Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Difficult Call of God

a sermon for Ordinary Time on Genesis 22:1-14 and Matthew 10:34-42
preached on June 26, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

As we gather on this beautiful day in this beautiful spot, our scripture readings aren’t quite so beautiful. Between Abraham’s obedience to God’s command that led him to nearly kill his beloved son Isaac and Jesus’ insistence that he came not to bring peace but a sword, I suspect that many folks would rather leave these texts out of the Bible – or at the very least not talk about them all that often! But nonetheless, here we have them, not one but two challenging texts put before us by the lectionary today.

I have to wonder what we do with them, then, if we can’t just ignore them or pretend like they aren’t there. What are we supposed to do with a word like this, where God seems to tell us to do something we not only do not want to do for no good reason but that seems incredibly insensitive and inhuman? In moments like these, with texts like these, I think it’s a reasonable question.

These two texts present us with stories where God’s instruction not only just doesn’t make sense but is also extremely divisive and troubling. It doesn’t make sense to Abraham for him to go and offer his long-sought son as a sacrifice to God, and this act certainly doesn’t fit at all within the broader picture we get from the whole Bible of how God works in the world. And Jesus’ words about his message tearing families apart don’t seem to make much sense either in our world that places such a high value on familial relationships – or even in the broader context of his story that shows how Jesus’ mother and brothers played an important role in supporting his ministry.

So what’s the right thing to do here? How should we respond when we hear God speaking, calling us to do something difficult? Do we just give in and do it, or do we somehow resist and find another way? What is the most faithful approach to responding to God in our lives and our world when it is hard?

Abraham demonstrates one approach to all this in his total, unquestioned obedience. His model of following God’s command to offer his son as a sacrifice is admirable, but I don’t think it is particularly commendable in our world. First of all, how could he have done this to the son whom he wanted and desired and plotted and prayed for for so long? In today’s world, Abraham would likely (and rightly) face some sort of criminal charge for endangering the life of his son even if he did not go through with it, and I think we have good reason to question Abraham’s actions based on so many other human encounters with God in the Bible that would suggest that this sort of message should not be followed.

But I don’t think Abraham’s approach of total, unquestioned obedience is all that wise for us today. In both Abraham’s story and Jesus’ instruction here, it just doesn’t seem wise to dive in right away and do what God says without questioning or limiting things somehow. We have to put God’s word in the moment in the context of the broader voice of God working in and with the world; otherwise, we risk bringing about great harm to others and ourselves by following what we only think God wants us to do.

The best way to do this, in my view, is to be thoughtful, faithful, and prayerful as we respond to what we think God is saying, and there’s no better way to do this than to turn to the Bible. As we read the Bible and interpret it for our lives and our world by the power of the Holy Spirit working in community, we hear God’s word to us the best we possibly can.

Again, this isn’t as easy as it would seem to be. We can find texts in the Bible to back up pretty much anything we want, and so we must remember that every reading of the Bible involves some level of interpretation as we take these ancient words and put them into our own language and our own cultural context. Along the way, something is bound to get mixed up or lost or confused, so we need some guidance.

Thankfully, my seminary theology professor Shirley Guthrie summarized how to interpret the Bible in six not-quite-simple rules (from his classic book Christian Doctrine), building on the historic confessions of the church to give guidance for our life today.

First, “scripture is to be interpreted in light of its own purpose.” Scripture was not written to be a scientific or historical document but instead to tell us who God is and how God has interacted with God’s people over the centuries, and we have to keep that purpose in mind as we use it and interpret it.

Then, “scripture interprets itself,” for we look first to other passages in the Bible to sort out the meaning of difficult or confusing texts.

Guthrie then suggests that we keep Jesus Christ at the center of all our reflections about scripture, because if we have the best vision of God that we will get in Jesus, we can certainly learn something from his words and actions that will help us to better understand other parts of the Bible.

Fourth, Guthrie says that we should follow “the rule of faith,” keeping the incredible grace of God in Jesus Christ at the center of our faith and practice and honoring the insights of those who have gone before us in the life of faith.

Then Guthrie insists that we also follow “the rule of love” as we recognize that God’s primary commandments are to love God and neighbor and that any interpretation of scripture that “shows indifference toward or contempt for any individual or group inside or outside the church” is wrong.

Finally, Guthrie calls us to look at the literary and historical context of scripture as we study it, recognizing that we learn a great deal when we think about scripture in the day and age and form in which it was written.

So in and through these specific steps, especially when we undertake them prayerfully as a community of faith rather than just on our own, we can learn a little more about what God is saying to us in scripture and in other revelations and figure out how best to apply these words in our daily lives. I say all this about interpreting scripture because the difficult things we hear from God are not just a thing of the past – people closer to our own time must sort out these things, too.

During the days of Nazi Germany, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the author of our last hymn – struggled to sort out what God was calling him to do. Bonhoeffer had considered himself a pacifist, but over time he became a major leader of the church’s opposition to Hitler and the Nazi takeover of the church. Bonhoeffer struggled with what seemed to be mixed messages from God – not just deciding between a call to teach here in New York where he had studied at Union Seminary and enjoy the safety of life here or a call to be a part of a small group in the German church calling out the nationalism and racism of the church, but also sorting out his recognition of God’s consistent message of peace and nonviolence over against his need to stand up to the grave injustices of the Third Reich.

Bonhoeffer ended up staying in Germany, promoting a way of life that stood in stark opposition to the norm of the war years there, and eventually this peace-lover became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, deciding that the need to end the terrible rule of this tyrannical dictator was a part of God’s call to peace for him. After the plot failed, Bonhoeffer was arrested along with many of his co-conspirators, and he spent the last two years of the war in prison. As the outcome of the war became clear in April 1945, Hitler ordered the execution of Bonhoeffer and his compatriots. Today, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as an incredible example of one who struggled to sort all these things out for himself, and his difficult journey shows the complexity, power, and consequences of sorting out the difficult things that God calls us to do.

The difficult decisions that Bonhoeffer faced along the way, alongside the difficult words we hear posed to Abraham and the disciples, can and should inspire us to think about the difficult call of God upon us – the call to give up the things that we hold most dear for God’s better use, the call to link ourselves not to the things of the world but to the things of God, the call to love others and most especially God far more than we ever love ourselves, the call to show a deep and radical welcome to each and every person, and the call to listen carefully and discern wisely when faced with a difficult situation.

So may God strengthen us to respond to these calls, to sort out the difficult call of God upon us, so that we might always be faithful and demonstrate the incredible love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.


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A Day to Celebrate?

a sermon for Trinity Sunday on Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20
preached on June 19, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Trinity Sunday is a day like none other in the church calendar. Most of our church holidays are built around important events described in the Bible – the birth of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit, to name a few – but Trinity Sunday is based on a doctrine, not an event. To make matters worse, the Bible says nothing explicit about this doctrine – we’ve simply constructed it over the centuries based on what the Bible tells us about God, but other than a few places like our reading from the gospel according to Matthew this morning, even the traditional naming and phrasing of the Trinity isn’t laid out for us in the Old or New Testaments. So Trinity Sunday is a pretty unusual day, one nearly universally disliked by ministers who are forced to figure out how to preach on this doctrine and most likely equally disliked by church members everywhere who must suffer through what often becomes a theology lecture instead of a sermon!

Nonetheless, we celebrate Trinity Sunday today, so what is there to celebrate?Are we supposed to celebrate the Greek philosophical world that created the strange dynamics that must always be kept in mind when talking about the Trinity, three in one and one in three, somehow united and yet somehow divided? Are we supposed to rejoice that God must be accurately described as having “persons” or “modes of being,” as my seminary professors insisted, not pieces of a pie or parts of a machine as I indicated on my theology exam on this subject? Are we to be happy that we worship a God whose very being is so complicated that more often than not we throw up our hands and give up trying when we must discuss the Trinity? Well, maybe those things aren’t the core of this celebration, but there is good reason to think about the Trinity today.

First of all, celebrating Trinity Sunday reminds us of how God’s incredible work in our midst takes so many different forms. We often reduce God’s work to the three core works of the Trinity – the creating work of the first person of the Trinity, often referred to as God the Father, the redeeming work of the Son, Jesus Christ, and the sustaining work of the Holy Spirit. Our first reading this morning lifts up that creating work in all its fullness and reminds us of how God makes all things and calls our world into being even now.

However, even with this incredible witness before us, God is working in ways beyond these simple descriptions we often use to describe the Trinity. We see God healing us from the illnesses that afflict us. We see God as we engage with one another in the human experience in this world each and every day. We see God calling us to greater faithfulness to God’s Word and God’s work in our world. And we see God transforming our world into something more than what we can achieve on our own, something that is far greater than we can even imagine. So the traditional images used in the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are then simply an opening to our understanding about God, a starting place for us to think about how God can be and already is at work in our world.

While this is a good place to start, God is moving and acting and working in countless other ways today, too. Trinity Sunday, then, is not just a time to think about the different ways that God is at work – it is also a good time for us to think about how we need to be a part of what God is doing to make all things new even now. This ancient doctrine, rooted in the needs of a particular philosophy, place, and time, can still speak to us in our world today.

In our world where individualism seems to reign and “me first” is the predominant attitude for so many, the doctrine of the Trinity invites us to think about the importance of action in community. In the Trinity, we see that our God is a God of and in community. In the Trinity, we see that any and all of God’s work is not done by just one person of the Trinity but by all three. In the Trinity, we are shown that each person of the Trinity is unique and different and yet united to the broader whole. In the Trinity, we are reminded that even within God’s own self, our world is best not when we are on our own but when we are at work together.

The Greek theologian John of Damascus first invited us to think about the Trinity as three people in a circle, sharing a dance. His concept is known as perichoresis, from the Greek meaning “dancing around,” because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like three dancers in a circle, holding hands and sharing the joy of the dance of life. The three persons are distinct yet one, for while they each have their own part, the dance is incomplete if we look at just one of the dancers. In this dancing Trinity, then, there is no hierarchy, no abuse of power, no ruler making decisions apart from the wisdom of the whole, but instead, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share everything with one another in a community of equals as the dance goes on.

And so it is with God’s work with us. We see from the Trinity that God does not lord power and wisdom over us but instead invites us to participate in the joy of living in the new creation. In God’s own internal life, God shows us a new way of relating to one another that wipes away everything that would place one over another. In the Trinity, God invites us to set aside our tendency to be lone rangers and instead join in the wonder and joy of life in community in the church and beyond as we join in God’s transformation of the world. God’s work with us should then show us how to be with others, too, setting aside our preferences to be the one in charge, recognizing the important part that we play while letting others join in too, and celebrating the incredible gift of life in community as we share in the dance of life.

So I think Trinity Sunday is a day worth celebrating, even if it means we have to sort through a confusing and often misunderstood doctrine and suffer through a sermon built less on scripture and more on the theology of the church, for this strange doctrine shows us the possibilities of life in the way that God intends – and in the way that God lives in God’s own life together. In this wonderful and powerful and holy name of the Trinity, God calls us to live in new ways, to be faithful together as we join in the transformation of the world, and to set aside the things that distract us from this greater whole so that we too might be a part of the amazing and wonderful dance that shows us how to live.

So may our triune God give us the wisdom and strength to live in in the fullness and joy of community, not only on this Trinity Sunday but until that day when the new creation becomes real in all its fullness when we will see with our own eyes the holy dance of the triune God forever and ever. Amen.

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Pentecost – Twice?

a sermon for Pentecost on John 20:19-23 and Acts 2:1-21
preached on June 12, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

The day of Pentecost is truly one of the great moments in the life of the church. On this day we celebrate the birth of the church as we know it in the coming of the Holy Spirit, remembering how the followers of Jesus went from expecting God’s presence to be in bodily human form to our being comfortable with God showing up in more of a spiritual way.

There are many wonderful holidays in the Christian tradition, but I particularly like Pentecost because this is our day. Our society hasn’t co-opted Pentecost to be another marker in the cultural year like Christmas and Easter. We don’t find stores overrun with red banners, posters of flames, or other sorts of misunderstood symbols. And on this holiday, we usually don’t have family obligations to deal with, leaving this day for the church family to celebrate together. So each year, sometime in May or June, seven weeks after Easter, we pull out the red paraments, think about flaming tongues of fire, and remember the coming of the Holy Spirit into a crowd of Jewish pilgrims from around the world who were attending a festival in Jerusalem some fifty days after the Passover.

The story of Pentecost seems so familiar – but what was that that we read first? That didn’t seem all that much about Pentecost? But back in the gospel according to John, only hours after the disciples had first seen the risen Jesus on Easter Sunday, Jesus came among the disciples, breaking through their locked door and their great fear to come among them and wish them peace. If they didn’t quite know that it was him, he showed them his hands and his side, and again offered them his peace, with the added injunction, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” But Jesus didn’t leave things there – he didn’t send them on their own. After this, he breathed on them and told them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” all on the night of his resurrection. Now this seems all well and good, but if we translate this schedule to our current calendar, the Holy Spirit came sometime on the evening of April 24, so we’re about seven weeks late celebrating Pentecost!

But in our reading from Acts, we remember that better-known moment when the early church saw the Holy Spirit coming among them, a moment that looks and sounds a lot more like what we usually think of we when we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit. On an otherwise ordinary morning, as pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the annual festival fifty days after Passover, the disciples gathered in a house as was their custom, only to be joined by a loud sound of wind as tongues of fire rested on each of them and they began to speak in other languages. Then the disciples ventured out into the crowd and began speaking to the pilgrims from all around the world in their native languages, telling them about the surprising things that God had been up to in recent days in the life of a man named Jesus. Some people took it all very seriously, thinking that they might could learn something from this new thing happening in their midst, but others dismissed the disciples’ strange speech as nothing more than an early morning binge. Then Peter addressed the crowd, insisting that these strange events were not the product of alcoholic ramblings but rather the fulfillment of words spoken centuries earlier by the prophet Joel. On this day, the promise that the Spirit would come upon all flesh in the last days was fulfilled, for things were starting to change and the world was about to be made new.

Now these two moments of the coming of the Holy Spirit look very different. In John’s gospel, the Holy Spirit comes quietly, unexpectedly, with no visible or immediate sign or clear sight for others to see, and in Acts, the Spirit comes in a loud rush of wind, after much waiting, with a clear mark of something new happening right then and there for everyone around to see and hear. As much as we like to think of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit as coming with great power and glory, with celebrations of red everywhere and the witness of so many languages being spoken seemingly out of nowhere, I think we also can learn a lot from John’s vision of the Holy Spirit coming in quieter, less obvious, and yet equally powerful ways.

You see, the Spirit that transforms us doesn’t always work quickly, with great and visible glory and power, but that doesn’t mean that the Spirit isn’t at work. The Holy Spirit often works in ways beyond our imagination, quietly yet steadily shattering our expectations, speaking in silence and in loud speech to guide us into the way that God intends, and working in small and large moments and in dramatic and ordinary ways to transform our lives and our world.

So watching for the work of the Spirit isn’t always easy, since it truly can come in so many different ways. In recent weeks, our denomination has completed the approval of an amendment to our Book of Order that will permit sessions and presbyteries to ordain practicing gay and lesbian persons. Some in the church have celebrated this change as a sign of the Spirit at work in the church changing hearts and minds to make the love of God and the call of God for all people more visible. Others in the church have called this decision a moment when the church has departed from the clear wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and they insist that the Spirit could never be at work in such a move. People can and will see the movement of the Spirit in places that others do not, but I for one think we need to keep ourselves as open as we can to different expressions of the Spirit.

Just as the Spirit was clear in Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on that first Easter evening and to the crowd on the first Pentecost, so the Holy Spirit might just be at work around us, too, in different ways, in those folks who speak in tongues and in our slightly more staid worship, in televangelists who claim to bring healing by the Spirit and in our faithful and constant prayers for those who need God’s healing grace, and in those who welcome the broadest spectrum of leaders into the church and in those who feel that leadership must be more limited in some way. The Spirit can and will and does move and work in all these places and more, and we are called to open our eyes and our hearts to this work – and to join in where we can.

And so on this great day in the life of the church, I believe that we are called to listen for the movement of the Holy Spirit in the quiet proclamations of the everyday and in the midst of bold celebration, to trust that the same Spirit is at work in our midst when we understand it and agree and when we don’t, and to watch for the bold tongues of fire consuming what needs to be past and the nearly imperceptible movement of all things being made new.

So may the Holy Spirit of that quiet Easter evening and that powerful Pentecost come upon us anew today and help us to join in all that God is doing in our world now and always until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Looking Up, Down, and All Around

a sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter on Acts 1:1-14
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on June 5, 2011 

For a few days recently, there was a lot of talk about heaven.

Some months ago, Harold Camping, a Christian radio station owner and self-styled prophet, began predicting that May 21, 2011, would be the end of the world. On this day, he said, faithful Christians everywhere would be raptured, taken up into heaven so that they could avoid the trials and tribulations that would follow as the world as we knew it came to an end. He picked the date based on a very complicated interpretation of certain prophetic and apocalyptic texts in the Bible, then he spent millions of dollars from his own pocket to promote his ideas, buying billboards and other ads to warn of impending doom for humanity everywhere and going on and on on the radio about the importance of this coming day – even though he had incorrectly predicted the end of the world once before back in 1994.

The mainstream media started to pay attention as May 21 approached, and soon TV, radio, newspapers, and the internet were all abuzz about the supposed end of the world. Some people took Camping’s prediction so seriously that they sold their houses, quit their jobs, gave away great wealth, or even paid nonbelievers to take care of their pets after the rapture!

We’re now a couple weeks after May 21, and we’re still here – as is Harold Camping. He’s now changed his interpretation of the Bible to say that the world will end on October 21, 2011, although every time he comes up with a new date, I for one will be all the more skeptical, since he’s gotten his prediction wrong twice already! On the whole, I think the strange obsession with the end of the world in recent months reflects a broader trend in our society and in Christianity to emphasize the eternal things over and above the things of earth. To put it in terms of our scripture reading this morning, we like to look up.

Our reading from Acts this morning tells us that this focus on heaven is nothing new, for as Jesus’ time on earth came to an end, he gathered his followers and encouraged them about the life they had before them on earth. He promised them that they would not be alone and would receive the Holy Spirit soon after he departed from them. But they were concerned about things beyond earth – they asked him if his departure meant that the kingdom of Israel would be restored soon. They had their eye on the end of things as they knew it – on an end to Roman rule and occupation, on a new world where pain would be no more – but Jesus knew that God had other plans. He told his disciples that God had that time and place for the end of all things already sorted out, though it was really none of their business! So instead he suggested that they would have the opportunity to bear witness to his message and work to the ends of the earth.

After speaking to them in this way, Jesus was lifted up before their eyes and disappeared into a cloud. The disciples kept staring up into heaven, waiting for Jesus to reappear, but then two men in white robes suddenly stood by them and spoke to them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” They were caught looking up – but maybe they should have been looking down and all around instead.

The disciples, Harold Camping, and others are not alone in preferring to look up. Followers of many different religious traditions organize their belief systems around their thoughts on what will happen after we die. This week’s New York Times bestseller list is topped by the story of a child who encounters Jesus and angels during a near-death experience at only three years old. Christians everywhere keep the focus on things above in emphasizing the personal benefits of salvation and the potential for life after death as they speak of their faith to others. The tendency to look up made sense even for the disciples – they had been through so much in the death and resurrection of Jesus that they had to be wondering what God would be up to next, yet the angels made Jesus’ message at his ascension clear: looking up, longing for a totally new day to come right now, is not the right response.

Even so, some parts of the church over the centuries have even arguing that our primary concern as people of faith is salvation and the afterlife, and therefore the church has no business addressing systematic injustice, hurt, and pain in our own world. Even the southern branch of our own Presbyterian church in the US acted in this way, first refusing to speak out against slavery before and during the Civil War and continuing their silence on social issues well into the twentieth century. They kept looking up, waiting for change to come in the afterlife and refusing to do anything about changing this world along the way.

When the angels suggested that the disciples needed to turn their eyes down and all around, they did exactly that. After the incredible sight of the ascension of Jesus at Mount Olivet, the disciples made their way back into Jerusalem to wait for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit. They moved back into their routine and gathered as was their custom in an upstairs room to pray. Yes, they kept looking up, but they started looking down and all around too as they prayed and built the community that would begin the church. The rest of the book of Acts describes this church, where the disciples cared for those in need in their own number and beyond even as they sought to tell others about what God had done in Jesus Christ. They looked up and down and all around as they followed Jesus in their lives and their world.

So how do we follow after the disciples here? Jesus is not among us and is seemingly not coming anytime soon, contrary to anything Harold Camping might predict, so how can we bring our eyes back down to the earth? At one level, the answer seems to be simple: join together in prayer.

About a year ago, we began a weekly time of prayer for our church and our community here in the sanctuary. Three or four or five of us still gather each Wednesday morning here, offering our prayers for one another, for this congregation, for our community, and for our world, hoping and praying that something will be different here, maybe in part because of our prayers.

Over that year, some things have changed. We may not have grown attendance much at our prayer service, but in the last year, we have seen more people in worship regularly, welcomed new opportunities for education for our children, established ourselves as a place for conversation and care about health and wellness in our community, and joined in God’s work in strange and new ways in our midst. We haven’t just kept our eyes turned upward in our prayer – though we certainly have kept our focus on God. Instead, I think prayer has led us to look down and around a bit more than we imagined, to step in for those who need particular care and attention, to stand up for the marginalized and oppressed in our community and our world, and to join in God’s work of bringing justice and peace to every place.

So as we celebrate the ascension of Jesus today, the angels remind us too to stop looking into heaven, to refocus ourselves in the prayer that can renew us, to look to the waters of baptism that shape and form us as we welcome another to the fold today, and to join in God’s work of renewal and recreation wherever we see it taking hold around us.

So may God strengthen us to join the disciples in prayer in these days between Easter and Pentecost, between the first signs of something new and the fullness of its reality in our midst, so that we can see the glory of the Lord revealed above us, below us, and all around us whenever it comes.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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