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.

The Word Became Flesh and Blook

[This message was given on September 19, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church and can be watched and heard on Perinton’s facebook channel. Texts: Psalm 34:1-8 and 1 John 1:1-5.]

Don’t you love apple trees this time of year? I do. So does Tom Brown. A retired chemical engineer, Brown has developed a love of apple trees. About a century ago, there were about 14,000 varieties of apples in our country. Three decades ago, U. S. commercial apple orchards were down to under 100 varieties. Then Tom Brown went to work. He has reclaimed about 1,200 varieties and on his two-acre orchard he has 700 of the rarest. (Taken from a column by Tish Harrison Warren in Christianity Today, September 2021.)

Somewhere along the way, and it started centuries ago, Christians felt the need to elevate the spiritual nature of our faith in ways that pushed down the physical. Some ancient cultures, like Greek culture, thought the goal of life was to rise above any fleshly, earthy pleasures and thus purify the soul. Some thought we should purify our souls by punishing our bodies. That is thoroughly unbiblical thinking. God delights in physical creation. Read the first two chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1 and 2: the land and seas, the sun and moon, the animal kingdom, lush plants and trees; at the pinnacle, male and female bearing the image of God in their physical beings. Read the last two chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21 and 22: new heaven and new earth, a flowing river, trees with spectacular fruit (apples!), and embodied human beings delighting in God’s presence; Jesus making all things new.

Our second worship value begins this way: “We value Sacramental Worship that takes our faith deeper than spoken words, helping us experience the mystery of Christ and inspiring us to serve God and others.” What does sacramental mean? Your answer may be shaped by your tradition. How many of us grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition? That tradition puts great emphasis on seven sacraments, through which we are saved by God’s grace. How many of us grew up in the Baptist tradition? In that tradition, the word sacrament isn’t used, but there are two ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. How many of us were raised in the what I will call the middle Protestant tradition, which would include Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians? We would probably answer in the way the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer answers:  “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means for receiving God’s grace. Baptism and Eucharist are the two great sacraments given by Christ to his church.”

Let’s think of sacramental value in two ways: one with a capital “S” and one with a lower case “s”. The first refers to the Holy Sacraments of the Church, Baptism and Holy Communion. Jesus instituted these and told us to keep doing them. To value Sacramental worship means that we do not find these heavy obligations that we must do every so often, but means of grace given by Jesus for his followers, to be celebrated frequently and joyfully. Concerning the Lord’s Supper, I prefer it every week. I cannot tire of it, for in partaking of it, I am encountering Jesus and he is encountering me.

When we honor the Sacraments of the Church, it should be easy to move to the second meaning of sacramental, the small “s” meaning. Everything created by God is holy, until we humans muck up things, and even then God comes to redeem it. We are to rejoice in the magnificence of nature. John Calvin, who shaped this movement called Presbyterianism, cared about creation five centuries ago. These are two direct quotes from Calvin:

  • “The whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power, but the Church is the orchestra….” Does the Church feel like an orchestra celebrating God in all creation? Does Perinton? I think we can do better.
  • “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Think about that the next time you mow your lawn.

Listen to these active words from our two scripture readings today. From Psalm 34:8, O taste and see that the Lord is good.” From 1 John 1: “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands… this life was revealed, and we have seen it… we declare to you what we have seen and heard… This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

Our faith is not other worldly; it is set in our earthly existence. It engages our senses. It’s not pie in the sky bye and bye, but God with us in Jesus here and now. I love reading the Bible in the paraphrase called “The Message.” My very favorite verse is John 1:14: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Jesus came to be one of us. He didn’t float two inches above the dusty ground. He is not a phantom or an apparition. He is really one of us. Fully and completely. When he is cut, he bleeds. When he is hungry, he has hunger pangs. Everything about Jesus is both extraordinary and ordinary. Our faith is centered in God among us in the ordinariness of daily life.

I’m no Tom Brown, but I planted two apple trees eight years ago when we moved to Henrietta: one fuji and one gala. Both are bursting with apples this month. One of the ways I marked 9/11 eight days ago was to plant a third apple tree, a golden delicious (because Lowe’s had one for a great price). Why do I care about apple trees? I love eating a fresh apple. I love making apple sauce. I love apple pie. And I love the creative genius of God, who seems to care an awful lot of about ordinary things like apple trees. And fresh baptismal water. And the bread we bake and then break and the cup filled with the fruit of the vine we lift and drink.

We value Sacramental Worship that takes our faith deeper than spoken words, helping us experience the mystery of Christ and inspiring us to serve God and others. Sacramental worship helps us see, taste, hear, and touch the word of God. It calls forth artistic gifts and celebrates the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion as we engage with the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice and risen life. 

9/11 at 20 years

I tire of hearing people tell where they were when they first heard that a commercial jet had flown into the north tower of the twin towers in downtown Manhattan on 9/11/2001. But the memories are fresh come every September 11. I remember the day well; I cannot forget that day.

The 20th anniversary of that day is a marker for our nation. That day was last Saturday, a sabbath day for me. A day to do some yardwork, some exercising, some relaxing, and some reflecting as I did ordinary Saturday things. Three moments stand out for me on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

The first is that I planted an apple tree. I have two flourishing apple trees that I planted eight years ago. Near them was a hole in the ground where another fruit tree I had planted didn’t make it. I have been wanting to plant another fruit tree in that hole and give the soil another chance. That morning I picked up some things at the nearby Lowe’s. Then I walked through their trees and found a small golden delicious for a good price. Planting a tree is always meaningful for me, an act of hope. We moved into a new home on a new lot eight years ago and I have been planting trees and bushes ever since. I am watching them mature, year by year. This brings me joy. Planting a new tree last Saturday had added meaning. I walk by it every day to wish it well. There has been just enough rain so I haven’t had to water it. That is a good sign. Five days in, it looks healthy. I am hopeful.

The second was in the evening. My wife and I had seen “Come From Away” on stage twice and loved it both times. We noted that a streaming service was showing it on TV. That seemed the right program to watch on the anniversary of 9/11, as “Come From Away” is about what happened in one small Canadian town 20 years ago when 7,000 strangers suddenly arrived in 38 jet planes, diverted from flying in the air space of the United States. It was just as wonderful the third time, but with a greater depth of emotion because of the day. Read about Gander, Newfoundland, and see this musical adaption of what happened there on 9/11 and the five days following. What happened in Gander that day renews my hope.

The third was actually Sunday evening, 9/12. We usually watch “60 Minutes” and this edition gave its whole time to stories of the NYC fire fighters that responded to the terrorism and the 343 that died while saving thousands of threatened lives. There are more than 60 firefighters in the FDNY today because they had fathers and other relatives give their lives on 9/11. Firefighters tend to see their work as a calling, a holy calling. That hour left me with a lump in my throat and a deep sense of gratitude for all fire fighters and those that support them. Every time a fire fighter goes to work, it is with the real sense that they may not get home at the end of their shift. Yes, that is true for all of us, but not in quite the same way it is for fire fighters. Hope is a dangerous thing, and so necessary in this world.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11/01was a day of remembering with solemn ceremonies at many locations, particularly the three sites where lives were lost. And it was a day for planting a tree of hope in my yard where a hole had been. I expect annual remembrances of 9/11 will be more low key until the 25th anniversary in 2026. I wonder how that tree will be doing then. It is my 9/11 tree of hope. I live in hope.

Two-Handed Giving, Generously

[This message was proclaimed by Pastor Laura and me at Perinton Presbyterian on August 29, 2021. The text is Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus. With Laura’s permission, I post our manuscript here. It can be watched on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook page.]

Laura: This passage makes me wonder about what experiences in his life had led Zacchaeus down this path. This is the only time we meet him in the gospels, so we don’t know anything more about what’s led him to be a tax collector, someone known for dishonesty and taking unfair advantage of other people. I’m curious about his parents, and what they taught him—or didn’t teach him—about money.

Was Zacchaeus’ dad a tax-collector too, and he just took up the family trade? Was he a pickpocket as a child, with tax collecting a more socially acceptable form of theft? Or did he grow up in such desperate poverty that he was determined to lead a different kind of life no matter what?

We don’t know what formed Zacchaeus, and his attitudes toward money, but we do know that our own understanding of money is profoundly shaped by what we learn growing up—whether that’s a positive example from our parents, or a negative one, or a bit of both.

Harry: I really like Zacchaeus. His response to Jesus changed his financial practices, which is how it should be. As a pastor, I observe giving patterns for American Christians. It seems to me that Americans have a love affair with money. The per capita income in the US was about $35,000 last year. The average annual giving for the 247 million Americans that identify as Christians was $884. That means self-identified American Christians give about 2.5% of their income. Only 5% of those self-identified Christians give the biblical tithe. If every self-identified Christian in our country tithed, churches would have an additional $139 billion to use in mission. In the town of Perinton, the average per capita income in 2019 was above the national average, over $45,000. The average income per household was just shy of $90,000.

We need to hear about Zacchaeus who, when he was encountered by God’s grace in Jesus, responded in overflowing generosity. Salvation wasn’t just about his soul, but his whole being and his resources. Salvation isn’t just about our souls, but about all that we are and all that we have. It’s not just about getting us to heaven, but about living right here and now.

Laura: There was one particular experience for me growing up that shaped the way I think about giving. My dad had strong connections with Korean Presbyterians in the US and our family would often worship on Sunday mornings at our neighborhood church, then go to one of several Korean churches in the area.

At our neighborhood church—which was mostly white—I was used to my mom handing me a dollar as the offering time began, and putting it into the plate with one hand, while I passed the plate to the next person with the other hand.

But my dad said that, when we were in Korean church, I had to be very careful not to do that. He explained that in Korean culture, handing something to someone with one hand is considered disrespectful, as though it is a kind of throwaway, you don’t care about it, or the person you’re giving it to. The proper way to make a gift in Korean culture is with two hands. And so, when the offering plate came down our row, I was to hold the offering with two hands, place it into the plate, and only then take the plate to hold for the next person to do the same.

This image of giving with both hands has stayed with me, as a profound way to think about generosity. Spiritually we can approach giving as something we do with one hand—meaning in a kind of careless, this doesn’t really matter that much sort of way—or we can give with both hands, meaning that we give with an attitude that says, this is a precious and valuable gift from my heart. In my own life, I want to be someone who gives with both hands.

Harry: My earliest earnings were from mowing lawns and delivering newspapers from my bike. All through high school and college I had jobs. I was able to buy my first car, a two door 55 Chevy BelAir while still in high school. But was that money really mine to do with as I pleased?

My parents never talked much about money in the home. My dad was a carpenter and my mom was a homemaker and weekend waitress at a local Italian restaurant. My parents taught me that work was good. My parents were generous in helping people in need, without talking about it much. I could see their example. My mother gave me one warning about tithing that I remember still. She was concerned that tithing could become legalistic. She was right. I never want to give in legalistic ways.

Laura: There was another moment for me that shaped my journey with generosity. When my husband Mike and I were newly married, he was finishing up seminary in Chicago and I was working about 5 part-time jobs to help make ends meet. But the ends just weren’t meeting, and we were really stressed about money. We didn’t have enough, and we didn’t know what we were going to do.

One night we were talking about it, and about how worried we were, and then Mike said, “You know Laura, we’re not really giving to the church. We’re doing a little bit here and there, a dollar or five dollars, but we’re not giving with any real kind of purpose. We haven’t been prioritizing it.

I didn’t like hearing that. I was stressed out enough about money and I didn’t need to feel guilty about not giving. And I let him know it. But then, very quickly, I began to realize he was absolutely right.

We had both been raised to give to the church, to give whole-heartedly, with intentionality and purpose. But so far as adults we were giving with one hand, and I realized that’s not who I wanted to be. And that’s not who Mike and I want to be as a couple.

So we decided that night, that before we paid the bills, before we bought our groceries, we would give 10% of what we earned to our church. And then we’d figure out the rest.

I’m not going to tell you that all of a sudden everything was fine for us financially—we were still struggling, but we had an entirely different attitude and outlook. All of a sudden we had this sense of integrity, and generosity, and trust in our lives that we hadn’t had before.

When we gave first, it made us look more carefully at all our other expenses, and reorder things. Our whole attitude toward money had changed, because we had started giving with both hands.

That practice, that discipline of giving first, rather than last, has been a bedrock principle for us in our marriage. Mike and I became committed to tithing, meaning that we give 10% of our income to the churches that we serve first, and then figure the rest out. Tithing means we give some other things up, but it’s absolutely worth it.

It’s partially a matter of integrity, in that I have to lead as a pastor by doing what I am teaching and preaching to others, and it’s also about our own spiritual lives as Christians, and choosing to give with both hands, to put generosity and trusting God first, so that all our other financial decisions flow down from that.

Harry: I really like Zacchaeus. When I became a pastor, I faced the challenge of how to talk about financial giving. How much should I say? One thing I knew: I couldn’t talk about my wife’s and my giving without her approval. She gave it and probably said, “Keep it brief and be honest. Guilt doesn’t work.” Her parents had taught her to tithe. Her parents never made much money, but they were generous givers, always giving more than the tithe. Rachel and I had both learned about generosity from our parents, so we would pass that forward.

I tithe. My wife and I give at least 10% of our earnings to the work of the church, local and global. Pastors tend not to get overpaid, yet pastors are usually among the highest givers in congregations. We tithe not to impress God or anyone else and not to earn God’s favor. We don’t tithe so that God will have to do good things for us. We tithe because we have been so richly blessed by God and we want to be faithful and generous. Generous giving is a spiritual discipline for all followers of Jesus.

I shared that story annually in Brunswick Church and we saw the congregation’s giving increase regularly and significantly. I found that people needed encouragement and positive testimonies. And I always gave this caution. Tithing should never be legalistic. If you’re tithing regularly, make sure to find ways to give over and above, at least on occasion. God has shared with us abundantly. Let’s respond with generosity—and occasionally with extravagance. Like Zacchaeus.

Laura: Ultimately this conversation that we’ve been having today with the Biblical story of Zacchaeus, with one another, and with all of you, is a conversation that it’s vitally important for each of us to have with God and the other people we’re close to.

God calls each of us to respond with generosity to his abundance and extravagance. To deepen our own personal commitment to giving first, rather than last, and letting the other priorities flow down from the starting point of generosity and trust.

Like my dad, who gently and clearly taught me to give with both hands, God gently and clearly teaches us, his children, to do the same. To learn to give with both hands. Whole heartedly honoring his generosity to us. It’s how we’re called to live. And it’s how we’re called to give. Amen.

Extravagant Giving–Extravagant Forgiving

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on August 22, 2021, based on Luke 7:36-50. It can also be seen on the Perinton Facebook page.]

It was a hot August day in the stifling heat and humidity of Washington, D. C. The line of people outside the front door of the White House, waiting for a chance to visit the president, was already long. It was once the custom that people could get in line in the morning and have a chance of greeting the president in person. One man stood out because he was so well dressed—and he was Black. It was 1863; the Civil War was still raging. He had run away from slavery and established himself as an American citizen of note, living for a time in Rochester, though he was not yet allowed even to vote. He had been recruiting freed Black men and runaway slaves to serve in the Union armies. He didn’t think the president was doing enough for the cause.

Security officers were suspicious because he was Black and well dressed. But someone on the president’s staff caught a glimpse of him, the great Frederick Douglass. He sent word to the president and the president ordered that Douglass be taken out of the line and brought immediately into the president’s office. That president was Abraham Lincoln.

A friendship began that day, between a runaway slave and the president. They are the two most photographed Americans of the 19th century. I suppose it wasn’t fair that Douglass was pulled from the long line and ushered into the president’s presence. I expect that the white people in front of Douglass were not happy about this. Maybe some of them didn’t get to see President Lincoln that day because of the time Lincoln freely gave to Douglass. When you want to get in, it helps to be known by someone.

Who knows this unnamed sinner woman? How does she get in to this dinner at a Pharisee’s house? Who let her in? Sometimes a home in that time would have two entrances: the front door, the proper entrance, and a back door, which servants or women might use. She could have snuck in the back door without being noticed. Or she could have simply crashed the front door. What did she have to lose? Security wasn’t that tight. While we don’t know exactly how she gets in, once she is in, there is no mistaking her presence. She is a woman of the city, a sinner. And our minds go in different directions—or maybe in the same direction. She is not Mary Magdalene. Luke introduces her in the next chapter. She is forever that sinful woman who anoints Jesus in extravagant fashion.

We have a triangle in this passage, three key players: Simon the Pharisee, a sinful woman, and Jesus. Luke sets up a contrast between the Pharisee and the woman. At the surface level, the contrast is obvious: one is a man and one is a woman. In that time and culture, there was a wide divide between women and men. We see it all through the Bible, Old and New Testaments, where patriarchy was the norm. And we see all through the Bible, Old and New Testaments, God using women in God’s work. Particularly in the ministry of Jesus, we see women being honored in radical ways. Jesus listens to women. He accepts financial support from women. He welcomes women as disciples and followers. He ministers to them on the streets. He enters their homes.

At the next level, the Pharisee was well to do and the woman likely wasn’t. He owned a house that could welcome guests to dinners. She was simply called a woman of the city. At the third level, he was a Pharisee and she was a sinner. A Pharisee was a super-religious man. Pharisees memorized the laws of the Old Testament and kept them fastidiously. We know he was a sinner, but he probably didn’t think that of himself. Pharisees used God’s written law to draw lines, making clear which people were inside the circle of acceptance and which were outside the circle. They used these religious lines to separate themselves from sinners, like this woman of the city, this sinner.

She is named as a sinner, and our minds wander about what that means. And our wandering minds are probably right. She is a woman of the city, a sinner. She does make some money, evidenced by the alabaster jar of perfume she brings to the party. We can guess how she made money and how perfume was used in her work. And Jesus completes the triangle, having dinner at a Pharisee’s house when a sinful woman breaks in, uninvited, and extravagantly honors him by washing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, kissing his feet, and then anointing them with her costly perfume.

At this point not one of the three has said a word. The woman ministers to Jesus, Jesus receives her ministry, and the Pharisee is watching. We are accustomed to seeing Jesus minister to others, giving and giving, healing the sick, breaking bread, feeding multitudes, teaching with memorable words. But here he is doing nothing but receiving her offering. In fact, Jesus is receiving one kind of hospitality from the Pharisee and another kind from the woman. I find it refreshing that Jesus, who gives so much, is also able to receive. Do you notice that when people receive an unexpected gift or kind word, they often have a hard time accepting it? We say words like, “Oh, you didn’t have to do that.” We can be so good at giving and not at receiving. Or so good at receiving and not at giving. Jesus both gives and receives. We do well to learn from him, and be gracious givers and grateful receivers.

Finally the Pharisee speaks, questioning how Jesus could possibly be a prophet of God when he allows this woman, this sinful woman, to touch him. Can we hear the contempt in his voice? His religious world has been rocked. “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” His self-righteousness is dripping off his fine clothing.

Jesus speaks. What an opening: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Fasten your seatbelts, Simon, and everyone listening, including us. Jesus tells a simple story about two people in debt to a third person—do you see another triangle? One owes a small amount and one a large amount. Both debts are forgiven. “Which one will have the greater love for the one that forgives their debts; the one owing a little or the one owing a lot?” Have you locked in your answer? The Pharisee answers honestly, not realizing the trap he has fallen into.

Then Jesus drills it home: “Simon, ‘Do you see this woman?’” The truth is, Simon sees this sinful woman, but he doesn’t see a person. He only sees a category: sinful woman. Jesus isn’t so much judging Simon the Pharisee, but trying to get him to see realities his religious lenses hide from him, like persons that don’t fit into his tight religious circle. “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”

Let me make it simpler. “Simon, you didn’t, but she did. Simon, you didn’t, but she did. Simon, you didn’t but she did.” Last week, Pastor Laura used the word abundance. Today I am using a companion word, extravagance. This woman, whose sin was abundant, comes to Jesus with extravagant offerings. And the forgiveness she receives is equally extravagant.

This leads to some questions about our responses to Jesus.

  • Are we responding to Jesus like Simon the Pharisee or the sinful woman?
  • Are our gifts meager and measured or magnanimous?
  • Are our responses to Jesus merely religious or extravagant?
  • Is our giving underwhelming or overflowing?

Aren’t you glad a woman of the city, a sinner, got into the house of Simon the Pharisee where Jesus the savior was having dinner one evening? Her extravagant gifts are still speaking.