First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Lou Nyiri
October 22, 2023
Print Version of Sermon
Ephesians 2:11-22 and Hebrews 13:8
This letter of Ephesians can be broken into two halves – chapters 1-3 & chapters 4-6 –
This highlights for us that this morning’s text, which we’ll get to, Ephesians 2: 11-22, falls into the doctrinal part of Ephesians – it’s a bit of formal teaching about what makes up our faith.
Ephesians 2 is also split into two parts,
The “after” section is Ephesians 2: 11-22 and talks about the change God has effected in redeeming from sin and uniting what was divided.
In both sections, there is an important and beloved two letter Greek word de which translates into English’s three letter word but – it is called beloved because it marks the pivot point in the text where things begin leaning away from negative and toward positive.
In the before section (Ephesians 2:1-10), just after the writer has described what life is like without God, the turning point occurs, we read in verses 4 &5,
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved…”
In verses 8ff, we read,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
That last part is pivotally poignant – not just to this section but also to the transition into this morning’s text –
“For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
It speaks in a way about something I heard from a motivational speaker for middle school you, Michael Pritchard, as he spoke at a 7th Grade Leadership Conference, Pritchard recounted a statement made by a young grade school student, “The good that you do comes back to you.”
This verse from Ephesians hits a deeper vein of gold in that it allows us – followers of Jesus – to see “The good that people do comes from God.”
“For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
The good that we do comes because of having been awakened to the purpose of life by the grace of God at work in our lives.
And this affects how we live in community – which finally brings us to this morning’s text – Ephesians 2: 11-22 & Hebrews 13:8 – Listen, now, to God’s word for us today…
Scripture (Click on the link to read the following)
Ephesians 2:11-22 “One in Christ”
Ephesians 2:11-22 reminds us – those who were far off – those who were aliens – those who once were cut off from God by their choice – those who once were strangers are now – in Christ – brought near to one another – made to be citizens & members of God’s household with full access to God.
The language here speaks of having the right to freely approach a King.
The Ephesian audience would recall the secular understanding that this implies one has been given the privilege to be admitted into the presence of the Emperor – the purpose being to press the Emperor for a request … to secure some type of benefit.
The Ephesian culture also knew that to enter the presence of Emperor required being admitted into an impressive building.
Imperial favor was often associated by the building of a temple to Augustus.
He’d notice your town if you had a temple with his name on it – the bigger the better!
When Ephesians talks – “the holy temple of the Lord” – it is a temple which is in the process of being built up.
“…built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
You know as well as I do – the church is more than the building – the church is more than the programs – the church is more than a mission statement – they’re important…don’t get me wrong…without a place to gather / without programs to foster faith formation / without mission vision it’s easy to become like the co-pilot who got on the intercom and declared to the passengers, “I’ve got good news and bad news. We’re making great time…and…we’re lost.”
The church is the people inside – the ones whose blood, sweat and tears…whose prayers, pulse and cooperation with God’s Holy Spirit commit themselves to following God’s lead into a yet to be written future.
The good news of the gospel is lifted up and carried forward in this world by the people who commit themselves to taking the gospel forward – and yet – to make it happen – to carry it forward – to see this thing that God is doing to the end – one needs structure – one needs programs – one needs vision – one needs opportunities to grow & learn in the faith…
The disciples had three years with Jesus – learning what it meant to live according to the one who called himself “The way, The truth and The life.” The disciples were steeped in that faith formation and then were sent out to carry the message forward – they were sent out to be the church – to be “a holy temple in the Lord; in whom [they were being] built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (cf. Eph. 2:22).
And that’s why stewardship is important.
To get the good news out we need a place to house the ministries to which we are called AND we need a way to fund those ministries.
We need a place to grow in faith in order that we might go from this place and tell those around us about this good news message which proclaims peace to those who were far off and peace to those who are near.
Our Ephesians passage suggests for us today that it is in community where we will see God’s presence most visibly in this world.
We have a good news message to declare – one afforded us “not because of anything we’ve done” rather because of what God has done through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ – the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
This community – Everybody’s Church – First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, MI has been around since 1834 – it has had a sole purpose to be a living witness to Jesus the Christ at work in this community and world.
This community – Everybody’s Church – First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, MI has been served faithfully through the generations by those who have come before us – those who are here with us now – and those who will come after us.
This community – Everybody’s Church – First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, MI’s uniting focus has been Jesus the Christ –
There is a poem, the title of which is the same title as today’s message, “I’ve Been Coming Here on Sundays.” I found it in the gift shop of St. Machar’s Cathedral, which is a part of The Church of Scotland and stands upon a site which has housed a worshipping community since 580 AD, the current building, in which I worshipped whilst studying at The University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland dates from the 1100s.
The poem says a lot, listen as I read it what could be described as my best British/Scottish/Irish accent [Read Poem]…
I’ve Been Coming Here On Sundays
(by Barbara Robinson)
I’ve been coming here on Sundays for seventy year or so.
“Twas here that I was Christened and ‘ tis here I’ll want to go.
Now I know you all gets vexed about changes in belief.
Well frills on top don’t matter if you’re comfy underneath.
I never lets it bother if I’m High or Low or what,
While I’ve got me Ten Commandments
I shan’t go wrong a lot.
Now, I likes old-fashioned prayer book
And they like A.S.B.,
And they can have what pleases them,
And I’ll read what suits me,
And half the hymns we sing these days
I’ve never heard before,
But I can stand and listen, and perhaps I’ll learn some more.
All these guitars and instruments -
It’s no more than they had
Afore they put the organ in,
When my Granddad was a lad,
And I don’t suppose God’ll worry
He wouldn’t make a fuss,
As long all the singing’s mean’t for Him and not for us.
We’ve had clergy coming straight from college,
Full of summat new,
From incense on the altar to posters in the pew.
And I lets ‘em all get on with it, ‘cos all these fashions pass,
And you’ll still do the flowers, me dears,
And I’ll still clean the brass
I got this seat I always have, no draughts and nice and near,
So I can hear the organ and see the vicar clear,
And I tells God what’s been happening,
And what a week I’ve had,
And I thanks Him for the good times,
And He helps me through the bad,
‘Cos all that really matters, as far as I can see,
Is that I, down here, remembers Him,
And he remembers me.
All that really matters, is that we down here remember God and recall with gratitude every day that God remembers us.
And that we take that good news message with us into this world, for we are called to be “a holy temple in the Lord” – “in whom we are being built spiritually into God’s dwelling place.”
To God be the glory, now and forevermore.
Alleluia & Amen.
 A.S.B. is the Alternative Service Book which is similar to our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.
First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Lou Nyiri
October 8, 2023
Deuteronomy 6:1-9 / Luke 24: 13-35
I think the church is a beautiful place – and I’m guessing you do as well – otherwise, we’d all be somewhere else other than in this place doing something else during this hour – like reading the Sunday New York Times over a scone and coffee on the back porch or taking a walk on a hiking trail.
While the church is a beautiful place, and everyone is invited to be a part of it…it’s good to recall that no one will come until we invite them.
Thus, I have a few questions for you:
Who do you know you might invite to be part of this faith community we call the church?
Who do you talk with – who do you walk with on an almost daily basis to whom you might extend an invitation to be a part of this exciting adventure we call faith?
Who could you invite?
Now, before we start thinking I could never do that, let me suggest that it’s not the same as what the business world terms ‘making a cold call’ – where one randomly phones people to get someone to buy something which, perhaps, the caller isn’t even sure they want to buy.
In fact, let’s rethink that right now and recognize that when it comes to faith – we never need to sell God – we never need to defend Jesus – we never need to explain the Holy Spirit – if 2,000 plus years of faith have taught us anything, maybe it’s this: God can sell God’s self…Jesus can defend Jesus’ self…and the Holy Spirit is in the business of explaining what the Holy Spirit does…we can have responses to question, however, we are never doing the “selling.”
It’s not up to us to make the sale (so to speak) – rather it’s up to us to tell the story of how our lives have been impacted by this greater faith story – then invite others to come and see for themselves.
Scottish theologian James Torrence writes of the faith experience, “[faith] is not so much dependent on our experience of the Christ, rather it is the Christ of our experience [that matters most].”
The Emmaus bound disciples encountered the risen Christ – their hearts burned, and their eyes were opened – then they went back to the people they knew to tell them what had happened.
They had encountered the Christ – the one who brings hope into lives – the one who takes death and creates life – the one who declares new life is available today…
The Emmaus bound disciples encountered a life-changing moment with Jesus the Christ which shaped who they are and who they were becoming, then they simply told their story and how it had been impacted by Christ’s story.
That’s our call – to bear witness to what we have experienced and report what we have seen.
Associate Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur Georgia, Anna Carter Florence discusses in her book Preaching as Testimony, how “testimony is not perception; it is the report itself, or the narration of what has happened.”
The focus is not on what is seen but on what is said.
It is an act of communication between two persons – both of whom inherit two distinct roles:
There is the one who testifies – who bears witness by sharing what they have seen and who seeks to justify the report and;
There is the one who hears the testimony – the one who has not seen but who hears the witness’s report and forms an opinion about the testimony.
It is the hearing which is critical – for it is in the hearing of one’s testimony that the decision is made as to whether the testimony is true or false – testimony involves a movement from seeing to understanding, and, perhaps, believing. (Preaching as Testimony, p. 62ff)
Testimony calls for a decision on the part of the hearer as to how they will be moved because of the testimony. The complication lies in the reality that a decision must be made not from definable fact – rather from credibility of witness. Everything hinges on the credibility of the witness. Remember, testimony is not the event itself – rather it is a report of the event.
This is why in court – lawyers establish the witness’s credibility.
You have to believe the character of the one who sits on the witness stand – the one who offers testimony – for without it – what is there to believe.
Everybody listens when an “Expert Witness” speaks – for this person is one established as credible in an area of expertise thereby giving them solid standing upon which they speak.
Testimony includes not only a witness’ words – also their acts – the things which are living proof of conviction and devotion.
Perhaps this is where we get the phrase, “who you are speaks so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
“The difference,” Anna Carter Florence writes, “between true and false witness is in the engagement of the witness – ‘the engagement of a pure heart and an engagement to the death’ – which must be why the Greek word for witness is martyr.”
The Iona Scotland community’s story begins with a prince from an Irish noble family named Columba. In his youth Columba became a priest and a missionary monk, founding several monastic houses in Ireland before a tribal feud forced him into exile. In 563, he and twelve companions arrived on Iona, and for the next 34 years, Columba and his monks, used Iona as a base from which to pursue an active missionary outreach throughout the Western Isle and up into the northeastern parts of what is now Scotland.
Their missionary method was to go out in small groups, set up their huts amid their pagan neighbors (Columba called them “colonies of heaven). They sought to attract people to the Gospel by their way of life, their care for all, and the preaching and practice of their faith.
One story told of Columba is his interaction at castle of King Brude, near modern Inverness. The pagan monarch had given strict orders that they were not to be admitted, but when Columba raised his arm and made the sign of the cross, it was said that bolts fell out and gates swung open, permitting the strangers to enter.
Impressed by such power, it is said, the King opened his home – and his soul – and as he listened to them, he became a devoted follower of Jesus Christ and ever after held Columba in high regard.
It is said that the King asked St. Columba, “Why should I believe?”
To which Columba replied, “Oh King, if you just believe you will have wonder upon wonder and every wonder true.”
While our words may never exude the kind of power to cause door hinges to fall out and gates to open, may we never forget that we do have influence and credibility with others – a credibility and influence which God can use to open doors so that grace upon grace & wonder upon wonder might be discovered in a life.
Who better than you to invite the very people you know to be part of this journey – a journey whose sole purpose is to discover wonder upon wonder & every wonder true as we discern God’s place & call in our lives – who better to invite the people you know than you – the one whom they encounter on an almost daily basis – for these are the very people who know you best – the ones with whom you’ve established credibility – the ones to whom your witness will speak – who better?
This good news message is too good to keep to ourselves.
Our lives …our care…our practice of faith…our witness…our testimony is that which will attract people to the Gospel message.
Once their hearts burned within them, the Emmaus bound disciples realized they couldn’t keep this news to themselves and they knew they had to tell the others – and while they’re telling the disciples what happened on the road and how he’d been made known to them in the breaking of the bread – Jesus himself stands among them – in the very next section – the concluding section of Luke’s gospel we’re told how Jesus comes to them and he opened their minds so as to understand the scriptures – he then tells them in verses 48, “You are witnesses of these things.”
And they told the story to others – those others told the story – and now the story is in our houses and it’s our turn to tell the story to others.
As witnesses to this good news message, we are called to tell the story through our testimony.
The power of testimony opens us up to share the Gospel message and takes the pressure off to have all the answers.
The power of testimony allows God to do that which only God can do – make the story come alive in personal ways.
Hopefully the following story will highlight what I mean.
I’m standing on a balcony, in the great neo-gothic sanctuary of The East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA. I’m video-taping the Pittsburgh Seminary’s 1994 commencement speaker. This man was a prominent person in the life of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He had graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was an ordained Presbyterian Church (USA) Minister of Word & Sacrament. He was highly influential with an impeccable character.
As he addressed the graduating class of soon-to-be ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament, he shared about how he had learned over the years to stay faithful to the story God was writing on his heart. He talked about how the greatest lesson he’d learned in life and ministry was to tell the Gospel story – to tell how the story influenced him – not to explain the story in an effort to prove the story – rather to tell the story…to trust and allow God to do with the story that which only God can do.
He talked about believing in the possibility of Holy Ground. A concept he described as “The distance between the speaker’s mouth and the listener’s ears. [In this space] God can and will do what God needs to do in order that the message might be heard.” It may not happen immediately – though it will happen.
The speaker continued his story by telling about how something he said early in his ministry came back in a monumental way. He had received a letter from an individual who described how his words had brought him out of the lowest point in his life. It was a dark place. There seemed to be nowhere to turn and hope was nothing but a faint whisper on the brink of extinction. As this individual sat in an apartment mindlessly watching television words spoken to him as a child by this man were heard on the television…
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…a beautiful day for a neighbor…would you be mine, could you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor…”
The commencement speaker was Fred Rogers – and he realized from that letter the words he spoke were transformed by God in such a way the writer of this letter went from mindlessly watching television to picking up the telephone and making a call which began the turnaround in his life.
This is the power of testimonial language - one person witnessing to what they have seen…to what they believe is possible and allowing space for the listener to hear the witness’s report and form an opinion about the testimony.
And in that space – God will do that which only God can do.
We don’t have to prove a thing.
We simply have to share what we’ve experienced.
We simply have to talk about the journey.
As the body of Christ – the church – we are on a journey and everyone is invited…though no one will come if we don’t invite them.
May our hearts burn – may God’s grace come alive – may we share the story with others so they too might experience the Good News. Amen & Alleluia!
First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Lou Nyiri
October 1, 2023 (World Communion Sunday)
Psalm 34: 1-14 / 1 Cor.10: 14-17; 11:23-26
In my neighborhood, growing up in Central PA, we didn’t have a triangle ringing in our household to let us know it was time for supper – we had my mother yelling from the bottom of the cul-de-sac (let me turn my wireless off for this one), “Louis … supper!” (You could hear it three counties over…)
When I heard her voice ring out through the neighborhood, I would stop in my tracks, whether I was playing nerf football at Pickering’s – or climbing the tree next to the Johns’ – or just about to win a game of “kick the can” – I would say, “gotta go” and I’d be turned around and run down the street, in the front door, and up the stairs to the kitchen sink to get washed up, then I’d sit down at the table.
My Mom’s voice meant Supper time!
It meant a time to feast on some my Mom’s delicious comfort food...some of my favorites were spaghetti; a creamy wild rice casserole; tacos – though my all-time favorite was tator-tot casserole – (we weren’t so big on Paleo, Keto or Whole Foods plant based and Low carb back then...) – however, I promise, I will bring tater-tot casserole as my contribution to the next all church potluck dinner!
As a child supper time was all about those favorite foods – as I’ve gotten older, I realize what I loved most was the chance to sit and eat together as a family and talk over the day’s highlights.
Our time for supper was our time for family relationships gathered around the kitchen table...
I didn’t know that the ritual of sitting together and saying a simple prayer like GOD is Great and God is Good then sharing food was so important – as I’ve aged though – I’ve come to appreciate how those meals helped me know I belonged / that I was part of a family...and that family was connected and when we got up from the supper table that we represented our family in the world.
On this World Communion Sunday, we are reminded that we are part of a global family connected to Christ-Followers throughout the world who are gathered around a table, this Communion Table...as we partake of the Lord’s supper.
We are part of the Christian family, and we gather to be nourished then go out into the world to represent the Christian family by how we interact with the world.
So, yes, it is time for supper!
It is time to celebrate the Sacrament of Communion, this meal which Jesus gave to his disciples – both 1st century and 21st century disciples – to nourish the faith of believers in the church community.
A brief refresher as to why sacraments are important-
First, Sacraments are God’s gracious gifts, given by Jesus the Christ to the church to establish, nurture and nourish faith.
As Presbyterians we celebrate 2 sacraments – Baptism and Lord’s Supper – because we believe they are rich symbolic acts instituted by Christ which constitute the CORE of our Christian life.
As the early church father Augustine taught, “[Sacraments] are an outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace”
As Presbyterians, one of the beliefs we hold regarding sacraments is that they are God’s way of reaching out to us in a visible way to convey God’s Word and work in this world.
Sacraments, you might say, “are the visible words of God.”
Some have called them Grace you can touch. I like that— Grace that you can touch…
When we celebrate the sacraments it should be like a bell ringing which reminds us how the gospel – the Good News of God’s grace is being celebrated.
GRACE, of course, being the undeserved/unmerited GIFT of God’s LOVE and Forgiveness – a reminder of the unspeakable deep joy of being God’s beloved children.
When we celebrate baptism – we have water to recall grace.
On Communion Sundays – we have juice and bread to recall grace.
The method of distribution is varied:
Regardless of the method, it all begins around a simple table – like the one down front in this Sanctuary...
Regardless of the name or the method – this Table is a place where we encounter God ... & where we are encountered by God ... and where something happens to us through the mystery of God’s grace and love at work in our lives...
This Table changes the way we interact in the world.
This Table shapes us in a way that allows us to realize our lives are not about us anymore – they are about something bigger – something holier – something beyond us and yet wholly a part of us.
This table – This meal is also a prelude to every table around which we will gather.
This Table shapes how we view all other tables around which we sit:
in our home,
in our favorite coffee shop,
in a school lunchroom,
in an office boardroom,
in a church committee meeting.
In worship we gather around this table to grow in faith that we will get up from our seats and from the around the table and go out into the world to sow and show faith in the lives of those around us....
In our text this morning Paul summarizes how Jesus instituted the meal.
However, if we read the text in isolation from the larger context we might miss something bigger....
To understand the situation, we go back to how the Lord’s supper was celebrated in the first century church. In the early church, the Lord’s supper was part of an actual meal that believers ate together...
The community ate to satisfy normal hunger, then at some point in the meal, they shared some simple bread and wine, probably along with prayer to make the symbolic connection to Jesus last meal.
We can surmise from the text it was like a potluck with each family bringing a dish to share...
We also learn from the context that some of the Christians in Corinth where not generous and were living with a self-serving “look out for yourself attitude....”
Paul was telling the Corinthians they were missing the point of the Lord’s supper and he called them to share their very best and so be a community of Christ united as partners in receiving God’s blessings...
The words “sharing” and “partners” are derived of the root word for Koinonia, the Greek word meaning the fellowship…
The fellowship we encounter & embody around this Table epitomizes our individual relation to Christ & to one another –
In this meal we have a lens through which the most important things about our faith in Christ are brought into focus.
In this meal we look with confidence toward the future when the end of the ages will come and Christ will come again....in the fullness of time.
In this meal we see most clearly how to relate to and with each other – right here & right now.
In this meal, we see how as life-long followers of Jesus the Christ we are embraced and empowered by God’s grace.
That’s why this table is different.
This table is about more than just doing this action – it’s becoming this action – it’s not just eating the body of Christ – it’s becoming the body of Christ!
Theologian Samuel Wells has put it, ‘We gather as the body of Christ to partake of the body of Christ in order to become more fully the body of Christ.’
➢ After having spent time around this table we are more fully equipped to be the hands & feet of God at work in this world.
➢ After having spent time around this table we are reminded how grace that is often difficult to see can become so fully present in our lives that we cannot help but to be changed.
➢ After having spent time around this table we begin to comprehend and embody a story that tells of God’s faithful love for the Creation.
And yet, while we can come to this table with a personal outlook as to what is happening here – we cannot control what happens around this table – we cannot control how grace might grip us when we gather around this table...
Some may come to the table and revel in the celebration…
Some may come and recall the depth and despair to which Christ endured that we might live freed from sin...
Some may come to this table and nothing – it feels like nothing more than a quick snack before the final hymn & benediction.
Then there are those times when we gather around this table and quiet unannounced tears flow and someone asks, “What happened?” and we can’t put into words the depth of emotion in our hearts, but we know the spark of the holy spirit has touched us....
Grace abounds around this table for there are faithful stories of God’s grace coming alive around this table.
I don’t know who she was – I don’t know her story – but God does – and in that moment God’s grace became as real to her as the taste of bread and juice.
That child was right, you know?
This bread – this juice ... they are good!
The Psalmist declares, “Taste & See that the Lord is good.”
Grace not only abounds around this table…grace also extends from this table.
While the table legs were a little wobbly, that table represented friendship, warmth, and an opportunity to stop and recharge before heading back out into the cold blustery world...
We, in the church, have a similar table, a table where grace abounds and from which grace extends in an often cold and blustery world.
Then they discovered something which surprised everyone.
The AD’s campaign director sent the parents away and invited their children to sit in front of the camera and answer the question, “If you could share a meal with anyone in the world, who would it be?”
The parents watched from a closed circuit in another room as the children – all of them – said they would most like to have dinner with their families.
Who doesn’t want to sit at a table with family?
Well, guess what?
It’s time for supper, with this, your family of faith...
All are invited…
All are included...
All are welcome…
Grace abounds around this table and grace extends from this table.
So, let’s eat.
To God be the glory…now…and forevermore.
Alleluia and Amen.
First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Lou Nyiri
September 24, 2023
Psalm 8; Matthew 28:16-20
This morning, I want us to spend some time thinking about The Trinity.
I want us to pause for a moment to appreciate and celebrate the inter-connectedness of the Godhead – Father / Son / Holy Spirit – Creator / Redeemer / Sustainer.
Jurgen Moltmann, German Reformed Theologian and Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tubingen, has said, “[the story of the gospel is] the great love story of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a divine love story in which we are all involved together with heaven and earth.”
The Reformer Martin Luther is attributed with the following quote, “To deny the Trinity endangers your salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”
I will not seek, today, to define the Trinity – I will not seek to explain the Trinity – my ambition and goal today is to draw us into the mystery of the Trinity AND how that mystery empowers us to go forward in this world.
Our Matthew text this morning is helpful in this regard, in that it is not seeking to explain Trinitarian theology – rather it is helping us to talk about the God among us – at work in us and through us – and all the requisite mystery and transcendence that goes along with our encounter and experience with this God who is eager and willing to be known in the every day stuff of our lives.
Perhaps our question today is not so much what we know about this God who is active in ways that are creating / redeeming / sustaining –
Perhaps our question is not even how we explain this God who is Creator / Redeemer / Sustainer –
Perhaps our question is what difference does our encounter with this God who is active in our lives in creative / redemptive / sustaining ways make in our lives AND in what ways can we see God’s creative / redeeming / sustaining presence at work in the communities around us AND through us?
In essence, what does our “sentness” – our going out – look like as we follow this calling to go into the world and to bring the good news to those we encounter along the way.
In what ways are we involved in the COmission of Jesus – that is mission with one another and the one of whom Matthew’s gospel declares at both the beginning and the concluding chapters – is God with us!
They shall name him Emmanuel which means God is with us. – Matthew 1:23
And remember I am with you always to the end of the age. – Matthew 28:20
The good news of this news is that we are not alone – we are joined together – by one another and by the God who calls us into this endeavor.
We don’t have to have it all figured out – in fact faith may reside best in the questions – as we persist together in the faith to do the work of God “in spite of” our certainty.
In our text, one of the key phrases – at least for me – is “…and some doubted…”
Amid the doubt – amid the challenge to our confidence in the faithfulness of God – the promise is that God is with us…
This is a recognition of the reality we might find ourselves occupying at various points in our life journey …
– those times when we wonder questions like “how do I hold onto hope?” – in those moments, perhaps our greatest solace is the recognition of the life creating / redeeming / sustaining promise we can hold onto – that God is with us
sometimes God is with us as the one who creates out of chaos /
sometimes God is the one who sustains us /
sometimes God is one who teaches us / redeems us /
sometimes God is the one who calls us, seeks us, shows up at just the right time
– God is with us is a promise we can hold onto wherever we are in this world…
…to the end of the age.
The translation of that phrase the end is interesting.
– it can also be translated consummation – completion – perfection
– this casts the concept of end in a whole new light – it is not so much the end as in eternal – instead it is the end as God imagines the end of God’s revelation
– the end as in the way God knows it can be – there is a perfection yet-to-come that is only known by God.
Don’t we pray it each week in the Lord’s Prayer – “thy will be done…on earth…as it is in heaven”?
And we are called to participate in that ever-unfolding yet-to-be thing God is creating / redeeming / sustaining … that kingdom God is calling into being!
And we are not alone in this endeavor…
“All authority,” Jesus said, “in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. …”
In Matthew’s gospel, “authority” (exousia) is always connected to Jesus’ healing and forgiving acts. People celebrate Jesus’ deeds and words because they recognize he is acting not authoritatively rather he is acting as one with authority – there is a difference:
The former is about subjugation and conquest of the world – it is an exertion of power to control.
The latter is about liberation and service for the world – it is a power to do justice.
Only in Matthew does Jesus say, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Matthew 9:13)
Matthew’s Risen Christ is calling people to journey together (with God and with each other) to proclaim God is at work creating / redeeming / sustaining a new reality where people are called to serve the communities in which they reside with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love that they may see beyond racial, ethnic, cultural and religious differences.
That they may become communities which “…obey everything [Jesus has commanded them]…”
What exactly has Jesus commanded?
Just a few chapters earlier, in Matthew 22:36-40, an expert in the law asked Jesus, 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
In essence, our orthodoxy (what we believe) must match our orthopraxy (how we live out our beliefs).
In practical terms, people won’t care what we know until they know we care.
In faith terms, people will know the good news about God’s incarnate love by how we treat them.
One story and then I’ll close.
A New Year Resolution to get into shape hit a middle-aged man and so he decided to start jogging Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings in his neighborhood. He laced up his shoes, stepped outside his duplex and headed north up the block of his street. He took the same route every morning. Like clockwork he’d be out the door and home in about 30-45 minutes.
Something happened on those morning runs – something bigger than merely his body becoming a fine-tuned caloric burning machine. He noticed the people around him. More importantly, he noticed people by recognizing when he didn’t see them in the familiar place.
On his weekday runs he noticed along his route men, women and children lining up in front of the local soup kitchen for a breakfast meal.
On his Saturday morning run he realized something – the local soup kitchen isn’t open and there was no line of men, women and children waiting for their breakfast meal.
Over the next few months, he began to recognize those men, women and children who were outside the soup kitchen were still in the neighborhood on Saturday morning – they just didn’t have the place to congregate on Saturday because the soup kitchen was not open.
Hard as he tried, he couldn’t get the faces out of his head.
And so, one Saturday morning he decided to do something different after his morning run – he dug a Camping Stove out of his basement – went to the supermarket and bought two dozen eggs, some bagels and cream cheese, OJ, Milk, cups and napkins and he went back in front of that soup kitchen and cooked breakfast for some of those men, women and children.
And now he’s adopted a new cool down exercise following his Saturday morning run which involves setting up a portable kitchen on the sidewalk and cooking breakfast for houseless people.
Now, he serves coffee to his friends and talks with them and sometimes even prays with them but even if he doesn’t pray with them, he is always praying for them in his devotional time.
This man’s prayer has become, “God, help me to see the faces of those around me and to see them long enough that I might discern what I could do to help them.”
Creating / Redeeming / Sustaining – that’s what this man offered in that breakfast meal.
Creating / Redeeming / Sustaining – that’s the mystery of the Trinity.
Creating / Redeeming / Sustaining – that’s what we’re called to do as well.
To God be the glory – now and forever more!
Alleluia and Amen.
 Migliore, Daniel L., Faith Seeking Understanding, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1991, p. 60.
 This story taken from Donal Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz.
First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Lou Nyiri
Exodus 14:19-31 / Psalm 103:1-13
We’ve all been there before…standing (metaphorically or literally) in front of some big thing wondering how we’re going to get through it.
For the Israelites in our Exodus story, it was on a shoreline – the sea in front of them and an encroaching army behind them.
What were they going to do?
How were they going to avoid almost certain demise?
Then a way appeared before them – Moses raised his arms – waters parted revealing dry land – they moved forward – they embarked on the journey and made their way through.
As the Israelites come to the shores of this water, pursued by their oppressors, there is chaos ahead and chaos behind – they discover, like that line from Robert Frost’s poem A Servant to Servants – the only way out is through … and God makes the way through.
As we’ve looked at Exodus through the lectionary readings these last three Sundays, it is good to remember that the Exodus stories are about God’s presence and provision in the wilderness – it’s not so much about the people as it is about the God who leads, provides and prepares the way through until they reach the promised land – in fact, the very name of the book Exodus in the Greek means “[the] way out.”
Exodus 14’s description of the Israelites’ passing through the Red (or Reed) Sea is a defining moment in their narrative – one which becomes part of Israelites’ communal memory.
Memory is important for people of faith, as we learned last Sunday when the lectionary took us into the Passover ritual which Moses and Aaron gave to the people as their way to recall the steps which preceded their liberation out from under Pharaoh’s oppressive rule.
It is a reminder for us as well that most defining moments in our lives require a sense of remembrance.
The ability to recall where we’ve been, where we are, and the steps it took to get from there to here.
It’s about remembering our way through the defining moments of our lives.
According to Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen, Christian remembering is, “a choice [that] can only be made on a firm basis of faith, hope, and love with the lived experience of God’s real and active presence in our lives.”
The theologian and writer of Psalm 103 helps us recall this firm basis of faith, hope and love by helping us remember how God has been and is present within the community of faith…
The Psalmist writes that God is:
The Psalmist uses a myriad of poignant, life-giving verbs to describe God’s active presence among God’s gathered community.
In the Psalmist’s words, God:
All of which come together to help form our identity found in the God we love – the God who first loved us – the God who promises to be with us as we make our way through life’s high and low points – remembering also that this presence is often seen in retrospect because when we’re in the middle of the chaos it’s often difficult to see how God is at work – and yet, we trust that God is still at work in the chaos.
If there’s one thing we learn in life it’s this: we aren’t guaranteed (by God or anyone else) that we will not face trials.
Now, I know, this statement is easy to make when we’re talking about someone else’s life.
What do we do when it’s about our life?
A Sunday School class often used the following opener as way for members bridge the gap between life and faith, each member was asked to answer or ponder the question, “Are you heading into a storm…Already in the middle of a storm…or Are you coming out of a storm?”
The key to this Sunday School class check-in, I believe, is learning how to lean-in … lean-in to the people around us and the God who surrounds us all … for, as we lean-in to the people around us, I believe, we begin to see more clearly the God who surrounds us … the God who is present amid the chaos …
I recall the story of a young mother who remarked how in the years following the death of their three-year-old child, “I didn’t know God for many years. However, I knew God’s people, the ones who surrounded me and cared for me and were with me.”
Please do not misunderstand me – I am not discounting this young mother’s experience – for her experience is real – it is authentic – it is true – it is faithful.
What I’m asking us to consider is how do we hold on until we pass through to the other side when we are better able to see hope and joy despite what’s happening around us – even if our hope and joy are lived through the faith of the people around us until we can own our faith for ourselves.
It is about whispering to ourselves and praying on behalf of others until it becomes real:
…that somehow, someway, somewhere God will work within the circumstances we find ourselves.
…that while we don’t know what the future holds, we know the one and place our trust and faith in the one who holds the future in the palm of His hands.
A man sat in worship praying after receiving Communion.
He couldn’t focus on the gift of the day.
He couldn’t focus on the sacrament.
He was lost in a haze.
All he could focus on were his fears about the next few days.
Although the choir sang of God’s presence with and favor for God’s people, all he could focus on was the chaos surrounding his life.
Not finding the words to pray, he simply sat still and listened.
As the soprano descant soared above the choir, tears formed in his eyes.
A voice within him spoke to his fears, “I am here.”
He found himself swept up into the numinous space filled by this infinite Other, One who lovingly spoke to him saying, "Do not fear. I will not fail you. I am with you. I treasure you."
He felt gratitude, hope, and even a sense of joy flow into his present moment from a mysterious world deeper and more wondrous than the one his mind had previously inhabited.
He came to understand the words of C.S. Lewis, “It is the very nature of joy which makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting.”
What we have before us may not always be what we want.
Yet, leaning-in to each other and the God who surrounds us – OR – leaning-in to each other until we can see the God who surrounds us, in this very act of leaning-in we hold onto hope and joy that:
…despite what goes on around us we are looked upon with favor by the God of the universe.
…despite what goes on around us we are treasured by God.
…despite what goes on around us God will not fail us.
Whether we are heading into a storm…already in the middle of a storm…or coming out of a storm, let’s lean-in to one another, that together we will see the God who surrounds us.
Let’s be Everybody’s Church.
To God be the glory, this day, and forevermore.
Alleluia and Amen.
 For link to the poem: https://www.poetryverse.com/robert-frost-poems/a-servant-to-servants
 From the back cover of Worship and Spirituality by Don Saliers, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1984.
First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Lou Nyiri
Exodus 12:1-14 / Romans 13:8-10
In her poem Passover Remembered, poet and Episcopal Priest Alla Renee Bozarth-Campbell, writes of the Israelite’s excursion from Pharoah’s oppressive rule into their wilderness wanderings in the following way:
Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free.
Only surrender to the need of the time – to love justice and walk humbly with your God.
Set out in the dark.
I will send fire to warm and encourage you.
I will be with you in the fire and I will be with you in the cloud.
You will learn to eat new food and find refuge in new places.
I will give you dreams in the desert to guide you safely home to that place you have not seen.
The stories you tell one another around the fires in the dark will make you strong and wise.
You will get to where you are going by remembering who you are.
Touch [Tend to] each other and keep telling stories.
[Tend to] each other and keep telling stories.
You will get to where you are going…by remembering who you are.
To these poetic words of Bozarth-Campbell we might add …do this in order to remember whose you are.
Who are we?
Our Exodus and Romans texts help us to see this good news.
In the Exodus text, Moses and Aaron are instructed by God to instruct the gathered community to institute the Passover festival – it is their way of commemorating how the Lord spared the Israelites and prompted their release by Pharoah.
While the release from oppression in the Passover act is significant – also of significance are the mechanics of the first Passover.
We begin with the instruction of verses 3 and 4, “Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.”
While many English versions of the Bible translate the Hebrew word seh as “lamb” – the word represents a much broader group of animals. A seh is an animal of a flock, the Passover makes room for those who could not afford a lamb to be able to participate in the ritual with another animal – like the more affordable sheep or goat. Additionally, if one’s household was too small to consume the entire animal, they would join their neighbor to participate.
With this instruction, the Passover ritual is a reminder that we are called into the kind of community which seeks the provision for all in the community – for we’re all on the journey together – we’re all children of God – we’re all called to tend to each other – we’re all part of a larger group where everyone belongs.
When New York City was hit by one of the worst hurricanes in history, an individual by the name of Shell, a long-time host on Airbnb, realized that the loss for some people was devastating. As the waters rose and people had to evacuate their homes, many of them couldn’t return for days, if at all.
After the hurricane hit, Shell, “[felt a] hit [her] stomach and thought, people are really getting stuck” and so she decided to go online and list her space for free for those who were in need.
Her action sparked a movement within the Airbnb community whereupon other hosts did the same. Over 400 hosts opened their own homes for free, offering not only a place to sleep, but a connection during a very uncertain time.
Shell also held a food drive for the community right out of her kitchen.
Eventually, people were able to go home again, in the in-between time, Shell, through hospitality, made their lives a little less difficult.
Emily Fields Joffrion, an Airbnb spokesperson at the time, commented on this endeavor, "What's going on in New York, is really hard for people outside to grasp what it feels and looks like. After disasters, there can be a moment when you feel like the world isn't listening anymore. The severity of the situation hasn't gone away, and it's really important for everyone to have a place to go.”
It’s important for everyone to have a place to go…
We’re all children of God – on the journey together – we’re all called to tend to each other – to create a place where everyone belongs – where everyone has a place to go.
After reminding of the call to become a community which provides for one another, Aaron and Moses instruct the Israelites regarding unleavened bread and bitter Passover herbs noted in verse 8 as a way of reminding them of their pain. Then a few verses later (in verse 11) comes the instruction as to how to eat the Passover meal wearing the proper attire and footwear – which is a reminder to be ready to move.
Together these verses recall for the Israelites how their forebears had to leave Egypt in such haste that the dough for their bread did not have time to rise. The bitter herbs serve as reminder of the harsh enslavement their ancestors endured in Egypt.
With this instruction, the Passover ritual is a reminder that we are called into the kind of community which makes room for our pain to be recalled, shared, and carried together.
There's a Latin proverb, quoted by Cicero in his treatise on friendship De Amicitia that goes, "Before you trust [another], eat a peck of salt with [them]."
This led to the definition of a friend as someone who will "eat salt" with us, as in this poem by Rudyard Kipling:
I have eaten your bread and salt
I have drunk your water and wine
The deaths ye died I have watched beside
And the lives ye led were mine.
To “eat salt” with another is a metaphor for crying together or sharing pain or trial with another.
It's about becoming real and vulnerable with one another.
In the classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, written by British author Margery Williams, we learn about what it means to be real…
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
To be part of the ekklesia – the church – the gathered community of faith – God’s people – is to be part of a people who understand what it means to be real.
To understand that we’re all children of God – on the journey together – we’re all called to tend to each other – to create a place where everyone belongs – where we make room – to be authentic…to be real…to be vulnerable – as together we share life’s ebb and flow…to laugh together in joy-filled moments and weep together in pain-filled moments.
All of which is captured in the life-changing word – love.
To know we are loved – and in turn – to share that love.
“Owe no one anything,” Paul wrote, “except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 13:8, 9b)
Author, speaker, and Presbyterian, Anne Lamott talks about teaching Sunday School in the church she attends in Marin County, California. Pre-pandemic, most weeks, her class did something she calls Loved and Chosen. Here is how it goes: Lamott would sit down on the couch in the Sunday school room and look at all the little, wriggling bodies before her. Then she would glance slowly around the room in a goofy, menacing way, and say something like “Is anyone here wearing a blue sweatshirt with Pokemon on it?”
A four-year-old would look down at his chest, astonished to discover that he matched that description, like—what are the odds?
So, he would raise his hand, and she would invite him over to sit on the couch beside her. Lamott would look in his eyes and say, “You are so loved and chosen” as he [sat in wonderment].
Lamott would repeat the exercise, asking about green socks with brown shoes, a San Fransisco Giants cap, an argyle vest. And wouldn’t you know it, she writes, “each of them [in the class] would turn out to be loved and chosen, which, in the world, does not happen so often (Anne Lamott, Grace Eventually, pp. 28–29).
Lamott’s Sunday School opener makes me wonder…
How would life be different if we lived each day knowing/believing there is a seat for us on that sofa where ae are invited (whether we’re age 4, 24 or 104) to sit still long enough to hear that we are loved and chosen by God.
How would the world be different if our structures and institutions were shaped by the belief that every human being is loved and chosen by God.
As we come together, are we:
For when we come together and live in such ways our actions declare to each other you are so loved and so chosen…we become real and we become who it is God knows we can become.
As we come together on the Kick-Off Sunday, may we not forget that God is calling us to create this kind of community.
To God be the glory, now and forevermore.
Alleluia and Amen.
 This poem is Reprinted from The Common Good, No 32, Lent 2005 and can be found at the following website: http://catholicworker.org.nz/the-common-good/passover-remembered/
 —From the Airbnb website, airbnb.com. Retrieved July 30, 2019.
 Taken from CNN Business online article, https://money.cnn.com/2012/11/07/technology/innovation/airbnb-free-housing-sandy/index.html
 Kipling, Departmental Ditties (1886), Prelude St.1.
 Taken from: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/191202/the-velveteen-rabbit-by-margery-williams-illustrated-by-william-nicholson/9780385375665/excerpt
First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Lou Nyiri
September 3, 2023
Exodus 3:1-15 / Romans 12:9-21
In 1990, Bette Midler released an album entitled Some People’s Lives – the 7th track on the album was a cover of Julie Gold’s song “From a Distance.”
Midler released the song amid global conflicts like the Rwandan Civil War, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the ecological disaster of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the deadly HIV/AIDS epidemic – into the cacophony of the world’s fears, Midler’s “From a Distance” reminded listeners that God was not distant from the creation – rather, God was invested in the creation.
The songs refrain spoke into this litany of the world’s catastrophic events:
God is watching us.
God is watching us.
God is watching us.
From a distance.
Listeners were encouraged by the notion that God sees – even if from afar.
One might recognize this “watching-from-a-distance” God from this morning’s Exodus text.
Today’s reading from Exodus 3 – often referred to as Moses’ call story – signals a turning point in Moses’ life.
While Exodus 3 is important, its value becomes significant when we recall its context:
Zooming out, we remember:
Now, in Exodus 3, adult Moses is shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep and has a theophany (theos = God / phaneia = manifestation…to show) – a theophany then is a manifestation of the deity.
Alone in a field, Moses sits, probably pondering the world and life in general … then, he is visited by God.
According to the writer(s) of Exodus 3:7-10, the Lord explains to Moses that as a result of observing the misery of the Israelites, this god will deliver them from the Egyptians and relocate them to a better place.
As the story goes, Moses miraculously leads the Israelites out of Egypt– they enter the promised land – eventually establishing themselves as a vibrant monarchy.
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey … (Exodus 3:7-8).
The Hebrew found in Exodus 3:7 is a verb form which signifies intensity, emphasis, or certainty of verbal action.
The phrase may be translated as my really seeing or my observing.
A few other biblical translations, get at this when they translate the phrase:
I have indeed seen (New International Version)
I have marked well (Jewish Publication Society)
I’ve clearly seen (Common English Bible)
From this we surmise, God is not caught off guard or startled by the Israelites condition living under pharaoh’s oppression.
Rather, God has been paying attention.
Even if God’s engagement has been beyond the Israelites perception … God has been watching.
How might our interaction with the world around us change, if we, like Moses, began to live in ways which saw God as close enough to observe and act – yet somehow far enough to remain out of reach – and who is calling us to join in the justice work toward healing and wholeness?
If we knew God was observing, how might that change the way we interact locally, nationally and internationally?
Would we use our resources differently if we believed God was watching us?
Would we use our time differently?
Would we use our words differently?
Would our prayers change if we believed that God was watching us from a distance – yet still able to hear our cries and act on our behalf?
How would we tend to see our response to God’s call if we believed that God were asking us to join in the journey toward justice, healing, and wholeness?
This is our theological task – as together and individually we study about God in order to live into who it is God knows we can become.
According to a classical definition, theology is fides [phi-dace] quaerens [qwair-ens] intellectum [intellect-um] “faith seeking understanding” (Anselm).
It is faith venturing to inquire, daring to raise questions.
It is a willingness to engage in conversation with the divine as we seek to understand who and where God is calling us to be the hands and feet of loving actions at work in the communities we find ourselves (whether they are local, national and international).
Faith is never to become a sedative for glossing over what is happening around us, nor is it a grab-bag of cliché responses to the complex nature of life’s deep questions.
Instead, faith prompts us to ask questions; activates inquiry; resists the urge to accept things as they are, and calls us to seek together, with each other and God, what our faithful response as God’s people might look like.
It is about finding the connection between our orthodoxy and our orthopraxy.
Between what we believe and how we practice our beliefs in tangible ways.
How do we proclaim what we believe by living what we believe?
Perhaps, this is where Paul’s words to the Romans offer some guidance.
In this morning’s verses from Romans 9, Paul is shifting the community’s focus. Up to this point in Paul’s argument, love is something that only God or Christ has performed (Romans 5:5, 8; 8:35, 39).
Paul is now shifting toward the redeemed vision of humanity – the ways in which Jesus’ followers will live in response to God’s grace.
Genuine (unpretentious) love is to become the standard by which the community enacts their reasonable worship and renewed thinking as they discern what is the good and acceptable and perfect response to God’s call upon their lives (Roans 12:1-2).
Paul is offering theological scaffolding for the community as they live out the result of their theological work in real time. Their fides [phi-dace] quaerens [qwair-ens] intellectum [intellect-um] “faith seeking understanding” – a faith which is evidenced in practicing genuine love…hating what is evil…holding fast to what is good…loving one another with mutual affection…outdoing one another in showing honor…being enthusiastic in spirit and serving the Lord…”
They are beginning to understand the reality of faith – together we care for each other while extending that same care and hospitality to the people around us – the church is never to become an exclusive club … the church is to be a welcoming community.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin captures this poetically when he writes, “…God awaits us every instant in our action, in the work of the moment. There is a sense in which God is at the tip of my pen [and] my brush – of my very heart and of my thought.”
To live then as the hands and feet of God at work in this world, is to recognize that “…we encounter the risen Christ” as de Chardin puts it, “when we write [and] when we paint.”
It is to understand that wherever we are – whatever we are doing – we are called to be the hands and feet of God at work in the world as we bear witness to the love of Christ at work in this world.
The communion table is a tangible reminder of God’s grace at work in our lives and our grateful response which prompts us to take this same attitude into the places beyond this worship time.
To paraphrase Roman Catholic theologian, William Cavanaugh, “[We are] the wafer [at work] in the world.”
As Christ’s body we gather around Christ’s body to remember God’s first incarnate love Christ’s body so that we are enabled to become God’s ever-inviting incarnate love at work in this world.
In the From a Distance music video, there is a point where Bette Midler sings, “God is watching us from a distance,” looks upward toward the skies, smiles and waves.
It is as if she recognizes God in the distance.
Then she sings,
From a distance, there is harmony.
And it echoes through the land.
And it’s the hope of hopes.
It’s the love of loves.
It’s the heart of every [hu]man.
On this weekend when we pause to remember the contributions of workers, we recall the church’s work is to be a people who bear witness to God’s love at work in this world – wherever we may be.
This is the church’s call – to be a people who engage in faithful conversations to discern where and how God is leading us to be the hands and feet at work in this world by sharing and showing Christ-like love.
A parent was reading the Sunday paper as their young child kept tugging at their sleeve to come down on the floor and play with them. This parent kept indicating one more minute – one more minute – let me finish the paper. The child was persistent. The parent, having an idea to buy more time to read, took one page and tore it into many pieces and handed it to the child saying, “put this page back together and when your done, then I’ll play with you.”
Well, within five minutes, the child was tugging at their sleeve saying, “I’m done. Let’s play.”
With skepticism, then astonishment, this parent looked to the floor and couldn’t believe it – the paper was back together in perfect alignment.
“How did you do that so fast?” this parent quipped.
“Oh, it was easy,” the child said, “on the back of the page was a picture of the world and when I put the world back together the rest fell into place.”
Let love be genuine.
Love one another with mutual affection.
Outdo one another in showing honor.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers.
And, the world will fall into place.
To God be the glory, now and forevermore. Alleluia and Amen.
W-5.0105 Christian Vocation
We respond to God’s grace through our Christian vocation. In Baptism we offer our whole lives in service to God, and are empowered by the Holy Spirit with gifts for ministry in Jesus’ name. Therefore we are called to honor and serve God at all times and in all places: in our work and play, in our thought and action, and in our private and public engagements. Such service and love is an act of gratitude for God’s grace.
This has been a particularly important theme of the Reformed tradition: the life and work of every Christian can and should give glory to God. As we honor and serve God in our daily life and labor, we worship God. Whatever our situation, we have opportunities each day to bear witness to the power of God at work within us. Therefore, for Christians, worship, work, and witness cannot be separated.
 The exposition of Exodus 3 is taken from Kimberly D. Russaw’s commentary on Exodus 3:1-15 found at workingpreacher.com the September 3, 2023 publication. Russaw is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
 See Dan Migliore’s book “Faith Seeking Understanding,” page 2 for this discussion of Anselm’s fides quaerrens intellectum, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1991.
 Taken from David H. Jensen’s book Responsive Labor: A Theology of Work, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1991, p. 74.
 Taken from Kimberly D. Russaw’s commentary on Exodus 3:1-15 found at workingpreacher.com the September 3, 2023 publication. Russaw is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. John Judson
Psalm 138; Philippians 1:1-11
It was not a regular topic of conversation but occasionally my three brothers and I would debate which one of us was our parents’ favorite. In the end we could never come to a consensus, each of us choosing one or another of our siblings. I think this speaks highly of our parents who never seemed to let on which, if any of us, were favored over the others. The same could not be said for the Apostle Paul, however, because if you read his letters, it is clear which of the churches he founded was his favorite. And that church is the church at Philippi. We are not exactly sure why that favored status belonged to them, but that being the case, I want to use his words to the Philippian believers as my words to you on this, my final Sunday with you.
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.” I want to thank you for allowing me to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word with you week after week and year after year. You have allowed me to share it in worship on Sunday mornings, in Rejoicing Spirits services, in Bible studies, in articles, in the Walk Through the Bible for children and adults, as well as in Vacation Bible Camp. I am grateful for your sharing in the Good News with me. You have allowed me to share with you in the Good News of Jesus in deed as well. You allowed us to share in your amazing work outside of the walls of this building from Alcott in Pontiac to rural villages in Kenya. I am grateful.
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Cindy and I believe that there are great things to come for Everybody’s Church. This is not to minimize what we have done together over the past fourteen years. Together, in the power of the Spirit, we have created a unique, wonderful, and growing community. We have created a community in which all persons are welcomed, embraced, and encouraged to use their gifts to create a better community and world. This welcome is regardless of a person’s gender identity, skin color, language, sexual orientation, occupation, wealth, abilities, or any other way we might categorize ourselves. It is so because we profess that all human beings are beloved children of the loving and living God. What I hope we will remember is that this work did not begin with me, nor will it end with me. This work began decades ago with the hard work of individuals in this community. These foremothers and forefathers are no longer with us, yet they plowed and planted this vision for us to reap the harvest of the love it offers. They were abolitionists and advocates of women’s suffrage and ordination. They were advocates for the full inclusion of members of the LGBTQIA+ community. They were advocates for the full inclusion of persons of all abilities. We are the inheritors of a great history and tradition. And I believe that God is not done with this community yet and has great things in store for you in the days, weeks, and years ahead. I believe you will continue to be a light to the world. I am grateful.
“…it is right for me to think this way about all of you because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me.” I want to thank you for sharing God’s grace with me and Cindy. I want to thank you for sharing the best and the most difficult of times with us. You gave us the great privilege of sharing in moments of great joy: moments of birth and baptism, moments of confirmation and graduation, moments of promotions and business success, and moments of anniversaries and successful surgeries. You also gave us the honor of sharing the most difficult of times: moments of difficult diagnoses and deaths, moments of loss and struggle, and moments of wrestling with mental and physical illnesses. There were also moments of Gospel and grace in which we know that you kept us in your prayers, through our own struggles and surgeries, and our own joys and celebrations. There were other ways that you shared as well. You shared your resources to provide for us over the past fourteen years. We pray in joy for you because of your sharing so much with us. I am grateful.
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full of insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” I want to thank you, the congregation and the session, all the sessions, since I arrived, for being permission giving and not permission withholding. One of the truisms about most churches and organizations is that they are loath to change and transform. There are people constantly saying, “We’ve never done it that way. Here is what we have always done and we need to keep doing exactly the same.” Though I may have heard some of this, what I discovered was that First Presbyterian was a place that was willing to experiment; experiment with worship, mission, fellowship, and virtually any other aspect of the life of this church. I believe you have been this kind of church because you desire to discover all knowledge and insight in order to determine what is best so that you can be the church Jesus Christ desires you to be, so that your love may overflow into the world. You have no idea how many other pastors when they hear this about our church, have said to me and to Rev. Amy and Rev. Bethany, “I wish I could serve at a place like that.” And each time that they say this, it is a reminder to me just how amazing you are…for you are the church. You are the living body of Christ. I am grateful.
Before I offer you my challenge, there are three more thank yous I want to offer. First it is to you, the folks who come here week after week, praying for Cindy and me, the world, and one another. I am grateful to you for your faithfulness.
Second, I want to thank the people I have worked with past and present on staff here. They are one of the many reasons why we are the church we are, why we are becoming the church we are becoming. These folks are faithful, talented, committed, hardworking, and just fabulous individuals. Please pray for them during this time of transition and give them all the love and support you can.
Finally, I want to thank Cindy, my rock and my informal parish associate. I could not have done this without her. She was my biggest supporter and fiercest defender. And a great editor.
My friends, we live in a hurting world. We live in a world that is looking for hope. You are that place where people can come and find love and hope, where people can find healing and grace, where people can find purpose and community. My challenge for you is to be Everybody’s Church in which life and love can continue to flourish and change the world.
by Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 29, 2023
Genesis 26:1-5; Matthew 5:1-12
Many of you know that I grew up in a home with four boys, of which I am the number two child. As with many homes, my parents were big on chores. There were essentially personal chores such as making our beds and picking up our toys, or later in life, putting away our tools after we had been working on cars. There were also shared chores. These were the ones in which we were less interested. These included mowing the lawn, clearing the dishes, and loading and unloading the dishwasher. None of us were particularly enamored of any of these chores, especially mowing the lawn in Houston’s hot and humid summers. There was however, one chore none of us minded doing. That was setting the table. We didn’t mind setting the table because we knew it was a precursor to what was to follow, a wonderful, delicious dinner and dessert from our mother. It was only later in life that I realized that setting the table was often used as a metaphor, describing some event, or moment, that was intended to whet the appetite for what was to follow. And it was only this week, after almost forty years of ministry, that I realized why the Beatitudes are where they are, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and that was to whet the appetite of Jesus’ hearers for what was to follow.
To understand this, we need to understand two things. First, we need to understand what the Sermon on the Mount is. The sermon on the Mount is Jesus doing his impression of Moses giving the Law to the Hebrews at Sinai. As a reminder, Moses is given the Law, or Torah, at Sinai and then he teaches it to the people so that the people might be faithful to God; and in being faithful find a full life. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is not making up new laws. Instead, what he is doing is telling the people about faithfulness. Just as Moses did, Jesus is going to tell the people how they ought to live to find a full life. And in so doing he begins where Moses begins by telling the people that the God to whom they are to be faithful is a God who has been faithful to them. The Ten Commandments begins with this table setting wording, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”. God is faithful, so God’s people are called to be faithful in return. The Beatitudes serve the same function of setting the table for Jesus’ teaching on faithfulness. This leads us to our second understanding, which is what Jesus means by blessed, or blessing. A blessing, or to be blessed consists of two parts: a problem and a promise. This is what we have in Exodus, a problem (slavery) and a promise (freedom).
The same is true of each of the Beatitudes. Each beatitude contains a problem and they each contain a promise. I realize that at first glance this might not appear to be so, but over the next few minutes we will discover how Jesus is setting the table for people to desire to be faithful to God because God has been and is promising to be faithful to them. And though we won’t take the time this morning, I would argue that given more time we could link the Beatitudes with the teachings that follow. But for this morning we are going to take a quick tour of the Beatitudes and see how each contains a problem and a promise for dealing with that promise, and are thus blessings, even when they might not appear to be. And I hope that in doing so, you will find a beatitude, a blessing, that offers you hope as well. So, let’s begin.
Jesus opens with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The problem is that there are moments when life overwhelms us, and we want to give up all hope. We simply sit in despair. This is what it means to be poor in spirit. The promise God offers is the Kingdom of Heaven. This does not mean we will only find new life in heaven, but instead the Kingdom of Heaven, for Jesus, is the community of believers who are supposed to demonstrate what heaven looks like on earth. In other words, when we are ready to give up, we have this community in which to turn to find support, love, and care. We are not alone.
Next, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The problem is guilt. Mourning here does not mean mourning the loss of someone we love. Mourning here, is a specific word that describes the guilt we feel when we have said, thought, or done something that we know is wrong; that we know has harmed others. The Promise God offers is comfort, or forgiveness. God does not want us to spend our lives feeling guilty, but desires that we be set free for new life.
Third, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The problem is that the humble often find themselves left out of all the good the world seems to offer. I say “the humble” because meek here does not mean “mousy” and “afraid,” instead it means living with true humility. The promise God makes is that the goodness of life, of the earth, will come to those who are humble even when it seems that they will be left out of all the good stuff that God has to offer.
In the fourth Beatitude Jesus teaches, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The problem is that it is difficult to live righteously, which as I have said before does not mean to be perfect, but to live in right relationship with God and others. As most of us are probably aware, living with the people around us is not always easy. We know how we are to treat them, and we often don’t. We also know how we are to live in relationship with God, and we can find that difficult as well. The Promise is that God will make these right relationships possible. We will find what we need to live rightly with God and others.
Fifth, Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” The problem is that no good deed goes unpunished. In other words, showing mercy can be taken by the world as weakness and thus no mercy is shown to the weak. The promise is that in return for our showing mercy, God will take mercy on us. God will come into our lives in such a way that full life becomes possible even in the face of an often merciless world.
Sixth, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The problem is that focusing on being faithful to God as our priority can cause us to become outsiders. The world wants us to focus on their priorities: wealth, power, fame, and more. God desires us to focus on God, for in God there is true life. The promise is that if we focus on God, which is what being pure in heart means, we will indeed encounter God in such a way that our lives are given full meaning and purpose.
Seventh, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” The problem is that bridge building, which is what peacemaking is, can be difficult if not seemingly impossible. People want to be confrontational rather than conciliatory. The result is that people seldom seek to be bridgebuilders. The promise though is that those who promote peace will have a special relationship with God because they are imitating the peacemaking that Jesus came to offer; peacemaking that offers a fullness of life for all persons.
Though there are two more beatitudes, I will combine them into one because they both have to do with “blessed are you when people persecute you, revile you, and speak evil against you because you are doing what God would have you to do.” The problem is that living one’s life as a Jesus follower doesn’t make one win many popularity contests. It can often lead to making one an outlier in many social circles. Honesty can get you fired. Forgiving rather than condemning may put you at risk. Placing God before all else can cause one to be considered strange. But the promise is that we do not do this alone. The promise is that we are part of a counter-cultural community that works to be those who offer life to all.
Being faithful to God through the teachings of Jesus is not always an easy road. It can, in fact, be difficult. Yet the Beatitudes tell us that we can be faithful to God because God is always faithful to us. My challenge for you this week is this, to ask yourselves, how am I consciously being faithful to Jesus, even as God is being faithful to me?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 22, 2023
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Genesis 12:1-9; Matthew 4:12-23
Once upon a time, as all good fairytales begin, there was a kingdom surrounded by a forest. Every day hunters would venture into the forest and return with game to feed the people. But one day a hunter went in and never came back. Later more and more hunters went into the same part of the forest, and they did not return. Soon the people did not go into that part of the forest anymore. One day a hunter, whom no one knew, arrived in the city and asked, “Is there anything dangerous to do around here?” The king said to him, “Well I could tell you about the part the part of the forest into which we don’t go because no one ever returns. There’s not much return on going in there.” Upon hearing this, the unknown hunter decided that is where he should go. Taking only his trusty dog with him, he headed into the forest. He and the dog walked for several days, and then they happened upon a pond. As they approached the pond, a great red, hairy arm reached out, grabbed the dog, and dragged it under. Rather than running away in fear, the hunter said, “This must be the place.” This fairy tale is called “Iron John” or “Iron Hans”, or any other name, but it is about the heart of adventure; going into the unknown and dealing with whatever is encountered.
In my mind, we use the term adventure perhaps too often to describe too many things that are trips rather than adventures. I say this because Cindy and I get multiple catalogues every week from cruise companies trying to get us to go on their “adventures.” The catalogues then go on to describe how luxurious the accommodations on the ships are, how fabulous the food is, the amazing sights you will see, and how the cruise line takes care of everything from when you leave home to when you return, and more. This my friends, is a trip. This is not an adventure. An adventure, as I described a moment ago, is going into the unknown and dealing with whatever is encountered. This is the kind of adventure we find in all great stories stretching from Gilgamesh to Star Trek. These are the kind of stories that draw us to movie theatres and streaming services because there is something about watching adventures from the safety of comfortable chairs that stirs something deep within us.
These are also the kind of stories we read in the Bible about God’s people. This is the story of Abram and Sarai. Abram and Sarai were comfortably well-off in Heron. They had everything they needed. God, however, had other plans for them. God asks them to pick up, leave behind family and friends, and travel to an unknown land; a journey that would cause them to encounter untold dangers. This is the story of God’s people fleeing Egypt. Though they are free they must travel across wastelands with little food or water. They must travel to places that are inhabited by fearsome peoples who have fortified cities. This is the story of Jesus and the disciples. Jesus has begun his ministry as a wondering apocalyptic preacher, teacher, and exorcist. Along the way he calls disciples to come on the journey with him. Those who follow have no idea how they will feed themselves, where they will stay, or what will happen to them, but they are willing to go on an adventure. This is one reason I believe that the Biblical stories have staying power with generations of human beings; they stir something deep inside us. The question becomes though, why does God continually call people to adventure? Why perhaps, might God be calling us to adventure?
I would argue that there are two reasons that God calls God’s people to adventure. The first is that adventure leads people to trust God. Over the past several weeks we have been talking about faith; about faith as faithfulness born in humility and nurtured in focusing on God. But the question the Bible always poses is, what kind of God are we placing our faith in? What kind of God are we being faithful to? Is this God trustworthy enough to follow? If we think about it for a moment, these are the kinds of questions that, sooner or later, we ask about every relationship. Can I trust this person? Is this person someone I can spend time with? Is this a person I ought to follow? In some ways only time will tell as we measure their trustworthiness. This is what happens in adventures. In adventures the true measure of a person, or of God is revealed. In both our stories we watch as people discover that God can be trusted. Abram and Sarai find themselves in multiple difficult situations, and yet God rescues and protects them every time. In those moments, they learn to trust God. The same is true for the people of God in the wilderness. God provided them with food, water, clothing, and protection. The same is true with the disciples. When the disciples believed they would perish in a storm at sea, Jesus saved them. When people were hungry, Jesus fed them. When Jesus said he would be raised on the third day, he was. The longer the disciples are with Jesus the more they realize that they can trust in him and trust God.
The second reason I believe that God calls God’s people on adventures is that it is during adventures that people are transformed; transformed more and more into the image of Christ such that we can be more and more faithful along our life’s paths. Think about adventure as resistance training for faith. In resistance training one uses one’s own weight, or resistance bands, big rubber bands, or weights, to in essence, push back against. As one pushes back against the resistance, muscle is transformed. It is strengthened and improved. This is what adventure does for our faith and faithfulness. Abram and Sarai are not the same at the end of their journey as they are at the beginning. They are so different in fact, that they are given new names. They become Abraham and Sarah as their faith and faithfulness increase. The people of God in the wilderness need forty years of adventure training to become ready for their next adventure of going into the land of Promise. The disciples need three years of adventure training and a resurrection for them to be ready to carry out their mission of proclaiming God’s love in Jesus to the world.
Adventure is what God’s people are always called to, and I believe that we at Everybody’s Church have been and continue to be on an adventure for God, especially over the past seven years. I say this because the last seven years have sent the church into new and uncharted territories. We have traveled through four election cycles that stretched and broke friendships, families, and churches. We have traveled through a time of racial reckoning that divided our nation and churches. We have traveled through a pandemic that had not been experienced in more than a hundred years, and simply will not go away; a pandemic that forced churches, schools, and businesses to close and adapt. And this pandemic was enough to not only cause many businesses but churches as well to go out of business. All these events tested the faith and faithfulness of our church and all of you. Yet what we discovered was that we could trust God through it all. We realized that God’s presence and power, love, and compassion never left us, but lifted us up even in the most difficult of times. We were transformed. We are not the same church now that we were seven, or ten, or fifteen years ago. The resistance training of adventure has caused us to be a more compassionate, inclusive, welcoming, and serving community. It is not that we were not these things before, but it is that we have discovered more and more what it means to be Everybody’s Church.
I wish I could say that the adventure was over and that we are going on a trip instead. However, the adventure is going to continue. It will continue as you welcome an interim pastor who will help to lead you on this adventure over the short term. Then you will call a new pastor who will lead you in the next stage of your adventure. It will be an adventure because the world continues to change, and challenges will continue to be present. But the gift of God is that God is always with us, showing us how we are to continue to be the church if Jesus Christ, shining light into the world as Everybody’s Church. My challenge to you then on this Sunday is to say “yes” to the adventure and then week after week, come to this sanctuary and say, “This must be the place” where I will adventure with Jesus and this community as together, we seek to be God’s inclusive family.