Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sermon: What It Looks Like: We Love

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 31, 2016, Epiphany 4C
1 Corinthians 13:1-14:1a

What It Looks Like: We Love

I feel compelled to make one thing clear: despite the scripture passage you’ve just heard, nobody is getting married today. At least not here in this service.
This chapter, probably the most famous thing the Apostle Paul ever wrote by a long shot, is a prime example of a verse that has become so associated with or attached to a particular occasion or usage, in the minds of so many church folk, that we get blinded to the fact that it wasn’t written for that particular purpose, and by so confining it in our minds or in our church life we are in fact starving ourselves of the very spiritual nutrients the passage was meant to provide for us, the “more excellent way” Paul urges upon us.
Before going further, let me make this clear: just because this passage wasn’t written as an ode to romantic love doesn’t mean it isn’t appropriate for a service of marriage. There’s nothing starry-eyed or swoony about the love Paul describes here. This love is tough, determined, and persistent, enduring even in the harshest of times. Yes, that is exactly the kind of love of which a couple needs to be reminded on the occasion of their marriage. We simply need to hear it at other times as well, and not connected to a wedding.
Though it may seem a bit of a diversion or tangent when situated in the contest of what Paul has just said before and is about to say after, in fact it is quite the opposite. Paul’s discourse on love is central to this part of his letter, and one might even argue to the whole letter as well. Indeed, the litany of love’s characteristics is more than just beautiful and poetic; it is a pointed response to those difficult Corinthians to whom Paul was writing, who had created the divisions Paul addresses in this letter.
First of all, the very gifts Paul has been discussing in chapter 12 are put in their place, in verses 1-3. Without love, none of them – none of these gifts over which the Corinthians had been in dispute, trying to one-up each other – are anything. Not the most eloquent or powerful speech, not prophecy, not even faith, not even the most extravagant generosity. Without love, these simply don’t add up to anything. If anything, as the Corinthians are experiencing, even those great gifts can become destructive.
If Paul is perhaps deflating the egos of the Corinthians in verses 1-3, he gets quite pointed in verses 4-7. For example, Paul isn’t just being lofty and poetic when he says “love is not envious” in verse 4; Paul is very specifically responding to the behavior of the Corinthians he has already chastised back in chapter 3, verse 3. Saying that love is not boastful follows very clearly after Paul’s admonition in 5:6 that “your boasting is not a good thing.” He flat-out calls them “arrogant” in 5:2, which love is not here. In short, the Corinthians are profoundly lacking in love for one another, and thus their church is fractured and difficult.
No two churches are alike. There are, though, ways that any church might want to examine itself to see just how its actions and missions and enacting of its spiritual gifts actually reflects the love of Christ for the church and the love Christ charges the church to show to the world. It’s far too easy for any given church to slip into a pattern of “going through the motions” in its missions and ministries. Conversely, such missions or ministries can fall into the trap of being ways the church flaunts itself, getting “puffed up” as the King James Version translates Paul’s description of the Corinthians, and pointing to its good works as a means of exalting itself against “those people” in other churches or denominations or religions. And that, whatever it is, isn’t love.
At this point Paul turns again to those spiritual gifts from chapter 12, and how love is “more excellent” because, as verse 8 puts it, “love never ends.” It would be easy to mis-interpret this passage as a particular kind of criticism of those gifts, but that would be to miss Paul’s point. Gifts such as prophecy, knowledge, or tongues are finite. More precisely, they are end-directed. These are gifts given by the Spirit, at the Spirit’s own initiative and the Spirit’s own choice, for this in-between time when we are in relationship with God, when we are the body of Christ but not yet in union with Christ. When we are come at last to that place where we are eternally in the company and presence of God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, there will be no need for prophecy. There will be no point to tongues. Knowledge will be fulfilled. Teaching, preaching, help, all those other gifts will be done.
But love never ends. Love is as eternal as God is eternal. That eternal union with God will be all love.
Even faith and hope, as Paul describes in the chapter’s final and most famous verse, are secondary to love in this way. Faith and hope are beautiful. They are amazing gifts of the Spirit. But like the others Paul describes, they are finite gifts to help sustain us through this in-between time. If faith is, as the author of Hebrews describes, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” then what is the point of faith when we are in the very presence of God, seeing God face to face? What is the point of hope when God is unmistakably and unshakably in the midst of us, for all to see? The partial things, as Paul says in verse 10, come to an end.
But love never ends. Love is as eternal as God is eternal.
Love. Never. Ends.
Though it is not part of today’s lectionary reading, the first verse of chapter 14 is useful, or even needful, to place chapter 13 into proper relationship with chapter 12.
Pursue love, and strive for the spiritual gifts.”
Not either/or, both/and.
Paul’s instruction does not mean that the Corinthians, or we, should somehow deny the gifts we have been given by the Spirit – and remember from back in 12:3 that anyone who truly confesses that “Jesus is Lord” is gifted by the Holy Spirit. Rather, Paul needs the Corinthians, and us, to understand that the care and feeding and usage of our spiritual gifts within the body of Christ and out in the larger world only works in the context of love – the love that God has shown us so that we might show love for one another and for all of God’s creation.
Sometimes that love takes on dramatic forms. Social media offered up this week a story (drawn from the Today show) of a woman in Wisconsin, Cori Salchert, who after a career as a nurse has come into a unique and sometimes heartbreaking calling. Cori and her family take in infants with terminal or extremely life-limiting diagnoses. She calls them “hospice babies.”
The first such infant the family took in lived fifty days, which might have been forty-five days longer than might have been expected. Cori Salcher is a trained nurse; she has no illusions that any child they take in will be “saved” in their care. She knows they will die.
But for those fifty days, or three months or two years or however long each child may live, that child will be loved. Not for hope of any return or expectation of any miracle, and not because it will somehow make her family any “holier” than any other family. That child will be loved because God loves, eternally, and her family will be a vessel of that love.
Our stories will not be that dramatic. They will be heartbreaking at times. They will try our patience or our virtue. We may stumble in grief and leap for joy at the same time because of that love. But if we dare to call ourselves followers of Christ, we will love, without reservation and without qualification.
We will love because God is love, eternal and unending. We will love because God loves. We will love because Christ loves. And we will love because that’s what the body of Christ does.
For love, eternal and unending, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak (426); “Not For Tongues of Heaven’s Angels” (531); “Though I May Speak” (335); “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” (384).

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sermon: What It Looks Like: We Need Each Other

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 24, 2016, Epiphany 3C
1 Corinthians 12:12-31

What It Looks Like: We Need Each Other

Bodies are amazing things. The sheer complexity of the human organism, the dynamics of coordination that make us able to function physically and mentally are staggering.
The trouble is, though, that bodies being so interdependent can result in one small problem in one part of the body can cause trouble for the whole body. I received a personal object lesson in this fact earlier this week. My body temperature was off, just barely. Not even a degree high, but just a little bit high. Yet that very small difference in temperature was enough to leave me alternately chilly and hot, a bit woozy, and generally not very functional for a couple of days.
Athletes are particularly prone to this kind of difficulty. In the 1937 All-Star Game in Major League Baseball, the pitcher Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals was struck on the foot by a line drive, and ended up with a broken toe. Dean was out for a significant part of that season, but with his St. Louis Cardinals striving for a pennant Dean tried to get back into action before his toe was fully healed. In trying to prevent more damage or pain in that broken toe, Dean altered his delivery – the mechanics of his pitching motion. Unable to adjust to a new pitching motion, Dean injured his arm. His pitching career never fully recovered, and Dean was forced to retire from baseball four years later, only able to win a few more games in that career. A toe seems an awfully small thing, but in Dizzy Dean’s case, it was enough to bring his whole body down. Bodies are amazing things, indeed – sometimes in a good way, sometimes less so.
That Paul chooses the body as a metaphor for the interworkings of the people of God is striking and informative in ways that the apostle himself might not even have imagined.
While Paul is the only contributor to the New Testament to use this particular metaphor, it wasn’t uncommon for teachers and writers in the Greco-Roman world to use such a metaphor to describe communal life. Philosophers and political figures were particularly fond of the body metaphor in that culture. For a politician, for example, the metaphor of the body might well be used to suggest that every member of a society had his or place to fill. A body needs a head; that place was to be filled by the “elites” of society – the wealthy, the military elite, those in power. A body also needs hands and feet; here pretty much everybody else in society, those charged with the hard or dirty or dangerous work of society was to fulfill his or her role.
Paul, though, takes a different angle on this metaphor. For Paul, what matters is the utter interdependence of the body – the degree to which the body needs everything in good working order. Parts of the body that might be regarded as weaker, or less “respectable,” are treated with greater care and covered or protected more carefully. In Paul’s scheme of the body, no part can claim to be independent of all the other parts. The eye can see all it wants to see, but without feet and legs to move, or hands to do the work that needs to be done, the eye is powerless. The head is useless without the rest of the body.
Many of us know what it is for our physical bodes to fail us or betray us. We see what needs to be done but we just aren’t capable of doing it physically. If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers with it. And so it is with the body of Christ, the church; when one member of this body suffers, we all suffer with that member.
Paul wants us to understand, in verse 13, that in being baptized in Christ we are baptized into this one body, no matter the differences between us. Indeed, following on the first part of this chapter we heard last week, the differences we bring to the body are not accidental; they are necessary, both in a given local congregation and in the church universal – we need all those different experiences, all those different backgrounds, for the body of Christ to function rightly and bear witness to the good news.
This is where it gets tricky, though. We are not always good at dealing with difference. We don’t always care for diversity, even as we need it. New Testament scholar Brian Peterson puts it bluntly in noting that “We often confuse unity with uniformity, because it is much easer to gather with people who are like ourselves than it is to reach across the divisions which mark our culture.”[i] We are more comfortable with a church where everybody looks like us, talks like us, is about the same age as us, reads the Bible in the same way as we do – or for that matter, votes like us, goes to Gator games like us, and all sorts of other things that may have very little to do with the life of the church. It’s a natural inclination, but it isn’t really all that Christlike.
In verse 13 Paul refers to two of the great divisions he knew to be at work in the church – “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” Admittedly, “Jew or Greek” is not a huge dividing line in the modern church, and while slavery certainly does exist in the modern world still, such a dividing line doesn’t run through the modern church in quite the same way it did for Paul’s Corinthian readers. We do, though, have lots of dividing lines among us in the church today:
Black or white, or Asian, or Hispanic, or Native American…
Or how about Democrat or Republican?
Maybe rich or poor?
Native-born, naturalized citizen, immigrant waiting to be citizen?
Straight or gay?
How about married or single?
Progressive or mainline or evangelical or fundamentalist?
How are we, as the church, the body of Christ, at truly living in the diversity that makes us work? Or are we still inclined to hole up in like-minded enclaves of homogeneity?
Whether we acknowledge it or not, when any part of the body of Christ suffers, whether they look like us or think like us or sound like us or have anything in common with us other than Christ, we all suffer, and we don’t bear witness to the gospel the way the body of Chris is meant to do. And to the degree that we stand by and let that suffering continue, we are complicit in damaging the body and its witness.
Having worked through this body metaphor, Paul now returns to the diversity of spiritual gifts, or manifestations of the presence of the Spirit, that he had discussed earlier in this chapter. Again the list is incomplete, but Paul now places those gifts in the context of the church as God appoints people to contribute: apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of powerful deeds, healers, helpers, leaders, speakers of various tongues. And just as the body would look rather ridiculous if it were nothing but an eye or a foot, so the church becomes rather ridiculous if it consists of nothing but apostles or preachers or teachers.
But as Paul closes this thought, he actually “teases” us with something even better, a better, “more excellent” way for the church to live or for the body of Christ to function. The diverse and distinctive appropriation of gifts is characteristic and even needful in the church, and the diversity of members matters profoundly as well.
And yet, there is something else that matters more than all of these, or more precisely is the very thing that makes this distinctiveness and diversity work. What is it that makes the body of Christ what it is meant to be? What is it that brings all those diverse gifts and abilities and manifestations of the Spirit together in a way that enables us truly to bear witness to the Christ we say we follow?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Blessed Jesus, At Your Word” (PH 454); “O Word of God Incarnate” (PH 327); “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” (PH 438); “We Are One In the Spirit” (GtG 300)

[i] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a,” Working Preacher (, 24 January 2016 2nd reading), accessed 21 January 2016. Wish they'd do more epistle readings.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sermon: What It Looks Like: We Use Our Gifts Together

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2016, Epiphany 2C
1 Corinthians 12:1-11

What It Looks Like: We Use Our Gifts Together

Baseball fans and lovers of the game’s history were saddened this week by the news of the death of Monte Irvin. Irvin starred with the New York Giants from 1949, when he was thirty year old, to 1955, leading the majors in runs batted in with 121 in 1951 and finishing his career with a batting average of .293. He played one season with the Chicago Cubs before retiring in the spring of 1957.
Despite what would seem a short career by Hall of Fame standards, he was elected to the Hall in the 1970s. Of course, to understand why Irvin’s career seems so slight and yet he’s a Hall of Famer, you need to remember the state of baseball at the time, and that Irvin was black.
Even a casual baseball fan most likely remembers that until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Major League Baseball had barred African-Americans from the game throughout the twentieth century. Irvin had spent the first part of his career in the Negro Leagues, the shadow league that hosted numerous talented players, such as Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, Buck O’Neill (the native of Carrabelle, over in the Panhandle, who became the “star” of Ken Burns’s series Baseball), and other future major leaguers such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and even Hank Aaron for a year.
While the Negro Leagues provided great entertainment and a place for black players to put their talents to use, and Major League Baseball did include pretty fair talent in its pre-integration days (Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Ty Cobb come to mind, among others), it doesn’t take a brilliant mind to understand that baseball wasn’t at its best.
The best players didn’t play against each other. Babe Ruth in his prime didn’t get to take his hacks against Satchel Paige in his prime. A pitcher like Dizzy Dean never had to try to keep Cool Papa Bell from stealing a base. Both leagues had talent and entertainment, but baseball simply wasn’t the best it could be as long as players like Gibson, Bell, or O’Neill weren’t part of the game.
The Apostle Paul would get that.
You see, Paul’s work as he traveled around the Mediterranean was frequently made more challenging by the difficulties of churches made up of diverse groups of people and the disputes, disagreements, or contests that too often arose between those groups. For example, by the time Paul is making his travels the congregations to whom he preaches and writes are usually composed of both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity. At times the Jewish party would contend that the Gentiles needed to take up practices associated with Judaism (most notably the act of circumcision for males) before they could be fully accepted into the fledgling group of Christ’s followers. To put it more briefly, they felt that Gentiles should become Jews in order to become Christians. Paul, despite his own thoroughly Jewish heritage, argued against that claim, agreeing with those who called that an unnecessary burden.
The conflict Paul addresses here in 1 Corinthians is a different one, and not necessarily based on Jewish-Gentile dividing lines, but causing tremendous strain in the church at Corinth no less. Rather, in this case, this local church was struggling with the effects of spiritual pride and even a kind of competitiveness, in which some claimed that their particular spiritual gifts made them spiritually superior to others. This kind of spiritual elitism never ends well, and Corinth was no exception.
After much chiding and critique earlier in the book on this and other matters, Paul now turns with chapter 12 to address “matters pertaining to the Spirit.” “Spiritual gifts,” the term you see in verse 1, is certainly part of the matter, but not the full extent of what Paul wants to address.
First Paul is compelled to remind his readers, many of whom in Corinth were Gentile converts to The Way, that all of them had been equal in ignorance before following Christ. The lot of them had been duped worshipers of powerless, speechless idols. Even as followers of Christ now, Paul challenges them to understand that they have much to learn, particularly about the Holy Spirit.
For example: no one who is speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit could ever utter the phrase “Let Jesus be cursed!” You can’t do it. Similarly, but not quite the same way, one cannot make the claim that “Jesus is Lord” except by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even being able to make the confession “Jesus is Lord” is evidence of the work of the Spirit.
Understand what it means: anyone who confesses “Jesus is Lord” is doing so by a gift of the Spirit. There is no one who confesses Christ is Lord that is not gifted by the Spirit. If that’s the case, no one has any business claiming that any other believer has no spiritual gift. We all do. That’s how we can even be followers of Christ at all, by the gift of the Spirit. You didn’t think you earned your salvation, did you?
With that understanding, Paul turns to the issue of differences in spiritual gifts and other workings of the Spirit. One of the common threads of what Paul has to say is that difference, or variety, or diversity is inevitable, and indeed is “baked into” the way that the Spirit “gifts” the followers of Christ. Each of us receives different abilities or talents or gifts.
Paul sketches out a few of these possible gifts or abilities in verses 7-10. By no means is this a complete list, but Paul mentions the speaking both of wisdom and of knowledge; faith; healing; miracles; prophecy; discernment; and the speaking and interpreting of tongues. And as Paul notes, the Spirit allots these gifts to the children of God quite according to the Spirit’s own choosing, and nothing other.
The challenge for the Corinthians was to understand that this dispersal of the gifts of the Spirit was absolutely no cause for pride. There is no grounds for any claim that having any one spiritual gift made you in any way superior to or more important than any of your sisters or brothers in Christ.
I have been called as the pastor of this church and have been here almost exactly a year now. I believe I do have some gift for the speaking of wisdom or knowledge, perhaps a way of describing preaching. Hopefully those three years I spent in seminary helped develop that gift to some degree. But if I were ever tempted to think that this particular gift were somehow “more special” or more important than other gifts, … well, let’s just say that many weeks, including this week, have really caused me to wish I had a gift for healing or miracles instead.
What Paul needs the Corinthians (and us) to understand is that we need all the gifts. This church can’t survive on preaching alone. Nor can it survive on any one of the gifts the Spirit might bestow. We need them all, both our own church here and the greater church around the world. And when we turn inward, when we start failing to welcome others into our church, or when we start drawing lines to keep some out and include only certain people, “folks like us,” then we are cutting ourselves off from some of the very gifts or manifestations of the Spirit that we absolutely need to survive, for the common good.
And it’s not even about our surviving, in the end. Our church, local or universal, is not put here on earth to serve ourselves. These flourishings of the Spirit that are made manifest in us are here to show God’s glory to those all around us. We are here to bear witness to the gospel, to be the vessel by which that good news is given to all the world around us. And those gifts of the Spirit are scattered out among us for that very end; giving glory to God that the world might see.
This is part of the church “being an epiphany.” When we all pull together using each of our distinctive gifts for the work of the kingdom of God, we become a revelation of God to the world, through the working of the Spirit. We show God to the world. We show the world what it looks like when the Spirit is working among us. Or, when we start elevating some gifts and demeaning others, when we start indulging in pride about our own spiritual abilities, or when we cut ourselves off from the gifts we need in the church because we don’t like the people who have them? Or when we hold back the gifts God has given us for whatever reason? We fail to bear witness to God’s Spirit.
The abilities we bring to the body of Christ are not an accident. The Holy Spirit is working in us, each of us, all of us, so that we might bear witness to God and to the gospel of Christ to a world that really needs to be reminded of that story and to hear that witness. And we have no margin for error; we need all of those manifestations of the Spirit to do our job in the world.
For gifts of the Spirit, and the opportunity to use them together, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (PH 478), “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (PH 276), “When Hands Reach Out and Fingers Trace” (GtG 302), “We All Are One in Mission” (PH 435)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sermon: Of Water and Spirit

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2016, Baptism of the Lord C
Luke 3:15-17, 20-21; Acts 8:14-17

Of Water and Spirit

Well, if it wasn’t clear before, it is now. Christmas is over.
The greenery is gone, no more poinsettias, and those wandering wise men have completed their journey from the narthex to the nativity, to their ultimate destination: the worship committee storage room. All of the visible symbols are gone.
The way the liturgical calendar falls this year is a bit unusual, in that the turnaround from Advent/Christmas to Lent is pretty brief: Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, is actually one month from today, on February 10. It’s an early-Easter year, with that pinnacle holiday of the Christian year falling on March 27.
As a result, this in-between season is pretty brief. It would be fairly easy to check out for a few Sundays as a pastor, to “just get by” until Ash Wednesday and gear up for the season of Lent.
That would be easy, but I think we would be missing something if I did that.
Let us look for a moment at how this in-between season begins and ends. The Advent-Christmas cycle ends with the observance of Epiphany, in which the church commemorates the visit of the wise men, or magi, to pay homage to the child Jesus. We observed that event Wednesday evening in a small service. Perhaps the main “takeaway” from Epiphany is that it represents a particular manifestation, a particular recognition of God, in this case in Jesus, the child, to whom those magi came by following what might best be labeled a divinely-appointed star. The Epiphany story, found in Matthew 2, stands out in the broader Advent-Christmas cycle as a revelation particularly directed to the Gentiles, not to others in the Jewish population into which Jesus was born. Despite the meager appearance of a child born in an out-of-the-way place, those sages knew enough and recognized enough to understand that they were in the presence of something divine.
On the other end of this mini-season, on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, is that strange event known as the Transfiguration. In that event, told from Luke 9 this year, Jesus goes up a mountain with a small group of his disciples, and while there, Jesus is transfigured – his appearance altered, marked by dazzling brightness – and Moses and Elijah appear with him. Strange, to be sure, but again the kind of thing one might possibly expect when dealing with a divine figure.
Now, looking at today’s readings, maybe we can see something that might represent a theme we can develop. Perhaps the story of Jesus’s baptism, as told by Luke, might help us here. Coming down to the river where John preached and baptized, we see Jesus among the crowds there. We hear a bit of John’s sermonizing – this was a pretty consistent theme with John, talking about the one who was to come after him, with a bit of scary-sounding imagery thrown in about winnowing forks and unquenchable fire. And then we hear that Jesus is among them and also being baptized.
Even this acknowledgment is perhaps a bit theologically puzzling. Exactly what was Jesus being baptized for? What did a man who had no sin for which to repent need to be here for? It’s enough of a troublesome idea that the gospel of John actually does not portray Jesus actually being baptized by John. Jesus does go to John and John essentially points at him and says “he’s the guy!” but John never does baptize Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel John does baptize Jesus, but only under protest. Only in Mark’s gospel does the baptism of Jesus by John happen in a fairly straightforward and direct fashion, without resistance.
What Luke and Matthew and Mark point to in this scene is the degree to which Jesus fulfills the “fully human” part of the “fully human, fully divine” characteristic by which we know Jesus. Sinless as he was, he submitted himself to be baptized. The thing we do at the baptistry or the river or at our little font cannot be dismissed as an empty or meaningless gesture when the One whose name we claim, the one by whose name we are called, went down to the water to be baptized himself.
Now, most of us don’t get the extra-special heavenly shout-out that came after Jesus’s baptism, when he had found a place aside to pray. We aren’t accustomed to seeing the heavens open up and having a voice from above calling us “beloved.” But it matters nonetheless, and it’s not wrong to expect or to think that something special and important is happening.
But the reading from Acts points to something else we should learn to expect.
In this account, the deacon Philip has been journeying in regions outside Judea or Galilee, and has been proclaiming the gospel in Samaria since being run out of Jerusalem after the persecutions of Saul. In addition to Philip’s preaching, miracles were happening: demons were being cast out, the paralyzed were being raised up to walk, and many others were being cured. The word got back to those followers still in Jerusalem that “Samaria had accepted the word of God.”
You would think the first reaction would be rejoicing, but no. The first reaction of the Jerusalem group was an investigation. That’s a little bit of an ugly sign. We should remember that Samaritans were regarded as deeply inferior people with corrupt worship practices but the Jews of Judea, but that’s not a good enough reason to react with suspicion and something like fear at what should be good news.
So Peter and John arrive in Samaria and start asking questions. And indeed it does turn out that something is missing. In the post-Pentecost world in which the Jerusalem group found itself, they did recognize that the activity of the Holy Spirit that had first dramatically been shown on that day meant that they, no matter how they tried, couldn’t be the same people they had been before. But the Samaritans hadn’t heard about this Holy Spirit yet. Peter and John taught and prayed and laid hands upon them, and “they received the Holy Spirit,” although we aren’t in this passage given any specific indication of how this showed itself, whether it was some kind of Pentecost-like demonstration or something else. But something changed. In some way the presence of the Holy Spirit showed itself in the Samaritans that made it clear that the Holy Spirit was there.
Something changes.
If we are to claim our baptism, if we are to be called followers of Christ, if we claim to be marked as children of God, something changes. Living conventionally doesn’t do any more. If we claim to be the family of God, the body of Christ, worshiping and learning in God’s house, our time together should look different and leave us looking and sounding different.
So maybe that’s what this miniature season is for. What does it look like – what do we look like – when God shows up? What does it mean to be answering God’s call, whether to be an elder, as four of our number are answering today, or to be teaching in Sunday school or singing in choir or even simply being here as part of the church? How are we changed, if what we say about ourselves is true? If we dare apply the word “Christian” to ourselves, how do we look or sound or act different? What does it mean to take our baptism seriously? What does it mean to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit? What’s different about us?
This is a particularly crucial time to ask ourselves that question. We live in a time and a society in which a lot of people are very loudly and insistently calling themselves “Christians” and yet living and speaking and showing absolutely zero signs of their baptism or of having received the Holy Spirit. Whether at political rallies or sporting events, or in courtrooms or corporate offices or internet comment sections, or even holed up in wildlife refuges in Oregon, there are so many self-appointed Christians living zero evidence of the life and teaching of Christ, living in absolute rebellion against the moving of the Holy Spirit. As a result when we go out and claim to be Christians, to be followers of Christ, to be led by the Holy Spirit, we’re going to be viewed with suspicion.
So maybe it’s worth some time in this in-between season to look to scripture and ask ourselves what it looks like when God really is here. Maybe we should ask what it looks like then the Holy Spirit truly is received and welcomed among us. Maybe we should ask ourselves what it looks like to live up to our baptism, to answer God’s call, to live and act and talk like a follower of Christ.
And then maybe we have to ask ourselves how much we look and act and sound like that. So let’s spend a few weeks on that, shall we?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Shall We Gather At the River” (GtG 375); “How Firm a Foundation” (PH 361); “Baptized in Water” (PH 492); “How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord” (PH 419)

Epiphany sermonlet: Light For All

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2016, Epiphany C
Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Light For All

So here we are for Epiphany. At last, our long-suffering Magi can finally join the others at the manger. (For now we’ll leave aside the fact that the shepherds would likely have been long gone by now.)
I don’t know that this church has ever had a service specifically on Epiphany, January 6, unless it happened to fall on Sunday. After all, we tend to mash the main event of Epiphany – the homage offered by the so-called “wise men” or magi – into our Christmas Eve stories, even if we don’t explicitly read the Matthew account. Note how many of our Christmas carols throw the shepherds and sages and everything all into the same pot – a verse for one, a verse for the other. The stable and manger, the shepherds and the angel chorus – those are all Luke. But the magi, and the star, and angels appearing in dreams (and Joseph as anything more than a bystander, for all practical purposes) – those are Matthew’s contributions.
Matthew also gives us political intrigue, and terror. The wise men somehow seem less than wise when they show up at Herod’s court asking about the newborn future king. Herod’s panic is palpable. All of Jerusalem is troubled, because when the king isn’t happy, nobody’s happy. Hoping to use the sages to smoke out the child, Herod directs them to Bethlehem, and waits his chance. When the sages foil Herod’s plans by taking a detour home, Herod reacts with the rage of the tyrant; beyond the bounds of this evening’s reading we see children, all age two or less, massacred, and Joseph and Mary and their new son on the run, fleeing to Egypt. Refugees.
But back to the visit itself. We don’t know exactly where these Magi come from, but most scholars think they were most likely from Babylon, the region encompassed today by the nation we call Iraq. Wherever their home, they were outsiders to this scene, definitely not wanted by Herod, and probably a puzzle to the new parents. And they were Gentiles, not participants in the Jewish faith or tradition.
Even at this earliest stage of his story, Matthew is clueing us in that this newly born Messiah, this Son of God, is not just a local story. This revelation of God, this new Light of Heaven to which the travelers were guided by that heavenly light, was not only for the nation or people into which he was born. He was, as the old prophets had said, a Light for all the nations.
The letter to the Ephesians alludes to this, written as it was to a church that already showed this in practice; that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs” to the gospel, to the good news, to the Light. In a very real way these visiting sages are our entry into the Christmas story, for we are only heirs to this gospel and this Light because it is indeed a “Light for all the nations,” a light that the darkness could not overcome, could not prevent from shining out to all the world. More than anybody else in the story, they are us.
So it is fitting to give the event its due, all on its own. It is right to remember the star and the sages and the odd gifts, and to be reminded that our Holy Family were forced to flee for their lives because of a jealous tyrant, and that Joseph actually had a role to play. And most of all, it’s good to be reminded that this Light really was, even from the beginning, a Light for all of us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “O Gladsome Light” (549), Psalm 72: “All Hail to God’s Anointed” (205); “From a Distant Home” (64); “As With Gladness Men of Old” (63)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sermon: Word and Light

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 3, 2016, Christmas 2C
John 1:1-18

Word and Light

If I had gone looking for a cute title for today’s sermon, it might have been “Yes, This Is Really a Christmas Sermon.” Nothing about infants in mangers, or magi from the East, or any of the usual trappings of the Nativity story as we usually tell it. The story that usually takes up this season is mostly a mashup of Luke’s narrative with bits of Matthew’s story. Mark offers us nothing before Jesus’s adult life and ministry, and none of the other New Testament books – not Acts nor Paul’s epistles or anything else – have anything to say about the birth of Jesus.
This is John’s “Christmas story,” or as close as you’ll get from this evangelist. And while, in A Charlie Brown Christmas, the character Linus doesn’t quote John 1 in response to Charlie Brown’s plea, this passage is a pretty good summation of “what Christmas is all about” nonetheless.
While it can’t necessarily be captured in a cute nativity scene or rendered in a sentimental Christmas-card scene, this passage John offers here is full of theological insight and understanding that is foundational to the most basic Christian thinking about God. Even the very confessional statements we use in worship rely on some of the claims John makes in this passage on behalf of Jesus.
Verses 6-9 and 15 offer an interjection on a key figure, named John (not the gospel author, who after all never identifies himself). John (we often call him “the Baptist,” but this gospel never does) is described as a “witness.” He is not the main subject of this gospel discourse, our author wants to make that much clear, but his witness is considered important enough to be inserted into John’s account of the Word. At the very minimum, this should be a lesson for us. But we’ll come back to that later.
This prologue to the gospel makes three important points about the Christ, the man Jesus, the Word. Each of them is potentially a subject for intense and long-term study. But for us, and for the purposes of a single sermon, we can take a look at these three points a bit more briefly than in, say, a seminary class (and yes, any one of these important ideas about Jesus could be a semester’s worth of study).
First of all, the Word goes all the way back. In a pretty direct echo of Genesis, the first thing this gospel tells us is that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” To those who would argue that Jesus was merely a human son, the gospel places this figure in the beginning, even a vital and inescapable part of creation itself. This is something our confessional statements regularly help us to rehearse. For example, the Nicene Creed (which we will be using today) speaks of the one who is “eternally begotten of the Father,” the Scots Confession describes him as “begotten from eternity.” The Word “was in the beginning with God.” And the life that was in this one, the Word, was “the light of all people.”
But perhaps the most fascinating part of this opening statement is in verse 5. After the succession of past-tense verbs, all following the “in the beginning” setting, we get out of the blue a present-tense verb: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” From all that was, this Word – the Light – still is. The Word that was “in the beginning” is the Light that still shines.
Second, this Word (and Light) was in the world, but “the world did not know him.” Philip Jamieson points out just how profound this alienation is: “humanity is alienated from the very creation of which it is a part.” For humanity to “not know” the Word is for humanity to be cut off from its very place in creation, the creation which God (and the Word) created humanity to be a part of. That alienation did not remain complete, as those who believed were empowered to be “children of God,” but this clearly was, and by all evidence around us remains, only a partial reclamation.
Thus, the third and most deeply inexplicable point of the gospel’s opening statement, in verse 14; “and the Word became flesh, and lived among us.” We use the fancy theological word “incarnation” for this mind-twisting knowledge: the Word, the one who was from the beginning with God, the one who was God, became not merely human – no, this word the gospel uses for “flesh” connotes everything that is earthy and mundane about human existence. This wasn’t a god who put on a skin suit and walked around Earth for a while; this was no less than God born into the humanity that God had created, the muck and mire of physical existence, God eating and drinking and yawning and sleeping and waking and hurting and weeping and laughing (and yes, all the other even more mundane and yucky stuff humans do too) because God was human. God didn’t live like a human being; God was a human being.
This Incarnation, this “Word become flesh,” is the unspoken but indispensible underlying principle behind everything we celebrate at Christmas. The birth of a baby and the placing of that baby in an animal feed trough is no less than God become human, in all the glory of God and the mundane-ness of humanity. This inexplicable act becomes to us the means of the grace of God, extended to us, for us, without which we do not know the Light or the Word or any of God’s salvation for us.
And so, back to John, the witness to the Light.
John isn’t necessarily the most frequently portrayed in art over the centuries. Many portraits of Christ are out there, and Mary also appears frequently. But there are portraits of John, the baptizer, the witness.
But there’s an interesting tendency in those paintings. Virtually always, whatever else John is doing in the portrait, John is pointing. Maybe to his side, maybe up, maybe over, but always pointing, pointing to Jesus. Bearing witness to the Light.
Most sermons encourage to you imitate Christ, to ask “What would Jesus do?” And that’s a good object of a sermon. But today, I charge you with something different.
Imitate John.
Point to Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Angels, From the Realms of Glory” (22); “What Child Is This” (53); “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts” (510); “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” (50), bringing the word on the word "Word," and the Word