Winter Olympics Thoughts

“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…”

That was the memorable intro to the ABC Wide World of Sports, a great TV show that ran on late Saturday afternoons in the 1960s-1990s. It catches what the Olympic Games are all about. There are many reasons not to watch the Olympics. Here are some (you may others to add):

  • They are too nationalistic.
  • There is widespread cheating.
  • There is illegal doping.
  • Some of the events look like they were invented by people doing too much doping.

And yet, there are so many good reasons to watch, namely:

“The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…”

I don’t love the agony of defeat, but the great majority of athletes that make it to the games go home without a medal. And the much greater crowd of athletes that train for the games don’t even make it on to their national teams. It’s that way across the board. Tomorrow, as I write this, the Rams or Bengals will win the Super Bowl. Back in September, 32 teams started the season with high hopes. Thirty-one will have ended the season without the big trophy. Athletic competition teaches us that we aren’t very likely to win the last race, the big prize, the ultimate goal.

In these games, at the mid-point, I was most moved by what happened to Nick Baumgarten. Nick has been a crazy snowboarder for almost two decades and has been on US Olympic teams since 2012, but without a medal. He made the team again this year at the age of—get this—40. On Thursday night, our time, he finished tenth in the snowboard cross men’s singles. And he wept before the NBC interviewer and millions watching, as he saw his last chance for a medal slip away. Nick is bigger and older than most in his sport, so his agony was all the more pronounced. But, he then got placed on the snowboard cross team event (one woman and one man form a team) with the gold medal winning Lindsey Jacobellis, herself 36, racing against youngsters. He won the men’s race and then watched at the finish line as Lindsey won the women’s race. Tears are flowing. Nick will return to Iron River MI with a medal: a gold medal. Though I am 35 years older than Nick, I think I’m his age as I watch him in this crazy, exciting event in which I want to compete (and believe I would be about as good as Nick). Nick has broken numerous bones and endured operations over the years. And the hours and hours and hours of training. And the personal expense. And the sacrifice. He had good reason to call it a career after not winning a medal four years ago. But now he knows “the thrill of victory” and that on the biggest international stage there is for athletic competition.

I continue to be troubled by the nationalism, commercialism, politicization of these games. And I think ice dancing should not be a medal sport (my wife loves ice dancing and I can’t convince her about this!). I want the majority of events not decided by nationalistic judges. I want most events decided by what happens on the playing field: who crossed the finished line first, who jumped the highest, who hit the most targets, etc. I trust Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski to tell me what happened on the ice in figure skating, but I don’t always trust the judges.

Maybe we should blame the ABC Wide World of Sports for some of this. They found quirky events in Podunk places and made us care. They showed us people striving for the thrill of victory and far more often dealing with the agony of defeat. For that I am glad. Let the games continue. And keep room on the team for an occasional over the hill but not admitting it athlete like Nick Baumgarten. After all, he is about my age.

The Crux of Peace

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 1/30/22, based            Ephesians 2:11-22. A video version can be watched on the Perinton Facebook page.]

I’m going to blindfold you. Then I’m going to take you in a car on a road trip. When I park the car, I take you by the hand and lead you into a large room. You sense that it is beautiful—and you are right. I tell you that it is a house of Christian worship. In a moment I will point your head toward the front wall, up above the table. I will take off your blindfold and give you one second to open your eyes and then close them again. I then ask you, are you in a Protestant or Roman Catholic house of worship and why do you think so?

I was raised in the Protestant tradition, and we were very clear about that cross on the front wall. Jesus was not to be on it, because he is risen. I think I detected a sense of pride that we were right about this. Indeed, Jesus is risen, but I think we may have taken Jesus off the cross too soon. The apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus, especially chapter 2, makes me think that.

I grew up memorizing Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 was bedrock for us. I believed it then and I believe it now. But I think we stopped too soon. We needed to read the entire chapter and get the rest of the story. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

Now when I see a cross with a figure of Jesus hanging on it, I stop and look at it. I look for how Jesus is portrayed. Is his skin tone light or dark? Does he look like a first century Palestinian Jew or a 21st century American? Does he look serene or anguished? Do I see myself in him?

Take a look at “It Is Finished” by Sandra Bowden. Note how Bowden portrays the crucifixion.

The backdrop for Paul’s teaching here is a story ever old and ever new. The human family doesn’t act like a family a lot of the time. Human history is filled with division. Male and female. Black and brown and white. Poor and rich. One religion against another religion. In Paul’s time the great divide was racial/ethnic: Jew and gentile. For the Jews, this was the insider/outsider divide. Paul was an insider. That shows in Ephesians, written to a largely gentile church far beyond the borders of Israel. Early in today’s passage, he addresses his gentile sisters and brothers this way: “Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth… were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” The divide could not have been more stark. Paul, the ultimate insider, is writing to these ultimate outsiders.

In my world, I am an insider. I am a white male, comfortably middle class, suburbanite, well-educated. Further I was raised in the majority religion in my country. I have known a good deal of privilege in my years. It is dangerous to be an insider. We insiders can think that we are simply better than outsiders. That we have earned our privileged status. That God loves us more than God loves the outsiders. While my insider credentials are solid, they pale next to Paul’s, whose insider credentials were impeccable. He was a one-percenter. Elite. When he was confronted by the grace of God in Jesus, all that privilege fell away. Paul would spend much of the rest of his life inviting outsiders to enter the community of grace. Paul, once the insider, now identifies with those he once saw as outsiders.

At the very heart, the epicenter, of this Good News was what Jesus did on the cross. Not just that he died on a cross, but on what he did on that cross. Paul presses the limits of language. He becomes an artist with a large canvas and a palette of color. “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down [destroyed] the dividing wall, the hostility between us.He has abolished [rendered obsolete] the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” Now my personal identity is not in my insider credentials, but in Jesus and what he has done.

We have too often reduced the work of Jesus on the cross to one thing: saving our souls as individuals. We have individualized the work of Calvary as if it had nothing to do with the human community and its dividedness. Paul uses powerful words: Jesus has destroyed the dividing wall, putting to death the hostility that separated us. Yes, Jesus died for me, but not me alone. He died for us and all our divisions. In his own body on that cross, he became insider and outsider, Jew and gentile, black and brown and white, male and female, young and old. He did it to bring insider and outsider together on level ground. To build a church in which there will never be outsiders. A church built on Jesus himself, the true cornerstone, in which radical grace welcomes all, without distinction.

Sometimes we see what the Church ought to be in non-churchy settings. Last Sunday night (1/23/22) there was a football game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. Though the outcome broke our hearts in western NY, it was a thrilling game. Since that game, something more amazing than the game has happened. Kansas City Chiefs fans have donated over $465,000 to the Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. Those donations will help ensure that their medical team has the tools, training, and programs to care for sick kids in Western New York. I love the game of football, but I am more moved by moments that show our common humanity.

Early this week (1/25/22), there was a fire in the Pines of Perinton apartments. Over 60 people were suddenly displaced and homeless, about 40 of them children. There has been a wonderful response in the town, from all the churches, the town government, and townspeople. The churches of Perinton are not competing in this, but cooperating. I am moved by moments that show our common humanity, moments is which the Church is being the Church.

A few days ago we received this message from the director of World Relief in Western NY:

“We have a new couple living at the Ellison Park apartments named Ahmad and Khatera. I’m wondering if we can connect this couple with a Good Neighbor team made up of folks from Perinton Presbyterian. Their English is limited, but their ability to communicate is quite good. They could use some good friends and greater sense of being welcomed here to Rochester.” I am confident that some of you are going to become welcoming friends to Ahmad and Khatera. I am moved, sometimes to tears, by moments that show our common humanity and show the Church being the Church Jesus calls it to be.

My younger daughter’s best friend has been a dear friend of our family for over three decades. She posted an old photo of her extended maternal family, living in Poland in the 1930s.

It looks just like a photo of my extended maternal family, right down to the red wine Italians always have on the table. But Shira’s family isn’t Italian: they are Jewish. Within several years of that happy photo, everyone in the photo was murdered by the Nazis. Another part of the family fled and eventually survived. I am blessed to know some of that family. I remind us that most of the German state church supported the rise of the Nazis. The Third Reich promised the church its favor and the church liked the privileged status the government gave them. And that state supported church stood by silently as millions of Jews were murdered. For shame.

If we look at the work of Jesus on the cross as only individual, as only about forgiving me, we miss the fullness of what the New Testament teaches. Christ died not only for my individual sins; he died for our corporate sins, our societal sins, our systemic sins. On the cross, Jesus brought together in his body all the divisions in our divided world, to create one new humanity. Hear it again from “The Living Bible.”

“For Christ himself is our way of peace. He has made peace between us Jews and you Gentiles by making us all one family, breaking down the wall of contempt that used to separate us.By his death he ended the angry resentment between us…. Then he took the two groups that had been opposed to each other and made them parts of himself; thus he fused us together to become one new person, and at last there was peace. As parts of the same body, our anger against each other has disappeared, for both of us have been reconciled to God. And so the feud ended at last at the cross. And he has brought this Good News of peace [to all of us].”

Worship–old and ne

[This message was delivered at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on January 23, 2022. The texts are Nehemiah 8:1-10 and Luke 4:14-21. The sermon can also be viewed on the CoS Facebook page.]

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe…. That simple prayer comes early in the liturgy of synagogues around the world, setting the tone for gathered worship, much as we pray an opening prayer after our call to worship and gathering hymn. I wonder if Jesus prayed that prayer in the synagogue in Nazareth that day.

I wonder if it was prayed in the vast outdoor throng in Jerusalem reported in Nehemiah 8. We are not the first worshipers to have our regular worship interrupted by events beyond our control. When the pandemic began to hit home for us 22 months ago, we were thrust into unknown territory. Except it wasn’t all that unknown. When our Jewish ancestors were taken into captivity, be it in Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon, their worship customs had to change, but not their worship patterns.

Over the last 14 months, as I have served in a pastoral role at Perinton Presbyterian Church, on Sunday mornings I have driven by one house with a sign on the front lawn that says: “No new normal.” I think the message behind that sign is something like this: “We will not change our ways. We will not be told to get vaccinated and to wear masks. We will not comply with a new normal. We will do as we please.” If I understand the gospel of Jesus Christ at all, it is all about new normal living. It is all about repenting of old ways and turning to new ways. It is all about seeing God do new things. Jesus is ever making new wine from old water.

When it comes to gathered worship, we live in this struggle between old and new. Our worship patterns are based on patterns we find from thousands of years ago. I find the worship in Nehemiah 8 giving us a pattern widely held by Christian worshiping communities around the world and across traditions and denominations over the centuries. 

The Nehemiah 8 gathering happened almost 2,500 years ago. It was right after the exile of God’s ancient people in Babylon, which lasted much longer than two years. The faithful have returned to glorious Jerusalem, only to find it in shambles, looking like a war zone after a Gestapo bombing raid. The Temple has been desecrated and leveled into rubble. The people face a rebuilding challenge like Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria, like Haiti after that earthquake, like Mayfield KY after that tornado last month.

So what do they do? They gather in a makeshift open air synagogue and worship God. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. Praise be to our God. Something remarkable is happening. They know what to do. They haven’t forgotten. Their memory muscles are working just fine. No worship guides are handed out and no pews are to be found. We experience the four-fold pattern of gathered worship that we use today: 1, The people gather to worship; 2, the people hear God’s written word read and proclaimed; 3, the people respond to God’s goodness; and, 4, the people are sent out to serve God beyond the synagogue.

Being a preacher and a teacher of preaching, I am particularly moved by Nehemiah 8:8: So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” I teach my students that this is the 8/8 definition of preaching: to give the people understanding of what has been read in their presence. Not to entertain or impress, but to give the sense of the scriptures read. Note how full-bodied and full-orbed this worship is. When the Torah is held up to be read, the people immediately stand without being told to. The people respond with spoken amens and hands raised in praise. The people bow their heads and even prostrate themselves before God. And they weep. It is unclear just why they are weeping, but I don’t think its sadness, but gladness. They are emotionally moved by what they are participating in: the gathering of God’s people in a broken place and needy time to worship their God who is sovereign over it all.

I am reading a book of some of the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a noted 20th century rabbi and theologian, who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., many times in the cause of prophetic justice. Heschel said that his hope for modern synagogue worship was that it would learn from Black Christian worship, in which worship is responsive, bodies and emotions engaged in praising God. To which this Presbyterian with a foot in Free Methodism says, Yes and amen.

Early in his Galilean ministry Jesus does what he does on Saturday mornings; he goes to a local synagogue to worship God. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. And something unexpected happens in the midst of the expected. He reads beautiful words from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. That is normal. He hands the scroll back to the synagogue attendant. That is normal. Then he says what no one is expecting from a young peasant who does carpentry in this very town of Nazareth: Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” No one is expecting such words. A new normal is just beginning.

Jesus reads the word of God written and then declares nothing short of this: he is the word of God living. He is the fulfillment of every word of scripture entrusted to us. We do not worship the Bible; we worship the God revealed in the Bible. Perhaps like some of you, I was raised in a tradition that confused these things. We often worshiped the Bible more than we worshiped God. The Bible was often used as a weapon. The Bible was contorted to show us that we were right and everyone in disagreement with us was wrong. The Bible was twisted into a rule book that assured us that God was on our side more than we were on God’s side, that God was beholden to us, and not we to God. The Bible is so much better than that.

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. I expect those words were prayed on Saturday, January 15, in Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX. They began worship as faithful Jews have for centuries, as Jesus did most every Sabbath day in some local synagogue. And we realize that gathering for worship can be dangerous. There are no safe places in this world. From Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, to Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, PA, to AlNoor Mosque in New Zealand, every synagogue, mosque, and church is a potential target for crazed or hate-filled people. There is an alarming rise in acts of violence in places of worship across our land and around the world. That does not mean that we stop gathering, but that we realize how important it is to keep gathering and worshiping the sovereign God.

No matter what the circumstances, we cannot give up gathering for worship, and that includes virtual worship for people for whom in-person worship is not a healthy option today. This is not an either/or, but a both/and situation. I commend CoS and thousands of other congregations for continuing in-person worship with safety guidelines and offering worship in virtual ways, usually in real time. The key question for us about gathered worship is not, what did I get out of it? Rather, the crucial question is, what did I bring to worship and what did I offer to God?

Annie Dillard writes about worship: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions…. The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear … velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

When that massive outdoor synagogue service of worship was concluding, the leader said, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Indeed, for worshipers of God, the joy of the Lord is our strength. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas and Needle Retention

On this twelfth day of Christmas, I took our Christmas tree to our nearby town park, where trees are chipped and made into mulch for the park’s walking trails. The tree was undecorated over the new year’s weekend, but continued standing proudly in our living room until the tenth day of Christmas.

The day after Thanksgiving, my grandson and I went to our favorite local Christmas tree farm with clear instructions: bring home a tree about 7.5 feet tall and not too wide at the base. We took the tractor-pulled wagon ride to the Fraser Fir section, this being our favorite kind of tree, with good color and needle retention. We found the right tree and cut it down. Two hours later it was standing in our living room and drinking fresh water. It took us the weekend to get it trimmed and it served us well for over five weeks.

The first week, I must have given it a gallon of water a day. The next week, a half gallon. The next week a quart. Not a day went by in over five weeks without the tree getting at least a tall glass of fresh water. The needle retention was excellent. Even in its last week, it was hardly dropping any needles. (My wife might quibble with that last sentence, but I have been cutting down, watching, and watering Christmas trees for decades: this one retained its needles as well as any I have ever cut, watched, and watered.)

Tomorrow is Epiphany day, when we are reminded of the long journey of the magi and their curious gifts for the Christ child, no longer a baby in a manger, but a toddler still in Bethlehem. Only Matthew gives is this story. Matthew 2, in just 23 verses, gives us an amazing journey with little Jesus and his parents. There is mystery and political intrigue. There is tragedy and death and suffering. Angels are still active and the light of God in Jesus is shining. Read the entire chapter tomorrow. Maybe even today, to get ready.

And now that Fraser Fir is being re-purposed. I walk the trails of Tinker Park in all seasons. Soon, maybe this winter or early spring, I may well be walking on the mulch of that lovely tree. Still serving a good purpose.

the reveal(ing) party

[The message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on the third Sunday of Advent, December 12, 2021. It can also be seen and heard on the Perinton facebook page.]

I don’t know that it’s ever been easy being a father, but it certainly isn’t easy today. We have a load of cultural expectations for fathers: To be good providers; strong and steady; and successful in their work. And then we have another set of expectations for fathers: To be tender, sensitive, understanding, and kind. Sometimes it seems like these sets of expectations are clashing. There is a kind of masculinity today that can be toxic. For the single man: be athletic, tough, and have a great job that enables you to buy lots of expensive toys to impress others, both women and men. For the married man: to rule the roost and wear the pants in the family, to marry a trophy wife (which sounds to me like a cold statuette; not very interesting); to have high achieving children whose diapers he never had to change.

Luke 1 has something else to say about masculinity. Two men are mentioned: Zechariah and Joseph. Zach is an old man, a devout priest, and the husband of Elizabeth, an old woman who has never had a child. That puts her womanhood and his manhood in question. Joe is a young carpenter in the last stage of engagement to a young teenager named Mary. One makes his living with words and the other with wood. Before Luke puts the spotlight of the ages on the two women, he puts the spotlight on the priest, the oldest of the four primary players.

The old priest starts this chapter by speaking and ends by speaking (maybe singing), but in between he isn’t allowed to talk for nine months, which is no easy task for a man whose work involves speaking to God on behalf of the people. Joseph never says one word in the New Testament. Luke 1 looks a little like a musical with two outbursts of praise songs: one from the old priest and one from the young teen with child, and then an angelic chorus in chapter 2 when Jesus is born. It also looks a little like a situation comedy as this angel keeps appearing and scaring people, who then try to come up with good excuses not to believe the angel. And it looks a little like the waiting room of a gynecologist as two women who never expected to be there at this stage of their lives talk about how their lives—and bodies—are changing by unexpected pregnancies.

It starts with that angel and Zechariah. Zach and Liz are old. How old? Old like me, but probably not quite as old as I am. One commentary suggests they are in their 60s. Oh, to be in my 60s again! When the angel announces that old Liz is finally going to have a baby, Zach can’t believe it and says, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The literal transition is even better. He says, “I am a Presbyterian and my wife is advancing in years.” The Greek word for elder is presbyter, and Zach is old. The word for Liz advancing in years is more like galloping than creeping. The angel is not impressed, and declares that for not believing, old Zach wouldn’t speak until that baby is born.

I think Zach’s line was nearly as good as Mary’s, which we heard here last week, when she told the same angel, “How can this be since I am virgin?” Mary is too young, Elizabeth is too old, Zach is a Presbyterian, and Joseph says nothing, which seems to indicate that he has a colossal headache and can’t top what the others have said.

It is notable how Zechariah gets his voice back. It is not at the moment John is born. It is at the naming. In recent times something has developed called reveal parties. I have never been invited to one and would be content for it to stay that way (if the food is really good, send me leftovers). A reveal party is where friends and family gather to find out what gender a baby still expected will be. A cake or cupcakes will be brought out at one point, with the color of the frosting being pink or blue. Back in the time Luke wrote, the reveal party was after the birth of the child and what was revealed was the baby’s name. In Luke 1 it happens a week after Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s baby is born. In Luke 2 it happens a week after Mary’s and Joseph’s baby is born.

Something remarkable happens at this naming party. Some relatives and friends gather. They expect that the baby will be named after his father or grandfather, which is custom. My grandfather was named Harry and my father James, so I was named Harry James. Maybe someone ordered a sheet cake from Wegmans that said, “Welcome, little Zechariah.”But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’” That stops the party with a thud. John is not a family name and Elizabeth isn’t the father. Now watch what happens. Zechariah, still unable to speak, steps forward: “He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” In publicly submitting to his wife, his voice is restored.As wonderful as custom and tradition can be, a new order is breaking in and grace and truth matter more than custom or tradition.

Naming really is important. The words spoken through the prophet Isaiah centuries before Luke writes have been framing our Advent series: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Today we focus on the third name: everlasting father. That name raises two questions: 1, Is God an old man?, and 2, Aren’t the father and the son distinct in the Trinity?

God is beyond gender. God created us in his image, male and female. That tells us that male and female together best reflect the image of God. Michelangelo made a mistake in painting God the creator as an old white-haired man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God is God, and while I often use the male pronoun to refer to God, I do not do so exclusively, for God is beyond gender. The essential meaning of calling God father is to portray the relational nature of God. When we see how lovingly Zechariah and Joseph accept their roles, we see God reflected. And when we see how lovingly Elizabeth and Mary accept their roles, we see God reflected.

Jesus was born into a world dominated by patriarchy and he challenged it. His masculinity wasn’t toxic, but tender; never domineering, but always empowering. He brings a new and better way, mutual submission one to the other, exemplified by Zechariah. When we see men living in this way, we see a reflection of God. It’s not a perfect reflection, but it is an accurate one. Jesus alone merits the name everlasting father, because he alone perfectly reflects the nature of God. Listen to these verses in the New Testament about Jesus:

  • He is the image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15)
  • For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, (Colossians 2:9)
  • He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:3)

Before Jesus is born, God calls these humble, flawed persons, male and female, old and young, to prepare the world and us for the incarnation, the eternal word becoming flesh. There is no toxic masculinity in Zechariah and Joseph. They are real men with tender, humble, teachable spirits, willing to love and serve God as they love and serve their wives. There is no self-deprecating, false humility, “I’m just a woman” spirit in Elizabeth and Mary. They are real women with intelligence, spunk, courage, teachable spirits, willing to love and serve God as they love and serve their husbands.

In 12 days we will celebrate again this miracle of miracles, the birth of God our savior into our flesh and our world. But first, we honor these people God used to prepare the way. We thank God for Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph. We thank God for loving fathers and mothers that shaped and continue to shape our lives and our faith. Love is here. Love has come, a light in the darkness!

Truth and Truths; hope and hopes

[This message was given at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 11/21/21, Christ the King Sunday. The text is John 18:33-38. It can also be viewed on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook site.]

“That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives […] [E]very king and peasant, … every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” The quote haunts me with its beauty, as those photos thrill me as we see our planet from a distant place in the universe. We now know more about the vastness of the universe than we ever have. And that makes this planet we call home smaller than ever. Yet it is teeming with life, with beauty and with problems. We don’t know if life like ours exists elsewhere in the universe, but we do know about this planet and the life that calls it home. Carl Sagan wrote the opening quote in his book Pale Blue Dot (1994). Sagan wasn’t sure about God. He couldn’t call himself an atheist, because he wasn’t sure. And he couldn’t call himself a believer in God, because he wasn’t sure. But he was enthralled by the fragile beauty of this planet. I am a believer and I share his wonder at this planet.

My understanding of this planet’s significance and importance is shaped by one truth above all: God the creator sent Jesus to be born on this planet, to live among us on this planet, to suffer and die for us on this planet, to be raised to new life on this planet. This, as J. B. Philips once said, is the visited planet. Our little planet has this honor: God once visited it in Jesus and God continues to visit it by the Holy Spirit. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

Today we mark the culmination of the church year with Christ the King. Next Sunday we begin another church year. Today we are thrust into a trial 12 years shy of two millennia ago. St. John puts the spotlight of the ages, the cosmic spotlight on two people, one judging and one being judged: Pilate and Jesus. Jesus stands trial before Pontius Pilate without a dream team of attorneys representing him. Jesus and Pilate.

Who is Pilate? Historically, he was governor of Judea, serving at the pleasure Emperor Tiberias in Rome. Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, a more consequential emperor. Tiberius was a kind of placeholder emperor after his father Augustus died. Emperor worship had taken hold under Augustus and Tiberius continued it. A would-be king of no standing in Judea was hardly a threat to the emperor in Rome. But it was Pilate who served at the pleasure of the emperor and his role was to keep the Roman peace, a peace enforced by military strength and mandated worship of the emperor. Pilate is a second-rate politician doing his duty when Jesus is brought before him.

Who is Jesus? That is what Pilate is trying to figure out. We in the Church know, but do we really? Remember that opening quote from Carl Sagan about every king and peasant? In Jesus we have the king of kings, yet he comes as a peasant. No wonder religious and political leaders are suspicious of him. He looks and acts nothing like a king. It is almost comical to see him as a king, except his followers are growing in number and tell of his might deeds. He does things no one else does. He teaches as no one else does. He is tender toward the needy. He is humble. His glory shines in the ordinary. He restores the image of God in the broken.

And so we have a trial. The most enlightened religion in the world, Judaism, and the greatest empire in the world of that day, Rome, work together to crucify the Lord. Beware of church and state ever getting too close; the church always loses when it craves political power and when it caves to political power. Pilate, representing the Roman Empire, asks four questions.

  1. “Are you the King of the Jews?”
  2. What have you done?” 
  3. “So you are a king?”
  4. “What is truth?”

Jesus responds: “My kingdom is not from this world…. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” The great theme of our gospels is that in Jesus the kingdom of God is at hand. Close. Nearby. Here and now. Jesus is the true king and, hence, wherever he is, wherever he is working, the kingdom of God is present.

About 22 years ago I walked the American Cemetery in Normandy, France, near the shores where World War 2 was finally won. Over 9,000 American soldiers are buried there, and over 1,000 yet not found are remembered there. When I walked that hallowed ground, I was walking on American soil, though it was within the boundaries of France. Because of the American blood shed by those buried there, it has become American soil. So it is that where Jesus has been has become holy and where Jesus is present, the kingdom of God is present. That includes where we are worship right now.

Pilate’s fourth question, “What is truth?” is probably not a philosophical enquiry, but an expression of his impatience. Pilate has work to do to keep Rome happy with him. He isn’t much interested in a philosophical discussion about the nature of truth. But the question has greater import than Pilate knows.

Jesus has personalized truth. He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) He never points us to a doctrinal statement; he points us to himself. Truth is no longer an arguing point, a debate, but a relationship with the one who is truth. We don’t argue people into believing; we point them to Jesus. We witness to the truth we find in him, the embodiment of the kingdom of God. Our hope is in Jesus, God’s truth made flesh.

I have no hope that any political party can bring about the kingdom of God. I have no hope that any political agenda can address all the challenges of life on this little planet. But I am filled with hope about what Jesus comes to do, to bring us God’s truth in personal form. But there is a role for us. We are called to cooperate with what Jesus is doing. We are called to participate in the work of God’s kingdom.

Jesus makes his intention clear: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’” (Revelation 21:5) Jesus, the Lord of Glory, the peasant King, comes to make all things new and to restore us to right relationship with God our creator and with one another.

Two brothers farmed for a generation side by side on land their parents left for them. They shared tools and workers. Then, after decades of cooperation, they had a minor disagreement. And it grew into a major feud. Finally the younger brother took their bulldozer and plowed a ditch between their homes, which soon filled with water. One morning, a day worker with a carpenter’s tool box knocked on the older brother’s door. He asked if there was a day’s carpentry that he could do. The older brother took him to the side of the yard, then pointed to the side of his barn, where there was a large stack of lumber. He told the carpenter what his younger brother had done and said that he wanted a fence built, eight feet high, so the brothers couldn’t see each other. The carpenter said he understood and he would use all that lumber that day. The older brother had business to do in town and left. At dusk the farmer returned and saw not a wall, but a bridge reaching over the stream. It was beautifully done, with handrails. Before the older brother could say anything, the younger brother crossed the bridge, with his hand outstretched. “You are quite a brother to build this bridge after what I did.” They embraced on the middle of the bridge. The carpenter gathered up his toolbox and started to walk away. The farmer said, “Wait, stay a few days. We have other projects for you.” The carpenter said, “I’d like to stay, but I have other bridges to build.”

What, then, are we to do? We certainly cannot bring about the fullness of God’s kingdom; only God can do that. What, then, do we do? I think you know the answer. We cooperate with God. We participate in what Jesus is doing. Every prayer uttered, every kind deed done, every bridge repaired, every need met, every burden shared, every broken relationship restored—all that we do and say are intended to get alongside Jesus in the work of his kingdom.

This pale blue dot of a planet has been visited. The kingdom of God has shown up on planet earth. This planet is significant and we are significant: God has come near in the carpenter named Jesus. The carpenter king. The peasant king. The king of kings.

An Honest prayer in a tough time

[This message was delivered on November 14, 2021, at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY. The video of it can be seen on the CoS facebook page.]

Is it a day when she believes? Hannah is often held up as a model for her persevering prayer in a difficult situation. What kind of day is this for Hannah, this day she prays at the Temple with such pain and perseverance? I am currently reading the new book “Wholehearted Faith” by Rachel Held Evans, published two and a half years after her death at age 37 (co-written by Jeff Chu). In the first chapter, Evans uses a phrase I don’t think I had ever read or heard before: “On the days when I believe….” Hmm. Are there days when belief is not so easy? I find it so.

Perhaps Evans’s honesty resonates with you as it does me. I have always believed. I was reared in this faith by loving, believing parents. And my life has been more than pretty good all my 75 years. To borrow from the language of faith, my life has been blessed. Richly blessed. And yet, there are days in which belief is not so easy. Days when I am confronted by the injustices in our world and in our nation; indeed, in Rochester, which in the last week surpassed any previous year for homicides. Because I follow the news, which I see as part of my discipleship as a follower of Jesus, I am regularly jarred by the troubles in this world. Like those hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Houston. Like the number of political refugees in our world and not just from Afghanistan. Like corruption in high places, both in other countries and in my country.

Perhaps Hannah’s honesty resonates with you as it does with me. Hannah’s problem is not a global tragedy, but it is so personal and so painful that it is described with these piercing words: “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant….” Like Ruth, Hannah too is a daughter of Naomi, filled with distress, bitterness, and misery. Naomi and Hannah share a bond of bitterness at life’s unfairness.

I am not here to explain how Hannah felt; I am not a barren woman living in a time when women were excepted to have babies. I am not here to put a glow of spirituality on her situation, to feature Hannah in a stain-glassed window flooded by holy light. The best I can do is to hear her and invite you to do the same with me. She also has a “me too” story.

We live in a time when a woman’s worth is not determined by her fertility or the number of arrows she provides for her husband’s quiver. I should say, at least in some parts of the world. The Good News of Jesus is particularly good news for women, as has been noted in this pulpit many times by many voices. We, at least in some parts of the world, see women as full human beings without regard to marital status or stretch marks. We in the Church see women as full participants in the work of God and gifted to serve at every level of the Church. But not all of the Church universal agrees on this, I admit with sadness.

Hannah lived in another time. She was the second wife of Elkanah. The first wife, Penninah, checks the right boxes: faithful wife giving birth to sons and daughters. We live in a time and place where women are not subjected to plural marriage: one husband and several wives. By the way, I find nowhere in the Bible where plural marriage or polygamy is taught as the right way or commended to us. But it existed in the Old Testament world. It existed among God’s chosen people. And it was never good. And it still exists in some countries today. Penninah is fruitful and Hannah is barren and Penninah reminds Hannah of her circumstance. And Elkanah, like too many men, isn’t listening at a deep level to Hannah and appreciating her plight.

Kate Bowler has written a book with this arresting title, “Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies That I’ve Loved.” While I was raised in the Christian faith and am grateful for my heritage, I was often confronted by an understanding of the faith that said if I just believe hard enough, if I just muster enough faith, if I just say the magic words without doubting, God will be that genie that pops out of the lantern and does whatever I command. And when something isn’t just right, there must be a reason that God has. No, it’s not that simple. Some things happen because of our sinfulness, and some happen because of our stupidity. And some just happen and God is not to be blamed, but God is present and at work in them, in all our days and circumstances.

I wouldn’t want to go to a church that majored on distress, bitterness, and misery every Sunday. But neither would I want to go to a church that refuses to acknowledge this part of our journey, our spirituality. I would not want to go to a church that demands happiness and smiles at all times. That will not admit to the reality of suffering in our world. And that insists Jesus is there to respond to my every whim and desire, that Jesus is my heavenly good luck charm. I am grateful for Community of the Savior. Though I am here now only on occasion, I know CoS to be a church where honest faith is valued. That brings me great hope. And even joy. Preachers here are honest and this congregation responds to honest faith.

Hannah’s desperate prayer is not the only one we have. There are a good number sprinkled throughout the Bible, especially in the Psalms, but none surpasses the one we hear from Jesus in his hour of desperate need: “’Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44) Eli the priest thought that Hannah must be drunk on wine. Maybe he is half right. She is drunk on the cup of barrenness, followed by the cup of bitterness.

Hannah’s desperate prayer is heard, not to prove that God had a reason, but that God hears our honest cries. Sometimes we get the answer we hoped for and sometimes we do not. There are some days when I believe and then there are other days. If we turn the page into the next chapter of 1 Samuel, we find another Hannah prayer, this time a song of praise to God who is beyond any human comprehension and who does these great and amazing things. Sometimes. And do you know who borrows from Hannah’s second prayer centuries later? A frightened teenaged girl, not yet married, but, like Hannah, surprisingly pregnant. Keep coming here next month. You’ll hear some her story, that one we call Mary, the mother of our Lord.

Honest faith unfolds in surprising ways in difficult circumstances. In 1873, after a difficult season which included the death of her four-year-old son, Horatio Spafford booked passage on a ship to Great Britain for his wife, four daughters, and himself. An urgent business matter detained him in New York, so he saw off his wife and daughters, assuring them that he would follow them in a few days. Early in the morning of November 22, 1873, that ship collided with another vessel. Within two hours the ship sunk into the cold depths of the Atlantic, taking 266 lives. Anna Spafford was one of the 47 survivors, found by another ship’s crew clinging to a piece of the wreckage. The four daughters, aged 12 years to 18 months, were gone. When Anna Spafford reached Wales, she cabled her husband, “Saved alone.” Horatio booked passage to meet his wife. The captain of that ship knew of Spafford’s loss and when the ship reached that place in the north Atlantic, the captain notified Spafford, so he could honor the loss of his daughters in that icy ocean, their unmarked resting place. When Spafford returned to his room, he began writing words that we will sing in a few minutes: When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll, Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul…” I know the words of the four verses of that hymn as well as any hymn I know. There is no superficial happiness in them, no smiley face stickers. That hymn honesty intertwines his palpable grief with his unshakeable faith. With Hannah-like faith.

In “Wholehearted Faith” Rachel Held Evans writes: “On the days when I believe, I feel enfolded in a story so much greater than my own. It’s a story that knits together a thousand generations of saints—folks like you and me who wrestle with their questions and their doubts…. It’s a story that makes audacious claims about … Jesus and calls us into his outstretched arms. On the days when I believe, a prayer feels as if it’s just another beautiful beat in a long-running conversation. Nothing is withheld. Everything finds its place, whether lament or hallelujah. I’m convinced it is all heard, because it’s a whisper in the ear of an attentive God who loves me and whom I love. And then there are other days.” Hannah would understand that.

On the days when I believe I will pray. And on the days when I find it difficult to believe, I will pray. With Hannah. With Mary. With Jesus. With you.

Our Supply chain challenge

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 10/31: Reformation Day, Halloween, which means the eve of All Hallows–or Saints–Day. It can be watched and heard on the Perinton Facebook page. The texts: Genesis 2:4b-9 and Colossians 1:15-20. I post it on November 1, All Saints’ Day, a day to remember and give thanks for the great cloud of witnesses God has used to shape our lives and faith.]

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything (literally, all things).For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. –Colossians 1:15-20.

Growing up in the Los Angeles public school system, there were three annual field trips we could always count on: the La Brea tar pits, the Griffith Park Planetarium, and the tuna canning plant at the Port of Los Angeles. At the harbor we would see these gigantic ships loaded with massive containers waiting to be unloaded. And we would see the day’s catch of fresh tuna, still squirming, ready for processing into those little tin cans. I had little sense that the Port of Los Angeles had such importance to the nation’s supply chain. For all I knew, all the containers on those cargo ships were filled with tuna ready to go into Chicken of the Sea tin cans.

We know more now. “The supply chain” has become part of our vocabulary. There are now over 60 gigantic ships filled with hundreds—maybe thousands—of massive containers ready to be unloaded onto trains and trucks. But there is a shortage of dock workers and there is a shortage of truck drivers. There is not a shortage of goods. The containers on those ships contain all the little chips we need for smart phones, tablets, and cars, and all the Christmas toys we want to give or receive. But the supply chain isn’t working right.

Does the Church have money problems? No. God has supplied all the resources we need, but a lot of that supply is being held back. That supply is being held back by people intent on hoarding rather than stewarding God’s provision. The supply chain is being held back by people that haven’t learned about God’s generosity and God’s expectation that we will respond in generosity. The Church doesn’t have a money problem; it has a supply chain problem. In many instances, it has a vision problem. The Church asks people to give a little and maybe a little more, to write a number on a pledge card, instead of reminding people that we are stewards of God’s generous supply. That we are not owners, but stewards expected to reflect the goodness and generosity of God. Picture what would happen if everyone hearing me now started giving at least the first 10% of their income to this church, not as harsh law, but as generous response to God. Envision how our investment in God’s mission in the world would grow.

About $24 billion in goods is estimated to be sitting outside California’s two biggest ports as the shipping backup there continues to put pressure the strained supply chain. Officials have warned that the supply chain crisis, which has led to massive price increases on consumer goods, could last into 2022. About 47% of businesses reported a shortage of workers in the third quarter. (Reported in CNN’s daily briefing.) The goods are there, ready to be delivered. We have a supply chain problem.

The Church doesn’t have money problems; it has supply chain problems. God is generous. Our story begins in a garden of delight. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden…; and there he put the human whom he had formed.Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food….” (Genesis 2:8-9.) The Fuji apple tree in my yard, from which I am still harvesting fruit, is a gift from God. I don’t own it; I tend it and steward it. I don’t even own the yard or the house on it; I am stewarding all that God has entrusted to me. God gives in abundance.

There is not a food shortage in the world; there is a supply chain problem. The earth produces enough food every year to feed every one of its 7.8 billion people. But that food isn’t being distributed fairly. There is a supply chain breakdown. According to the American Dairy Association, the average American household throws away about 250 pounds of food every year.

God has designed this garden planet to feed everyone on it. We can trust God’s generous provision. God is worthy of our trust, and trusting God means stewarding all that God has entrusted to us.

Jesus, who knew hunger first hand in his earthly journey, has been sent to us to get thing right again. In Colossians 1:15-20, the word “all” is used eight times. It crescendos in verses 19-20: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Jesus has come to bring all things together and make all things right. And he puts himself at the bottom of that supply chain, giving us opportunity to minister to him: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink….” (Matthew 25:34-35 in “The Message”) Jesus has not just come to save our souls; he has come to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven. His mission is cosmic and comprehensive. He brings us abundant life and calls us to share the bounty.

All. All things were created in Christ and he is intent to reconciling all things. And he will. Today is the eve of All Saints Day, one of my favorite days of the year. On November 1, we are reminded to give thanks for the saints that have gone before us, the saints that shaped our lives and faith, that taught us to trust Jesus. I think of some special saints. I think of my maternal grandparents crossing the Atlantic. My grandpa came first, got a job as a low-level construction worker and saved enough to send for his wife and children. My mother was six-years-old at her mother’s side crossing the ocean in 1922 to be welcome at Ellis Island. They settled in this land of opportunity and found their place in the American dream, this land of welcome. My mom died five years ago last Tuesday, at 105. She didn’t leave me much money, but she left me a legacy of faith, hope, and love. She taught me to trust in Jesus and be generous. She left me riches untold.

God is worthy of our trust. We have been created to trust our creator. Like those cargo ships filled with containers waiting outside the Port of Los Angeles, we have a supply chain challenge. And pledge cards won’t meet the challenge. Generous giving in response to the generosity of our God will always meet the need. This congregation has been entrusted with sufficient financial resources to do all that God calls us to do. When our giving is marked by trust and grateful generosity, the Perinton Presbyterian supply chain will be working just fine.

Psalms, Hymns, and SPiritual Songs—Old and New

“With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

Colossians 3:16 (NRSV)

“And sing, sing your hearts out to God!” (Colossians 3:16 from “The Message”)

Singing praises to God is as old as humankind. From the beginnings of our history, the people of God have gathered to praise God musically. Way back in Genesis 4, we find “Jubal, who was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” (Is that why churches historically are the keepers of pipe organs?) Paul’s admonition to the Church at Colosse is representative of the biblical understanding of using sung music to praise God: “Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” Let’s look at those three categories.

What are psalms? In the middle of the Bible we find the collection of 150 psalms, prayers for every moment, emotion, and occasion in life. This is our first hymnbook: a collection of the prayers of the ancient Hebrews, usually sung. Many of them were meant to be sung in gathered worship, some as calls to worship (like Psalm 100), some as the worshipers approached the place of worship (like Psalm 122), some as laments, and some as prayers of thanksgiving. All of life is present in the Psalms. A good hymnal will include many of the psalms in singable form. The new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God, has most of the psalms in musical form.

What are hymns? Hymns are generally songs of praise to God unfolding over several verses, with a logical progression. They tend to be more God-centered than personal. They often feature simple or elaborate poetry and interweave themes of the Scriptures. A good example is Martin Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is our God.” This hymn was loosely based on Psalm 46, but not as a paraphrase.

What are spiritual songs? Spiritual songs are usually briefer than hymns, with simple lyrics and tunes. But these songs are not simplistic: they touch on deep issues and concerns. They are brief, set to simple tunes, and very personal. Spiritual songs tend to be more personal than hymns. Both emphases are needed and hymns and spiritual songs often overlap. “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine” has characteristics of both a hymn and a spiritual song. It is no wonder that people love singing it.

How are psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs chosen for our gathered worship? In most traditions of the Church, the pastors have the lead role in this, in consultation with staff musicians. The goal is to match the sung praises to the scriptures read and the sermon preached in a given service and expose the congregation to the great treasures of the worship music compiled over centuries and still being written today.

Pastors are wise to balance the well-known with the not yet well-known, the old and the new, classic music and contemporary music, but always to make selections that honor God’s word read, proclaimed, and experienced.

What is the role of a hymnal? In some ways, a hymnal sets the tone for a congregation’s worship. Glory to God is not a perfect hymnal—there are no perfect hymnals!—but it is very impressive in its breadth and variety; it honors our shared tradition and enlarges upon it. It includes psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in a seamless way. It has nine indexes at the back that help us to find good selections for any Sunday’s scriptures and themes. Glory to God also gives brief notes at the bottom of each psalm, hymn, and spiritual sing, helping us to know more about what we are singing.

Hymnals serve us well, but we are not limited to them. We are free to use psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs from other sources, as well as those coming from our own congregation. The goal is to praise God with heart, voice, instrument, and spirit—to worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23)

Finally, what is the role of the choir? First, it is help the great choir—the congregation—sing joyfully and enthusiastically. Second, it often offers more specialized music to God on our behalf. The same is true for instrumentalists. They offer their God-given gifts and sometimes considerable training back to God. Our choirs and instrumentalists are never looking to entertain or impress the rest of us, but to help all of us praise God, the source of all music.

A wonderful newer hymn, “When in Our Music God Is Glorified,” summarizes this paper well:

“When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried: Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Who Found Whom?

[This message was given at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 101021, based on Titus 3:4-8, John 15:12-17. The sermon can be viewed on the Perinton Facebook page.]

Who found whom? I was reared in a faith tradition that put great emphasis on finding Jesus. I don’t think he was ever lost. Even as a 12-year-old, the precocious Jesus ditched his parents when visiting Jerusalem at Passover. When Joseph and Mary realized on their trip home to Nazareth that Jesus wasn’t with them, it took them three days to find him. They chastised him and he responded, “Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s work?”

Jesus was and is never lost; we were lost and sometimes still are. We don’t find him; he finds us. An old hymn verse, rarely found in hymnals or sung today, says it well:

 “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew/ he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true,/ no, I was found of thee.” (Jean Ingelow)

It took me some years to realize that I didn’t find Jesus, but Jesus found me. God is always the first mover, the initiator. Our fourth worship value gets this in the right order:

We value Responsive Worship, fully engaging us in responding to God’s salvation during the worship service itself as well as in shaping our daily lives. The Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—initiates and we respond.

Presbyterian theologians love Jesus’ words in John 15:16: You did not choose me but I chose you.” Our Presbyterian tradition puts the emphasis on God choosing us. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make real choices; but it means that God is always acting first. The Apostle Paul puts it another way: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.” (Titus 3:4-5) I was not born into Presbyterianism, but came as a young adult. Part of what attracted me was this emphasis on God’s choice over my choice.

There is a wonderful two-word phrase for this emphasis: prevenient grace. Prevenient means what was coming before: pre=before; veni=coming. Prevenient grace was at work in my life before I knew it, as it was in yours. Jesus says it this way: You did not choose me but I chose you.” Paul says it this way: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”

Annie Dillard has a quote about gathered worship that keeps working on me. “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return. (“Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters.” New York: Harper & Row, 1982, pp. 40-41.) 

Responsive worship recognizes that God is at the center of our worship and we are not. We humans have a tendency to want to control and define God, making God in our image. Responsive worship checks that tendency and reminds us that we are created in God’s image. We tend to evaluate worship by what we like: the music, the sermon, the décor. We ought to evaluate worship by how it honors God, how it reveals the Good News of Jesus, and how the Holy Spirit is at work in it and in us. We tend to evaluate worship by what we get out of it. We ought to evaluate worship by what we bring to it: our whole selves as an offering to God. We tend to evaluate worship by how comfortable it makes us. Maybe the highest form of worship will make us uncomfortable as it reveals how God is God and we are not. A few weeks ago, Pastor Laura told us about two-handed giving,from the Korean worship tradition. Responsive worship is two-handed worship. In engages us fully in worshiping God and living responsively. Responsive worship engages us body, soul, and spirit.

Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” But let’s complete what he says, “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Responsive worship leads to responsive living. When we leave here, we see words on the back of the church welcome sign: Now you are entering the mission field. When we leave here, how do we respond to persons in need? How do we respond to injustice? How do we respond to systemic racism? How do we respond to people that are hurting? How do we respond to people living at the margins of society?

Last Sunday I went to a sunrise service. It was on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. It wasn’t at 7:30 or 8:00; it was at sunrise. I arrived on the mountaintop at 5:45am. The sky was dark. I found my spot on a flat granite slab looking east. And I waited. The eastern horizon very slowly showed hints of light. It was unmistakable where true east was. The gradual light was clear. Then, right on time, the sun slowly began crowning. The eastern sky was ablaze with glorious shades of red, gold, and yellow on a canvas made by no human hand. I was one of hundreds gathered there. We didn’t cause the sun to rise. We responded in wonder and awe. We knew that we were seeing the first light of day in the United States before anyone else. We were there. The images are embedded in the album of my mind and heart. There was nothing for me to do but show up, wait, and respond. We value Responsive Worship.

Just over five years ago, I heard that Tony Bennett would be singing at Eastman Hall in Rochester. I have been a Tony Bennett fan for decades. I said to my wife, we’re going to go hear Tony Bennett in person. I got two tickets. Five years and two days ago, we heard a thrilling concert. We didn’t know that shortly after that Tony started dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease. Last Sunday on “60 Minutes” (October 3, 2021) there was a report on Tony. The disease is progressing. Tony remembers almost nothing, except the names of his wife and children. But when a pianist begins playing one of the hundreds of songs Tony has sung, the lyrics come right back. The voice is there and the mind cooperates. He smiles and sings flawlessly. Tony’s wife and son see this and plan a final live concert for Tony and his good friend Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall. During that recent concert, Tony sang song after song flawlessly, without a piece of music or lyrics in front of him. The music embedded in his soul brought his mind to life and he responded to the sold-out hall with joy and wonder.

That is what ought to happen when we worship God responsively. By worshiping God responsively, God’s patterns may slowly become our own. It’s not easy or automatic, but God’s ways—God’s grace, justice, mercy, and barrier-breaking love—begin to embed themselves in us so that we live responsively to this great and glorious God, seeing Jesus about us in everyday life and responding to him as we respond to those around us. That begins in responsive worship, as the patterns of God’s nature become embedded in us. And we find that we have been found.