaks in Matthew very seriously.   I take Jesus so seriously that I pray every day that I may be fearless enough to become a laughingstock like Jeremiah. 

Because what we Christians have to say to the world is laughable.  The Gospel stands against everything that world holds dear.  Give your stuff away to people who probably not deserve it.  Give your life away to people who will probably not appreciate it.  Keep loving people who hurt you the most deeply.  Forgive all the time, every time, especially when every fiber of your being just wants to hit back.  Forget about success and security and survival.  Focus instead on how spectacularly you can fail.  You won’t be able to fail as beautifully and completely as Jesus did.  But don’t let that stop you from trying.  Because it is only in losing our lives that we will find them.  That is the outrageous resurrection promise at the heart of our faith.  And through any other eyes than the eyes of faith, it is ridiculous.

None of us have cornered the market on truth.  Jeremiah didn’t corner the market on truth.  The disciples would go on to stumble and fall and fail.  Not one human being is immune to hypocrisy, short-sightedness, greed, fear or just plain meanness.  So in order to the people of God, we need each other.  We don’t do this alone. We cannot know anything that is real and true without one another.  And there are times when like Jeremiah we will be compelled by the Spirit to speak, even if our voice shakes, and our knees tremble, and we risk the laughter of our friends or the rejection of our families.

I read a piece yesterday written by a very conservative Presbyterian about what he observed at General Assembly this week, and I think he came pretty close to getting it right:

I still believe that God reveals “big-T” Truth to us. But I’ve also come to realize that we, as sinful and limited creatures, aren’t going to get the full picture this side of eternity. In fact, the whole reason that we come together as a ginormous group of rag-tag Presbyterians every two years is because we can’t make decisions on our own. We need each other to make well-informed, wise choices for the health and well-being of our church. Is it going to get messy? Yes. Are we going to come to issues and situations with incredibly different perceptions and presumptions? Absolutely. Will there be conflicts of opinion and practice? You betcha. But the simple fact remains: we need each other. Even the inept committee moderator. Even the jerk who keeps hogging the paddle. I firmly believe that God puts people in our lives for a reason – and as we figure out those reasons, we gain wisdom and insight that will serve us in all areas of our lives.

So, while I’d be lying to say that the decisions that we made this week haven’t affected me, I also can’t help but relate the joy I’ve found in the experiences I’ve had and the relationships I’ve been able to cultivate. I’ve learned more about myself, and I’ve seen God at work in countless ways and through countless people. My love of Jesus has grown deeper, and my vision of what his Church can be has grown broader. I, for one, don’t believe that God has forsaken us. God is still at work in the PC(USA), and I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and empower us to be faithful participants in that work.[1]

May it be so for us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014

Even Though I Understand It About As Well As Oysters Understand Ballerinas, Here's A Sermon About The Holy Trinity.

Matthew 28:16-20            
 16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Let us begin with prayer.  Holy God of wind and flame, we ask you to dwell among and within us.  Open our eyes and ears to the moving of your Spirit. On this day and each day of our lives.  In Christ, we pray.  Amen.

The Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, England was founded in the 12th century and it remains a popular tourist destination. The official guide for the abbey reads, “Here the monks gathered every Sunday to hear a sermon from the Abbot, except on Trinity Sunday, owing to the difficulty of the subject.”[1]

In a sermon about the Trinity, Barbara Brown Taylor quotes one of her colleagues who says, “When human beings try to describe God, we are like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina. We simply do not have the equipment necessary to understand something so utterly beyond us but that has never stopped us from trying.”[2] 

Today, my dear friends, is Trinity Sunday, the day we attempt to celebrate, maybe, the Doctrine of the Trinity.  The Trinity isn’t really explicitly named in Scripture, but was a doctrine developed sometime later by a bunch of oysters.  I mean, theologians.  And some of us keep stubbornly trying, year after year, to understand the un-understandable mystery of One God who is also Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And despite our best efforts, most of us just can’t pull it off. We are all a bunch of stupid shellfish when it comes to the complicated relationship that is the Holy Trinity.  

And worst of all, Trinity Sunday comes right after the happy celebration of the Easter Season, and the show-offy, fire-breathing Festival of Pentecost.  In comparison, a Sunday devoted to doctrine seems as dry and dusty as a bunch of old theology books in a seminary library.   Who wants to go the library on a sunny Sunday in June?  Maybe the people who put together the church calendar figured most folks would be off on vacation by now.  Might as well stick the Trinity sermon in on a day most people are off to the beach.

But here we are, definitely not at the beach, so I’ll tell you what has always been my real problem with preaching a doctrine rather than scripture.  Nobody outside the rarified air of theological inquiry gives two patooties about the Doctrine of the Trinity. People who have cancer or have chronic unremitting pain do not care about the Doctrine of the Trinity.  People who are homeless or hungry don’t care about the Doctrine of the Trinity. People who have lost a loved one or a job, or are worried about a sick child don’t care about doctrine either.  On our deepest, darkest, most needy days, does it really help us to know that Athanasius and Arius battled out the Doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century to determine that God is both One and Three Persons --Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  Do we even care who won that battle?  Do we really want to learn that crazy math that says 1+1+1=1?

Unless you are a sucker for punishment, you probably didn’t come to church to hear dry doctrine.  You came for a little good news in a world that is mostly filled with bad. You probably just want to know that God is God, and that God knows who you are and what you need.   You want to know that Jesus loves you.  You probably want the Holy Spirit to blow you off whatever failure face road you happened to stumble upon this week and onto an easier path. Why should the Doctrine of the Trinity matter at all to people who show up in church with broken hearts and tired bodies?

It would be so much easier for all of us if knowing about God was as easy as learning the Nicene Creed by heart, but God continually defies our human constructions.  God defies our categories, always has, even at the very beginning in our text from Genesis this morning.

God does not say, “Let me make humankind in my own image.”  God says, “Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness.”  And already, we have a problem.  We have a plural problem.  Because the creator of the universe is not a “me” God, but a “we” God in community, and if we read Genesis carefully, we even begin to catch glimpses of the other two persons of the Trinity.  We see the immense power of the Spirit of God that hovers and broods over darkness. Then we see a piercing light that shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome by it, an image that is echoed in the Gospel of John and the light that becomes human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.  The God of Genesis looks into a dark and frightening void, and sees something beautiful and hopeful: a creative force, a hovering spirit, and a penetrating light that cannot be overcome.  We see both the one and the three in this extravagant outpouring of love, a love so full that it creates a world, overflows into the world, and pull us into the very heart of the God.

What we see in Genesis is not a dry doctrine, but a story about relationships being created between God and creation, and within creation itself.  That is good news we can let seep into the bones of our dry, daily existence.  Maybe we can consider ourselves part of the creative dance of three in one that existed before time began and will exist forever.  Creator, Word and Wind.  A holy force to which we have been connected through our baptism.    A divine space in which we might live into the fullness of our identity as beloved children of God.

It all sounds good, this relationship stuff, until you realize that it is a far cry from the state of humankind.  At our worst, human beings are hopelessly polarized by race, nationality, religion, culture, class, political beliefs, and sometimes something as innocuous as zip codes.  Even when we are at our best, we are often unwilling to admit that we need one another or need God. Teenagers can’t wait to be old enough to no longer be dependent upon their parents.  As we grow older, we save for our retirement so we won’t have to be dependent upon our children.  I think people often put off marriage because they fear having someone need them, really need them, someone who can’t keep their distance, but even worse, may actually come to depend upon them.   Keeping a safe distance is a more reliable space to occupy.  Independence is something we consider admirable.  Self-reliance is very American.  Even in our supposedly connectional churches, we are often hard-pressed to make connections with our Christian brothers and sisters down the street.

Maybe one of the reasons the Trinity matters is because it shows us that the God we worship is not aloof and distant, but a God who seeks us out for relationship with God and relationship with one another and with the rest of creation.   Unfortunately, we often worship independence, not relationships.  Our craving for separation is, in fact, the root of what we call sin. 
I learned about “Love Wins Ministries” in Raleigh, North Carolina ( through some friends who know the non-profit’s director, Hugh Hallowell.  I began following Hugh’s blog about the ministry that includes a hospitality house which opens its doors five days a week to 70 or so people who need a place to go. On Saturday mornings, Hugh and his staff hand out breakfast biscuits to homeless people living in a local park. 
The staff of Love Wins knows every person they serve by name, making a point to refer to each of them not as a “client,” but as “my friend.” The goal, Hollowell says, is to build relationships because most people who live on the streets are there because they lack one thing that most of us take for granted -- a social safety net to call upon.   Love Wins feeds people, but they are not a feeding ministry. Sometimes, they help people get job, but are not a job training program.  Maybe 10-12 times a year, someone leaves homelessness with Love Wins’ help, but they are not a housing ministry.
When I was thinking about why the Doctrine of the Trinity should matter to us even a little, I remembered what Hugh so often says in talking about what they do at Love Wins, “Homelessness is not an economic problem. Homelessness is a relationship problem.”  And I realized that most of what ails all of us are relationship problems.  I realized that the healings Jesus performed were not about curing a person of a particular illness or disability, but about healing broken relationships and restoring people to community.
This is what Jesus is doing in our text this morning from Matthew. Jesus gives us the Great Commission to go out into the world and baptize people in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Which means, really, to go out into the world and invite people into a connection with the source of all life and create space for them to connect to one another.  Because the Holy Trinity is our model of what it means to be beloved community.  The Great Commission sends us out into a world where, as my friend Jenn Frayer-Griggs says about her work on the South Side hosting The Table, “Everyone is hungry for something.”( What unifies us all across race, class, age, and every life situation from the homeless addict on Carson Street to the lady in Sewickley Heights who just received a breast cancer diagnosis is the need to be connected.  We need to be connected to the crazy, unfathomable, un-doctrinated Holy Spark of life that each one of us carry within us.  The same spark constantly fueled by the “ruach,” the breath of life that blew across the dark and formless void at the beginning of time.

We need to open ourselves up to the dance of the Trinity more than we need to understand the doctrine of the Trinity.  We need to experience the Trinity because without it, our faith becomes dried up and useless.  Without the Trinity, we are left with a God who sits in isolated splendor somewhere up in the clouds, useless and irrelevant and passionless.  We need the God who is personally involved, who understands our pain, and who is not somewhere out there, but a presence with us in every breath.   We need the God made known in Jesus -- dynamic, involved, always relating, cherishing, shining, revealing, expressing, giving.  We need the God made known in the Spirit to move through us with every breath, whisper in our ear, surprise us, kick us in the rear end, and comfort us in our grief. That’s the kind of God we need when receive the bad diagnosis or when a beloved spouse dies or when the bank comes knocking on our door with a foreclosure notice or when a relationship we depend upon crumbles in our hands.   That’s the God who will slog with us through the terrible days and celebrate with us on the good ones.

So maybe the Holy Trinity is a dusty doctrine that I cannot preach or explain to you.   But the Trinity is a relationship that you and I can experience when we breathe in its love that is constantly poured out for us in this life.  And even unto the end of the age.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word. Year A Trinity Sunday

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home Another Way, “Three Hands Clapping.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Summer at Emsworth U.P.

Welcome to Flip Flop Summer!

June 15 and 22:  Regular worship (11 a.m.) in the sanctuary.

June 29:  Special worship featuring results of New Beginnings report and introduction to the Unglued Church process.  Please make every effort to attend this important worship service!

July 6:  Worship at Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon at 10 a.m. in the fellowship hall.  Pastor Susan will lead as we worship with our brothers and sisters at CPCBA.

July 13, 20, 27, August 3:  Worship in the fellowship hall at Emsworth U.P. at 10 a.m.

August 10 and 17:  During Pastor Susan's summer vacation, we will worship with guest preachers in the fellowship hall at Emsworth U.P. at 10 a.m.

August 24:  Pastor Susan will lead final summer worship service in the fellowship hall at Emsworth U.P. at 10 a.m.

August 31: Worship at Emsworth U.P. Church at 10 a.m. in the sanctuary with Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon.  Pastor Donna will lead as we worship with our brothers and sisters at CPCBA.

Summer worship this year will be casual (feel free to wear shorts and flip flops), participatory and will include a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper.  The congregation will be invited out of the pew and into the pulpit as we read and interpret God’s word together, and share the work of liturgy.  We will learn new music, discover new ways to experience scripture together, share our faith stories, and anticipate the newness of God’s Spirit moving through us and among us.

If you have questions about the schedule, please contact Pastor Susan at 412-585-1219. 

New Beginnings/Unglued Church -- the report is in!  Now it's time for you to begin dreaming for the future of Emsworth U.P. 

On May 30 and 31st, the pastor and leaders of Emsworth U.P. and 7 other churches from Pittsburgh Presbytery met with staff from the PCUSA, presbytery, and consultants Jim Kitchens and Deborah Wright to receive and review the New Beginnings reports.

On Sunday, June 29, during the regular Sunday worship service, we will discover what was learned about our church and community in the New Beginnings assessment.  Through conversation, scripture and testimony, we will receive the report and begin plans for a series of "house meetings" that will take place in July and August for the entire Emsworth UP community to discuss and discern the future for our community of faith.

During the conversation process this summer, and for the next 12 months, we will be assisted by Rev. Deborah Wright, our consultant from Pneumatrix,  and Rev. Sarah Robbins, our local "Adaptive Change Apprentice."

Please make every effort to be in worship on June 29, and please make time this summer to participate in the house meetings.

Learning To Walk in the Dark -- a conversation with Barbara Brown Taylor's new book.

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: July 9, 16,  23 and 30 at 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.  The book is available now for purchase from, or at your favorite bookstore.  

From Our Sister Church in Malawi

Dear Brethren,

Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. I write to let you know that we have a missionary trip on 16th July, 2014 following the invitation from Pittsburgh Presbytery.I  hope you are aware and we are privileged to inform you that we are sending one church member as we did last time in 2010 with Kenneth Nsona.
We know for sure there has been no communication but this time around let us be communicating so that we share experiences among us.

As for Ndirande congregation we have now a new executive as follows.
Church Minster-Rev.M.P.Nasiyaya
Session Clerk-Mr.Humphreys Hilla
Deputy Session Clerk-Mrs.Jere
Assistant Session Clerk-Mr.M.Chirwa
Congregation Treasure-Mr.Jeremia
Deputy Treasure-Mrs.Edith Kadammanja
Finance Chairman-Mr.Kaphetsa.

Currently we wish to hear more from you since it has taken some years without talking to each other.It is our hope as well that this communication will refresh our partnership.Once again let us communicate please.

Your Brother in Christ,
Assist. Session Clerk

For more information about the upcoming mission trip of our partners in Malawi to Pittsburgh, please contact Rev. Dave Carver (

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost Year A -- June 8, 2014

Let us begin with prayer:  Bountiful Spirit, give us your gifts.  Help us to receive and use them.  Build us up in love and unity that we may witness your goodness.  Make our lives examples of Christ in our world today.  Thank you for your gifts, and may we dare to ask for more.  In Christ, we pray.  Amen.

Today is Pentecost – the completion of the Easter season, which began 2 months ago when we saw Jesus entering into Jerusalem riding on one (or two) donkeys.  Ever since that less than regal entrance into the city, our expectations for Jesus have been upended, recalibrated, frustrated and fulfilled far beyond what we could imagine.  And the same holds true for Pentecost.  Whatever the disciples were expecting from the “Advocate” that Jesus promised to them, we can be pretty sure they weren’t expecting this crazy mix of wind and fire and doves descending.  They didn’t expect the chaos that, at least in the book of Acts, looked an awful lot like a drunken party at 9 a.m.  I have no idea what plans the disciples had in mind after Jesus’ ascension, but it’s pretty certain that the plans for the early church didn’t require a PowerPoint presentation, or a ministry plan scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkins.

What they had on their hands was a mess.  A holy mess.  That’s Pentecost.  Look at your bulletin covers.  The mass of color and type fonts.  That’s Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit is messy and disruptive, hard to read, and defies any attempt to be explained by us.

Which is why I love Pentecost. Despite the fact that I am as Presbyterian as they come, and love it when things are done decently and in order, I also love that God is forever fueling the imagination and faith of God’s people with this same confusing, wanton, winsome wind that sparked the early church.

And this morning, I am going to invite you to dip your toe into this unholy mess as well.  We’re going to think together about what it might mean to be a “Pentecostal” people.  And the good news, is that you are already Pentecostal people!  You already have been gifted in your baptism with the incredible wind and power and peace and fire of the Holy Spirit.  In your baptism, you have been given the Holy Spirit who teaches us and leads us into all truth, filling us with a variety of gifts so that we do what we've been sent out by Jesus to do --  proclaim the great and good news of the Gospel.

In his letter to the members of Pittsburgh Presbytery this week, Sheldon Sorge told the story of a Presbyterian pastor who was accused by a member of his congregation as being “too Pentecostal.”  This pastor wasn’t quite certain if his parishioner was right or wrong, so he put the question out to his Facebook friends – “Do you think I’m Pentecostal?”  Many of his Facebook friends didn’t think he fit the bill, if by “Pentecostal” we mean those worship styles in which people speak in tongues and handle snakes.  However, if by Pentecostal we are talking about believing that God’s Holy Spirit is at work in everyone for everyone’s benefit, yes – this Presbyterian pastor could be considered Pentecostal.

So can we – a bunch of popsicle Presbyterians --  be Pentecostal?  That’s my goal this morning – to help us name and claim our gifts of the Spirit. 

Scripture helps us do that.  We’re going to begin by reading three texts that help us understand what gifts the Spirit gives to us.  And as I’m reading each text, I want you to shout out and wave your flames when you hear a gift of the Spirit.

(Each person in the congregation had been given "flames" to wave.  Some folks had noisemakers as well.  As the scripture was read, folks shouted out gifts of the Spirit that they heard in the text.  These were written down on a large tablet at the front of the sanctuary.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this exercise).

John 20:19-22
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

1 Corinthians 12:7-11
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

Take 3 or 4 minutes, pair up, and tell each other what gifts of the Spirit you have seen in the other person.    You are not limited to the list up here.
(2-3 minutes of conversation)

What did you hear?
(Folks shouted out the gifts they had heard, many of which were not on the list generated in the original list).

But there are other spiritual gifts mentioned in the Bible.  And these gifts are universal, meaning that they are available to everyone.  Not just preachers or leaders.  Not scholars and saints.  But to all of us. 

List of gifts revealed:  wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence, and wonder/awe.

Isaiah 11:1-3
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.

These are all gifts everyone may have.  Think about the gift you would most like to have.   Which one is most important for the life of this church, this community, this congregation – right now?

Come forward and claim your gift of the Spirit.  And then take a spark with the sign of the dove and add it to your flame.

Litany of the Gifts of the Spirit

L: With the gift of wisdom, which helps us to see clearly,
P: Let us renew the face of the earth
L: With the gift of understanding, which helps us to know God and God’s people,
P: Let us renew the face of the earth.

RESPONSE                                                                                    300
We Are One in the Spirit (verse 1)

L: With the gift of right judgment, which helps us to make good decisions,
P: Let us renew the face of the earth.
L: With the gift of courage, which gives us strength and helps us not to be afraid,
P: Let us renew the face of the earth.

RESPONSE            We Are One in the Spirit (verse 2)

L: With the gift of knowledge, which helps us to see our part in God’s creation,
P: Let us renew the face of the earth.
L: With the gift of reverence, which helps us in our just relationships with God and God’s people,
P: Let us renew the face of the earth.

RESPONSE            We Are One in the Spirit (verse 3)

L: With the gift of wonder, which helps us to be astonished at the marvels of God,
P: Let us renew the face of the earth.

RESPONSE            We Are One in the Spirit (verse 4)