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Why Praise?
Text: Psalm 146
A sermon preached by Rev. Julie Emery
At the Larchmont Avenue Church
June 6, 2010

Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD!

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It was a retreat just like any other. We had spent the day together, playing, learning, joking. And now we were a diverse gathering of young teenagers milling about before dinner. There was a Great Room connected to an eating area where food was being set out and we were being called over to the tables for dinner. As we started to move toward the tables our youth pastor said that for our prayer we would be learning a song passed down throughout the generations, a song that many of us had sung in church or had at least heard a few times. And then he broke into song: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise God all creatures here below. Praise God above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

He led us through the song step by step – we followed him on each line until we knew it, and then we sung it all together. I don’t know what it was about that moment that stuck in my head. Maybe it was the first time I had heard a worship song used as a blessing on a meal and it was surprising – things so familiar taken out of context can transform their meaning. Maybe it was that every time I sang the doxology after that I heard it differently – out of the context of thanksgiving for the blessings that God pours out upon me every day. Maybe it was simply that I had deep love and affection for my youth pastor and appreciation for what he had to teach. But I will never forget those moments as the first time I truly learned the doxology – and I’ve been singing it ever since.

It is a hymn so short and so familiar that I find it pops out of my mouth at all sorts of different times. Last week at Presbytery a dear friend was examined for ordination on the floor of Presbytery. She is a friend from the Katonah church who I met on our trip to Nicaragua this past winter. Both mothers, we commiserated together during our time in such a far off place – missing our children together and sharing stories of them, sharing stories about what it is like to minister with young children and family in tow, we watched and played with the Nicaraguan children and spoke of our own babies and what it is like to leave them to serve a community of people that might never consider leaving their families in that way.

So when she stood before Presbytery and was asked questions about her call to ministry and what that meant to her – I imagined her two children and her husband standing alongside of her – ever present and with her in this awesome step. When she was approved the entire Presbytery body broke out in singing the doxology. Hearts were full of joy.

I am fully aware that this is not quite as common in the wider world. For a group of clergy it seems an obvious response to a moment of joy: singing words of praise and thanks to God. But what about everybody else? Would you imagine yourself singing at the birth of your child, or the engagement of a friend? Would you imagine yourself singing at the reception of a promotion or a good grade? It’s not just any song, though – the song points to God: thanking God for the blessings that we receive. It’s a way of noting: this is God’s doing, not mine, for no good comes to me except by the grace of God.

The difficulty comes, though, because life is not all blessing. How do we live a doxological life in a world that is seeped in lament and sorrow? How do we praise in a world wounded by war and violence, sick with pain and suffering? Why would anyone praise God in our world?

Why? It does seem strange that God would demand our praise as the scriptures state. It seems like a God of egotism and self-absorption that would ask for us to sing praises even in the face of such a world as broken as ours. It almost seems when we read these psalms in the voice of a sarcastic teen: “We praise you God, cause everybody knows you’re soooo great.”

But perhaps praise is not about God at all. Perhaps it’s not the praise itself that God wants but the result of the praise? That is to say – maybe praise is not an end in and of itself, but a means to an end?

Psalm 146 marks the first in the final section of the Psalter. These last five psalms each begin and end with the words “Hallelu – Yah” – Halleluia, which in Hebrew is: Praise YHWH. “Praise the Lord.” The book of psalms is often called “the Hymnbook of the Second Temple,” and as we read through each of these poetic hymns it is important to remember that while each stands alone it is also connected to the larger body of psalms.

These hymns of praise are connected to the psalms of lament that come in the beginning of the Psalter, they are connected to the stories of Israel told throughout, and they are connected in a way so that the entire book of Psalms tells a story of the history of Israel; in its beginnings, in its exile and in the period of return and rebuilding.

The Psalms are a way of singing the story of God. It is a telling of God’s justice and work in the lives of those who speak it. “The Lord executes justice for the oppressed; the Lord gives food to the hungry; the Lord sets the prisoners free and opens the eyes of the blind…the Lord watches over the strangers, and upholds the orphan and the widow, and brings the way of the wicked to ruin.”

It is a doxology that is mindful of the pain and suffering of life. It is a doxology that remembers the forgotten and oppressed. And so in some ways it is a more powerful word of praise than one steeped only in joy without any suffering

What you might note is the present tense of the psalm. You might say, “but the oppressed do not receive justice, the hungry remain so, the prisons are filled, the stranger is sent away at borders and the blind still reach out in darkness.” How can we say Halleluia when these words seem like lies?

At a recent seminar on youth and culture in Princeton, professor Rolf Jacobson from Luther Seminary in Minnesota taught a class titled, “How can I keep from screaming, laughing, crying? In it he suggested that we need to teach our children words to use to describe both their every day trials and suffering, and their every day blessings. He said we need to give them language about God to describe their daily lives – and he invoked the psalms.

“Teach them the words of praise,” he said, “and then in naming their blessings they might be saturated in a life of gratitude.” It is part of the way we help them find meaning in life, by giving them a way to describe the world around them that is God-infused.

The present-tense language of psalm 146 does another thing – it brings us into the actions of God. By singing those affirmations of God’s work in the world we become part of the actions of God. We sing “God executes justice” and we become agents of that justice. We sing, “ God gives food to the hungry” and we become actors in the preparations of the feast. We sing, “the Lord will reign forever” and we become grateful participants in God’s kingdom here on earth.

Praise may not be for God as much as it is for us. Because the effect is that praise changes us; as we name what God has done for us, as we name the blessings in our lives, as we praise God for real things that have happened to us, our gratitude is fused with a knowledge that we are both recipients and agents of God’s work in this world.

A life of praise saturates those lives with gratitude and makes every moment shine. Imagine what your life might be – drenched in Halleluias, saturated in praise. May it be so. Amen.

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.”

+++
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.

+++
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.

+++

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.’

+++
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.

+++

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.

Open Heart, Open Home
Texts: Acts 16:9-15, John 14:23-29
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery
At The Larchmont Avenue Church
6th Sunday of Easter, Mothers Day, May 9, 2010

John 14:23-29
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Acts 16:9-15
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

I’d like to start by reading a poem titled, “I stop writing the Poem,” by Tess Gallagher

To fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. I’ll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.

On this day celebrating the prevailing faith of women we read about Lydia, the first convert to Christianity in Europe: a woman and the head of her household. Lydia is another of those women who seem to confound and confuse scholars – a woman unattached to a man and so strange. Perhaps she was a widow or divorced, they posit. She is a dealer in purple cloth, which may or may not make her wealthy but certainly means she worked with those of means, since only the wealthy were allowed to wear or could afford to wear the color purple. Since she is not mentioned to be with a man, the text makes us believe she is on her own. A worshipper of God, though a Gentile, she has joined a group of women on the Sabbath for prayer.

Paul’s presence among these women is strange as well, since in his previous tours of evangelism he has begun his preaching in the synogogue. Perhaps it is because this hasn’t always worked out that Paul and his companions are trying a different route. They have come to Macedonia because of a dream – searching for a man who called to them, “Come and help us!” And so Paul and Silas and their entourage travel to Macedonia, to Phillipi and are looking for the man in their vision. Instead they meet Lydia.

But it’s not just Lydia’s gender that makes her special. It’s her openness. She is open to hear the word of Paul even as he is a stranger offering a faith that must have seemed foreign and bizarre. When she converts she has everyone in her home baptized – probably slaves and children as well, and is at least part of the reason Calvin argued we should baptize babies. Like the woman in the poem by Tess Gallagher, she is a living example; as soon as she is baptized, she is inviting others into the faith.

Lydia’s sense of vision is of what God is doing – in her presence, in her life and home, and in the work and life of Paul and Silas. After her conversion, she invites these strangers into her home, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful, come and stay at my home.” Later in this story of Paul and Silas, before they leave Phillipi, they stop again at the home of Lydia, now a burgeoning house-church. Not surprising that Luke writes about this dynamic woman, “And she prevailed upon us.”

My own mother was one of those who is always inviting extra people to stay at our house for dinner. Did you have a mother like that? With two teenage boys in our house there was always an extra boy or two hanging around, and so an extra mouth or two to feed. Growing up everyone called her “Ma Hoek,” since she seemed to be a mother to everyone we met. Friends whose parents were going through divorce found solace at our table and on our couch. Hairdressers or church members struggling to make ends meet would be showered with huge baskets of food on the holidays, and invitations to join our family gatherings were always constant.

There were, at points growing up, that I didn’t so much appreciate having extra teenage boys at our table, given that I was the natural recipient of incessant teasing. There were times that I wondered if my mother’s endless invitations and gifts meant that I had less: less of those goodies being sent away, less attention. And yet now as a parent myself I long for many, many Lydias in the lives of my boys. Men and women both, I long for people who open their homes to them and invite them in.

As a mother I am aware every day that parents cannot do it alone – that as the saying goes it takes a village to raise a child. I hope for every child I know to be welcomed in by women and men of all paths and stories, some parents and some not. I hope for them men and women who take them under their wings and feed them good food and good advice. I hope for them people who show them the love of God in all her fierce and creative whimsy. I hope for them people who show them not just what the church is but what the church can be – whether or not those people are members of any particular church.

I hope for them people with vision and openness like Lydia – living without fear of strangers, without fear of the world, with openness to the Spirit at work in our midst, and with openness to each other. It is a hope I have for them, and for each of us too.

Openness to strangers, though, seems to be a bit countercultural these days. If you don’t see this as a parent you have perhaps experienced it as a stranger when your innocent “hello” to a child at the park is met with wary eyes and suspicion. Once I was in a store rumbling through my purse and I saw a young child standing there, watching me, so I offered her a piece of candy I happened to have. A smart girl, she refused, and I caught myself aghast. “I am the stranger my mother warned me about!” I thought.

We are wary of strangers, what they offer, what they represent. A few months back, in the New York Sun, a woman named Lenore Skenazy wrote an article titled, “Why I let my 9-year-old travel on the Subway alone.” She wrote later that she expected some backlash, but got significantly more than she bargained for as the people of New York wrote in to assert their opinions. There were some people who wrote back championing her courage and grit as a parent raising children in the world today. But the vast majority of parents called her crazy, and even negligent or abusive to let a small child travel unattended through what seemed to them the fires of hell – the New York City public transportation system.

Perhaps she is crazy and negligent. But perhaps not. Perhaps she is living out a certain amount of openness that is our call as parents, or even more important our call as Christians.

It is Easter season: Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed. And the question for each of us in this season of Easter is to ask ourselves, what do we do now? Now that Christ is risen, how then shall we live?

Jesus says all the time throughout the gospels just as he does in the passage from John’s Gospel today, the words “Do not fear, do not be afraid.” He says this even when he knows that he will soon die, and leave his disciples alone. He says this knowing the despair they will face, the grief, the pain. He tells them that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will be with them always. He tells them to be at peace.

It isn’t easy to do. In a world where car bombs are left in Times Square and the market continues to drop and the world seems so unpredictable, the natural tendency is for us to live out of fear. Fear for our loved ones, fear for what will happen tomorrow, fear for the future. Not only mothers but all of us can easily slip into that space where anxiety rules the day: What if I forget something? What if I never accomplish what I set out to do? What if I don’t make the cut? What if I get fired? What if something awful happens?

But the path of Christ is a path though fear into hope. It is not a hope that is naive or cheery in the face of pain and suffering. It is instead a hope that, as one scholar puts it, stares into the face of evil and despair and answers with the knowledge that God will win.

When the earthquake hit Haiti the devastation was colossal. Some of you saw some of the photos of Haiti in my father’s slideshow a few weeks ago. The images are still startling. The world mused at how a country that had already been barely scraping by could weather such a disaster. How could they face this new, overwhelming destruction.

But then reports came back of the singing. Do you remember? As that first night fell in camps of thousands that had been set up around the city reporters could hear voices floating on the air in song: hymns of Salvation that they knew by heart. Reminders of the love of Christ that conquers even the worst evils, waves of hope prevailing in the darkness. They were singing, singing, singing. As the days moved on the world answered with an openness of heart and home. People shared what they had, people gave time and resources, gifts and skill. There was and is sorrow, yes. There was and is fear, yes. There was and is suffering, yes. But hope, love, prevails.

As Christians we believe, and that means that we trust that God loves us more than we could possibly imagine. As Christians we trust that God will guide and protect the people we love. As Christians we trust and do not fear. As Christians, we have hope. It is a hope that sings in the dark. It is a hope that opens our hearts to the great possibility of the Spirit at work among us. It is a hope that opens our homes to strangers knowing that God’s vision is bigger than our sight. As Christians we have faith, and so we believe that in spite of it all, God wins, Hope conquers, Love prevails. May it be a hope that lives in each of us – this day and forever. Amen.

Handing Over – A Sermon

Handing Over
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
March 28, 2010 Palm Sunday

Luke 23:13-25, 32-33, 44-48
Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”

Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.

I heard a pastor this past week refer to Palm Sunday as “whiplash Sunday.” She was referring to the experience we all have in beginning worship in Palm Sunday with Jesus’ triumphant processional into Jerusalem and ending it with his crucifixion and death. I learned as well that many pastors simply do not preach on this day. Instead they hold a dramatic reading of the passion story – much like we do at our Good Friday service. I don’t blame them. It is a challenge for anyone to try and deal with the onslaught of emotions that comes with the kind of journey that Jesus took over that week. From heightened joy and excitement to betrayal, trial, suffering and death. From the joyful cries of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord,” to the hate-filled shouts of “Crucify Him!” It’s enough to give any of us a sore neck.

It’s not an easy story to tell in any sort of shortened fashion either. Luke’s telling of the final days of Jesus is told like any good scientist – with attention to the smallest details. And so from the triumphant processional to the crucifixion we cover five long chapters. It is a big story. It is The Story. The Story of our Faith. The Story we remember again and again so no one will ever forget.

Most of us would just as well skip over the hard parts – including myself. I’m not much for blood and gore. I could leave out the beatings and mocking. I always feel myself mentally looking away at Peter’s betrayal, like trying not to look at a car crash you know is going to happen. I just wish for once he wouldn’t do it. I shake my head at Pilate’s inaction in the face of the crowd who calls for Jesus to be killed. How can any of us feel anything but shame?

Just as well to go from the height of the processional to the empty tomb and skip over all that stuff. Just as well to focus on the glory of what God can accomplish rather than the evil that humanity can perpetuate. Just as well.

When we fast-forward through the events of the week as Luke tells it – we begin to see two divergent understandings of power that are the source of the conflict that ends with the death of Jesus: One vision of power that demands obedience through fear and violence; the other self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, a non-violent protest against the powers of this world. Powers still at work today, vying for our attention and commitment.

I was reminded over the weekend that this past Thursday marked the anniversary of one of the most memorable tragedies in the history of New York City, one that came long before the attacks on the world trade center in 2001: the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. In memorial, schoolchildren in the city and relatives of the 146 garment workers who died fire 99 years ago gathered to remember something that never should have happened. Most of the victims were women, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants, most of them heartbreakingly young.

They were killed because labor laws allowed the clothing company to lock the doors to keep them there, because the fire department didn’t have ladders that reached above the sixth floor, which was two or three floors below the workers trapped in the fire. Labor laws and fire departments have changed since then – in part due to this unspeakable tragedy.

Part of the annual remembering is led by a filmmaker named Ruth Sergel. Each year on March 25, she leads volunteers around the city to the homes of each of the 146 victims, writing their names in chalk on the pavement outside the buildings. She describes it as “a different kind of power” – the power of communal memory, of standing up for innocent victims, of standing up for justice.

Luke, more than the other gospel writers, is concerned about justice. At the death of Jesus, the centurion roman guard is given a line that proclaims the center of truth in the gospel writer’s eyes. In Mark and Matthew’s gospels the centurion says, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

But Luke’s centurion says something different. The centurion in our text today instead says, “Truly this man was innocent,” he says.

“He has done nothing to deserve death.” “Truly this man was innocent.”

Luke takes pains to show us that Jesus went to the cross an innocent man. Pilate speaks to the crowd three times about his belief that Jesus did not deserve to die, but in the end sends him to his death anyways. The thief on the cross beside Jesus rebukes his mocking companion, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

“Truly this man was innocent.”

Despite his innocence, despite his words of hope and peace, there is something about Jesus that people resist and wish to eliminate. There has been something about Jesus that people have resisted all along. Throughout his life and ministry – the actions and words of Jesus have been met with opposition and even fury. This is not our kind of power. Our power is a power that keeps us – here and them – there. Our power is a power that builds walls of division, a power that perpetuates the huge gap between the poorest of poor and the wealthiest of wealthy. It is the kind of power that doesn’t want to share, that ignores the pain and suffering of others. Our power is a power that betrays, that condemns, that preserves the self at all costs.

Each of us has these stories – stories of our own betrayals and pain. Stories we have read or experienced which display the injustices that are part of the human condition. They have early beginnings – on buses and in school cafeterias – moments when we joined in mocking or at least looked away. Or perhaps we were the ones ridiculed and cast out because of a powerful crowd. Perhaps it is part of why remembering our adolescent years is so painful.

I can remember the faces of those I failed to stand up for. I can remember the shame I felt at being too weak.

Jesus spoke of a different kind of power – a power that proclaims release to the captives, a power that lets justice roll down like a mighty water, a power that lifts up the poor and downtrodden, and condemns the rich and haughty.

Throughout his life – Jesus acted with a different kind of power – a power that heals the broken, that welcomes the outcast, a power that forgives the sinner, loves the forgotten. In his final days ‘Jesus is silent when the world screams for vengeance, he is a man of peace while the world acts with violence, he is a person in prayer when the status quo is obsessed with politics and he is aligned with all who suffer and are wounded when the world looks towards power, prestige and ego satisfaction.’ In his final days Jesus stands with the least of these and in doing so Jesus stands for justice.

Jesus is all about justice.

Rev. Jim Wallis, progressive Christian author and editor of Sojourners Magazine tells a story about when he was in seminary and participated in a bible study that found “2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor, about God’s concern for the left out, left behind, the vulnerable and God’s call for justice.” And then they took an old Bible from seminary and they cut out of the Bible every single reference to the poor, to social justice, to economic justice. When they were done, the Bible was just in shreds.” There was almost nothing left.

At the very heart of the story of the Passion of Christ we find Jesus in solidarity with the prisoner, the lonely, the betrayed, the beaten, the outcast. Jesus dies between two criminals, unjustly condemned to death…and we must ask ourselves…can we live with that? Can we live with the kind of power that rules our world again and again? Can we live with the injustices that occur everyday around us? Can we live with unjust healthcare systems, unjust labor practices, unjust foreign policy, unjust behavior toward our neighbors?

We must ask: will we continue to resist the love, mercy and truth of Jesus Christ? Will we silence the honest voice? Will we condemn the innocent agitator? Will we laugh at the misfortune of others? Will we pursue our own agendas for the sake of expediency and personal profit?

Or will we decide, “For the sake of Jesus, I am no longer going to participate in something that is vindictive, punitive, or evil.” Will we hand ourselves over to the power that Jesus offers? The power that stands for what is right and just and merciful and true?

Will we tell the story or will we live it?

Will remember the story or will we hand ourselves over?

Hand ourselves over to love and peace and forgiveness?

Hand ourselves over to hope and grace, and self-sacrifice?

Will we hand ourselves over to the power that conquers all – even death?

Amen.

Lenten Surrender

This week I was invited to be a guest preacher at my good friend’s church up in Greenwich for a Wednesday night Lenten dinner and worship service. The theme for these services this year is: “Lenten Surrender.” My Theme was “Surrendering Your Stuff.” The text of my sermon is below…

Surrendering your Stuff
Text: Luke 12:13-34
A sermon preached by Rev. Julie Emery
First Presbyterian Church, Greenwich, CT
March 17, 2010

Luke 12:13-34: Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Every year in early February our church has a kids garage sale to raise funds for Heifer International. If you don’t know about it, Heifer is an organization that sends animals and teaches sustainability to communities around the world. After the sale, the Sunday School kids get to take the funds raised and vote on which animals they want to buy. The kids love it, and each year they gather toys and books they no longer want and cart them in to our fellowship hall, selling their wares for a good cause.

This year, as usual, I was scrambling at the last minute. Remembering the garage sale the Saturday before, I started talking with my 3.5 year old about any toys he might want to donate to the garage sale. As a pastor I am thinking: I really need to teach this to my child and I think perhaps this year he is old enough to understand. But when I ask him if there are any toys he might want to give away – he starts naming the toys he got this year for Christmas.

“What about my Leapster or my bike?” he suggests.

“Well honey,” I say, “You just got those toys and you still like to use them…What about a toy you don’t really use anymore?”

“What about my leggos?” He says.

“Well, you got those just this year too.” I say, “What about some of our baby toys?”

When he started naming the toys his brother got for Christmas, I began to realize that this might be a longer conversation than I had time for. In the end, I confess with a heavy heart, we just couldn’t get it together. I chalked it up to suspecting that my child was too young to understand. I was anticipating the day after the toy was sold when reality set in and he didn’t have it anymore.

But lately I’ve been wondering if perhaps I am the one who didn’t understand? Maybe the issue was not his inability to see the consequences of giving his favorite toy away. Maybe the issue was my tight grip on the things we have accumulated for our family, and my unwillingness to act upon and encourage my child’s innate sense of generosity? Maybe my anxiety kept him from being generous.

Our text this evening is one of the many occasions in Luke’s gospel where Jesus talks about money. I came across a statistic this week that one in every seven verses in the gospel of Luke is about money. Jesus talked about money more any other subject except the kingdom of God. There is absolutely no way around it: Money, “stuff” – how we respond to it and what we do with it, is an essential part of how we understand the message of Jesus.

Luke’s Jesus in particular speaks out again and again against the accumulation of goods, as the parable that begins our passage points out. “Take care!” He says, “One’s life does not consist of the abundance of one’s possessions.”
And then he says this: “Do not be anxious, therefore, about your life and what you will eat, or your body and what you will wear.” “Do not be anxious,” Jesus says. “For your father knows that you need these things, and it is his good pleasure to give you the kingdom…”

I recently traveled with my church on a work trip to Nicaragua building houses. While I have participated in a fair amount of mission and service worth throughout my life, this was my first experience in what is known as the “Third World.” Wanting to be well prepared, I traveled to Nicaragua with four pairs of shoes: A pair of work boots to keep my feet safe on the work site, a pair of flip flops for relaxing at the end of the day, a pair of hiking sandals, and a pair of sneakers. Now for me, four pairs of shoes on a vacation is pretty standard, if not sparse. What can I say? I like shoes.

While we were there I noticed the number of community members who worked on the house alongside of our group – children, women, men. We passed concrete blocks from one to the other to move them closer to the site. We shoveled dirt and gravel into wheelbarrows and trucked it away. We shoveled and pick-axed and mixed cement by hand. Ninety-five percent of the Nicaraguans did this work alongside of us in plastic sandals, which were likely their only pair of shoes.

When speaking with one of our Nicaraguan trip leaders, she told me of a family she knew who had two children who had to have one child go to school in the morning and one in the afternoon. The child who went to school in the morning would rush home quickly so that she could give her shoes to the other child to wear to school in the afternoon, since their family could only afford one pair between them.

What could you do without? What could you surrender without a thought? Is it something you no longer want or it something of value?

What do you need? What do you want? Do you know the difference?

In the context of our text today Jesus is likely not speaking to the poor. He is not telling people who have nothing that they should not to worry about food or clothing. He is not telling this family with one set of shoes for two children to not worry. Instead, he is telling people like us. He is talking to the man who wants more of his inheritance than his brother will share. He is talking to the woman who has everything she needs to live, and still feels she needs more. He is talking to the child who doesn’t understand the difference between need and want. He tells us not to worry. What Jesus seems to understand is that the more stuff we have the more anxious we are about it: how to keep it, how to get more, how not to lose it, how to get it for our children and our children’s children, and our families and our friends.

This past week, many of us were swept away by the force of hurricane winds and rain: gusts up to 70 miles an hour in some places. The Times reported that in the New York Metro area, over 500,000 homes were without power. As it may have been here in Greenwich, in Larchmont and Mamaroneck there were pockets of the area who were out, and pockets who stayed on. Our home in Mamaroneck lost power on Saturday night, and with two children under the age of 4, by Sunday afternoon we were looking for somewhere else to stay. With no heat, and no refrigeration, and nothing to do with the kids during the day in a cold house, it got frustrating quickly. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who felt that way.

We were blessed to have an invitation to stay with friends for a couple of nights, blessed to have a warm place to sleep and access to food and toys for the kids. But for me at least there were two things happening in my head. On the one hand I was annoyed and frustrated at being set adrift, away from my stuff, my clothes, the comfort of my home; Especially during a time when I needed to finish two sermons over the course of the last four days. I just did not have time for this inconvenience.

But there was this other voice in my head that began to gather strength as I drove around surveying the damage in Larchmont. “What a gift,” I thought. I noticed how a few trees that hit houses, but I also noticed how many missed them by just a couple of feet. One street down a few blocks from our church had a tree fall across the middle of a Honda Accord parked in the drive way and across the street. But how remarkable that no one was in it, and that the tree didn’t hit the six houses that could have been in it’s path.

What a gift that we could suddenly have quality time with new friends. What a gift that the only thing lost was a handful of groceries. What a gift that we are all safe.

There were lives lost this week in this storm, and those losses are an unbelievable tragedy for those families and for those communities. I grieve for their pain and sorrow. But I also have to shake my head in wonder at how much damage there was and how much worse it could have been. And so when I stood there looking at that squashed Honda, I couldn’t help but think – “Wow, Thank God it’s just a car. Thank God it’s just stuff.”

It was hard to survey the damage we sustained throughout the Northeast this past week and not think about Nicaragua, and Chile, and Haiti. It was poignant yesterday when we finally returned home to our power and our stuff, our shoes and our toys – and realize how many don’t even have a fraction of this stuff – let alone reliable access to electricity and water. Perhaps just a few days of surrender can connect us in powerful ways to those in our world who have no choice but to live a life of surrendering stuff.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What can you surrender? What can you let go of? Where is your treasure?

There is this amazing thing that happens when we surrender our stuff. There is space. Without all that clutter covering our windows we can see more clearly. Much like the last two days of sunshine reveal the landscape and spring. We can see. We see what we need, and what we can survive without. We can experience what it’s like to live without TV or electronics or even light and in that we can see our neighbor. We can see how much we have and how much we have to give. And perhaps in holding on a little less tightly to our stuff, in surrendering a little more, we will see the abundant Kingdom, that God has given us, already.

So…it seems that from time to time I feel the need to put a disclaimer on the sermon that I post, and this is yet another of those times. The reason is that I believe that the act and art of preaching is a very in-the-moment kind of thing. One of my preaching professors wrote his dissertation about how preaching is not just the act of the preacher proclaiming the word, but also the act of the congregation as they listen and react, and the Holy Spirit that works in each of them as they join together in worship. So while I love to post my sermons I also recognize that there is something about being in the context of worship that alters in some way the experience of the proclaimed Word.

The sermon below is one of those that is even more of an altered experience, since it is written as a first person monologue from the point of view of Mary Magdalene. So for people who were not in worship with us this morning you should know a few things. This particular sermon was delivered by a person (me) in costume, dressed as the biblical Mary. That person was not present for any other part of the service. There was no transition from pastor to biblical character. The text was entirely memorized. The sermon started with the first line of the text below and ended with the trinitarian amen. I tell you all this only to give you a sense of the context within worship, because it might help to imagine…

I hope it was as fun to experience as it was to preach. Thank God for the Holy Spirit at work!

I should also say something more about creativity in worship… I hope and believe that I always preach biblical sermons. I start with the text and then go from there, but I also believe that for many (especially for those who grew up in the church), the stories in the bible need to be told through new and creative ways. They need to feel fresh and inspiring again. While I most often preach a “straightforward” sermon, I think it is also important to play with the form and format of my sermons. To try out new styles and text my creativity. Sometimes taking those creative risks takes me farther from the text that I would normally go. Since I don’t do it often, I find it to be a worthwhile risk. As always – I take these risk with a strong dose of prayer and belief that the Holy Spirit is present in the preached word in ways I cannot control or explain. Thanks be to God.

From Demons to Disciple
Texts: Luke 8:1-3, Luke 23:44-49, Luke 23:55-24:3
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery
At The Larchmont Avenue Church
On March 14, 2010

Luke 8:1-3 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Luke 23:44-49 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Luke 23:55 – 24:3 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.

What’s in a name, really? I mean, a name is both truly ours – it is who we are – and yet not ours at all but given by another. Women in my day were given the name of their fathers…or their husbands. But with my father long dead and no husband to take me because of my afflictions, I was given the name of the town in which I was healed. Mary of Magdala. Each of us lives into it in some ways…and lives out of it in other ways. At least that’s what happened to me.

It’s strange to get confused with others who have the same name. Mary of Bethany looked entirely different than me and would have never been able to provide for the disciples for those years of traveling from place to place. She was the one who sat at his feet and seemed planted there for hours… or days. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t blame her…it’s just that it’s a bit of an insult to be confused with someone who wouldn’t even get up to help her sister cook.

And then there is the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment. You remember her: the one with the tears and hair and no shame, no modesty. The one who infuriated Judas and the other men. They were so focused on her wastefulness.

But the women, we blushed and turned away at this act, embarrassed, ashamed of the intimacy in a place so public… Even if we understood how this man and the power of his words could move each of us to do such excessive things, things we would never imagine doing before.

Have you ever had words strike you as if a bell, ringing again and again in your body? Have you ever met someone who seemed to dance with truth as if they heard the song of life? Have you ever encountered someone so filled with Spirit that the air around them seemed lighter, easier to breathe..? It makes you sing it makes you laugh, it makes you live a life until then you only dreamt of…

This is what it was like to follow Jesus.

And so, while it was not me who broke the alabastar jar and poured it over him, not me who took down my hair and wiped it over his feet. It was not me, but I understood.

That story wasn’t mine but became mine much later. Thanks to Pope Gregory’s speech in 591 – the three became one… (how very Trinitarian of him.) Mary of Bethany, the woman with the jar, and myself – no longer three distinct stories but instead one woman branded converted prostitute (although Luke never really said that either), forever marked as sinner made saint.

Throw in some beautiful works of art and a few pretty verses by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice and then a bestseller that hints at marriage and a lineage of Jesus and you have quite a compelling story. A story difficult to overcome…I should know…

The real story is both more ordinary and just as spectacular. It is one of demons and healing, one of feeding and following, one of death and life, one of spices and extravagant love.

I was one of many that Jesus healed along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, afflicted as I was with the demons of my day. Let’s be clear: demons are not the same thing as sins. When Luke names seven demons he means only to say there were many. What Luke called my seven demons your doctors and psychologists might call today epilepsy, depression, mania. Perhaps those doctors today would name them differently but still medicate me, label me, set me aside.

I was left mostly alone after the death of my parents. They left me with resources but not much else. As my afflictions worsened they forced me into isolation and fear.

But this man from Nazareth took pity on me, cast out my demons and made me whole. Made me free follow him; to fall into a life of excessive, embracing love.

Not my excessive love but God’s. A love that reunites communities and the outcast, a love that casts out fear along with demons, a love that welcomed brother and sister, stranger and friend to sit at table together.

I never imagined when that woman shamelessly interrupted that meal and covered his feet in ointment that just a short time later it would be me; that I would be a myrrh-bearer, walking to the tomb, to the broken body of my healer, my teacher, my friend, my Lord. Never imagined how much my life would change – again.

It has been many years since that morning when dawning light revealed empty tomb. Many breaths have passed since mine caught in my chest upon hearing my own name spoken by a man I had watched die on a cross.

My story you have heard but you may not believe. That he was risen. That he died and then lives. How could anyone believe such a story?

I only know what I felt and I can only say this: there was a man named Jesus, who cast out all my demons – and there were many. His words were life. His life was truth. There was a moment, a brief darkness of days when I thought that all was lost, that demons returned, that grief would consume.

And then there was light. hope. laughter.

He spoke gently, but firmly. “Go and tell them,” he said. To me, a woman! “Go and tell them,” he said, knowing they would not believe me.
“Go and tell them,” and so here I am – telling my story

You may never understand, you may never believe. But the truth is this: beyond the grave, life prevails; beyond your demons there is healing and peace; beyond your grief is laughter and even joy. The one who knows my story knows yours as well.

Go and tell them… and you will live.