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To Live Is To Be Slowly Born

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Oct. 25, 2020

Many of us know Antoine de St. Exupery as the author of The Little Prince. He was a man of many talents, and certainly a brilliant writer and illustrator. But he was also, and in his mind primarily, a pilot; he was shot down by a German fighter late in World War II and was never found.

Much of his writing was about war. In his book Night Flight, St. Exupery tells the story of a man he witnessed dug out of a bombed-out building. Blinded by the light, confused and wobbly, he tries to answer awkward questions from the crowd: What was it like, what were you thinking about—pedestrian questions. And the stunned, dehydrated man, answers in a simple, pedestrian manner—he heard a tearing sound, his back hurt, he worried that his watch that was a gift was broken.  Neither the questions nor the answers got at what St. Exupery thought must be the most important one: “Who were you? Who surged up in you?” What St. Exupery wanted to know, and what the crowd wanted to know, was who was he, now that he’d been through this traumatic, life-changing event? But they didn’t know how to ask, and the man didn’t know how to answer. If he answered such a question he’d likely say, “I was only me, myself.”

Time, St. Exupery says, time would be needed to answer that question. Time would allow “him little by little to build up the legend of himself.”

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us,” St. Exupery writes. “To live is to be slowly born.”

St. Exupery says these thoughts came to him as he was flying a solo night mission in the freezing cold with his guns jammed, his oxygen bottles low, and his rudder frozen. What is he learning from war? He wonders. How does this make me a better person?  He cannot know now the person this experience is making him. Even if he does gain some new insight, he says, it will not be because of a single moment, but because “I shall have carried my heavy stones” of experience accumulated over years “toward the invisible structure” of who he is becoming. “There is nothing that I may expect of the hazard of war except this slow apprenticeship,” he says.

It seems to me that St. Exupery’s thoughts apply to the challenges we’re facing in the multiple crises that are just part of 2020. Who are we in this time? Who are we becoming? At the present moment, the only answer we’re likely to give is, “I’m only me, myself, my usual self, coping with an unusual situation.”

Most likely, like the bombing victim, we’re more concerned with every-day matters that have been completely upended by the pandemic.  I want to go back to school or to church. I’m tired of Zoom. I miss my relatives on the other side of the country.

We don’t recognize the new and, God willing, better person we are becoming because we’re in the process of it happening. As time passes, as experience accumulates, we’ll have time to build up the story of this new person, to bear our heavy stones toward the invisible structure of who God is making us–as long as we don’t remain mired in the past. “There is nothing that I may expect of the hazard of war except this slow apprenticeship,” Exupery writes, and that is true for us as well. But an apprenticeship ends in a skill. If we are open to it, we are learning new ways to survive and thrive and to be better people in this time. But it is slow and patient and hard work, because to live is to slowly be born.

Our passage from Deuteronomy today is the story of the death of Moses. Moses dies tragically unable to enter the Promised Land that he spent forty years of his life leading the people of Israel to inherit. This is the very end of the Books of the Torah, the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It ends with these words “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” God’s unique, special knowledge of Moses is the counter-balance to another observation in the passage: “Moses was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”

Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg points out that the whole theme of Exodus is “’to know that I am God.’

The revelation on Mt. Sinai provides that transcendent knowledge. But at the same time the motif of ‘not knowing’ pervades the book, indeed the whole Torah. From Pharaoh’s ‘I do not know God’ mirroring his original description as ‘not knowing Joseph’ to the final description of Moses’ death (‘no one knew the place he was buried’), the consciousness persists of ‘a cloud of unknowing:’ of another world, perhaps adjacent to this one, partially intimated, not mastered.

One of the things for which I am grateful to my college, Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, is the fact that I received a classical education. In that education, I learned some of the ways classicists interpret myths and legends. For instance, it is not uncommon to read the story of a famous classical hero and have the story end with “his burial place is unknown to this day.” Most classicists would understand that to mean that the great hero probably actually didn’t exist—otherwise he would have a grave.

But there is an advantage to being such a hero. That hero is no longer bound by human laws and expectations. That hero is no longer bound by history, the real things that really happened to him. He can become whoever is needed to fit the moment. A hero who doesn’t have a grave could walk into your door at any moment—maybe she’s not really dead! A hero not bound by history can have any story told about her you want to believe. She can be what you need her to be.

Now there are plenty of reasons to believe Moses existed. But his unknown grave raises interesting questions about knowing who Moses was and who Moses continues to be. His unknown grave opens for us the possibility not that Moses is less than what history tells us, but far more. It means there’s so much we don’t know about him and may never know. It makes him never-ending.

But, we are assured, even if we don’t know those things about him, it doesn’t matter: God knows.

God knew—and knows—Moses face to face. Part of what makes Moses such an intriguing and compelling character is that scholars and rabbis and preachers and bible readers throughout the ages have plumbed the depths of his character, the character of this man who knew God face to face, and yet in three thousand years we’ve never reached the bottom. He is still fascinating, surprising, mysterious, and intriguing. Here is a man who came face to face with the numinous, who entered that cloud of unknowing—of another world, perhaps adjacent to our own, partially hinted at, but never mastered. If we can’t know the depths of Moses, we can’t know the depths of God: but if we can at least explore his depths, we can possibly understand both him and God better.

And this is just as true of you and me. You and I have depths unexplored. You and I are never-ending. In a way, we don’t have a grave either, because like Moses, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we live eternally with the God who knows us better than we know ourselves.

We have selves we have been and selves we are becoming. We are a mystery even to ourselves: we can’t know who we are becoming. Each of us in our own way is a unique portal to the infinite, unknown even to ourselves, but fully known by God.

I imagine Moses, like you and me, dealing with each crisis as it comes. He didn’t believe in Yahweh, the Hebrew God–did not have faith–but faith was demanded of him, so he had faith.

He was not a leader, but leadership was demanded of him, so he led.

He had never had the responsibility of providing for the needs of a nation, but that was required of him, so he figured out how to do it.

He’d never been a mediator before—in fact when he was younger, and witnessed a quarrel between an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave, he killed the Egyptian, which isn’t exactly mediation—but there was a need for a mediator between the people and God, so Moses became that mediator.

At every point, if you’d asked him who he was now, he might very well have answered, “I’m just me, doing what circumstances require of me.”

But the sum total of all these responses to each emerging crisis was that he became perhaps the greatest human who ever lived, the role model for Jesus himself. It was a slow, day-by-day process–and one day he awoke, a complete stranger to the person he was forty years before when he was a shepherd in Midian investigating a strange bush that burned but was not consumed. A person he could never have imagined.

Because to live is to slowly be born.

This is as true for us as it is for him. Each crisis we’ve addressed is adding an experience that is shaping the person that by God’s grace we are being born to be. And it’s important in that process to recognize what Moses’ story tells us: this birth is larger than the experiences that we have, or the world that we live in, or the crises that we face, or the person we are right now. Right now, in 2020, with Covid-19, racial justice protests, unemployment, and the election, and so much more, right now in the midst of these very material and very concrete and very worldly challenges, heaven is knocking on our door. There is a great cloud of unknowing, a world that exists beyond this one, partially hinted at, never mastered.

That world is knocking on the door of this one.

To the extent we open that door, that other world will enter our lives and shape and re-shape us into the person that we cannot predict, but that God knows us to be. We don’t know who we will become. But if we see in these crises not simply the earthly, often frustrating and even frightening concrete experiences of the moment—but the hinted at, the intimated, the hidden-just-around-the-corner godly possibilities—the emergence of the eternal into the every-day, the extraordinary into the mundane, the divine into the worldly—we will discover a new person, someone totally unexpected, is born within us—a person who is a little closer to knowing God face-to-face.

Knowing How to Lose

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
October 18, 2020

Exodus 33: 12-23

Torah Scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg sets the story of God revealing God’s glory to Moses in the larger context of the aftermath of Israel’s heretical worship of the Golden Calf. If you recall, while Moses was on Mount Sinai forty days and nights receiving the tablets of the law, the people despaired that he would ever return and thought themselves abandoned by God. So they constructed and worshipped a Golden Calf. When Moses returned he caught them doing it and in anger broke the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Both he and God are outraged.

What follows is a long, long process of God, Moses and the people dealing with the aftermath of this outrageous behavior. The people are humiliated; the worst offenders are executed. Repentance is ritually enacted. But neither God nor Moses is fully satisfied with these responses. Moses and God argue back and forth, both of them angry and hurt, God ready to be done with the Israelites forever and to start over again. Moses responds that God would be betraying God’s own nature to destroy the Israelites and God accedes to that argument, to a point.

These discussions, these negotiations if you will, all take place on the mountaintop, far from the people. The Israelites have seen the fury of Moses and have seen him dramatically turn his back on them, as if to renounce them, as if he was done with them, and ascend Mt. Sinai again, to be lost in the overwhelming storm and darkness of the mountaintop, where they know God’s fury resides. They wait at the foot of the mountain, filled with dread, to see what will result. Their fate, their destiny is out of their hands.

Unknown to them, at the top of the mountain, the Moses who was justly angry at the people begins a process of shedding himself, of letting go of himself and his self-interest, and identifying himself with the people, with their helplessness, their loneliness, their hopelessness, and their fear. Moses stops thinking of himself either as Moses the individual, or as Moses the leader of the Israelites, but as the Israelites themselves. God has said, “Those who have sinned against me, I will erase from my book. Moses responds (32: 32) “Then erase ME from your book.” He has not only identified himself with the people’s sin, Zornberg points out, but “he offers to sacrifice his own personal destiny, his narcissistic interest in his own narrative.” 

In our passage today, Moses no longer distinguishes any difference between himself and God’s people. He says to the Lord, “How shall it be known that your people have gained your favor unless you go with us, so that we may be distinguished, your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?” It is at this point that Moses pushes God an amazing extra mile: “Oh, let me behold your presence!” It sounds like Moses is asking for something for himself, but the truth is that at this point, Moses and the Israelites have become inseparably one. Moses is asking that God extend the favor God shows to Moses to ALL the people. He’s asking that God not simply show Moses God’s presence: He’s asking that God show the people God’s presence.

Zornberg sees the Israelites as a nation struggling with a deep depression. They are a people who imagined themselves able somehow to build their own God who was willing to do their bidding. They have imagined themselves omnipotent. But the fiery storms that emerged as a result of this imagined power have confronted them with both the arrogance of their assumption and the reality that they are indeed quite far from omnipotent.

Zornberg says their depression consists of

Not knowing how to lose… [They become] ‘painfully riveted to the object of their loss; fascinated by that object, they disavow its loss…. The connection between people becomes calcified, as does the connection between people and God…. [They become] radical, sullen atheist [s].’’

At this point it might be well for us to do as Moses did, and identify ourselves as individuals and as a nation with the distraught, depressed Israelites. I think that all Americans at some level have imagined ourselves as omnipotent, as all-powerful. I know for my generation, at least, that came with the unconscious baggage we carried in being the post-War democratic Superpower who dominated the late 20th Century. That self-image began to crumble with 9/11. Events of the last few years, and especially of the last year, have undone that self-identity still further.

As Zornberg says, we are painfully riveted to the object of our loss, and so we continue to disavow the loss of our omnipotence. But it’s real. And since at some level we have imagined our national omnipotence to be a sign of God’s favor, we have begun to wonder where exactly God is right now, and to fear that God has abandoned us: hence, Zornberg’s observation that the people have become ‘radical, sullen atheists.’”

With an election coming up, we look to our political leaders to offer us a return to the good old days, that sense of national omnipotence, when we could do no wrong and no wrong could happen to us. We are in danger of looking at our political parties and their leaders as Golden Calves who offer us false power, when in reality the events of the past year are a wake-up call: No one is all-powerful, no nation is all-powerful, no one has all the answers, and seeking somehow to control the world in which we live is only an exercise in frustration, disappointment, and fear.

Our only hope, Zornberg says, lies in knowing how to lose.

I was an avid runner for several years in my youth. I participated in my first race my sophomore year in college, when I was nineteen. It was the Hampden-Sydney/Longwood Minithon, a 6.2 mile race between my small college of Hampden-Sydney in Virginia and the campus of Longwood College in nearby Farmville.  A lot of my friends from the fellowship group we were in, the Canterbury Episcopal Campus ministry, participated as well. Not only that, but Canterbury’s avuncular, gentle, but not exactly in-shape priest, the Rev. John Emmert, decided to race as well.

Now, we all loved John, whose kindliness, humility and lop-sided grin gave the impression of a modern St. Francis. But he was not what you’d call an athlete. I admit we both appreciated it but also, you know, joked about it. But John was there, and we loved him for it.

At the gun, the runners were off. All of us Canterburiers were in a pack together, but we soon separated each according to our ability. As I ran the country miles, a great source of both frustration and inspiration was the college librarian’s dog, a small sweet mutt with only three legs whose nickname was Tripod, who took off with us and kept excitedly running to the head of the pack and then to the back all the way through the race. He must have run three races to our one and it drove me crazy that he was so often ahead of me!

I put on a last burst of speed as we crested the hill at Longwood and was satisfied with my run. Some of my friends had already finished and others were not far behind me. But as the race dragged on, the crowd of runners became smaller… and smaller… and smaller… and we started to worry about John. Had something happened? Had he quit? Become dehydrated? Had a heart attack? Keep in mind that to us twenty-year olds, John’s nearly forty years just seemed impossibly old.

Finally, John came trundling up the hill among the last stragglers. He was sweaty, grim and determined. But he made it. We ran out and embraced him and celebrated. We loved that man. We knew he would do anything for us.

In many ways John has always symbolized for me how to lose. He didn’t care about his pride or his priestly dignity or straggling in among the last (though to this day he bristles that we still joke he came in “last”!). He wanted to be with us, to be part of us, to do what we were doing. That was more important than anything.

In our biblical story, the Israelites learn how to lose. They let go of their false sense of omnipotence and, Zornberg says, “initiate the ‘work of mourning.” God’s people are willing at last to recognize that they aren’t omnipotent, that they don’t have all the answers, and this “avowal of loss” leads them to “shift from a specious impotence to ‘humility and prayer.’ In the move, the people find a nexus with God”… This creates the “’time of favor’, a mysterious modulation of human experience that attunes them with God. Since they have chosen relationship over omnipotence, God, too, is moved to mercy and for the first time in the catastrophic episode calls them, ‘the children of Israel.’’

There is a need for us, as a nation, to acknowledge our losses, to recognize that we can’t overcome every problem, that sometimes we must just accept the cards we are dealt and play them as well as we can, rather than imagining that we can overcome every problem by hard work or by magical thinking. But Zornberg points out that such humility creates a time of favor, a modulation of human experience that attunes us to God. We often don’t give that thought credit—we like to think that it’s in winning that we are closest to God. But often we are closest to God when we acknowledge that we are losers, that we can’t get everything right, that we don’t have the answer to every problem, that we aren’t strong enough to overcome every obstacle. What matters then is that instead of striving to win, we instead strive for relationship. That’s what made me think of John Emmert running that race. He wasn’t trying to win, he was demonstrating that a relationship with us matters to him more than his pride, priestly dignity, or being the best runner. And so really, it’s true, he didn’t win—we did. We won because that relationship was so important to us, and it was important to him, too.

As I said, when Moses finally asks to see God’s glory, he is no longer asking for himself. He asking it for the whole nation of Israel—a nation that has been beset by trouble and loss, that has lost its way, that has followed false gods of national omnipotence. And God grants it—God shows Moses, on behalf of the whole nation of Israel, God’s back, some aspect of God’s glory. It is not all of God’s glory. God doesn’t show us everything, the answer to every question, the solution to every problem, the way to right every wrong. To show us all that, we are warned, might consume us. The Bible says that we cannot see the face of God, or we will die; but what that really means is that for us to know God as fully as we are known, to have all answers and to know all things, would mean that we are fully one with God, fully and completely, and that can only happen in death, in the eternal life after death.

So for now we’re granted a relationship, the hope and the challenge of trusting in God in times of powerlessness—times of pandemic, national crisis, unemployment, racial and political division, confusion. God wants us to give up the omnipotent self-indulgent delusions we have of omnipotence and just huff and puff and drag ourselves up the hill as best we can, not for the sake of winning, but for the sake of true and right relationship with each other and with God.

We need to be like Moses in two vital ways. First we must want to see God, to be in relationship with God, more than we want to view ourselves as omnipotent or to have back what we’ve lost.

But secondly, we have to be like Moses in no longer identifying ourselves as individuals out for ourselves, but as one with the whole nation, with all the people who make up this diverse and complicated nation—no matter what their economic or social strata, no matter rich or poor, no matter race or nationality or ethnicity or religion or political view. To focus on the healing of all these relationships, to make these relationships with God and our fellow Americans be the impetus, the purpose, the desire that moves us up that hill and gets us to the finish line, to let that desire to be united to one another and to God be our driving force and motivation.

Let go of omnipotence. Seek relationship. That’s how Moses pleases God and heals a nation. And that’s how we can, as well.

Anger

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
October 11, 2020

Exodus 32: 1-14

 

In December of 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Boazizi, frustrated and furious over the way that police harassment and bribery and government disinterest kept him in the depths of poverty, set himself on fire in front of a Tunisian government building. When he died, his funeral was attended by thousands equally enraged by injustice, who swore to avenge him. Within a few days, the protests spread throughout the country leading to the resignation of the president ten days after Boazizi’s funeral. The movement spread beyond Tunisia’s borders and became what came to be called “The Arab Spring.”

Many researchers point to Boazizi’s act and its response as a classic illustration of the evolutionary purpose of blinding rage. “Rage acts as a signalling device,” one researcher says. One person’s act of rage may be harmful to that person, but “it has a galvanizing effect” on the larger society and is “an effective means of changing other people’s behavior.” An individual act of anger is very often actually quite harmful to that person, and we might wonder why they would do it. But evolution seems to have planned t that way—that sometimes an individual is so enraged she forgets self-interest and even self-preservation in a way that signals to society as a whole that something is wrong—something needs to be fixed. An act of individual anger, researchers say, “can spread and become communal or collective anger.” So, strangely, blinding, irrational rage is actually part of our internal, evolutionary corporate logic.

I find this fascinating because, of course, nearly all of us have a visceral reaction to rage, which is that it is both scary and irrational. And while we can point to examples of rage producing good results, we can also just as easily point to examples of rage emerging for the wrong reasons and creating pointless pain, terror, and havoc.

All this is worth noting because we are reading some passages of the Bible today which tell us about God’s rage. In Exodus 32 God is so blindingly angry at the Israelites for building the Golden Calf that God threatens to destroy them and start over. In Matthew 22, Jesus tells the parable of an “enraged” king who kills those who killed his servants. The king of course, is meant to represent God.

We don’t like to read about or hear about God being angry. Our instinct is immediately to explain it away with “Well, that’s a human view of what happened,” or “We know better about God today than they did back then.” A common assumption today is that God is loving and docile to the point that God comes across as a milquetoast. We Christians like to believe that we represent a more “enlightened” God than the one of the Old Testament. The God Jesus represents is loving and kind and so non-judgmental as to have no opinions at all. We forget or explain away the many times we see Jesus himself angry—as when he is frustrated with the short-sightedness of his disciples, as when he calls religious leaders “blind fools,” as when he overturns the tables at the Temple crying, “This temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!”

But our scriptures today challenge those assumptions. In the story of the Golden Calf, God is so furious that God engages in almost classic “rage” behavior. A furious God actually forgets God’s own self-interest and needs to be reminded of it. This is often a feature of blinding rage—engaging in self-damaging ways. In the Lord’s case, God is ready to wipe out the Israelites, whom God had been cultivating for hundreds of years from the time of Abraham and Sarah and create a new nation through Moses. Moses is by this point is over 80 years old and perhaps dreading all the hard work God would expect of him and his wife Zipporah to MAKE a new nation. But even more than that, Moses challenges God to be true to God’s own nature. You are supposed to be great and powerful God who loves Israel and treats her as a favored child, Moses argues. What will the world think if you then wipe them out? It’s not said, but what’s hinted is that the world might then think God is capricious, untrustworthy, even evil. Apparently, God takes the hint, and the Bible tells us that this argument “changed God’s mind.”

There is a wonderful Biblical assumption here that is worth noting. Our sophisticated modern theology maintains among other things that God is “unchangeable,” and that if God changes God’s mind that is a sign that God is capricious or really not in charge of the world and of history. Our Exodus story doesn’t care about that. For the Biblical storyteller, it is vitally important to illustrate that God can change God’s mind because it means there is always hope of redemption and salvation with the Lord. “God’s anger is for but a moment, God’s favor is for a lifetime,” Psalm 30: 5 tells us. This is the point. Anger doesn’t determine how God ultimately deals with us. When we read in Scripture that God “changed God’s mind,” it’s almost never in a negative way—it’s almost always in a positive way, where God changes from anger or disappointment or judgment to salvation and promise and grace. For the Biblical authors, the fact that God could change God’s mind was always a sign of hope—that no matter how bad we get, and how frustrated we make God, and how angry God may get with us, yet God can yet be persuaded to save.

But let’s return to the earlier point about the logic of rage. According to evolutionary scientists, rage sends a message to the larger society that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. God is apparently so angry with the behavior of the Israelites that God is nearly sacrifices the divine self-interest in having Israel as a Chosen People. That’s a pretty strong message that something needs to change. And it’s not the only time we see such a message in scripture. More than once God refers in frustration to God’s “stubborn and stiff-necked people.” The prophets portray God as a potter ready to destroy all God’s pottery. In more than one of Jesus’ parables, God is portrayed as angry. In our Gospel today, God is a king who wages war against a city of murderers who mistreat and kill his servants when they have come to invite them to a wedding banquet. There are many more like this.

This representation of the anger of God serves a number of purposes. At its most basic level God’s rage acts as a signalling device, challenging us to see what exactly is wrong with what we’re doing and that we better change it. At another level it reminds us that God is in fact and in reality the sovereign God and judge of the universe, and of each of us personally, and so to do things that displease God puts us in serious risk of judgment.

But at the highest level, God’s anger is a signal that we must change. And so, ironically, God’s anger is actually a sign of hope. If God wanted, God could just wipe us out—be done with us. Instead what God does is make it clear in no uncertain terms that what we’ve done is wrong, and that we better change or else. AND THAT IS A WORD OF HOPE. We still have a chance. And we see this over and over again in the Bible. God’s people cross the line, often pretty badly. God is furious, even depicted as in a blinding rage. And yet, somehow, the people are given another chance. No, it doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes God follows through on God’s anger. But far, far more often, God gives us yet another chance—and another—and another.

For God’s anger is but for a moment;
    God’s favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
    but joy comes with the morning.

We of course don’t live in the world of the Bible, where it sometimes seems that it’s quite obvious whether we’ve offended God or not and where it seems like God or the prophets are always telling us clearly and unequivocally how God is feeling and what we need to do about. Things are just not always that clear in life. Today, for instance, we are dealing with a lot of blinding rage that has led to various movements for change. These movements call out injustices but often they are angry about entirely different and even opposite things. How we listen, and who we listen to, and what we choose to do about it, says less about them and more about us. It is not always clear to us what is the right thing to do or what it is that God most wants.

But here are some things to think about. First of all, we need to get over our fear of rage as such. People responding angrily and emotionally to something that affects them is a part of being human. In fact, based on what we see from Scripture, God in person can be subject to fits of abject, emotional rage. Rage in itself shouldn’t so terrify us that we refuse to listen to the message it’s trying to convey. Rage conveys the message that to those who are angry, things have gotten so unjust and unfair that an emotional response is all that’s left. To them, something needs to change and badly. Whether that feeling is justified or not, that’s how they feel. We need to try to understand the source of this and not allow our fear of their rage to overwhelm the larger message of justice or injustice.

Second of all, we need to understand that God is a judge. I think it’s pretty clear we don’t want to be on the wrong side of God. We know that God cares about injustice, and we have plenty of evidence from scripture that injustice itself can send God into a blinding rage. So let’s not dismiss frustrated cries for justice and fairness as outrageous. We have plenty of evidence that God has used outrage at injustice to provoke positive societal change. To make the wrong decision on such critical matters can put us on the wrong side of God, and we just don’t want to go there.

But let’s remember the final piece of the puzzle. One of my favorite quotes is from the Presbyterian Confession of 1967: “God’s love never changes. Against all who oppose God, God’s love is expressed in wrath.” This wrath is actually meant not to punish, but to cleanse. This wrath is meant to give us a chance to do the right thing. It is a critique of how we are living and what we are doing and what needs to change. But it’s also a sign of hope that we can change, we can grow, we can become better, that we continue to be loved and to love others better, and that God continues to love us, for God’s anger is for but a moment, but God’s favor is for a lifetime—for us, for our society, and for everyone.

A Place At The Table

October 4, 2020
World Communion Sunday

Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
1 Corinthians 11.17, 20-26, 33-34 Matthew 15:21-28

 

They didn’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the Greek city of Corinth like we do today. For one thing, they came to church in the evening, and the worship service was like a supper that we used to have in Parish Hall before the pandemic. Everybody brought their own crock-pot full of a soup or stew, or a picnic basket filled with fruit or bread or cheese. Everybody, that is, who could afford to buy and cook food, brought it. For the church at Corinth contained both people who had money to spend and people who did not. Both people who had leisure time and could come at the regular supper time and people whose jobs forced them to come after everything in the house had gotten cleaned up. The Corinthian church had free citizens as well as slaves. The people who were forced to work long hours for little or no pay and had to ask permission for time off and so were always late to church suppers and communion.

You might ask how the Corinthian congregation came to have in it such a wide variety of rich and poor, slave and free, people who had lots of time and those who were always at the beck and call of someone else. The answer has to do with the apostle Paul’s way of being a missionary. Paul did not spend every day seeing people in a church office or visiting the hospitals or calling on homebound or meeting with community leaders. The Corinthian congregation could not afford that kind of a minister. Paul had to take on a day-job to earn money to cover his expenses. That day-job was tent-making. Everybody needed the skills and products of the tent-maker, so Paul would come into contact with many people from all walks of life as they came through the tent-maker’s shop. It was there, as a tent-maker, that Paul made contacts with rich and poor, slave and free, the salaried and the hourly wage earner. As Paul talked with them, he was able to invite them to come in the evening to the Christian church he was leading. So, that’s how rich and poor, slave and free, those who worked nine-to-five and those who were at the back and call of their owner came to the congregation.

The Corinthian congregation would gather on a Sunday evening for worship around a pot-luck supper. And this pitch-in meal became the time and the place to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Now here’s how it was supposed to work. Everyone waited until all arrived and found a seat. Everyone: rich and poor, slave and free, those who worked nine-to-five and those who had to get permission to come. Then a loaf of bread would be broken and thanks spoken to God. But right at that moment the minister would also add these words, “Jesus said, ‘This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” After that, the body of worshippers would share in what was brought. When all had eaten enough, then the minister would lift up a cup and say, “Jesus said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” You see, they began with the first part of the Lord’s Supper, then ate a pot-luck supper, then finished with the last half of the Lord’s Supper. Now that’s how it is supposed to have been.

Trouble was, things were terrible. People were simply ugly to each other. There was class warfare in the Corinthian Christian community. The rich people, the free people, those who worked nine-to-five—they could get to church on time, and they would begin right on time to eat. They would begin with Jesus’ words, “This is my body broken for you.” but only a part of the body of worshippers would dive in to what they had brought. By the time the other part of the body would arrive, the poor people, the slaves, and those who punched the clock, all the food would have been eaten, all the wine would have been drunk, all the places at the table would have been taken, and this remaining part of the body would be forced to sit on the outside, tired, hungry, and humiliated, watching the rest of the body behave in drunken ways.

These “Johnny’s come lately” had had neither time nor money to prepare food to contribute. They may even have prepared the food their masters took to eat it all up before they were able to get there. This late-coming part of the body were counting on the patience and generosity of early coming part of the body who lived in more fortunate circumstances than they. After all, Paul had told them that patience and generosity were what being a part of the body of Christ all was about. They were sadly disappointed to find only a mess of crumbs and spilled wine left on the table. And to be looked down upon through the bleary eyes of drunks.

And is this what Jesus means when he says, “This is my body broken for you.”? And is this what Jesus means when he says, “This cup is the new covenant, the new bond between humanity and God and among humanity itself, in my blood.”? Does Jesus mean for us to be so out for ourselves, for our personal walk with the Lord, for our personal salvation and comfort, for our very own intense spiritual experience, that we blindly see ourselves separate from the rest of the world, not having to adjust our own behavior to take into consideration the lives of others who are different than we are?

Now we can appreciate the full thunder of Paul’s concern for the Corinthians. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?…Examine yourselves…For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper comes in a package stamped, “Handle with care.” Discerning the body.

What does that mean?
• That body was also broken for poorer Christians whose needs cannot be ignored by richer.
• That broken body was Christ’s self-denial for the benefit of others which we are to imitate.
• Eating and drinking in remembrance of Christ’s death obliges us to die with Christ to our sinful selves so that we can be set free to love others actively.

Discerning the body means doing something as simple but so radical as waiting on each other, feeding each other, including each other. This sacrament comes with a warning, “Handle with care!” But it also comes with a summons: “Shape up! Shape up to the sacrament! Let the body of the Church be the Body of Christ broken and poured out for the world.”

We hear much about “class warfare” these days. Some of it political and self-serving, no doubt. Much of it, though, is absolutely true. The sacrament of Holy Communion puts any kind of class warfare into the strictest and severest judgment. We know our country has immense wealth, military power and cultural influence. Yet, according to the Social Progress Index, the United States ranks 28th among the nations of the world in measures of well-being such as nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, and education. Our founding documents say that people have a right to a place at the table but according to this Index, we are behind significantly poorer countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece. The contrasts within our borders are striking. While the Index ranks us No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, we sit at No. 91 in access to quality basic education. Our school children are on a par with children in Uzbekistan and Mongolia. While we lead the world in medical technology, we are No. 97 in access to quality health care. Our health statistics make us peers with Chile, Jordan and Albania. Listen to the pain of our own citizens in ZIP code 76104; listen to your own pain.

The Bible is full of stories that insist that everyone have a seat at the table. In our Old Testament lesson, the undocumented alien is specifically called out to be included in the annual feast of remembrance of God’s rescue of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Israel is to keep the memory fresh that it is a nation of immigrants and be open and inclusive to those who have no legal standing. In our Gospel story, a Canaanite woman, a pagan, pierces right through Jesus’ narrow vision to insist that she have a place at the table of his tremendous power, even if she must eat the crumbs that fall from the hands of his disciples. He readily caved in and granted her equal status.

Why must the richest, most powerful, most religious nation suffer from higher rates of poverty, infant mortality, homicide and HIV infection, and from greater income inequality, than other advanced democracies? Listen to the pain of our own citizens; listen to your own pain. This sacrament tells us that Jesus is in our pain to comfort, to console, to heal, of course. But he is also saying to us in our pain, “Shape up. Shape up to be the body that I gave my body for.”

St. Stephen is listening to that voice and that’s good news to conclude this sermon on. Since mid-March at the outbreak of the pandemic, we have prepared and delivered over 18,000 meals to Presbyterian Night Shelter. Excluding the value of countless volunteer hours, the estimated cost of these meals is $30,000, or approximately $1,000 per week.  This has been made possible by generous donations designated for this project from members and friends of St. Stephen.  Through communication among our Room in the Inn partners, many other churches have also participated in this effort. It’s a big table for all to participate in.

In addition, monetary and food donations were delivered to the night shelter in September along with new or gently used bath towels and twin sheets. Your dollars assure a place at the table for our most vulnerable citizens while they receive services to return to independent housing.

On another front, every Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. a pickup truck is in the church parking lot to receive donations for the Center For Transforming Lives. Your donations secure a place at the table for women and children who are victims of family abuse while they receive the services needed to support their return to independent living. And when you drop off your donations, you can pick up a kit with materials needed to make ten face masks for homeless people.

Moreover, when the call went out to our congregation in the wake of Hurricane Laura for Hygiene Kits for Louisiana residents, the response was over the top, a bonanza of outpouring of material and monetary support.

So when we pray on this World Communion Sunday, “O Lord, make us a world that grows into the shape of your communion table, where all are welcomed and all are fed,” our actions show that St. Stephen means business.

A Church Worthy of Our Children

September 26, 2020

Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey

Micah 6:6-8
Galatians 5:13-15
Mark 2:1-12

“With what shall I come before the Lord,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

The prophet Micah knows that everybody has a price that they will accept for turning a blind eye.Some people believe that God can be bought off just like any human. If you say that the Lord will be pleased with thousands of rams, I’ll write the check if it will get God off my back. Or will it take ten thousands of rivers of oil for God to let me keep on doing what I am doing? No problem, I’ll make the arrangements. Tell you what…I’m even prepared to sacrifice the future of my child; I’ll even sacrifice the future of the next generation of children, so I don’t have to change.

Am I being facetious? Hardly. Every one of us knows of individuals or communities or nations who have sacrificed the cream of their progeny, who have sent their sons and daughters off to be slaughtered, in order not to have to change their way of life which keeps them in a domineering position. One thinks of the loss of one out of every three men in the South for the sake of maintaining slavery and white supremacy. To walk through the killing fields in Cambodia is to be crushed by the enormous loss of an entire generation in order to prop up a communist ideology. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Sure, why not?

As you look at your children or your grandchildren, as your hearts swell in pride over the children of St. Stephen leading us in worship today, can you think of anything precious enough to you to make you jeopardize their futures, their lives, so that you would not have to give it up? Are we willing to subject their futures to the long-term consequences of climate change which we see playing out before our very eyes on Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts? Are we willing to make them beggar themselves in order to pay for the national debt so that our taxes aren’t raised? Are we willing to accept the half-measures and deliberate deception shown in the national response to COVID-19 with the full knowledge of how that is retarding our children’s education? Even literally costing them their lives? “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 

I hope that the fact you are listening today to this worship service on Children’s Sabbath is a strong indication that you are not willing to make this devil’s trade-off, and that your being with us in spirit is for you an act of resistance to the diabolical calculation of sacrificing the weak in order to prop up the strong. We love our children at St. Stephen. We love the children at the Center for Transforming Lives. We love the children whose only stable home is the Presbyterian Night Shelter. We love the children of the world. We love our children. What are we to do?

I cannot remember a time when it has been this hard to be a parent or to grow up as a child.Millions of children suffer when millions of moms and dads are thrown out of work. Family relationships break under the strain of living in a country so badly divided over the November elections. Children are quick to pick up on our grieving about lifestyles that we have lost by being isolated, having to work at home while taking care of our kids and remote learning, and pining for things to be “like they used to be”.

So, I stand amazed at the tremendous courage, spunk, grit, and creativity that so many, many moms and dads and kids dish out daily to keep body and soul intact, to keep a family circle tight, to create a bubble of serenity, security, and curiosity during these hard times. You are not willing to consign your children to a diminished future. You are genuinely amazing!

The amazing work you are doing puts the church on notice that we have to up our game; we have to be there for you with the best we can offer in spiritual strength.  I want to talk about being a church that is up to the task of growing up children who are prepared to grapple with stark existential challenges and triumph over them. Someone recently shared a poem written by Adrienne Rich that gets to the point I am making. 

My heart is moved by all I cannot save; So much has been destroyed.

I have to cast my lot with those who age after age,perversely with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.

So much of what that poem says rings true for me. However, the message I want to bring today is that the church can bring extraordinary power to the situation. And if the church fails you at this moment, it is not worthy of our children, and they and you will go elsewhere. 

Let us cut to the nub of this message. A church worthy of our children will offer Jesus, pure and simple. He is the only source of extraordinary power which will never fail us in the project of reconstituting the world. God made Jesus carry within himself the fate of the entire world. When Jesus died on the cross, one world collapsed. When God raised him from the dead, God injected into a collapsed old world a new world of extraordinary power in his image. Because God has unleashed the Spirit of the risen Christ on the church, the church is the foothold of God’s new world and the fount of extraordinary power. When the Church baptizes you into Christ, we are able to engage this old world with the extraordinary power of the new world.

A church worthy of our children will help families draw deeply upon this new world of extraordinary power. The children of this church will be able to explain to you why in our Gospel lesson for today the meaning of the forgiveness of sins is totally displayed in the extraordinary power of a paralyzed man taking up his bed and walking out of that house.  We will not let them make the mistake of thinking that extraordinary power is only for spiritual matters. The Jesus we present to your children is there for them in body as well as in soul, in their everyday relationships as well as their prayer life. The sustainability of the planet, the dignity of each human being, the commonwealth of the community matters every bit as much as whether you are going to heaven. And the Jesus we present gives to his baptized children extraordinary power to address in bold and saving ways the hurts and scars and sores that everywhere meet the eye. True enough, it is God’s job to save our souls, but God puts into the hands of the baptized extraordinary power to heal a nation’s soul, to make right a dispossessed race, to defend a planet gasping for breath and thirsting for water and to build up wrecked cities and boarded up and hollowed out hamlets. This is what we send our children to do for Jesus’ sake. 

A church worthy of our children will burst with pride as its children go out into the world in peace, with good courage, holding fast to what is good, rendering to no one evil for evil, strengthening the faint-hearted, supporting the weak, honoring all persons, serving the Lord and rejoicing in the extraordinary power of the Holy Spirit.

We take the dollars you give us and infuse them with extraordinary power to shape our children, to make them wise, tough, resilient, resourceful, hopeful persons. The amount of money this church spends on children’s ministry is hard to pin down, but a reasonable estimate, counting professional staff, supplies, and building costs, is one hundred thousand dollars. But that is just a foundation.We infuse the extraordinary power of countless volunteer hours, material gifts, personal interest, prayer and affirmation. This is labor intensive, personalized shaping.

Parents, we want to be your best ally in your vocation of nurturing your child. We applaud the tremendous courage, spunk, grit, and creativity which you display daily to keep body and soul intact, to keep a family circle tight, to create a bubble of serenity, security, and curiosity during these hard times. We thank God for you. You are genuinely amazing! We offer you Jesus and urge you to take him as your source for the extraordinary power you will need to protect a future for your child.

How You Can Help With Disaster Relief


Donate Online

Sept. 28 Update:

Despite the short notice there was a tremendous response to the recent call for Hurricane Laura disaster relief assistance. Considering the number of hygiene kits and monetary donations received, Mission Committee funds of $1,000 will match this effort – thanks so much for your generous support! 


 

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is providing relief to many areas devastated by natural disasters recently through Presbyterian Disaster Relief (PDA). Hurricane Laura and the recent storms in Iowa are just two examples. Below is information about how to designate gifts to each situation. An immediate way you can be of help is to contribute $75 to pay for a “Gift of the Heart” kit, which provides essential needs for those recovering from or experiencing homelessness because of these and other crises.

The link to pay for a Gift of the Heart kit and other items through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is (or see link at top of page):

https://pda.pcusa.org/page/kits/#hygiene .

To learn more about how you can help, visit https://pda.pcusa.org/

Hurricane Laura, the strong category 4 storm, made landfall in the early hours of August 27th on the coast of Louisiana, about 30 miles from the Texas border, bringing lashing rain and sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. While the storm was downgraded to a category 2 as it moved further inland, hurricane-force winds and widespread damage continued.

PDA is working with our international partners where Hurricane Laura impacted Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in addition to the affected U.S. presbyteries.

To support our response to Hurricane Laura, designate gifts to DR000194

On August 10, severe thunderstorms with long track damaging winds (derecho) devastated Iowa, causing widespread power outages for more than 150,000 people for several days. As many as 14 million acres of farmland were also damaged by the storm.

PDA is working with the Presbyteries of North Central Iowa, Des Moines, Prospect Hill and East Iowa to respond to this storm. National Response Team members are virtually deployed to assist with the initial response. To be notified of opportunities for volunteers within driving distance who do not need overnight accommodations, email pda.callcenter@pcusa.org

To support this response, designate gifts to DR000015.

 

 

 

The Present God

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
August 31, 2020


Click Here to View This Service

Exodus 3: 1-15

Our story from Exodus today is one of the most famous stories in history. It begins on a quiet mountaintop with a non-descript name: Horeb. One day soon that mountain will have a different name: Sinai. On that mountaintop, a shepherd is keeping watch over his father-in-law’s flocks. That shepherd’s name is Moses.

Shepherds watching sheep have a lot of time to think. What is Moses thinking as he watches his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep on that mountain nearly 3300 years ago? Did he miss the days when he had been raised from childhood as a member of the household of Pharaoh, the King of Egypt? Throughout his childhood and early adulthood, Moses straddled two worlds. He was a Hebrew who had been rescued from Pharaoh’s decision to drown all the male offspring of the Hebrews. His rescuer had been Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him right under her father’s nose. His wetnurse was a Hebrew slave who was in actuality his real birth mother, so presumably, he’d always known his heritage. So he lived in both worlds.

But then a time came when he was forced to choose. Once he saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave. Moses killed the overseer. At that moment, what may have been simply a gut reaction determined the path of his life forever. He chose to align with the slave rather than the master, the

oppressed rather than the oppressor, the Hebrew rather than the Egyptian. Forced to flee Egypt, he came to Midian, where he married Zipporah and they had a son. He worked for his father-in-law Jethro.

So perhaps watching Jethro’s sheep that day, Moses was regretting his decision to kill that overseer, to trade in a life as a prince of Egypt to be a shepherd in Midian. Lo, how the mighty have fallen!

Or maybe he was grateful to have escaped into a life of peace, filled with minor difficulties but mainly the pleasures that come from living without stress and having a family that loves you.

Or maybe he was still stewing about the predicament of his people, the Hebrews, still living in slavery under the oppressive heel of his step-grandfather, the Pharaoh, and how now he was in no position to help them, and might never be.

Or maybe he was just zoned out, staring into space, not really thinking about anything at all.

Whatever he was thinking about, apparently he wasn’t thinking about God. But as John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Suddenly a bush bursts into flames, and from the bush comes the voice of God, and the voice of God says, “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’”

One reason we know that Moses wasn’t thinking about God is that Moses actually doesn’t know who it is that’s speaking. “If I come to the Israelites and say, ‘The god of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they say, ‘What is his name?’, what shall I tell them?” It’s a perfectly good question at a number of levels. In the first place, though the Hebrews had become one people over the course of hundreds of years in Egypt, they had not arrived in Egypt as one people. They were a mix of Semitic peoples from all over the Middle East who had first come to Egypt during the time of the Great Famine. Their numbers had represented many different religions, and no doubt many Hebrew slave households would have had the symbols of many different gods. Add to that that there were also many different Egyptian gods, all of whom would have been familiar to Moses and he probably would have worshiped them in the normal routine of his former life as a royal Egyptian courtier.

In answer to the question, God gives Moses something God has never given anyone before: The Holy Name. No one has ever heard it before this dramatic moment. God’s name, we are told, is Yahweh—a weird word that is a non-word. It is derived from a verb, in fact, the most basic verb form in any language, “to be.” We translate it as “I am that I am,” but it could also be “I will be what I will be” or even “I was what I was.” It straddles all forms of the verb “To be.” I am. God defines God’s self further by saying, “I AM the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” At one level that just makes which God this is more specific. “Of all the peoples and

tribes that came to Egypt during the time of the Great Famine, and who now labor together as slaves under Pharaoh, I am the god of this particular tribe—the tribe of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

What’s striking about this is that God doesn’t say, “I WAS the god of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” After all, that’s the way the question was framed: which God of which ancestors am I to say you are? It was framed as a question about the past. But God’s answer is not about the past, it is about the present: I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That answer, and the name I am that I am, tell us a vital thing we must know about God: God is not the God of the past, nor even the God of the future. God is the God of the present. God is the God of the here and now, not the where and when or the then and therefore. God is the God of the present.

Moses hedges and squirms and tries to push back against this idea. I’m not the right guy, God, he says. But that’s the wrong answer, because one thing God is not is the God of Never. Martin Luther King, Jr., put this point nicely in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it he pushes back against white pastors who keep telling the Civil Rights movement to wait, to be patient, to cool their jets. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” he writes. “It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

God is the God of now, not the God of Never.

Nor is God the God of wait. Moses tries this path too. “I need to develop new skill sets so that I can do this thing you’ve tasked me to do. It’ll take time. I’ll get back to you when I’m ready.” No, this is the God of the present. When God calls us, God calls us NOW.

We Presbyterians, for instance, say that those who serve as elders or deacons in the church are called by God to their task, like prophets or pastors. I often tell potential officers that it isn’t helpful for us to ask ourselves whether we have the skill set to do the job. We should take it for granted that we don’t. But to be called means that God expects and enables you to grow into the job. God doesn’t call who we are, but who we are becoming. But we won’t become that if we don’t say yes to the call.

Moses the shepherd of Midian, wanted for murder in Egypt, should take it for granted that he is not qualified to tell Pharaoh to let his people go or to lead Israel out of Egypt or to receive the Ten Commandments or to lead the people in the desert for forty years or to get them, finally, to the Promised Land. Moses the murderous shepherd isn’t qualified for any of that. But the Moses who says “yes” to God can and will become all of that, and more.

When I was involved in community organizing one of the things that was constantly emphasized is that visionary living doesn’t mean living for the future, it means living fully right now. We talked about how change happens best when we live in an eternal now, when we’re asking not, “What do we need for the future?” but rather “What do we need right now?”

I was talking to my daughter Sara the other day about an organization she’s deeply involved in that provides free food for the hungry in New Orleans. We were talking about a vision statement for her organization. A vision statement should describe the kind of world that the organization envisions. So a good vision statement for her organization might be “To eliminate food insecurity in New Orleans.” Yes, that’s a statement about the future—but the problem is here NOW. They don’t need the elimination of food insecurity ten years or a hundred years into the future—they need it now, this moment. It just may take ten years or a hundred years to get there.

I think most of us see this in our lives as well. At various points in our lives, things have happened that made us realize that we needed to improve in some way. For many of us as teenagers, for instance, our extreme sensitivity to how other people saw us may have caused us to work on our self-confidence or our social skills or our athleticism or our appearance or our prayer life or our relationship to God. As adults we can probably say that the person I see in the mirror today is a much-improved version of the person I was when I was fifteen or eighteen. But it all started because those qualities I have now were qualities I needed then. And to complicate matters more, that person I see in the mirror now has a whole new set of shortcomings that need to be

addressed now so that in the future I’ll be a bit more the person I actually need to be right now. And so it goes.

To say that God is God of the Present puts a new and challenging spin on one of Jesus’ teachings that I think we trivialize. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow brings worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6: 34). I think many of us read this as the “Don’t worry, be happy” approach to life. In fact, it is a more Buddhist teaching than that—that we must live fully and completely in the now, because that is where God is—now, in this moment. We must look at the present moment with eyes wide open, rather than looking on the past with nostalgia or on the future with foreboding or false expectations that things will just magically get better.

Growing up during the Cold War, every so often our elementary school teachers would gather us up and take us down to the Pine Street Elementary School basement where we were told to hide under desks until we were told to come out. This was because my hometown of Spartanburg, SC, was within the blast radius should there be a nuclear strike on the Aiken Nuclear Power Plant, which was considered a strategic nuclear target. The truth is that all that ‘duck and cover’ wouldn’t have made a bit of difference had we really gone to war with the USSR. If our response to our nuclear fear of the future had been simply duck and cover drills, we’d all be toast now.

And then there were the handful of vocal leaders who believed that our fear of the future warranted making pre-emptive strikes on the Soviet Union—a path that most believed would lead to MAD, mutually assured destruction, which seems like a bad thing. Many strategists believed in the Domino Theory, the idea that if one country falls to communism then another and another and another would; and so we engaged in questionable actions to stave off that communistic future and ironically probably made things worse. All sorts of plans were made, and should have been, but very few believed that a plan for the future would in any way get us out of the quagmire we were in—there were just too many variables, too many unpredictable factors.

Ultimately, it was neither fear of the future nor planning for the future that got us out of the Cold War. What got us out of it was leaders who lived in the present moment—who saw opportunities when they arose and rose to the challenge. It was the day to day work of CIA Operations officers and State Department diplomats and smart politicians who had good instincts and made smart decisions whenever each unexpected and unanticipated variable popped up. When Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and said “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev,” it was a spontaneous response to the mood of the moment he was in right then and there—a man with the right instincts hitting upon the right thing to say at exactly the right moment. Planning and preparation played their role, but the end of the Cold War came in a way no one could have planned or predicted. It came because people living in the now saw clearly in the present moment and responded to it in exactly the right way.

My friend Greg is white and Christian and he decided about a year ago, even before the renewal of the Black Lives Matter movement recently, that he was deeply troubled about his own confusion around race. But he didn’t know what to do about it. The more he learned the less adequate he felt to the task. So one day he just decided to go to Stop Six and meet people. Then he started to get involved in the community by just saying, “Just tell me what to do.” He ended up being in charge of social media for the annual Juneteenth celebration this year. He didn’t have a plan then and he still doesn’t. He just goes where the moment takes him. But he knows he’s doing what God calls him to do.

The God of the Present calls us in the present and our challenge is to respond to that call—to discern what that calling is and then take on the challenge of doing it. Pastor and writer Frederick Beuchner once defined calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is a moment full of challenges and I can’t tell you what God is calling you to do. But if you have strong feelings about something going on in the world, but you feel unqualified or inadequate unwilling or perhaps even fearful to do what you feel is right, pray about that. Look carefully at how God might be calling you. Don’t wait until some future time when you’re better qualified or not so busy or a little more motivated. The God of the Present calls us now. If we say yes now, then we can trust the God of the present to use our presence the way its most needed.

Stewardship Update

Dear St. Stephen Members and Friends:

It’s gotten to the point that “2020” is the punch line to any joke about “What’s the worst that can happen?” Laughing is a great way to cope in this time of worldwide pandemic, racial tension and protest, natural disaster, and social distancing.

For a lot of us, the inability to attend church in the usual way only makes this time harder. It can be easy to forget that despite the fact that we stopped having worship in the sanctuary, St. Stephen has never stopped doing ministry. In fact, the opposite is true. It is in times like these that St. Stephen is most needed.

A World War II Navy veteran once compared the church to his job when he was a battleship’s engineer. He said it was a whole lot of doing everyday maintenance punctuated by moments of chaos and sheer terror. That was when all the everyday maintenance proved its mettle. That has been true of St. Stephen. Our normal routines have always included community outreach, compassionate service, well-thought-out worship, improved communications and strong human relationships. During the coronavirus pandemic, all this everyday work has proved its worth in thousands of homeless individuals served meals and dozens receiving welcome packets; in an easy transition from live to online worship and activities; and in a 75% increase in non-member “attendance” via our website that indicates that St. Stephen’s message of God’s inclusive grace and love through Jesus Christ is meeting the needs of a new audience hungry for hope and connection.

Every year at this time St. Stephen launches its annual stewardship campaign. In October, we will ask that you make a pledge to support our 2021 operating budget. This is the “maintenance” that makes St. Stephen seaworthy in “normal” times and crisis-worthy in times like these.

In addition to that, in early 2021 St. Stephen will embark on a three-year capital campaign to improve our readiness for the future. The campaign will make our buildings accessible for folks with special needs (including adding an elevator to the Education building and accessible bathrooms to the Sanctuary); perform long-needed overhaul and improvement of our amazing Garland Organ (under the supervision of Dan Garland himself); provide for our outreach to our youth and our homeless friends by purchasing a new church van; install security doors for St. Stephen Presbyterian Day School; and make various improvements to our building that empower us to minister in new ways.

These are facility fixes, but each of them underlines our long-term commitment to the things that make St. Stephen strong: intentional inclusion of ALL people, excellence in worship, compassionate ministry to our members and outreach to those most in need in Tarrant County.

We know that in these challenging times, your own finances may be stressed and that your mailbox and inbox are filled with charitable requests from the many nonprofits straining under the burden of increased demand. We believe it’s important that you know your church’s twin financial requests lie ahead so that you can make the charitable and financial decisions that make the most sense for you and your family.

We hope that we have proven, and will continue to prove, that when it has most been needed, St. Stephen has risen to the needs of its congregation and community, to the glory of God and our savior Jesus Christ.

We also want to thank you for your amazing generosity to St. Stephen since the COVID-19 lockdown began. Your giving has made our ability to minister in this crisis possible. It is because of you that one day very soon we’ll be back in our magnificent facility. It will once again be filled with children in its day school and Sunday school, the homeless seeking food and friendship, and people from diverse backgrounds worshiping and sharing communion together. We will continue to draw new friends who are attracted to our message of the all-embracing love of God. St. Stephen will remain the beacon of grace, hope and welcome that we value so dearly for decades to come, because of your faithful support right now.

Grace and peace,

Fritz

Faith, Truth and Service

July 19, 2020

On July 19, Mitch Overton gave the senior sermon for our virtual Youth Sunday service. He spoke about his at-times painful journey of reconciling his faith in God with the truth he knew about his fathers, enduring faith, the power of truth, and the lessons learned in serving others. Below is a video of his sermon and the full text below that. 

Watch Mitch’s Full Sermon Below

https://youtu.be/vhp0m88iPBg

Faith, Truth and Service

When I sat down to start writing this sermon, I struggled with what to talk about. I have so many impactful moments I wanted to share, and so many fun memories I wanted to reminisce on. 

However, I decided that, before I left for college, I needed to tell you the three most life-changing things that this church has taught me: have faith, seek the truth, and serve others. 

Growing up with gay dads, I learned early on that my family wasn’t like everyone else’s. I was told by friends at school, other kids at church, and even some of my cousins that being gay was a sin and that my parents were going to hell. 

They told me that two men couldn’t raise a child and that I was surely gonna turn out badly. As a child, I obviously hated hearing this, because I knew my parents better than any of those people, and I knew how much love they had for me and for each other, and I wondered why they or God could possibly be opposed to something as good and pure as love? 

When I talked with my parents about it, they would reassure me that God really did love us and that those other people were wrong, and that satisfied me for a while. However, eventually, during a particularly heated exchange with a friend at school, my friend started naming Bible verses about homosexuality. Later that night, I asked my parents about it, and they told me all stuff the Bible says, I remember the word ‘abomination’ got thrown around a lot, and they tried explaining about historical context and the culture of the time when the Bible was written, and even though I felt a little better, I still cried a lot that night. 

It felt like everything I had been taught was a lie. After all, the Bible was the Word of God, and it really seemed, based on the actual text and on what so many other people told me, that God really didn’t love gay people, and my parents’ explanations didn’t really satisfy me. 

And since I was a little kid, the next morning I woke up and life went on without really a thought, but the seed of doubt was planted. Over the next few years, my doubt and skepticism of Christianity grew, and going to church became more of a hassle and habit and less of a fun or calming event. 

Eventually, years later, the seed of doubt had grown large in my heart, and I was a bit resentful that my parents insisted on us worshipping a God that I didn’t think wanted us.

I remember Mark Thielman was my Sunday school teacher, and somehow we got onto the topic of homosexuality in the Bible. Now, Mark tried giving me the same explanations and rationalizations that my parents had given me, but I remained unconvinced, and after the class, I didn’t really think anything of it. 

The next week, Sunday School rolls around, and Mark has printed out packets full of information, earmarked eight places in the Bible, and prepared a VERY LONG PowerPoint presentation. That day, we went through every single verse that dealt with homosexuality, and Mark had prepared detailed notes about the historical context and author of each verse, the larger biblical context, and lots of specific verses from the Bible to cite, and, basically, my faith was reborn in an hour-long Sunday School class. 

Looking back on it, I see that what Mark did for me was he allowed me to reconcile my faith in God with the truth I knew about my parents. 

Friedrich Nietzsche, who described himself as both “anti-religious” and “anti-Christian,” claimed that “those who strive for peace and happiness believe, while those who wish to be disciples of truth inquire.” 

This statement implies the mutual exclusivity of faith in God and a rational life based on the truth, and that is not an unreasonable implication based on the history of all religions, including Christianity.

You look at the Crusades, the Church’s countless stubborn rejections of science throughout history, from labeling doctors as witches and rejecting heliocentrism, to today’s fundamentalists who deny evolution and the Big Bang, and it’s not hard to see Nietzsche’s point about Christianity’s rejection of the truth. The same conflict between faith and truth played out in my life, even though I didn’t fully realize it at the time. 

But this church proves how wrong Nietzsche was. Here, at St. Stephen, faith, and truth are not fundamentally opposed but are interdependent and self-reinforcing. Mark Thielman showed me that when he helped me reconcile my faith in a loving God with my unconditional love for my parents, and I’ve seen it countless times since then. 

Here, unlike so many other churches that I’ve visited with friends and family, we can read the book of Genesis without rejecting evolution and the Big Bang. We can preach about God’s all-powerful love to people and families like mine, who feel rejected, unwanted, and unloved at other churches. 

Here, my parents and I have found not only a church, but a community and a family. In addition to my search for a balance between faith and truth, service has been a big part of my life with the church for as long as I can remember. 

Every summer as a child and on many weekends, I’d spend countless hours at church with my dad, Eduardo, helping him with everything from mopping the basement and replacing burnt-out lights with LED to big projects like the youth basement renovation. 

From an early age, I loved this type of service because I enjoyed learning how things worked, and because I got to spend so much quality time with my dad. However, I never really understood the benefit my time and effort could have on others until I joined the youth group. 

I’d like to specifically talk about my second mission trip when we went to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and Utah. I remember when we were told we were going there, I complained that spending a week in July in the desert would be too hot. When we got there, I saw much more than scorching desert heat: I saw widespread, systemic poverty that I had never imagined could exist in the United States. 

The church we stayed at was tiny and deteriorating, with a small congregation and shrinking donations caused by the lack of disposable income in the region. In fact, the pastor at the church we stayed at, Pastor Norma, told us that for several years she had been using an ever-growing part of her tiny income as a pastor just to keep the church afloat and perform basic mission and maintenance, even at the expense of her already impoverished personal life. I remember that she told us one night during dinner that before Beth contacted her about the possibility of a mission trip, she had begun to lose faith in her ability to keep her church afloat, and that we were like a sign from God to keep the faith and continue the fight. 

Now to go on the mission trip each year, each youth has to raise at least a couple of hundred dollars to help us afford the supplies and food to make the trip. That year, my parents basically forced me to not just ask family members and people at church for donations, but to go door-to-door in our neighborhood to ask for donations, which, for a shy kid like me was mortifying and really out of my comfort zone. 

Now, at the end of the mission trip, as we were preparing to start the long drive home, we had a few hundred dollars left over, and I remember that Beth, my parents, Tommy, Joe, and the other sponsors took the money we had left as well as some of their own money and left it as a donation to the church.

I’ll remember Norma’s reaction until the day I die. She started crying. Sobbing actually. She called us angels and told us that the money we gave her was enough to help her keep the church open and that she had been praying for years for God to save her church, and she told us that we were the instruments of God’s salvation. 

Now, when Beth contacted her, Beth didn’t know that we were the instrument that God was using to answer Norma’s prayers. When the youth were awkwardly asking church members, friends, family, and neighbors for donations, we didn’t know the impact that the little bit of extra money over the minimum would have. Now after spending a week with her I was convinced, and still am, that Norma is a modern-day saint, and it still amazes me that what WE did on that trip restored HER faith. 

One of the lessons I took from this is summed up nicely by a quote that was in the Silent Reflection in the bulletin a while back: 

 

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”

I’ve learned, from seeing it in others and experiencing it firsthand, that when our doubt is greatest, God sends a sign, often people, as unknowing instruments of salvation. That’s what God did for Pastor Norma through our Youth Group, and it’s what God did for me through all of you. When Norma doubted if she could carry on, God delivered her, offered her a brief, seemingly impossible respite that convinced her and allowed her to carry on her fight and keep faith with God, her congregation, and herself. God renewed her faith.

Similarly, from the moment my family moved to Fort Worth 16 years ago, God sent me all of you. When I was young, God sent me Beth and my early Sunday School teachers, to teach me about God and the Bible in a way that I could understand. At my moment of greatest doubt, when I wondered how I could love a God that I thought rejected my parents, God sent me Mark Thielman in Sunday School, taking hours out of his busy work week to research and prepare a brand new Sunday School lesson to directly deal with what was troubling me and restore my faith. 

God sent Fritz with his wonderful sermons and kind wisdom, preaching so honestly about the issues in our church, our city, and our country, and always leaving me with a reassurance of God’s love and the knowledge that, no matter what was going on in the world, everything was going to be ok. 

Then, when I was old enough, God sent me the Youth Group, who are the closest people I have to siblings. He sent them not just to laugh with me, but to know me, to love me, and to help make me the person I’m meant to be. 

And, of course, he sent me all of you who have been part of my church life in countless moments big and small, reassuring me that I am loved and that my parents are loved and accepted at this Church, by all of you and by God.

Now, as I’m about to go off to San Antonio for college, I have the seemingly impossible task of finding a church home away from home, that can be everything to me that St. Stephen is: a place for me to be curious, a place for me to question, a place for me to think and learn, and a place where I can find a church family as loving, and thoughtful, and nurturing, and as impossibly perfect for me as all of you have been. 

And now, as I prepare to start this exciting new phase of my life, I’ll leave you with some of the wisdom that you’ve taught me over all these years: keep faith, seek the truth, serve others, and in everything you do, serve God. 

Thank you