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The True Things

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery

The Larchmont Avenue Church

September 19, 2010

Text: Luke 16:1-13

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Luke 16:1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Luke 16:10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

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Joe had been the church treasurer for all of two months when Cheri first came to him, needing money.  She was one of those people at All Soul’s church who everybody knew, even if they didn’t want to.  Her mental illness and addictions had made it hard for her to stay off the streets, and she had been the subject at many conversations around the deacons tables, as together the pastor and the church tried to discern how best they could help.

They had decided, as Joe had been informed, to help her as best they could through the pastor’s discretionary fund, which sat in a marked envelope in the desk drawer in the treasurer’s office.  But there was always talk about the fund running out.

The previous treasurer had been one of those more anxious than not, and had begun to refuse Cheri’s requests, citing the many other people who were in need.  “This Church helps a lot of people,” he had said, “You aren’t the only one…  We just can’t keep giving like this…”

As Cheri had been tended to by the congregation, Cheri had also begun to feel part of the family there.  She worshipped regularly – some days looking so haggard some wondered if she had spent the night on the streets, other days looking so put together that at a glance she could be mistaken for any of the other housewives.

On those put together days, Cheri would walk quietly into the office as the treasurer counted the offering plate and pass over her “tithe” – a wad of rolled up bills, that might barely pay for his lunch at a restaurant.  Joe would smile at Cheri, thanking her with the graciousness he poured on every one of the givers, from those who gave checks that could cover the entire heating bill for the year, to those who… well to those like Cheri.

After Cheri left, Joe would unfold the bills and stack them, count them with care, and slip them into the marked envelope and back into his drawer.

Our parable for this morning is often called ‘the parable of the dishonest or shrewd manager,’ and falls immediately after Jesus tells a number of stories directed at the Pharisees about God rejoicing over the lost.  He talks about losing sheep or coins, and then culminates in the story of the prodigal son who squanders his inheritance and yet returns to his father and is welcomed in with loving arms.

In our story for this morning, Jesus turns from the Pharisees toward the disciples and tells this confounding little parable.  The story Jesus tells is of a rich man who has hired a manager for his estate.  The manager is not making enough of a profit, either because he has been stealing or because he has poor business practices.  Nevertheless, the rich man tells him he will be fired.  So, anticipating his layoff the manager quickly goes to each of his clients and halves their debts, knowing that their gratitude will win him favor when he is out of work.  When the rich man discovers what his manager has done, he commends the dishonest or unrighteous manager for his shrewd business practices.  Jesus ends the story with a series of sayings that confuse even more: ‘whoever is faithful in a very little,” he says, “is faithful in much.”

If you found yourself listening to this parable and wondering what is going on; you are not alone.  One commentary states: “The parable of the unjust steward had baffled interpreters since the beginning of time.”  Each commentary says something different, each makes different choices in interpretation.  It’s no wonder why many preachers avoid this text as an unplumbable mystery.

In sifting through the text, however, there are some things we can surmise.  One is that while many parables can be interpreted allegorically, (including the parable of the prodigal son which immediately precedes our text for this morning) – understanding characters in the story to represent God and others to represent us;  This does not seem to be one of them.

Both the rich man and the manager are unsavory in some ways.  We cannot understand God as one who would commend the manager for his dishonest practices, nor can we see God as the one who cooks the books so to speak to win himself favor with his former clients.  Instead it seems, that Jesus is telling a story about everyday life: this is a story about the way the world works.

And it is isn’t it?  Change the job title and the story could come straight out of the newspaper.  These are tough times.  Like the experience of the manager, layoffs continue, and many still continue in fear that tomorrow it will happen to them, that tomorrow will be the day when their business practices don’t make the grade, when someone else shows they can do better.

For those facing their worst fears already: college grads and the millions looking for work: it is all about who you know.  Who owes who a favor, what currency one has and what it might get them.  Making “friends” with the power or tools one can leverage to create the path needed.  It is always boggling when a parable seems to hit upon a certain timelessness in our dealings with one another; a man who is out for himself behaves dishonestly to save his own neck.

What’s harder to sort out, though, is what Jesus thinks about all of it.  One the one hand the gospels are never very kind to those with money.  The Jesus we meet in Luke’s gospel in particular challenges those with wealth and power again and again.  We hear it ring in our ears: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…sell all that you have and give your money to the poor…  you cannot serve God and wealth…  Jesus calls it “dishonest” or “unrighteous” wealth as if he thinks that all wealth is unrighteous.

On the other hand, he suggests that we might use it to make friends who might welcome us into “eternal homes.”  How can he commend the manager for behaving unethically?  The result is confusing: does Jesus think that all wealth is unrighteous?  What does he really mean when he describes wealth and God as two opposing masters?    He must know that money is useful not only for each individual but to help those in need.  One cannot serve them both, he says, but the parable seems to imply that one can, and in fact perhaps one should use wealth to serve God.

The result of this kind of thinking is complicated.  We get into very scary territory when we begin to interpret the gospel in a way that helps us to feel comfortable; when we start to see Jesus as a “genial suburban dude” who affirms our need for the security that money provides.

To be sure, Jesus is highly suspicious of wealth and power, and those who have a lot of it.  His stories and parables point to the ways in which the consumer can become consumed with stuff – distracted from the “true things.”

And yet.  And yet…

Jesus also seems to be saying is that there may just be a purpose for wealth and the kinds of gifts that go with it.

The power that the manager wields is a result of a faulty system in which there are haves and have nots.  The rich man owns much more than his fair share, and the manager has been making his living off of collecting money that continues to keep the peasants who work the land down and the rich man flush with cash.  The manager is in the middle.

For the wrong reasons, but still, in the face of crisis, the manager does something terribly radical, something only barely under his power.  He forgives debts.  He evens the uneven system.  He extends grace, and in so doing he participates in the grace of God.  Perhaps the dishonest manager is more of a prudent treasurer, like Joe who ignores the ‘ethical’ thing to act out of grace.  Perhaps he is commended because even by stumbling all over himself, he discovers how his power and influence can be used so that grace may abound even more.

On the heels of the story of the prodigal son, a story that continues to be told again and again about the radical nature of God’s grace to forgive and welcome in even the person who most deserves wrath and punishment, Jesus tells this strange story, that seems to say: Go and do likewise.

Perhaps this points at least a little bit to what Jesus wants us to understand: that faith is not simply morality, but instead the ability to orient oneself around the grace of the gospel and, by extension, by one’s ability to live out that gospel in daily life.  It is catching a vision of what the world might look like if God’s grace took over.  It is living out a life that creates that vision now.

As one commentator put it: “It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.”

This means understanding that if the gifts you have are great, the burden is also.  By pointing us to the manager Jesus reminds us of the power we have to participate in the grace of God.  We may not be at the very top, we may not even be the one with the highest ethics in the room, but we have the ability to choose small things that have enormous results.  “Whoever is faithful in a very little,” Jesus says, “is faithful in much.”

If you have the power to affect change…To feed the hungry as well as to work to reorient the systems that keep people in poverty; To give water to those who thirst as well as to work so that every human being has access to clean drinking water.  To welcome the stranger as well as to live out the conviction that in the eyes of God there is no stranger, only friends.  To forgive in a way that might transform lives as well as systems and structures of power…

If you have the power, or the money, or the influence, or the gifts to effect the kind of change that the Gospel points us to whether it is in small moments of grace or grand moments of forgiveness. if you can participate right now in the grace that abounds like a father who welcomes the prodigal home, like a woman who rejoices over a lost coin, like a manager who in his time of need looks to those around him and sees their need and acts – well…then what are you waiting for?

Seek the true things, and you will be rich beyond measure.  In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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The Apostle Paul: Slave or Free
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
August 22, 2010
Text: Paul’s letter to Philemon

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

As we have been digging deeper into the letters Paul wrote to Churches and fellow Christians in the Greco-Roman world, Paul’s controversiality feels in some ways never-ending. Even those topics we might never have expected to be controversial, something such as slavery, Paul seems to make it so. Our text this morning is an entire book of the bible (though a short one) and remains perhaps the only personal letter written by Paul in our New Testament. The letter to Philemon in many ways exemplifies much of Paul’s ethic, that is, Paul’s understanding about how the gospel should effect our daily life, and so it does us well to spend some time with it.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is the one personal letter in our New Testament that is unquestionably written by Paul himself. I won’t go into detail about how scholars determine these things, but the letters to Timothy and Titus don’t seem to have the marks of true Pauline writing. However, this short letter, so often passed over in our New Testament, is Pauline through and through.

In it, Paul writes to a leader in the church in Collosae named Philemon, whom he seems to know quite well. The letter is brought to Philemon in the hands of a man named Onesimus, formerly a slave belonging to the household of Philemon, a runaway. As I mentioned last week the caste system was quite elaborate and culturally supported in the Greco-Roman world which Paul writes. A runaway slave was at the very bottom of the heap. The act of Onesimus returning to his former owner’s household would inevitably and necessarily result in severe punishment, even death. In other words, Paul is sending his dear Onesimus, his heart, into the lion’s den.

But why? What is Paul doing?

Once again Paul leaves us hanging. We want our scriptures to stand up for what we know to be right and true. We want Paul to say that slavery is an abomination. We want him to say, outright, that Onesimus should be freed, or even to say something like. “I’ve met your former slave and he’s staying with me.” But he doesn’t. Instead he says something more like: “I know you know what you’re supposed to do and I expect you to do it…”

While we don’t read this text very often, you might see quickly that it was read and preached quite frequently during the time of the Civil War in our country. Both sides had their opinions. The South preached that Paul allowed for slavery, pointed out that he sent Onesimus back to his owner to continue in his former life. The Northern anti-slavery preachers instead read between the lines of what Paul says and doesn’t say, and suggest that Paul “implies” that he expects his friend to be set free. He all but threatens him when he tells Philemon to prepare a bed for him, I’ll be there in a week. “Charge me any debt he owes you,” he says, “I expect you to do this…” But whatever we might try to argue – Paul’s inference is not as clear as we would like.

Is he ever? What is the deal? Is Paul against slavery or not? Why doesn’t he make things clear? Then again – Jesus didn’t make too much clear either.

This past week I got into a short conversation with a beloved family member about scripture. The conversation was familiar, since I’ve had it many many times before with many different people, and in that way I felt somewhat on edge and exasperated. It began in reference to my sermon last week, and my tendency throughout this series to speak of what Paul says, rather than what God says through our Holy Scriptures. “Aren’t these the words of God inspired by the Holy Spirit?” he asked…

The question of the divine inspiration of Scripture is a tricky one, particularly when it comes to Paul. There is much of what Paul says that seems heavily loaded with his cultural context. His assumptions: that women are in the image of man, that slavery is an institution we should accept rather than rebel against, that the purpose of marriage is to quell our enflamed passions. Paul contradicts himself often, leaving much of what he means somewhat unclear. The reality is there is much in our scriptures – even beyond Paul – that is hard to swallow. Stories sometimes called “texts of terror,” stories for which we should have no tolerance, texts which contradict themselves. None of this is easy to sort out.

So as thinking, believing people, how do we read these texts? How do we live out a life of faith that accepts some but not all of our scriptures as divinely inspired? How do we determine which to follow and which to leave out? It’s a good and necessary question for any faithful Christian.

The truth is, all Christians make these choices. We make choices, like I did in this conversation, about whether or not to engage or to look away. We make choices about whether or not we’re going to read the whole bible or just the parts we like. We make choices about which text will be our guiding principal, the text through which all other texts are read. Will it be – “Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life, no one can come to the father except through me (John 14:6)”? Or will it be “God is love. Whoever loves knows God.(1 John 4)”?

The point is that it is a conversation. Divine inspiration means not that the texts were inspired once a long time ago and now we’ve got the truth in our hands. It means that the Holy Spirit speaks in and through our texts again and again if we only read them. And so as we discover new truths about gender equality and slavery and homosexuality we read our scriptures with new insight and new questions. They are the living word. A word that is not static but elastic, growing and revealing new truths at every turn.

As we look back at Paul’s letter to Philemon, we could point out that Paul does not explicitly say that Onesimus should be freed. In fact, the truth is that if he were freed, Onesimus would likely have been worse off than he was as a slave. With no protection and possibly no way to earn power for himself in his world. Please know that I am not, in any way, suggesting that slavery in the Greco-Roman world was like modern-day slavery; I am not suggesting that any slave today is better off. But in the Greco-Roman world, freed slaves were exiled and ostrasized, and their survival was often only through even more abusive and disgraceful means.

But Paul has said there is no longer slave or free. And if he truly means that, then how can he send a newly baptized Onesimus back to Philemon acting as though nothing has changed?

Everything has changed. Whereas we might fault Paul for coming up short, we miss Paul’s understanding of just how far the gospel of Christ goes to change the world in which we live.

Paul does not suggest that Philemon should free his slave, instead Paul suggests that he should treat his slave as a brother. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while,” he says, “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

This is no small thing. Brothers in the Greek and Roman Social systems were supposed to have close bonds of trust and affection. Slaves, on the other hand, were orphans. They may have been born to slave parents, but their familial connections were unrecognized. As one commentator puts it, “A deep, broad, menacing chasm cut slaves off from legitimate children and free blood siblings. A slave was a filius neminis, a son of no one.”

Paul’s suggestion was outrageous. It was a joke. In Philemon’s cultural context, bringing this slave into his family tree makes any sense whatsoever. And yet, Paul suggests not only that Philemon can, and should take his former slave in as a full member of his family, but that it already is so. Paul suggests that in Christ these two men are already brothers, with those close bonds of trust and affection, and merely asks Philemon to act accordingly.

When Bill Nathan appeared on the stage at Purdue University during our Triennium worship, he already had us in the palm of his hand. We had just watched a video produced by ABC News about how one of their writers, Ben Skinner, had put everything on the line to charter a plane to Haiti in the first few days after the earthquake to save Bill’s life

Bill and Ben had met years before, when Ben was writing a book on modern-day slavery; Bill was one of the directors of an orphanage that took in former child slaves. During his time in Haiti Ben contracted a severe case of malaria and Bill tracked down the medicine he needed and nursed him back to health. Bill saved Ben’s life.

And so, when he learned Bill had been severely injured in the earthquake, Ben chartered a plane, got himself to Haiti, and evacuated Bill to Florida for treatment. Bill would not have survived if Ben had not made such a daring move.

The story of the earthquake is only half of it. As Bill Nathan walked back and forth on the stage he told us his own story of slavery. Bill had been orphaned at the age of five. Like many orphans in Haiti, had been given to a family who at first assured the nun who knew him that they would take him in and treat him as family. They lied. A few weeks after Bill’s parents died he began serving his new family as a slave. He slept on the dirt floor of a shed in back of the house. He ate only what was leftover and only alone in the dirt, never at the family table. He worked dusk until dawn, and if he resisted he was beaten severely.

After a few years the nun who had cared for him at the death of his parents rescued him and brought him to Saint Joseph’s orphanage, where they continue to help former child slaves. Bill grew up there. He was educated. He was hired. Now he works at the orphanage that saved his life. He spends his life returning the favor.

Both men in the story were visibly moved by their connection. The debt of life is a hard one to put into words. The newscaster asked Ben why he went to all these lengths to save his friend. “It was a debt I owed him,” he says… His pilot and friend in the rescue operation said, “When your family is in need – you show up.” Bill said, “God was watching over me.”

Brothers. Beloved. Free. What we see as impossible, God makes possible. Where we see no bond, God sees family.

Somehow, in Christ, these two men have been changed. Yesterday they were slave and master. But today, something new has formed. The old has gone, the new has begun. Today they are beloved family members. They share food at the same table. They share inheritance.

Paul’s ethic tells us that we are to go above and beyond what is required of us for one another. We do more than the minimum. We do more than write the check; we make the meal with our own hands and sit down and eat with together. We do more than put the welcome sign out; we sweep the floor and make the bed and put on the tea. We do more than forgive; we become family. We do more, more than we imagined, more than we can spare, much more.

We don’t always have the opportunity to save another’s life. We don’t always have the opportunity to bring another up out of slavery or poverty or hunger. But Paul’s ethic is one of boundless, irrational love. A love that is from God. A love that has already been set in motion through Christ. What he shows through his letter to Philemon is that the rules have changed even if the landscape has not. We are a part of a family that is beyond our vision or understanding. And when family is in need, you show up.

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History and Now: A Pentecost Reflection
Rev. Bill Crawford and Rev. Julie Emery
Pentecost Sunday, with the Confirmation of New Members
May 21, 2010

Acts of the Apostles 1.6-8
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts of the Apostles 2.1-13
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

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History – Rev. Dr. Bill Crawford

On the day of Pentecost they came from all over. They came on that day because it was familiar as a religious holiday – Shavuot – 50 days after Passover. Following the resurrection, Jesus had said he would come to them, sending a Spirit. There was anticipation and anxiety. All of these different folks from all over the place. They came with feelings that were all over the map as well . . . with fears for the future, concerns for loved ones and those suffering loss, questions about . . . and they came because their lives had been touched by Jesus, his goodness and grace. They were followers, believers in him.

Luke tells us that there were the original disciples, with Mattias soon to take the place of Judas, and many more: 120, a growing number.

The miracle of this event is that it drew people from all parts of the known world – Egypt, Galillee, Capadocia, Asia – of them speaking different languages. They were abundant and abounding in differences. And, yet, while each person spoke in their own native tongue, they understood each other. They were caught up in the Spirit together.

Without plan, without warning, like the fluttering of the wings of a dove, that Spirit settleed upon them, and they began to speak in profound ways. With the gentleness of a summer breeze, they were drawn together. With the force of a rushing wind, the walls that divided them cam crashing down. With the power of God’s deeds, the power of each one’s [common] humanity, common goodness was revealed and made known. The Spirit filled the place. It filled their hearts . . . this Spirit we share.

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History – Rev. Julie Emery

We as Christians in the 21st century aren’t swept up so much by the Spirit. We tend to be more calculated, more intellectual about our faith. Confirmation classes often spend time discussing what they believe more than how they live out those beliefs. Having inherited this history and story of Pentecost we tend to want to debate it just as those who thought those early disciples were “drunk on wine”: is this how it really happened? What was actually going on? Instead of respond to it: what does it really matter? What does this mean for me?

In the history of church, and on that first Pentecost day, it surely mattered for different reasons. For some it mattered because of the community, the friendship and fellowship shared – the united message spoken in a multiplicity of languages. For some it mattered because there was a truth that was spoken about justice and reconciliation and God’s love and vision for the world. For some it was about acting out that truth in service, welcoming the alien, caring for the victim, loving the enemy.

And yet whatever the reason why they came together – the Spirit brought them together, just as it does today; Bringing together people of great differences and diversity. In our Confirmation class, even, people from three different high schools – across Mamaroneck and New Rochelle. People with wonderfully different interests: from theatre to music, to boy scouts to marine biology to lacrosse, even people with backgrounds that draw from various countries around the world, even people whose family lives and stories with the church are as varied as their personalities. The spirit has been and is at work, uniting in laughter, inspiring towards service, sharing experiences and connecting with one another.

The early Christians at Pentecost didn’t seem so much concerned with “right belief.” They didn’t spend the day arguing about doctrine – about what they believed about the Trinity or the divine make up of Jesus. That came much later. The beginning of the church was more about – a feeling. An experience of divine presence that could not be denied. An experience of hope and faith that was still a quiet seedling, waiting to be nurtured and grown.

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Acts 2:14-21
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

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Now – Rev. Julie Emery

Perhaps you have felt that too: the divine presence in the midst of community. Maybe it came like a rushing wind. Maybe it was more an inkling, a feeling that these are the kinds of people you’d like to spend more time with. Maybe it was an intellectual discussion that brought you here – or maybe it was a friend with a welcoming smile. Whatever the reason you started – now you stand alongside others throughout time walking together on a journey.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Confirmation is less about figuring out just what you believe as it is about choosing to be open to the Spirit as it moves through this world and community. It is less about being sure and more about taking risks. It is less about certainty and more about faith – the kind of faith that steps even when you don’t know what is coming next. Because even after this day when the Spirit moved and claimed these gathered around, there were still doubts. There were still questions about the next steps. There were still confusions and struggles and wonderings. But in the presence of one another and in the fullness of the spirit, they lived through those questions with one another.

So if you still have doubts: you are in good company. If you are still unsure: you are not alone. If you sometimes don’t feel or see that Spirit: you are in the right place. Today you join with generations before and this great community gathered here seeking to live out those questions together.

And so may it be for you eight gathered here and for all of us – continuing in the tradition of the early church. Finding ourselves coming together in our doubts and beliefs, despite differences. Coming together because of a common Spirit present in the church, the community gathered here at LAC and beyond throughout the world, coming together taking the first step and dreaming of where it might lead.

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Now – Rev. Dr. Bill Crawford

And so, the church came into being on that day of Pentecost. The disciples who had been following Jesus stayed in Jerusalem and awaited “the promise” – that’s the word he uses — “the promise,” of God’s presence with them. The twelve had grown to a number of seventy followers. By the end of the gathering that day in the upper room – on the day of Pentecost — the number had grown to 3000!

Imagine, so many people clamoring to be a part of congregation! Imagine, droves of people outside our doors right now, pushing their way to come in, stirred by the Spirit, coming to be a part of the family! In these moments the church is being born.

That’s the Pentecost story. In that spirit, this day we welcome 9 new members – just as it was that day, when – as Peter in his sermon – lifted up the words of the prophet Joel: saying that those older shall dream dreams and those young shall see visions . . .

To dream and to envision a church with a vision and purpose: Who we are as God’s people, realizing what God is calling us to do and be . . . we are a community of Christ of all ages, welcoming and gathering in love, growing by grace, going forth to serve . . .

The vision is realized in this very place, on this very day… in the music we sing, the prayers we pray. The vision is realized in our coming together from different corners of our world, from different perspectives on life – joining our voices, joining in harmony… in community. Welcoming one another; reaching out to one another.

The vision is realized in this place and on this day… as we welcome new members to the church: Sarah and Kimberly, Alex and Russell, Julianna and Carina, Zach and Scott.

The vision is realized, and the vision spreads and grows this day and each day when we welcome not these 8, but when we welcome each one… each one here… each one anywhere. When we recognize a world in which no wall, no barrier, no divide or distinction nothing… when we recognize there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God we know in Jesus Christ. On this day, God’s love is realized. God’s community is realized. Dream is realized. This is our Pentecost, behold the Spirit alive in us.

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Catching Faith in a Sea of Doubt
Text: Luke 5:1-11
Rev. Julie Emery
Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
February 7, 2010

Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

The year after I graduated from college I spent volunteering as a youth minister in Juneau, Alaska. Juneau is the capital, and was built on the site of a summer settlement for the native Tlingit tribes who fished the thin waterway that flows between the mainland and Douglas Island. Folks who live there joke that the natives knew better than to camp there in the winter, when the winds howl between the mountains and what little sun appears hides behind the peaks for most of the day. Juneau is land-locked by Mendenhall glacier flowing from the Juneau Icefield, which is the fifth largest icefield in North America. This means that there is no way to build a road to Juneau – if you want to see it you must fly or take a boat.

The layout of the city of Juneau is something like the capital letter “H” There is a long road that extends up and down the mainland, and a long road that extends up and down the coastline of Douglas Island and a short bridge that connects the Mainland to Douglas Island. In addition to the glacier, the town of Juneau is shrouded by mountains on all sides both on the mainland and on Douglas Island. If you see a picture of downtown, you will see how the homes and buildings are nestled in between these three towering mountaintops.

I take such time to describe this place where I lived for a year because it is hard to imagine if you have not been there. Pictures don’t seem to do it justice. In my time in Juneau I lived in a handful of different places; One of which was a home on Douglas Island. Since I did not have a car I learned quickly that if I had the time, walking got me where I wanted to go – so every morning I bundled up and walked across the bridge to the church where I was working.

At the center of the bridge, if you turn and look south…the view is breathtaking. In some ways I am reminded of this view when I cross the various bridges in our neck of the woods – most often the Tappan Zee. But the bridge view in Juneau is beyond imagining. Looking south, with mountains on both sides, your eyes follow the thin passage of water south towards British Colombia. The water continues as it weaves through islands scattering throughout Southeast Alaska – some inhabited and some not. Some of them dusted with snow-peaks; all of them falling dramatically into the ocean.

Every morning when crossing towards downtown I would stop at the top of that bridge. It was a view not many could enjoy – the cruise ships could not come that far into the channel because it was too shallow, and cars passing over the bridge sped too fast to enjoy it. It is the kind of view that forces you to acknowledge your own smallness in the face of such vast and powerful greatness.

“Woe is me!” Isaiah says, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips!” Peter says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Each of these men has just had an experience with God that is so powerful that they cower in reponse.

Isaiah has seen a vision of a God so enormous that the hem of his robe fills the entire temple. He is awestruck by the sight of flying seraphs with six wings and the building that shakes and the voices resounding with singing and then the whole place filling with smoke. The fear that Isaiah feels is overwhelming but even more overwhelming is Isaiah’s sense of his own small self. “Woe is me!” he says, ‘I am unworthy of this.’

Simon Peter too is faced with something so amazing and powerful that he is overwhelmed with his sense of smallness. He has been up all night fishing with James and John – exhausted and frustrated with a night catching nothing but seaweed. Jesus is there too, preaching what Luke calls for the first time the word of God. The crowd that gathers is so big that Jesus decides to push out onto the water in one of the boats, to help amplify his voice so that all can hear.

Whatever was preached that morning, Simon Peter is moved. So when Jesus tells Simon Peter to cast his nets, he balks only slightly before he obeys. Simon warns Jesus of his unsuccessful night of fishing, but then says; “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When the fishermen cast their nets one last time they witness only what one can call a miracle. They use nets meant for night fishing, after a night of empty casting – with this set up they should not catch a minnow. But in following the will of Jesus they come up with such abundance that the nets creak under the weight of fish and the two boats used to haul the fish in begin to fill with water from the pressure of the filled nets. It is after this most amazing event that Simon falls to his knees – his view of the catch only emphasizes the contrast between his sense of smallness in the face of the greatness of Jesus: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” “This is too much for me!” he seems to say, “I am to little for you!”

Our own sense of unworthiness does not always show itself so plainly as Isaiah’s cry in the face of God. It most often shows itself in our lives as doubt. Doubt in ourselves and in others, doubt in our ability to accomplish what we hope to, doubt in our own certainty about life, parenting, truth, God. We believe ourselves to be unworthy because we are uncertain of so much; Uncertain enough to doubt our ability to care for those who need us, uncertain enough to doubt our ability to make the best decisions instead of the easy ones. Uncertain enough to doubt whether the decision we have already made will carry us through to safety.

But doubt is not negation of faith. Like the young Mary who responds to the angel’s announcement of her pregnancy, “How can this be?” and then later, “Here I am, servant of the Lord,” there is a certain leap of faith taken when one answers “Yes,” when one thinks and feels “Are you kidding?” Like confirmation faith partners who say, “I don’t think you really want me… but I would love to be a faith partner,” or any of us that think “this person does not know all my faults,” but say, “I will serve,” there is a trust in God instead of a trust in ourselves that allows us to do follow and serve. There is a belief in the idea that something bigger than ourselves is at work in our midst.

In her book “Leaving Church,” Barbara Brown Taylor describes how in her early years in parish ministry, she conceived of faith as the core certainty about God and godly things that equipped her for ministry. She describes how she had reasonable answers for all the questions of life that confronted her along the way. It was not until she experienced the slow loss of her father to cancer that she began to feel her way into a different concept of faith. As she describes her experience sitting by his bedside in Hospice Atlanta, she says this:

“(My dad) and I were past talking by then, which meant that I never found out where he was with God. All I found out was how helpless love can be, with nothing left to do but suffer alongside with the beloved. Marooned by my father’s bed day after day, listening to him whimper in the night, unsure what he believed about God, unsure that it mattered, wanting to pray, for him and for me, without managing anything much beyond “Please,” I discovered that faith did not have the least thing to do with certainty. Insofar as I had any faith at all, that faith consisted of trusting God in the face of my vastly painful ignorance, to gather up all the life in that room and do with it what God alone knew how to do.”

“Since then,” she says, “I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place.”

I find it fascinating to realize that in our text for this morning the doubt of both Isaiah and Simon Peter come before the call. In both of our stories this morning the call comes after admission of sinfulness and unworthiness. Isaiah says, “I am an unclean man,” Simon Peter says, “I am a sinful man,” and Jesus says “Follow me, and you will catch people…”

As we turn from Simon Peter’s view to the response of Jesus we notice that Jesus does not even acknowledge Simon Peter’s confession and humility. Jesus does not forgive him or heal him, he does not tell him to repent of his doubt. Instead Jesus puts him to work. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” And as Simon Peter leaves all his belongings behind he chooses in that moment to follow in spite of his doubts about his own worth. He chooses to follow because his smallness is embraced by Christ’s immense greatness.

“Do not fear,” Jesus says, “from now on you will be catching people.”

The response that Jesus gives to Peter’s doubting heart is not to erase his doubt in himself, it is not to convince him so that he is clearly sure of himself for the remainder of his journey. Instead Jesus only says, “Do not fear,” and asks Peter to join his journey even in his doubtfulness, and to ask others to join this journey as well. Jesus says, “Do not fear, but come with me anyway. Bring your doubt, your questions, bring others too; I am not about certainty. I am about hope.”

“Do not fear,” Jesus says, “from now on you will be catching people.” And perhaps the idea of catching people even as we doubt our faith or ourselves seems hypocritical or confusing. If catching people means being certain of every thing we believe about God or Jesus then we are sunk.

But if catching people means that we invite others to join us in our uncertainty then there is hope. If catching people means that we ask others to celebrate our lives together – both the good parts and the difficult parts without trying to explain them away then there is grace. If catching people means that we invite our neighbors to labor together to leave this world a little more like the kingdom of heaven, well the Church just might be a place of wholeness.

The community of Christ embraces our doubt and our shortcomings in order to do the work of the Kingdom. And it is because we do this work – the work of healing and feeding and serving and hugging – that the church grows. It grows because we are excited about the work we do here and we want to share the excitement. It grows because a loving community is sure to attract people seeking to love and be loved. It grows because we are willing to live with uncertainty, trusting God in the face of our smallness and God’s expansive greatness.

You are a part of the catching greatness of God. “Do not fear,” Jesus says, “from now on you will be catching people.” Amen.

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I’m preaching this Sunday – on Reformation Sunday – and I’m so intrigued by this quote from the Institutes that I must share it…

“We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves. When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we come entangled in many errors. Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would often engender hate than love, but to God, who bids us extend to all the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: whatever the character of the person, we must yet love them because we love God.” (Calvin – Institutes, II, viii, 55)

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Can I just say that I love my Director of Music?

I work for a church that is very traditional. We just recently completed the installation of a brand new, fancy expensive pipe organ. And I love it. I realize that in some ways this makes me a bit abnormal compared to others in my generation. In seminary I remember a conversation with one of my colleagues who found it completely bizarre that “someone like me” could like worship “like that.” I suppose it comes from growing up in a traditional church, infused with hymns, inspired by candles and liturgy. I suppose it comes from finding a value in tradition, ritual, history. And then again, perhaps it’s just preference and taste – not good or bad taste, just different tastes.

However, as someone who loves the old hymns, I also see the limitations of traditional worship music. I can understand that someone who did not grow up with the same background could experience that worship style like going to church in a foreign country. The language is strange; words like salvation, grace, sin are so loaded as to lose meaning altogether. I mean really, what would someone new to church think when they are expected to sing the words, “Here I raise my Ebenezer…”?

Unfortunately, I sometimes find (along with others) that more contemporary Christian liturgy and music lacks a certain theological depth. It often employs a God-is-my-friend theology that feels a bit hokey and lacks the reverence that I personally seek in worship. (I admit it’s not always that way – and I have experienced contemporary worship that is theologically deep, but it seems to be a growing edge.)

I recently heard an interview with a leader of an emergent church community who said he was looking through a hymnal and was surprised to see that the words had great theological depth. (I thought, “duh.”) But that he found the music to be a barrier. So he began writing new music for these older hymnal lyrics. (I thought, Aha!) And now he has this wonderful, very youthful church community singing these wonderfully theologically deep words. (Amen!)

There is this balance, then, in the old and the new. And I think it’s possible to bridge these two churches that we have – the older, more traditional church with the younger, contemporary church in new and exciting ways.

Which brings me back to why I love our Director of Music. This past Sunday, we had a guest musician, who is a congregation member and a jazz musician. He has at least one record out, and plays gigs regularly – very talented saxophonist. He brought with him a quartet – upright bass, piano, drums. The anthem they played, with the choir singing was a jazz rendition of “How Great Thou, Art.” It was awesome. Creative, a bit funky, tasteful, theologically rich. And did I say creative? With congregation singing along, tapping feet, swaying a bit, it was a joy to experience in worship. Now, if we could just help these white folks with their sense of rhythm 😉

With thanks to God for it all…

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