26 November 2013

The Reconciliation of All Things

Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Colossians 1: 11-20

Reign of Christ Sunday/ 24th November 2013

On Friday, this nation remembered that tragic day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was fatally shot in Dallas, bringing an end to Camelot.  Fifty years.  In the grand scheme of things, not very long ago.  And, yet, in many ways it was another age, another time, another world.  This past week the press took us back to remember that fateful day and invited us to imagine how the world could have been different if November 22 was just another ordinary day in 1963.  However, the press overlooked (for the most part) two other major figures who died that same day. One was the humanist, pacifist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), a leading intellectual of his day and author of the Brave New World, a novel written in 1931 that envisioned the world in the year 2540.  Brave New World was ranked among the top 100 novels of the twentieth century. Through an imaginary rendering of what the future will be. Huxley critiqued issues that faced Europe and the United States in 1930s, between the wars.

            The other notable figure who died fifty years ago on November 22 was Clive Staples Lewis—C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), the Oxford don, scholar, medievalist, author of children’s books, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, and many volumes of Christian apologetics, with well-known titles, such as The Screwtape Letters, God in the Dock, and perhaps his most famous theological work, Mere Christianity. In his memoir Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis told the story of his conversion from atheism to theism to his eventual trust and faith in Christ, calling himself “the most reluctant convert in all of England.”  On Friday evening downtown at the meeting of the American Academy of Religion there was a celebration of Lewis’s work and influence, led by N. T. Wright, the former bishop of Durham, now professor at the University of St. Andrews. Wright has been been described as a kind of “Lewis” for our day writing about Christianity to a broad audience.  Wright is also one of the leading Pauline scholars in the world.  Wright just published what will surely be a landmark book on the letters of Paul, a work—at more than 1700 pages—that will shape biblical scholarship for the next fifty years.[1]

            More people are reading C.S. Lewis today than ever before.  Children of all faiths (and none) are still hearing about the adventures of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy venturing through the magical wardrobe into the land Narnia, the world of the White Witch, and the powerful, never safe, but always good, Aslan, a character who symbolizes Christ. 

            What an imagination Lewis had.  Lewis is a wonderful example of how imagination, particularly a Christian, that is, baptized imagination, images the world, figures and transfigured the world, envisions the world.  He created a marvelous world for his characters, for us really, and in doing so allowed us to reimagine our world, to envision what is possible.  By offering an alternative world he transfigured the way we see the world and our lives within it.  It’s all the more remarkable, really, given that one time in a conversation about faith with J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) over a pint of ale at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, Tolkien increasingly frustrated with Lewis—who was still a non-believer at this point whereas Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic—said, “Your inability to understand stems from a failure of imagination on your part!” Can you imagine telling C. S. Lewis that he suffers from a failure of imagination?

            My mentor at Princeton Seminary, James Loder (1931-2001)—who was also a huge C. S. Lewis fan, who sketched images of Aslan for his children—suggested that we need to make a distinction between the imaginary and the imaginative.  Something that is imaginary takes you out of the world, out of reality; it’s a flight of fancy, often escapist. An imaginative act, on the other hand, is an entirely different faculty.  It was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who understood imagination as the capacity instar omnium, meaning equivalent to all in importance.  As a faculty of the self, imagination has the capacity to create, order, and reorder the world.  The imaginative act, thought, or word has the power to put you more deeply into the world, into a world transfigured, into the real.[2]  

            What does all of this have to do with Colossians 1 or with the Reign of Christ Sunday? A lot. Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Church orders its Sundays and patterns its worship upon Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  Next week is Advent and we begin the annual cycle afresh.  Next week we begin to wait.  This week we lift up a different, often neglected aspect of the Christian life: Christ’s reign over our lives, Christ’s reign over the world.  A text such as Colossians 1 lifts up a particular image of Christ and the Church and the world, of the world that is to come, but also the world as it already now is by God’s grace.  And Colossians 1, especially verses 15-20, is crammed with Christological significance—we could be here all day, all week, indeed, a lifetime unpacking what Paul is claiming here in this text that was probably written as a hymn to Christ.

            The honest question before us is this: is this text imaginary or imaginative?  Is it just wishful thinking, a fancy of what the world might be?  Perhaps. Or is it a baptized imaginative rendering of reality rooted in the person and work of Christ, what he accomplished, what he continues to offer the world?[3]  Colossians casts a vision here for us and it’s up to you and me to decide: imaginary or imaginative?
            Paul’s answer is pretty clear.  It’s imaginative.  In fact either Paul or the writer of this hymn wants us to pay attention to the image that shapes our imagination.  For the hymn says Christ was the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The Greek here is ikon.  We could also translate it as “symbol.”  Christ is the ikon, the symbol, the image of the invisible God.  It’s important to remember that Paul understood an ikon or symbol as sharing in the reality it represents.  That’s what a symbol does, it participates in the reality toward which it points.  A sign, by contrast, refers to itself, indicating a way or sharing a message (such as a Stop sign).   A cross is a symbol, not a sign, because it represents, points to, and participates in a whole reality that stands behind it.  Christ as ikon makes the invisible visible. He represents that deeper reality, the deeper truth, even as he participates in it.  Christ, therefore, is a manifestation of something else because as ikon he participates in a deeper reality and that deeper reality is God. We see through him and see God.  We see through him and discover God’s intention for the world. We see through him and discover God’s plan of redemption and resurrection in the heart of all things.  We see through him and discover that God’s intention in Christ, as it was from the beginning of time, is to reconcile all things through Christ and in Christ.

            All things…ta panta, in Greek,…every order of the universe, every level of reality, every principality, power, authority, throne, and dominion. From the micro to the macro level, the work of Christ on the cross was to reconcile, to make peace with and among all the powers of the world, in order that every principality and power and throne and dominion might yield its authority and serve the benevolent intentions of God.  Christ’s life and ministry and resurrection together mark the “beginning” of this work and his life and ministry, resurrection and ascension show us that it’s God’s desire to fill “all things” with Christ’s presence.  To fill all things.  To dwell among us.  To fill every aspect of our lives with God’s presence. Christ sums up God’s intention for the entire cosmos: to fill all things.  There is nothing and no one outside the scope of Christ’s presence and power. That’s the goal. That’s also the claim for reality, right now, because of the resurrection.

            Now, you can say all of this is imaginary theological mumbo-jumbo, a flight of fancy.  Perhaps. Or maybe it’s a baptized imaginative recasting of the world that, even now, the Spirit is crafting in order for us to see and feel and know that right now this new world is both here and on the way.  This imaginative rendering of reality put Paul and the early church more deeply into the world, engaged with the world, sent Paul traveling all over his world.  They all knew that reality was different because of Christ.  Indeed, reality is never the same when one is in Christ.  We come to see that all things are held in Christ and when we know this, trust this, indwell this truth, then everything changes.  That’s why Christ is the beginning of all things, the arche (Col. 1:18), and in him all things become new.

            Paul lived in a world transfigured by the presence of Christ.  And Paul extends that invitation to us, to see the world from that perspective, to see ourselves as already participating in the power and presence of Christ, to be en Christos, in Christ, as Paul loved to say, to exist in Christ.

            And this is the claim of the early Church: to be in Christ means that we exist in the midst of the Christ who has already reconciled us to God, who has already reconciled every wayward power and principality in the universe.  Not some day.  Not one day.  Right now, we are reconciled.  We live in a world that is no longer at enmity with God.  Right now.  In him all things hold together.

            Now, you’re probably thinking that I’m completely detached from reality, that this is an imaginary flight of fancy.  This isn’t the way the world is.  This is ludicrous.  Perhaps. Or maybe this is an imaginative rendering of the world as it is and is becoming.  It’s a rendering of reality in the light of Christ that helps us to see what the world was created for, through which we understand the meaning of Christ’s life, that helps us to discern the shape and scope and meaning of our lives.  Through this imaginative rendering we realize that we are not where we will be and so we begin again the process of waiting and hoping for Christ to be born yet again into our lives, so that our lives and the life of  the world might conform to that image, that ikon, that vision that we find in Christ.

That’s that goal, which is already here and on the way.  I’m not making this up.  It’s how Paul describes the Christian life.  It’s the imaginative vision that transfigures the here and now; we are on the way to becoming what is already true.  Now and then. 

            I know, it all sounds abstract.  Perhaps C. S. Lewis is helpful here.  This is what he wants us to imagine, imaginations baptized, to see what Christ has done and is doing in us, through us, for us.  Lewis wrote:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what [God] is doing. [God] is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently [God] starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is [God] up to? The explanation is that [God] is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but [God] is building a palace. [God] intends to come and live in it Himself.”[4] 

Our lives a palace—expansive and large.  For “Once a King [once a Queen] in Narnia, always a King [always a Queen].”[5]  And so the work continues.   For truly God intends to come and live in us.

[1]On Tuesday, November 26, 2013, I attended a fascinating session at ARR, “Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of C. S. Lewis,” presided by my friend Robert MacSwain.  Four papers were given by leading theologians and philosophers assessing Lewis’s writings and his relevancy today.  See also Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, eds., The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). See N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).
[2] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 24ff.  Loder on C. S. Lewis, 131ff.  On Loder’s use of Kierkegaard see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:  Encounter and Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011).
[3] The notion of the imagination baptized is taken from Lewis in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1955), 181.
[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 174.  Lewis borrowed this analogy from George MacDonald (1824-1905).
[5] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Collier Books, 1970), 186.

17 November 2013

The Creator's Still Creating

Isaiah 65:17-25

26th Sunday after Pentecost
November 17, 2013

Sacrament of Baptism

This week I came across a great image that sums up this text and whatever I hope to offer in this sermon.  It’s a photograph of someone standing in a street holding a sign made from a torn piece of cardboard.   It has a message on it, painted in black, which reads: THE BEGINNING IS NEAR.

I love it. The perfect counter-message to the doom-and-gloom, “the end of the world is nigh” message that a certain segment of the Christian community love to harp on about.   Yes, the end will come.  Scripture is clear, Jesus was clear, however, “No one knows the hour or the day.”  No one. Not even Jesus (Mark 13:34).  So be wary of people who say, “We know.” They don’t. 

            When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers College I took a class on religion in colonial America. It was taught by the historian Philip Greven, an expert on the child-rearing patterns of New England Protestants in the eighteenth century.  In his book The Protestant Temperament, Greven identified this fascinating correlation: children born into evangelical households, oftentimes raised in physically abusive situations, later grew up to hate the world, indeed looked with zeal for an end to the world, eager for God to unleash violent judgments upon the rest of the world. Projecting, mirroring, no doubt, the way their parents treated them.  Greven found that children raised in theologically moderate or liberal households, generally treated with respect and compassion and nurture, in time grew up to love the world, to feel at home in the world, free to experience love and beauty in the world and work for societal reform and justice.[1]  Greven has also argued, in a different work, that similar child-rearing patterns are still informing the contemporary religious landscape.[2]

            We can waste time and energy worrying about when the world is going to end, searching the newspaper for clues.  But I don’t think that’s being faithful. True, the apostle Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus as a sign that the world would soon end, “the first fruits of them that sleep” (1 Cor. 15:20, 20-25).  But, Paul got it wrong.

            Instead of worrying about when, maybe we should turn the question on its head and ask, why?  In other words, why are we still here?  Maybe because God isn’t finished with us yet. Maybe because God hasn’t given up on creation. Maybe because God is still creating.  Maybe because God is at work creating something for us, in us, through us for the world.  There’s an entire library of books in the Bible that give witness to this truth.  Apart from Jesus, there’s probably no stronger witness to this vision than the author of Isaiah 65—let’s just call him Isaiah.

            The Thursday Morning Bible Study has been working its way through Isaiah (second and third Isaiah, chapters 40-66).  What’s clear already, and we’re only up to chapter 45, is a theme that continues all the way through to chapter 66.  It’s a theme particularly strong in Isaiah 65. It’s this: God creates.  To which, you’re probably thinking:  “Uh, duh! Of course we know God as creator.  Every church school child knows that.” 

God is first revealed as creator, who works for six days and rests on the seventh.  It’s not that simple, however.  In the opening of Genesis, God is directly linked with the ancient, profound Hebrew word bara, a verb meaning to create, to shape, to form, to fashion. God is always the subject of the verb.  It’s found in 45 verses in the Hebrew Scriptures; eight in Genesis, six in the psalms, but seventeen in Isaiah, with sixteen out of the seventeen in second and third Isaiah, including Isaiah 65:17.

 Isaiah 65 was written for Israel after its return from exile in Babylon.  The people were allowed to return home to Judah due to the gracious decree of the victorious Persian King Cyrus the Great (d.530 BC), who defeated the Babylonian Empire.  And, significantly, he’s a gentile king who, remarkably (!), God designates as God’s “anointed” or “messiah” or “christ” (Isaiah 45:1). It’s all the same word. Cyrus is chosen as the means through which the people Israel will be liberated and restored.  In choosing to work through Cyrus, God was doing a startling, scandalous, shocking new thing.  Using a gentile for the liberation of Israel.

            But, you see, that’s who Yahweh is, that’s what God does; always has, always will.  God is the one who creates and is creating, doing a new thing.  The one who formed new life out of the chaos and void at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:1-2) is the one who continues to form new life out of the chaos and void of human pain and suffering.  To a people on the way home, God speaks through Isaiah and says, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy” (Is. 65:17-18).  The beginning is near!

            When?  Now and in the future.  It’s both coming, so be ready; and it’s also already here, so wake up and see it! The verb tense is confusing, though: God will create.  God creates.  God is creating.  God is about to create new heavens and a new earth.  The time is ambiguous, a word with its roots in the Latin ambo, meaning “both.”  “God’s new creation is happening both now and in the future.”[3] The point is something is happening.  God is happening in us, in the world, all around us, in unlikely places and people.  God hasn’t stopped creating but is tirelessly at work to realize something in us, for us, through us for the sake of the world that God passionately loves.  This isn’t the language of ending or destruction, is it?  It’s the language of new beginnings, of construction, or reconstruction, of recreation, of new creation.

            You know, our sister-denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), has a wonderful ad campaign.  You might have seen their commercials on television with the tag line: “God is still speaking.”  I wish the Presbyterian Church would come up with something similar—or maybe we should just steal theirs (or borrow it).  Nevertheless, we should use it—a lot.  God is still speaking because God is still creating, still has something to say to us, still has something to be realized through you and me.

            We get a glimpse of it here in the focus on Jerusalem—Jerusalem will be God’s joy and its people a delight.  Jerusalem is a symbol for what God intends for all God’s children. For surely, what Isaiah offers here can’t possibly apply only to Jerusalem.  What about Bethlehem or Jericho or Nazareth?  Jerusalem is Yahweh’s city, Yahweh’s shalom, peace; it’s both this particular place and every place; it’s particular and universal, symbolizing God’s life with all God’s people.

            What does that life look like?  What is God’s intent, the goal of God’s shaping and forming?  It’s a place, a community, a world where all God’s children will be able to live and thrive and create.  In such a place we won’t find weeping in the streets or hear the cries of distress. Why?  People will be cared for.  In such a place, infants will be born and be given a future, born to bless the world.  As we know, infant mortality is always an index of the quality of human life.  “In a disordered, uncaring community too many babies die too soon from neglect, from malnutrition, from violence, from poor health and bad medical service.”[4]  What Isaiah envisions here is a societal infrastructure that sustains and cares for the weakest, the most vulnerable.  That’s God’s will.  And it’s God’s will that an infrastructure be in place to allow us to grow old, very old, with quality of life, meaningful life, not just living longer, but many years of well-being.  This, too, is God’s will. People will have places to live, shelter.  It’s not God’s desire for the homeless poor to sleep outdoors, to “lie rough,” as they say in Britain.  People will earn a living and provide for their family and put food on the table.  People will not labor in vain; they will have meaningful work that feeds their souls. They will bear children and extend hope and move creation forward. Our needs will be anticipated.  And God will bring peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation between the wolf and the lamb.  That’s the plan. 

            Wishful thinking?  Pollyanna? Sounds good, maybe, but it’s not reality, you might be thinking.  It’s not possible in the real world.  Maybe. Or maybe that’s why we’re here, why you were born, why you exist.  Born for such a time as this, to be co-creators with God in the building, the forming of a new heaven and a new earth, that is might be “on earth as it is in heaven.”  The beginning is near!  It’s always near.  Isn’t this what the church is for—a community that channels the ongoing creative work of God?  Isn’t this what we’re really saying with our 2014 pledge commitments this morning?  Isn’t this why we give generously and try to be more generous because more can be done when we are generous?  And there’s more to be done. A new heaven and new earth is both here and on the way.  As Isaiah loved to say, “Do you not perceive it?”  God is doing a new thing! “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19).  Right now.  Can you see it?  Feel it?

            For God is a God of new beginnings who loves to do new things, who wants us to live the dream forward.  Jesus himself is rooted in this vision.  He didn’t come to offer a new religion.  He’s not a detour, but a continuation of what God started at the beginning.  The prologue of John’s Gospel is explicitly clear about this; its opening words allude back to Genesis.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things come into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).

            Baptism is the place of new beginnings. The font is the place of new beginnings, where we start again and again and again in the Christian life. Engrafted into the church, sure; but deeper still, engrafted into the ongoing creative work of God who has created us—created Shannon Paige Glaser and Ryan Joseph Long—and is still creating, forming, shaping us—shaping them—to be people of light shining in dark places; people of hope, of love, of compassion, people who know that we belong to God and that God is at work in us, for us, through us, for the world, for the nations, in our homes, in neighborhoods—in our own “Jerusalem,” wherever heaven and earth meet.  Jerusalem was viewed as the place where heaven and earth meet.  Wherever your “Jerusalem” is, wherever heaven and earth touch—as at the font of baptism—in such moments, God’s glory is revealed for all, all, to see.  Amen.

[3] Katie Givens Kim in the Christian Century, November 5, 2013. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-10/sunday-november-17-2013.
[4] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 247.

10 November 2013

Love Calls Forth Our Praise

Psalm 145
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost/ 10th November 2013

Tradition says that Psalm 145 was written by King David. We don’t know for sure.  What we do know is that whoever composed this song had a heart for God.  Perhaps it was written by David after all, a man, scripture tells us, who was after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Whoever wrote it this much is clear: this text flows from a very deep place in the human psyche. While it’s descriptive of God, it’s written with a sense of familiarity and authority.  This person—we can call him David—knows God. David not only knows about God, David knows God.  David knows the heart of God pouring forth through him. This song of praise pours forth from within his experience of God.  Only someone who knows God can write a text such as this, compose a song such as this.  David knows what he’s talking about.

            And what does he know?  It’s right there toward the center of the song in verses 8 & 9:  “The LORD (that is, Yahweh) is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Yahweh is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”

            That’s it. The center of the psalm, the center of David’s faith, the center of biblical faith; it stood at the center of Jesus’ faith and ministry.  God is gracious and merciful-abounding in steadfast love—unswerving, unfaltering, persistent, committed, stubborn-love.  God is good and full of compassion, abundantly compassionate toward all that God has made.

            That’s it.  When we know it, not just know about it, really know it—not in our heads, not in our thoughts, but in our hearts, in our souls, in our bodies, in our feet, in our guts, when we’re inside this knowledge, then everything changes, the world is transformed, and our lives are transfigured.

            You can hear it, almost feel it in the psalmist’s song, sung from the depths of his heart:  I will extol, praise, worship you God, I will bless your name, every day, forever and ever, for Yahweh is great and greatly to be praised, with a greatness that is unsearchable, that knows no ends.  Glorious.  Wondrous. Awesome.  These are the words that flow from the fount of all blessing.  Celebration and song come pouring forth because of Yahweh’s goodness.  And not only God’s goodness, but God’s righteousness, God’s faithfulness, God’s relentless determination to love us, we who so often reject God’s love or run from it.  Still Yahweh pursues you and me like a crazed lover, driven toward you with a love that will not rest until God finds you and once found, will never, ever let you go.[1]


            And when we know this is how God is toward us, our lives are changed and the world is transformed.  The psalmist knows.  The psalmist knows that love calls forth praise.  When that happens the world is transfigured before our eyes and all becomes emblazoned with the light of God. For the psalmist the world shouts: Praise!  For the psalmist the world shouts: Joy! For the psalmist the world shouts: Glory! Creation begins to speak—trees, mountains, flowers, sun and moon, women, men, children, even the stones themselves start to sing; the psalmist declares, “All your works give thanks to you, O Yahweh!”  Can you hear them? Can you see them offering thanks? Can you see the world ablaze with the glory of God?   That’s what God’s love does, its calls forth praise.  It’s all in love, God’s love, with a capital “L.” It’s all in and through and for Love.

            You know, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) got it right.  African-American novelist and anthropologist, got it right when she said, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” And then suddenly you discover a world all around you, people, neighbors, beautiful faces, but also faces of people whose hearts are wounded and broken…people in need, who hunger for what you hunger for, who dream of knowing what you have discovered, something of God’s love and faithfulness. 


            Love calls forth praise.  But it doesn’t stop there. Love then calls forth acts of service.  When you know how God is toward you, you then reach out to the world, you can’t help it. It just happens.  Because Yahweh is faithful and gracious, upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down, because that’s what Love does, that’s what we find ourselves doing, it’s what we’re called to do, it’s what Christ calls us to do. 

It’s what we’re doing as a church.  We call it mission, but it’s really love.  It’s Love in action. Everything we do is mission; everything we do is in the name of Love.  We search for the one who is falling and we hold her up.  We notice the one whose life is falling apart, coming unhinged and we reach out and hold him.  We find the ones who are bowed down, oppressed and depressed, alone and scared, weighed down by life, by trauma, by natural disaster, by circumstance, by sin, and we raise them up, and we hold them, and we heal them, and we embody the steadfast love of God. 

            In love Yahweh provides for our every need, “food in due season.”  That’s what God’s Love pours forth from within us. We, too, provide “food in due season.”  Casseroles for the homeless shelter; the church school collects jars of peanut and jelly, the deacons have food drives, we go on CROP walks.


            Love calls forth praise.  Love calls for acts of service.  Love calls forth generosity.  The psalmist says of God, “You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.  Yahweh is just in all God’s ways, and kind in all God’s doings.  Yahweh is near to all, to all who call on God in truth.”   You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.  That’s what Love does and that’s what Love does in us.  Love gives.  It does not hold back.  It pours forth.   When we know God’s Love toward us we find ourselves becoming more and more generous—generous with our love, generous with our hearts and thoughts, generous with time, generous with the things that we value most, generous with our resources.  We open our hearts and then we open our hands to share what we have, although we’re really only sharing what has been entrusted to us, because nothing we have or own belongs to us.  It’s all sheer gifts; it’s all sheer grace, like life itself.


            This is a big-hearted church and we open our hands and share what we have, all for the glory of God.   You can see God’s Love at work when you go into Fellowship Hall after worship today. Love is at work through you and me through our mission partners.  This is just a sampling.  This congregation has a big heart and with open hands you are financially supporting what God is doing through us.  This morning we celebrate and give thanks for what Love is doing through mission, locally, nationally, and globally.  But Love is also at work through Christian education, children’s ministries, youth groups, adult education.  It’s at work when we invite people into this community of faith, when we extend hospitality, when we share a meal.  It’s at work through the deacons, through the advocacy work of the peace and justice committee, through Presbyterian Women, in weekly worship experiences, fellowship, the faithful work of the trustees, the leadership of the Session, the many interactions that take place on Sundays or during the week that we never hear about, gestures of grace, a listening ear over coffee, silent prayer. 

At the risk of singing our praises too much, this really is a special congregation.  We are not perfect.  We are not always thoughtful or kind.  We’re both sinners and saints at the same time.  But there really is a lot of love here, a generosity of spirit.  Many people tell me they feel it as soon as they walk into the sanctuary.  Not everyone feels this way, of course.  Some have shared with me that no one said a word to them before or after worship.  If that was your experience, please forgive us.  Still, there is something at work here.  It’s the Spirit.  It’s the Spirit of Christ.  It’s the presence of Christ who comes to us in love and calls us to love and sends us out into the world in love.

            And I am convinced that God is at work through you and me, together, that God is trying to love something into being through us, forming us and reforming us in order that we might deepen our capacity as a church to embody God’s love in the world.  God expects more, not less from us, both individually and together as a church.  God wants more for us.  God dreams of more for us, through us.  What is it?  What is Love asking of us?  What is Love asking of me? 

This is the question we’re being asked to consider in this season of commitment. I encourage you to think on these things, to meditate on these things this week as you consider your family’s 2014 commitment and then bring your pledges to worship next week.  What is Love asking of me? That’s the question.  If you think about it, the question is always before us, isn’t it?  The answer to this question is life itself; and hearts that know the generosity of God want to be generous, want to respond with a life of profound, unending gratitude.  There’s a great line in the song “Awake My Soul,” sung by the contemporary band Mumford and Sons.  There’s a lot of good theology in this song and in so many of their songs. This is the line:  “…where you invest your love, you invest your life.”[2] Awake my soul.

            This congregation isn’t yours.  It doesn’t belong to your pastors.  It doesn’t belong to the session or deacons or trustees.  The church doesn’t belong to the presbytery—well, actually, it does belong to the presbytery, but you know what I mean.  It belongs to God, because we belong to God.  And because we are God’s people, God’s Love is pouring forth through us. 

You exist to be a conduit of that Love.  That’s why you were born.
It’s Love that called you into being.
It’s Love that has saved you and claimed you.
It’s Love that has called you into community. 
It’s Love that holds us together. 
It’s Love that then sends us, always sending us out
with joy and praise and big hearts into the world,
in order that every soul know, know in one’s heart, that
“The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 
The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”

[1]Cf. George Matheson’s (1842-1906) hymn, “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.”
[2] Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More (Glassnote, 2010).

03 November 2013

Singing a New Song

Psalm 96 & Hebrews 12:1-2
All Saints’ Sunday/ 3rd November 2013

There’s certainly a lot of singing in today’s service!  But there are times when we cannot sing. When our hearts are sad; when our hearts are broken.  There’s nothing to say, there’s nothing to sing.  When Israel was in exile in Babylon it was difficult for them to offer praise to God.  Psalm 137 captures their feelings in this lament:  “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our harps.  For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  [But] how can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1-4).

Singing praise songs to God in the midst of grief seems cruel.  Forced mirth violates our feelings.  In times of trial and trauma it’s difficult to worship God.  When we are racked by grief and loss it’s difficult to offer praise, to sing a song, when all you really want to do is cry.

            On this day when we remember the saints in light and give thanks for their life among us, we remember all those who have gone on before us.  We especially remember the friends we have lost this year.  This is always a poignant service. For some it’s a tough service.  The memories, the grief are still quite raw.  Unanswered questions remain.  Loose ends. Unresolved issues. Unresolved feelings. 

Even if you haven’t lost someone dear to you this year, we all know what grief feels like.  Grief hurts.  The pain of grief requires attention; it deserves our respect.  The depth of grief is also a measure of our love.  The greater the love, the greater the grief.  For there is no love without grief. Perhaps this is what William Faulkner (1897-1962) was getting at when he said, “Between grief and nothing I will take grief.” Grief implies love.

            It is fitting that today, on this All Saints’ Sunday, that we introduce and dedicate the new Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God.[1]  We started the new hymnal campaign a year ago on All Saints’ Sunday.  Today we bring it to completion.  In the bulletin you’ll find a booklet with the names of people honored and remembered.  Take it out now and look at it—look at those names, especially the ones remembered. Many are probably familiar to you; many are not. Look at the names. Now imagine them standing around us, on the periphery of the sanctuary, gathered around us, looking on.

            Hebrews 12:1 tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the saints in light who have gone on before us.  They might have gone on before us, but they have not forgotten us.  They surround us, even here, even now.  And they’re urging us on. Encouraging us.  They’re eager to see what you will accomplish for Christ and what we will realize for the gospel.  They’re all around us, eager to see what we will achieve and do for the sake of the Kingdom. 

The poet W. H. Auden (1907-1983) once said, “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.”[2] He’s right.  Our lives—our choices, our actions, our beliefs—are being influenced by a larger force, by the presence and power of God’s Spirit shaping our lives. Those who are in the Lord, in this world or in the world to come, are close and near-at-hand, because whether we live or die, as the Apostle Paul said, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8).  We are the Lord’s.  And through Christ we are united with them.

            Not only do they encourage us and urge us forward, they invite us to join them in song, singing in praise to God and to the Lamb (Rev. 5:12).  Even if we don’t feel like singing, even if we don’t think we have a voice, we need to remember that they are singing and they invite us to join them in the song of the ages, to unite our voices with theirs, in full harmony, with songs of praise that are always new.  “O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.  Sing to the LORD, bless [God’s] name; tell of [God’s] salvation from day to day” (Ps. 96:1-2).

            The praise of God gives us new reasons to rejoice, new reasons to live; the praise of God gives us new reasons to live our lives in praise and service to God.  The praise of God gives us hope for the living of these days.  And new days require new songs, new days call forth new songs, new melodies, new words, new metaphors, new visions of God’s grace and goodness. 

The saints around us summon us to sing, all for the glory to God.  For, as we will sing at the close of worship this morning, a stanza that so beautifully, perfectly sums up the chorus of heaven and earth:

O blest Communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle; they in glory shine;
Yet, all are one in thee for all are thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia![3]


[1] Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville:  Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2013).
[2]W. H. Auden, “In Memory of Ernst Toller” (1942).
[3] From “For All the Saints,” written by William Walsham How (1823-1897), sung to the tune SINE NOMINE, written by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).