Rejoice Always

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
preached on December 11, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

“Rejoice always.”

In the wonderful list of exhortations and instructions that the apostle Paul offers to the church in Thessalonica, I think this one has to be the hardest. It’s not easy to pray without ceasing or give thanks in all circumstances, nor can we easily be open to the words of prophets, hold fast to what is good, or abstain from every form of evil. But “rejoice always”? It just seems nearly impossible.

Thankfully there has been a lot of reason for me to rejoice lately. Last weekend, I spent an afternoon with dear friends and their two sons, enjoying many laughs and lots of fun as we saw a movie and took a leisurely afternoon to wander around Brooklyn together. Then I spent last Sunday evening in one of my favorite churches in Manhattan, listening to beautiful music and timeless words of waiting and wonder amidst the quietness of the Advent season. This week has been a good one on the church front, too – first as we learned that the pending litigation against the church is finally being settled and as we took some major steps toward completing the sale of the manse, too. You’ll be hearing more about these things in the coming weeks, but I for one am quite joyful that things are finally moving along with two projects that have occupied a lot of our time and energy in recent months.

But even amidst all this, everything hasn’t been joyful this week. Even all this joy has been tinged with something else – there’s always been something just under the surface nagging me and suppressing my joy. There were little things that went wrong – a broken paper shredder in the midst of a major cleaning project at the manse that led to an unexpected, unbudgeted expense for me – but also bigger things like changing plans that took away from hoped-for time with friends and another friend who lost his job this week and just doesn’t have a clear picture of what is ahead.

But all the little things that suppress joy in my own life seem so small amidst all the pain and struggle around us in our world – the uncertainty around elections in Russia and the Congo, the continued frustrations of economic and political life in our own nation, state, and city, and the heart-wrenching news of another shooting at Virginia Tech University on Thursday just as they finally were beginning to recover from the last tragedy there several years ago.

So in the midst of all the struggles of our lives, it’s not so easy to “rejoice always” – unless you count schadenfreude, that German concept of taking pleasure in the pain of others, as rejoicing! But yet Paul’s exhortation is still before us: “Rejoice always.”

It was surely just as difficult for his first hearers to take this seriously. They were some of the earliest converts to this new religious practice, and they didn’t have a clear path for how to behave or what to do. They were a tiny minority group in a city and nation where even perceived disloyalty to the practices of the empire meant troubles of all sorts. And people around them just didn’t understand why they would embrace this new religious faith and practice that seemed to bring nothing more than difficulty and struggle. And yet Paul instructed them to rejoice always.

I don’t think Paul didn’t understand what this was all about – he knew that rejoicing isn’t always easy. But he knew that rejoicing is about more than temporary things, about more than happiness in the here and now, about more than just seeing our needs and desires fulfilled and realized right away. Our vision of joy has become so limited, captured in an ideal of happiness for this immediate moment, locked up in snow-capped letters with little meaning on holiday cards or alongside the latest display in your favorite store, found first and foremost in gaining something right away for our immediate fulfillment and happiness.

But there is so much more to this joy and rejoicing than just these things. Joy goes beyond this immediate moment, beyond mere platitudes and snow-capped letters that show up in the ever-expanding holiday season, beyond the momentary happiness that comes as we enjoy time with friends and watch long-planned projects finally come to an end. Instead, real joy inspires us and even demands for us to look beyond the immediate things, to trust that there is something more than what we can see happening before us, to open our eyes to the transformation possible in and through our struggle and our happiness, to hope that God will be up to more than we can imagine and understand.

Advent and Christmas bring us true joy not just because Jesus has come but also and even more because Jesus is coming again, because there will be joy beyond all our dreams, because everything that drains us of true joy will be drained of all its power over us, because this world does not and will not have the last word on anything, for there is great joy yet to come in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And so on this Sunday when we celebrate joy, when we let a little more Christmas joy creep into the preparations of our Advent, when we look again to God with hope and longing for the new things yet to come, when we light a pink candle and sing songs that speak of deep joy, we remember not happiness but deep and real joy, not empty platitudes of happiness that last only as long as the newness of gifts on Christmas morning but the joy of promises once fulfilled that will be fulfilled again, not temporary happiness for a few privileged people but permanent and transformative new life for all creation.

Pastor Abby Henrich puts it well, I think:

Joy is not easily won. You only get it by giving of yourself. Then, joy cracks the very center of your being open and allows the terrifying beauty of this world to creep in.

Joy has no defenses. With joy the pain of this life creeps in too.

Yet joy is like slipping on a new pair of glasses. Everything in the world becomes more beautiful and more painful when we open ourselves to joy.

So may we have all that we need to “rejoice always,” to give thanks in all things, and trust that God is still working around us to make all things new in Jesus Christ our Lord, the one who has come and is coming again. Alleluia! Amen.

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The Comfort We Need

a sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11 for the Second Sunday of Advent
preached on December 4, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

There have been a lot of times lately when I’ve just wanted something comforting in my life. I’ve wanted one of those good home-cooked meals like only my parents can prepare – though I’ve found that some barbecue and some Thai food I can get here in New York get pretty close sometimes! I’ve wanted a good conversation with one of those close friends who can listen and understand all the things that are swirling around in life and make things seem to swirl a little less. I’ve wanted to listen to some beautiful music of the Advent season that somehow makes these days feel complete for me.

Thankfully I’ve gotten a taste of these and other comforting things lately, so I’ve gotten some of the comfort that I want, but I have to wonder if it is the comfort that I really need. I’m sure that my doctor for one won’t think particularly highly of the comfort food I’ve eaten lately when I visit him tomorrow. I know I’ve driven some of my friends a bit crazy over the years in seeking out their presence in the midst of my life. And even my carefully-chosen Advent music isn’t always endearing to those who find great comfort in Christmas carols! So it is that all this comfort I want may not be the comfort I need.

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah this morning deals in this comfort that we need:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

There’s no need to worry – God is finally on the scene.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Any punishment the people might have deserved is now over and done with. It’s time to move on.

These words of comfort come out of strange silence – for some forty years, the people of Judah had been suffering in exile in Babylon, wondering when God was going to intervene in their pain and struggle and bring them back home.

So the prophet promises dramatic construction in the wilderness to get back to Jerusalem:

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

This comfort, you see, is not just the promise of stability and a return to something seen before. Comfort does not come in fulfilling the people’s wants and desires to turn back the clock. For the prophet, comfort comes in changing things once and for all,  in transforming the world now and always. This is the great promise of what God is doing, the prophet says, for

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This glory is not in the restoration of an old way for one or two people – it comes through a new way of life in the face of a world uprooted and torn apart, through a reconstructed land that pulls together people across all boundaries, through a changed world that shows the glory of God in every place.

In our world filled with much change and uncertainty, we really do need and want comfort and transformation, and probably something more than just a favorite meal, the companionship of a friend, or some beloved music. While our struggles are nowhere near the difficulties faced by the exiles of Judah who were Isaiah’s first audience, it sure feels like it sometimes: the ways of life that we once knew seem to be far off and distant; our nation needs a new and better way of life in our politics, our finances, our economy, and nearly everything else too; and our world faces great danger in the abuse and misuse of its many resources as it needs to show and see more signs of God’s glory every day.

But just like in my own life, the comfort we need in these days isn’t always the comfort we want. Sometimes we think we simply need to turn the clock back to a previous time and place to make things different, but we easily forget that the past had more than its fair share of problems, too. Sometimes we try to fix the struggles of our politics and nation by blaming them on someone else, but the reality is that we ourselves – each and every one of us – are just as responsible as anyone for the mess we face today, and only an honest assessment of our own complicity in our pain and struggle can bring us a different path for the days ahead. And sometimes we mix up God’s glory and our own glory, suggesting that God’s blessing upon America or this church or our privilege and status in life is the great expression of God’s presence in our world, when in reality God’s glory defies all these boundaries and expectations and brightens the darkness of every time and place with justice and life.

So amidst the comfort that we want, maybe we need to seek the comfort we need more like what Isaiah describes – an honest, heartfelt, compassionate, tender expression of love and support combined with real and true steps toward the new way of life that God envisions for us.

I think it’s quite appropriate that we hear this text in these days, for Advent is the time when we remember that God sends us the comfort that we need. God’s comfort for our world comes not with the end of waiting but in the midst of it, not with a powerful and immediate transformation of things but with patience and deliberation and hope for God’s return to our midst, not with blinding bursts of light in the darkness but in the great simplicity of one or two candles shining boldly in the night, not with a giant feast spread across many tables but with a small taste of the kingdom in a little portion of bread and grape juice shared at one table, not with a king sent in royal garb to rule and reign with great power but with a baby born Prince of Peace to show tenderness, mercy, and love.

So may this Advent be filled not so much with the comfort we want but the comfort that we need as God steps in to change things, as we take our own steps along the path toward God’s incredible new thing is transforming our world, as we look for the glory of the Lord being revealed in our midst so that when the Great Comforter comes we might be ready to embrace his presence and live in his love for others and ourselves each and every day.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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It’s Time.

a sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 for the First Sunday of Advent
preached on November 27, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

The people of Israel knew what it was like for God to come down and meet them. By the time of the prophet Isaiah, God had intervened in their history many times, guiding them away from the danger of the Egyptians, through the waters of the sea, and onto dry land; shaking the foundations of their lives to give them the gift of the law to guide their life together; and stepping in to show them a new way when they faced the power of their enemies. God was the only god that they had known – “no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you,” as Isaiah put it.

But now something had happened, and God was not quite so present anymore. The people were in exile, longing to return home. Their land lay in ruins, torn apart by centuries of attacks from within and without. According to the prophet, the people had forgotten God and gone another way, becoming unclean like the filthiest, nastiest rags. Nothing was going right for them anymore, and things were just a complete mess.

So it was time for something new. It was time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It was time.

Our world seems to be very much like ancient Israel sometimes. Not only is that tiny stretch of holy land still the focus of great war and conflict in our day, we too wonder why God doesn’t seem to be as involved in things as God used to be. We too can look back and see marks of God’s presence in the past – in a less complicated, less busy world where it was easier to set aside the time we need for spiritual and religious things; in a seemingly stronger, more vibrant church where the pews were full and challenges absent; in a world that didn’t seem to have so many dangers and complications that strike at the core of our humanity; even in the little things of life and living where God’s face has emerged through the haze of our world over the years.

But we too face an uncertain and unknown day, a time mostly of our own making, a place where the presence of God feels distant. Our celebration of the birth of God’s son at Christmas has devolved into a competition for the best gifts and cheapest prices at the expense of the humanity of others and ourselves, as we have seen so clearly over the course of these past few days. The institutions of our society struggle more and more to be relevant to the new and different lives of people in our changing world. Our economy seems to be stuck in neutral for so many of us – and even jammed permanently into reverse for the least of these among us. And yet our indomitable American spirit makes us think that we can take care of ourselves and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps out of the mess we face. Nothing seems to be going right anymore, and things are just a complete mess.

It is time for something new. It is time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It’s time.

The prophet’s response to the great laments of his age wasn’t all that comforting. First he reminds the people of the fleeting nature of life: “We all fade like a leaf,” he proclaims. Then he suggests that everyone has given up on God and any chance of God’s intervention – and God has given up too: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

But he doesn’t leave it there. Isaiah says that God hasn’t completely given up, that God is still working on the people like a potter shaping her clay, gently but firmly reshaping the people into something new, just in time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It’s time.

We can stand to hear something like Isaiah’s words in these days. Like the fleeting leaves of the prophet, none of us will be around forever, and eventually things will be different because we’ll be out of the picture. Like the people of Israel, we too have often turned away from God and claimed that we can do it on our own. And yet God’s presence is still with us too, molding us and shaping us like clay in the hands of a master potter, correcting us where we have gone wrong, preparing us for the great and new thing ahead.

It is from this place where we begin our journey toward Christmas – not from the manic lines and crowds of the holiday shopping season, not from the bulging feast of our Thanksgiving tables, not from the crazy busyness that marks these days between Thanksgiving Day and December 25th, not in the songs that repeat the platitudes of the holidays over and over again, not in gifts or any things that too often carry the day.

No, my friends, we begin our journey toward Christmas with a longing for something real and whole and new, a heartfelt cry to God for things to change once and for all, not just a change in things for the better for one or two of us or the one percent or even the ninety-nine percent, but a new way of life for all of us, where the heavens break open and God comes down and cleans up the mess and starts things over again. My friends, it’s time.

This way of approaching this season is what it means to celebrate Advent, to make a space for this time in our lives and our hearts for the coming of Jesus into our world, to prepare the way for God’s new thing by putting aside the certainty that we can handle things on our own, to keep awake and be ready for the time when God’s presence will transform us and our world, to make sure that we are longing not just for a baby boy born two thousand years ago but also for the time when he will return in power and glory to make things whole once and for all.

And so it is time for us to do radical things in these days – small but radical things amidst our world. We light candles to show the promise of God’s light shining through the darkness. We sing strange hymns that talk about waiting and longing and hope and promise. We pray quietly and hopefully for the time when something new will break into our world. And we keep being as faithful as we can together, showing God’s claim upon us and our world in baptism as we do today with Eve and never forgetting to let our world know the reality of God’s love as best we can.

And so, my friends, it is time – time for us to set aside the trappings of the holidays in favor of preparing for something radically new, time for us to trust that God will not leave us to our own devices along the way, time for us to clear out what we must so that we can be as faithful as we are called to be, time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It’s time.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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Responsibility – and a Whole Lot More

a sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
preached on November 13, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

What does it mean to be entrusted with something? Has a friend ever asked you to take care of her plants or cat while she goes away? Have you ever been put in a position of authority over a large fund or a person’s estate?

There are good and bad things about being entrusted with something by someone else. It’s good because you know that they trust you, that they think you will do a good job, that they respect your wisdom. But it can also be a little scary, too, because then you have to be accountable for what you do with it. If something goes wrong, you actually might have to take responsibility.

The parable we heard this morning from the gospel according to Matthew talks a lot about responsibility, but there’s a lot more going on here. At this point in Matthew’s story, Jesus is encouraging his disciples to be ready for the kingdom of heaven to come at any time, and so he gives them this parable to inspire them.

A very rich man prepares to take a long trip and decides to entrust his fortune to three of his servants. He gives five talents to one servant, two talents to another, and one talent to a third, each according to his ability. These talents are not just some small gift, favorite pet, or beautiful houseplant, though. A talent here is a large sum of money, worth something like fifteen years of daily wages for the average worker. The servants are given these large sums and no other instructions about their use, and the rich man leaves on his trip. The servants who received five talents and two talents take their money and invest it, but the servant who received one talent buries his talent in the ground.

Then, after a long time, at an unexpected moment, the rich man returns home and calls in his servants to return what he left with them. The servant with five talents has made five more because of his wise investments. The rich man is happy with this good return and most of all with his servant’s wisdom, so he promises to put him in charge of much more. The second servant with two talents has also doubled his original trust, and the rich man is equally pleased.

Then the third servant returns, carrying his one talent and nothing more. He grovels in fear at the feet of his master:

Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent. (translation by Eugene Peterson, The Message)

But the master is furious at his servant.

That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest. (translation by Eugene Peterson, The Message)

So the master takes the talent away from him and gives it to the servant who has ten already, then he orders the servant to be thrown into the outer darkness.

This parable seems like the perfect kind of story to tell on Stewardship Sunday. It makes it easy for me to suggest that we all need to contribute to the well-being of this community through our faithful contributions. This story reinforces our American mindset that we can earn our way to the top with good investments. And this parable promotes risk in hope of receiving  reward somewhere along the way.

But I’m not sure all that is what Jesus was thinking about when he told this parable to his disciples. At least in Matthew’s telling, he grouped it in with parables that talk about being ready for the coming of the kingdom of God. He focused not on the two servants who made wise investments but rather on the servant who chose not to invest at all.

Now I always wish that Jesus had included a servant who had lost money on his investment. What would the master’s response have been? Would he have welcomed the servant’s risk even at the expense of his own wealth, or would he have decried the servant’s loss? But we don’t have that kind of servant in this story – we have two servants who invested and one who did not, two servants who took a chance on something new and one who did not, two servants who recognized that the time was right to step out on a limb and one who just stayed right where he was, two servants who embraced the possibility of something new and one who just buried a great treasure out of incredible fear.

And so it is fear that Jesus attacks head-on in the story. The safest investor ended up losing it all. The most responsible servant who did nothing, who risked nothing, actually served the master of fear, not the generous master of this story who entrusts even his least-trustworthy servant with something even though he knows that others will do a better job. Then, when the servant’s fear gets the best of him, the master’s fears are realized. As preacher John Buchanan puts it,

Jesus’ warning is that the outcome of playing it safe – not caring, not loving passionately, not investing yourself, not risking anything – is something akin to death, like being banished to the outer darkness. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 312)

In the end, I think Jesus tells this parable less to urge his disciples to be good investors and to share their wealth wisely and more to encourage them to set aside their fears, take a chance, and be ready for the new thing that the kingdom of God was bringing to them. Jesus knows that the disciples are and will be afraid, but he trusts that the possibility of something greater ahead will inspire them to choose the wiser path, to use their gifts rather than sit on them, to be open to the uncertainty of something new rather than cowering in fear of getting it wrong.

I think these words should speak volumes to us. In these days – as this liturgical and calendar year comes to an end, as a chapter in our congregation’s life comes to an end as we sell our manse, as we wonder what the days ahead will hold for all of us – how will we live our lives? Which path will we choose?

Will we choose the way of fear, the way of burying what we have so that we won’t lose it, the way of squandering our gifts by not using them, the way of staying in the place we seem to know because we are afraid of the uncertainty that lies ahead?

Or will we choose the way of following Jesus, the way of taking risks so that the world might know the wonder and power of Jesus’ life in our midst, the way of investing the gifts we have into the life that we share in this place so that others can grow into faith here, the way of stepping out into the unknown and trusting that God will guide us in the days ahead?

I think John Buchanan puts this way into more beautiful words than I can manage:

Here Jesus invites us to be his disciples, to live our lives as fully as possible by investing them, by risking, by expanding the horizons of our responsibilities. To be his man or woman, he says, is not so much believing ideas about him as it is about following him. It is to experience renewed responsibility for the use and investment of these precious lives of ours. It is to be bold and brave, to reach high and care deeply. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 312)

My friends, we have embodied that way of following Jesus for over 140 years in this place, and it is my prayer that we will choose our path for the days ahead not out of fear but out of responsibility and hope for the possibility that God might still be working in our midst, giving us talents beyond our wildest dreams to invest and use and share with all who need them and making us bold and brave as we embody the way of Jesus Christ in this place so that all the world might see.

So may God help us to set our fears aside and risk all that we have – and even more – for the way ahead, for the power and possibility and promise of new life for all creation in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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When We All Get to Heaven

a sermon on 1 John 3:1-3 and Revelation 7:9-17 for All Saints Sunday
preached on November 6, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

“What will happen to me when I die?” People ask this question a lot, particularly as children or in facing a difficult illness or old age, and questions like this are very much on the minds of many people who make their way to church. The afterlife is a part of religious belief and practice around the world and across many centuries, and a great deal of our human thinking about religion and spirituality is centered on this question. The church culture in which I was raised also had a lot to say about these things. I remember hearing about an evangelism program at the church where I grew up that would start conversations about Jesus with the question, “If you died tonight, where would you go?”

While this is an important topic of faith for many people, there are others for whom the afterlife isn’t quite as important – the focus instead is on the ways in which our faith, belief, and practice can change and transform our current world as much as the next. The old gospel hymn “When We All Get to Heaven” doesn’t speak so clearly in this mindset – the traditional images of heavenly mansions, clouds in the sky, pearly gates, and streets of gold represent an incomplete vision of what lies ahead for us as people of faith in this mindset, for the important things lie in this world as much as in the next.

Nonetheless, after we have looked back over the past several weeks to our 140 years of life and ministry here and then with our remembrance of the Reformation last Sunday, our eyes turn heavenward today more than they do at any other time of year as we celebrate All Saints Day. Today we remember the generations of women and men who have gone before us in the life of faith and shown us how to live and love as Jesus did. Today we remember the saints, known and unknown, celebrated and ignored, dead and still very much alive, whose witness strengthens us to live the life of faith each and every day. Today we remember that there is an unnumbered multitude of the faithful who still sing God’s praise with us, but from another shore.

And so today our texts direct our attention to that place I so hesitate to go – to our understanding of what lies ahead for us in the world to come. These two texts are among many throughout the Bible that give small glimpses of the world to come. In the gospels, we hear Jesus describing the coming “kingdom of God” that looks very much unlike any of the kingdoms of this world and suggests a very different way of God at work in the world even today. The prophets of the Old and New Testaments speak words of longing for a world where justice is done for everyone and sorrow and pain are no more. In several letters in the New Testament, the apostles warn us not to inquire too much about the things that are ahead. Daniel and Revelation give us dark insights into the future for those who do not meet God’s approval. And John’s vision in Revelation offers us moments of great joy that come alongside the arrival of a new heaven and a new earth.

All these incredible words are too often merged into one single popular vision of “heaven” and “hell,” with angels and souls of faithful women and men floating around in the clouds of heaven and servants of the devil suffering in the eternal fires of hell. But the overall picture that emerges of the days ahead for us can’t be summed up so easily and wrapped up so neatly.

Our first reading from 1 John today reminds us so clearly of this, and it shows us the first of two really important principles I think we can keep in mind as we think about that day when we all get to heaven. The apostle tries to address the question of what is ahead for people of faith, for women and men who struggled with the challenges of living their faith in a time and place that didn’t welcome their different way of life, for people who knew the reality of persecution and struggle for their faith firsthand. So he reminds them that they are already children of God – an incredible and wonderful gift from God in and through Jesus Christ – even when the world doesn’t recognize it. Still, though, this status as children is not everything – “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” Things are not over, and there is something more to come that isn’t fully known yet – but we do know that “when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” In the midst of all that we don’t and can’t understand about the life of faith that is ahead, we can be sure of this much – that we are already children of God and that what is ahead will only make us more like God.

Our second reading tells us the second most important thing I think we can know about the time when we all get to heaven. In this portion of the book of Revelation, we have a brief interlude from John’s vision of great destruction to get a glimpse of the eternal praise that seems to one of the few other things we can be sure about for the days ahead. In this passage, John describes his vision of the new kind of life that lies ahead: a great unnumbered multitude robed in white from all nations and peoples singing God’s praise around God’s throne, an incredible gathering of people who have emerged from great trial and tribulation to celebrate and praise God, a new way of life and living that leaves hunger, thirst, and scorching heat behind for the wonder of life with God guiding and leading and caring for the people at every step of the journey. And so I think this is the second great image of the days ahead that we can take with us: that a multitude will praise God for all eternity because of the incredible ways in which God’s presence is finally and fully known in the world to come.

Beyond these two things, I don’t think we can say much more with certainty about the days ahead. When we all get to heaven, we can be sure that we will see God as God and be more like God and join the multitude praising God for all eternity for overcoming all the hardships and perils of our lives and this world. All this is reason for rejoicing here and now – for giving thanks to God for all the saints who already are making their way to this new way and place of life with God and for the possibility of new life for us and all creation in this world and the next.

But alongside our rejoicing, all this gives us the opportunity to join these faithful women and men in working with God to make all things new. We can embody the reality that we and all people are children of God now by standing up for those whose full humanity is not welcomed. We can show the wonder of God’s glory in our worship and praise and prayer every day. And we can work to make this world one where there is no more hunger, thirst, or scorching heat as we make our way to springs of the water of life. These are the things we should undertake to make our own in these days – the possibility and reality of God’s new thing taking hold in our lives and our world, in the here and now and not just in the world to come.

So until we all get to heaven, may God strengthen us for the living of these days by the memory and witness of all the saints and by the feast we share with them and all creation here as we look forward to the great feast that awaits us in the world to come.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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The Spirit of the Reformation

a sermon for Reformation Sunday on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Romans 3:19-28
preached on October 30, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

There’s something wonderful about remembering our history and celebrating where we have been. We had such a great day last Sunday as we celebrated 140 years of ministry in this congregation. Today we celebrate a milestone birthday for one of our members and think about the incredible gifts and lives that people bring to our community of faith. These and all the remembrances of our lives can and should inspire us to many, many more years of faithful life and living.

Today is actually another chance for us to remember our history as we celebrate Reformation Sunday. Today we especially remember that day in October 1517 when Martin Luther posted a list of his “95 theses” of complaint and petition to the doors of the church in Wittenburg, Germany. But Luther’s actions on that day were only a marker in a much larger movement that had begun before him and continued long after him. Luther himself didn’t walk away from the Roman Catholic church of his time but took many years to begin the branch of Christianity that now bears his name. With the rise of the printing press some years before, the text of the Bible had become more accessible to those who literate, and new ideas were more easily spread. Other church leaders of Luther’s time took advantage of a general sense of anger and frustration directed toward officials in Rome to build on the work of others who had been calling for a different way of being the church for centuries. Even some who remained in the Roman Catholic church sought to bring change to the institution that so many had rebelled and protested against.

All these saints encouraged the church to return to its roots, to clear out some of the accumulated baggage of 1500 years, to reclaim its identity in scripture, and to build the most faithful institution possible around these key tenets. And so new leaders emerged across Europe to give shape and form to this emerging way of faith and life in the particular contexts of that day and age. So today, nearly five hundred years later, as we celebrate this important shift in the history of the church – a shift that still shapes and forms our practice of life and faith today – I think we best remember these things by doing exactly what our forebears did and returning to the core principles of who we are by listening for the spirit of the Reformation.

Our two readings today do exactly that. First we heard the beautiful text describing the coming of the new covenant from the prophet Jeremiah. At their heart, these incredible words remind us that God is always seeking to be with God’s people in new ways. If one way of relationship doesn’t fit the need, God will keep trying until another one does. Jeremiah insists here that God changes minds and hearts and lives, that God breaks into our humanity to “be [our] God” so that we can be God’s people. To top it all off, God promises to be in relationship with each and every one of us – and all of us together – so that we can be renewed amidst our missteps and restored to life.

The apostle Paul picks up on much this same theme in our reading this morning from his letter to the church in Rome. Paul takes the prophet’s ideas of renewal and restoration and new life and connects them directly to the life and death of Jesus Christ. He suggests that the law of God cannot save but can only condemn, and so Jesus’ life revealed the full righteousness of God to sinful humanity. Paul declares that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – and yet God’s grace becomes effective in us and through us in faith and brings us back into relationship with God. Paul insists that this is not any of our own doing – responsibility for all this belongs only to God.

These two texts bring us some of the key ideals of the great Reformation of the sixteenth century and bear the spirit of that time into our own, but they don’t always translate into our day and age right away. The spirit of the Reformation should always be before us, as one of the great principles that has emerged over the centuries reminds us: we are not just the church once reformed; we are also the church still being reformed according to God’s Word and Spirit. As we make our way into our 141st year of ministry in this congregation, we have to sort out what these things mean for us to make the spirit of the Reformation our own. What is it for us to reclaim these great ideals of relationship, self-sacrifice, and trust in God for the church and the world in 2011? How do we live out what we have learned about being in relationship with God in this changing time? How do we help others to see what we have seen and experience the presence of God in our world? Asking these kinds of questions is, I believe, the most faithful way we can be church together in this changing day and age.

Looking closely at what we are doing and how we are doing it to see how it fits into our new reality in Jesus Christ and our changing world is our greatest challenge – but also our greatest opportunity. Helping people sort out what it means to believe and have faith in 2011 and beyond ought to be at the center of our mission in these days. And all along the way, we must embrace the questions that will come up and honestly face the difficult decisions that come before us, for it is in those moments that we truly have the opportunity to embody the spirit of the Reformation in our own time and place.

So as we journey together in the coming months, as we face the change that is certainly coming our way, as we work to wind up some things that have occupied our minds too much lately, as we sell our beloved manse and purchase something new, as we make a new space for the work of the church in this building, may the spirit of the Reformation continue to call us to ask the tough questions, to sort out what it means to be the people of God in this time and place, to remain confident of God’s presence in the face of everything that changes around us, and to keep showing the face of God to everyone we meet throughout the good days and bad. Thanks be to God for this confidence, this hope, this challenge, and this way of life in faith together in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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God Sightings

a sermon for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time on Exodus 33:12-23
preached on October 16, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

If someone asked you to draw a picture of God, what would it look like? Would you draw some sort of human form? Would you make a picture of your favorite natural scene? Or would it be something else entirely, something more abstract, something more obscure, something more personal?

Humans have been trying to depict divine beings of all sorts for centuries. The Greeks and Romans of the ancient world built dramatic statues to show off their deities’ very human bodies. The Israelites got in big trouble with God for making a golden calf while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandment on Mount Sinai. And even in Christendom, artists have made countless depictions of Jesus, some hailed as beautiful additions to the history of art and our understanding of faith and others attacked and destroyed for attempting to paint what should not be painted. Nowadays we keep up our attempts to depict God. More than one blond-haired and blue-eyed man has been cast as Jesus on the big screen. James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, two black men with deep, resonant voices, have been cast to speak as God. And the recent unexpectedly bestselling novel The Shack depicted the Trinity as an African American woman, a Middle Eastern carpenter, and an Asian woman.

So it’s quite natural for us to want to know more about what God looks or sounds like, to catch a glimpse of God in human form, to have a God sighting every now and then. These God sightings have been a part of our world for longer than we can know, and even the great man of faith Moses wanted to catch a glimpse of the great glory of God. In our reading from the book of Exodus this morning, we hear about this moment when Moses asked to see God’s glory and ended up with his own God sighting. While he was up on the mountain with God to receive the Ten Commandments a second time, Moses had an incredible heart-to-heart conversation with God. The exchange was incredibly human, sounding much like inquisitive banter between old friends, with Moses recognizing God’s considerable steps in guiding him and the Israelites to this point in their journey while also stating his very human desire to have a greater sense of God’s presence with him along the way ahead. Upon hearing Moses’ request for God’s continued presence, God responded with grace and mercy, promising, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

But Moses kept up the conversation, noting that he and the people of Israel could not get to the promised land  on their own – they needed a very present and real God to go with them. They needed to know God’s favor and see how God made them distinct from others, and without this assurance, Moses felt it was silly for them to go at all. His concerns were well-founded – the Israelites had done little more than complain about the food and the water all along the way so far, and he was on the mountain again with God because the people had been worshiping an idol under the guidance of his own brother Aaron and had already broken the covenant that God made with them. But even so, God again assured Moses of God’s continued presence with them along their journey to the promised land: “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

All this conversation, though, seemed to be a prelude to Moses’ real question, his desire for a God sighting: “Show me your glory, I pray.” God didn’t walk away but instead offered one final promise to Moses: “I will make all my goodness pass before you… But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live… You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” So Moses followed God’s instruction and made his way out onto a rock, where he stood in a cleft of the rock. God covered Moses with God’s hand while God passed by, but then after God had passed, God’s hand was removed so that Moses could see God’s back.

This is truly such a great story – it’s not only great to know that at least one human being has had a real, honest-to-goodness God sighting, it’s also pretty incredible that Moses only saw God’s back side! Still, I can’t quite imagine a world where we see God in this very direct and human way. Sure, we say that we have seen God in Jesus Christ, but that was a one-time glimpse, and we only have the biblical witness to that God sighting and no eyewitnesses among us. The images of God that we do have leave so much to be desired – the old paintings of Jesus rarely speak to the contemporary world, and many people just don’t identify with any of the images and words of faith and belief at all. So the leap of faith involved in seeing God these days is pretty significant, and God doesn’t seem to show up quite so directly or often anymore anyway. But we are here in the church, either because we have experienced the presence of God before and want to experience it again or because we figure this is as good a place as any to have our first God sighting along the way.

I believe that we can reasonably expect to have that kind of encounter with God in our journey together in this place, but there is more to what we must do than just that. We need to be on the lookout for where God is present and at work in our world, for the places where God is already stepping in to change things and make things different, for the comfortable and uncomfortable places where God is embracing us or challenging us, for the dramatic and real presence of God not so much where we would most expect it but maybe where we would least expect it, maybe most in the longings of those in need, in cries of the poor, in the prophetic words calling out for justice. We also need to be ready to tell others about our experiences of God, to describe our God sightings in whatever form they take, to speak about how we have seen God at work in our lives and in our world, even to honestly speak about the times when we have doubted God’s presence in our midst. And most of all we need to be about showing God’s face to others, joining in those times and places where God’s presence is already visible and making it clearer, acting to embody the presence of God among those in greatest need, and living life in such a way that others might have a God sighting of their own in and through us. This is our greatest challenge but also our greatest hope – to keep our eyes open for God each and every day even as we embody God’s presence in our world so that others might also know the fullness of life that we have found along our journey.

So may God inspire us in our hearing and seeing and speaking and doing, that we might hear God’s voice directing us into the way ahead, we might see God’s presence in whatever way we need, we might speak of God’s presence so that others can hear, and we might join in doing and being and living in all the places where God is already present and at work to make all things new until he comes again.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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