Monthly Archives: July 2011

Nothing.

a sermon on Romans 8:26-38
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on July 24, 2011

The struggle and pain of our world seem to weigh so heavily upon us these days. It’s not just the heat and humidity that weigh down our spirits – the seemingly endless debates in Washington where it’s almost as if each side chooses not to budge on exactly the things where the other side will also not move, the economy that just keeps sagging in our lives even though almost all of the traditional measures say that we emerged from recession over a year ago, wars continuing to injure and kill the bodies and spirits of armed forces and civilians everywhere and yet have no real end in sight, and Friday’s horrific terrorist attacks in Oslo, Norway, with dozens dead and injured in senseless and unthinkable violence. Beyond these things in our world, many of us have things that weigh us down in our own lives – the ordinary frustrations of daily life only complicated recently by the dreadful and dangerous heat of the last few days, the illness and hurt that strike us and those we know and love all too often, and the death of our friends and loved ones, anticipated or not, that always makes our spirits sink a little because we have one less companion fully present with us on the journey.

So in moments like these, unintentionally but certainly providentially, the lectionary leads us to these familiar verses from Romans today. Paul knew the kind of pain and sorrow and suffering that we feel in these days, and I think he expected his readers to know it well, too. So he offered these incredible words of comfort and confidence in times of uncertainty to all who need hope for God’s presence. I think it’s worth hearing these words again, this time in the fresh translation of the Common English Bible that I hope we’ll be using more often in worship in the months ahead:

In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit itself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because it pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will.

We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters. Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified.

So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him?

Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us.

Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘We are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter.’

But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created [– nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.]

There’s so much here for those who are enduring the troubles of the world, so much here for all the suffering and pain of our time, so much here for the things that divide us and seem to keep us separated from one another, so much here for anything and everything that makes us want to cry out to God in wonder and sorrow and lament.

Somehow in these simple words Paul manages to pull together the comfort and hope of the Christian faith – the amazement that the Spirit knows our prayers before we can even imagine them or voice anything, the comfort that comes in knowing that God’s relationship with us is so important that God chose us long before we could even think of choosing God, the blessed hope that God’s action for us in Jesus Christ overshadows everything else in all the world and is the seal of so many more promises, the confidence that the ultimate judge is our great redeemer Jesus Christ himself, and the wonder that in life and in death, wherever we are, wherever we have been, and wherever we go, we cannot and will not be separated from God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord. Whenever we feel distant from God, disconnected from our sisters and brothers, lost in the uncertainty of our lives and our world, these words give us confidence and hope that even now God is transforming the pain and suffering of our lives into something far greater.

But these words seem empty sometimes, too. When the oppressive heat just doesn’t stop and we can’t cool off anymore, Paul’s words fall flat. When our political leaders just can’t seem to sort out how to work together to lead our nation through potential crisis, Paul doesn’t have much to say. And when innocent women, men, and children are bombed and shot by terrorists who claim that their actions are in the name of Christ and that God would have it no other way, these words offer us little comfort.

But then we hear that last promise again: nothing, not even our doubts, not even our emptiness, can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. Nothing – not the struggles of illness or death, not the pain or sorrow of life and living, not the frustrations of a fractured political system, not oppressive heat and humidity, not the economy that just doesn’t seem to be able to fully bounce back, not the things of the everyday that get us down, not even the horrible misuse of the name of Christ that gives us confidence and hope. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

These are the ultimate words of confidence and hope, words that assure us of everything we need to know, words that seal the promises of God in Jesus Christ upon our hearts. Anglican theologian N.T. Wright pulls it all together:

This love of God calls across the dark intervals of meaning, reaches into the depths of human despair, embraces those who live in the shadow of death or the overbright light of present life, challenges the rulers of the world and shows them up as a sham, looks at the present with clear faith and the future with sure hope, overpowers all powers that might get in the way, fills the outer dimensions of the cosmos, and declares to the world that God is God, that Jesus the Messiah is the world’s true Lord, and that in him love has won the victory. This powerful, overmastering love grasps Paul, and sustains him in his praying, his preaching, his journeying, his writing, his pastoring, and his suffering, with the strong sense of the presence of the God who had loved him from the beginning and had put that love into action in Jesus. (N.T. Wright, “Commentary on Romans,” The New Interpreters’ Bible)

So may the wonder of this love sustain us amidst all the heat and humidity, all the hurt and horror, all the hopes and hitches of our lives, so that we might always live to God’s praise and show all the world that nothing can separate any of us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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Weeds or Wheat?

a sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 
preached on July 17, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

I’m not a great gardener, but I’m as good as anyone at raising weeds. The backyard at the manse, as some of you know, is  incredibly difficult to keep clear of weeds. There’s a lot of planting space and an older brick patio with plenty of cracks for weeds to sneak through. For a couple years, I just let the weeds take over everything – it was a nice green space, but soon the thorny bushes had nearly suffocated the more beautiful azaleas and other plantings. Thanks to the special efforts of some dedicated church members and my parents, the backyard at the manse is no longer overrun with weeds, although even continuous removal and treatment with the nastiest chemicals isn’t enough to keep the weeds away for any length of time!

Jesus’ parable this morning, as told in the gospel according to Matthew, deals with weeds, so I feel right at home. However, Jesus puts this parable in the midst of a series of stories about the kingdom of heaven and uses these pesky plants to talk about how God’s new way of being will take hold in the world.

So here Jesus tells of a farmer who sowed good seed in his field only to have an enemy come along at night and plant weeds alongside his wheat. When all the seeds – good and bad – sprouted, the damage was apparent, and the farmworkers reported the mess to the farmer. He knew right away that someone had tried to sabotage his crop, thinking that he would rip up the whole field and lose everything for the season. But instead this wise farmer instructed his workers to let the weeds grow alongside the wheat and leave everything to be sorted out at harvest time, the weeds into bundles for burning and the wheat into the barn.

Jesus left the story there, but his disciples were a little confused, so when his message to the crowd was over, they asked him to explain this parable to them. Jesus made it clear again to his disciples that this parable was all about the kingdom of heaven. The Son of Man – seemingly Jesus himself – sowed the good seeds in the world, and the children of the kingdom of heaven were the good seeds that he planted. The weeds were the children of the evil one, planted by the evil one himself. The harvest came at the end of the age, and “just as the weeds [were] collected and burned up with fire, so… the angels will collect out of [the] kingdom [of heaven] all causes of sin and all evildoers… and throw them into the furnace of fire.” In the midst of all this, though, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom” of God.

A few years ago, I would have said that this treatment of the weeds was a little harsh – but after dealing with those pesky things in the backyard at the manse, I’m a little less sympathetic. Weeds are just insidious plants. You pull them up, they keep coming back. You kill them with some chemical and another one pops up two inches away. You think you have them beat, then another stalk emerges from out of nowhere. You try anything and everything to get rid of them, and somehow they manage to survive. But the reality is that weeds have their advantages, too. Weeds, like any other plant, reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – a very important thing in this day and age of global warming. Weeds can cover up bare spots and add a touch of green where there was none before. Some flowering weeds add color and interest to an otherwise boring palette of greens, and weeds like dandelions can even be healthy and good food for us to eat. And many weeds keep growing in times of drought, requiring much less water than the carefully-maintained green yards that have become the norm. But when dealing with those weeds in the backyard at the manse – and with the weeds Jesus describes here – it’s tough to see the good in them. As far as I’m concerned, you can burn those up in the fire anytime you want to!

Still, I think there has to be something more to this parable than just a basic and standard condemnation of the plants and people that God doesn’t seem to approve of or a simple statement of who is in and who is out in the world to come. Maybe this parable can give us some insights into this world just as much as it can tell us about the kingdom of heaven. After all, Jesus insisted over and over that the kingdom was not just coming some day soon but was rather being revealed in this world in and through his life and living and so also in and through the continuing faithful work of those who followed him. The farmer may not have just meant his crops for the world to come – maybe what was growing in the field mattered even before the harvest, too. Maybe something was growing there that even he didn’t fully understand. He told his servants not to pull up the weeds until the time of the harvest not just because it’s hard not to disturb the wheat when you pull the weeds but also because you can’t always tell whether something will be wheat or weed until it is harvest time. You can’t always know immediately if some strange, unknown stalk might be the beginning of something unusual and new. You can’t always sort out the good from the bad right away but sometimes need to figure it out in time.

Preacher Ted Wardlaw suggests that this strange delay on the farmer’s part might be purposeful and good, reflecting that “the God who is glimpsed in this parable models for us an infinite patience that frees us to get on with the crucial business of loving, or at least living with, each other.” Maybe even the not-so-good weeds around us can be helpful and beneficial to the good wheat, too! (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, p. 264) This doesn’t mean that the weeds won’t be held to account when the time comes, but it does remind us that God’s judgment and redemption will come – but in God’s own time and with God’s own purpose, not ours. Again, Ted Wardlaw gives this more beautiful words than I can: “Christians believe that, for the sake of this hurting and impatient world, and through Jesus Christ our Lord, God’s realm will at last be completed and revealed in all its fullness. Meanwhile, this realm is thriving in us, around us, and even, miraculously, sometimes through us; and God is pleased to let all of it ‘grow together until the harvest’ (v. 30).” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, p. 264-266)

I can speak from experience to say that this approach of letting the weeds and the wheat grow together doesn’t work all that well sometimes, particularly in the backyard at the manse, but I think there is nonetheless some wisdom here for us. We aren’t the ones to decide what gets saved and what does not – we must leave that choice up to God. We don’t have to jump in so quickly to condemn the weeds of our world and potentially destroy the good wheat along the way – God will sort things out when the time is right. And we can even see things growing unexpectedly in the fields of God’s love – we can expect nothing less of our amazing and surprising God.

So may we have wisdom and hope to see the weeds and the wheat in our midst; may we have trust in God the master farmer to grow a harvest enough for all; and may we have love and grace to look for new expressions of wheat even among the weeds as we await the fullness of the kingdom of heaven now and in the world to come. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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The Call to Respond

a sermon on Romans 8:1-11 for the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on July 10, 2011

One of the great joys of preaching is the opportunity to revisit favorite texts every so often, and today is one of those moments. Romans 8 is quite possibly my favorite chapter in the Bible. It begins with some incredibly concise and meaningful statements of the work of salvation in Jesus Christ and ends with the incredible and powerful affirmation that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thankfully, the Lectionary leads us to this chapter once every three years, offering us three weeks of readings to delve into its radical claims as we sort out what all these wonderful words mean for us today.

The first eleven verses of this great chapter that we hear today get at the core of the apostle Paul’s message in all of his letters and put it in relatively simple terms in the very first verse: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Everything else he says in the verses that follow elaborates on this central claim as Paul declares his understanding of what God has done to make this happen. While traditional understandings of Jewish law placed great restrictions on life and living, Paul insists that there is a new law – the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus – and this law sets us free from the law of sin and death. The old law couldn’t do what it set out to do, so God did it in the end, condemning sin in the flesh and fulfilling all the requirements of the old law once and for all in and through Jesus Christ, making the new law in him complete and real for us and all humanity. In this new law, then, Paul says we have the gift of the Spirit, and so we live in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in us.

Everything else doesn’t matter because of this – the righteousness of the Spirit gives life to us, and so our mortal bodies receive that life too. This new life in the Spirit stands at the core of who we are as children of God and followers of Jesus, for our concern no longer must be with making things right for ourselves or sorting out where we stand with God, but instead we can spend our time and energy on making things in the world new and different beyond what we have known before.

As wonderful and beautiful and important as this text is, I think that what we most often miss is the importance of transforming what it means into our daily living. We’d like for this text to tell us theological, eternal things, but that’s not really its goal – there is nothing whatsoever said here about gaining eternal life through the righteousness of the Spirit, and Paul never directly mentions the promise of life in a world to come anywhere in this great chapter.

Instead, I think Paul is more concerned with how all this new life that we have in and through and because of Christ changes our daily living, how knowing the reality that we have no condemnation in Christ makes a difference for us and our world every day. This is the bigger challenge here – not to figure out the full meaning of this for us but rather to sort out how to live in the light of this new knowledge, how to respond to the incredible love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

I think we have better grounding for doing this than we might think, though. In many ways, we live this life of response in other parts of our lives. After our celebrations of independence on July 4th, we ought to be pretty good at living into the freedom we have as United States citizens, and I’d say we certainly have some good moments. On July 5th, I stopped by the Whitestone post office to check the church’s mail, and as I rounded the corner onto 150th Street, I saw one of the great freedoms of our nation being lived out. Two women had a table set up in front of the post office representing the Lyndon LaRouche movement. Their posters were troubling if not offensive, calling for the impeachment of President Obama, among various and sundry other strange political moves. As I entered and exited the post office, they called out to me in hopes that I might sign their petition for impeachment, but I walked on after offering a firm and angry “no,” deeply frustrated that anyone could feel so abused by the politics of these days as to suggest such a move. As angry and frustrated as I was, I reminded myself as I walked on that their unpleasant and frankly weird politics and even their frustrating tactics stand at the core of who we are as a nation – we don’t just shut down speech because we don’t like it but rather insist that all perspectives have a right to be heard. So the core principles of our nation are at their best in moments like these, in moments when they get lived out in unexpected and even slightly unpleasant ways.

And so it is also with our life of faith. We must to find similar ways where our commitment to this life in the Spirit can shine through even when we aren’t sure what is going on. Because of the joy of life in the Spirit, we don’t have to worry about that life itself for ourselves or others but rather can turn our focus toward promoting that life in the broader world. What does that look like? What does it mean to put our attention on the things of the Spirit rather than the things of the flesh? What does it look like to be free from the pressure of condemnation through the grace of God in Jesus Christ?

First of all, I think this means that we have to turn our worries and focus away from salvation. Not only do we have comfort in these things because of the promise we hear here, a primary or exclusive focus on our own salvation or even on our own eternal life is antithetical to the life of the Spirit. The life of the Spirit is not about what is best for me for all eternity, but it is rooted instead in the here and now. The life of the Spirit is built not on what we do but on how we join in what God is doing in the world. The life of the Spirit is centered not in greedily seeking what is best for me but rather in finding what God is doing that is best for the whole world.

Then, after we shift our focus from getting something out of all this to offering ourselves in this, we can see things in new ways. We can work in the world without fear that what we are doing will not be right or will surely fail, and if it doesn’t succeed as we expect, we can still trust that God is at work to redeem where we fall short. We can take thoughtful and hopeful risks because we know that the success or failure of anything we do does not rest upon us and does not reflect upon our salvation. And because of the freedom from condemnation we have in Christ, we can step out in faith in new and different ventures that enable and support the life of the Spirit in us and in others.

Living in the life of the Spirit also means that we turn away from the things that pull us away from this kind of life, not simply condemning sin in the forms we most easily recognize but stepping away from all the things that separate us from life as God intends and keep us from focusing on what we can do to join in God’s transformation of the world here and now.

This life in the Spirit will look different for each one of us, and it will certainly look different for our community of faith today than it did some years ago, but if we are to make this new way we have in Christ something more than just another belief we talk about just once a week on Sunday, we must figure out how to make this new life in the Spirit visible to others and ourselves in the days to come.

So may the Spirit of new life that we have in Christ Jesus our Lord inspire us to a new way here and now, living without fear and with great hope, focusing not on our salvation but on the possibilities and potential that it brings us so that we might join in what God is doing even now to make all things new. Amen.

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No Ordinary Marriage

a sermon for the Fourteenth Sermon in Ordinary Time on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
preached on July 3, 2011 at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

This summer, part of the Lectionary is leading us through some of the familiar stories of the Old Testament, reminding us again about the great women and men who started out our human journey with God. After the general tales of creation and a great flood that sound a lot like stories from other traditions of the Mesopotamian region, the Hebrew Bible’s stories finally turn their focus to one particular man, Abraham, and his family, whom God chose to bless out of all the families of the earth.

God instructed Abraham to travel from his homeland of Haran to the land of Canaan that God promised to give to him and his descendants – though the descendants part seemed a bit uncertain until he and his wife were seemingly beyond childbearing age, but God finally gave them their beloved son Isaac.

Today’s story comes at the end of Abraham’s life, long after Isaac’s birth and only a short time after the death of Abraham’s wife Sarah. Concerned about continuing the family line and maintaining its ethnic purity in the generations to come, Abraham sent his most trusted servant back to Haran to find a wife for his beloved son Isaac.

Upon his arrival in Haran, Abraham’s servant prayed to God for assistance in pulling off this mission for his master, asking God to join in on a pretty specific plan to identify a young woman for Isaac as one who would come to draw water at the well and respond favorably to this stranger’s request for water – and to offer some for his camels too.

Sure enough, just as Abraham’s servant finished his prayer, a young woman was making her way to the spring. When the servant asked her for some water, she responded exactly as he wanted, offering the servant and his camels some water in what should be known as one of the Bible’s great pick-up lines: “Drink, and I will also water your camels.”

As it turned out, this woman was Abraham’s great niece, and so the servant seemed to have hit the jackpot – a generous, helpful, beautiful woman named Rebekah who was not only from Abraham’s homeland but was one of the family. Negotiations proceeded from there, and Rebekah’s family ultimately agreed to send her with Abraham’s servant to marry her second cousin who lived in a distant land. The other details got sorted out pretty quickly from there, and eventually they asked Rebekah if she would be willing to leave for Canaan right away or if she wanted to wait the customary ten days. Rebekah agreed to leave right away, and so they set off for Canaan.

When the journey ended, Isaac was quite glad to welcome her, for he had grieved much since his mother’s death and needed someone to comfort him. Rebekah fit the bill perfectly, so Isaac took Rebekah to be his wife and made a home for her in his dead mother’s tent.

From a 21st century point of view, we have to recognize that this story is fraught with great issues. Psychologists and students of the human condition everywhere surely cringe when Isaac’s new wife is depicted as replacing the lost affection of his dead mother. Abraham’s insistence that his son’s wife be from his own family and homeland ought to concern us a bit too, as it has been used more than once in arguments against interracial marriage and cross-cultural mixing. And just as Abraham in our story last week might be subject to criminal charges of child endangerment today were he nearly to sacrifice his son as he did, the sizable dowry offered by Abraham’s servant to Rebekah’s family surely would raise reasonable concerns today about the possibility of sex slavery and the trafficking of young women for illicit purposes that is dangerously common in our world today.

It’s clear that this is no ordinary marriage between Isaac and Rebekah – it is quite likely very different from much of our experience today in North America, although this kind of arranged marriage with close kin or at least within the primary ethnic group remains quite common in other parts of the world. It is clear to me from this text that the Bible has a very different view of marriage than we do today – even without considering the coming changes around same-sex marriage recently approved here in New York State.

So just as we saw last Sunday, the Bible presents us with unclear, incomplete guidance about something we wish it would just answer for us. Wouldn’t it be great if the Bible just directly told us how to deal with questions of marriage and laid out a clear, straightforward, unchanging pattern for us? Some people think that it does, but unfortunately it does not – on marriage or most any other issue.

The reality is that we can find biblical texts to back up almost any moral position. There are texts that support capital punishment and texts that suggest otherwise. There are texts that seem to speak against abortion and texts that support the right of a woman to choose to end her pregnancy. There are texts that prohibit the eating of shellfish and pork and texts that invite us to give up those restrictions. There are texts that speak against same-sex practice and texts that speak of a broad welcome for all. So amidst all this, we can’t pretend that the Bible is easy and straightforward – we have to look at it in all its complexity, in its strange and different context, with our eyes of faith, hope, and love, seeking to understand what all this really means for us and our world.

Last Sunday, I talked about six guidelines for interpreting the Bible laid out by my seminary theology professor Shirley Guthrie, and I think they’re worth hearing again today in briefer form as we think about yet another strange text. First, “scripture is to be interpreted in light of its own purpose” to tell us who God is and how God is in relationship with the world. Then, “scripture interprets itself” as we look to other passages in the Bible to sort out the meaning of difficult or confusing texts. Third, we must keep Jesus Christ, the best vision of God that we have, at the center of all our readings of scripture. Then, we must follow the “rule of faith” and keep the grace of God in Jesus Christ in mind when we read. Fifth, Guthrie insists that we follow “the rule of love” and keep God’s central commandments to love God and love neighbor at the center of our reading of the Bible. And finally, we have to put what we read in its literary and historical context, remembering that our world and our knowledge are quite different from that of the Bible’s era.

If we look at this text in this way, I think we can look beyond our concerns and our preconceived notions and learn something more from this strange arranged marriage between Isaac and Rebekah. Amidst all the problematic realities here, we see God’s continued concern for all humanity in and through this small family. Just as God promised Abraham at the beginning of this story, God remains with him as his life ends, and God’s promise to make a great nation of his family does not disappear. Just as Abraham journeyed to Canaan, so too Rebekah journeys far from her home to join in this new line. And just as God worked through Abraham and his wife Sarah, God worked in Rebekah as she joined this blessed family and encouraged her favored son in his deception to gain his father’s blessing so as to fulfill the seeming intention of God to honor the second-born rather than the first.

Rather than being an instructional text about the proper process and place for marriage or the way to deal with grief and pain, perhaps these words about no ordinary marriage can speak to us about God’s claim upon and concern for our lives, too, reminding us that it is not up to us to sort everything out for ourselves and showing us that we can trust that God will work in old and new ways to transform our lives and our world.

So may we hear of no ordinary marriage not as instruction for our own family life and social order but rather as encouragement for the journey through this strange and unusual and wonderful witness to God’s power and work so that we too might know the power of God in our lives and the presence of something far beyond our wildest imaginations as we journey near or far. Amen.

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