Sunday, June 21, 2015

Closing Litany and Prayer Warming -- June 21, 2015

Video used in worship service on June 21, 2015

(adopted from a litany shared by Rev. Deb Avery, Oakland, California. The prayer warming of the crosses is an idea from Rev. Dave Carver who led our group from Pittsburgh Presbytery to South Sudan in January, 2015)

L: The church of Jesus Christ is constantly changing. Our church is changing as well. Babies are born. Children grow up. People commit themselves to one another. Loved ones and friends die. Newcomers join our community and our church. Others leave, moving on to new places and new opportunities. It is important that we recognize these times of change. 

In 2011, you called me to serve as your temporary supply pastor. Today that call comes to an end. I thank all of you, members and friends of Emsworth U.P. Church. Your kindness and support, your caring and love, have sustained me, and I shall remember you with gratitude to God.

Let us pray for the saving presence of our living Lord:
In your world,
be present, Lord.
In this congregation,
be present, Lord.
In this community,
be present, Lord.
In this presbytery and the whole church,
be present, Lord.
In the homes and hearts of all your people,
be present, Lord.
Let us pray for the mercy of the Lord: For work begun but not completed,
Lord, have mercy.
For expectations not met,
Lord, have mercy.
For wounds not healed,
Lord, have mercy.
For gifts not shared,
Lord, have mercy.
For promises not kept,
Lord, have mercy.
Let us give thanks for our journey together in this place.
For friendships made, for joys celebrated and for times of nurture and growth,
thanks be to God.
For wounds healed, expectations met, gifts given and promises kept.
thanks be to God.
For our fellowship in Jesus Christ, and for the love of God which has sustained us,
thanks be to God.

Pastor: Friends, you called me into your midst, to serve with you in the ministry of Word and Sacrament. The Bible is the symbol of the ministry of the Word among us. May Gods Word continue to challenge, nurture, and inspire you.
All: We will continue to place Scripture at the center of our life. The Word of God lives among us. Thanks be to God.
Pastor: The font is the symbol of our baptism, the place of our birth into the Body of Christ. May you continue to welcome new members through the living waters of our faith.
All: We will continue to celebrate new life in baptism; the font of blessing welcomes all. Thanks be to God.
Pastor: The table is the symbol of our communion in Christ, the source of nourishment and strength. May you continue to share the bread and cup, remembering the One who is the Bread of Life and True Vine.
All: We will continue to break the bread and share the cup; the table invites us to taste and see that God is good. Thanks be to God.
Pastor: The towel and basin are symbols of our calling to justice and service, according to the example of Jesus, who washed the feet of his friends. May you continue to walk the way of the cross of Christ.
All: We will continue to serve others and to work for justice, following in the way of Jesus, friend and servant of all. Thanks be to God.
Pastor: As a congregation we are called to love and serve each other, to care and to heal, to teach and to witness to the Word. May you continue to love one another as God has loved you.
All: We will continue to offer care, challenge and encouragement to one another, sharing all that we are and have. Thanks be to God.

L: In the end, what remains for all of us is the promise symbolized most powerfully by the cross of Jesus Christ. This what we have to lean on and support us as we face the forces that fragment life. We sense its potency. We can rest upon its strength and have our faith renewed as we worship.

During the last of our gatherings in Yei, South Sudan, each member of the community of faith we had formed was given a small Jerusalem cross. The cross is formed by one central cross, representing the centrality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Surrounding the central cross are four smaller crosses representing the four gospels to be taken to the four corners of the globe. 

In addition, the larger cross is made of four shapes that are symbolic of an ancient crutch, reflecting the truth that the gospel, intended for the healing of the whole word, can only be carried by those who have been wounded themselves. 

You and I, brothers and sisters, are the wounded people that Christ has called to be his own, his messengers for peace and healing in a troubled and hurting world.

In South Sudan, we received our crosses by means of a “cross-warming” prayer wherein each of us held the cross of a fellow team member and prayed for them by name, and then passed that cross around the circle.  By the conclusion of this exercise, we were all wearing crosses that had been prayed over by the other members of our small group.

That is how we will end our worship together today. The crosses you see here on the table have been prayed over by me earlier today.  I’m going to give one to each of you.  And then each one of you at the table will take turns, passing the cross around to your brothers and sisters at the table, and each person will take a moment to pray over the cross as it comes around the table.

At the end of our prayer time, we will gather together here at the front and pray over the remaining crosses that will be sent to our at home members so they too can be remembered and connected to all of us.

Closing Prayer

O God, we give thanks for remembered time when we, together, have shared the life of faith.  We thank you for the moments we have shared over the past four years in worship, in learning, in service.  We pray that all of us in this place will be aware of your Spirit’s guidance as we moveto new and unknown places, in the name of Jesus the Savior.

God, whose everlasting love for all is trustworthy, help each of us to trust the future which rests in your care.  The time we were together in your name saw our laughter and tears, our hopes and disappointments.  Guide us as we hold these cherished memories but move in new directions, until that time to come when we are completely one with you and with each other, in the name of Jesus Christ we pray.  Amen.

Ordinary 12B -- June 21, 2015

Who’s In Charge Here?

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned. There is no audio this week, and the sermon as delivered contained more than the usual ad libs.

Job 38:1-11
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In the book of Job, we hear about the man who tried to do everything right only to be repaid by having everything go horribly wrong.  And according to the text, all of the misfortune that falls upon Job is not even his fault.  All of the terrible things that happen to Job are a direct result of God and Satan making a bit of a heavenly wager.  Satan bets God that this wonderful, faithful, upright man named Job only behaves as well as he does because his life is so awesome.  Job is rich, happily married with an adoring family, and every material and physical comfort he could possibly want.  “Why wouldn’t Job be a good man?” Satan says. “When you have it good, it’s easy to be good. Take all of his blessings away, God, and then let us see how blameless and upright Job really is. 

Well, you know the story about what happens next. In short order, Job loses it all.  He lose everything he cherishes most – children, animals, home.  But Job continues to bless God.  Job says, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Satan still isn’t impressed.  In fact, the next time Satan meets with God, he decides to double down on his wager.  Satan says, “Let’s see what happens when Job has to put a little of his own skin in the game.”  So God allows Satan to give Job unbearable physical pain.

The quiet “patience of Job” doesn’t last long after sores begin to cover Job’s body and he finds himself sitting in an ash heap.  When Job has nothing left to lose, when you get the sense that he has hit rock bottom, he finally cries out from the dung heap, “God, I have done everything you asked me to!  Why is this happening to me?  Answer me!”

And finally, God answers Job out of the whirlwind.  God speaks to Job for four whole chapters, but God never does answer Job’s questions because Job’s questions are about human justice.  And God’s answer is about divine omnipotence. The only answer we really have about why things happen the way they do is that God is God.  Only God knows why things happen and God knows everything.  And none of us is God.

For many, many people, this is the place where their faith hits a brick wall. God’s forceful response to Job seems to discourage our daring to question why there is persistent injustice in the world and why God so often seems silent in the face of great suffering.  Since none of us were there when God laid the foundation of the earth, it seems we not going to get the answer.  All we know is that God is God, the world is filled with horrible things, and even a man as faithful as Job will not escape suffering.

The church often muddles its way through terrible situations by falling back on cherished truisms.  We might say, “God is good all the time.”  Could you blame the mother of a dead child if she said to us, “Really? Is God really good all the time? Because I dare you to find something good in this situation.“ Or, we might say to a friend who has lost a job, “God will not give us more than we can handle.” They may not say it, but could you blame them for thinking, “Maybe God can handle this nightmare of overdue bills, damaged self-esteem, and depression so bad I can’t get out of bed in the morning.  Because I can’t handle it.” 

How about the families of the victims in Charleston on Wednesday night? How about the members of the Emanuel AME Church who lost a beloved pastor?  Would you like to explain to those people where God was the shooting began? What do you have to say to a 5 year old child who played dead to escape being shot at point blank range by a man who hated him simply because of skin color?

Where was God in Charleston, S.C. on Wednesday night?

Perhaps the church should spend less time trying to defend God when bad things happen and spend more time being Christ to one another.  We often never do receive an answer about why good people suffer.  We cannot explain why racism still exists.  We cannot explain why hatred insists on imposing itself as violence committed against innocent people. Our hearts continue to break when we see injustice and violence.

The disciples in the little boat being swamped by a wild raging sea ask a question of Jesus that resonates with Job’s plea.  The terrified disciples scream at Jesus, “Show us your power!  Don’t you care?”  And Jesus says to them, “Where is your faith?”  

The disciples’ lack of faith is a failure of their imagination.  They are too frightened by the wind and the waves to imagine that even a life threatening storm can be ridden out with the one on whom they have staked their very lives. 

Jesus wakes up and sees the panicky, frightened men in the boat with him.  They are on their way to the “other side,” the other side representing the territory of the Gentiles, a foreign place, maybe even a dangerous or inappropriate place for a Jewish person to go.  But this is what happens when you decide to follow Jesus.  Jesus crosses many social and spiritual boundaries. He eats with unsuitable people, breaks Sabbath laws, associates with the unclean and heals them at the wrong times, and communicates with unclean spirits. Crossing to the other side with Jesus is a risky, unpredictable proposition, and in this passage, the wind and the sea create demonstrate the dangers of being in the boat with him.

It is the middle of the night.  There is nothing but darkness all around.  The wind and waves are rocking the boat, and the disciples can barely see Jesus with eyes stinging from seawater mixed with frightened tears.  The disciples are in a terrifying place on their way to a terrifying place.

When we are certain all is lost, when we are certain we are so lost we might never be found, when we cry out to God and listen for a word from God, one word is always spoken.  “Peace.  Be still.” The howling wind begins to die down.  Soon there is utter silence.  All that is left is the sound of your own heart pounding as you begin to catch your breath and realize that you have been deeply touched by something far more powerful than the storm that threatened to swallow you whole. 

One little word.  Peace.  A little word and an all-powerful word spoken amidst the noise and chaos of our lives.  A word of peace spoken over a raging storm.  One little word can undo whatever darkness threatens to undo us.  One little word of peace can utterly change the world if enough of us believe in its power to undo all the messes we make, all the hatred we sow, all the injustice we create as frightened human beings.

I cannot promise you that there’s nothing to be afraid of.  Some of the situations that frighten us are real as real can be, as real as Job’s grief and pain, and as real as the wind and waves that threatened to drown those disciples on a terrible night at sea. Over the past four years in conversations with many of you, I have heard you talk about fears that run deeply – fear of illness, pain, loss.  Fears about money and fears of growing older.  Fears that everything you hold dear and familiar may be slipping away.  Fears about aging parents and broken relationships. These are all real fears.  They are the truth of your lives and my life.  And when we dismiss the realness of our fears, or cover them up, we are lying to ourselves and to one another. 

But fear is not the whole truth and our fears become dangerous when they become so powerful that we cannot move into the deeper truth. Our fears don’t have to paralyze us.  Our fears do not have to dominate us. Our fears do not have to own us.  Our fears do not have to lead us to hate and mistrust and violence.

The one in the boat with us desires that we acknowledge our complete dependence upon him and him alone.  The one in the boat wants us to risk everything.  The one in the boat invites us to focus on the awesome reality of God who still speaks out of whirlwinds and storms. 

You are cared about; you are known and loved just as you are.  It is this affirmation of Christ’s peace for you that will make it possible to navigate even the roughest seas.

When the racist shooter was apprehended this week, he appeared in a Charleston courtroom. The surviving family members were given the opportunity to address the young man who had repeatedly shot and killed their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. A New York Times reporter said, “It was as if the Bible study had never ended as one after another, victims’ family members offered lessons in forgiveness, testaments to a faith that is not compromised by violence or grief. They urged him to repent, confess his sins and turn to God.”

“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, her voice rising in anguish. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, the mother of 26-year old Tywanza Sanders, a poet who died after trying to save his aunt, who was also killed.

“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know,” she said in a quavering voice. “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.”[1]

In the end, the man named Job who had been to hell and back and somehow lived to tell the tale, speaks this prayer to the Lord: “I know you can do all things, and nothing you wish is impossible…I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite…I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (Job 42:1-6)

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Goodbye and Thank You -- From Pastor Susan

The past four years of ministry here with you have been an amazing journey. You have extended unfailing generosity, tenderness, and grace to me and I am grateful. I could not have imagined a more loving church for my first call as a teaching elder. It has been a blessing to serve as your pastor.

With great sadness, I am resigning as your temporary supply pastor effective June 30, 2015.  My final Sunday in the pulpit will be June 21st.

You may be surprised by this decision. Frankly, I did not expect to be sitting here today. I had every intention of being with you at least through the end of 2015.

I know it sounds like a political cliché to say that I am resigning to spend more time with my family, but it is true.  Over the summer, I will be doing the tough work of getting our house ready to sell so we can respond quickly to looming changes for our family. Over the past few months, I have prayerfully wrestled with this decision, and I am certain that God is calling me to focus on family transitions, at least for now.

I do not know exactly where or how God will call me in future ministry. I will continue working with the Unglued Church project, as well as in mission, peacemaking, racial justice and reconciliation, and, more broadly, helping with the on-going discernment of how God is calling our denomination into the future. I do not know if I will receive a call to parish ministry, or if I will serve the Church in some other capacity. I will continue praying for clarity in how I may best use my gifts for the sake of the Gospel.

Over the past year, we have shared as a congregation the incredibly hard work of discerning how God is calling Emsworth U.P. into the future. I know it’s been difficult. I truly believe, however, that you have every tool you need to make a faithful decision about the future of this church, and that the work need not slow down when I leave you.

As I have said from the very first day I arrived at Emsworth U.P. more than four years ago, the mission of this church isn’t about the pastor or her vision. It is about your sense of who God is calling you to be and how you will faithfully participate in the mission of Jesus Christ in this community.

You should also know that Rev. Sarah Robbins will serve as moderator of the session, and will continue working with you to provide the support and resources you need to carry out the decisions you make as a congregation.

Okay.  Here’s another cliché that happens to be true. This church will always be in my heart. As long as I am in Pittsburgh, I look forward to seeing many of you at presbytery meetings, branch gatherings, committee meetings, and other gatherings of our close-knit Presbyterian family. 

My deepest prayer is that you will not treat my departure as a reason to abandon the work you’ve been doing to move into God’s future for this church. You can depend upon the faithfulness of God and the love you have for one another. Each one of you will be in my prayers, just as I’ve prayed for you every day for the past four years. I can’t wait to hear how Jesus continues to live and work through you.

After June 21st, this blog will largely inactive, although I will leave it up as a resource for the church and your next pastor. Otherwise, I encourage you to visit Emsworth U.P.'s brand new website at

With love and gratitude,


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Ordinary 11B -- June 14, 2015

Leaving Home

Rev. Yat Michael, one of the two SSPEC pastors imprisoned in Sudan

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned. 

2 Corinthians 5:6 - 17
So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!           

In our prayers over the past several weeks, we’ve included two pastors from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church who are currently imprisoned in Sudan. The two men have been accused of spying in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum when they traveled there to support Presbyterian churches in the city. According to published news reports, the two men have recently been moved to a more dangerous facility and denied visits from their families and attorneys.(

But despite facing potential death sentences if convicted when their trial resumes later this month, one of the pastors asked this of all of his fellow Christians around the world in a recent interview shortly before being moved:  “We want you to pray that this test be for the glory of God in this place . . . and for us to be in peace with our people and the ones who are against us.”  He also said, “I am not afraid of anything…I am never afraid of anything because it is my love, it is my being…I’m not afraid of doing my ministry.”(

I am not so sure I believe that God is testing this pastor, and I am not sure I believe that he is not at least a little bit afraid.  One thing I do believe is this pastor earnestly hopes that something good will come out of his suffering and that God’s glory will shine through a pretty dismal situation.

I also believe if the Apostle Paul were around today, odds are that he’d be sharing a jail cell with these two incredibly brave pastors – or if not the same jail cell, he’d be in some jail, somewhere.  Paul spent a lot of time in jail, as you know, mostly because he just couldn’t keep his mouth shut about Jesus. The courage of his convictions and the depth of his faith were so over the top that it seems he simply didn’t care who he made angry. 

Some people are like that.  Some people really do seem to walk by faith and not by sight, as Paul says in our text. Walking by faith and not by sight means that people like the South Sudanese pastors and Paul ignore the flashing red danger signs that would stop the rest of us in our tracks. People like Rev. Yat Michael, Rev. David Yein and Paul don’t seem to care how many dangers, toils and snares they face. Answering God’s call is what they were born to do.  They are going to preach the Gospel, no matter the personal cost or danger.  Somehow trust in Jesus outweighs their fear of being laughed at or imprisoned or ostracized or even killed.  Like Paul says – most people look at the cross and say, “foolishness.”  But a few people look at the cross and they get it – they see promise and hope.

So Paul is entirely confident, at home with who he is, even if he often finds himself at home in a jail cell.  Although Paul longs for his ultimate home with Jesus, in the meantime, he’s not afraid to make other people mad by proclaiming the foolish Gospel of Christ crucified for all people.  In fact, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that the only thing Christians need to fear is that we just aren’t doing enough to make the world mad at us in the name of Jesus Christ. 

Paul writes this letter to the church in Corinth, after hearing that the church is in chaos and that pretty much everyone is blaming him for the mess. Some new pastors are coming in and telling the church in Corinth that this trouble-making Paul has no credentials, isn’t really a very good preacher or organizer, and is physically unappealing, -- in short, the pastors showing up in Corinth are try to persuade the church there that their founding pastor, Paul, is not fit for ministry.  A few of these “super apostles” are even accusing Paul of being a swindler and a cheat.  Rumors and accusations about Paul are flying fast and furiously, and Paul is, of course, upset – you can sense his crankiness about the whole situation throughout 2 Corinthians.  Paul admits to being “beside himself” – a polite translation for being royally ticked off with the jagoffs hanging out in Corinth, all those shiny people who are questioning Paul’s integrity and motivation in preaching the Gospel.  Paul is so upset that he decides not to make things worse by going back to Corinth but will instead write this letter to defend his ministry against the hysterical claims against him.

It is as if Paul is standing up to his critics and saying, “Is that all you’ve got?”  “Is that all you’ve got – that I’m weak and pushy and unattractive?  You know what – you’re right. I am all of those things, and more. But you know what? You’re not the boss of me and your judgment of my ministry doesn’t really matter one bit. I’ve got one boss, one judge, one reason for doing what I do and living the way I live and loving you the way I continue to love you even though you are being incredible knuckleheads. None of what I’ve been doing in starting up all these churches is about what I think or you think.  I’m not preaching Paul gospel or Corinth’s gospel or Rome’s gospel or even the synagogue’s gospel. I’m just a weak, wounded, foolish, testy fool for Jesus.  So take another look.  I’ve got all day. I don’t mind suffering and I don’t mind bearing your burden. I love you, my dear church in Corinth with all your squabbling and nagging and complaining simply because Jesus loves me.  And Jesus loves you.”

That is Paul, in a vernacular nutshell.  For Paul, it’s all about the love of Jesus.  And Paul’s anger comes not because he’s being criticized or challenged; the anger in Paul is a product of his heartbreak in seeing his congregation split apart.

The Paul of 2 Corinthians is entirely at home in his own skin. Paul knows who he is because he knows Jesus.  Paul loves the prickly folks in Corinth because he sees them through the eyes of Jesus. Through it all, Paul loves the people of Corinth, even those shiny perfect preachers trying to take over, split the congregation, and make Paul look bad. Paul is at home with who he is in Christ Jesus, and that makes him able to get mad and become angry and write long-winded and scolding letters that may even occasionally contain language he may wish to take back. 

The love of Christ urges Paul on, to places where he is mostly unwelcome.
The sort of places with all sorts of red flashing lights
The sort of places with all sorts of red flashing lights that mean Paul most likely will get into serious trouble with somebody.
The sort of places with red flashing lights that Paul completely ignores.

I don’t know how those pastors being held in Sudan could take the risk they did to go and preach the gospel in a place run by a government openly hostile to their faith. I don’t know how Paul did what he did. I don’t know how Paul managed to be who he was.  I don’t know why Paul didn’t at some point decide that, all things considered, life was a whole lot better when he was a respectable Pharisee instead of a much maligned church planter. 

Maybe Paul knew there was no going back because the man he once was had been blown away like so much dust by the power of the Holy Spirit. Maybe he realized that the only person he could truly be was a new creation in Christ. Maybe Paul was so lost in love with Jesus that the red flashing lights no longer had any power over him. Maybe he knew that the only way to get out of the crazy, difficult situations God had placed him in was to go more deeply into them and trust that God would lead him out. 

At the Rothenberg house, we’ve spent much of the past two weeks helping Rachel prepare for her summer of study in India. We’ve been washing and sorting clothes, visiting with friends and family, watching Bollywood movies, all the while keeping an eye on India’s long range weather forecast which, unfortunately, hasn’t changed one bit for the better – highs in the 100’s, lows in the 80’s for the foreseeable future.

Rachel has traveled on her own before, but this summer feels different, probably because there are so many other changes happening in our family – job changes, selling a house, think about a new house, dealing with a parent’s decline.  I think it’s safe to say that not one of us feels anything like grounded.  Over the last couple days, as I’ve watched Rachel goof off with her brother, talk with her grandmother, reconnect with her Pittsburgh friends, pull out her sari’s and recheck her passport, I realize that our family’s definition of “home” is changing quickly.  Our family is changing quickly.  Rachel is our heart, but she is also a citizen of the world, and called to all she can discover and learn and contribute. David will soon follow her, in his own way, but as his own man who will move as God calls him into a life that is his own. 

And I probably do not need to point out that all of you are also undergoing change that you didn’t ask for, wouldn’t have asked for, didn’t want, but here it is anyway. Losing a pastor.  Losing key leaders. Wondering what can possibly be next.  And for those of you suffering from the pains of aging and other physical challenges, you probably share Paul’s longing for a body that wouldn’t make it so difficult to do the things that please God.

Because I believe God is in all of this change and challenge, I can say it is all good.  But it is all loss.  And loss hurts.  Loss of strength. Loss of certainty. Loss of seeing clearly where it is we are headed.

And yet, we can view faith, not as matter of adding more things to believe or to have, but a stripping away of everything until all that is left is the restless heart’s true home – which is God.  The 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart once observed, “The spiritual life is not a process of addition, but subtraction.”[1] We slowly but surely lose the earthly tent, the stuff we can count and hold and see. Loss can make us more fearful than grateful. Loss can make us angry, cranky, and use words we do not mean to use.

 But as we move through loss and longing, we just might find the place where we belonged all along, in the light of God’s new creation in Jesus. If we walk by sight, distracted by fearsome flashing lights that warn of the highway’s ending or the canyons edge, we’ll get stuck in place for fear we’ll misstep or get in trouble, or fall off the edge of the world altogether. If we walk by sight, we’ll miss the new thing God is doing. If we walk by faith, God’s newness is as plain as the nose on your face.

Paul knew how to walk by faith better than anyone. He was always on the move, finding new expressions of faith, new people to love, and new opportunities to proclaim the gospel. Every church Paul founded was new and different – the churches in Corinth and Galatia and Philippi and Thessalonians and all the others faced particular challenges, disappointments, failures, and all sorts of crazy people acting in all sorts of crazy ways that threatened to bring whole gospel business to an end.

All the while, Paul had to leave things behind.  He left everything safe and familiar.  He left behind congregations he deeply loved.  He’d have one small taste of success and then find himself in prison again.  And he did all of it without any assurance whatsoever that the church of Jesus was going to make it out of the first century.  In fact, Paul had to leave behind everything he’d ever been taught about what success looks like and what power looks like.  He had to leave his certainty of what religion looks like.  Worst of all, he had to look at himself every day and feel that thorn in his side and deal with being a very broken, flawed, ordinary man.  And knowing full well his weakness, Paul had to leave behind any certainty that he was up to the task of doing what God was calling him to do.  All he could hold onto is grace, and the deep desire of his heart to please God, not human beings.  And somehow he had to keep loving human beings who quite often could not bring themselves to love him.

And that is the messy, difficult, fantastic faith in Jesus we have inherited from our brother Paul and our brothers and sister in Corinth, and all the saints in every time and place who have been where we are and know something about leaving home. We’ve already taken the faithful first step in our baptism and in professing our faith. We are saved by grace that we have not earned, but that pleases God to give to us anyway. [2]

But that’s just the first step. Like a 23 year old getting ready to step into a long flight to Delhi, we have left the comfort of home and gotten ourselves on the plane.  We have buckled up and been lifted high into the air.  The first step is completed.

But now.  The second step.

In this life of faith, there is always a second step.  When we can no longer trust anything but God to walk beside us in a strange new place with strange new people, though peaks and valleys.  The stuff of real life, new life, redeemed life.

This is where the journey of subtraction ends. When we lean in to God, who is as near to us as our breath.  Listen.

When everything is gone, when you are far from home, where you do not know where you will land or what you will find when you get there. God’s grace is sufficient.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark Barger Elliott, Feasting on the Word, Volume 3 Year B, 135.
[2] Ibid, 139.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Ordinary 10B -- June 7, 2015

Who Told You You Were Naked?

 NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned. 

Genesis 3:8-15

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

My children have become hooked on a genealogy service called, “23 and Me.”  People
 submit saliva samples swabbed from the inside of a male family member’s cheek and send them in to 23 and Me. The company then matches the DNA from that one sample with people all over the world who share similar DNA.  Last year, Rachel swabbed David’s cheek, sent the sample to “23 and Me”, and the kids have heard from literally dozens of people with whom – according to David’s DNA -- we share distant relatives on both my and my husband’s side of the family.  This genealogical study is really sort of fascinating. We’ve learned that I have ancient ancestors who lived in Spain and France and even Italy. I always thought of myself as pretty boring white bread Scots Irish kind of girl, so it’s sort of fun to imagine there’s something at least a tiny bit exotic in my family tree. (

I am not at all certain DNA is destiny, but as I’ve grown older, I am increasingly aware of the power of family history to shape and influence how we see ourselves. Families are where we first learn about ourselves. Every family has hopes, dreams, successes, loves, losses, unfinished business, hidden violence, secrets, mysteries; all these things and more filter down through the history of our families, playing themselves out in the present and beyond.  Sometimes we search the past for clues about the present, maybe hoping that we are a little more interesting than we think we are.

Some of what we inherit from our families is good – a strong work ethic, a kind heart, a flair for telling jokes, or stubborn persistence in the face of adversity. Some genetic tendencies are more worrisome, like alcoholism, mental illness or a genetic marker for cancer.

But more damaging than cancer, I think, is that moment in which someone, usually in our family, tells us a lie about ourselves that sticks and burns into to our psyche like a hot penny on a sheet of ice. Someone tells us we’re just not very bright. Or ugly. Weird. Worthless. Not manly enough. Not pretty enough. Too sensitive. Someone tells us a lie and we believe the lie with all our heart. It’s amazing the damage families can do with just a few thoughtless words. Someone tells us a false story that makes us feel ashamed – ashamed of being who we are, ashamed of being the person God created us to be in all of our beauty and all of our brokenness. All it takes are just a few cutting words – especially to a child -- and we buy into the lie that we are somehow less than a worthy and beloved child of God.

I think that is some of what is happening today in this story about Adam and Eve and the fallout after their encounter with temptation. The couple believe the lie the serpent tells them – that they are less than they should be, that being creatures made by God is not enough. That being human beings created by God is nice and all that but don’t Adam and Eve really want to be divine instead of merely human? And like the young and impressionable human beings they are, Adam and Eve believe the serpent’s lies.

The book of Genesis isn’t written as literal history or even as a precise explanation of how good and evil entered into the world.  Nowhere in the entire Bible, in fact, are the words “fall” or “original sin” ever used to refer to this story.  Those labels were applied much, much later. At its heart, this text from Genesis is written simply as a story about our early ancestors in the faith.  It is a story that invites us to reflect on our own encounters with God and our relationships with the rest of God’s creation. And despite all the baggage with which this story comes to us, it is not a story to shame us. Instead, it is a story that can open our eyes to God’s persistent longing for us to return to the freedom and security of God’s story for us.

Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened when they crossed the line that God laid down.  God laid down the line not to test them or tempt them or as a trick them, but to ensure their well being.  Perhaps the pair also saw, for the first time, their ingratitude for what they received from God in the first place.  So they did what most people would do.  They tried to hide from God.  Just as we so often try to hide when we are engulfed in sorrow and shame over the terrible decisions we make and the terrible things we do. 

Yet God does not allow that to be the end of this story. Our ancient mother and father eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, yet they do not die on the spot. In their moment of paralyzing shame, God comes looking for them. The man and woman have given up, thinking their story is over, but God hasn’t given up on them.

I think it is the most beautiful image in all of Scripture -- God walking in the garden, enjoying a cool evening breeze, desiring nothing more than conversation and communion with the people God loves.  God calls out and cannot find the humans because they have hidden themselves away back in the trees.  God calls out to them with one of the saddest but most hopeful lines in all of Scripture – “Where are you?” “Where are you?”

And the man calls back to God.  “I heard your call, God, but I was afraid.” 

I don’t know about you, but for me that exchange sort of sums up the entire relationship between God and humanity. God calls out to us and we often reply, “I heard your call, God, but I was afraid.”  I was afraid of who I am and who I am not.  I am naked and ashamed and I do not believe I am deserving of your love or forgiveness.

The rest of the story plays out in a form that is entirely predictable. The man blames the woman and even goes so far as to point out that it was God’s idea to create her, as if nothing bad would have happened if God had just left Adam alone.  Eve – well -- she says it was all the serpent’s idea.  Fingers are pointing hither and yon, and the man and the woman are both willing to sell the other out.  Nothing is sacred anymore, apparently. These two are willing to sacrifice their integrity and their relationship in a frantic effort to cover up their nakedness, all of which gets them nowhere. 

It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for these two.  After all, they are so much like us.  We live with similar lapses of judgment every day, and make mistakes both big and small.  We all want something – that one thing, whatever it is -- that is just beyond our grasp, and hardly any of us take the time to see how much God has already done and appreciate how much we have. 

Nothing much has changed in all the generations since the very first generation of humanity.  We are a culture that is built on desire for more, more, more – greed fuels our economy, fills our airwaves, and informs nearly everything we do.  We are an anxious people, thinking we can secure our own well-being apart from God. Desire for something that doesn’t belong to us has been the human story since the very beginning of time.  It is our story, reflected in the law of Moses, the preaching of the prophets, the life of Jesus Christ and, even now, in our alienation from our Creator and our alienation from one another which is played out in war poverty, greed and misery all over our earth.

Yet, God searches us out.  God is with us. God loves us. God keeps telling the true story of who we are, and sees clearly who we are. This story from Genesis is not so much a story of what happened to our earliest ancestors but of what happens to each one of us as we walk on this earth.

A few weeks ago in our adult Sunday school class on spiritual renewal, we watched a video featuring author Erwin McManus ( ) McManus talked about a childhood memory that came back to him as he was driving to an event in which he’d be doing a talk in front of some high-powered executives. As he got closer to the event, he became more and more nervous. And in his nervousness, he suddenly recalled a time when he was ten years old.  As a child, McManus had a habit of taking a shower and forgetting to take a towel into the bathroom with him. He would yell out from the shower to other family members, asking them to bring him a towel so he could dry off and cover up when he came out of the bathroom.

One day, his family decided they were tired of bringing him towels, so when McManus called out from the shower, two of his older siblings broke into the bathroom, dragged him out of the shower, down the stairs and pushed him, naked and dripping, out of the front door of the house and locked the door behind him. As McManus told the story, he recalled a feeling of incredible embarrassment and shame as cars and bicycles passed by him, this little, crying naked boy on the front stoop of his home. He pounded and pounded at the front door, to no avail. In fact, he could hear his family laughing at him from inside the house. At some point, he tried to hide behind a rather scrawny bush, which did little to hide his nakedness.

McManus admits it’s a funny story in retrospect. But it wasn’t funny at the time to a 10 year old boy. That feeling of shame stayed with McManus for a long, long time.

But in the video, as McManus reflects on the event, he recalls this text from Genesis that we read today. He thinks about Adam’s shame and nakedness and how God calls out to him, “Who told you that you were naked?”  And McManus realized that it wasn’t God who told Adam he was naked.  He realizes that that the source of Adam’s shame was the fact he turned away from God’s story and listened to a very different story, the wrong story about who humanity is and can be in obedience to God’s loving claim on creation.  Adam turned from the story of God and God’s love and God’s abundance. Instead, Adam and Eve bought into the story of the serprent who tells Adam and Eve that God can’t be trusted, and that God’s story isn’t enough for them. 

McManus concludes the story by saying that he wishes he “could go back to the moment when I was ten and they threw me out of the house, but realize it wasn’t my shame, it was theirs. It was theirs. And I wish I had heard those words from God, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’ I wish I had met the God who had seen through my nakedness and takes away my shame.”

We cannot go back to the place of pure innocence anymore than Adam and Eve could. Once we’ve heard the lie, we cannot unhear it. But we can repent, turn away from the lies about ourselves, turn away from the lies about other people, and live into God’s story that was true from the beginning. As human beings, we are capable of great love because each one of us has been created in the image of infinite love and goodness.

Let us step into the certainty of God’s love as we gather at this table for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Let us embrace the mystery and grace that shapes our history as God’s family.  There is room at this table for everyone and there is enough for all of us: saints and sinners, losers and winners, souls who are lost and souls aching to be found.  This is the table in which we can be exactly who we are, content in who we are, naked and unashamed.  Let us come to this table, all of us long-lost cousins, hidden and discovered, whole and hollow, restless and redeemed, connected by body and blood and spirit of the Living Christ.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.