Grace Presbyterian Church

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Meditation: When Epaphroditus Got Well

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 9, 2018, SHW

Philippians 2:25-30

When Epaphroditus Got Well

 We don’t know much else about this Epaphroditus character, aside from his being mentioned among Paul’s co-workers as in passages like this. This is in fact his one big scene, so to speak. Apparently he had been part of the community at Philippi, which had sent him to help Paul in some way – possibly during one of his many imprisonments. At some point he had become ill, very severely ill to hear Paul describe it, but had recovered, and Paul had decided to send him back to Philippi so that his fellow members of that community might be reassured of his health and able to celebrate his healing.

Simple as it is, that’s a pretty good picture of the body of Christ in action. We are grieved and sorrowful and concerned when one of our body falls ill or is seriously injured or suffers some manner of other setback, be it personal or professional or anything else, and we rejoice when that member is restored to health or recovers from any injury or is somehow restored from that setback.

Or, if those things don’t happen, we grieve more.

These things happen in the community. That’s not always easy. It’s not always easy to talk about these things – sometimes because it’s just painful or embarrassing or other things, sometimes because it’s still not always clear exactly what is going on (the uncertainty is the worst, isn’t it?), and sometimes we’re just too tired and frustrated to talk about it.

And sometimes because everybody around us is being joyful and festive, celebrating a time of year like this one. Finding a space for grief, or for remembering and acknowledging grief lest it overwhelm us and drag us down, is never all that easy, but at this time of year – “the most wonderful time of year” as the late Andy Williams somehow manages to sing over and over again – it can seem darn near impossible.

Since I’m the one bringing this up, I should be transparent here: I can name two such griefs that haunt my season every year whether I want them two or not. It was twenty-nine years ago that my mother, the single parent who raised me, died a week to the day before Christmas. Six years ago this coming Friday (and it was a Friday six years ago too) I underwent surgery for cancer. It was a success – I’ve been cancer-free since that surgery and the chemotherapy that followed – but complications from the surgery itself began to appear a little more than a year ago and have become, well, more complicated of late. That particular grief has been haunting me a little more concretely this year than usual, you might say.

Still, whatever that grief, we know that Advent still calls us to watch and wait. We still prepare for the coming of the Christ child on Christmas Day, and we still watch for the coming of Christ the King in the fulness of time. These things do not change.

And these things are not diminished by the fact that we bear sorrow as we wait. The child will still be born no matter the tears we shed. Christ will still return and call us to be reunited with him in eternity no matter our infirmities or physical setbacks. We are still Christ’s people. We are not abandoned in our grief. Christ does not abandon us, and we don’t abandon each other.

Epaphroditus got well, and his people rejoiced with him. Still, one day we know not, he did die. His friends grieved and lamented his loss. And yet all of that company will know that great resurrection and reunion with our Lord, as will we.

In the end there’s no good reason not to grieve. Frankly, we’d be less human if we didn’t. We’d be less Christ-like, even – remember how Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb. Our sorrows do not disqualify us from celebrating the coming Christ.

I know all those old gospel songs talk about how Jesus will wipe away every tear. I’m not sure about that; I wonder if Jesus will in fact sit down and weep with us. Either way, we will be – we are – loved and welcomed and rejoiced over every day of our walk in the Spirit, weeping or laughing.

For the welcome of the sorrowful, Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sermon: The Loud Part

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 9, 2018, Advent 2C

Malachi 3:1-5; Luke 1:68-79; Luke 3:1-18

The Loud Part

One thing you learn pretty quickly about John, the one sometimes called “the Baptist,” is that he was no disciple of Dale Carnegie. When you’re drawing these crowds out into the desert to come see and hear you, and the first words out of your mouth to them are “You brood of vipers!”, you’re pretty clearly not all that concerned about winning friends and influencing people, am I right?

No, John isn’t in this for the popularity. That will be made clear at the end of his career, as recorded variously in the gospels. Luke will later record that John sends messengers to Jesus from prison (ch. 7; also Matthew 11:2-6), and that he was executed by Herod (ch. 9); it’s the gospel of Mark that records the whole sordid story about Herod marrying his brother’s wife (which John would not stop condemning), and Salome’s dance that ends up in John’s beheading (Mark 6:14-29; also Matthew 14:1-12). No, John wouldn’t let up once he got hold of a particular message.

This is a long way, it seems, from the child whose birth prompted the song of Zechariah, his father, that was our responsive reading today. Zechariah names John’s call pretty effectively when he says the infant shall be “the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (1:76-77). That’s what John is doing out in the wilderness, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3), whereupon Luke cites Isaiah as the prophetic forth-teller of this call, in one of those passages famous partly for being included in George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah.

Despite his penchant for direct language, John doesn’t get quite the weirdo treatment from Luke that he does in other gospels, which make much of his clothing made of camel hair and that diet of locusts and honey. Still, he’s been living out in the desert for ages now (according to 1:80), and you have to figure that his eccentric qualities were at least as much as a draw to those crowds coming out from Jerusalem and Judea as any expectation of what he had to say.

So, one would think, being greeted with that “brood of vipers!” talk might seem to be off-putting at minimum, and of course John doesn’t stop there. First of all is the demand that repentance not only has to happen, but it has to be visible – “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Then, just as some of the crowd was probably starting to mutter, “how dare he talk to us like that? We’re children of Abra—“ John jumps in with the flat declaration that being descendants of Abraham doesn’t get you off the hook, and that God could perfectly well raise up descendants of Abraham from the stones scattered about them. Capping off the message with talk about axes at the root of trees, and fruitless trees being thrown into the fire, had to be pretty disconcerting to the first-century equivalent of “good church folk” who had made the day trip to hear this quaint old-fashioned prophet-type guy.

Here’s the thing, though; for all of John’s bluntness of language and demeanor, something about his message seems to have hit home with the crowds. Rather than seeing these crowds scoffing and walking away or (worse) seeking to cause John harm for his harshness, we see a succession of people asking some variant of “what should we do?” And perhaps even more surprisingly, instead of setting the bar for repentance impossibly high, John gives answers that are … well, pretty practical. You have a coat and your neighbor doesn’t? Share. Same with food; you have it and your neighbor doesn’t? Share.

When tax collectors (the über-sinners of first-century Palestine) stepped up to ask what to do, John’s answer is pretty simple: “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Don’t cheat. Soldiers? “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”Don’t cheat. Don’t bully. It seems that as John is teaching repentance, the first thing to do is to do the right thing. It sounds so simple.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that people started to ask questions about just who this John guy was. After all, it’s not likely that any of them were around for the whole story of the old couple who had never been able to have a child suddenly told they were going to have a child (and not just any child), or of how Zechariah had been struck mute for months for scoffing at the prediction. All they see is this guy from nowhere calling people vipers and yet somehow getting through anyway. What kind of guy is this? He’s gotta be some kind of prophet, right? Or maybe something more…

John is nice and quick to quash those thoughts. His only interest is, to borrow those words from Isaiah, to “prepare the way of the Lord.” John baptizes with water; the One to come, the one whose sandals John is not worthy to untie, will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (John does seem to have a thing about fire in Luke’s gospel). Even here John can’t quite contain his bluntness, what with the chaff being winnowed out of the wheat and burned “with unquenchable fire” – there’s that thing again!

And on top of all that, Luke has the nerve to conclude this little account with verse 18: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”Yeah, all that “brood of vipers!” and ax at the root of the tree and winnowing fork and fire and fire and fire…that’s the stuff of good news. In fact, I clearly need to change the way I preach. More fire. More insults. Right?

Except, somehow, it does turn out to be good news.

Somehow, it does turn out to be liberating, to be set free from all of that sinfulness, to be liberated by the act of repentance and set free to do what’s right instead of constantly grabbing and grasping and seeking to “win” over everybody else. There is freedom in that, and that freedom is good news indeed.

And in that freedom, in that liberation from the need to strive and grasp and grab and get get get get GET, something else happens. Peace happens. Deep, abiding, life-redefining peace starts in the being set free from the mania of more more more.

Somehow, even with all the brusqueness and “brood of vipers!” talk and such, John’s call and message does turn out to be the way of peace. Even for a “brood of vipers!

For the one who prepared the way of the Lord, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #—, “A voice cries out in the wilderness”; #106, “Prepare the Way, O Zion”; #96, “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry”; #102, “Savior of the Nations, Come”


Sermon: The Awkward Part

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 2, 2018, Advent 1C

Luke 21:25-36

The Awkward Part

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking: really? This is how Advent starts? This is “hope”?

Well, I’ve got news for you: you are not alone. In fact, I can promise you that a whole lot of preachers had the same reaction when they sat down to start sermon prep in earnest for this week. And I can promise you that a whole lot of those preachers ran right to the reading from Jeremiah that the lectionary offers for today – a lovely little passage about God’s promises to Israel and Judah, and how “the Lord is our righteousness” – rather than hang around for the Apocalypse in Luke.

But at some point we need to deal with these apocalyptic readings; it doesn’t work to put them off forever and wish that they didn’t exist. For one thing; all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew and Mark as well as Luke – have such an apocalyptic text at about this point in the story. Here in Luke this bit of teaching actually represents the end of Jesus’s public teaching ministry; the final three chapters of the gospel are given to the Last Supper and the betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and of course the resurrection as well. If this is important enough for all three of these gospels to make a point of including, we need to deal with it.

We also need to deal with it in this case because this particular bit of teaching in fact does have something to say about Advent, and it does have something to say about hope.

First of all, we should deal with it because the church, for good or ill, has long had a fascination (to put it kindly) with this apocalyptic business. The church in this country in particular has been particularly fascinated with it, and has read this obsession with the apocalyptic into much of its own history. Take that hymn we’re singing right after this sermon. I’m guessing you never expected to find this in a service order from me, much less during Advent. But look at this hymn, look at all the apocalyptic imagery in it (especially the first stanza), and look (down at the bottom of the page) at when it was written; just as this country was plunging into the Civil War. Again, for good or ill, we’ve taken the apocalyptic to heart, and it has permeated much of our theology, both religious and civic.

But in our context today, this particular bit of apocalyptic literature operates differently, or should. For one, placed as it is on this day, it does remind us that the waiting we do in the season of Advent is not all “past waiting,” so to speak; even as we mark the first coming of the Christ child, we are reminded that we also await the coming of the Christ again, in a very different appearance than that of a child in a manger. And if we’re not actually waiting that return of Christ, that ultimate reunion with our Lord, then frankly, why are we here? Seriously, if we do not live in expectation of being united with Christ, why are we bothering with all this? I don’t know about you, but I could use the sleep on Sunday mornings. But no, that expectation is part of our faith, even if we have to be reminded of it sometimes.

But also, and ultimately, today’s reading really does remind us to hope.

Many times, when one reads such apocalyptic texts, one gets the warning to hunker down into a defensive position, or even to go into hiding – “flee! fly! run to the hills!” or such warnings. But that’s not how Jesus finishes his teaching here, is it?

We get the warning that “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” – I suspect the folks out in California who had to run for their lives from those wildfires have seen quite enough of those; “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” – well, a tsunami in Indonesia, a monster typhoon in Saipan, Hurricanes Florence and Michael in the US…we’ve seen plenty of that too. “Fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world”? Yep, got that too.

But look what’s next.

Then they will see ‘the son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (emphasis mine)

No fleeing to the hills, no hunkering down, no hoarding in a ultra-fortified bunker – just “stand up and raise your heads.” It’s like knowing summer is near when you see the fig tree sprouting leaves, is how Jesus describes it. You know what these signs mean. It’s not about fear and uncertainty for us, not if we’re really following Christ in faith and being led by the Spirit. We stand; we watch; we wait – not in fear, but in hope.

Finally, we are instructed not to get distracted or weighed down with the things of the world – keep living as Christ has taught us, and keep watch. That’s how to live in end times.

Of necessity, this sermon ends with a hymn. Between today’s scripture and the liturgy of the service, the ending of the sermon came out as a hymn, and it’s one we can sing, I promise.

[Congregation sings “When the world tells us“]

For hope in the darkness, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #83, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus; #352, My Lord! What A Morning; #354, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory; #348, Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending

 


From Armistice to Shalom: The Unfinished Journey of Peace (An Introduction and Five Meditations)

From Armistice to Shalom:

The Unfinished Journey of Peace

An Introduction and Five Meditations

 

I. Introduction

It was seven years and almost eight months ago that Frank Buckles died.

Aside from being 110 at his death, his passing marked another, larger passing in the collective memory of this country: Buckles had been the last surviving US veteran of World War I. This same passing of a generation had come upon all of the participating countries in that conflict save for Britain, whose last veteran of the Great War finally died about a year after Buckles.

Even as those last few veterans of the conflict were passing, in truth memory of that conflict had faded long before. Overshadowed in US memory by World War II (in which the US role was much larger, longer-lasting, and demonstrably more “successful”), the earlier conflict receded to the status of vaguely remembered prelude in the minds of most. For those (mostly) European nations whose involvement was whole, from 1914 to 1918, and who saw staggering, unthinkable losses of life and traumatic injury, the war remains a significant part of their memories. It is in those countries where one sees one of the simplest and most effective acts of memorial in existence; the basic red poppy lapel pin, inspired by the popular poem “In Flanders’ Fields,” worn in most every public place in those countries. 

The general absence of this war from our collective memory, mitigated slightly by the commemorations of its centennial over the past four years, is ultimately a loss for our understanding not just of this war, but of the human genius for war, and our rank inability to grasp the things that make for peace. We blunder forward, repeating mistakes and not learning. And so it has gone for a century, now.

We will never learn of peace – true, God-inspired shalom peace – without facing and taking in the lessons of our inability to resist war. This must bear – must bear – on us as the church, the followers of the Christ who called the peacemakers “blessed” and “the children of God,” most heavily of all. Let us therefore remember: remember those whose lives were taken in this conflict, those whose lives or bodies were irreparably scarred or torn apart, those who lived with the consequences of the war for generations, those whose lives could not be repaired.

Let us therefore, ever mindful of our mandate to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God,” listen and learn the lessons of this war. Let us know in our hearts the wrongs and horrors of its beginning, its fighting, and its ending; let us see how it has foreshadowed and fomented more war and conflict over the century that has passed; let us mark with sorrow how even the church failed in its witness during that war; let us be resolved in our hearts that this cannot be the way in which we live our witness; let us be called forth to be blessed peacemakers, children of God.

Hymn: God of Grace and God of Glory

 

Meditation 1: The Rush of War

Reading from scripture: 2 Chronicles 20:1-9

Give Jehoshopat credit for this much: he’s desperate. Invading armies are practically at the door, and they want in. His only real recourse is to plead to God for help. Jehoshophat was not a great king or even a good king, but he was wise enough to understand this much, at least.

Somehow, this does not seem to be how modern wars start. World War I was no exception. England’s king, Germany’s Kaiser, and the Russian imperial family were all related. England and Germany were each other’s biggest trading partners. Yet when one Austrian duke was assassinated on a trip to Sarajevo in July 1914, there was no one wise enough to do anything but be an obedient domino, falling as previously determined, rather than stand up and say “this is madness.” Within about a month, the whole continent was at war. 

The voices seeking caution were few and far between; rather, “war madness” set in. The British author Vera Brittain, in her memoir Testament of Youth, described the rush as follows:

“It is, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, which constitute the pacifist’s real problem–a problem still incompletely imagined and still quite unsolved. … but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time. The glamour may be the mere delirium of fever, which as soon as war is over dies out and shows itself for the will-o’-the-wisp that it is, but while it lasts, no emotion known to man seems as yet to have quite the compelling power of this enlarged vitality.” 

Even though it did not enter the war for another two and a half years, the US saw the same “war madness” set in as soon as it became clear that President Woodrow Wilson was steering the country towards entering the conflict. In particular, actions of violence or repression against Germans or German-American citizens living in the US became a black mark on the country, one which would be repeated against Japanese and Japanese-Americans twenty-five years later. 

That “warring madness,” as referenced in today’s first hymn by Harry Emerson Fosdick, even affected those responsible for planning for the war; the belief (on both sides) that the war would be quickly over and everybody would be home by Christmas proved grotesquely wrong, and the full horror of this war began to unfold itself before unbelieving eyes.

Hymn: O God of Earth and Altar

 

Meditation 2: The Disaster of War

Reading from Scripture: Psalm 53:1-6

In the midst of war, particularly a war with such new and horrific ways to kill one another being introduced regularly, it’s not hard to feel like the psalmist in these verses. In a world in which bombs could not only be lobbed from afar but dropped from the sky, soldiers were routinely ordered to charge into nests of machine guns, and – with the introduction of poison gas – the very act of breathing could kill you, how do you not believe that “they have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one”? 

The truth must be told here: the church did not acquit itself well in this war. Too easily came the accommodating cheerleading for “our side,” without regard to the brutality and bloodshed at all. It was not lost on soldiers, this distance between the official line of the church and its representatives and the characteristics of Jesus. The soldier-poet Wilfred Owen marked this on many occasions in his poetry. One of his more terse examples was as follows: 

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;

 and caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts; 

and buckled with a smile all Mausers and Colts; 

and rusted every bayonet with his tears.

A more extensive, somber, and even bitter treatment of this idea came in his poem “At a Calvary near the Ancre,” referring to a crucifix marker that had, like so many soldiers, experienced harm in battle. Owen saves special scorn for those “priests” and “scribes” who had quite lost touch with, if not outright betrayed, the Christ it was their appointed role to serve, and had moved on and found other masters.

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.

In this war He too lost a limb,

But his disciples hide apart;

And now the Soldiers bear with him.

 

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

 

The scribes on all the people shove 

And bawl allegiance to the State,

But they who love the greater love

Lay down their life; they do not hate.

Of course, the staggering toll of lives lost in the war; those who did survive but at unspeakable cost of broken bodies and broken minds and broken souls…one is struck speechless to contemplate it all. Those who endured these horrors, as we have already observed, are no longer with us; we who now live commit dishonor of the worst sort when we cannot be troubled to remember their sacrifice and the horrors they endured.

Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest.

Hymn: O God of Every Nation

 

Meditation 3: The Aftermath of War

Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 6:13-16

It’s as if Jeremiah was somehow granted a vision of 1,400 years into the future. His description in this reading is awfully apt for how the Great War ended.

To speak of an “armistice” on this day one hundred years ago means exactly one thing: armies in France stopped shooting at one another. It should not, however, be confused in any way with peace.

Germany sought an end to fighting for one simple reason: its people were starving. A German delegation was escorted across the lines the previous week to complete negotiations towards a cessation of hostilities. An unknown member of that delegation reported of their journey:

“It appeared to me that the drive was intentionally prolonged in order to carry us across devastated provinces and to prepare us for the hardest conditions which the feelings of hatred and revenge might demand.”

Any hopes for a quick peace were dashed quickly; the French, who had endured the vast majority of the fighting, set especially harsh terms for armistice, and also ensured that fighting would be redoubled and repeatedly intensified until the moment of armistice. The guns were to fire, as fast and as far as possible, until the very last second.

This was not an armistice devised with peace in mind. Nor was the final treaty, signed the following year, devised with peace in mind. The extremely harsh terms of the treaty crushed Germany’s economy even more, provoking a slide into totalitarianism that led, yes, to the rise of the National Socialist party, led by a resentful former Austrian army corporal named, yes, Adolf Hitler. Between this and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, this is a lot for World War I to account for. And this doesn’t even address the carving up of the Middle East by England and France, setting the stage for a century of conflict in that region of the world that still rages today.

What President Woodrow Wilson somehow managed to call both “the war to end all wars” and a war to “make the world safe for democracy” had in fact done the opposite of both; it set in motion the events that would lead to World War II and unleashed more tyranny in the world. 

Then there were those who survived.

Many survived with grievously wounded bodies, and many with grievously wounded minds. The term “shell shock” emerged from this war to describe what today sounds awfully similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Siegfried Sassoon, who unlike his fellow war-poet Wilfred Owen survived the war, penned a poem on the haunted lives of those who survived. The final stanza:

Do you remember that hour of din before the attach – 

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-gray

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

 

Have you forgotten yet?…

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

Hymn: Dona Nobis Pacem

 

Meditation 4: The Challenge of Peace

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:21-24

War isn’t a good way to make peace. 

The ongoing such of war, hot or “cold,” that filled the twentieth century would surely lay to rest Wilson’s claim (borrowed from H.G. Wells) that the Great War would be a “war to end all wars.” But what does make for peace? 

We followers of Christ need to be jolted awake to one very crucial thing: the State or Nation – any State or Nation – will never make peace. It is, frankly, not in a state or nation’s interest to do so. Have you looked at military budgets lately? Have you any idea how much money is spent on that? 

Furthermore, wars have been so deeply ingrained in our collective conscious as a nation that we are thoroughly incapable of separating our national identity from them. Were you to ask a representative sampling of Americans what the two most important or most defining events in American history were, there’s a very strong chance that your top two responses would be the American Revolution and the Civil War. The country was born in one war, and defined in another war. How do we escape such pervasive definition of war in us?

For we who claim to follow Christ, there is only one possible answer:

Remember whose we are.

In a country that often assumes that ‘Christian’ and ‘American’ are exactly the same thing, that’s a strong – even dangerous – countercultural claim. Yet how do we state otherwise? How do we make any kind of claim to follow that Jesus who, again, called the peacemakers “blessed” and “children of God”?

The headlong rush to revenge at the end of World War I, Wilfred Owen’s priests who were “flesh-marked by the Beast by whom the gentle Christ’s denied”, the mad rush of clergy of all stripes to be the biggest cheerleaders of almost any push towards war, all call into question the degree to which we as followers of Christ truly understand what it means to call ourselves that. 

Augustine of Hippo, in his monumental treatise City of God, offers up what it means to be a follower of Christ – to live in that City:

…it follows that justice is found where God, the one supreme God, rules an obedient city according to his grace, forbidding sacrifice to any being save himself alone; and where in consequence the soul rules the body in all men who belong to this City and obey God, … But where this justice does not exist, there is certainly no “association of men united by a common sense of right and by a community of interest.” 

Aye, there’s the rub. Peace – actual, not-just-nobody-fighting peace, requires justice. And we humans are awfully bad at that. Oh, we’re good at “law and order,” but bringing about genuine justice, and therefore being able to live in peace … well, we aren’t there.

One of my old high school teachers was wont to bellow “define your terms!” at us when we started to solve word problems at the chalkboard. Maybe that’s where we are? If we truly want to seek a world of justice and of peace, maybe we need to define what those terms mean.

Hymn: We Wait the Peaceful Kingdom

 

Meditation 5: The Meaning of Shalom

Reading from scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

So what is peace, anyway?

We read dreamy invocations like that of Isaiah 11, where the wolf lies down with the lamb and the leopard with the baby goat, and it’s beautiful, but it’s…imaginary to us. How can we possibly get there from here? How do we get from that Armistice mindset of seeing only an enemy to be whacked with all the vengeance we can muster to a place of peace, not merely absence of conflict but true, justice-rooted shalom? 

The Apostle Paul calls into question our angle of vision. Once, he says, we saw from what he calls a “human point of view,” and saw everything and everyone – even Christ – from that “human point of view.” But that’s not how we see anymore, if we are truly a follower of Christ – if we are truly “in Christ,” to use Paul’s words. We are new; the old vengeance-based mindset is gone. The only way we know to view others is as Christ sees them – as children of God.

Then, and only then, can we even begin to start. 

As the hymn said earlier:

When wars of desolation and hate come to an end,

When nation meets with nation and calls the other “friend,”

Still peace in all its fullness will only have begun:

Shalom for all creation begins with justice done.

We need a bit of Amos to go with our Isaiah and Paul. You will remember that Amos is the one, in chapter five of that book, who speaks of God saying “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…” and refusing the sacrifices and the songs of the people, “…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream.

There is the rub. The world cannot be at peace – true, pervasive, shalom – until justice is practiced in the world. We will never be able to do justice until we are able to see the world around us, and all those who live in it, the way the God we claim to follow sees that world and all those who live in it. As much as I hate to admit it, that terribly sentimental song that starts cropping up around the holidays actually does have something to it: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin in me…”

Until that day, the violence and bloodshed that is the ongoing progeny of the Great War cannot hope to be ended. There will be no beating of swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks as long as we cling to our very human, very revenge-oriented view of others only as “enemies” or “friends” instead of “children of God.” Laying aside that oh-so-comfortable, oh-so-culturally-popular way of seeing the world, is risky and uncomfortable and may even put us in the crosshairs of those wed to war; but there really is no other way of following Christ. 

The journey from armistice to shalom is far from over. We are still so beholden to ways of seeing the world that are painfully human, not divine. But this is the journey to which we are called and chosen. Christ calls us, Christ guides us, Christ waits for us. Let us go forward.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymn: O Day of Peace


Order of Worship for “From Armistice to Shalom: A Service of Worship for the Unfinished Journey of Peace”

From Armistice to Shalom: A Service of Worship for the

Unfinished Journey of Peace

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 11, 2018, 11:00 a.m.

 

Chiming of the Hour

Welcome and Introduction

Responsive Call to Worship:

Leader: In a world filled with violence and war,

People: we gather together to celebrate the promise of peace.

Leader: In a world filled with tyranny and oppression,

People: we gather together to celebrate the promise of justice for all.

Leader: In a world filled with hunger and greed,

People: we gather together to celebrate the promise of plenty for all.

Leader: Our hope is in the name of the Almighty God,

People: the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of earth.

All: Let us worship God!

*Hymn #307, God of Grace and God of Glory

 

Scripture Reading: 2 Chronicles 20:1-9

Meditation1: The Rush of War

Hymn, O God of Earth and Altar (see insert)

 

Prayer of Confession:

God of peace, forgive us when we have participated in that which turns people against each other, for fueling anger and harboring vengeance, for not heeding your call to love one another. Inspire us never to give up on the hope that your life offers us, and the courage to see past war and desolation and live for the day when it will be peace. (Silent confession) Amen.

Assurance of Pardon:

Amidst the clamor and rancor of conflict, the waters of the font are still filled, reminding us of the unshakeable hope that is ours; in the redeeming love of our Lord Jesus Christ, killed in an act of state violence and yet risen and living, our forgiveness is sure and constant. In Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Thanks be to God!

*Gloria Patri, #581:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end; Amen, Amen.

 

Scripture Reading: Psalm 53:1-6

Meditation 2: The Disaster of War

Solo: Requiem: Pie Jesu                                                                                              Gabriel Fauré

Julia Freeman, soprano

*Hymn #756, O God of Every Nation

 

Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 6:13-16

Meditation 3: The Aftermath of War

*Hymn #752, Dona nobis pacem

 

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:21-24

Meditation 4: The Challenge of Peace

*Hymn #378, We Wait the Peaceful Kingdom

Anthem: O Sing of Peace                              Ruth Elaine Schram and Jean Anne Schafferman

 

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Meditation 5: The Meaning of Shalom

*Hymn #373, O Day of Peace

 

Scripture Reading: Romans 12:15-21

Responsorial Prayer of Commemoration (see insert)

Offering

*Doxology, Hymn #606:

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;

Praise him all creatures here below;

Praise hymn above, ye heavenly hosts;

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

*Offering Prayer

*Hymn #103, Come Now, O Prince of Peace (O-So-So)

 

*Charge and Blessing

*Postlude


Sermon: The Immigrant

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 4, 2018, Pentecost 24B, All Saints

Ruth 1:1-18

The Immigrant

It has been long a tradition in the church to mark, at the beginning of November or the Sunday immediately after, the occasion of All Saints’ Day, in which the church marks the lives of those, in the words of the Book of Common Worship, “whose baptism is now complete in death.” As the tradition overcame Protestant phobia of the word “saint” (I’m quite sure Bill Cutler would have something to say about this were he still with us) and began to enter the practice of at least mainline churches, it has taken particular care to note the passing of those who at least partly lived out their lives in the particular church at hand. For us, as well as Bill Cutler, we also mark the lives and witnesses of Doug Bartz and Grace Gillespie, who have left us since last All Saints’ Day. It is also appropriate for us to mark in particular the passing of Louise Beatty, who had been the last surviving charter member of this congregation until her death just a few weeks ago in South Florida, and in so doing to mark the lives of all those saints who founded and sustained this church since its beginnings seventy years and a few weeks ago.

[silence]

Part of the problem that kept All Saints from becoming a thing sooner, at least among Protestants I suspect, is the way we tend to lapse into a particular image when we hear the word “saint.” You know what I mean: all in old fashioned robes of some sort, hands possibly folded in a gesture of prayer, possibly a halo around the head which is permanently tilted at a particular angle so that the saint’s glance is alwaysheavenward. And as much as we seek to honor the memory and remember the service of Grace or Doug or Bill in this church and among this people, it’s kind of difficult to reconcile our memories of them with this subconscious but pervasive characterization of “saint.” In our rational moments we know better, of course, but that doesn’t rob the caricature of its power in our minds.

In the sense of the word we use today, the “saints” are those who have lived and served among us who now enjoy their eternal rest. Presbyterians aren’t in the business of canonizing saints (with the possible exception of Mister Rogers), so we’re not speaking of any kind of superheroic figures; they are ordinary people who shone in extraordinary moments that stay with us.

And no, they weren’t always so saintly. Sometimes their stories have some definitely weird, downright strange, or even just a little bit scandalous parts to them. Take, for example, this story of Ruth, to which we just heard the beginning a few moments ago.

I hope you got to read the book as recommended – it’s certainly not too long to sit down and read in the manner of a short story, which is roughly what it is. It definitely has a few plot twists along the way, and in the manner of many popular such short stories, it has a happy ending, for the most part. But in case you didn’t, the really fast recap:

Naomi, her husband, and their two sons migrate from Bethlehem to Moab due to a famine, where the two boys marry local women, Orpah and Ruth (in case you’re wondering, “Orpah” actually is the name on media star Oprah Winfrey’s birth certificate; it somehow got changed along the way). After some years, all the men die, leaving three widows behind. The famine then switches places, striking Moab while relenting in Bethlehem, and the embittered Naomi resolves to return. She presses upon the younger women to return to homes; she finally wears Orpah down, but Ruth will not desert her at any costs, a resolve captured in 1:16, easily the most well-known verse of this entire book.

In Bethlehem, Ruth sets out (at some personal risk) to provide for the two of them, and ends up gleaning grain from the field of an upright local citizen named Boaz, who takes a particular interest in her, due to the loyalty she has shown Naomi. As it happens, Boaz is a distant relative of Naomi’s late husband, and the widow hatches a plan to get Ruth the security of a marriage. She instructs Ruth to, er, present herself to Boaz in a particular situation, which the younger woman does despite the strong potential for ending up in a compromising situation. Fortunately Boaz is a better man for that, and resolves to do his familial duty to Naomi by marrying Ruth; after clearing some legal obligations the two are married, Naomi’s security is made sure, and the couple is given a child named Obed.

One of the seeming quirks of this story is that God doesn’t really “show up” in the way God has been accustomed to doing – no dramatic interventions or overturnings or miracles. No: the action of God in the book of Ruth is found in the actions of God’s people, the faithfulness and kindness and generosity shown by Ruth to Naomi, by the women of Bethlehem to Naomi, and by Boaz to Ruth and ultimately to Naomi as well. The people of Bethlehem ultimately live up to the instruction in the levitical code to “receive the stranger in their midst,” and in such is the action of God in this book.

Not that this hospitality always goes smoothly, mind you. Ruth’s identity as a foreigner – specifically a Moabite – doesn’t go unchallenged. The Moabites were a people so disdained by the Hebrew people that that same law code forbade Moabites to be admitted to the assembly of the people at all. And at least on occasion Ruth’s foreignness didn’t go unremarked; take 2:6, when Boaz’s overseer refers to her as “the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.” He sounds like a modern politician who won’t stop calling people “foreigners” until his followers start shooting them.

Nonetheless, even those employees of Boaz do manage to practice at least basic hospitality to Ruth, in that they follow Boaz’s orders: don’t assault her, and leave behind extra grain for her to glean. By this hospitality Ruth is able to provide for Naomi and herself through harvest season and some weeks beyond.

It’s a really strange story in some ways, with turns bitter and edgy and salacious, decidedly patriarchal in its insistence that Ruth’s only option for security was a good marriage, and seemingly void of dramatic intervention by God. And yet here it is, and with one past plot twist to offer.

Remember that baby Obed? Well, he would grow up and have a son who turned out to be kinda famous, named Jesse. Jesse, in turn, had a whole passel of sons, the youngest of which turned out to be kind of a big deal. Maybe you’ve heard of David? In the end this twisty little story produced the grandfather of the greatest king of Israel recorded in Hebrew scripture.

The gospel of Matthew adds one more twist to that twist: in that seemingly interminable genealogy at the front of the book, that bit of royal lineage (in which Ruth is one of only four women to be acknowledged) is extended, finally leading to one Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. So Ruth’s gamble in leaving her homeland, her dogged faithfulness and service to her mother-in-law, and yes, her marriage to Boaz enshrine her as one of Jesus’s earthly ancestors, important enough for Matthew the evangelist to mention by name. Not a bad means to informal sainthood.

Most of the time this is what saints look like, even when things look a little wacky; they are showing hospitality and kindness, even to the stranger, the foreigner.

So, go be saints. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnalunless otherwise noted): #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah; #—, Receive the Stranger in Your Midst; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #326, For All the Saints

 


Sermon: The Reset Button

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 28, 2018, Pentecost 23B

Job 42:1-17

The Reset Button

After everything that has been said and done in this book, the last eight verses of this final chapter feel…strange. Odd. Maybe even like a little bit of a cheat.

The first six verses of the chapter are fairly clear. Whatever else may be the case, Job gets itat least on some level: in his questioning and interrogating God, he didn’t know what he was talking about, in the most literal sense of that phrase. The “cosmic nature hike” on which God took Job in chapters 38-41 apparently made enough of an impression that Job is at least somewhat compelled to back down from his previous posture.

We have to note, though, that in this backing down Job is notin fact renouncing his claim of innocence; he does not say that he somehow deserved the suffering that came upon him. No: what he renounces is his claim against God as somehow being unjust towards him. He recants of his arrogance, in the words of John C. L. Gibson, in trying to bend God’s will to his own. That’s plenty to recant, to be sure, but do understand that this is not the same thing as saying that he deserved the suffering that had been thrust upon him (a thing that God never says either).

It is compelling, this brief response from Job. He even quotes back some of God’s words to God – “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” for example, which you can almost imagine Job saying while pointing at himself in exaggerated fashion – and responds to those quotes with his own acknowledgment of how he has been changed and corrected by his encounter with God. Verse six is, unfortunately, a bit of a mishmash in Hebrew, and made worse by odd translation choices; it would probably be better understood as Job rejecting or recanting the “counsel without knowledge” with which he had challenged God, and perhaps even rejecting or recanting the “dust and ashes” in which he had been perched for most of this book. The time for mourning is done, and any more of this ash heap would be wallowing in self-pity.

The next three verses would seem rather satisfying for Job. Those three so-called “friends,” Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, get a pretty fierce tongue-whipping from God and an order to seek forgiveness from Job by means of a burnt offering, with Job being charged to offer prayers on their behalf, lest God otherwise “deal with you according to your (the friends’) folly.” While it might well (and understandably) have chafed at Job to be charged with seeking forgiveness for those who had been so merciless towards him, for the three accusers it must have burned mightily for their own fates to be even a little bit in the hands of one whom they had been so quick to brand as wicked based on nothing more than his suffering.

To this point, as a culmination of this story, it frankly looks pretty good. God is still God, Job is chastened for is arrogance but not condemned for undeserved suffering, and the three jerk friends get what they had coming. It looks good. It would look very good, except that the story doesn’t end in verse 9.

Instead, we get verses 10-17, which looks for all the world like a giant reset button has been pressed and everything gets put right back the way it was before all the bad stuff happened. Actually, a reset button times two: verse ten makes clear that “the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before,” and in case that wasn’t clear verse twelve actually runs the numbers. “Fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a hundred yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys,” it says, and that’s exactly double what is recorded as Job’s inventory in 1:3. Oh, and ten children again (at least Job didn’t get double the children!). I guess things must have gotten better with Job’s wife too, in that case.

It still feels like a cheat.

After all this poetry and dialogue that specifically and dramatically destroys the idea of retributive justice (Job’s old idea that God rewarded the just with material favor and cursed the unrighteous with suffering) in God’s monologue to Job, and especially in God’s rebuke to those friends that just happened in the previous three verses…we’re going back and saying “nah, just kidding, you humans can go back to kissing up to God to get good stuff”?

Maybe not.

It’s possible that something else is going on in these final verses of the book of Job. It’s possible, just maybe, that Job and his newly acquired understanding is being put to the test – and even more, that Job is passing the test.

First of all, notice how that reprimand of Job’s friends ended. The three men had been charged to offer up that burnt offering, and beseech Job to pray for them. In verse 9 we read that the three did what God had commanded, “and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.” However bitter a pill it might have seemed to be charged to pray for his persecutors, Job evidently did it.

Then see how verse ten follows that: “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends.” (emphasis mine) Step one: being able to be concerned for the welfare of others, even when they’ve been pretty awful to you. Job passed. Now comes step two: how do you handle the restoration of your fortunes, Job? How do you respond to being a father again? Are you capable of being a good steward of these herds (again, a borderline ecological catastrophe just waiting to happen) and being a good husband to your wife and a good father to your children? Did you really learn what you say you learned?

Maybe, in this seeming “reset button” restoration, what is actually happening is that Job is being challenged not just to tell God what he learned, but to show God.

We get a clue to this, I think, in the record of Job’s ten children. (Unfortunately we don’t get a clue as to how Job handled all those animals.) We are told in verse 13 that, like before, Job (and presumably his wife!) had seven sons and three daughters. What is recorded about his family this time around is quite different that what we learned back in chapter one.

Back in that introduction to the story, the main thing we learned about his family is that the sons would hold feasts in each other’s houses, each taking his turn, and making sure their sisters were invited. Then, in 1:5, we get what seemed a mild quirk about Job; when those feasts had run their course, Job would get up early the next day and spend his day offering sacrifices, just in case one of them had somehow sinned or “cursed God in their hearts.”

On the surface, it looks harmless, and maybe even a little heartwarming – aww, Job’s looking out for his children – but maybe there’s something different going on underneath the surface. Is all that sacrificing and fussing about Job’s children, or about Job? Is it about their righteousness, or his own?

Things are quite different here in Chapter 42. This time, we learn something about those children – more specifically, about the daughters. It’s no longer about the sons and their feasting; it’s about the daughters – and they have names! Interesting names at that, which roughly translate (in order) “Dove,” “Cinnamon,” and (really different one here) “Rouge-pot.” We learn that they are quite beautiful, and more importantly that they shared in the inheritance of their father, along with their brothers. This was not donein the culture in which Job lived, yet here it is. And we don’t get any indication that Job was constantly running around trying to offer sacrifices for them in case they did anything stupid. Job treats his children very differently.

Ellen F. Davis, in her book Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, offers two key observations on this seeming change in Job before and after the horrible things he suffered. As to this new family, Davis points out that (as any parent who ever lost a child, or anyone who ever lost a spouse, could tell you) it isn’t a question of “replacing” the lost child or the lost spouse. Instead, as Davis puts it, “The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again.”[1] Job (and presumably his wife!) know how hard the world can be, and yet choose to be parents to children again – even having experienced the brutal loss of children. Job really seems to have learned something from this encounter.

More broadly, Davis addresses the question we are left with by the story of Job: “The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and for every person of integrity is this: can you love what you do not control?[2]

Stunning question, isn’t it?

Can you love this wild and untamed creation that God created, knowing that it is not your place to tame it?

Can you love those grown-up children, moved away and on their own and raising your grandchildren in ways you wouldn’t have possibly done, but no longer under your control?

Can you love God, far more vast and exuberant and untamed than the eye can see or the ear can hear, whose will cannot be bent to conform to your will?

It seems that maybe, after his experience of tragedy and his experience of God, Job found a way to answer “yes” to those questions.

What about us?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #624, I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art; #659, Know That God Is Good; #794, O Savior, In This Quiet Place; #852, When the Lord Redeems the Very Least

 

[1] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2001), 142.

[2] Ibid., 140.