Monday, April 25, 2016

Sermon: All Creation Sings

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 24, 2016, (Earth Day Sunday)
Psalm 148; Genesis 1:1-2:3; Luke 12:22-31

All Creation Sings

It seemed like such a good and simple idea at the time.
When the suggestion came up in session several weeks ago to have a day out at Montgomery Presbyterian Center (what many folks still call “Camp Montgomery”), and this day (April 24) was suggested for its proximity to Earth Day, it seemed like such a good idea. One thing I believe after a bit more than a year in this church is that, while we do a lot of things well, we could stand to spend more time together. You’ll never catch me claiming that Sunday worship is somehow insufficient for a church, but there is more to being a congregation than worshiping. We engage in acts of mission, true (one of those is coming up this Wednesday, remember), and we, in smaller groups, do engage in times of fellowship, but getting all of us (or as many of us as can) together for nothing more complicated than fellowship (and even fun) is still an awfully good idea.
And then, of course, came the logical follow-up; if we’re going to spend the afternoon out-of-doors, in a place that provides excellent opportunity to engage with God’s good creation, then it also makes sense to engage with that creation in worship, and to engage with creation as a theological and faithful reality in a sermon on this day.
After all, it’s hard to argue that the church has done particularly well in engaging with creation and developing a thoughtful and faithful theology on the subject, outside of a few specialized circles. We haven’t stepped up to the task described by Anglican minister and professor Akintunde Akinade as “develop(ing) a comvincing account of nature as a compelling epiphany of God,” or “a revelation of God’s abundant love for the world.”
It’s also hard to look at the church as a whole and see, for example, where we have done particularly well at being good stewards of the resources of creation. The facilities churches build, for example, don’t always operate with great energy efficiency. (This building is actually better than many sanctuaries, but while these wonderful open windows are pretty good for letting the sun warm us well during the less-hot months of January or February, keeping things cool in July and August can be a challenge.) Our use of our financial resources is sometimes not mindful of creation and its care. I mean, seriously, how is my retirement funding still tangled up in the same oil and gas companies that have now spent more than four decades spreading disinformation about how burning their products have damaged this planet? So no, these and other examples don’t suggest that the church has been all that great a witness to the goodness of God’s creation.
It’s not as if the scriptural witness isn’t there. From the very beginning of our scriptures – right where it says “In the beginning” – we encounter God as Creator. We get the initial recitation of the six ‘days’ of creation; all the creation – light and dark; land and waters and sky; beasts of every kind – in glorious and vivid detail. And of course, God resting on the seventh day.
And the one thing we hear, over and over again, was “…and God saw that it was good.” And the last time, looking over the whole of creation, “it was very good.”
Our gospel reading, a pretty familiar passage itself, points to the ravens and the lilies and Jesus’s admiration for their beauty – “even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” It’s not at all a stretch, I think, to consider that if we took Jesus’s admonition here more seriously, we might well do less harm to God’s creation. We might even understand that God cares for us in much the same way God cares for those ravens and lilies, if only we’d stop getting in the way.
But it’s the psalm for the day that is particularly compelling. This – the psalm that provided the inspiration for both of the hymns we’ve sung so far – is one of those exuberant psalms of praise that concludes the psalter, and here the psalmist’s exuberance opens up to hear the song of praise of all creation – “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!” in verse 3, and that’s just a starting point. Before it’s over the psalmist invokes sea monsters “and all the deeps,”

Fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!

It’s crazy and reckless and totally unscientific and beautiful, and thoroughly theological and doxological. It’s the song of a psalmist who has grasped something we modern Christians don’t do very well at remembering: we are not separate from creation – we are part of creation; we are creation.
All of those creatures and all of creation join in praise of the one who created all of them. There’s no exclusion, no pretense that any of them are outside of God’s creating care and unbounded love. All creation sings.
This is all the kind of good stuff that ran through my mind when thinking about a sermon reflecting on the theme of creation, a sermon on a Sunday just a couple of days after Earth Day.
Then, just about the time I’d be starting to think about the specifics of such a sermon, a major earthquake struck in the south of Japan. An even bigger one struck near the same spot little more than a day later. Then a yet bigger earthquake struck along the coast of Ecuador, with a death toll of over 500 so far. Closer to home, the city of Houston had a month’s worth of rain drop on it in a day, leading to incredible flash flooding.
It gets hard to talk about the goodness of creation when things like that happen.
And yet we still need to do so. Creation doesn’t stop being God’s good creation, even in the face of calamity.
We have too often and too easily slipped into a view of creation as something to be subdued, something to be opposed and conquered and subjected and exploited. We’ve taken that awful translation Genesis 1:26 and run with it to the detriment of the earth and of ourselves. You don’t have to go very far to see such exercise of “dominion” if you live in Florida; just keep heading south or east and it will become clear just how much we’ve departed from God’s call for us to exercise stewardship over creation, to care for it and protect it (as the call is framed in Genesis 2), and instead chosen to exploit it and rearrange nature unnaturally to suit our purposes. It becomes all to clear that we’ve forgotten, or ignored, the plain statement of Psalm 24:1 – “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it…
What is it that we as modern Christians, as Presbyterians, as Grace Presbyterian Church need to do in the face of what scripture tells about God and creation and goodness?
There are the simple things that you don’t even have to be a person of faith to do; cut down on how much energy we use in our homes or work spaces, maybe don’t be so quick to turn on the lights or the air conditioning. There are highly ambitious things that might fall right now in the category of dreams – like this great big south-facing roof face that cries out for solar panels. And there are the in-between things, like how we use the beautiful green space that surrounds this sanctuary on this piece of property – is there space for a community garden, for example, or some other natural space to tend or care for or protect?
Underlying any of these is the basic truth that we need to think on these things, to remember God as our Creator and the creator of all that surrounds us and all that we love in and among – not merely think casually about them, or recite them in our prayers, but meditate on them, make them a part of our visioning and our praying for our church and the whole church. And we shouldn’t need an apocalyptic threat like climate change to cause us to do so; it’s something we should do because we are children of God, called by God according to the purpose of God, and created by God to live in and with God’s creation, to see creation as revelation of God’s undying love for us. We need to do it because God loves us, and because we love God and all that God has made.
For all creation, singing praise, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): “All Creatures of Our God and King” (15), “Sing Praise to God, You Heavens!” (17), “Touch the Earth Lightly” (713), “Because You Live, O Christ” (249)

...even this guy...

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sermon: Get Up

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 17, 2016, Easter 4C
Acts 9:36-43

Get Up

I don’t like to refer to them as ‘minor’ characters. It might be that they only appear in these biblical stories briefly, and sometimes they don’t even get names, but they aren’t ‘minor’ or else their stories probably wouldn’t have been included in these gospel and early-church narratives; as John puts it towards the end of his gospel, what they left out about Jesus and his deeds and his followers could fill a whole library to overflowing. So, for now, I’ll call them ‘brief’ characters, to acknowledge that they aren’t characters who appear frequently or for a long stretch of the story, but only appear once, are part of the story briefly, and do not appear again. Still, their stories are important to tell.
For such a ‘brief’ character, we do get an awful lot about Dorcas. Among other things we get two names for her – Dorcas is the name by which she is known in Greek, while Tabitha is the Aramaic version of her name. We also find out that whichever name you use for her, it would translate into English as “gazelle.” That’s a lot already about a person who never speaks in Luke’s two-part narrative of the earthly life of Christ (what we call Luke) and the story of the early church (the “Acts of the Apostles” from which we read today.
But that’s only the beginning of what we learn about Tabitha, or Dorcas. We are also told, in passing, that she was a disciple. If you’re thinking that might be unusual, you’re right; Tabitha is the only woman for whom Luke uses the word μαθήτρια, the feminine form of the Greek for “disciple.” None of the women who traveled with Jesus and the twelve, nor any other woman in Acts, gets this designation from Luke. Furthermore, we find out just how hard Dorcas worked to minister to the poor of Joppa. We see this in a particularly poignant scene where many of the people of Joppa had gathered where Tabitha’s body was laid to grieve, showing each other the tunics and cloaks and shawls and scarves that she had created for them. Can you, in your wildest imaginings, conceive of a more powerful witness to the influence of a single life than this? Dorcas was nothing less than a one-woman faith-based anti-poverty initiative, using her relative position of privilege to work tirelessly for those less fortunate in her town.
And now she was gone, and the poor of Joppa literally did not know what become of them.
Notice I didn’t say “poor citizens of Joppa,” and for good reason; quite likely no one in the room was a “citizen” of the governing authority of that time, namely the Roman Empire. In a place like Joppa the main concern for the poor that Rome was likely to show was that those poor stay the heck out of the way of Rome. It is entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Dorcas (and maybe some of her fellow believers, possibly) was the only one standing between them and complete destitution.
And now she was gone.
How much of this was made clear to Peter when he was begged to come over from Lydda, where he was at the time, Luke does not tell us; all he indicates was that the two men were sent to say “please come immediately,” and maybe that was enough to get Peter to go. Maybe he remembered the time when Jesus had been begged to go to the home of a little girl, daughter of a man named Jairus, ultimately to raise that little girl up from the dead. At any rate Peter goes with the two men and is led immediately up to that room were Tabitha had been laid, with the scene of grieving poor widows around them, showing her handiwork to all who came.
Not unlike Jesus before him, Peter had everybody else leave the room, and then knelt to pray. It’s not hard believe that Peter’s prayer might have gone something like this:
OK, Lord, what have you gotten me into here? I mean, preaching is one thing, getting thrown into jail is one thing, but this? Just because I saw you raise people like that little girl from the dead…I can’t do this. You know that. If anything is going to happen here, Lord, you’re going to have to do it.

On the other hand, I would not presume to guess how the Lord responded to such a prayer, if indeed Peter prayed it. But we do know what happened next: Peter told Dorcas to get up, and she did.
Peter then called the others back into the room to see the very much alive Tabitha, and we are then told that “many believed in the Lord,” presumably because of what happened there. Clearly one can imagine many being impressed by the miracle of a woman who was dead being raised to life. We see in other places in scripture how some will respond to this kind of miracle with an immediate response of belief, so that wouldn’t be a shock.
I suspect, though, that there’s also another level of “belief response” at work here. Remember who Dorcas is; our one-woman faith-based anti-poverty initiative, a woman of resources who gave of those resources for others who did not have them, maybe even at the expense of her own health or well-being. Were there other women like her in Joppa, or was she really the one, the only one, standing in the gap between the poor and oblivion? Was she really a one-woman initiative?
Whatever was the case, the raising of Tabitha, or Dorcas, maybe meant something different to those whose lives had been salvaged by her generosity and tireless work. A miracle, yes, but maybe it was a miracle with a particular meaning, one in which Tabitha was not the only one being saved. In the words of Presbyterian pastor Heidi Peterson,  

Many who heard about Tabitha’s venture to and return from the other side believed, perhaps because it was a miraculous event. Or perhaps because of what the event revealed about God. The widows would not be abandoned. God would not allow it.[i]

Notice that Dorcas never speaks in this passage, and as this is the only place in scripture where she is mentioned, we can say we never see or hear her say a word. She was no preacher, not a prophet, and doesn’t get the label “full of the Holy Spirit” that Luke applies to others in his gospel and history, like the martyr Stephen. And yet the witness of her work was such that her death was sufficient reason to yank the foremost of the apostles off his given journey to be there to do…whatever God would allow or enable him to do. She mattered that much, because her work mattered that much.
Her work was to extend herself for those who were the most marginalized of society at the time, those who were routinely crushed by the machine of the Roman Empire and the patriarchal structures of both that empire and the religious and societal structures in which they made the mistake of losing their husbands to death. And for this she mattered, not necessarily to the Roman governor of the region or the important leaders of the city, but to the poor widows, and to the fledgling congregation of which she was a part.
And she mattered enough to God.
What then does this mean for us?
We have Tabithas or Dorcases in our congregation; you know who they are. Do we leave them on their own to do the work? Do we support them in a way that recognizes the absolutely indispensible work they do in the face of crushing need?
Is there more we can do? Are there more Tabithas among us, who simply need our support to in turn be there for those in need?
What do we want our witness to be in this place? Are we merely about the business of survival, or are there avenues of service we need to be exploring and opening up on this stretch of US-441 where we stand?
Are we going merely to talk the talk, or will we walk the walk?
Dorcas did the latter. Dare we?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Heidi A. Peterson, “Clothed With Compassion” (Acts 9:36-43), Christian Century (April 18-25, 2001), 11.

Hymns: “Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!” (PH 105); “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want” (PH 170); “For All the Faithful Women” (GtG 324); “There Is a Balm In Gilead” (PH 394)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Sermon: In the Breaking of the Bread

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 3, 2016, Easter 2C
Luke 24:13-35

In the Breaking of the Bread

One of the characteristic features of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus and the disciples spend an awful lot of time at the dinner table, or otherwise gathered around food.
More broadly one could argue – and at least one author has – that one of the underlying themes of the gospel is hospitality – both the ways in which Jesus sought to minister to those around them through the practice of welcome, the practice of enabling others to feel “at home” in his presence, and the ways in which such hospitality was (or was not) extended towards Jesus – whether Jesus was made welcome or not.
But the specific hospitality context of a meal does come up awfully frequently in Luke’s gospel. There are at least ten different accounts in Luke in which the action taking place is either a meal, or something that takes place in the context of a meal; six of those stories are unique to Luke, not found in any of the other gospels. In addition, another seven accounts in Luke feature meals or eating or food in the context of Jesus’s teaching to the crowds or to the disciples, or sometimes in the context of conflict with the religious authorities, as in the incident in which Jesus’s disciples were criticized for plucking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the first appearance of the risen Christ that Luke records in his gospel features a meal as its turning point.
We start on the road, though. Two of Jesus’s followers – not among the twelve, but clearly followers who had been with Jesus for some time – were, for reasons we don’t know, walking from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus.
This is on the third day. We find out later that this is after the women have come back from the empty tomb, as recorded in the first part of this chapter, but at this point no one has actually seen Jesus. We have accounts from the women of the tomb being empty, but no sign of the risen Christ.
We hear that these two men, one of whom will be called Cleopas a few verses later, are talking about “all these things that had happened.” We tend to presume that “all these things” are those events that happened in Jesus’s last week in Jerusalem, particularly from the Last Supper forward through the crucifixion. It might also have included that curious report from the women and Peter, who each went to Jesus’s tomb and saw it empty.
Whatever their subjects of discussion, they were so caught up in them that they didn’t notice the man who had caught up with them from behind. (Remember, we know it’s Jesus, but they don’t.) When he asks what they’re talking about, the two followers act as if it should have been impossible for anyone in Jerusalem to have missed the events surrounding Jesus and his crucifixion. They recite those events to him (again, not recognizing that it is Jesus), including the odd reports about the empty tomb. In doing so they reveal, in the words “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” that after all this time they might not have truly understood just it was for Jesus to be the Messiah – not the military conqueror, but indeed a suffering Messiah and a true spiritual redeemer of Israel and of all.
It is this that Jesus picks up on and expounds upon as he begins to teach them, one more time, how all the things that he had said and done had been “necessary.” Going all the way back to Moses and working through all the law and the prophets he proclaims to them once again how all of his life and his teaching and, yes, his suffering and death, had been “necessary.”
What happens next, as the two travelers come to their destination, demonstrates that for all that the two disciples might have forgotten or misunderstood, they had remembered one thing, perhaps the most important thing. They had remembered how Jesus taught and showed them how to be his followers.
They remembered the table.
Not just the table at which Jesus had only days before broken bread and poured a cup and talked about his body and blood, and kept using words like “do this in remembrance of me.” Surely they remembered that one, but they remembered all those other meals and all those other tables – the one with five thousand fed by just a few loaves and fish; the one at Zacchaeus’s house, where a skinflint tax collector suddenly started making alternate plans for the distribution of his estate; the banquet at the home of another tax collector, Levi, who had dropped his whole business at a word to follow Jesus; the evening at the home of Mary and Martha, with Martha fussing over every detail while Mary presumed to sit at Jesus’s feet with the other disciples; a dinner at the home of a man named Simon, with some of the most disreputable people around.
They remembered, and they wouldn’t let the stranger go without breaking bread with them.
The rest of the story is fairly familiar; the stranger, the guest, takes over as host and breaks the bread – I know that breaking of the bread – that’s Jesus! – only for him to disappear from his sight; the rushed return to Jerusalem, where the disciples tell them about Jesus appearing to Simon (we tend to assume they’re speaking of Peter); and then, in the remainder of the chapter, Jesus himself appearing before them and teaching them, one last time.
In the breaking of the bread they recognized Jesus, yes; but it was in Cleopas and the other disciples reaching out to the stranger, inviting them into their own meal and their own room and sharing their resources with him, that Jesus was welcomed and able to break the bread.
One is reminded of the stories from Genesis, how Abraham and Sarah unwittingly entertained angels and even Yahweh himself in welcoming the stranger. We are also reminded of Jesus’s own words in Matthew 25, that what we do (or don’t do) for or to “the least of these,” we do to Jesus himself.
Our call, at its most elemental and most basic, is to make welcome for the stranger, for the guest, for the sojourners among us. This, even more than our prayers and offerings and worship, is how we welcome Christ among us.
We come to the table, and welcome Christ among us. Christ takes up the bread and breaks it, and we see our risen Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Good Christians All, Rejoice and Sing!” (111); “Christ Is Risen” (109); “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ” (514); “Christ Is Alive!” (108)