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Free Fall: A Sermon

A Sermon preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
April 13, 2014
Text: Matthew 21:1-11

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When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a cold with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

Tell your daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a cold, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting. “‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of The Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘ho is this The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

+++

The first time I saw the video, I felt a mixture of excitement and nausea. It is a spectacular journey to watch, and the transition from moments of panic and fear to moments of wonder and joy happen within instants.

This video is filmed with “Go Pro,” a tiny, durable video camera that straps to your head. It allows people to do adventurous, sometimes verging on crazy, things and to invite others into the experience. We can see from the perspective of the act-or, we can become the do-er, for just a moment, invited into an action we might never have made ourselves.

One of the most impressive videos on the Go Pro website is the filming of the record setting free fall jump of Felix Baumgartener from over 24 miles into the stratosphere, the longest free fall jump anyone has ever accomplished, during which Baumgartener broke the speed of sound.

He is in what looks like a space suit and helmet when he pushes his feet out of the small doorway of his cockpit, and upon putting his feet on the step from which he will launch, and we see his view – the curved edges of the earth, very far away under his feet. We see the vastness of space surrounding hime as he tells the world, “I wish you could see what I see…Sometimes you have to get up really high to understand how small you are.”

When first he launches himself into the stratosphere, it seems like 25 seconds of quiet floating (the dubbed in music helps.) The view is remarkable. But then the music breaks and you hear Felix speak – and he is not doing well. His speech is incomprehensible, and the view from his helmet is now spinning, spinning, spinning. When he can finally speak a sentence that his crew understands, we hear he has been a terrible tail spin for what feels to him like a very long time, and he’s about to pass out. A minute more goes by as the screen watches and waits – it is the only thing anyone can do.

Slowly, surely, as he enters the atmosphere and the pull of gravity, Felix’s fall stabilizes. And now there is a new challenge as he is simply falling straight, at immense speed, towards the surface of the earth, which is getting closer and closer.

+++

Today marks the beginning of our own free-fall in the Christian faith journey, riddled as it is with it’s own excitement, adrenaline, nausea, panic. As Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly and to shouts of joy, we enter into the journey of Holy Week with all it’s highs and lows. We know the story and yet we hear it again in wonder – the story we are drawn into again and again.

We imagine the scene – Jesus giving the disciples such clear and precise directions. The borrowed colt, the undulating crowds: shouting and waving and bowing down before him as Jesus rides triumphantly, peacefully into the city of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, we learn from Matthew’s text, is in turmoil. It is literally trembling with excitement.. It is the beginning of the festival week of Passover, and the air is latent with the proclamation and anticipation of a Messiah.

“Hosanna!” the crowds cry out, “Save us!” as they create a “royal carpet of coats, cloaks and branches for this proclaimer of good news.

“Hosanna! Save us!” they shout, reminding us of the ways in which we need saving, or the ways in which we refuse it.

The crowds look to Jesus to save them because of what they have seen already of this prophet from Nazareth in Galilee – the one who heals and feeds, who teaches and transforms. His ministry has been one of remarkable power, as he has drawn together disparate and desperate disciples. Those that left their families and lives to come “Follow Me,” are with Jesus as he enters into the city of Jerusalem, carrying with them the many and diverse hopes and expectations of his reign.

As we hear the story again, our hearts in our throats, we know what is coming – as if we were falling toward a fate we cannot change, even as we shout “Hosanna! Save us!” along with the crowds.

With the entrance into Jerusalem we enter the larger journey of God’s story. In order to lose ourselves in the drama of it all, we must find ourselves in it – in the crowds who in the morning shout “Hosanna!” but by evening will shout “Crucify him!” In the pilgrims standing on the streets asking, “Who is this?” In the religious leaders, suspicious and skeptical about any word of change or re-ordering of our preconceived hierarchies.

Like any epic journey, our Holy Week journey will force the question… Who are we? Who is this?

Just as a free fall into the stratosphere will test that of which one is made, so too the free fall of Holy Week tests that of which our faith is made. What do we truly believe about this man Jesus… prophet, messiah, savior?

It is one of the more challenging questions facing us as Christians, in a world with hundreds of competing answers. Perhaps it is comforting to know that even upon his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem there were the same questions and the same multiplicity of answers. When the tumultuous city asks “Who is this,” the crowds respond to that question by saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” surely the name prophet was laden with diverse meaning and hopes. Even as just a few chapters before Peter has proclaimed to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

If we ask that same question today, “Who is this?” we find answers similarly laden and complex. For many, the answer is “prophet,” or “good man,” or “teacher.” With these titles we lift up those same stories that compelled his followers – stories of healing and hope which speak to the human needs we all share: needs for compassion, for wholeness, for life-giving sustenance, for purpose.

For some the question of who is Jesus can only be answered with one phrase: Jesus is Lord and Savior. This too is a phrase which can lose meaning as we dig deeper, unpacking the layers of culture and Christendom which have solidified around it.

“Lord and Savior” points to the cross toward which Jesus slowly and deliberately walks, and conjures up a vast history of atonement theories, each with it’s helpful or harmful understandings of God. These also often point to Christ as uninvested in our present life and sufferings, somehow unattached to Jesus as teacher-healer-prophet.

Some of the confirmands have noted how foreign Jesus as “Lord and Savior” is to their ears, even cultish, which speaks to the rarity of that phrase here in the shadow of New York City. It also may point to the fabric of history that covers words which no longer have cultural meaning for us. How can we call Jesus Lord when the word conjures medieval knights and is as foreign to us as dragons? How can we call Jesus savior, when we imagine that to need saving equals weakness, and that those who save wear masks and capes and appear on movie screens?

“Who is this?” is the gate through which we enter this story, it is the question which puts us all in a tailspin as we free-fall through Holy Week.

And if we do not ask that question now, surely we are forced to ask it when our own lives push us off the edge of the stratosphere into oblivion. Cancer, job-loss, grief and suffering – the crises of our lives are conjured when the crowd, and we with it, shout “Save us!”

Because if we believe that we can navigate these crises on our own; if we truly believe that we can save ourselves from our own brokenness,

…then the ground races toward us at a very fast pace.

Preacher and author Shane Hipps speaks eloquently about his understanding of Salvation – not as an escape from eternal damnation but instead a relief from the turmoil of the everyday, an inner peace that is accessible and comforting in the here and now.

Hipps tells a story of when he was a young college student visiting home for a family vacation. At the time he was deeply conflicted, struggling with a variety of difficult issues in his own life – school work, vocation, relationships. He was putting on a good show but inside he was in turmoil, spinning out of control and feeling the ground speeding toward him with ferocity.

Hipps tells how his father, who was not a vocal man about his faith, came to his son and noted that he could tell that something was bothering him. He said, “I can sense that there is a knot in your Spirit, and I think it is right here,” as he pointed to his son’s chest and heart, “I’d like to pray for you that it might release.”

And then the father put one hand on his son’s chest and one hand on his back, and bowed his head, and stood in silence for a few moments.

Hipps describes how the knot in his chest began to unravel. How he knew that none of the things that were troubling him had changed, but that his perspective had changed about them. It was as if the hurricane still raged all around, but he was in the eye of the storm, buffered by peace and stillness.

It was a moment of Salvation for him, in the present moment, not in the tomorrow. It is the parachute that opens, allowing for the breath we did not know we were holding to relax and exhale. It is the peace he describes as available to us through faith in Christ. It is one of the many ways that Christ saves.

Jesus is the picture of peace as he enters into a city in turmoil. He is calm, humble, riding on a donkey. He is Lord. He is Messiah. He is Savior. This Jesus is the messiah who saves us from our own tendencies to accept the ways of our world; the world that tries to convince us that people can be bought and sold for thirty pieces of silver, the world that proclaims we will only be whole if we have more stuff, that our primary purpose is to consume.

He comes to fulfill the salvation offered by the God who made heavens and earth, the God who chose to be with us in all our humanness, the God who is for us and our salvation in spite of the ways we will turn against him, crucify him, betray and abandon him.

Perhaps by opening ourselves up to being saved, to the experience of being made vulnerable by love, we can open ourselves up to the salvation which Jesus offers.

Perhaps by following him along his journey to the cross and the empty tomb, we might find the salvation we are looking for, both in this life and then next.

Perhaps this is who he is as our Lord and Savior, the Ground of our Being, the center and peace we seek, the one who loves us even in the midst of any of our tail spins.

In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Pursuit

A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
March 30, 2014
Lent 4
Text: Psalm 23

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The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil,
For You are with me,
Your rod and staff they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies,
You anoint my head with oil,
My cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me,
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of The Lord,
my whole life long.

+++

There is perhaps no other text in our tradition more familiar, more inviting, no words quite as sustaining as these. One writer calls Psalm 23 “our best and truest words about the sum of our life.” And perhaps this is true – there is nothing that so beautifully and succinctly describes the foundation of the life of faith.

Of all the Psalms, this is the most well known, most often read at funerals, most memorized. A Psalm of Confidence, it begins with an image deeply rooted in the traditions of our faith: the image of The Lord as Shepherd, and we as his sheep, led to green pastures beside still waters. Our God is a God of abundance and peace, restoring our souls and leading us in right paths.

The images are not all of joy, however. Right paths do not seem to be free from darkness or suffering, even evil. Enemies are real, fear is real, all the grief and pain and sorrow we experience, this too, the Psalmist acknowledges, is the path of faith.

It is something we contend with, as believers. In a world where so much of our lives are oriented around the purpose of avoiding pain, loss and suffering, to acknowledge these as inevitable is somewhat risky, even counter-cultural.

We are a culture of over-protective parents, hyper-vigilant defenses, extra-critical suspicions. Rather than accept suffering as inevitable we tend to cover it up, anesthetizing ourselves with consumption and insulation.

Preacher and professor, Barbara Brown Taylor describes this as spiritual bypassing, explaining away pain. And she points out that not only is this impossible but it is counter to our faith in a God incarnate who took on a body, suffered and grieved and then died on the cross. In fact, pain is central to Christianity. Our God is a God with us and for us in all aspects of our lives.

Part of the power of our darkest moments is that we so often keep them private and personal. They are our moments of shame and embarrassment. They are the things that amplify our feelings of failure and inadequacy.

It is that time when you found your addict brother passed out from an overdose.

It is the third rejection letter in a week alongside the deepening panic and increasing debt.

It is the mother who no longer recognizes your face.

The daughter who is too busy to call.

It is the child who hates himself with such ferocity that you feel hopeless to love him enough for him to love himself.

It is the silence that has grown like a chasm between you and the person you used to love.

It is that person or thing in your life that is so secret, so walled off from the rest of your existence that sometimes even you forget, until it comes crashing in with a force so strong it takes your breath away.

The valley is dark and it is real, and we all walk through it.

*

Barbara Brown Taylor has said about pain and suffering, “If I can trust that what comes to me is for me and not against me… and that is the greatest faith statement I can make… If I can trust, that what comes to me is for me and not against me… depending on my ability to breathe into it, and open myself to it… “

“Pain breaks my idols, it breaks my isolation, it challenges my independence and does all kinds of things that I would not choose for myself but that are good for me spiritually and emotionally. If we can hang onto each other and keep walking into it,” she says, “sometimes I’m not the one who can testify to the life in that, but there are others around me who can and who will – and that’s a faith statement too.”

The words of Mary Oliver in her poem called “Heavy,” spring to my mind…

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had his hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel,
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it -
books, bricks, grief -
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled -
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

*

“Surely God had his hand in this, as well as friends…”

Perhaps we carry it together? Perhaps in those moments of doubt we let those around us be faithful for us, to pray prayers we can no longer utter, to be the community who walks into our darkest valleys alongside of us and help us to breathe.

Old Testament Scholar Walter Bruggeman also asserts the necessity of sharing our pain in community. He reminds us again and again the necessary work of communal lament, of crying out in our pain, and of letting God respond. As soon as we go public with pain it is transformed, and as we share it we are bound together in the work of redeeming it.

*

I have been at the bedside of many dying people. And upon reading and re-reading Psalm 23 it seems that all of those moments flood back to me, along with many other images of the painful valleys I have walked.

I remember one time that as a seminary student in Clinical Pastoral Education I was called to the bedside of a man who had no next of kin, no one to sit vigil with him as he drew his last breath. No one to call and inform of his last hours.

And so I sat with him, in awe and in fear, as his chest rose and fell and rose and fell and then did not rise. Without words to accompany such a moment I whispered the poetry of Psalm 23. I prayed silently and watched as the nurses reverently washed and wrapped his body.

I do not know why he was so alone. Perhaps he had burned all his bridges with loved ones and friends. Perhaps he was an angry abusive man. Perhaps he had just outlived those who he knew and loved and cared for throughout his life. I do not know.

But even in the perceived absence and silence there was instead a presence palpable and real. God you were there. You are there.

*

That darkest valley is the valley of our deepest troubles and fears, the place where we think no one will ever accompany us. As the gospel song goes it is the road we have to walk alone.

And yet.

Even though, the Psalmist says.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.

Holy God,

You are with me.

You are with me when I recognize his phone number and take that middle of the night call, and hold my breath for what comes across the line.

You are with me as I walk into the hospital room anticipating whether mom is having a good day or a bad one.

You are with me, as I hear the mail drop onto the floor of the entry way.

You are with me in the dark of the night, when I wake sobbing and not knowing why.

You are with me in the silence and the loneliness. You are with me in the grief and longing.

You are with me, O God. I am not alone.

*
No longer The Lord my Shepherd, but You – You who prepare a table of reconciliation, where I will sit alongside those who have done me wrong. You who bless me with love and grace. You who are abounding in steadfast love.

God, your companionship transforms every situation. God, your community redeems everything.

*

The Psalmist ends this poetic verse with one final image – a homecoming. The word “follows” might better be translated as “pursues,” which is a powerful twist. God’s goodness and mercy chases us down, pursues us with ferocity, through our darkest valleys and our deepest loneliness. Just as we cannot avoid that valley so we cannot escape the steadfast love God has for us. Until we dwell in God’s eternal home and rest.

It may be them most important job we do as the church – to be God to one another as we walk through those dark valleys. To pursue one another endlessly, to stand with one another in love.

To courageously let light fall into those private and closed-off places of our lives. To stand vigil when all others have deserted and turned away. To enact the pursuit of God’s steadfast love for each one of us.

*

Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of The Lord my whole life long.

Surely goodness and mercy will pursue you, even here.

Surely, The Lord is with you, even now. Pursuing you with abundant love, forever and ever, amen.

A sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
March 23, 2014
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Psalm 95

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O Come, let us sing to The Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to God with songs of praise!

For The Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In God’s hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are God’s also.

The sea is God’s, for God made it,
and the dry land, which God’s hands have formed.
O Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before The Lord, our Maker!

For God is our God,
and we are the people of God’s pasture,
and the sheep of God’s hand.

O that today you would listen to God’s voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

For forty years I loathed that generation and said,
“They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore in my anger I swore, “They shall not enter my rest.”

+++

Tonight, at 9 pm, Fox will air the third episode of Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey. The show, if you have not been following, is a remake of the 1970′s show by the same name, originally created and narrated by Carl Sagan. Sagan’s assumption was that everyone can be turned on to science, and his vision was a hope of igniting the flame of curiosity about the cosmos in each one of us.

This updated version has all the wonder and excitement of the original, for those that remember it. Now created and narrated by Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and bolstered by exquisite images both real and created of our entire observable universe, Cosmos is designed to inspire.

The first episode walks viewers through the “cosmic address” of earth, or where our home planet is located within the known universe. DeGrasse Tyson illustrates the known history of the universe as a one year cosmic calendar, walking through its scientific evolution beginning with the Big Bang on January 1. On this calendar, every day represents 40 billion years, every minute – one billion, and life on this planet doesn’t appear until the very last moments of December 31.

The vast expansiveness of this storyline, alongside the awe-inspiring footage of space is enough to make each one of us marvel at our relative insignificance within the bounds of our universe. From the imagined visuals of the Big Bang, now recently found to be provable (can you get better timing than that?) to the creatively enhanced footage of each of the planets, asteroids, the Milky Way…

How small we are in comparison to the great expanse of our world!

Neil DeGrasse Tyson certainly has the right assumptions – how could we not be in awe at the wonder of the cosmos? It is easy to find God in the wonders of creation. Who among us does not gasp at the color and wonder of a close-up picture of an asteroid, or at a spectacular sunset? Who among us does not admire the intricacies of an orchid or the mesmerizing dance of fire? On a warm Spring day like yesterday, who doesn’t say a silent word of praise and thanksgiving to our creator?

*

The lectionary Psalm for this morning is the first of six consecutive Psalms of praise. From Psalm 95 to Psalm 100, we find an expanding crescendo of adoration of God and God’s wondrous ways.

Psalm 95 begins with the wonder of God’s creation, as it calls us to song and thanksgiving, proclaiming that our God holds in God’s hands the depths of the earth and the heights of the mountains, the sea and the dry land. How awesome: this great and limitless universe in the palm of God’s hands. The Psalm continues to imagine those expansive sustaining hands as the same hands that guide us, the sheep of God’s pasture, in our journey of life.

Psalm 95 does not end there, however. The Psalmist takes a striking turn; Even the voice changes. Suddenly we are in the words and mind of God, who yearns for us to listen to God’s voice:

“Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation, and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.”

The wilderness of Meribah and Massah to which the Psalmist refers is from the Exodus story read just a moment ago by Alexandra. It is not long after the Israelites have been saved from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh and begin their journey to the promised land that they start what the Psalm calls “testing and putting God to the proof.”

First they complain to Moses in hunger and then in thirst, dramatically crying out, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” And so Moses takes these complaints to The Lord, and they are given manna and quail from heaven; And Moses is directed to strike a rock with his staff (that same staff he used to show Pharaoh the power of God and shepherd God’s people to freedom) and out poured water for the people to drink.

Meribah and Massah are remembered forever as the place when the Israelites questioned, “Is The Lord among us, or not?”

This question comes in contrast to our innate feelings of assurance of God’s presence in Creation. Instead we are faced with our other natural tendency to ask: “Is The Lord among us, or not?” How quickly the Israelites turn from gratitude and trust to doubt and disquiet. “Is The Lord among us or not?” they ask, and we do too.

We ask it when the beauty of that same creation turns against us, in flood or hurricane or oppressive cold. We ask it when faced with sudden loss or frightening diagnosis. We ask it, when our children are slipping into a black hole of fear and anxiety, when our family is crumbling before our very eyes, when the eyes of our most beloved parent become cloudy and confused.

“Is The Lord among us or not?”

Certainly, Lent is a time when we are supposed to ask such questions. These forty days of Lent are modeled after the 40 days Jesus spent being tempted in the wilderness, as well as the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, unable to enter the Promised Land because of their hardness of heart. We spend these days of lent in our own Spiritual Deserts. We fast, we pray, we abstain, we ask, we notice. “Lent,” says Greg Pennoyer, “cleanses the palate so we can taste life more fully; It cleans the lens so we can see what we might otherwise miss.”

Perhaps this is what we find in this difficult contrast in Psalm 95: the choice of how we will frame our understanding of these short insignificant moments of our lives. Will we spend it in awe and gratitude or in fear and doubt? Will we live a life of praise and adoration or will we let our hearts harden and go astray? Will we trust in God’s presence or will we constantly ask, “Is The Lord among us, or not?”

It’s painful to hear, God’s anger and judgment against the Israelites. “These are people whose hearts go astray,” he says, “Therefore in my anger I swore, they shall not enter my rest.”

It seems a little harsh, actually. After all, they were only human. Wouldn’t we all experience a little anxiety as we stepped out behind Moses into the desert? Wouldn’t we all wonder how we would be sustained amidst such adversity? Wouldn’t we all fear for our children, our families, as we awoke morning after morning in the heat, not knowing where we would find food or water? Wouldn’t we all say, “Is The Lord among us, or not?”

It is not as if we should not doubt! Doubt is a necessary part of a meaningful and rooted faith. Questioning the presence or even the existence of God is something each one of us must do, often, as we make the journey of our faith. Another way to ask that question is one we should ask ourselves daily: “Where is God in this?”

Where is God in this?

*

That first episode of Cosmos a few weeks ago illumined along with the beautiful images of the universe the story of the Italian monk Giordano Bruno, who in the late 16th century had a vision of the universe that was amazingly scientifically accurate to what we understand to be true now. Bruno dreamt of an infinite universe, where the other stars were suns just like ours, with other universes oriented around them, just as expansive as ours. Without any scientific evidence, he imagined what was proven through science just days ago.

This idea, along with other ideas of Bruno’s, was heresy to to the church during the time of the Inquisition. Bruno was excommunicated and ultimately killed for his undying proclamation that our understanding of God was too small. Our vision of God too limited.

*

We are all of us restless. We are all of us conflicted, doubting, confused and lost. Saint Augustine once wrote in his “Confessions” that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Amidst the doubt and the assurance of our daily lives we are all of us moving towards that rest.

God’s rest in our psalm which was denied to the Israelites was “more than the cessation of labor and striving. It is sharing in God’s own Sabbath rest, taking delight in the joys and goods of life, and sharing the blessing of God’s abiding presence.” It is the promised land. It is the feast which is prepared for us. It is the joy of resurrection; The empty tomb; The laughter of delight in the garden.

These contrasts are the boundaries against which we press – deep and abiding assurance on the one hand, forsaken doubt on the other. And each of us must ask ourselves, where do we stand today? How will we frame our lives?

*

A number of years ago I had the chance for a night sailboat journey across the northern point of Lake Michigan with my parents. We had had engine trouble, so we were pushing the boat by our dingy for the several hours it took to get where we were headed. Because of the snails pace and our limited stopping power it made sense to go by night, when there was the least amount of traffic on the water.

Both my dad and I confess it was one of the most memorable times we had on the water. The sky was crystal clear – and the low hum of the dingy motor meant it was almost silent except for the sloshing of soft waves. Dad and I sat in the cockpit naming the constellations: Orion, the Big and Little Dipper, the Northern Cross, the Seven Sisters. It was late into the night when we saw our first shooting star – not so uncommon for a night as clear as this.

But then we saw another, and another, and another. And then the sky was literally cross-hatched in shots of light for over an hour. We sat in awe and wonder, we had never seen anything like it. I can think of few times as humbling – as I gazed upon the stars and marveled at the smallness of our boat amidst the great expanse of the night sky.

When we arrived the next morning at our destination, we learned from the front page of the local newspaper that it had been a remarkably vivid night to view the Perseids meteor shower, which happen upon our earth in early August every summer. What could have been a night of anxiety and worry was instead a night of awe and amazement. What was clearly a chance of stars and space became a moment of spectacular blessing and gratitude for the wonder of our creation.

*

Giordano Bruno was not a scientist, but a faithful zealot, Bruno asked a question we should all ponder: is your God big enough?

Is your God big enough for the possibility of faith alongside of and not in spite of the expansiveness of science?

Is your God big enough for the pain and fear, the sorrow and grief you are facing?

Is your God big enough to make failure an opportunity for our growth?

Is your God big enough to hold all the people in our lives: for the trans woman who passes us on the street and our cousin the card-carrying member of the NRA? For your daughter’s undocumented classmate as well as the Immigration officer who arrested her father?

Is your God big enough for you: with all your doubts and faults, with all your hopes and questions?

The Psalmist points us toward an expansive vision of God: big enough to hold in his hand the depths and chasms of our deepest doubts and the heights and mountaintops of our greatest assurances. Big enough to hold us in the palm of God’s hand. Big enough for us to rest there.

Love and Honor
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
February 2, 2014
Rev. Julie Emery
Texts: Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5: 1-12

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Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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Timeless. Comforting. Powerful. These are some of the words that come to mind when we think of these words from the Sermon on the Mount. They have been scripted and mounted on the walls of Christian homes the world over; needlepointed and crocheted onto pillows for many a Christian couch. These words touch our hearts and minds tenderly, as we consider the meek, the grieving, the persecuted.

And yet, when we look closer at these words, we find they are more challenging than they are comforting. The women’s group who studied these words last year found that they were more difficult than not – as we who are not poor, are rarely meek, are more comfortable and privileged than not – grappled with this series of blessings from the mouth of Jesus.

When Jesus goes up the mountain to give his first big sermon, the crowds follow. He has already called together a group of disciples, interrupting their usual labors and coaxing them to fish for people, and Matthew tells us that since then Jesus has been proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, curing diseases and sicknesses throughout the countryside. For Matthew’s reader’s then, this is the fine print – this is what the “Good News” sounds like from the mouth of Jesus.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” Jesus begins, and then continues with a litany of blessings that is so counter-cultural, so radical in its proclamations, that it has been transfixing hearers ever since. Jesus names as blessed the people who are seen in his day as the very least and lost, those who are outcast and ignored.

These are the people who were the lowliest of lowly. The poor in spirit were not only without money but without hope – destitute. Those who mourned too much and too loudly were seen as weak and excessive. Those who were meek and humble had neither the power nor audacity to take for themselves what others could and did often at the expense of others.

New Testament Scholar Margaret Aymer suggest we translate the word here “blessed” as “greatly honored,” Which points to the heart of the upside-down world Jesus is creating with these statements. In the caste system that was the ancient Near East, these are the people who have been understood by that culture as deserving of what they had gotten; Destitute because they were inherently lessor, weak because they were too sensitive, humiliated because they weren’t tough enough.

It may be painful to say so, but we are not all that far from that kind of world. It’s Super Bowl Sunday – what a perfect day to see this very dynamic in our society? This myth continues to be told again and again throughout the ages: the strong, manly, vicious, cutthroat – these are the winners. Weakness leads only to failure. Isn’t that the story our world so often tells?

And yet – Instead Jesus calls the destitute, the mourners, the meek and humble, “greatly honored,” “blessed by God,” “heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Words that are just as radical today as they were two thousand years ago.

The audience of these words must have been astonished. They must have been doubtful. They must have shook their heads and said, “Who is he kidding?”

They knew, like we do, that in a culture grounded in competition and fear, blessings are given to those who succeed, often at the expense of others. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, meek – will get you nowhere.

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Boyd Varty, South African Conservationist, tells a story about Elvis the elephant. Elvis was a young, badly deformed elephant who wandered onto his reservation along with the rest of his herd one Winter day, looking for food. His hips were pointed outward and his legs were bowed so that when he walked he shook like Elvis, hence his name.

Varty and his colleagues all agreed that Elvis wouldn’t last long in the wild – he was much slower than the rest of the group, unable to run from predators, and his deformities were certainly a hinderance to survival. But he was fun, and quickly beloved among those who watched him.

Much to their surprise, Elvis kept coming back, year after year, along with his herd. Still with his silly walk, and still alive and well. After tracking and watching this particular herd of elephants, they noticed that this herd was moving far more slowly than the rest to compensate for Elvis’s handicap.

They watched as Elvis tried and tried to follow the herd up a large hill that was too difficult for him to climb, painfully wondering how the herd would respond. But after a handful of Elvis’s attempts, one of the other adolescent elephants came up behind him, put his head down and pushed from behind so that Elvis could follow the path of the herd.

They noticed how the Matriarch of the herd would eat, by first tearing a branch off a tree for herself and then tearing a second branch and dropping it on the ground; And again – one for herself, another dropped to the ground, so that Elvis and others who needed help to reach the food they needed would not go hungry.

Varty calls this, “ubuntu,” A South African phrase which means loosely: “I am because of you.” It’s a phrase he learned from Nelson Mandela in his youth, as Mandela spoke to his country about this concept as he hoped and dreamed for the future of South Africa. “Ubuntu:” We are all interconnected. My survival hinges upon yours.

And Varty notes that it is not just in humans, but in all life, that this “ubuntu” can be found.

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In spite of the forces in our world that say otherwise, Jesus asserts again and again that the blessings of God are for those who are lost and forsaken, those who are oppressed and poor. What scholars are quick to remind us is that these words of Jesus are not in the imperative tense. That is, they are not commands to become poor in spirit or meek or mournful or hungry or peacemakers. Jesus does not say – quick – if you start being this you will receive God’s blessing.

What Jesus says is, these ones are ALREADY blessed. These people are ALREADY honorable. These – the suffering, the lowly, those who suffer persecution – it is these who make up the Kingdom of Heaven. “The beatitudes are more description than instruction, more report than directive. They compose a litany in which all promises point to the same reality.” The reality of God’s kingdom.

The message of the beatitudes is that God’s Spirit is with the forsaken and the lost, first and foremost. And if we are to follow God’s leading then we should be too.

To be with those named in this list of God’s blessings is not to do for. Not to show pity or sympathy. But to bless with relationship, love, honor. To look upon these as equal.

This is why the most important part of the Midnight Run is not the clothes or food we give out, but the conversation, the dignity we share.

This is why when we serve at HOPE Community Kitchen it is less about providing a good meal and more about offering honor and blessing to those who are hungry and long to be filled not only with food but with the Good Things that God provides.

This is why it is way less important that we build houses or school buildings on our mission trips than our efforts to construct friendships, knowledge and understanding.

The late Henri Nouwen, author and minister, offers this description: “Compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Accross all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance. We are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, destined for the same end.”

“Ubuntu.” I am because of you. Whatever danger you face, I face. Whatever pain you feel, I feel. Whatever joy or achievement you experience is mine. And so too, when you are hungry, or oppressed, or victimized, or shamed, I experience that too as if it were me, and I seek to make it right.

Jesus is calling us to embody God’s blessing to those named as honored in God’s kingdom.

Jesus is calling us to embody God’s blessings…
to reach out to the poor in spirit
and remind them they are heirs of God’s kingdom,

to enact God’s comforting love upon those who mourn,
not just for the loss of loved ones near and dear
but also for those who mourn the injustices, the exploitation,
the oppression of our world.

Jesus is calling us…
to support the meek,
by taking only what we need so all might have enough.

to embody and live out righteousness
so those who hunger and thirst for it might be filled.

And yes – by living as Jesus is calling us to do, yes…

we might be transformed into peacemakers, merciful witnesses,
and single-hearted followers of God.

Greatly Honored. Blessed. Together.

May it be so. Amen.

Watershed: A Sermon

Watershed
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
January 12, 2014
Rev. Julie Emery

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Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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It was a beautiful, sunny day in Florida, my first memory of a vacation to the place where my grandparents had moved shortly after I was born. I was maybe six or seven, and by that time I was a good swimmer. I had spent every spare moment from a very young age, taking to water like a fish. It was my second home, water, in virtually any shape or form.

That day was a day we headed to the beach, to swim in the Gulf of Mexico, collect seashells and build sand castles, and of course, swim and jump in the big rolling waves that crashed upon the shoreline. It was a bit of heaven for my young and water-loving soul.

I was warned of the undertow, but felt sure of my strength, and soon I was splashing and diving through the waves to my heart’s delight.

It all happened so fast. One moment I was safe and strong, the next I felt the sand disappear a little too far beneath my toes. I shot up for air at just the wrong moment and a wave crashed upon my head. I felt my small body pulled further and further out, my strong arms not strong enough to fight the current that was pulling me out to sea. I began to fight for air, to battle the waves, to use up my energy in a fit of panic.

Just as quickly the sand was shallow again, my big brother grasping my arms and pulling me in towards shore.

It was the moment I learned the power of water and the obedience required to submit to that power; the awesomeness of an element that covers seventy percent of our earth and makes up about sixty percent of our bodies. Water is essential to our life, health and well-being, and yet it can also quickly teach us how fragile and insignificant we are. It is used for cleaning, bathing, preparing meals, for crop irrigation, industry, fishing, recreation, and transportation. It touches and brings life to everything we see.

Like the threads of water that flow throughout our world, so too water flows throughout our scriptures, most often as a sign of renewal and rebirth. Our baptismal liturgy names several of our most memorable watery stories: God’s Spirit passing over the waters of creation, God’s judgment in the flood and new covenant with Noah and his descendants, God’s salvation during the Exodus from Egypt as Moses and the Israelites escaped through the waters of the Red Sea, God’s naming and claiming Jesus as his beloved son in the waters of the Jordan River.

Each of these stories represents God’s saving grace and power. Each tells of a turning and transformation, away from chaos, sin, enslavement and towards order, joy, freedom.

That day on the beach was the first of many lessons in the life-giving and life-changing power of water. I grew up learning to sail and swim: learning to read the movement over the surface of the water that signified a rising wind; learning to understand the power of undertow and currents; to obey tides and vicious waves.

I learned: how to feel the strength of the water that surrounded me, how to float upon it, how to yield in my body to that awesome strength and frightening capacity, how to let the waves take me under, knowing that if I was patient, they would spit me back out, sometimes sputtering and and scared, but safe, and filled with the awe of life.

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When Jesus comes down from Galilee to John at the Jordan River, John has been preaching a ferocious message of repentance and preparation. He has just called the religious leaders of his day a “brood of vipers,” asking, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance…” John’s is a message of transformation and preparation, as he tells his followers that one is coming who will baptize them with Holy Spirit and with fire. It is a message of obedience.

When that anticipated One appears, John is shocked. This was not how he imagined it: Jesus being baptized by John? The One filled with the Holy Spirit humbling himself to the one not worthy to carry his sandals. The conversation between these two preachers is recorded only in the Gospel of Matthew. John protests the action, Jesus assures him that this is what God wants.

It is a watershed moment – a moment when John and Jesus are faced with a choice to follow God’s leading or their own. John lets go of his expectations about how it is supposed to be. Both men are obedient to the movement of the Spirit and the call of God. Both men submit, to fulfill all righteousness. Both men give over to the story and plan of God. Consenting… Obedient… They yield.

As Jan Richardson writes, “The yielding that Jesus engages in—and John, too—requires a different kind of strength, a different set of muscles than those involved in straining and striving and struggling to move forward. This yielding calls forth a courage born of recognizing the path to which we are called, and ceasing to fight against it: to give ourselves to its flow, to let it work on us, as the river does with the stone.”
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Obedience is not a word we often embrace in our culture. We live in a world in which we need not be obedient to anyone but ourselves. We value freedom, autonomy, independence.

And yet it is a part of the final question asked at each and every Presbyterian baptism, and each time we re-affirm the baptismal vows of our parents. When we are confirmed, when we join a new church. Each time, we ask the baptized person or the guardian who speaks on their behalf about following Jesus. We ask them if they will turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and it’s power in the world. And then we ask them if they will obey God’s Word and show God’s love.

On the surface, these may seem like simple questions, with easy answers. And yet – by answering affirmatively we lay our whole lives before Christ, submitting everything to him. By turning away from evil and towards God, we turn away from the ways of the world, and towards the One who names us as beloved children.

This means we renounce the values of the world, asserting that only God can determine our true value and worth in the face of a culture which assesses worth by the size of our clothes or the car we drive. It means we define our success by our commitment and proximity to following the path of Christ wherever it leads, not by the amount in our bank accounts or the square feet of our house. It means we grade ourselves by how well we love our neighbor, not by the letters on our report cards or the size of our bonus check.

As we proclaim our obedience to God’s Word and our promise to show God’s love, we find that commitment may take us to uncomfortable places and difficult choices. Just as immediately following his baptism, Jesus is sent into the desert to be tempted and then begins his journey toward the cross, so too the life of faith is full of temptations and hard choices.

Obedience to the one who was born homeless and poor is not nice or easy. To show the love of Jesus who crossed boundaries of convention to welcome the outcast and the sinner means that that may just be where we follow.
Because when we begin to obey God’s word and show God’s love, then we begin to do things that don’t always make sense to the world in which we live.

We begin to welcome people who act in strange and embarrassing ways. We begin to think less of ourselves and more of our neighbor. We begin to care what happens to people who live thousands of miles away from us. We begin to fight for living wages and food security for all even when it cost us more from our own pockets. We begin to seek to understand those with whom we disagree, rather than convince them of our rightness. We begin to listen instead of to talk.

This is what it means to live out our baptismal vows every day.

The love we are born into in baptism is an active, incarnate love. It is a love enfleshed in illogical, overpowering grace. Baptism is a beginning, not an end. It is the start of something new – a watershed moment when we are immersed in God’s grace and transformed by it so we can go out into the world and show God’s love.

Each time we witness this sacrament, each time we proclaim together the baptismal affirmations, we experience this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it can’t be undone. And then, every moment after, is a honing of those muscles to yield and submit to that calling; of practicing to let go of ourselves and be transformed into God’s beloved children, obeying God’s Word and showing God’s love.

May it be so. Amen.

Ordinary Signs
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
December 22, 2013
Rev. Julie Emery
Matthew 1:18-25

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Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss(divorce) her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

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It was the perfect gift. Carrie had seen this shirt in a magazine that was exactly what her husband would want. She had been listening closely for months for a hint at what he’d like, and this was it. Poised well in advance of Christmas, She went to order it online. His size was backordered. Darn. But, for once, She was early so it looked like it might make it on time. She ordered it.

A day later Carrie received an email that said the color She had originally wanted was unavailable. Hm. “It’s still okay,” she thought, “the back-up color is not quite as perfect but it would do. Back-up color it is.” Carrie waited expectantly for the Christmas Shirt to arrive in the mail. The days ticked by and it did not come. She checked online and found the message: “processing order.” She called once or twice to no avail. Christmas came. No shirt. Christmas went. No shirt.

By the time the shirt arrived in the mail the tree had been taken to the curb and the decorations put away. Disappointed but eager, Carrie watched her husband open the perfect gift. He lifted the shirt out of the box. It was… a little bright. He put it on. Her heart sank.

It was the most obnoxious color green she had ever seen. And the cut was bizarre: tight around the middle, too long. It was a Christmas failure. Carrie looked at her husband and thought she thought she might cry… but then they both started to giggle.

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It’s not an uncommon experience, is it? We try so hard this time of year to make things perfect. The perfect Christmas Card to send out to family, when the kids are smiling instead of punching each other, with full sets of beautiful teeth and no major scars or bruises on their faces, all wearing matching sweaters. We strive for the perfect decorations and lights, the tree that is equally proportioned and not listing to any particular side. We hunt up and down for the perfect gifts – the ones that will bring joy and delight to everyone on our list.

And yet – it rarely works, this striving for perfection, especially around the holidays. Each year we set our sights on making it better – getting started earlier, planning differently – and yet each year some new event thwarts our Perfect Christmas.

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That first Christmas was far from perfect – everything went wrong. It started with our story for this morning, when Joseph, committed to his lovely bride Mary, found out she’d been unfaithful. You can imagine what it might have felt like, the expectation that his young bride was waiting faithfully for him.

They had been betrothed for some time, the standard expectation was that a couple would become engaged and then wait for a year until the bride would move into her husband’s home. And yet the covenant they made was full and serious, and breaking that commitment would mean something closer to divorce than a simple nod and wave.

What’s more, if Mary was found to be unfaithful, the Jewish law suggested a penalty of death by stoning. While it seemed that this was not the route Joseph wanted to go, still there was little societal protection for an unwed, pregnant teenage girl. It was no small thing, Mary pregnant by someone other than Joseph. In fact it was a total disaster. Catastrophe. Failure.

And then there was this dream. And Joseph finds that this failure, was all in God’s hands.It turned out it was all God’s doing that his marriage had ended up as a deep and utter disappointment.

Joseph must have been overwhelmed by a sense of betrayal, fear and hurt, failure. He had said yes to this young girl, this Mary, and look what she has done to him. Can we even imagine?

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Of course we can. Of course we can imagine that sense of failure, betrayal, hurt. Because those feelings are part of the human experience, they are part of who we are and what we experience, every day.

From the time when we were children and we got our first spelling test or math exam back covered in red ink and thought, “I guess I should’ve studied more…”

To the moment when our first girlfriend told us, “I just want to be friends.”

To that infamous mishap with the “reply all” button; the wrong turn that puts us way off course and yet still in a hurry, the shoes that seemed to fit fine in the store but now hurt like heck.

Or worse – that dread and fear while you wait for the Doctor’s diagnosis about a pain you ignored for too long.

The persistent feeling that you said yes when you should have said no, to that job, that marriage, that move.

Long before DeCarte wrote “I think, therefore I am, Church Father and theologian Saint Augustine wrote, “I err, therefore I am.”

We make mistakes. We are wrong. We are betrayed and hurt. We are human.

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Kathryn Shulz is a journalist and author of the book, “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” and has spent seasons of her life writing and talking about being wrong, something that many of us go to great lengths to avoid. Shulz points out, we also love these stories, we are drawn to these stories: The stories about when we expect one thing to happen, and something else happens instead. Those moments, when our wrong-ness, our failures, our mishaps, caused our lives to move into an entire different trajectory – one that was bound up in mystery and joy.

Maybe you thought you would marry your high school sweetheart, move back to the town you grew up in and raise a bunch of kids but, something else happened instead.

Maybe you thought you would keep that great job until you retired, save up a bunch of money and then travel the world with your beloved spouse, and something else happened instead.

Maybe you thought your children would all be perfectly healthy and “A” students, and something else happened instead.

Maybe you thought you’d get into the college that was top of your list, or after you got to college you would finally be truly free and happy and something else happened instead.

These are the stories we plan for, the perfect trajectories, the perfect plot line…

…and yet so often when something else the new story creates liminal spaces where the holy can enter in and be felt and known and touched.

The heartbreak that led to finding your true center.

The illness that derailed the life you intended and yet gave you a sense of purpose and gratitude you would never have had, and drew you so closer than you ever expected to the one you love.

The child that reminds you every day that there are better things, truer things, more amazing things in this life than perfection – like creativity and authenticity, like joy and laughter.

The path you found after that big failure, the one you could not hide, that was finally your path and yours alone.

For good or bad, it is so often in our biggest failures, when we have it all wrong, that God can transform it all and astonish us with grace and love.

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We are only human. We have ups and downs. Failures big and small. And yet God still uses fallible, broken, messy people to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. Even me. Even you.

When the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream he must have been at his lowest point. He was about to divorce a woman with whom he expected to spend the rest of his life. The woman whom he had expected to bear his children. He must have felt the world collapsing in on him.

And then he heard the words: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid…”

And he was told this miraculous story. A story that would change all that he had expected, all that he had hoped for into something more miraculous and beautiful than he could even imagine.

Still it would be simple. In fact, it would be another big failure – no room at the inn, born in a stable. A birth just like any other, even lowlier, more ordinary, than any other. And yet in the ordinariness of Joseph’s perceived failure, the Savior of the world would be born.

In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Singing Thanks: A Sermon

Singing Thanks

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery

at the Larchmont Avenue Church

November 24, 2013

Texts: Psalm 96; Colossians 3:12-17

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Colossians 3:12-17

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as The Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of The Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

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I was just a child when I began to associate singing with God.  I began early in the children’s choir, singing the songs and hymns that were the soundtrack of my faith.  Along with Great is Thy Faithfulness, and How Great Thou Art, I remember belting out that “Lord told Noah, you’re gonna build an ark-y ark-y,” and “If I were a butterfly,” which was one we seemed to sing quite a lot, noting all the reasons we might be thankful.”

For certainly if we were a butterfly we’d thank The Lord for giving us wings, and if we were a fuzzy wuzzy bear, we’d thank The Lord that we had hair.”  Always we returned to the refrain, “But I just thank you Father for makin’ me…. me.”  Those days of youthful singing were joyful, unrestrained. I don’t remember being all that concerned about staying on key, only that I remembered the words, and sang loudly.  I remember feeling proud, and loved.

When I was around sixteen or seventeen,  we switched churches and I met Ruth, the choir director at my new church.  Ruth directed a pile of choirs, from children to adults, and had proudly gathered a high school choir of almost fifty kids from around Grand Rapids.  So, soon after I started attending, once again I was singing in a church choir.

Ruth believed that anyone could sing and soon she had talked my parents into joining the adult choir as well.  She was disciplined, firm, and yet loving, and she helped me understand the difference between worship and performance, that thing I was doing with the choirs over at my high school.  Here, our singing was not for ourselves, or for anyone else besides God.  Here our practice, was born out of thankfulness.

Deeply bound in tradition, each Christmas everyone who had ever sung in any choir for Ruth could return, be given a robe and a run-through of the same songs we always sang on Christmas Eve, and the choir would somehow multiply tenfold to declare the birth of Jesus.  Before each Christmas Eve service Ruth would name every member of the choir, even those of us who had not sung for her in years.  She would note connections between us – Julie the alto daughter of Pat in the Alto section and Ron back with the Basses.  She would connect cousins and nieces and granddaughters, weaving a web of family and friends throughout those who had come to sing.

Ruth understood that singing in church has at it’s central purpose a building up of the community.  Hymns are meant to be sung together, and in so doing they bring us closer to one another and closer to God.  She believed firmly in the power of song to lift our Spirits to God, and to make God feel fully and truly present.  And certainly for each one of us, with her direction and support, it did.

In this Ruth was not unlike John Calvin, who believed that congregational song is a type of prayer, and while Calvin would have likely disapproved of her willingness to use accompanying instruments, from piano to organ to orchestra, their sentiments were the same.  So too, church father Saint Augustine once said that whoever sings to God in worship, prays twice.  Ruth, Calvin, Augustine, aligned with a long tradition of faithful singing, from the early Hebrews, who sang the Psalms both on route to the Temple and within it during the high holy days, to the early Christians singing those verses we find throughout the New Testament, to choirs and congregations throughout the ages.

Whatever scripture says about right worship, it says there should be singing.  Singing is synonymous with thanksgiving and praise.

Calvin, did not believe, however, that music in and of itself was holy, or spiritual.  Calvin wrote that music “has a secret and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another.”  He was wary of songs that might bend our hearts toward sin.  The Methodist John Wesley, fearing the same, took to rewriting popular drinking songs, sung in the local bars, with lyrics that instead sung of the grace and love of Jesus.  Wesley and Calvin believed not that “you are what you eat,” but “you are what you sing,” so to speak.

This too is the message we hear in the letter to the Colossians, an urging to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, and above all, love…  The Pauline vision is a dance between the outer and inner Christian life.  It speaks of the new life of the Holy Spirit that works in us: transforming us to be more Christ-like.  But he also notes that we must continue to work at this – and that one way we do this is through worshipful singing.

“Be thankful,” Paul says.  “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God,” he says. “Whatever you do,” he says, “Do everything in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God through him.”

It is right, as our communion liturgy reminds us, to give our thanks and praise.  Gratitude to God is the very air we breathe as Christians.  The fundamentals for Paul are love, peace, and thankfulness.  And there is something about singing our gratitude, which bends our hearts toward the God who is the source of all that we are grateful for.  Augustine wrote in his confessions that when sacred words are sung, they stir (our) mind(s) to greater religious fervor, “and kindle in (us) a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung.”

As we sing our gratitude, we transform our inmost hearts, toward a life of praise and joy.

The idea that gratitude is tied intimately with our happiness is now being affirmed by Psychologists and scientists the world over.  Shawn Achor gives a TED talk in which he notes that 90% of our long term happiness is predicted not by the external world but by the way our brains process the world.  That is to say, it is our inner perceptions that determine our happiness, not our outer circumstances.

It is not the car or the house, the job or the school we attend, but what is inside, which affects our perceptions of the world and our ability to be happy, to be thankful.  Achor discovered that a daily practice of gratitude and praise significantly changes our brain functioning, it orients us toward joy, and happiness.

This is why there are those people who have experienced such tragedy: the loss of a child, a terrible battle with cancer, a heartbreaking divorce, the death of a spouse, who can maintain a certain perspective of gratitude even throughout their sorrow.  To paraphrase a colleague, “Thanksgiving and praise does not deny pain and suffering but focuses our attention on things that are worthy of praise.”  In the words of the hymn, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging.  Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

So what have you been singing lately?

Today marks a significant day in the life of our church with the introduction of our new “Glory to God” hymnal.  For some of you this might be like tampering with something sacred.  I myself have sung out of the blue hymnal that this replaces for my entire life, this new hymnal is somewhat disorienting and strange.  No longer is # 525 Here I am Lord or # 23 Angels We Have Heard On High, much to my dismay.

For others of you, this is a change that comes as you were already adjusting to the last hymnal, having sung out of an entirely different set of songs in the tradition of your own youth.  Already we had asked you to re-orient your singing faith to something new and different, and now you must begin again.  It may feel both exhausting and disappointing.

Take heart.  We are in this together.  As your worship leaders we will be gentle, choosing new and old hymns every week, as we learn together this new corpus of music.

Brian Wren, author and composer, has written a book called “Praying Twice,” which can help direct our understanding as we forge ahead together in this task. Wren suggests that congregational music should be corporate, corporeal, inclusive, creedal, ecclesial, and evangelical.

That is to say, our singing should unite us, it should make our bodies move, it should be welcoming to those who are new, it should proclaim our faith in God, it should proclaim our understanding of who we are as the Church of Jesus Christ, and it should be a testimony to all who hear it, of the great things that God has done for us.  (Whew!)  How remarkable that our singing should do all that!

This new hymnal was created, in good Presbyterian fashion, by a committee… through years of discernment, singing, decision making, and prayer.  As Douglas will share after worship today, it significantly increases the number of hymns, and increases the variety of hymns.  For those who miss the evangelical praise songs you grew up with, you might find some of those here.

For those who did not grow up in the U. S., you may find a rhythm or tune that comes from your culture or country.  And for those of you, who, like me, know by heart the old faithful hymns of the Presbyterian Church, you may just find those in here as well.  They may have a few different words, or fresh words to a beloved tune, but those words meant to be welcoming of all people into the life of faith and the heart of God.

Wren reminds us that “the primary goal of singing in worship is to give shared expression to shared experience. Worship…is not a museum, but an expression of today’s faith and hope.” (Wren p 298)  And so in many ways this hymnal is an expression of who we are, here at LAC: a diverse, intergenerational community, hailing from many faith traditions, welcoming to all and joining together in singing our faith to the Glory of God.

No matter what we sing, old or new, John Wesley reminds us to… “above all sing spiritually.  Have an eye to God in every word you sing.  Aim at pleasing God more than yourself, or any other creature.  In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.”

So, as we head into this week, celebrating our Gratitude, let us sing.

Let us sing lest, as Walter Rauschenbusch prayed, “we pass unseeing, when even the common thornbush is aflame with God’s glory.”

Let us sing, as the Psalmist proclaims, “a new song, joining with the heavens and the earth and all families of all peoples, singing the praises of God.”

Let us sing, allowing God’s word to dwell within us, transforming us into people of love, and peace and thanksgiving.

Let us sing! Let us sing! Let us sing!

With blessings such as ours, how could we keep from singing?

Amen.

(Note: The bulk of the quotes cited in this sermon were taken from Wren’s book, Praying Twice, of which I am indebted and highly recommend.  As always, when I speak at all about singing I think of my beloved choir director, Ruth Nicely, who is surely directing choirs of angels even now, with the passion and joy she passed down to me.)

A sermon preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
October 13, 2013
By Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Exodus 1:1 – 2:10

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Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river, She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said.

Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.

So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

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Over the past several weeks we have been talking about our family of faith. We have been sharing the stories of our ancestors in the faith, not all of them particularly warm and fuzzy, that contribute to who we are and what we believe. These stories are like a river flowing down through the ages, rushing toward us and enveloping us with courage, faithfulness, strength and gratitude. We are caught up in the stream of faith, brought into those stories even after generations have passed.

Now, these ancestors were certainly not perfect – they were far from it – but these are our ancestors, and their stories are our stories. They are stories of patriarchs and matriarchs who chose to follow God rather than the culture that surrounded them. They are stories of a mother’s deep and abiding love for her children. They are stories of brothers who battle and ultimately forgive; they are stories of the steadfast love of God who blesses us through and in spite of our struggles, short fallings, and sin.

We have traveled from the family of Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, and down to Jacob’s twelve sons, and Joseph who brought them to Egypt… we find ourselves at the beginning of Exodus, the Israelites now slaves, laboring under a Pharaoh who does not remember Joseph.

This Pharaoh, is power-hungry, and yet he has made an investment that puts him vulnerable and at risk. The growing masses of Hebrew slaves are a threat to that power. Their numbers could lead to an uprising or increased support for an attack from another nations. And so, as the fear of losing our power and wealth so often leads to suffering, Pharaoh grips more tightly the power he holds, and lashes out at those who might threaten it. True to God’s blessing and promise, the Israelites continue to multiply and expand, increasing Pharaoh’s fear and brutality.

It is in the midst of this land of fear which we meet a handful extraordinary women, first Shiprah and Puah, midwives accompanying the women who continue to give birth in the midst of dire conditions. Regardless of Pharaoh’s violence and cruelty, the women feared God more than they feared the Pharaoh, and we learn that their actions to save Hebrew babies result in the salvation of one boy, Moses, who would be the salvation of the people of Israel.

It was just a moment. A transforming moment, when, sitting on the birth stool, they had to choose. Perhaps they had already decided, perhaps not. Perhaps it was something they had learned in their youth, certainly they had learned it attending to so many births: the preciousness of life, the presence of God in the act of creation, the Spirit of the divine attending the first breath, and every breath thereafter, of every child of God. Perhaps it was a foundation of faith – the fear and awe of God and not man – that stilled their hands and heart, and saved.

For Miriam, it was a similar moment: when, in the blink of an eye she boldly offered to find a Hebrew nurse-maid for her baby brother, just rescued from a basket floating in the river. In that moment, she chose risk instead of fear, hope instead of anxiety. The same moment, when the Pharaoh’s daughter chose to save the child her father was bent on destroying, a moment when the awe of the God of Creation trumped pressure and power of her culture.

What makes up a moment? What are the foundations that must be laid for those moments to happen? Years of trust and faithfulness, years of fearing God and learning one’s place in the universe, years of understanding one’s calling to participate in re-making the world in God’s image. All of it – making up one moment.

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It was a transforming moment. A little scary, but sometimes that’s what transformation takes. Pouring down rain, and just about to leave for the next stop, a haggard-looking couple steps out from the shadows. It all happened so fast, the driver invited the couple to hop in the car with them for a ride and they got in. For the teenager who had never gotten so close to a homeless person, it was a little scary.

But at the next stop he received smiles, hugs, as the couple had a chance to get fresh clothes, a bagged lunch and some hot soup, a bit of compassion, even hope. It happened so fast, and yet in that moment a young man saw humanity, and the opportunity to make a difference. When he closed his eyes on the ride home, all he could see was the gratitude that lingered in the eyes of that one couple he helped, and he began to wonder… what makes them so different from me, are they any different from me?

And then…”When’s the next Midnight Run?” he asked from the back of the car.

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It was a transforming moment. Well, not just one but many. It began as a black hole into which all life and joy was pulled – the black hole of unimaginable grief. But then there were people there: setting out coffee and tea and cookies, offering the hospitality she knew she could not. They brought flowers to the house, took away empty coffee cups and wiped tables. Some came and sat in the silence that remained, shared stories of their own, cried with her.

They never stopped, this army of the faithful, and the love and compassion they brought seemed to keep her from sinking under the weight of it all. Soon she was one of them, making coffee and cookies for the next grieving soul, passing on the compassion and love that had strengthened her, and kept her going, continuing a ministry that had been there for what seemed like ages.

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It was a transforming moment. Not one, but many.

For one, it the moments he hears another story of death and resurrection, that help support and encourage him on the long road of recovery. He calls it “the downstairs church,” and he is here faithfully every Tuesday and Thursday night.

For another, it is the moments that make up two hours, twice a week, alongside the community that supported her during some of her toughest times. It just so happens that they did that while singing.

For another, it was the weekly support he needed to live ethically, faithfully, in a profession that tends to worship the almighty dollar and the bottom line. Those moments are his anchor, slowly transforming him into God’s witness in a weary world.

For another, it was the moments of Sunday School and youth group when she learned that God loved her no matter what. And it is on that foundation that she will make her way through a society that will tell her she isn’t pretty enough, or smart enough, or wealthy enough or successful enough. But none of that will matter, because her hope and faith is in God, who made heaven and earth and who made her too – and made her perfectly.

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It was a transforming moment, and it happened here, inside of these walls or outside of these walls, it happened in this church community. It happened because God moves through the ministry of this church and transforms lives, every day.

This church transforms lives. And if you don’t think it does, you haven’t been paying attention.
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Today is the beginning of our stewardship season, and it began with another story, Chris’s story, about how this church helped to transform his life – setting the foundation for a path he might not have predicted. Perhaps you have a story like his. Perhaps you would be willing to share it.

So I ask you to consider, what is something like that worth? If you could put a dollar amount on it – transformation – compassion – self-love – love of God- care for the poor – what would it be worth?

What would this kind of life-changing moment -
in the lives of your children, in the life of your aging parent, in the lives of the people we serve at HOPE Community Kitchen, or the homeless on the streets of New York, or beyond in the Dominican Republic, or at the Border – in your life -
what would that kind of transformation be worth to you?

As much as the car? As much as the taxes on the house? As much as the club membership? As much as the college alumni dues? As much as a year of sports or music lessons for your child? What can you compare it to?

How do you put a price on the transforming power of God? How do you put a price on the love that casts out all fear?

In this church, here at LAC, the ministries that help support transformation, compassion, service for the poor and vulnerable, inspiration, are budgeted to cost just under a million dollars. Last year, this congregation gave just under $700,000 to support those ministries.

It seems almost small compared to these transforming moments, added together. And yet, your part in it is not small. Because if you do not give, none of it can happen.

It is a transforming moment, just one instant – a moment like those moments in the lives our ancestors, a moment like that of the midwives, the sister, the daughter – when the foundation of faith tipped toward transformation and gave way to hope, grace, life.

They chose to risk their lives, for that transforming, life-changing moment. How much will you risk?

In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Brothers & Blessings
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
September 29, 2013
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Genesis 27:1-38

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Genesis 27:30-38
As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau came in from his hunting. He also prepared savory food, and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father sit up and eat of his son’s game, so that you may belss me.” His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, I am your firstborn son, Esau.” Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? — Yes, and blessed he shall be!”

When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!” But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.”

Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him al his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.”

Then his father Isaac answered him:
“See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.”

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We have jumped ahead a bit, from the story of Abraham and his covenant with God, to the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac in the land of Moriah. Since then Sarah has died and has been buried and mourned by Abraham and Isaac. Isaac has married Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s kin. Abraham has married again and had more children, has died and is buried.

Isaac’s wife Rebekah is a woman of prayer. Like Sarah she struggles to conceive, but prays to God and is granted a child. Or, children to be more precise. Her pregnancy is troubled, the text says that the children struggled within her, and Rebekah cries out, “If it is to be this way then why should I live?” She goes again to God and is given an oracle, a word from God about the two children she will bear. God tells her: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

It is with this oracle in her head and on her heart that Rebekah gives birth two twins: the first Esau, red and hairy, the second Jacob, clutching his brother’s heel. These are the boys who will continue the story of blessing and covenant, from God to God’s people.

It is a foundational story to be certain: Jacob and Esau, two brothers vastly different from one another. Esau, who loves the outdoors and is good at hunting, beloved by his father Isaac. Jacob, cunning and ambitious, beloved by his mother Rebekah. Brothers, with everything that word brings.

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As a mother of two boys I can only imagine the ways in which Rebekah, mother of twin boys, might have experienced the competition which arose between her sons. The torment one feels when two children you love cannot get along can be overwhelming. Rebekah’s first response is extreme, when the boys struggle amongst each other within her womb: “If this is how it is to be, then why shall I live?” she cries out. Tormented by their fighting even before they break forth from her body, Rebekah is ready to be done.

Any mother of boys can relate to Rebekah’s exasperation. A few months ago I found myself a bit fed up with my boys who were always fighting, and so one late evening I googled, “books on raising boys” and reserved three of them at the library. To be sure, I didn’t get far, since when you are playing referee you don’t have much time for reading. But one book with short clips caught my attention and laughter. Rachel Balducci is mother to six children, five of whom are boys, and wrote two sweet compilations: the first, “How do you tuck in a superhero?” and then, “Raising Boys is a full contact sport.” She is funny, to be sure, and she completely understands boys.

One of her best chapters was on competition, and begins with a story about how she discovered tape on her drinking glasses one day. When she asked, she learned that the boys had been racing each other in drinking milk, and the tape was the only way to make sure they had the exact same amount. As Balducci notes, everything for her boys is a competition. From things that warrant it: like basketball or baseball, hockey or running, to things that, well… perhaps don’t. Like milk drinking.

It seems universally true that competition somehow seeps into every ounce of every day for brothers. From the moment they awake and race each other through eating cereal, to who gets what seat in the car, to whose backpack is heavier or whose dessert is bigger. This is the plight of brothers. Certainly this was the plight of Jacob and Esau.

One difficult part of this morning’s story, of course, is the way that Rebekah initiates and encourages the in-fighting between her two boys. Her actions instigate Jacob into lying and cheating his dying father into a blessing intended for Jacob’s brother. At best she is a mother with a favorite son, at worst she is conniving and manipulative, thirsty for power for Jacob and callous towards Esau. How could a mother do such a thing?

It’s possible that Rebekah’s actions are tied to the words of God spoken to her while the boys were still in utero. Engulfed by the warring children within her, Rebekah seeks help and relief from an oracle of The Lord, who speaks to her in prophetic voice: “Two nations are in you womb, and now two peoples born of you shall be divided. The one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

Perhaps those words spoken to her, of two nations divided, of the stronger and the weaker, the elder serving the younger… perhaps these words had taken root in her heart, and she believed it her place to enact them as God’s will and promise. Commentaries note that as a woman Rebekah had no real power to bring this prophecy into fruition, and that as a woman and the second born son, society’s norms were stacked against these two, Rebekah and Jacob, and toward the natural-born privilege given to Esau and Issac.

So, perhaps God’s promise and will can account for shady deals and backhanded ways…?

It is a slippery slope. If this is the case then one could imagine the ways in which we all could justify deception and manipulation as long as it is subservient to God’s will. Isn’t this the source of virtually every religious war?

While certainly Rebekah is manipulative and conniving, Jacob and Esau have their own flaws and faults. Jacob is clever and opportunistic, his only doubts about Rebekah’s scheme are whether he can get away with it.

Esau, on the other hand, who just before today’s story, sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of pottage, seems bumbling and uncaring, driven by his various bodily hungers rather than by his mind and intention. His natural entitlement and privilege cause him to live carelessly – the loss of his birthright is entirely his own doing. Frankly, no one in this formative family of faith is beyond reproach, not even Issac, who comes off as frail and blind in more ways that one.

This is our family tree, in all it’s glory: made up of neither demons nor saints. Each is complicated and broken, each with his or her own longings and disappointments. It is perhaps most amazing that God chooses to bless any of them, let alone the conniving Jacob, to covenant with them as the fulfillment of God’s promise and blessing from Abraham to generations that come after.

So what is there to say of these, our ancestors of faith? What do we make of this story? What should we do with this dysfunctional family, these imperfect and unscrupulous ancestors of ours?

The answer seems to hinge on this word, “blessing.” Twenty-eight times this word appears in our text for this morning: “That I may bless you,” “bless those that bless you,” and the harrowing cry, “have you only one blessing Father? bless me, me also!”

When Isaac finally blesses his son Esau, it is with the underside of his brother’s blessing. Isaac is bound again, this time by ritual and tradition, and is unable to retract the blessing of Jacob. But he predicts that Esau will occasionally break free of his younger brother’s rule and lordship. And this is the story that comes to pass.

“Truth be told, in Genesis, Jacob the younger brother never fully rules Esau the older. The stolen blessing…rather, inaugurates twenty years of flight, exile, and servitude for Jacob and loneliness for Rebekah, who never again sees her favorite son.” Jacob is the chosen one, the one who is to carry on Abraham’s lineage and covenant with God, and yet, in spite of the hardships and struggles, both boys produce nations of people, and far in the distant future, there is the hope of reconciliation and love.

In fact, as we pull back with a wider lens, the story of Jacob begins with a list of the generations of Ishmael, (that son of Abraham by Hagar, whom we haven’t talked about yet,) and then the story of Jacob ends with the generations of Esau. The story of the blessed Jacob is bookended by the stories of the outcasts, still numerous and prosperous.

Perhaps, unlike Isaac, God indeed has more than one blessing to offer…

The long arc of God’s story bends towards love and grace. The story which becomes our story, includes many outcast after Jacob. Prostitutes and criminals, stutterers and people from the wrong side of town, and then Jesus, outcast and rule-breaker, put to death like a common criminal. God uses each of these unlikely characters, to weave a story of grace and love that transforms and redeems like no other in the history of time.

The beginning of all that, is here. It is through this messy family story that God blesses not only Jacob but all of Israel, and the generations that come after. God chooses this one family, for the sake of all families. God chooses these unlikely characters for the love of you and me, even before our world was imagined.

One Christian musician calls the church “a beautiful letdown, painfully uncool, the church of the dropouts the losers the sinners the failures and the fools.” We are a hospital for sinners, not a house for saints. A respite for broken souls, not a program for perfectionism.

It’s hard to imagine this to be true, in a place such as this. We do a good job of hiding it. We fake it till we make it. We smile and nod.

Perhaps we are the mother who would do anything, anything, to give her child a leg up in a world stacked against him; after all, what’s a little white lie when I know the possibility and promise he holds?

Perhaps we are the son who feels stuck by what has been given, or not given, to him. Shouldn’t we do all we can to succeed, to improve, to ascend?

Perhaps we are the one who too often forgets the blessings we are given: birthright and blessing, power and privilege. Never thinking about the way our privileges mean there are others who remain without.

Perhaps we are the father, who looks away as his children war against each other and vie for attention, blessing, love.

This is our story: and none of us are demons or saints. All of us have circumvented or sidestepped the path God hopes for us.

But the truth is: the blessing is: the crazy bizarre, hard-to-take message is:
It is not in spite of these things, but because of these things that we are loved by God and chosen for something better. It is not in spite of this brokenness, but because of and along with these this brokenness, that we are claimed and named as God’s people. It is not in spite of this underbelly of our lives, but because we are imperfect that God works in and through our lives to bless us and fill us with grace and love. In the name of our Creator, our Redeemer and Sustainer, today and always. Amen.

Covenant and Calling
A sermon preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
September 15, 2013
Rev. Julie Emery

Text: Genesis 17:1-10, 15-16, & 22

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, The Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. and I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”

God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised”

…God (also) said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her….”

And when God had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.

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Prayer of Illumination:
From the cowardice that dare not face your truth,
From the laziness that is contented with half-truths,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Deliver us, O Lord, and open us to Your Holy Truth in Word and Spirit. Amen.

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My beginning came during an ice-storm, not uncommon in Michigan in early March. Dad had been called to the hospital for some emergency and had not yet returned and my mom woke that morning with labor pains. She sat on the bed with her three children, watch in hand, counting contractions together. Soon enough my sister and two brothers were sent to the neighbor’s house, Dad finally got home and they began to head to the hospital, taking three or four different routes until they could find a way around downed trees and power lines. Mom had fast labors, especially by number four, so she was brought through the doors and straight to the delivery room and I arrived shortly after.

It’s a story I know by heart. I know how the ice storm had made everything crackly and shimmery, how my brother John had strapped on his ice skates that same day and our dog had pulled him, skating, around the block. I know how my parents toyed with naming me Corey, but decided I looked more like a Julie.

It is the story of my beginning, and I know it by heart. The mere fact that I know that story helps me to be more resilient, researchers say. In fact, the more we all know about our family stories – their beginnings and endings, triumphs and struggles – the more resilient we are in the face of life’s challenges and hardships. The story of how our parents met, of our ancestors’ arrival through Ellis Island or Angel Island or another path altogether, the story of Uncle Joe’s corner store or when Great-Aunt Ursula ran off with that strange foreigner.

The importance of knowing a family’s narrative is most particularly valuable for children. In fact, those same researchers say that “The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. As Bruce Feiler notes, perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is a strong family narrative. To tell and share the stories of their own beginnings, even those stories that go way back to before they were a twinkle in their parents eye, as the saying goes.

It is a new program year, a new school year is upon us, and so we find ourselves at our own juncture of beginnings this morning. Many of us have packed our children off to various schools or colleges, have accumulated various supplies to sustain them for the coming months, and have already gone through some schedule adjustments. We have returned to our regular routines: early train schedules and regular mealtimes. Even the change in weather seems to feel like a page has turned, and here we are again at the beginning.

The story we find in this morning’s text is another beginning. It is the story of the beginning of our family – this family of faith – the story of Abraham and Sarah, or rather Abram and Sarai, and the covenant that God made with them. By the time we meet these two in today’s piece of the story, Abram and Sarai have already been through quite a bit.

This is the third time that God has come to them, promising generations of children. The first time, Abram was 75 years old, and God called him to leave the land of his father and journey to a new land promised to him. Years go by and still no children, yet God continues to be faithful, and appears to Abram again saying, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be.”

The two travel, survive struggles and hardships, with Sarai still barren they orchestrate a child for Abram through his slave Hagar. And yet, this solution does not seem to answer the yearnings of Abram’s heart, or the words of God’s promise.

They are in their nineties when God appears to Abram a third time. They have been waiting, perhaps not very patiently, and yet, faithfully. They continue to trust, to believe that God will be their God, and to live as though they are God’s people. It is in this trusting that Abram discovers that his life is not his own, but God’s. This third time, God’s covenant transforms.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” God says to Abram, “And I will make my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations.” You will no longer be called Abram and Sarai, but Abraham and Sarah. These new names give them a calling, and reorient their lives: they will be known as the “father of a multitude” and as “princess.” Through these names they are given their true identities: as loved and claimed by God. Through circumcision Abraham will be marked as God’s own in a bodily and real way. And they will be known as the father and mother of generations.

It is of this multitude which we are a part. Here, in Larchmont, generations and generations later. The road from Abraham and Sarah to today is a long and winding one, filled with suffering and celebrations, sorrows and joys. This story is our story, however strange and distant it may seem. We too are claimed by God, marked as God’s own through our baptisms, and joined in the community of faith throughout the ages. This is who you are and who I am, who we are together: Beloved Children of God.

It’s not so easy to remember this, though. In a world such as ours, it’s easy to be distracted by the pace and demands of our daily life, by fears about Syria and the ever-volatile Middle East, about wars and violence. It’s easy to forget, in the midst of our strivings toward our own future, or the health and well-being of our loved ones. It’s easy to forget that in spite of these very urgent and important concerns, the ground of our being and source of our lives is the God who has blessed us and named and claimed us as his own.

I think, perhaps this is why God’s covenant was marked by such a painful and bodily sign. Like the mark of circumcision for Abraham, there are ways we can make our lives as recognizably formed in Christ, but, likewise, they don’t come without some pain. Like Abraham, We are called to be marked by our faith: standing up against a culture of consumerism, carving out a Sabbath in a world of frenetic 24/7 productivity, responding to conflict with prayer instead of quick-fix solutions or violence, giving away our time and money rather than accumulating more and more for ourselves.

These choices hurt. They are meant to. This is what it means to live a life marked by the God of Abraham and Sarah.

The other beginning we are celebrating this morning is the launch of our Centennial year. The beginnings of the Larchmont Avenue Church was about 100 years ago, sparked by the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, an artist named Emily Lindsley. Those that gathered on that June day back in 1914 knew the importance of God’s calling and covenant, they wanted to be marked by their faith and fellowship, and so they gathered together for worship, for baptisms, for communion and the sharing of the stories of faith. They gathered, and we have been gathering ever since.

It is the story of our beginning, what would become the Larchmont Avenue Church. And there are many more: the story of the ground breaking for their first building on this very spot. The story behind the creation of this spectacular sanctuary and facility, completed just before the Great Depression, and the pains they took to avoid it being repossessed by the bank.

Stories of weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations, of teenagers sneaking into the bell tower, mission trips across our country and then to places far and unknown.

Stories of your own beginnings with this community: the first time you walked through the doors here: perhaps it was even just this morning, the first person you met, the moment of welcome that signaled you were home.

They are not all joyous, some are marked by dissonance and discord, hurt and humility. But we trust that God has been with us throughout them all – sustaining us for the life and ministry we share here, in this place.

These are the stories of faith, the narrative that binds us to God and to one another into the great family of faith. And we have come together to tell them, and we will keep telling them. Over the course of the coming year we invite you to share those stories of faith, when, like Abraham and Sarah you were called and claimed, marked and named as God’s own. Those stories may not be in the too distant past, they may be just from last week.

But they are the stories that point to the things we believe give us Life and Life Abundant. They are the stories that define us and mark us as God’s own beloved.

So: what is the story of your beginning?

What is the story of your faith?

What are the stories you have of this church, here in this place, either distant or fresh, that show forth the ways that God’s Spirit is still at work among us, even now, after generations of believers?

How are you participating in God’s story today, and going forward – passing that faith from our generation to the next?

What is your story?

It is time to tell it.

In the name of the God of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, and of Jesus the Christ, faithful toward us throughout generations and generations.

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