Sermon on John 20

Mark Smith and Chris Bailey, Interns
Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church
April 27, 2014 10am

Psalm 16
John 20:19-31
Sermon Audio: Click Here

MARK: It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. Well, a crazy couple of years really, but the last few weeks have been crazier than most.

I’ve been with The Boss from the early days. I was one of the twelve that he started with. And I’ll be honest – I’ve always been pretty fired up for this new thing. This whole idea about the meek inheriting God’s Kingdom, about faith in God, about faith in Jesus. It’s all good.

Just a couple weeks ago, before Passover, we heard that Lazarus had died. Lazarus had been pretty good to us in the past. But still this was a scary thing – the people tried to stone Jesus the last time we were there. We barely made it out with our skins. And now Lazarus was dead. The Boss even told us that Lazarus was dead – he always knew things that we just didn’t know. He could be pretty confusing. But when The Boss said that we were going back to wake him up, I was all for it. I told The Boss that I was ready to go back to Jerusalem and die. And I was. But then, I had him with me. And he was the Messiah, he could protect me, right? So back we went, and he really did it! Four days dead and Lazarus came out all zombie-like with the wrappings still on him! Boy did I believe in The Boss that day!

CHRIS: When dealing with the loss of a loved one, we often try to look back and remember the things we loved most about them, and the time we spent together. After my own father passed away, I found a great deal of comfort in remembering the shared love of the outdoors that he first sparked within me during the time we spent together in Boy Scouts. In the same way, I remembered when I was even younger, and we would watch reruns of Batman featuring Adam West while I sat upon his shoulders. By taking the time to look back at the time my dad and I spent together, I was able to secure into memory the things that made my dad into a person I both loved and respected.

I imagine that Thomas and the other disciples did something similar after the death of Jesus. After all, a person they both loved and respected died dramatically in front of their very eyes. In order to relieve some of the shock they must have felt, it would have only been natural to try and remember the things about Jesus Christ that had caused the disciples to follow him in the first place…

MARK: This last time, before we lost him, he started saying weird things. He started talking about going where we can’t follow, and gave us new commandments. To love God – OK, that’s alright. We were already doing that. To love one another too – this was a little strange. Did he mean just us disciples? The twelve? Or did he mean everybody? That’s kind of hard, loving everybody.

And then he washed our feet. Him, the Messiah, did for us what a common servant would usually do. We should have been doing it for him! And then he told us about a place that he was getting ready for us, but didn’t tell us where. I asked him about it, but he got all mystical again: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” And knowing the Father and stuff like that.

He spoke for a while, telling us what he wanted us to know. And then we went to the garden. They came to arrest him. I thought for sure this was where the Big Battle was going to start – where our Messiah would release us from this bondage to the Romans, to the corrupt Jewish leaders. But he rebuked Peter for using his sword. And then he was led away. And it got worse after that. He was flogged, forced to carry his cross through the streets, and ultimately killed on the Cross. What kind of Messiah would lose? What kind of Messiah would die? We saw him die up there on the cross. And we were scared out of our wits. Were we next?

The Boss, the guy who had raised Lazarus from the dead was gone. Dead himself. He didn’t save himself. He didn’t stop his arrest, or even let us fight. I used to believe, but how can you believe that he’s the Son of God if he could lose like this? How can you have faith when something so bad happens?

CHRIS: For the disciples, it was the compassion that Jesus showed to the poor and marginalized that drew them toward Jesus. As the messiah, Christ had healed the blind and disabled. They had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. In doing so, Jesus turned social structures upside down, and drew those who had been pushed to the margins toward the center of the community. The disciples were drawn the Christ as an individual who pushed boundaries of what it meant, and what it looked like to be faithful toward God. Yet, it was also this overt concern for the poor and the questioning of the status quo of faith that eventually lead to Jesus’ death. Through his life and work, Jesus had pushed this Romanized Hebrew community to examine itself. AnddDisliking what it saw in itself, the community pushed back upon Jesus, and took his life. Jesus offered a drastically new worldview, and it was rejected. The very thing that had initially drawn the disciples toward Jesus ultimately became the thing that took Jesus from them.

MARK: So about a week ago, the other disciples got so excited. They said they saw Jesus again. They told me that they were meeting in the upper room with the door locked, just like we’ve had to do since The Boss was killed. They said that there were holes in his hands and feet, and a big one in his side where the soldier had speared him. They said he breathed on them, and they felt the Holy Spirit.

I wasn’t there. I was off taking care of business for the rest of the group. And I gotta be honest. I’m not really sure what happened. Were they drunk? Were they so tired of being afraid, so tired of being cooped up that they saw what they wanted to see?

The old Jesus, the one who raised Lazarus, the one who healed and knew things and walked on water – THAT Jesus I could see coming back. That’s the Jesus that I knew before, the Jesus that I decided to follow, that I was willing to die for.

But the Jesus who was killed on the cross? The one who decided not to fight. The one who meekly went off to be killed. How could he come back? How could he let us down like that? How could he change the way the world works, make it better, if he couldn’t even save himself?

I’m not even sure what I would need to see in order to believe this. I might have to see the holes myself. To touch them, and to know that there isn’t a trick.

CHRIS: Honestly, I don’t know that we can really blame Thomas for disbelieving the other disciples. The experience of watching Jesus upon the cross must have been traumatic, and the images of which would have been painfully seared into Thomas’ memory. For Thomas, the Jesus that he saw hung upon the cross would have been drastically different than the image of Jesus that he had built from the experiences they had shared together. Placed in the same situation, I am sure that I would have doubted just the same as Thomas. Even having seen Jesus heal Lazarus, the death that Christ suffered was exceptionally brutal. In this story, Thomas is often portrayed as a bit of a fool, but if we were to be truly honest with ourselves, I think we would find ourselves to be more like Thomas than the blessed one who believes without having seen. To a certain extent, I believe doubt is an integral part of faith. Asking questions and doubting, at the very least, suggests that we are willing to engage and examine our own faith. Through his life, Jesus pushed those around him to examine their faith. By caring about the poor and marginalized, Christ pushed the religious community to ask how their current faith allowed them to overlook those who had been pushed to the margins. In this sense, it becomes important to remember that when we approach God with our questions and doubts we are still approaching God, and God remains present with us even in our doubting. We should not feel foolish in reaching out to God with our doubt. When our doubt becomes so strong that we feel unable to approach, we should take comfort in the fact that God is still present and willing to reach out to us.

MARK: Wow! A week has gone by, and everything is different!

He really did come back! He appeared in the middle of a locked house! And though I hadn’t even told the other disciples, he knew that I had trouble believing. He reached out to me, and told me to feel his hands and his side!

He knew that I had lost my faith, and he helped me get it back! He knows, of course he knows, that believing is the only way to the Father, and so he was willing to reach out to me specifically to help my unbelief.

I get it now. I really didn’t before. But now I see. It’s like he had to die and come back, or the whole thing wouldn’t have made any sense. It’s like he knew that from the beginning. And now I know, at least as well as I can. And now the hard part comes – explaining it to people who didn’t see it. Helping them to believe too.

Amen

Sermon – Why are we here? – Sunday, November 10, 2013

November 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 10, 2013 at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ as part of my Pastoral Care internship.

Audio: 

First Reading – Psalm 145
Second Reading – Luke 20:27-38

“Why are we here?”

It’s Sunday morning again.  We just had the time change last week, so it’s still a little light out in the morning, but it’s getting darker and darker as the days go on.  Some of us have tough work schedules, and Sundays are our only “real” day to relax.  Besides, the Giants game starts at 1.  So why are we here?

That’s the title that I chose for this week’s sermon.  Why are we here?  What draws us to come to church on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or whatever day of the week we attend?  What draws us to our own personal spiritual practices?  What draws us to attend committee meetings or to teach Sunday school or to help out with a charity event?

So WHY are we here?  What is the reason?

As I talked about with the children, Psalm 145 is a psalm of praise.  It even says so.  If you look in the Bible, you’ll see that just above the first verse it says “Praise.  Of David.”  In fact, the Hebrew word for psalms means “Praises”.  Among others, the last 6 psalms in our Book of Psalms are psalms of praise.

As Presbyterians, we are part of the Reformed faith, and as PCUSA Presbyterians, we have a Book of Confessions.  Several of the confessions in that book have a statement like this one, which comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which some of you may have learned in Sunday School or Confirmation):

Question:  What is the chief end of man?

Answer:  Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

(This was written in 1640, so please excuse the masculine language for us and God.)

So, Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

We are called to glorify God.  And not just now, but forever.  We are told that “one generation shall laud your works to another” and that “all flesh will bless his holy name for ever and ever.”  There’s a long list of verbs in the passage:  to extol, to bless, to praise, to laud, to declare, to speak praise, and join with all flesh to bless.  These are what the psalmist would have us do for God.  And as I told the children, these psalms were written to be used in worship, so these are what we sing that we will do.

And we do that in worship.  We sing praises to God, as we did and will do in several of today’s hymns.  We do that in proclamation.  Our reading of scripture and the words of the preacher speak of God to us and others.  And it’s not just those of us up here at the microphones – as we confess, as we pray together in unison, or as we pray silently while one leads we are showing others here and elsewhere what God’s message looks like.

We do that with our hands and our feet and our voices, when we help others, inside and out of the congregation.  And I’m going to talk more about that later.

We do this, because God asked us to.  Told us to.  Commanded us to.  This is what God created us to do.

So that’s WHY we are here.

The next question is … why are WE here?

And to a certain extent, this is something that we have to each answer individually.  Speaking for myself, I could easily say that I’m here because this is my Field Education assignment.  But that’s too simple.  I could say that I’m here because I’m in seminary, or that I want to become a minister, but that doesn’t explain the time before I started seminary.  My story began long before that, and although my own story involves 15 years away from the church there was clearly a time when I was an adult and not forced by my parents to come to church, but I come anyway.

Most of you are in that situation – you don’t have to be here.  Now, don’t get up and leave – this argument is coming around to the point here in a minute.  Most of you are here voluntarily – you decided to be here.  Some of you might be here because your parents are here, or because someone that you love is here.  But you’re here.

Most of you are now or were at some point members of a church, for many you were or are members of this church.  In order to become a member you made a profession of faith in one form or another.  You said in front of the Session, or the church council wherever, or the congregation that you believe in Jesus Christ, and that you accept the teaching of the church.  You agreed to participate in the life of the church.

So that’s probably why you are here, and that’s why I am here.  But why are WE here?

God calls us into community.  The Israelites were a community of faith.  Jesus created that community of faith in Him, a community that was sent into the world to proclaim the gospel starting with Pentecost.  We worship God in community.  We mourn in community.  We pray in community.  We celebrate and we play in community.  We eat in community.  We work in community.  And we go out into our community as a community of faith, working and playing and meeting and supporting our community as a group, and as a part of the greater church.  We teach in community – through our bible study and Sunday school and youth group, and through scripture and preaching.

And we live that community every Sunday.  And all week long.  On special days.  When hurricanes and cookie walks happen.  When Christmas and Easter happen.  When we need, and when others need.

We are part of a community.  We’re part of the Watchung Avenue Presbyterian community.  We’re part of Presbyterians in the Plainfields.  We’re part of Presbyterians everywhere.  We’re part of this neighborhood around Watchung Avenue itself, and all of North Plainfield, and the surrounding area.  And we are identified by our faith in Christ, a faith that is strong enough to get us up on a Sunday morning in whatever weather to come here.

So that’s why WE are here.

Now, why are we HERE?

In 1916, a new independent congregation of the Presbyterian church was chartered here.  In 1907, this building was built.  Before that, in 1893 the mission that was meeting here affiliated with the Crescent Avenue church.  The Crescent Avenue church in turn traces its history back farther, to Scotland, to Geneva, to Rome, to Jerusalem.  And why?  Why are there Christians all over the globe?

Jesus calls us and called us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  His apostles began that, following the message of scripture to proclaim the gospel and ensure justice, and take care of those in need.  And to do that we need a presence in every place.

And so we are HERE, in North Plainfield.  And we as Presbyterians, and as Christians as a whole are here in the Plainfields.  To proclaim the gospel, work for justice and peace, and to take care of those here and around the world who are in need.

In this building?  Yes.  We do that with the Y, and we do that with Headstart, and we do that with other groups that use our space.  We do that with our special events for the presbytery and the general public.  But also so much more than what we do this building.  We walk for hunger.  We grow food with our Catholic neighbors.  Many of us serve God by helping others in some other way in some other charity, or through our occupations.

The psalm talks about God upholding those who have fallen, giving them food, and watching over those who cry out.  God could do that by pointing a finger – ZAP.  But God also can, and does do that with the help of his creation.  That’s us.  God also hears their cry and “saves them”.  That’s us too – whenever we hear the cry of pain, we take care of people’s needs.  We hear their cry for spiritual food, and we give them scripture and preaching.  We hear their cry to be with others, and we give them community.  And sometimes we are them, and our cries are heard and we are fed and cared for and taught.

When Hurricane Sandy hit last year, we sprung into action.  First we did what we needed to, checked on our homes and our own families, but quickly we turned to checking on each other.  All of the members of the church.  Some folks offered space in homes that still had power and heat.  Some folks came and checked out the church building.  A lot of people made phone calls to each other to make sure that everybody was OK.  And then we turned outward as a church– to see what the community needed.  We put together a meal for those needing food – because of trouble getting food or because of missing paychecks.  And we did not lose our community.  We got lucky – we got our power back about an hour before worship on that first Sunday after the hurricane – but we were ready to worship over in the fellowship center in the cold, if that’s what needed to happen.

That’s why we are HERE.  And this is WHY … WE … are HERE.  To praise God.  With our voices, with the work of our hands and our time and our talents and our treasure and our faith and our love.  To bring God’s message to all who need it.

To bless God’s holy name for ever and ever.

Amen.

Sermon – A Place for You, Sunday, September 29, 2013

October 6, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ as part of my Pastoral Care internship.  Audio is not currently available and as a result I cannot post my exact words – here is my manuscript.

First Reading:  Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Second Reading:  Luke 16:19-31

It was a crazy thing to do.  Jeremiah, buying a field at Anathoth, in the middle of Jerusalem, a city under siege by Babylon.  Jeremiah surely knew better – he’d spent years and 31 chapters warning the Israelites to shape up and follow God’s covenant, and then when they failed he told them that they would be going into exile.  Today, this would be like buying land in the middle of Detroit, or Damascus, or Camden.  Sure the land would be a bargain, but why would anybody want that land, want to live there, under siege?

In the Presbyterian Church – and by that I mean the PCUSA denomination that we are part of, things look a little disconcerting too.  In May the numbers came out and we lost just over 100,000 members in 2012.[1]  That’s about a 5% loss.  Two-thirds of that loss came from the silent departure of members – those who were removed from the membership rolls for inactivity.  It’s not just us either – all Protestant denominations are shrinking, and the Catholic Church is barely holding its numbers.  And yet, a Pew Research study says that while increasing numbers report that they are “unaffiliated”, 80% of Americans still say “I never doubt the existence of God.”[2]

In her book “The Great Emergence,” the church historian Phyllis Tickle talks about the different big changes that have happened in the Church since Christ left us and Pentecost happened.  She sees a pattern.  About every 500 years, we get to arguing with each other and go through a process where the way that we do church is overhauled.  She calls it a Great Rummage Sale – we sit down and figure out what we do that is important and should be kept, what we do that isn’t as important as we thought and should be jettisoned, and sometimes what we stopped doing and should do again.  The first of these started with the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where the early church worked out exactly what we believe about Christ.  Our definition of Jesus as fully human AND fully divine comes from that meeting.  It sounds a little boring now, but trust me – the fights over whether Jesus was of two natures in one person or two different persons in one body were just as nasty as fights over gay marriage are today.  People were excommunicated.  The second big change was the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in 1054.  Then, and most importantly for us, came the Reformation in the 1500’s.  Each time the church changed in a radical way – both the winners and the losers – and each time it was difficult for those living in the church.  Phyllis Tickle’s assertion is that we are going through one of those times again now, and that we are looking at what we do with an eye towards cleaning house.

           Old and New Chancels Things change here at this church, too.  Before the Memorial Service for Virginia, her daughter Debbie brought some old picture directories and other booklets of Watchung Avenue over the years.  This space where I am standing underwent a major change, one that I’m sure that some of you remember.  The picture on the front of the bulletin has the old look at the top, and today’s look at the bottom.  The pulpit used to be at the center, the choir used to sit where these curtains are, and this raised area was round.  There were more pews up close.  Also, the events that the church holds each year have changed.  The leadership has changed – when this church opened Shannan could never have been ordained, being a woman, and neither would the five women on the Session today.  I wasn’t here, but it seems likely to me that at each change the church had people in favor and against who felt like winners and losers – it was certainly painful at some point.

            So what do we do?  How do we get ready to ride the wave of change?  Will there be a spot for us on the other side?

In my first career I was trained as a Project Manager.  Some of that came out last year with the revision of the Bylaws.  One of the things that project managers need to understand and be able to work with is Change Management.  You can change the organization that you’re in, but you need to do it right.  You need to make sure that you’re making the right change.  You need to make sure that the change matches the direction that you want to go in.  You need to make sure that the change matches your values, that you aren’t selling yourself out with the change, OR avoiding change that must be made to live your values.  And it’s very important that people understand why the change is needed, and that you plan to help people along the way.  You need to be there for those people who are uncomfortable with the change and help them through it.  You want them to feel there is a place for them on the other side.  That’s especially true in the church.

The Session here is talking about that.  One thing that they’re looking at is the difference between Technical change and Adaptive change.  Technical changes are those that you already know how to make, and are generally clear.  If the boiler breaks, you fix it or replace it.  If people are having trouble reading the bulletin, you print it on bigger paper.  You run the Stewardship campaign each year to make sure that we have enough resources to operate.  You schedule Church School for the children. Things like that.

Adaptive change is change that isn’t quite so clear.  You know that something needs to be changed, but you can’t even tell what the problems are.  You have to learn what the questions are before you can find the answers.  Maybe you need to learn how to do something new to answer the need.  Adaptive changes might be things like moving to a mostly electronic newsletter (while still printing it for those who can’t get it online).  Or working with other Plainfield churches to figure out what the Presbyterian community here will look like.  Or studying discipleship as a church in order that we may make and become good disciples.

She doesn’t say it in quite this way, but I feel certain that Phyllis Tickle would call the change that the church is undergoing Adaptive Change.  The whole church knows that things are changing, but they don’t quite know how.  The whole church is realizing that the way that we are doing things isn’t quite working the way it used to, but we don’t yet know how to change it.  We’re worried about where the young people are.  We’re worried about how to reach the people living around the church.  We’re wondering how to be socially responsible Christians in a difficult world.  And while we’re considering change, some folks are uncomfortable with the idea of change.

Scary?  Yes.  Necessary?  I’d say yes.

Jeremiah was in that sort of “what do I do?” place too.  He’d been held in the court of Zedekiah – a ruler that the enemy King Nebuchadnezzar had put in place over Judah.  He was imprisoned there because he’d been speaking out, saying first to shape up, and later telling people that losing the battle was inevitable, and that they would be at best exiled to Babylon (and at worst, might end up dead).  And then the call from God came to him, telling him to do this crazy thing and buy land in a place that he was telling everybody they’d be forced to leave.  He had to work through intermediaries to buy the land, and the process also ensured that the purchase would come to the ears of many.  And he followed God’s orders and put the deeds in a sealed earthenware jar.  This was the closest thing the Israelites had to humidity and temperature controlled storage – you put the document in a big pot and sealed it up to protect it – the Dead Sea Scrolls were found like that.  He was told to make sure the deed lasted for a long time.  Why?

Because God was telling Jeremiah that there would be a place for him after the exile ended.  After the great upheaval, he would be back to use that land.  God said explicitly, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  The Israelites would again have a home.  The previous three chapters are a letter that God told Jeremiah to send to the exiles already in Babylon, promising them that they will return, and prosperity will return again to Israel after the captivity – after the change is complete.  Jeremiah had the word from God to have faith and he did have faith, that there would be a place after it was over.

And it is the same with us.  Our faith, our belief call us to make a home for all.  While change will bring discomfort for some, we are in a time when change is a must.  And we must be sure to bring everyone with us to the best of our ability.  It will take bending by all.  Those who are uncomfortable with change will need to give it a chance, and keep an open mind.  Those who are pushing for change will need to listen to others, and help them to understand why the change is being made, and to make accommodations where possible.  We need to get through the change together, with new people as they join us.

Jeremiah lived in interesting times.  Times of great change.  Life was difficult, different, and confusing for a while.  But Jeremiah went into the change knowing that it would all turn out well in the end – that he and his people would be returning home.  Prompted by God, he planned for that time when the Israelites would return.

And so it is with us.  We live in interesting times, with great change.  Life is confusing, difficult, and the church of the future may be quite different from what we grew up with.  We go into the change with that same hope.  That God, through Christ and the Spirit, is making a home for us.  That we will have a place in the church on Earth and the church in heaven after the changes.  That we should plan for the 200th anniversary of this church.  And that we should keep moving forward into the future.

Amen.



[1] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2013/5/30/stated-clerk-releases-pcusa-2012-statistics/

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/

Sermon – Outside the Bubble. April 28, 2013

May 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons, Work 

This sermon was preached on April 28, 2013 by Ann Elyse Hicks and Mark Smith (seminary interns) at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ.

Audio:  Sermon 2013-04-28 Acts 11 Ann Elyse Hicks and Mark Smith

New Testament Reading:  Acts 11:1-18

Ann Elyse:

Look, I understand why you would be upset. I understand why many of you are angry over what happened.  That’s why I’m here before you now. I do not want to preach or argue with you, but I do want you to hear my story; I want you to hear what happened to me in Joppa.

My story could have happened to any of us, really. It all started while I was praying. I had a vision, you see…

Mark:

Peter was one of the most important apostles.  He was the one Jesus called the rock on which the church would be built.  He was later named the first Pope.

He’d been going around, meeting with other early Christians.  He’d been performing his own miracles, healing and raising from the dead, right before this happened to him.  Now, those might have seemed fairly unusual to the average person, but to Peter they were his work – the same work that he’d seen Jesus do.

And now he’d had a vision, one that seemed strange even to him …

Ann Elyse:

I know! It sounds crazy; I know it sounds impossible. I know that you have doubts about the reality of my dream. Please, trust me a little longer. Keep listening to my story for a few more minutes. In this vision, there was a giant blanket lowered down from the sky until it rested right in front of me and on it rested every single type of animal … that I have never touched in my life. They were there, all the animals that I, that we avoided — there was pigs, lobsters, shrimp, a cobra.

And then, as if seeing all these animals was not enough to make me cringe, a voice, God’s voice, called to me, telling me to “Get up, kill, and eat.” I was revolted. I was horrified. How could God expect me to do something like this? What do you mean, what did I do? I told God no. I said that I would have nothing to do … with those unclean animals. I would keep to our traditions; they served our ancestors well, all the way back to Moses. Why should I suddenly abandon that, step outside the tradition, and try something new?

Mark:

Up until now, the apostles assumed that what had happened before Jesus died was the right thing to do.  That only Jews could be Christians.  That Christians had to keep the Jewish law, including such things as circumcision and following the rules about eating food.  It was even wrong for a Jew to associate with a Gentile in many cases.  Of course, we know that Jesus didn’t follow the rules, but then the apostles weren’t Jesus.

There were boundaries around that early Christianity.  And only Jews were able to practice it properly.  The early Christians had created a bubble around themselves, by their practices, by what they ate and how they ate it.

Sometimes we in the church can create bubbles around ourselves.  We can choose to keep things the way that they are, to keep doing things the way that we always have, because … “it’s comfortable.  It works for us.  It’s right.”  We may resist change because change is uncomfortable to us, or because we worry about what others might feel.  We might worry that a change will cause people to leave, without considering whether others stay away because of the way that we already are.

Ann Elyse:

Well, after I told God no, God responded to me. God said that all those animals on the blanket were clean, and that I must not consider them profane. This happened, this vision with the blanket from heaven happened, three times, and I can honestly say I never quite figured out what I was supposed to learn. In a way, it was God telling me that the traditions that I held dear were, in fact, harmful for the church. I could not understand it. I could not make sense of it at all.

Mark:

This was a big deal for Peter.  His dream overturned his core beliefs.  He was being told that the laws that he had learned as a child were wrong.  And not just wrong, but getting in the way of doing God’s will.  God told Peter that his creation was good, even though these parts of creation – the pigs and lobster and snakes – were things that Peter was taught were unclean and unacceptable.  God was telling Peter that he (and the rest of the Christians) needed to get out of the Jewish bubble and to talk with and eat with and spread the Word with Gentiles.

It’s hard to look at something or someone or a new idea and to fight down your fears or anxiety or assumptions.  I’d imagine that Shannan might have a hard time if she were told – by God, no less – that she needed to bless snakes on Blessing of the Pets Sunday.  It can be tough to take that risk, to make a change in the church or in the world, knowing that it could upset you, or upset someone else.  But then who are we excluding because we don’t make that change?  Are we keeping snake-lovers from the Gospel message, because we don’t like snakes?  What is the bubble here at Watchung Avenue?  Who is inside the bubble and who is outside the bubble?  Are we right about that?  And should there even be a bubble?

Ann Elyse:

While I was still praying, I was jolted back to the present by these three men shouting to me, waving their arms in greeting. They invited me to go to dinnere with them in Caesarea, and after my vision, well, I went. I felt called by the Holy Spirit to go, and not to comment on their differences. I mean, I went to dine with Gentiles, when I have never before even sat with them. I don’t know what I was thinking. I only knew that it was the right thing to do.

And the owner of the house where we went, Cornelius, he did not seem to know why I was there either. He had been convinced by the Spirit to invite me. Here we were, two strangers, united by our visions, by our call to dine together and learn together.

Mark:

Peter and the rest of the Apostles were very aware of the work of the Holy Spirit.  They had been given their gifts by the Spirit at Pentecost.  They were in turn giving the Spirit to others through the laying on of hands.  They felt the call of God through this working of the Spirit, and were quick to listen to it.

And so when Peter heard the call of the Spirit to go and visit the house of Cornelius, he went.  He went even though Cornelius was a Gentile and not a Jew.  This was against much of what he had been taught, because Jewish purity laws made interactions between Jews and Gentiles difficult – particularly the sharing of meals.

Peter would have been stressed about this.  He knows that it’s the right thing to do, and Peter tells us that he was told by the Spirit to go.  Perhaps it was something like the Spirit telling Shannan to go to the zoo, enter the snake’s cage, and eat a picnic meal.  When God tells you to do something you do it … but it can be hard.

Peter went outside of the bubble.  Cornelius went outside of his bubble, too.  It would have been very unusual for a Roman Centurion to invite a Christian to visit and eat together.

What would going outside of our bubble here mean?  What does going outside of your bubble mean to you?

Ann Elyse:

Well, after dinner, I started preaching a little bit. Y’all know how I can be.  Anyways, we were all sitting in Cornelius’s living room, and I was bringing a lovely message, when I remembered Jesus saying to us that John baptized with water but that he, Jesus, would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Do you remember that teaching?

And I realized, like a flash of lightning, that we were all baptized with the same Spirit. We had, each of us in that room, received that same gift—life in Christ. Where had my hesitation come from? How could I have ever thought that eating with Gentiles was bad, or that we could not learn from each other? How could I have ever resisted leaving my comfort zone when God called me to do exactly that? Who was I that I could hinder God?

Mark:

This was a historic moment.  Peter preached at the house, and the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and his family.  Gentiles.  Non-Jews.  The faith in Jesus had been taught to someone from outside of the Jewish bubble, and they accepted it and God accepted them.

For Peter, the bubble popped.  It was gone.  There was no longer Jew or Greek, no longer male or female.  Jews and Gentiles together shared the uniting faith in Christ.  And remember, we are those same Gentiles.

This was the big payoff.  The chance for the apostles to do what Jesus had commanded them before ascending into Heaven – that they would be his witnesses to not just Jerusalem, not just Israel, but to all the ends of the earth.

And we as their successors are called to do the same.  We are to preach the Gospel to all.  And so the question falls to us – what bubbles have we created?  Where does our hesitation come from?  Are we hindering God’s work?

Ann Elyse:

We have a chance to move beyond what we have known. When we accept new people into the faith, we are accepting their new ideas as well.  The gospel message of Jesus is eternal. But the way that we hear and experience this message changes as we grow in the Spirit, and as the church faces new challenges in each generation. We have God to guide us, always and forever, through each and every time of change.

Mark:

And so we Praise God for the gift of the Spirit

Ann Elyse:

What God has made clean, you must not call profane.

Mark:

Make disciples of all nations.

Ann Elyse:

Get outside the bubble.

Both:

Amen.

Sermon – Where is the Church? Transfiguration Sunday, February 10, 2013

February 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

Sermon preached by Mark Smith at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, North Plainfield, NJ

Audio: Mark Smith Sermon 2013-02-10 Luke 9 Transfiguration Sunday

Psalm 99
Luke 9:28-43

It was a really unusual experience for Peter, John and James.  It started simply enough – Jesus took them off onto a mountain to pray.  And that wasn’t all that unusual – Jesus was known for praying in isolated places and had gone to a mountain to pray before.  He had prayed with his disciples before as well.

While he was praying, things started to happen.  Jesus’s face changed.  His clothes became a glowing white – in Greek it says that his clothes were so bright that they flashed like lightning.  Maybe these disciples knew their Jewish scriptures well enough to remember that Moses’s face had shone when Moses spoke to God.  Maybe they remembered how the sky flashed with lightning when Ezekiel saw his vision of God, or when Daniel saw the figure in his vision that was clothed in fine linen and who had a face like lightning.

And then they were joined by two figures, Moses and Elijah.  I imagine that this looked a little bit like the end Star Wars, where the deceased Jedi appeared to Luke Skywalker.  Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus and told him of his departure – of his future death and resurrection at Jerusalem.  Peter and the others saw all of this even though they were sleepy – they saw Jesus’s glory, and the return of the man who received the Law from God, and the Prophet of God.  This was a holy moment.

And then Moses and Elijah left.  Peter asked Jesus if they should build three tents – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.  Peter recognized them as three holy figures, heavenly figures, and wanted to create a special home for them here on earth.  The word in Greek in the scripture that I read, that read as “dwelling,” can also mean “Tabernacle.”  And the famous Tabernacle was the tent that God instructed Moses to construct to hold the Ark of the Covenant – God’s home on earth among the Israelites from the time of their wandering in the wilderness.  That Tabernacle was used until God commanded Solomon to build The Temple in Jerusalem to be God’s place.  Peter wanted to create a single place to commemorate the holy moment for these three great holy men, as if holy things happened in one place.  The text says that Peter did not know what he was saying – he reacted reflexively, mirroring what had been done before.

Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, very much like the way that a cloud covered Mount Sinai when Moses spoke to God.  God spoke from the cloud.  “This is my Son, my Chosen.  Listen to him!”  And this is a lot like the words that we heard at Jesus’s baptism.  God says that Jesus is God’s son.  And this time we are told to listen to him.

In the time of the Old Testament, from Moses until Jesus, there was one place that they might have called the church back then, and that was the Tabernacle that was carried around from place to place in Moses’s time.  In the psalm that I read it talks about God sitting enthroned on the cherubim – and that’s what the top of the Ark looked like.  If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark it looks exactly like it’s described in the Bible, and there are the two winged cherubim with their wings pointing towards the center, and that’s where the priests made their sacrifices to God, to fulfill God’s covenant with the Israelites.  Later the place of this church settled in the Temple in Jerusalem.    The church was in a building, at least a temporary building.  God’s main way of interacting with God’s people was in one place.

A day after all of these things happened on the mountain Jesus and the disciples came down, and a man came to them because his son needed healing, and Jesus healed his son.  The man didn’t need to go to The Temple in Jerusalem.  He  didn’t need to go to the top of the mountain where Moses and Elijah had appeared.  He met Jesus where the man was – at the bottom of the mountain.  He met Jesus in the world, not inside of a church building.

Jesus did most of his work in the world, rather than in a building.  He did appear in the Temple, and he appeared in the synagogue a few times, but most of his work was done outside, among the people.  He worked with people as he traveled.  He worked with people as he preached outdoors, on a hillside or a lake.  He worked with people in their homes.  He talked to and ate with and healed and helped people who couldn’t come into the Temple – those who could not walk, those who were ritually unclean, and those who worked in professions that made them less acceptable in the Temple.  Jesus did more of his ministry among those who were on the edges of society, than those who were on the inside.  He did his work in the world, rather than in a building.

Here at Watchung Avenue, we do a lot of good work inside our building.  We meet every week to praise God, to hear the scripture read, and to hear a message.  We are a community that is learning and growing and building each other up.  We do a lot of good for others in this building as well.  We serve meals to those who need them.  We collect and distribute groceries.  We offer space to Headstart and WIC and the Y.  And we share our worship space with Christo mi Rey.  We invite others in to learn and grow, as we did with the Love Free or Die movie, with diversity training, and as we will in March with the upcoming Trigger documentary on gun violence.  We do a lot of good inside our building when someone is here.  The church is where we are.

We also do a lot of good outside of our building.  Together we walked in October to raise money to fight hunger.  We have been networking with others on hurricane relief and how we might best participate.  Our youth and our adults have gone to Stony Point and other places to do mission work.  Cameron has been working outside of our building on hunger and disaster relief.  We also do a lot of good outside of our building.  The church is where we are.

And our lives are God’s work as well.  Each of us brings our Christian faith with us … to home, to work, to volunteer.  The way that we live is a reflection of Christ within us.  I worked in the corporate world for a while before starting seminary, and many times I found myself asking is this thing that I’m doing … this decision or this action … a good idea?  Is this software that I’m writing to support an advertising campaign helping people to buy things that they want, or is it just finding new ways to take money from people?  Is this report that I’m writing being used to support integrity in the business, or is it just being written to make somebody else in the company look bad?  There was simply no way to act in the world without my faith coloring my thoughts and decisions.  Sometimes I was able to push back when my faith told me that an action was not the right thing to do.  Sometimes I wasn’t able to push back, and then it hurt.  So I wonder if you’ve ever faced that – a situation at work where your values conflicted with what you’ve asked to do?  How did you handle it?  I brought my faith to my work every day.  But it’s not just me.  We create common everyday miracles of faith when we act with God in mind.  When Bob helps someone plan their financial life, Bob is reflecting his Christian faith.  His actions and decisions are colored by his faith and he brings the church with him to work.  When Pat works with residents in senior housing, she brings her faith with her, and the image of God within her shines through in the help that she gives.  She brings the church with her as well.  When Virginia goes to the Senior club, she brings her faith along, and brings the church with her in all that she does.  When Cori cares for her niece, when Andrew cares for his grandson, they bring their faith into their families and the church comes with them.  When Ryan participates in the Boy Scouts, he brings his faith and the church.  When Shelby and Chris create their art and music, they use their God-given talents to create beauty in God’s creation.  They are inspired in part by their relationship with Christ, and the church comes with them.  There are so many other examples in this congregation and everywhere, and if I tried to include all of them we’d be here for a while.  What’s important is that the church is where we are, in this building or someplace else.

So what is common to all of this?  Is it the building?  No, it’s the people.  We bring our talents, our time and our energy to the work that all of us do.  We bring the image of God that is within each of us to our service to others and our faith and our values ride along with us in everything that we do.  Is the church a building?  The church is people.  Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.”  When we are in the world interacting with others, there are at least two gathered and wherever we are, Christ is.  And we bring our community with us as well.  We can draw on the resources of the church, on our fellow churchgoers, in everything that we do to help others.  We can talk through issues with our church friends – whether that’s a question about what to do at work or where to go to get people the help that they need.  And we can always show our faith to others, in the hope that our faith may help them, and perhaps may become their faith.  The church exists where we are, doing our common everyday miracles.

I’m going to ask you all a question.  This isn’t a rhetorical question – I’m actually looking for an answer.

Where is the church?

“Where we are! … Where we are…we are… where we are!”

OK, not bad.  That was a little ragged.  (laughter)  Let’s try it one more time.  Where is the church?

“Where we are!”

OK, and one more time …. Where is the church?

“Where we are!”

And that is a wonderful thing.

Amen.

 

Montreat Youth Conference, part 1

August 5, 2008 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Religion, Youth 

Last week I went to the Montreat Youth Conference as an adult advisor for my church’s youth group.  During the trip, I had an experience that was … well … let me just describe it.

First, a little background.  I’ve written before about my experiences with the church and my departure from the church almost 20 years ago.  If you don’t want to read that, here’s a summary:  very involved as a youth (deacon, Synod YAD, church camp), in college a few things happened and I left the church completely.  I began searching for a congregation related to my return to church just about 3 years ago this month, and joined my current congregation later that fall.  I’m currently serving as a youth advisor for the Sr. High youth group, co-chairing a committee, and I’m about to start serving as a deacon again.

During Monday night’s worship at Montreat, the song “Here I Am, Lord” was sung.  This song was very popular at Camp Johnsonburg when I was working there, and I was happy to sing it again.

Around about the 2nd verse, I started getting very emotional and tearing up.  Around about the 3rd verse, I started to get a picture in my head – one that I can’t claim came from me.

The picture showed something of a timeline.  Over on the left side, there was a dark black line that represented my religious involvement of the past – from about age 13 to age 19.  On the right side, there was another shorter dark black line that represented my religious involvement of the past few years.  There was a big blank space in between.  As we sang, I saw the picture of a jumper wire (almost like a car’s jumper cable, but more like something used in electronics work) connecting the two lines.  I have been considering my religious life of the past to be different from the present.  I believe that the message here is that they are part of a single whole and remain connected.

So I was standing there, singing, tears in my eyes, and a picture in my head that I didn’t put there.

In my mind, this was a full-on Religious Experience.  Maybe even a Vision.  I mean … if there had been a shaft of sunlight and Baptist dancers flying through the air I’d be a Blues Brother now.  It was a really weird experience.

I’ve been skeptical of those who claim to have visions or have other divinely-inspired events in their lives.  Not anymore.  I think I get it now.  A later discussion with a family member produced that person’s story of a similar experience.

At the time that this happened, I had no idea what it meant.  I’m still not sure that I do.

The first thing that I did was ask my youth director to join me at The Huck for some ice cream so that I could talk about this (and another youth joined us for “Introvert Time”).  On the way we met Jorge Gonzales who was doing music for the week and I got a chance to thank him.

Later in the week I might have gotten some idea of the meaning behind this.

All youth and adults participating in small groups were assigned to a Small Group of about 30 people.  Those groups were broken down into smaller “Threshold” groups of about 6.  I got an opportunity to talk about this experience with my Threshold Group, but due to time constraints I barely got through the story before we had to move onto something else.

The theme for the week was “Throw Open the Doors”.  There were door metaphors tossed around during all activities.  On Friday (the last day of the conference), our Small Group leader asked “what doors have opened for you this week?”  I had a few ideas in my head, and the one that I chose was:  Don’t let the experiences of the past (meaning negative ones) color your view of your experiences of the present.  When I said that the Small Group said things like, “Dude.  That’s not just a door – that’s like a big gate or something.”

Later that evening we had the closing worship.  The preacher was Michelle Thomas-Bush (who I met through this blog).  She told a story about her 20th high school reunion.  At the reunion she met a man who had been in school with her.  He explained that he couldn’t remember anything about his high school experience at all.  He was being abused by his parents at the time, and all of his memories of that period are one big black mess.  He came to the reunion in order to rediscover his high school memories.  He was the life of the party, talked to everybody, and learned a few things.  At the end of the evening he talked to Michelle again.  She asked him if he’d learned anything.  He reported a few memories of good times and stupid high school tricks, but his main message was that this night was his New High School Memory.

Sound familiar?  Yeah, I thought so too.

I’m still working on how to apply these revelations to my life, though the implications for my church life are pretty obvious.  Back in December, I wrote this about how those once hurt by the church may keep looking over their shoulder for trouble to come again.  I think that part of the message is clear – stop looking over your shoulder.  We’ll see.  Being a Christian is hard.

As for the rest, that is not quite apparent yet.  More in the next post on the conference.

A good sermon on being called

May 20, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

This past Sunday was Deacon Sunday, when the Board of Deacons runs the service.

The outgoing President of the Deacons, Pam Ford, delivered the sermon.  The title is “Confessions of a Reluctant Deacon”, and it talks a lot about her sense of call and how her deacon experience has caused her to grow.

It’s worth a listen, or a read.  I recommend listening.

A Once and Future Pastoral Star

March 5, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

At the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville this year we are blessed with three seminary interns.  All three of them have preached well at our church on different Sundays.  I have to write today about the intern who preached this past Sunday – she touched my soul in ways that are rare.  (Sorry Dave and Alissa – you did really well too but this one hit me deeply.)

Grier Booker Richards is a middler (2nd of 3 years) at Princeton Seminary.  She and I share one trait – both score as strong introverts on the Myers-Briggs scale.  That affects how people do ministry.  Most minsters are extroverts and the whole concept of ministry today is based around the ideal of the prophetic minister firing up his congregation with his charm.  Grier has charm – it’s just a different type of charm, more of a warm presence than a fiery presence.

Anyway, she preached on Sunday about the seminary experience and particularly about what brought her to hear her call.  In the sermon, she relates a story of tragedy and her response and her church’s response to an event that happened while serving as a lay youth ministry leader.  You’ll have to hear it for yourself – the audio version is HERE, and the text is HERE.  Listen to the audio version if you have the time – it’s much more powerful than the text.

It’s very rare that a sermon has moved me to tears.  Grier has the ability to take an emotional story and relate it back to a spiritual concept.  She poured so much of herself into this sermon that it’s hard not to understand her point.

Coming soon to a pulpit near you – this once and future pastoral star.  Watch for her PIF in a few years.

Secular Politics and the Church

September 18, 2007 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

I’m a bit concerned.

I have said in some places, but perhaps not this blog, something about my feelings on secular politics and the church.  The short version is that I feel that the church should teach its members how to make moral judgments, but that the church should NOT be involved in advocating a position on current secular political events.  In other words – the church should be for peace, but not for peace in the Middle East by creating a Palestinian state (to give one example).  The church is in the field of giving us moral toolkits, but should not be instructing us on exactly how to apply them to specific situations.  Otherwise, at some point we stop asking people to make proper personal decisions on secular matters and start dictating those decisions – we create essential tenets that have little to do with God but much to do with the country or world.  I know that my opinion is in the minority among church leaders, though I’m not so sure about the pew sitters in general.

My pastor said something in his sermon this past Sunday about the church and politics.

I want to ask us to consider a kind of variation on that Peter Drucker question [mentioned earlier].  To ask whether the business we’re also in as a community of faith is about changing our Common Life … our life together as a people … our participation in the body politic.  Does this message have something to say about how we participate in the political realm and in the social realm?

Also, the church has scheduled an event for the church to give their feedback on this issue to our pastor before he delivers a sermon series on the topic.

People to Preacher Symposium on Faith & Politics –

Convener: Jeff Vamos. Two Sections (choose one)

Tuesday, October 30, 6:30-9:00 pm (dinner); or Saturday,
November 3, 9-11:00 am.
What does the Bible say about the relationship between faith and politics? How have Presbyterians dealt with that issue? Is it appropriate to speak of politics from the pulpit? What did Jesus have to say on this? These are questions we will discuss in this symposium. Each one-time conversation is designed to provide Jeff with “grist for the sermon mill” before a twopart sermon series on Faith & Politics in early November.

Please call the church office, 896-1212 or email office@pclawrenceville.org to register for one of the sessions. Preparatory reading material from the Book of Confessions will be expected.

I don’t think I’m alone – after he made this statement (and a few others) in the sermon the couple sitting next to me got fidgety and wrote a few notes to each other on their bulletin.  I got the idea that the pastor’s words made them uncomfortable.

This concerns me because I sense a desire for our church to make more political pronouncements and to become involved in political causes.  Other churches do this – some on the left and some on the right.

When I came to Lawrenceville, one of my concerns was the political strife in the church and beyond and the degree to which it would affect me as a member.  The church and society as a whole has been polarized into two sides:  The Right – evangelical, conservative, fundamentalist, Republican and the Left – progressive, less religious, tolerant, diverse, Democrat.  The leaders of government – particularly Republicans – have co-opted the Christian religious establishment as a voting block.  I was assured by the Interim Associates for Pastoral Ministry (temporarily filling the Associate Pastor role) that the culture of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville intentionally chose to embrace members from all parts and ends of the political/religious spectrum.  That the congregation was willing to discuss controversial issues openly (as opposed to some congregations that avoid them) but in a manner where all points of view are respected.  Discussions, not fights.  Very even tempered.

What concerns me is that I based my decision to join this church on many factors, and chief among them was this “Big Tent” philosophy.  I know that Jeff Vamos (and apparently Mary Alice Lyman as well) falls on the left end of the political/theological spectrum.  The church in general tips towards the left end as well.  But there is still a respect for those who disagree, and an unwritten agreement that the congregation as a whole (and the Session too) will not take a corporate position on secular political issues.  It is probably impossible to impose a similar moratorium on theological positions, though the church does try to be inclusive of all in at least membership.

So I’m worried.  Is the church trying to change in a way that goes against one of the bigger reasons that I chose it?  Do we stop being the church where all are welcome and become the Church of the Left?  Do I need to leave if that happens?

I have signed up for the “symposium” described above.  We’ll have to see where it goes.

What I needed to hear

September 6, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

Sometimes, you go to church on Sunday and hear the sermon that you needed to hear, on the day that you needed to hear it.

That happened to me two weeks ago.  Our new Associate Pastor, Mary Alice Lyman, preached a sermon called Where the Heart Is.

One quote:

Religion should incorporate principles, not constrictive rules and regulations.  Many people, in the time of Jesus, were committed to God, but they failed in how to maintain the commitment.  Many people, now, are committed to God, but we fail in how this commitment is maintained.  I think commitment to God is determined by many factors but one that I feel is key is the renewal of the human heart.  And the
renewal of the human heart is something that comes from inside us. Social reforms or education cannot renew the heart.  Armed conflict cannot enact it.  Initially, it is the human mind that makes the
decision to accept Christ; but it is the heart that will make the decision to follow Christ to the end of one’s life.

….

Our religion should not kill our compassion.  When people are in need and love is called upon we should act with a human heart.  God prefers love to law, and hearts over habits.  Our first priority should be our
devotion to God not the fear getting in trouble for breaking Sabbath law.  We should be living from the heart and not under the constraintsof habit.  If our religion is standing in the way of doing a good deed
then it might be time to examine our beliefs.  They might be killing our compassion.

In her verbal delivery (but not in the written sermon), she actually said that she’s worried that this is exactly the problem that the Presbyterian Church faces.  Sound familiar?

Side note:  The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville has a new website at pclawrenceville.org  It’s pretty nice.

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