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.

The Church Has a Prayer

[This message was delivered at the Community of the Savior in Rochester NY on July 25, 2021, based on Ephesians 3″14-21 and 2 Samuel 11. It can be watched had heard on the Community of the Savior site on Facebook.] 

Do you pray for churches? I do. Perhaps it’s because I have worked for churches. I mention three regularly: Brunswick Church, where I served as a pastor for 38 years, Community of the Savior, where I served as a supporting pastor for about six years, and Perinton Presbyterian, where I now serve as a part time associate pastor. When I am driving and pass a church building, I usually offer a brief prayer for the congregation that meets there.

Do you pray for churches? If so, do you tend to pray for churches having trouble or church that seem healthy? I wonder if we tend to pray more for churches in trouble than for churches that aren’t in obvious trouble.

I pray for churches that are in the news for bad reasons. I hate it when churches make headlines for their sins. When I read in 2 Samuel 11 about King David and his affair with Bathsheba, I wince. What was David thinking? He was the best king of Israel to come along, successful in battle and in unifying a once divided country. He had a tender heart and was a skilled shepherd. He sees a woman, not his wife, bathing and decides he has to have her. Because he is king, he can do that. And he does.

I remember an interview of Bill Clinton by Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes.” It was after Clinton’s presidency, airing on June 20, 2004. At one point, Wallace asked him, Mr. President, why did you do it (referring to Clinton’s affair with White House Intern Monica Lewinsky)? Clinton answered, and I quote, “Just because I could.” He then said that was a terrible excuse, but it was his truth. His power allowed him to do that. He is not alone in that. Men in power, from presidents to pastors, too often do such things. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester has about 475 legal suits against it for priests and church leaders sexually violating people in the churches. Those suits are before a U. S. Bankruptcy court currently, because the diocese declared bankruptcy knowing it could never pay the millions of dollars it likely will have to pay soon.

Protestant church leaders are not exempt. Ravi Zacharias, a global evangelist and apologist, whose books have sold millions, has been credibly charged by numerous woman with inappropriate touch and sexual advances. The ministry that bears his name has admitted that the charges are essentially true. Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Church, one of the most known and respected megachurches in the country, retired in shame as he was credibly charged with inappropriate advances and touches to women on the church staff. Jerry Falwell, Jr., resigned as president of Liberty University in similar circumstances. When we pray for churches, let’s also pray for their pastors, by name.

What David did still happens. People in power, especially men, can readily yield to the temptations that power gives them. David’s life and reign would never be the same. He showed repentance and, I believe, received God’s forgiveness, but the ramifications of his sin were enormous. His early promise as the man after God’s own heart would never be fully realized.

Paul prays for the church in Ephesus in our epistle reading today. I find it notable that Paul includes at least one prayer in every one of his letters to churches. Ephesians has the two longest of these prayers, one in chapter one and today’s in chapter 3. It is notable that Ephesians is not a correction letter, but an encouragement letter. The one before us follows a section on how Jesus has been breaking down the wall that long stood between Jews and Gentiles, culminating in two towering statements. The first is Ephesians 2:14-16: 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.”

The second is the summary in 3:6: “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” That is the backdrop for this prayer. There cannot be, in Paul’s view and God’s design, one church for Jews and another for Gentiles. In our time, with the proliferation of denominations (at last count about 45,000 in the world!), we have white churches and Black churches. It ought not to be so, though I appreciate the historic reasons Blacks and other minority groups have developed their own churches, where they can be free and can freely lead and serve. But the New Testament has a loftier vision of the church, where walls and barriers fall because of the grace of Jesus.

The thrust of Paul’s prayer is that God will strengthen them. Churches are not very good at strengthening themselves. When they work at strengthening themselves, it can be dangerous, playing into numbers games and competition. Paul never prays for them to strengthen themselves, but that they will be strengthened by the triune God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are invoked in this prayer. Rather than try to strengthen ourselves, we do better to humble ourselves and pray for the strengthening work of the Lord in our midst.

The prayer crescendos with a four-dimensional grid. In terms of physical dimensions, we know there are three: height, width, and depth. A painting deals with two; a sculpture deals with three. But a really good painting can evoke the dimension of depth. High definition TVs promise that now, but 3-D movies do it better if we are willing to wear those funky glasses they hand out. Paul is not content with three dimensions when considering the love of Christ. He goes for four: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (3:18-19). By going four dimensional, Paul is entering the Twilight Zone, going beyond what was known into new realms of reality.

The Church is facing some enormous challenges today. In more educated and wealthy countries, like much of Europe and North America, people are leaving churches in droves or never entering them. One of the groups most resistant to getting the Covid vaccination shots is white evangelical Christians. The church culture seems as divided as the political culture. The emerging generations, like the millennials, are in great numbers seeing the Church as hopelessly legalistic, judgmental, hypocritical, self-serving, and rigid. They are not perceiving or experiencing the Church as all caught up in the love of Christ. They are often saying, “We like Jesus. We find him fascinating, but we have no interest in the Church that so often looks nothing like Jesus.” The Barna Group, which studies trends in Protestant-evangelical churches in the United States, estimates that about 2/3s of the children and youth in our churches today—kids that go to Sunday school, faith formation, confirmation classes, and youth groups—will not be in churches as adults. Church, we have work to do.

Am I discouraged by this? Yes, but I am far from hopeless. Because I love Jesus, I love the Church, even with all its imperfections. Even though I am troubled by much that passes for Christianity today, I love churches, like Brunswick Church, Community of the Savior, and Perinton Presbyterian. I know those churches well enough to know some of their struggles and imperfections, but I love them. And I pray for them regularly, like every morning.

Let’s hear that prayer in Ephesians 3  again, this time in “The Message”:

My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in us as we open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, we’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. Glory to God in the church! Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!
Glory down all the generations! Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes!

I live in hope. The church has a prayer.

Good Touch: Healing Touch

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on July 11, 2021, based on Luke 8:43-48. It can be seen and heard on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook page. That version has some differences from the manuscript below, omitting some parts and adding others.]

Touch has become a touchy subject. When I was a child, my mom hugged me frequently. Since my mother was full Italian, touch was common. I thought my facial cheeks would be permanently disfigured for the thousands of times an Italian relative reached down, pinched my cheeks, and said in Italian, “che bello.” I knew it was loving touch. My father was German-American from Midwestern farm country. He and his family just didn’t do that kind of thing. Maybe a handshake was sufficient or the briefest peck on the cheek. I always knew good touch.

Then, somewhere in my adult years, there was a shift. My young daughters in elementary school were learning about “good touch/bad touch.” And I was learning with them. We now know that scores of our country’s best female gymnasts were sexually abused by a doctor’s touch, the doctor that was charged to keep them healthy. He is now in prison for the rest of his life. The legendary Penn State football program came to a grinding halt when it was revealed that their defensive coach had abused many young athletes and boy children with inappropriate touch. He is now in prison for the rest of his life. Many church leaders, Roman Catholic and Protestant, have been charged with bad touch and brought shame and disgrace to the church.

Growing up and into my adult life, I have experienced only good touch. But it is not so for millions. About a quarter of all American marriages have abusive behavior, usually physical, almost always done to the women.

In Gary Chapman’s classic book, “The Five Love Languages,” physical touch is one of the five. I believe in good touch, even as I admit that bad touch is rampant. I have learned that there are some guidelines to help us honor good touch. In translating the writings of Paul, when he says to several churches, “greet one another with a holy kiss,” J. B. Phillips showed his thoroughly British reserve with this translation: “Give each other a hearty handshake all around….” (Romans 16:16, “The New Testament in Modern English”.) Sorry, but that is too British. “The Message” catches it better: “Holy hugs all around!” Indeed, Christians through all ages have greeted one another warmly, with good touch. I suggest these guidelines for the church today, when wanting to share a holy hug or holy kiss with a sister or brother in Christ:

  1. Ask permission.
  2. Keep it brief.
  3. Keep it modest.
  4. Keep it public.

Luke 6:19 describes how the crowds were responding to Jesus: “And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” We believe in healing touch. With virtually all Christians, we lay hands on the sick when we pray for healing. When we ordain people to church offices—deacons, elders, pastors—we lay hands on them, signs of affirmation and blessing. When Isaiah was given a dazzling vision of the holiness of God, one that silenced him, God’s messenger touched my mouth… and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’” (Isaiah 6:7)

Jesus frequently use human touch to mediate God’s healing power to others. We have about a dozen occurrences in the Gospels where that happens. And then we have one that reverses the process. In one case, a woman needing healing reaches out and touches Jesus. She has had an issue of bleeding for 12 years. And she is a woman.

Jesus has this amazing way of connecting with women, in a time and culture in which women were commonly understood and treated as second class people. Luke has a special eye for this. He begins his gospel account by focusing on two women: too old Elizabeth and too young, Mary. Both become pregnant against all odds. Their two children will change the world. In Luke 8, where we meet this woman with the hemorrhaging, women are noted several times. As Jesus is traveling with his 12 men disciples, there are many women who travel with them and provide for them out of their resources. Later there is a 12-year-old girl dying. Her father pleads with Jesus to go his house and touch his daughter. When Jesus finally gets to that house, the girl is dead. Jesus takes her by the hand—physical touch—and raises and restores her.

In between Jesus hearing about that girl so ill and the time he gets to her house, a woman with 12 years of bleeding touches him. Her circumstance of bleeding makes her unclean. Leviticus 15:25-30 makes that clear. She is unclean in three ways: first, she is physically unclean; second, she is socially unclean; and third, she is ritually and religiously unclean. She is an outcast. To make it worse, anyone she touches becomes unclean. It is like a treacherous game of tag. She is a spreader and this crowd in Galilee is about to become a super-spreader event.

I love how Jesus responds to strong, courageous, and bold women. Jesus sees women as full participants in his what God is doing. He makes women the heroes of some of his parables. He is never put off by a woman speaking to him in public. He seems to relish it. My life and my faith journey have been shaped by strong women, women of faith and courage. From my mother, to my wife, to my two daughters, to the women I have served alongside in church life—I have been shaped and formed by wonderful women, women of valor, courage, faith, and substance. What about you?

“She comes up behind him and touches the fringe of his clothes….” What courage this takes. She is standing at a distance, aware of her uncleanness. She sees an opening in the crowd. She has a direct line of sight to Jesus. Can she snake through without touching anyone? No way. But she sees Jesus and she knows that she must make contact with him.

She takes her physical/social/spiritual need right to Jesus. Our bodies matter to God. We are not souls stuck in bodies for a while. We are unitary beings: body, soul, and spirit all wrapped up together inseparably. Jesus does not come to us as a spirit stuck in a body, but as a unitary being: body, soul, and spirit all wrapped up inseparably. He lives just as we do: eating, sleeping, getting tired, getting bruised, touching and being touched. He dies bodily; he is raised bodily; he appears to his friends bodily.

She inches closer. Will the religious leaders call her out and stone her to death? Will Jesus pretend he doesn’t see her? She gets close enough to touch him. She reaches out and just barely touches the fringe of his garment. He couldn’t have felt that, but he did. And he stops. The disciples stop. The crowd stops. Everything stops. It is as if the universe stops. “Who touched me?” Peter has the smart answer. “Look Master, there is crowd here. Everyone is bumping up against you.” But Jesus says, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.”

The woman’s cover is blown to bits. She knows that she is the one. She knows that Jesus knows. She will hide no longer. I mentioned earlier that when an unclean person, like her, touches someone else, like him, the uncleanness spreads to the one touched. Now Jesus reverses the process. When she in her uncleanness touches him, he in his cleanness cleanses her. Heals her. Restores her. Lifts her. Washes her. Changes her life.

“Jesus said, ‘Daughter, you took a risk trusting me, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed!’” (Luke 8:48 in “The Message.”)

Worshiping in Spirit and Truth

[This message based on Nehemiah 8:5-8-10 and John 4:19-26 was delivered on 7/4/21 at Perinton Presbyterian Church. It can be watched and heard on the church Facebook page or webpage.]

“No new normal!” When I drive here, I pass a house with a sign on the lawn that says “No new normal!” I’m pretty sure that has to do with the pandemic. Over the last 15 months, people have spoken of a new normal coming. The thought of a new normal can be disturbing. Some want to hold on to how we have always done things and any change is frightening. But then, most of us have adjusted to traveling in motorized vehicles, like cars, busses, trains, and planes. In the span of human history, those are very new. In a week like the last one, I don’t think any of want to go back to the old normal before we had air conditioning.

Churches are wondering very much about post-pandemic life. Will people come back? Or have they found that they like staying home on Sunday mornings? When we have learned to worship with our congregation from home through technology, will we want to continue to worship in that way? I have to make a confession now. I am an extrovert (maybe you’ve noticed) and I draw energy from being with lots of people. Add to that that I am a pastor and a preacher, and you won’t be surprised to know that I love to worship with other people in crowded rooms.

But not everyone is an extrovert. Probably about half of you worshiping with me right now are introverts and crowded rooms drain your energy. Some of you have found some benefits in worshiping in virtual ways. I respect that. I am convinced that any church that is paying attention is straddling this line: we are eager to return to worship as we have long known it and we want to continue to worship with people in virtual ways.

I am in favor of our continuing to make our worship services available on the internet every Sunday. For people with weakened health systems, worshiping from home is a wonderful gift. For people that can’t get out readily or don’t drive, worshiping from home serves well. For people in a tough place in life, worshiping from home can be a lifeline. For people on vacation or work trips, worshiping while away from home is a wonderful gift. I am for it. But I add a caution. If people are choosing to worship from home merely because of convenience, perhaps we need to think that through. There is more to worship than convenience.

Nehemiah 8 takes us to a place of inconvenience. It was a virtual post-pandemic setting. The people of Israel had been taken captive to Babylon over a generation earlier. Jerusalem, the center of their religious and cultural life, had been destroyed. There was rubble everywhere. Homes and neighborhoods were destroyed. The city walls were torn down. And perhaps the most bitter pill, the Temple, the central symbol of their worship was ransacked and leveled. Picture southern Manhattan on September 12, 2001. Picture the base of Champlain Tower South in Surfside FL this morning. What do the returned exiles do? They gather outdoors and have a big festive worship service right there surrounded by ruins. The word of the Lord is read and explained (we call that a sermon), the people respond, and they are sent out in the joy of the Lord. It is the very pattern we use in our worship today: gathering, hearing the reading and proclaiming of the word of God, responding to God’s grace, and going forth to serve.

Throughout his earthly days, Jesus went to synagogue on the sabbath to worship God. He sometimes got in trouble for the good deeds he did in gathered sabbath day worship, because some people, mainly religious types, wanted everything done in the old normal ways. Jesus brought a new normal. Jesus is always bringing the new. Jesus is making all things new.

Now he is traveling through Samaria, a dangerous place for a Jew. He stops at a well at midday to draw some water. A Samaritan woman arrives at the well about the same time. Jesus breaks social custom and speaks to her. She responds and that begins the longest conversation we have of Jesus with another person in the Gospels. And it with a woman who is a Samaritan. Those are two social barriers that Jesus bursts through. At one point the conversation turns to religious stuff. And Jesus, as usual, is full of surprises. A new normal is coming.

The woman misunderstands the nature of true worship, which most people then held and a lot do today. In her mind worship is linked to where you worship. For Samaritans, the central place to worship is Mt. Gerizim in central Palestine. For Jews, the central place is Jerusalem, which is on a hill in the south. Jesus reframes the matter: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The key is not where we worship, but how we worship; not the GPS location, but the engagement of the worshiper with the one worshiped. Not which mountain, but what kind of heart we bring.

There are four words translated worship in the New Testament. Each brings a different aspect, from reverence, to duty and service, to order. But one of the four is dominant. It occurs more than the others put together. It is the most physical of the four. It literally means to fall down in the presence of the one worshiped. To prostrate oneself. To fall reverently in the presence of the other. It is the word used for the Magi when they reached the child Jesus in Bethlehem: they fall down before him, worshiping him and giving him lavish gifts. This word occurs over 50 times in the New Testament. And it occurs ten times in this little passage of five verses. This is the greatest concentration in the New Testament.

Jesus is opening this Samaritan woman to a new normal, both in worship and in life. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In spirit and in truth. Spirit suggests our emotional involvement; truth suggests our intellectual involvement. This is not an either/or, but a both/and. We don’t worship in spirit or in truth, but in both spirit and truth. Presbyterians call this ardor and order. Worship with ardor is spirited; it is enthusiastic; it welcomes and evokes emotion. Worship with truth is thoughtful and orderly. (Which side do you think Presbyterians tend to emphasize: ardor or order?) This spirit and truth worship honors both passion and protocol. In music, it honors both old hymns and new songs. It welcomes contributions from 20 centuries of worship and more. It is lively and lovely. It is not arrogant and snobbish. Without spirit, worship is flat. Without truth, worship is empty.

God is not interested in staid and self-serving worship. Worship in spirit and truth never seeks to impress God or people. Rather, it seeks to honor God with our whole selves and give worth and praise to God. Through the prophet Amos, God warns against performance worship: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24) True worship links justice and righteousness. It engages our whole beings and sends us out to live in new ways. New normal ways, pursuing justice and righteousness.

In this season of spiritual care, we keep worship central, both in person and streaming. There is much that the church does today that will end someday. A time is coming when we will no longer need Christian education, evangelism, budgets and pledge campaigns, building and grounds teams, board and committee meetings, and even technology teams. But worship will never cease. What we are doing here this morning, whether in this room or scattered elsewhere, is eternal. We are touching eternity when we gather to worship God in spirit and truth.

Sticks and Stones

[This message, from Luke 4:31-37, was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on June 27, 2021 and can be found in video form on Perinton’s facebook page. That form includes a brief interview with a mental health care professional and a photo of Sarah, who wrote the poem I read toward the end.]

He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. 32 They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. 33 In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm. 36 They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!” 37 And a report about him began to reach every place in the region. (Luke 4:31-37)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,…”

My mother taught me this little poem when I was a youngster. It was short and pithy and easy to memorize. It went like this

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, But names will never hurt me.”

She was teaching me something important about having a good self-image. But with time, I found the little poem part true and part false. The first half is true. I have broken my share of bones in my life. I am particularly good at breaking ribs, once by tripping on a stick while jogging. “Sticks and stones may break my bones,…” Yes.

But the second line is false. “But names will never hurt me” is not true. Names can hurt us. Naming is a human activity that can be build up or tear down. People have names. Those names should be honored.

In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon… Does anyone there know his name? Is he known in Capernaum? Is he a beggar or a thief? In and out of trouble with the law? And why is he in the synagogue on sabbath day? Instead of a name, he is given a description: a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon.

It is sabbath day and a young teacher named Jesus is teaching. They are astounded at his teaching, because he speaks with authority. And here is this man, the one with the spirit of an unclean demon. And he cries out with a loud voice…. Does that disturb the worshipers gathered in the synagogue on the sabbath day? Are the noises coming from his mouth uncouth? Unsettling? Raw? Does his presence make people uncomfortable?

Just what is this man’s condition? Most students of that time period and most biblical scholars believe that this likely was what we would call a mental health matter. In that time, most people believed in the spirit world. There were good spirits, often called angels, and bad spirits, often called demons. The word demon, and its varied forms, occurs over 60 times in the New Testament. The word angel appears over three times that, which is good to remember. Is this man with the spirit of an unclean demon experiencing some kind of mental illness? I can’t be sure, but I think so.

In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon… In the time of Jesus this was a reality readily recognized. In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, Paul writes, For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

There is a reason that the novels of Stephen King have sold over 350 million copies. He writes about the darkness in our world, and people today, just as much as people 20 centuries ago, know that there is a dark side to life. There is a reason millions read “The Exorcist” and millions more watched the movie. I can’t explain it fully, but I know that in our world today, there are spirits of light and spirits of dark at work. And sometimes those spirits, spirits of light and of dark, are at work in us. I can’t explain this, but I know it is true.

In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon… In this one synagogue in Capernaum on this one day Jesus is present. The Messiah, the savior, is present. He hears the cries of that spirit within the man. He hears the jabs of that spirit directed at him. Jesus doesn’t flinch. He accepts that man. He welcomes that man. He calls that unclean demonic spirit out of the man and he sets the man free. That man leaves the synagogue with a new life. A new day dawns for him. If I can’t explain all of this, I know that Jesus has authority over the physical world and the spirit world. He calms stormy seas and he sends unclean demons packing. He is Lord and that unclean demon in that unnamed man knows it.

This is personal for me. In my family of origin there was a strain of mental illness. When I was born, my mother went into depression and sent me to live with my grandparents while she got help. I have no memory of that time. My mother didn’t need to tell me about her illness when I was a baby, but I am so grateful that she did. She could have hidden it from me, but she didn’t. She modeled gracious honesty, and helped me appreciate the reality of mental illnesses. My older brother struggled with dark depression over many years. Finally he died in the dark depths of depression. Going through his belongings, my mother found this photograph of Donnie being baptized. She gave it to me, and I treasure it. It is dated three months before his death. Perhaps knowing that he couldn’t handle that depth of depression, he found a church and was baptized. He had long been away from the church, but I believe he was never away from the Lord. He knew where his ultimate home was and he returned home. I am so grateful that a church in southern California named Hope Chapel welcomed him in his brokenness. On his gravestone we had these words of Jesus etched: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)

I have a vision of the Church becoming more like Jesus, becoming more of a community of no-judgmental welcome. A young woman in our congregation, whose hugs are the best in the world, has never been verbal. She has some disabilities, but she also has some amazing abilities. She wrote this poem when she was a teenager:

My disability makes me want to scream.

I can’t make my body work right.

I can’t be like other kids.

I can’t even SCREAM.

When will people learn how frustrating my disability is?

When will people understand what I go through in a day?

When will they be my friend?

Why is it so hard?

I need to cry but no tears come.

I need some friends to listen.

Read my words.

Hear my scream.

See my tears.

Learn to slow down and listen.

Be my friend.

My friend has a name: Sarah. Though I have known her only a short time, I am better for knowing her. Jesus knows her scream—he hears our screams, even our silent screams.

Join me in envisioning a church where a man with the spirit of an unclean demon is always welcome. Let’s envision a church where all people are welcome, whatever their abilities, disabilities, needs and gifts, whatever their life experiences. Let’s envision a church where it is as natural to pray for someone with a mental illness as it is to pray for a person with cancer or a broken bone. Let’s envision a church where stigmas are removed and people are welcome and honored for who they are.

In this season of spiritual care, we see Jesus reaching out to all kinds of people. Some are named; some are not. In this season of spiritual care, let’s envision a church where Jesus is just as present as he was one day when a man entered a synagogue with the spirit of an unclean demon. I can’t help but picture that that man left the synagogue that day with a smile. And a name. A child of God welcomed home and set free.

All You Need Is Love…Rightly Understood

[This message was delivered on May 9, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on John 15:9-17 and 1 John 5:1-6. It can be viewed on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook channel or website.]

One of the hazards—I mean perks—of being a pastor is getting invited to lots of wedding receptions. I have been to a few hundred. The food is sometimes really good, but often just warm when it gets to my table. Don’t ask me about DJs. Then there are customs, like when a guest clinks a glass with a spoon, and the bride and groom kiss to raucous applause. Yea for love. But some are more creative. I have been to several where to get the bride and groom to kiss, everyone at a table must sing a song with the word love in it. Of course, “Jesus Loves Me,” comes to mind, but some tables get more creative after a round of drinks. Like these I have heard and sometimes participated in:

  • “All You Need Is Love,” by the Beatles;
  • Or that one by the raspy voiced Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it; what’s love but a second-hand emotion?”;
  • Or that ballad from “The Lion King,” “Can you feel the love tonight?”

I like this newer wedding reception custom, but it shows a problem with our understanding of love today: we tend to think of love as an emotion, from “what’s love but a second-hand emotion?” to “Can you feel the love tonight?”

I’m all for feelings of love. I frequently have them. An example is watching my 14-month-old granddaughter Zora. She and her parents are living in Cambodia, so I haven’t held and kissed her in nearly a year, but when I see her smile on facetime, I feel love. And when I see videos of her, like this recent one of Zora walking with her dog, I feel love in overwhelming ways. When she falls, I want to pick her up and comfort her with hugs and kisses.

When love when it is primarily understood as a feeling, there is a problem: feelings are fickle; they come and go and we don’t much control them. Jesus never mentions feeling love. Rather he commands us to love one another. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” That changes the equation. Jesus is talking about love as action based on what God has done. I don’t know one place in the Bible where love is primarily understood as a feeling or an emotion.

Think of the most quoted verse in the Bible about God’s love. It has to be John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that God had this overwhelming feeling of love for us and sent a really good Hallmark card.” Wait; did I misquote that? I think it goes something like this, “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.” That is consistent with just about everything the Bible says about the nature of love. The Gospel according to John and John’s first letter are particularly strong in defining love.

In John 13:34-35. Jesus begins this lengthy teaching with these words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus doesn’t say that people will know we are his disciples if our doctrine is perfectly correct.

Jesus doesn’t say that people will know we are his disciples if our political views are perfectly correct. Jesus doesn’t say that people will know we are his disciples if our buildings were beautiful and our parking lots paved. Jesus brings it all done to one simple thing: We are to love one another.

Now I go to the first letter of John, In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:9-10)

As I studied our two passages for today, I noted two keys words. The first, of course, is love. The Greek language of that day had four words for love, delineating different kinds of love, all good. The highest is agape, which is the nature of God’s love. That is the only word for love used in these two passages. Agape is not the love that we naturally know. Our loves tend to be transactional: I love people that can help me or that I like or that I find worthy. God’s love cuts through that and instead of being transactional is transformative. It loves the other for the sake of love, not because of what one will get out of it or because we like the person or because we find the person worthy. That is the standard Biblical way of understanding God’s love. Agape, that word that denotes God’s love, dominates the New Testament. That word is used 14 times in our two lead passages today.

The second most used word in them is command or commandment (the same New Testament word). That word is used seven times. There is a 2:1 ratio between love and command. That is a good rule for life. We should aim to speak love twice for any command that we give. Both words occur together several times: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” in John and “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments,” in 1 John. The two are to work together, with love always in the lead place.

Obeying can be a form of love, but it isn’t always. Obeying commands in a loveless way is wearying. There was a woman married to a former military officer. He treated his marriage like an extension of his military life, where he was used to giving commands. Before he went to work each work day, he would write a checklist for his wife to do that day. When he got home, he would review the list and see how well she obeyed him. It was a loveless marriage. He treated her in a transactional way. If she checked off the items on his list, he was pleased with her; if not, he was not. Then he died. She had tried to love him, but there was some relief when he was gone. Then one day she met a kind man who was single. They took an interest in each other. They enjoyed each other’s company. He asked her to marry him. She was hesitant because her first marriage was loveless. He assured her that he loved her and persisted. They got married. It was the marriage she had always wanted, filled with love, in words, deeds, and emotions. One day, she was cleaning in the bedroom and found a piece of paper lodged in the back of a drawer under her clothes. She pulled it out. It was list from her first husband. Her body tensed. Her new husband never gave her such lists. She read the list and realized she was doing many of the same things in her new marriage, but she was doing them now for love. She crumpled the list and threw it away, shedding a tear about the transformational love in which she was finally living.

This is a difficult time for the Church in our country. For the first time in nearly a century, under half of Americans admit to belonging to a church and most of them don’t go that often. The trend is clearly moving in the wrong direction. People outside the Church perceive churches as loveless and judgmental. They think we are less than loving. We come through as just another voluntary club, like a boat club or country club, where members tend to look like one another and think like one another. For some years I thought the phrase, “not religious but spiritual” was a cop out. Now I do not. There is a deep hunger for spirituality in our land. Most people really want genuine spirituality, but they think Church is not a good place to find it.

But I believe in the Church because of the love of Jesus and my heart aches when churches are perceived as unloving, often for good reason. I am still fairly new here, just approaching six months, which has all been in a pandemic. Yet I see signs of love here, but I expect that we could do more loving. I dream of Perinton Presbyterian Church not being known as an attractive white building on a hill, but as a congregation intent on loving one another and loving our neighbors outside the church. I envision us as a welcoming congregation, wanting to love as we have been loved. Jesus gives us our marching orders: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

We are called to be a lab of love, a school of love, a love boat moving forward and helping people. And that’s not a matter of how we feel, but how we act. Let’s choose love. Let’s speak love, Let’s act love. When we do, I expect that feelings of love will follow.

I Love This Sunday: Skeptics Welcomed Here

[This message was delivered on the second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, from John 20:19-31.]

This year-long pandemic has forced churches to be creative. The day before Palm Sunday we had a drive-thru for Holy Week bags. One church offered a drive-thru crucifixion. Were they going to crucify a car or some passengers? Why didn’t we think of crucifying a few of you after we handed you Holy Week bags? Another church pulled out all the stops for Easter. Their road sign said, “He died. He is risen. He is coming again…in person Sunday at 9:00am.” I wonder how that went. In fact, we have Jesus here this morning, though not in person in the usual meaning of those words.

This Sunday is a special challenge. I know because I am a retired (make that semi-retired) preacher. I always get asked to preach this Sunday. I said no to two others churches a few weeks ago that asked me to preach this Sunday. This is the second Sunday of Easter. In the eastern orthodox churches, the first Sunday of Easter this year is May 2. They are still in Lent. I wonder if any of them are thinking about a drive-thru crucifixion. They have plenty of time to plan it.

For the second Sunday of Easter, we get the same gospel account every year: the one where the risen Jesus appears to Thomas. I preached from it last year at a sister church of ours just down the road, First Presbyterian of Pittsford. And the year before I preached this Sunday somewhere else. And the year before . . . . I like Thomas. My faith in Jesus needs Thomas.

It’s that Sunday again. Do I have anything fresh to say? Yes. As Pastor Laura noted last Sunday, the word news implies new. We are telling a story that happened nearly 2,000 years ago. Is it new? You bet it is. Does the preacher have anything new to say? You bet he does. I have good news, that never grows old.

I like Thomas. He is honest. He doesn’t toe a party line. He asks questions that need to be asked. I am starting to see Thomas as the patron saint of scientists. He wants evidence, empirical evidence. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Since the other disciples got to see Jesus’ wounds a week before, this was a reasonable request. Science makes progress by asking probing questions to get at truth and examining all available evidence. That sounds healthy to me. Thomas would approve. I like Thomas.

Science and faith are not enemies. Science and faith need each other. Today there is a divide between faith and science for many people. That is unnecessary and unfortunate. The group in our country most resistant to getting COVID vaccinations is white evangelical Protestants. That is my heritage.  Some are saying that taking vaccines is putting our trust in ungodly science rather than in God. I believe in God and trust my life to God. And I buckle my seat belt whenever I get in a car. I believe in the Lord and I stop at red lights and stop signs. I see my doctor once a year and my dentist twice a year. I got both my COVID shots over a month ago, and my faith in God was not shaken one bit. I believe in God and in science; I believe in prayer and I try to use the mind God has given me to make responsible decisions. Thomas doesn’t trouble me. I like his honesty. Some of my very good friends are followers of Jesus and scientists. They enrich my understanding of faith. I like Thomas. My faith in Jesus needs Thomas. I think the Church needs to issue an apology for communicating to skeptics that they aren’t welcome, that their questions are not welcome.

Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health. In an Easter message on the CBS Sunday Morning last week, he said, “I am a physician, a scientist, and an evangelical Christian. I believe that science and faith are not in conflict. They offer complementary perspectives, with science answering questions that start with ‘how,’ and faith often better positioned to answer ‘why.’” In addition to Collins’s faith, Dr. Deborah Birx is a graduate of Houghton College, a Wesleyan College close to here. Dr. Anthony Fauci was raised a Roman Catholic Christian and went to Holy Cross College, a Jesuit school. Faith and science need each other. I give thanks for people like Anne, Kerry, Sandy, Charlotte, Jude, Eric, Becky, and others in our congregation who follow Jesus with all their minds and hearts and learn everything they can from science to participate in God’s healing ministry.

I like Thomas. So does Jesus. Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” The wounds are still there. Why? If Jesus was raised to newness of life, shouldn’t we expect that the wounds of crucifixion would be gone? Don’t we want a risen savior with a spiffy new body, free of scars, wounds, and holes caused by spikes?

“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio is a classic painting of Thomas seeing and touching the wounds of Jesus. The great artists, including Rembrandt and vonHonthorst, all agreed: Thomas got to see and touch the very wounds of Jesus. Knowing that our savior, our Lord and God, has wounds make God approachable and vulnerable. That word vulnerable comes from a Latin word, vulnus, which means wound. We worship and serve a Lord with wounds, with scars, that will be visible in eternity.

The last book of the Bible, the Revelation, gives us a dramatic glimpse into heavenly worship. John, lifted into that heavenly worship, is wondering where Jesus is. This is what happens: “So I looked, and there, surrounded by Throne, Animals, and Elders, was a Lamb, slaughtered but standing tall.” (Revelation 5:6 from “The Message.”) The lamb of God, slaughtered and wounded, and standing tall. Then all fell before the lamb in worship and sang,

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

During Lent, I listen frequently to a song by Michael Card entitled, “Come, Lift Up Your Sorrows,” which has these haunting words:

Come lift up your sorrows, and offer your pain; Come make a sacrifice of all your shame;

There in your wilderness, He’s waiting for you, To worship him with your wounds, For He’s wounded too.    (words and music by Michael Card and Vince Taylor)

Jesus never shames Thomas, never humiliates Thomas, never embarrasses Thomas, never excludes Thomas, and never punishes Thomas. Jesus doesn’t take him to the woodshed and give him a talkin’ to. Jesus treats Thomas and his skepticism with respect. Isn’t that good news for us when we can’t figure out God’s ways?

Kintsugi is a Japanese art form that takes broken pottery and repairs it with a mix of lacquer and gold dust. The artist doesn’t try to hide the break, but repairs it and makes it stronger. The made restored pottery, the one with wounds visible, becomes more valuable than the original. Out of brokenness, beauty emerges. Out of a crucifixion, new life emerges. Out of a cold tomb, the risen Lord emerges. Out of a room with the doors shut tight, with a skeptical scientific type named Thomas present, new faith emerges. Everyone hearing this message is wounded, including the preacher. We are all walking wounded. And our Lord is wounded and welcomes us, even with our skepticism and struggles.

“Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop not believing and start believing.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” Because of Thomas, we receive this blessing. I like Thomas. My faith in Jesus needs Thomas.