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Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
July 28, 2013

Scripture: Luke 11:1-13 and Psalm 85
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Psalm 85

1Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.
3You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.
4Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.
5Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
6Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
7Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.
8Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
9Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
10Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
13Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches – finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God

“Let us Pray…But Why?”

Just over a week ago I got back from our youth mission trip to NYC where our youth and adults spent time feeding the poor and homeless and helping to rebuild after hurricane Sandy. We served meals, we cleaned dishes, we listened to life stories… we pulled out nails, we ripped out door and window frames, we carried away debris, we hauled over 3000 gallons of bottled water… we ate lots of ice cream, we stood in Times Square, we enjoyed great pizza, we lounged in Central Park and we saw a Broadway show.

We experienced a lot during our time in the city, but now, a week later, the piece that lingers most vividly in my heart is our visit to the Brooklyn Tabernacle for worship and Bible Study. Around 1500 people packed into a gilded Broadway theater style sanctuary on a Tuesday night… some grubby from serving all day, some coming straight from work…youth groups from all over the country were there… all sorts of people were welcomed just as they were to gather in that place to sing and learn more about God and our part in God’s story.

For me, most of the service felt very familiar, comfortable and expected. For others in our group the songs and style of the message were both unsettling and inviting at the same time. But the one piece of worship there at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that challenged each and every one of us was their practice of prayer.

Early in the service one of their staff members was invited to come and speak to the congregation about a new mission emphasis taking shape in the congregation. This young woman came and spoke to us about a world-wide epidemic. This epidemic is the abduction of young boys and girls. They are simply gone… vanished… sold into the slavery of objectification and used against their wills by those who are seeking to gratify base desires.

She told us about Moldova, a small country in Eastern Europe, where 300,000 young ones have gone missing. She told us this was a problem right here in NYC and a member from our trip helped us know that this is a problem right here in Ohio. She told us that the Tabernacle’s response to this tragedy was still taking shape, but invited us in the meantime to pray for those 300,000 missing children in Moldova.

At this point the pastor leading the service asked us to stand and turn to our neighbors and get into small groups of two or three, women with women and men with men. He asked us to pray aloud together. He asked the women to pray for those who were missing and the men to pray for the systems that create and perpetuate this problem.

As those in the congregation around us leapt into action, our little row up in the balcony froze. To be fair, another Presbyterian youth group in front of us were also equally frozen. I noticed 11 sets of eyes looking at me, asking, “What do we do?” I turned and started praying with two of our youth. I pray all the time in front of other people…it kinda comes with the territory: I pray in meetings, I pray in worship, I pray in restaurants, but I will admit that I felt awkward in that moment.

On that balcony that night I prayed and I watched as those around us joined hands and started praying, I watched the ease with which they entered into prayer. And then I watched our group and the other youth groups around us as they awkwardly went through the exercise.

Later that night, during our group devotional we talked a lot about that moment and about the purpose of prayer. “Why did we pray for those women?” someone in the group asked. “Why did we pray for the world someone else” asked. “Why did we even pray?” someone else asked. The thought behind those questions: The need was so great, the facts of the situation were so dismal, what possible good could come from prayer?

I don’t share excerpts from these conversations to shame those who were with me in New York, I share them because I think they are all too common. I have had this same conversation with youth and adults of every age in every place I have worked.

This might sound strange to you, but prayer is not an easy thing to do. When you aren’t used to praying all the time, it can feel like you are talking to yourself…You can’t prove someone hears you…most times you can’t see the impact of the prayers you offer; and when you aren’t in the habit it can sometimes…oftentimes feel clumsy, the words don’t flow, it’s easy to feel like you are not doing it right.

I imagine the disciples often felt that way when they were around Jesus. He was always stopping off during their journeys to rest and pray. During his time of prayer the disciples must have somehow noticed the close relationship. Maybe it was his posture, maybe it was the language he used, maybe it was how refreshed and renewed he appeared after he prayed. Whatever it was, the disciples noticed and they wanted to know what it felt like. So one of the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray…to help them get closer to God like he was.

Jesus sees their hearts desire and responds with some simple words to use that should frame their prayer life…the Lord’s Prayer and in typical Jesus fashion a story to go along with it. Prayer, he says, is like a friend knocking on the door at midnight. A friend, traveling by night to avoid the heat of the day, has arrived at your doorstep looking for food and a place to sleep. You didn’t expect anyone at this hour of night and your refrigerator is empty and your cabinets are bare. Of course the Heinens is closed at that hour so your only option is to bother your neighbors and hope they won’t mind.

You knock on the door…it’s dark, there’s a chill in the air. “Who’s there?” asks your annoyed neighbor.

“So sorry to bother you. I am sure you were asleep, but would you mind if I borrow a loaf of bread, some grapes and maybe some juice? A guest has just arrived unexpectedly and I don’t have any food to share with him.” “Are you kidding? Go away and come back in the morning!” comes the reply. If you listen close enough you can hear your neighbor grumbling on his way back to his bed, “can you believe the nerve?”

But you are desperate…your guest has been traveling all night and is starving and you won’t be turned away.

You knock again, louder and more insistent this time. “Please, friend…I really need some bread and juice to share…I won’t forget this favor.” The groaning grows louder as your neighbor comes to the door, you hear the latch turning, the door opening and then you see the food shoved through the doorway.

You didn’t get what you wanted because the person was feeling particularly friendly towards you. You got what you needed because you were persistent, because you wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Jesus’ point in this story seems to be that the secret to prayer is persistence. The prayer doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to be eloquent; you just need to keep talking, to keep asking, to keep lifting before God your heart’s desire.

But why? Why pray? When the world is full of such heartache? Why pray? What good will it do right here and right now to not only talk about it with God, but to KEEP talking about it over and over again? How often do we see our prayers answered when we say “Amen”? The needs of the world and the needs of our lives demand action. Why should we pray?

Pastor and storyteller, Michael Lindvall answers that question for me in one of his stories from his novel Leaving North Haven.

David, the pastor in the story goes to visit Minnie, a 90 year old woman living with Parkinson’s disease. She was recently very ill allowing the parkinson’s to progress rapidly. She is frail and resigned to what lies ahead for her.

David and Minnie begin to talk about prayer after a 10 year old named James tells Minnie that he has asked God to heal Minnie and he is certain that God will answer the prayer because his Sunday School teacher told him that God answers all our prayers. Minnie looks at her pastor and says in a moment of wonderful honesty, “David, the truth is, I hardly know what to pray for anymore. 10 to 12 years ago, when they first said the word, [Parkinson’s] I prayed to be healed. For years, I prayed that God would just take it away. Finally I stopped praying for God to take away the Parkinson’s and started praying bigger prayers. I just tell God what I think and what I feel. I don’t much tell God what to do. I just tell God I’m afraid, afraid for me, afraid for my old fool of a husband. I suppose God knows this already, but my words seem to make it solid”

Together David and Minnie sat in silence and let the words linger in their hearts and then Minnie continued.

“Well, Pastor, don’t worry. This old lady’s prayers have been answered. Not the answers I wanted though. God didn’t take away the Parkinson’s, but God did take away the fear .”

“God didn’t take away the Parkinson’s, but God did take away the fear.”

The power of persistence in prayer. It wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always eloquent, but Minnie prayed and God answered. Minnie prayed and God worked in those prayers to help Minnie see herself in the very arms of God. God worked through those prayers to create space in Minnie’s heart for acceptance and peace.

It wasn’t what Minnie was expecting, but it was what Minnie needed.

Persistent prayer helps us to see. It helps us to see ourselves more clearly and to experience ourselves being held in the very arms of God. We need to pray persistently in the face of the world’s tough problems because the problems are too big for us to see how to respond. We need to pray persistently for the 30,000 missing to be found. We need to pray persistently for the systems of the world to change… we need to pray for the homeless to have shelter…we need to pray for the sick to find healing…we need to pray persistently so that our fear might be replaced with hope, with peace, with the light of God’s love so that we may see how we are part of God’s solution.

We need to pray persistently because when we pray we put ourselves and others into God’s hands.

And when we put these things into God’s hands, we begin to see more clearly how we are connected one to another; we begin to see more clearly how God is shaping us to respond; when we put these things into God’s hands we begin to see more clearly that God’s doors have no locks, that God’s doors are always open to us; we begin to see and understand that God’s doors are not only open for us, but for those for whom we pray.

It is in our prayers that we begin to understand with whom we stand on that threshold. It is in our prayers that our connections grow one to another and with God. It is in our prayers that our fear is replaced with the hope that God is present and God will act to redeem creation. It is in our prayers that we begin to sense how we are called to participate in that work.

Let us pray bigger prayers; prayers filled with what we think and what we feel. Let’s worry less about telling God what to do and instead just hold others before God because the door’s to God’s home have no locks and God is always waiting to hear our needs.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Martha M. Shiverick
Sermon June 16, 2013

1 Kings 21: 1-21a
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Remember the Ancient Greek story about King Midas. Sometimes it is referred to as Midas and the Golden Touch. He was a king who loved gold. When King Midas was told that he could have anything he wanted he asked if everything he touched could turn to gold. If you recall, this delighted him totally in the beginning. He made a gold house for himself, gold furniture, golden garden and pool. The trees, the flowers… All he touched turned to gold. However, his joy was short lived and his greed destroyed him in the end. His beloved daughter was turned to gold as he embraced her and he starved as he could not eat or drink as all that touched his lips also turned to gold. In the end he begged for this great wish to be taken away. Greed, it seems, can be a very destructive power.

This morning’s scripture passage from 1 Kings is another type of ‘Midas Story’. Listen now for God’s word in the story of King Ahab and the vineyard he coveted and how his wife Jezebel connived to get him what he wanted only to have it destroy him in the end….

‘Later the following events took place; Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” he said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

OK – Let’s break here for a moment before we go on with the story. I just want to make sure we are all on the same page with this. Ahab is the King or ruler of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Bible tells how this one man did more evil than all the kings before him. Not only was he a supporter of the Canaanite god Baal, but he was an immature and selfish ruler. In this story, he covets the vineyard owned by Naboth which is next to his home. He wants it for his own to turn it into a garden.

However Naboth will not give it to him. His land was given to his ancestors and will be there for the generations of his family that come after him. By keeping the land he feels that he is honoring the ancient tribal divisions of land that are in the Book of Numbers and that this land division is part of God’s law. It is more than property to Naboth; it is also tied up with his faith and worship of Yahweh.

King Ahab cannot understand this. It is beyond his comprehension and he has no respect for Naboth’s position. He is literally made sick with envy for this vineyard he cannot have. He takes to his bed and won’t eat. This king, who has much more than he needs, would rather be die of starvation than not have the object of his desires. Yikes! What a brat! His response is so spoiled that it seems comical!

And in comes his enabler… Jezebel. She sees that the king has taken to his bed and her response is first one that I would identify as sarcasm. Do you govern Israel? This probably fueled the attitude that Ahab was down with. Then she tells Ahab to get over it. She wants him to get over the depression and to pull himself up by his bootstraps. This is not a woman who is attracted to weakness in others. Only if she can use it to her advantage! She tells him that she will get him the vineyard.

So, let’s continue with the story and see what this conniving woman does to get her husband his coveted land!

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she has sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then the sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

Jezebel’s schemes worked! She got the coveted vineyard for her husband! She plotted, she schemed, she had false charges brought up against an innocent man, and she is responsible for an innocent man’s death. Jezebel reports to her husband and tells him to go and get his vineyard. She might have used her husband’s name to get the power to carry off her plan, but there is no doubt that if she had been taken to court, she would have been found very, very guilty. Ahab was guilty, for sure, but Jezebel was the instigator while he was guilty of allowing her to carry it out.

However, we hear no more about Jezebel in this circumstance. God knew what happened, knew of Ahab’s destructive envy and that he allowed a man to die to get something that he coveted. So, listen now to the final few verses in this story, where Elijah voices God’s punishment on Ahab and his family.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord; Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”

Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Now we can take this story on several levels and there are lessons to be learned on all of them. The first in the King Midas level where the story teaches us that things that we covet and think we want might indeed bring destruction upon us. Ahab did not really need that vineyard that had been in Naboth’s family for generations. He just wanted it. Just as we teach our children the difference between wanting something and needing it, Ahab needed to be taught that lesson as well. We might think we need material possessions, accumulated wealth, great power, or other things we covet and envy in others, but the story reminds us that coveting and envy can lead to bad consequences!

At a little deeper lever, this is also a story about good and evil. God’s people are referred to as God’s vineyard at times so perhaps it is a metaphor for the Israelites who were controlled and stomped on by people of other nations and religions, that even when it seems as though evil will win out, it does not happen. Even when we feel stomped, burned, robbed, and are deep in despair, grace will win. Good conquers evil. Joy will come at the end. The words in a song that Bo’s group, The Forest City String Band, plays sometimes says the darkest hours are just before dawn.

This is a story about justice as well. The God of our Hebrew Scriptures is a just and righteous God. If Naboth’ s death had gone unpunished, we would have cried out for the injustice of it all! A man died for another’s selfishness! A life was casually thrown away to please another’s whim and passing fancy. The statement of dogs licking Ahab’s blood where they had licked up Naboth’s seems well… justified. And the fact that justice was carried out brings good news to us. Just as we know that good will win out, we also have hope because justice will prevail as well. We hope because of what we have experienced in the past, not because of our current situations. We hope because we remember that good overcomes evil and mercy has power over pain.

The third thing that I want to bring up is the one that does not give us hope and courage, but is the difficult one that we need to wrestle with in our lives. You see, there is a painful part of this story which we might not want to uncover as it also uncovers so much of the dark side of our own lives as well. Think about the sin that Ahab really committed. Sure we can say it was greed, it was selfishness, it was that he was a really spoiled brat who was enabled by a woman without a moral ounce in her body. BUT, when you really think about it….his really big sin was not those things. It was that he was compliant to Jezebel’s evil actions. He knew what she was going to do, that there was no action that was too immoral for her to carry out to get what she wanted, and he went along with it. All Ahab had to say to stop the evil from occurring was to tell his wife jezebel that her actions were not moral. And perhaps that is his real sin, the sin for which God called upon Elijah to dictate a punishment.

So, perhaps this story is also meant to have us look at our lives and think of the ways we have perpetuated the evil of the Jezebel’s of our world. Sometimes our inaction is a really powerful action too. We allow sins to be committed by complacency which equates to support and involvement in the sin itself. When we allow the bully at school to pick on the victimized child, this story tells us that we are as guilty as the bully. When we don’t stop a racist remark or allow someone to make a joke about someone being gay we are perpetuating the sin of inequality. When we see injustice and ignore it, we are as guilty as the unjust person. That is the painful message in the story and the one we who wish to be God’s faithful disciples need to wrestle. It is easy to see Jezebel as outside our reality, we are not as evil as that woman who has no scruples or moral fiber to her being…. But God was not pleased with Ahab as well, and well, his sin is one we all, when we are honest with ourselves, might relate to as our own. The story becomes a charge to us to be responcible. It is a charge to us to not turn from what is hurtful and hateful in the world and ignore it, but to fight for love, and God’s way in all that we do. Amen.

Martha M. Shiverick
April 7, 2013 – Doubting Thomas Sunday

Scripture: John 20:19-31

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John Buchanan, the now retired minister of Fourth Presbyterian Church and editor of Christian Century magazine wrote in his editorial this week that he felt that these days and weeks after Easter are the most important in the church year. Sure, we packed the crowds in last Sunday at the 11:00 worship service with an attendance we have not seen since Christmas Eve and last Easter, but these Sundays are really important as you, the people who attend worship this morning, represent the deeply faithful, the steady, loyal heart of our congregation. Buchanan writes that the issues in the days and weeks after Easter are ‘now what?’ and ‘so what?’ and that these are the issues and questions that you all have on your minds.

This morning’s scripture passage begins to deal with these weighty issues. The passage begins where we left off last week. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw it empty. She ran to Peter and the other disciple and told them and they went, or rather ran, to see what had happened. Indeed the tomb was empty and Peter and the other disciple saw and believed. We don’t know what they believed but they then left. Mary encounters the risen Christ and after speaking with him recognizes him. She knows that Jesus lives.

Here we are a week later and the scripture passage for this week is the same one we deal with year after year on the Sunday after Easter. Some call it ‘Doubting Thomas Sunday” but it is really much more than that. Listen now to God’s word as it is told to us in the Gospel of John verses 19-31.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This scripture passage is great on so many levels. First, even before we get to the Doubting Thomas part, the first part of story with the other disciples is so rich. Here it is right after Jesus has risen from the dead. No doubt the disciples in this locked room have heard from Peter and the other disciple about the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb. Although the Easter scripture says that they believed, we are not told what they believed so we are not sure it was that knew that Jesus had risen from the grave. However, we do know that Mary Magdalene experienced the risen Christ and knew it was her risen Lord. No doubt all three of them have come and told their stories to the disciples. Perhaps they were even hiding with them in the locked room.

And we don’t know how many disciples were there but we do know they were frightened, had locked themselves into a room out of fear. The passage says their fear was of the Jews but my guess is that their fear grew out of confusion. They man they had left their former lives to follow had just died an ugly and agonizing death. The crowds were blood thirsty. They had buries Jesus who they loved so and went to that room and stayed together much like a family retreats back to their home after a memorial service. They needed to grieve. They needed to lick their own emotional wounds and decide where they went next. Would they return to their former home towns and lives? There was a lot to contemplate. And then Peter and the other disciple came back and told them that Jesus’ body was missing. How awful. And then Mary Magdalene came and told them that their Jesus was not dead at all but was alive and she had spoken with him. Of course the door was locked. If I had been a disciple, all this would be too much to take in. I would have silently gone over and locked the door myself!

Obviously a locked door was not deterrence to the Risen Lord. He comes into the room and states his reason for his appearance. He fills them with the Holy Spirit and then commissions them to do his work. He breathes on them. And they believed. Seeing and being filled with God’s Spirit, and commissioned to do God’s work is all they need to believe that indeed Jesus is the Risen Christ. It is wonderful. Imagine their joy that death was not the final word. Jesus was alive. How wonderful… And after commissioning the group, Jesus departs.

It is all wonderful until poor Thomas comes in and finds out that he is the only one that has not experienced the Risen Lord. I am sure he wants to believe. Look at how joyous they all are. But Thomas must have a scientific mind and although he wants to believe, he needs the empirical data himself. We must assume he heard the previous reports from Peter and Mary, and the other disciple and now everyone else had experienced Jesus alive again. But he just can’t bring himself to take that leap of faith. He wants proof. He wants his own evidence. He wants to see and touch Jesus himself.

And so Jesus makes another trip to see the disciples in order that Thomas might get the data he needs to believe. And this little part in the story is just great. Jesus returns a whole week later after making that first appearance in the room, after commissioning the disciples and filling them with the Holy Spirit. And what have they done. It seems that they are still locked up in that same room unable to begin the ministry to which they have been called. Jesus said that he was sending them out as God had sent him and well they were not super heroes…. They stayed in their room with the door locked! They might even have been a total disappointment.

And Jesus comes back. He allows Thomas to gather all the empirical data he needed to believe, and he does. He touches, he smells, he listens, he sees. Thomas then makes a faith statement stating that Jesus is his Lord and his God. This early Christological statement stating that Christ is God comes from the man who seconds before could not believe. He needed to gather all the data. And Jesus says, blessed are those who do not see, but believe.

Jesus is addressing this to us. We are the people who must believe without seeing. We must gather our faith data as post resurrection people in a new way. One of my very favorite novels is John Irving’s book, “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good book this spring. In the book, Owen Meany answers his friend’s questions about faith. They are two young boys and the narrator John has a number of conversations with his friend Own about his faith and beliefs. In one instance, Owen illustrates his faith in God by pointing to a gray granite statue of Mary Magdalene in the graveyard as twilight falls. When it has become so dark that the statue is no `longer visible, Own asks John if he knows if the statue is still there. John says that yes, of course the statue is still there. Owen asks him if he is sure even though he can see her and he says yes. And Owen says that that is how his faith is. He can’t see God, but he absolutely knows he is there too.

Some things are just like that. A lot of what we experience at church and through our faith in Christ is really just like that. We can’t see love. But we know when it is there and when it is absent. We can’t see compassion but we can feel when it is there. We can’t touch friendship, but we know when we have it. And we believe absolutely in peace and equality but it is often only defined by what it is not.

And the message for our “Doubting Thomas Sunday” is that we who believe are indeed blessed. We are the ones whose faith allows us to experience God. We are the ones who feel God’s love. We are the ones that know true compassion and forgiveness that comes with the love of God. We are the ones that can see God in the beauty of nature. We are the ones who are religious, are close to God and not just “spiritual”. We are the ones that have found that fellowship within a community of faith, within our community of faith we call Fairmount, brings us a peace and a sense of purpose in our lives. Yes, blessed are we who have faith in our living God.

John Buchanan said in his editorial that these are the weeks that we, the faithful ask the same thing Jesus’ disciples asked: ‘so what?’ and ‘now what?’ The answer is obvious to me. We who Jesus names ‘blessed’ because we know God in our lives also know they joy and comfort our belief and our community of believers brings. And because we have indeed experienced the risen Christ in our lives, we have the same charge and commission that those first disciples had. Just as Christ told them to spread the news, it is indeed our job to share the love we know with others so that they too can hear of Christ’s good news.

Amen!

Sermon by Timothy Hart-Andersen, Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis, MN

Saturday, October 20, 2012, 10:00 AM

Fairmount Presbyterian Church, Cleveland Heights, OH

On behalf of my mother and family I want to thank you for being here today and to express our appreciation to the Fairmount ministers, staff members, musicians, and choir for helping make this celebration of my father’s life an appropriate expression of gratitude to God.

This is the third memorial service held for my dad, the first being in Portland, OR, my parents’ home for the last five years, then in Minneapolis at the church I serve and where my parents were active for seven years, and now here at Fairmount, the congregation Dad served from 1974 to his retirement in 1990.

For my mother and me it’s been a bit like a traveling memorial service road show; I think we’re getting pretty good at it! But we are glad to be ending up here at Fairmount for this last formal gathering of thanksgiving to God for dad’s life.

Hank left very clear instructions about his memorial service. He chose all the music and scripture and other parts of the liturgy. There was one more text he selected, from the 11th and 12th chapters of the Book of Hebrews:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

(Hebrews 11:1-3, 12:1-2)

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the mediation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

My father understood life to be a series of callings. He navigated his way through all his days by testing whether God was calling him to do one thing, or another.

Dad did not invent this way of looking at the world. He learned it from John Calvin who said that each one of us has his or her “own kind of living assigned to him” or to her, “as a sort of sentry post,” as Calvin put it, “So that (we) may not heedlessly wander throughout life.”

No one ever could have accused Hank Andersen of “wandering heedlessly throughout life.” His life had direction, and purpose, and meaning.

Dad took to heart the words of the early church leader Irenaeus, who said, “The joy of God is a human being fully alive.” Dad spent his 87 years – including right up to his last days – trying to be as fully alive as possible. He felt called to full living, large living, joyful living, as a vocation – and he pursued it with childlike exuberance.

Dad did not limit the notion of being called solely to ecclesiastical matters. It extended to all aspects of life.

For instance, dad felt called into marriage to my mother 65 years ago – we marked their anniversary with them just before he died. Their romance began like so many other adventures in their life – by serendipity later understood as the hand of Providence. They met on a blind date, made possible because Mary broke a date with the drum major of the University of Nebraska. Dad was no slouch himself when it came to music and rhythm; he had a high school jazz band called Hank’s Hepcats!

Only a few weeks after that first date Hank told Mary of his sense of call into ministry. Sitting at the counter of a local soda fountain, Mary confided that she had always wanted to marry a minister. The dye was cast; Providence was at work.

After marriage and finishing at Nebraska, dad felt called to McCormick Seminary in Chicago, even though he never applied to the school. In fact, he was on his way to Princeton Seminary when he happened to visit the McCormick campus on a train layover in Chicago. On McCormick’s campus he ran into a kind, older gentlemen who showed him around. That gentleman turned out to be the president of the Seminary – and he knew a good thing when he saw it. He admitted dad on the spot. Hank never made it back to his Princeton-bound train. The hand of Providence, indeed.

Henry W. Andersen received his religious sensibilities from his mother Mildred, a devout Presbyterian. From his father, Henry C. Andersen, the son of Danish immigrants to western Iowa, my Dad received his gregarious and high-spirited, fun-loving nature. His father, for instance, would have loved watching son Hank drive his bright red Triumph Spitfire convertible off the driveway and across the lawn and up to the front door of a distinguished member of Fairmount Church to make a pastoral visit. His mother likely would not have been as pleased.

Dad grew up in Omaha with two younger sisters, Barbara and Patty. He was inducted into the Benson High School Hall of Fame for his prowess as a cheerleader and for having written the fight song for the Benson Bunnies. He was also named Best Boy Dancer. He nearly peaked early.

At the university he began preparing for a career in law, but World War II intervened. He shipped off to Europe as a 19-year old infantry squad leader. Before they even landed on the continent he got his first taste of war. Many of you know the story of what happened on Christmas Eve, 1944, because dad preached about it every five years or so from this pulpit on Christmas Eve.

He and a thousand other US soldiers on their way across the English Channel to join the Battle of the Bulge on a ship called the Leopoldville were torpedoed. Hank and others had assembled on the deck to sing Christmas carols. Many of them were saved, but over 800 others died that night. It was the largest single troop casualty in the war, and was kept secret until decades later. They were told not to talk about it, but we kids grew up hearing the account of the Leopoldville and other stories of my dad’s experiences in the war.

On that Christmas Eve, 1944, Hank led the men of his squad up and over the railing of the sinking ship, leaping to a British vessel below that had come alongside. The next morning, Christmas Day, those who had made it to shore found themselves in a bombed-out train station in Cherbourg, France. They awakened to the singing of quartermaster troops – segregated units of African-American soldiers – stationed nearby. The quartermasters gave up their Christmas dinner for the assembled survivors. Hank never forgot how the horror of the cold night of death was answered by the warm light of love shown by those black troops.

The hand of Providence at work again.

My dad showed courage throughout his life; I think it might have begun that Christmas, in 1944. He discerned a call to work for justice and peace and fairness that would stay with him all his days. In the 1960s he stood up for civil rights when it was not popular. In that same era he preached against the war in Vietnam and took heat for it. He worked to alleviate poverty. He called for full inclusion of all people.

In his ministry, dad accepted calls to serve four congregations, in Ellsworth, Kansas, then at a new church start in Wichita, then in LaGrange, outside Chicago, and eventually to Fairmount.

A couple days before he died dad told us he thought he had one more call left in him. He imagined it was coming from a large church in New York City. Lying there in his bed with all of us gathered around, he wondered if he should accept the call. “Do you think they’ll like my preaching style?” he asked. “It probably pays well,” he said.

In those moments he may have been re-living the experience he had when called by Fairmount in 1974. When the pastor nominating committee from this church invited him to come to an interview he was very far along in the process with another big church in the east. He felt certain he would accept their invitation to be the next pastor at that church.

On the flight to Cleveland, where he fully expected to turn down the Fairmount committee, he sat next to a gentleman and struck up a conversation. (Did my dad ever sit next to someone and not strike up a conversation?) When dad told him he was going to an interview at Fairmount Church, the man had an immediate reaction. “You don’t want to go to that church,” he said, and he proceeded to enumerate the problems in the congregation.

Dad liked a challenge, I guess. He fell in love with the committee that night at the interview and later phoned Mary to say that Providence had been at work in the airplane conversation.

Dad relished his years with this congregation. He enjoyed his staff colleagues. He was proud of improvements to the building during his tenure. He found the opportunities to lead Fairmount into civic life enormously fulfilling. Starting the Cleveland Covenant with business and faith leaders was one way he brought people together for the sake of the common good.

He was proud of his work with business executives from Fairmount in introducing them to the World Council of Churches and with Cleveland doctors linking them to medical work in Tanzania. He was honored to serve with Senator Muskie on the Nestle Infant Formula Commission, and was instrumental in resolving that international issue.

My dad was as fine a pastor as ever served any church. The work of Dietrich Bonheoffer helped define ministry for my father, who practiced the relational, down-to-earth theology found in Bonheoffer’s book, Life Together, and elsewhere. Hank mentored dozens of younger ministers. He formed a national peer network of Presbyterian pastors called The Community that still exists today.

My dad taught me much about pastoral ministry – about setting a big vision, about encouraging generosity, about helping others be their best. “Love your people,” he said to me, “and care for them, and they will follow you anywhere.”

He demonstrated that throughout his 40 years of ministry.

Dad was more than merely an outstanding pastor. He was also a wonderful husband to Mary, demonstrating to his last days how much he adored her. They filled their years of marriage with delight and lots of adventure. They formed lasting friendships all over the world.

The four children they produced, Jennifer, Tom, Tim, and Barbara, and their nine grandchildren and three greats, are bound and determined to carry on the legacy they have inherited from their parents: a gentle, forgiving spirit, unconditional support and acceptance, a zeal for travel and exploration, unwavering love, and the desire to live with joy and laughter.

We had such a good time with dad and mom over the years! We are grateful for that gift.

When he retired from Fairmount Hank was at a loss for about a year, until it dawned on him that he had been called into retirement. He began to refer to it as his “penultimate calling” and even wrote a theological paper on it that he delivered at several gatherings.

Death, of course, comes as the final calling, the call home, the call into the eternal embrace of God, in all its mystery and majesty. Dad and I had a conversation about that final calling a few days before the end. “When we die,” he said, “God takes over.”

That’s a straightforward and sufficient explanation of what we Christians claim about death: when we die, God takes over. We need not concern ourselves with complicated speculation or endless debate about what actually happens. T. S. Eliot, one of my father’s favorite poets, called death, the “condition of complete simplicity.”

By the sheer grace of Providence, Hank has now entered into that simplicity, into that new world yet to be discovered. Here’s Eliot again:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
“What we call the beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”

Thanks be to God for the life of Henry W. Andersen

Thanks be to God for a love that cannot be taken from us.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
 July 24, 2011

Based on Exodus 33:7-23
Listen to Podcast

Presbyterian 101: The Sovereign Love of God

Did you know the Presbyterian Church (USA), of which Fairmount is a member, consists of 2.1 million members? Those members belong to 10,700 congregations, found in every state plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Half of our congregations have 100 or fewer members. The largest PC (USA) congregation has over 8,800 members. Recent surveys have shown that 59% of the members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) grew up in another denomination.

This represents the reality that we now live in a post-denominational world, which means the lines between faith traditions, and specifically Christian denominations are growing ever more fluid.

This is because the beliefs of people seeking a church-home are more fluid and less bound by family or cultural tradition.

As a Presbyterian Minister, or as I am called now in our New Form of Government, a Teaching Elder, I get a lot of questions from those searching for a place about what it means to be a Presbyterian flavored Christian. This is what led us to begin a conversation with all of you about the basic theology and beliefs that shape us as Presbyterians in this place. We are calling it Presbyterians 101.

We begin our conversation with a conversation about God.

But first, let us listen for God’s Word, speaking to us this day from the Book of Exodus in the 33rd chapter, verses 7-23. You can find this story on page 79-80 of the OT in your pew Bible.

Here we find the ancient Hebrews wandering in the dessert, following the presence of God, symbolized by the pillar of cloud.

READ: Exodus 33:7-23

The week before last I was in Montreat, NC for a youth conference with a group from our Presbytery. This gave me plenty of time to spend with our young people. We spent a lot of time laughing, singing and discussing important questions of faith. One of the big questions that arose during our nightly conversations dealt with the nature of God. Who is God?

To some of these youth, God seems very selfish, only creating humanity so that we could boost God’s ego by our regular worship. This perception is nothing new. People of faith in all generations have struggled with this idea, which basically assumes God is like a great heavenly dictator, who is far removed and emotionless; who is not concerned with our lives beyond our ability to direct our praise toward the Holy One.

The other side of that coin is that some perceive God to be like a great heavenly grandparent who spoils us rotten, doing everything for us, making our lives smooth, painless and easy.

But as we see in today’s passage neither of these preconceptions is correct. We don’t see a far off distant God; in fact we see quite the opposite. We find a God who is quite involved, quite invested, very present. And at the same time we see a God who does not give Moses everything he wants, because God knows that God’s Holy Other-ness would be too much for human eyes to behold.

This is the God we experience in the text and this is the God we experience in our daily lives. A God who is powerfully other, Holy and eternal, but at the same time a God of personal relationships who comes to us like a loving parent.

I am keenly aware that many in this world struggle with the notion of God; that many struggle because they yearn to see and feel God’s presence through the big grand gestures; that many struggle because they see the suffering and famine in the world and wonder if God causes it or why God doesn’t stop it; they struggle because they do not feel a personal connection to God.

I will admit that I have shared those same struggles through the years. There have been times when I have wondered where God was when wars raged and people died; there have been times when I have wondered where God was when planes crashed and buildings fell; there have been times when I have wondered where God was when I discovered young people were starving themselves because they did not like the way they looked.

But in these times I have always been reminded by the stories of scripture that God is there in the midst of the grief, God in there in the midst of the wars, God is there in the midst of the pain, hurting with those affected and calling out to us for a response.

As Presbyterians we are guided by the stories of scripture, which tell God’s story to us. These stories tell us about our God of love who creates, cares for, and sustains all things; these stories tell us about our God of love who chose a covenant people that we might be a blessing to all people everywhere; these stories tell us about our God of love who sees our struggles and comes to bring a covenant and redemption over and over again; these stories tell us about our God who so loved the world that the Holy Son was sent to fully express God’s love for all people.

Last week we rested with Psalm 139, one of my absolute favorite psalms. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” – the text asks?

God is everywhere. When I first thought about joining a church in college, this idea was intimidating at the least and scary at the worst. I remember reading this psalm and thinking, “Is God spying on me, waiting for me to mess up?” God is everywhere. We learn this as children and feel it to be true as we watch the sun rise or set, as we witness childbirth or sit with someone in hospice. “God is everywhere is the greatest good news. It means there is no place where God’s love and justice cannot be; there is no place where God’s love and justice cannot be at worki.”

As Presbyterians we believe in Our Sovereign God, who is Holy Other, yet at the same time is also Holy relational. We believe in our God who is FOR us and not against us, whose reign will come and whose will for our good will be done. We believe in our God who is not imprisoned in heaven or inside the church, but rather is on the loose in the ordinary moments of each and every day, hallowing them for God’s purposes in the world.

In response to this Good News may we be open to the gracious love of God at work in our lives and in the world that we may participate in sharing the Sovereign Love of God through Christ with a world that is struggling to hear some Good News.

Amen!

 

[1] Grateful thanks to Shirley Guthrie.  Christian Doctrine page 101 and 111

July 3, 2011
Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
Based on: Exodus 31:12-17 & Matthew 12: 1-14
Listen to Podcast

For the past 6 weeks Fairmount has been wrestling with our charge from God to care for Creation. During that time we have explored our call to “keep and till” the garden God created; we have discussed the air we breathe and how God’s breath within and upon us equips us for service; we have discussed the waters of the earth and how we rely upon them for life. We have discussed many different parts of the God’s creation, but so far we have not discussed the only part of creation that led God to dance and proclaim, “it was VERY GOOD!”

Of course, I am talking about humans. Scripture tells us: “So God created humankind in God’s image. In the image of God they were created; male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27) Because we were created in the image of God, we tend and keep the garden. But God was not only concerned about the earth, water, plants, and animals.

In that creation story God demonstrates how God intended for us to care for ourselves too. On the 7th day God rested, providing time and space for God to enjoy all that was created.

In time, God discovered our human inability to care for ourselves by resting. Even though God rested on the 7th day, we did not take that example to heart. The earliest people of faith soon learned or were forced to adopt different patterns of living, working every day and crowding all of our moments with something to do.

God sees this habit and moves to remind us of how we are intended to live. After the Hebrew slaves escaped from Egypt, Moses was given the 10 commandments, the 4th of which, tells us to keep the Sabbath day. To rest and not work. This edict comes before the commandments to honor the father and mother, to not murder or commit adultery, to not steal or bear false witness, to not covet what belongs to others.

But if we know anything about the ancient Hebrews, and through them about ourselves, we know we are slow to catch the point and easily distracted by the pressures and demands of living. We have no idea what it means to rest and enjoy God’s creation. Because of this God speaks again and again about the call to Sabbath keeping. Let us listen for God’s word speaking to us this day the 31st Chapter of the book of Exodus, verses 12-17.

Exodus 31:12-17

12The Lord said to Moses: 13You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. 15Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. 16Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. 17It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God rested, and was refreshed.”

Sabbath is a sign for us. A sign, a reminder that we belong to a God who delights in all that has been created, we belong to a God who wants the same for us, that we may be nurtured by the strength of this gift. But for whatever reason we are unable to claim that rest and re-creation for ourselves.

Unlike the ancient Hebrews who were physically enslaved by the Egyptians and forced to work 7 days a week, most of us make conscious and unconscious decisions to fill all of our days and all of our time, in effect cutting ourselves off from others and from the community and relationships we so desperately need. It is an easy thing to do; we live in a culture that is constantly on the go…, constantly connected; texting, checking email, upgrading to smart phones with 4G access so we can get things done faster for longer periods of time.

We initiate our children into this culture early on and with the best of intentions. We sign them up for soccer, or hockey or baseball or piano or whatever interests them and keeps them busy because we want them to make friends, excel and find the things that they love.

We fill their time from an early age, rarely pausing to give them a day or a season to rest and learn to find and identify feelings of peace. We as a society are so busy and we have become the experts in passing that trait along to others.

It is in times like these that Sabbath becomes the most important gift of God. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Sabbath is a gift, but we are so reluctant to accept it that God had to make it a command .” It is a gift of time to rest and enjoy all that has been created for us; it is a gift that gives us opportunity to stop and notice, and hopefully accept, our limits.

John Calvin reminds us that “Sabbath is the time when we cease our work so that God may do God’s work in us .”

When we are frantic with work we do not leave ourselves the time we need to listen for the “still small voice of God”; we do not leave the space needed for the words of God to take root and create a change in our hearts. By honoring the Sabbath we allow space for our identity as God’s children to shape the paths we take in the world.

Many reject the idea of Sabbath because they wonder what they would do with themselves, wonder how they would occupy their time if Sabbath keeping means absolutely no kind of work. Our Sabbath does not need to be a time when we sit around, doing nothing but staring at the walls. Over time some communities replaced the joy and delight of Sabbath with a more legalistic interpretation of Sabbath rules.

By the time Jesus was on the scene the idea of “work on the Sabbath” was interpreted very broadly, beyond the point that God intended and Jesus had to confront this issue. The author of the Gospel of Matthew captures some of these conversations. Let us listen for God’s word speaking to us from the 12th chapter, the first 14 verses.

Matt 12:1-14

At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and they began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread-which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent?

I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?

How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

The Word of the Lord.                   Thanks be to God.

Jesus rejected the notion that our Sabbath was a time for absolutely no form of work. He claimed that it was a time for us to do those things that restore our souls and provide space for others to be restored as well. He healed the sick and tended to the needs of others on the Sabbath not as a way of keeping busy, but rather as a means of building relationship with God’s people in need.

Dorothy Bass builds on this idea saying, “that in resting, God takes pleasure in what has been made; God has no regrets, no need to go on to create a still better world…In the day of rest, God’s free love toward humanity takes form as time shared with them.”

The practice of Sabbath keeping is one of the most countercultural activities for people of faith. By keeping Sabbath we proclaim we are citizens of another kingdom and we seek to orient our lives to the patterns God set before us.

How well do you keep Sabbath? In a world too busy too breath; in a world too busy to delight in the crashing waves; in a world too busy to see the needs so present around us, we need to learn how to care for creation by keeping Sabbath so that we might create space for God’s delight and joy to seep once again into our souls, that we may respond with joy to the opportunities before us.

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
February 6, 2011
Text:  Matthew 5:13-16

One of the reasons I preach from Biblical texts outlined in the 3-year cycle of the common lectionary is for the discipline it imposes.  Rather than choosing the texts that support what I want to say, having them organized on a weekly schedule means I have to let them speak on their own terms, free– or at least freer– from my personal agenda.  It was tempting to forsake that practice on these final two Sundays of my ministry with you, because actually I DO have an agenda! There are some things I want to tell you; gratitude I want to express, core values I want to lift up; some parting words to illumine the meaning of our time together and shine some light down future’s path.

Tempting as it was, however, I’m glad I didn’t.  The gospel reading from Jesus’ collected teachings known as “the sermon on the mount” offers more than enough insight and surprising blessing in its description of Jesus’ followers and their calling.  I can’t imagine a better text to remind us who we are and what we’re supposed to do, here in Cleveland and there in Denver and in fact everywhere.  (Next week, however, all bets are off; I chose the text!)

Listen for God’s Word to Fairmount Presbyterian Church in the reading from the gospel according to Matthew in the fifth chapter at the 13th verse.  [MATTHEW 5:13-16]

Salt and light. Two things that enhance their environment. Two metaphors Jesus used to describe his followers.   You are the ones to bring out the goodness of earth’s people; you are the ones to shine for others with hope and guidance.  He’s not really talking about faith electives; these are intrinsic to our very essence.    You are the salt. . . you are the light. . . Of course it’s possible for salt to lose its saltiness; you can hide your light.  But to do so is like trying to live without food or air to breathe—they are that basic to those who want to follow Jesus.

Another way to say it is “Be who you are.”  Be who we are: The church that adds zest to ordinary life; the people who flavor each day with mercy and caring.  Salt has a bite to it—a reminder that while sometimes the church’s task is to comfort the afflicted, sometime it is our call to afflict the comfortable, to serve as a moral barometer, awakening us to realities that need addressing. I like the way one writer put it:  “Almost anyone can be healed with salt water: by sweat, by tears, or by the sea.”   Salt functions effectively as a preservative –as any bacon lover will tell you.  In Cleveland winters, salt provides traction on icy roads and walkways. The church can offer stability during the perilous parts of our journeys, and persevere with one other through thick and thin.   You are the salt of the earth—let’s be who we are.

And let’s be the church that shines in the darkness; the people who nurture growth in one another, whose joy and sense of purpose help others discover or recover the light in their own lives.  Of all the metaphors Jesus used of himself—the bread of life, the door, the good shepherd—only one did he also use about his followers.  I am the light of the world. . . . and YOU are the light of the world.  Let’s be who we are.

Which means we’ll also do what we do.  Both salt and light become unmistakable when applied to their surroundings.  A Church built on a hill in the Heights should not be hidden.   Instead, we are to show Christ’s light in public, make it obvious in our City and neighborhoods,  at our jobs and schools, with friends and at home.   This week I read about a Christian group who were foiled in their efforts to do so.  FOX news rejected their 30-second spot that would have aired during the Super Bowl.   The evangelical Christian group which produced it said the inspiration came from the attention given to Super Bowl ads and the millions of dollars spent to sell viewers a beer or a Coke or an automobile.  The rejected ad revealed the meaning of the signs you always see at televised games of any kind—John 3:16—by directing viewers to a website where the whole verse is seen over an empty football stadium.   FOX explained they do not accept advertising from religious organizations for the purpose of “advancing particular beliefs or practices.”  Really?  Personally, I think FOX made a bad call.  But paid ads are not the only way to let our light shine.  The three- million- dollar cost to air the ad could build approximately 50 Habitat for Humanity homes; or fund the annual budget for Heights Youth Club. . .for ten years; or create an endowment for some of the nonprofits addressing our city’s critical needs; or underwrite health and medical ministries all over Ethiopia.  We can proclaim the good news that God loves the whole world and intends to redeem it with the words of sermons and prayers and songs and conversation among friends and dialogue with those with whom we differ, and maybe even Super Bowl ads. But we can also proclaim it through actions that heal and repair and reconcile.   Let your light shine:  friends, let’s do what we do.

Something Fairmount has done from the very beginning is cultivate a thinking faith and nurture that in succeeding generations.  You know our history:  how some women got together to organize a Sunday School for neighborhood children; within a year the church was chartered.  Ever since, we’ve focused a significant part of our ministries on education.  But times have changed; the pattern of holding Sunday school and worship simultaneously has had the unintended consequence of diminishing the impact of both.

Educators and theologians and parents alike have advocated for including all but the youngest children in worship in addition to church school for all ages (adults too!).  Fairmount’s Session approved a proposal from the Faith Formation Council to initiate the new practice in September this year.  (You can read the proposal as well as reasons for the change on our website, or get more information from associate pastor Eric Dillenbeck or Director of Children’s and Family Ministries, Betsy Wooster.   There will be many opportunities this Spring and Summer to discuss the proposal and see how it will work for the good of the whole congregation.)   We want the light to shine– not just away downstairs in the “children’s wing” but here, where it can give light to all in the house.

If hearing about this proposal makes you uneasy, or you’re fretting about the pastoral transition in general, take heart.  It’s not easy being salt and light.  Too much salt and you’ve got a problem with high blood pressure.  Not enough light and you can lose your way.  But that’s why we gather again and again at this table. Here we remember Jesus Christ, the Source of light.  It’s not something we have to generate ourselves; Christ blesses us by replenishing our supply continually.    Here the salt becomes an ingredient in the bread of life that nourishes as no other. Here we receive God’s gift of grace. And that, my friends, is all we need to be who we are and do what we do.   Amen.

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