What Does It Mean to Be Presbyterian? Chosen for Salvation

Romans 11:25-31
October 5, 2014

So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.

            Do you ever find yourself among people who make religious statements that you really want to respond to, but know you can’t? You know you can’t because
the person is so convinced that he or she is right that anything you say will make no sense. Still, you really want to say something because what the person is saying is offers a perspective that you know just isn’t quite right.

            I feel this way every time I hear someone say: “I was saved back in 2001 when…” or “ever since I was saved,…” Why would that bother me? I’m a Christian, right? Shouldn’t I celebrate those times when they were saved? It bothers me because what they are saying is not quite the biblical belief, nor is it a Presbyterian belief. We Presbyterians have a different understanding of when and how we were saved, and it’s an understanding that is rooted in our scripture for today: “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

            That sentence is a bit dense, but what Paul is saying to the Roman Christians is that God has chosen the gentiles (the non Jews) among them for salvation, just as God chose the Jews for salvation. Paul uses the word “election,” but it’s the same as “choice.” Paul is saying that salvation is based on God’s choice, not human deeds. Just because the gentiles haven’t lived by the law doesn’t mean that they haven’t been chosen by God. Salvation isn’t based on how well we adhere to the law. It’s based on how much God loves us. As a result, we were saved when God chose us, not when we experienced the effect of that choosing—when we had a “salvation” experienc. So for a Presbyterian, we would say we were saved when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, or when God chose us for salvation when God created us. But we would not say that we were saved in 2001 when we had an experience of God.

            Still, many Christians persist in believing that they can put a date on their salvation. I experienced this a number of years ago when I did a wedding. At the reception I was put at a table with a bunch of other pastors and members of a Pentecostal church. Great people. Nice people. But their perspectives were not quite rooted in this passage. A conversation started about when everyone was saved. So everyone at the table started sharing stories of when they were saved. One pastor said that it was when he was a teen. Another, the music director of their church, said it was on New Year’s Eve in 1994 when he had an experience of God as a bass player in a band playing “Auld Lang Syne” at a banquet hall as everyone else popped corks and kissed each other. In that moment he sensed that God was telling him that he was shallow like all of the people drinking and kissing, but he did have the option of living a different life. I think his experience was real, but that was not the moment he was saved. It was just the moment God broke in and let him know what he was loved, saved, and invited to live a better life.

            Everyone around the table kept sharing when they were saved, and I desperately wanted to tell them that they weren’t saved when they experienced their salvation. They were saved when God “elected” them—chose them. Fortunately, just as the person next to me finished sharing her experience, the best man got up to make a toast. I was saved!

            Now let me be clear. I’m not against the idea that these people were saved, but I always want to jump in and say, “you weren’t saved THEN… you just became AWARE of your salvation then.” I then want to say, “you were saved when God chose you, and God chose you before God created you.”

            The issue of salvation is actually part of a bigger issue that people have in terms of trying to figure out what they need to do to get into heaven. A lot of Christians and non-Christians worry about whether or not they are doing the right things to get into heaven. OR people can become very confident that they are doing the right things to get into heaven. The problem is that, according to Paul, we don’t have to do anything to get into heaven. Getting into heaven isn’t up to us. It’s up to God. God choses who gets in and who doesn’t, and God’s criterion isn’t our good deeds. God’s criterion is God’s love.

            Presbyterians don’t worry about whether or not they are getting into heaven. We put the matter into God’s hands and trust God to make the right decision. We also recognize that all the best deeds we can to don’t get us into heaven because God doesn’t chose us based on our deeds. The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches this. The son, who took his inheritance and rejected his father, now comes back after squandering his money and having lived a life of desecration as a pig farmer. His father doesn’t reject his son. He embraces his son and restores him to his inheritance. The story of the Prodigal Son is a story of our understanding of God and heaven. God loves us despite our bad deeds.

            John Calvin understood this idea. He said, “Scripture clearly proves that God, by his eternal and unchanging will, determined once and for all those whom he would one day admit to salvation and those whom he would consign to destruction.  His decision about the elect is based on his free mercy with no reference to human deserving…”

            Basically, Calvin is saying something similar to what Paul says in our passage: we don’t get into heaven based on good deeds. We get into heaven based on God’s loving choice to let us in. Presbyterians today also have a bit of a different understanding than Calvin in this way. He s was convinced that God chose some for damnation, not salvation, based on God’s whims. In other words, God sent some to Hell simply because God had chosen to do so. Calvin believed this because he was convinced that many Roman Catholics were going to Hell. Today we don’t quite share Calvin’s beliefs. We believe that God offers an invitation to all because God is love and God loves all of us. That doesn’t mean everyone accepts the invitation, though. God does give us the freedom to reject God. But even that rejection won’t keep God from loving and choosing us. We  have faith that we’ve already been chosen, not because we’re Presbyterian, but because we know that God loves us.

            Does this mean that Presbyterians don’t need to do good deeds because we know we’re saved? No. It means we try to do good things because we want to share God’s love.

            I was struggling a bit this past week with how to give a good metaphor for this whole idea of what it means to live trusting that we’ve been chosen for salvation versus living so that we can get God to save us. I called up our associate pastor, Connie Frierson, to get her ideas, and she gave me a great metaphor.

            She said that people who live their lives in pursuit of salvation are like people trying to shake God’s hand after a negotiation. They see the process of salvation as being like a negotiation with God where we say to God, “If you save me, I will do this, this, and this,” referring to all the good things we will do to merit salvation. And then we shake hands on the agreement, hoping that we don’t breach the contract.

            Meanwhile, we Presbyterians have a whole different understanding of the handshake with God. We think of salvation as being like the handshake you give someone when you welcome her or him into your home. We greet God with a welcome, and invite God to come in and share God’s love with us. We are inviting in a cherished guest who already loves us and wants to be with us. So our handshake is a welcome, not a negotiation.

            Here’s the thing, in the end we Presbyterians know that we have been loved and chosen since before we were created. As a result, we don’t spend our lives trying to get God to love us so we can get into heaven when we die. We spend our lives trying to let God’s love work through us so we can share heaven in the world because we’re now alive.


What Does It Mean to Be Presbyteian? Reformata, Semper Reformanda

Matthew 15:21-28
September 14, 2014

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

            I think this is one of the most remarkable passages in the Gospels. Why? Because it shows something about Jesus that most neither recognize nor appreciate. It demonstrates his willingness to change and be transformed himself. This isn’t an attribute most people recognize in Jesus.

            Many Christians tend to think that Jesus sort of came out of the womb fully formed spiritually. They think that he understood from the beginning what his mission was, and how to achieve it. They seem to think that he knew everything that was going to happen to him, and so everything that happened was pre-planned or at least pre-known.

            What I find so powerful about this passage is that it says something quite different from what we tend to believe. It showed that Jesus was strong enough spiritually and mentally to change his thinking, and in the process to adapt his mission. In our passage, Jesus went from being a messiah to the Jews to a messiah for the world.

            Reflect back on the story. Jesus is in the area around the Sea of Galilee, and he is preaching, teaching, and healing many there. Out of the crowd a Canaanite woman approaches him and asks him to heal his daughter, whom she says is afflicted by a demon. Today we might say has some sort of mental illness, although some do suffer spiritual illness.

            The disciples urge Jesus to send her away because they believe their mission is not to peopple like her. A bit of background is helpful here. The woman is a Canaanite, one of the age-old enemies of the Israelites. You remember them from the Old Testament. They were the enemies when the Jews entered the Promised Land. They were the residents there, and the Jews pushed them to the lands outside what became Israel. From that time on, the Canaanites were enemies. Many battles were waged against them. The only reason the Israelites weren’t at war with them at the time of Jesus was that both people were under Roman subjugation. They didn’t have an opportunity to fight. But the disciples were right, at least in terms of what Jesus had taught them: Jesus had come only for the House of Israel.

            So Jesus tried to shoo her away. At first he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That doesn’t sway her. She asks for help anyway. Then he says something awful to her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Imagine being called a dog by Jesus. It was a worse insult then than now. Only the rich had dogs for pets. Most dogs in that age were mangy scavengers. They were mostly mongrels who hung outside of family homes, waiting for scraps and crumbs. To call her a dog was to say that she was nothing but a scavenging mongrel, unworthy of human attention. It really seemed as though Jesus only understood his mission as being one to the Jews. Up to that point he had few dealings with people outside the Jewish faith.

            Then she courageously replied, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” That one comment changed Jesus. It seemed to transform him. Perhaps the Spirit was speaking through her. From that moment he understood that he wasn’t just for the Jews, but he was for all. He praised her for her faith and healed her daughter. And as a result, what became the church was transformed.

            Jesus preached began to preach a message of unity not just for the Jews, but for all people, a message that Paul eventually took to heart and made tangible (as did the other apostles) by creating a church that brought together Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female, rich an poor. No longer would differences keep people from God. Jesus preached a God who loved everyone, and called all people to come together.

            Jesus had been formed in a particular way, but he was open to being continually reformed and transformed. This story highlights that idea, and it also brings out an essential principle of being Presbyterian: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.

            Do you recognize those words. They are at the heart of what it means to be a Presbyterian. They mean, the church reformed, always being reformed. This is an idea that everything we do is built upon, but it’s also an idea that many Christians and churches resist. It’s the idea that we have to always be open to how God may be calling us to change our thinking, while at the same time always being grounded in God’s teachings. For us Presbyterians, it means keeping one foot in the past, while we always seek to discern where God is leading us in the future. Reformata, semper reformanda is rooted in our scripture for today, and also in Jesus’ constantly breaking the law in order to bring God’s reforming grace. He was constantly accused of breaking the law and of being sinful, but he understood that the law was made to help humans, humans weren’t made to simply serve the law.

            What does reformata, semper reformanda look like on a tangible level. Look at our worship service and sanctuary and you can see how we Presbyterians are both reformata and semper reformanda. We are Presbyterian in structure, which means that our worship services always feature the reading of scripture at the center, along with praise, prayers, and reflections on scripture. But we also add other elements. We’ve added elements from other traditions, such as communion every Sunday in our first service which is a tradition taken from the Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran churches. And we offer wine and juice, combining the traditions of those other denominations with ours. We read scripture in the beginning of our service, which comes from the Baptist tradition. We sing contemporary, traditional, and other forms of music that come from gospel, Hispanic, Celtic, TaizĂ©, secular traditions. We have art on our walls, where other Presbyterian churches often just have white walls stripped of all art. We integrated different elements. Why? Because we come out of a “reformed” tradition, but we are always open to how we need to change to meet the demands of a changing world. We were reformata, but we are always asking how we are called to become reformanda.

            Our being reformata, semper reformanda also creates problems for us because some people only want to be reformata, while others only want to be semper reformanda. Some people want the church to always remain the same and resist change (for example, the Roman Catholic tradition), while others want to get rid of the shackles of the past and recreate the church, and even all religious pursuits (for example, the New Age tradition), in their own image. We take a different approach by trying to keep one foot in the past—in where we came from, which is the reforming of the church in the 16th century—and one in the future to where God is calling us.

            What this means is that Presbyterians always grapple with how to be faithful to God in an ever-changing world, and it causes us to grapple with really difficult issues that other churches avoid. For example, how do we respond to war and terrorism? Many churches respond in simple, age-old ways: either embrace war against terrorism because we have to protect ourselves, or maintain peace because all war is wrong. Presbyterians struggle with it, and we debate it, and we fumble around in it, trying to come up with the answer that is rooted in our traditions, while also being open to how the present circumstances may call for a different response from the past.

            We also grapple with how we are called to respond to world crises and poverty. When crises arise, we always struggle to figure out how to respond. In many ways, it is in these crises that Presbyterians are at our best. Most people don’t know this, but when there is an earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, or other natural disaster around the world, Presbyterians are among the first to rush to people’s aid, and among the last to leave. For example, Presbyterians are still heavily involved in places like Haiti, helping individuals and the country rebuild their lives.

            We also grapple with how to live with and behave towards those of other religions, and because of that the way we see other faiths is different today than it was fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, there was skepticism about those of other denominations within Christianity, as Presbyterians felt comfortable asserting their preeminence over those of other denominations. Today, we accept those of other denominations as being equal to us, but as practicing their faith differently from us in ways that are still valid. The struggle today is whether we accept the validity of other faiths. A few years ago our General Assembly, the body that is responsible for making decisions in these more global areas of faith, sent a message out to churches encouraging all of us, when possible, to have joint worship services with those of other religions—specifically Muslims and Jews.

            Just doing this caused an uproar in some circles, especially here in our presbytery, Beaver Butler Presbytery. There were a number of pastors and churches that said our having joint worship services, whether they be funerals, weddings, or other services, was a blasphemy against Christ. They were asserting an ages old belief that Muslims and Jews were not saved, and therefore inferior to Christianity. Their feet were in the church of the past, while many other Presbyterians were trying to see if God is calling us to be a different way in the future. This struggle to be reformed and always reforming isn’t easy for us.

            It is because we are reformed, always being reformed, that the Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to grapple with the issue of homosexuality. We have made recent decisions that have to do with the ordination of homosexuals and with our stance toward marriage. It is bound to upset people. How could the Presbyterian Church do that? The reason is that we are reformed, and always reformed: reformata, semper reformanda. We grapple with these issues and ask the question, much like Jesus with the Canaanite woman, what is God calling us to do now? We may not get it right, but we try. We don’t simply say, “This is the way it was in the beginning and so now must be that way forever.” We are like Jesus, who broke the law at times in order to help people seek and serve God better.

            Jesus constantly did things that were seen as blasphemous and lawbreaking in his time. He ate with sinners, he received a cup of water from a sinful Samaritan woman, he forgave people (an ability only reserved for God, according to the Pharisees), and much more. In all of these he broke religious laws and convention, doing things that would have made him ritually unclean and blasphemous. But that didn’t stop him. He grappled with the past while seeking what the Father wanted for the future. We do the same. It’s part of our Presbyterian DNA.

            There are many times when what we do seems wrong to me. But I don’t leave our denomination because of it. I recognize that I am a person who is reformed, and always seeking to be reformed so that I can be transformed. And I’m part of a denomination that does the same thing. When we reform ourselves, we are being Presbyterian, and being like Jesus, who called the woman a dog and then praised her for having great faith.

            If you can’t grapple with God’s call to be reformed and transformed, it is difficult to be a Presbyterian because we are a church that has one foot in the past and one in the future, when many would like to be one or the other. We are called to be both reformata and semper reformanda, both as a church and individually.


What Does It Mean to Be Presbyterian? Following the Wise

Titus 1:4-9
September 7, 2014

To Titus, my loyal child in the faith we share: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.
I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you:
Someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious. For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.

            I had a conversation with a neighbor recently. She lives about a mile up the road, but I often see her as I walk my dog, and on this day she decided to walk with me. During our conversation she asked some questions about Calvin Church.

            She told me that she went periodically to a large, nondenominational church in the area, but that she had mixed feelings about it. She then asked me if Presbyterian meant being part of a denomination. I told her it did, and she replied, “No offense, but what I like about going to a nondenominational church is that they aren’t part of a big institution that tells people what to think. She then asked me if I liked being a pastor in a denomination that had a lot of beliefs. Much of what I’ll tell you in this sermon is stuff that I told her, and that she responded in the end, “Wow, I didn’t know.”

            I do I get a tad frustrated whenever I hear people say that they don’t like denominational churches because they want to be part of a church that doesn’t tell them what to think. I get frustrated because in truth the exact opposite of what they believe is true.  Most non-denominational churches do tell you what to think. Most denominational churches do not tell you what to think.

            In reality, Presbyterian churches don’t tell you what you have to think because the whole Presbyterian tradition is based on respecting the conscience of the individual to hear for himself or herself what God is teaching him or her. Meanwhile, because almost all non-denominational churches come from an evangelical tradition that has a particularly strong, common point of view about salvation, the nature of God and humanity, and political perspectives, they often do tell you what to think.

            It’s actually because of these and other misperceptions, and because more than half of our members were originally in another tradition (or none at all), I thought it might be good to take some time to talk about what it means to be Presbyterian. The answers will surprise many of you because what you think about Presbyterians may not be true, and what you don’t think about them may be true. So over the next seven weeks we’ll be exploring important ideas about the Presbyterian tradition.

            I do understand both the appeal and allure of most of these non-denominational churches. I also understand why people think that they are more freethinking than they really are, and why we are much more freethinking than people think we are. The truth is that most of these non-denominational churches are VERY creative in worship and structure, and their size means that they can offer many great programs. And all of them do a tremendous amount of good. They are very good at helping people whose lives are a mess put their lives back together. They also do a good job of making the Bible and religious thought more accessible. I admire what they do and accomplish, but I also recognize that people judge books by their covers, not their content. And what people see on the outside of these churches does not always reflect the beliefs and theology they have on the inside.

            From the outside looking in these churches look like they are open to different perspectives, when generally they’re not. And they look at denominational churches as being rigid and closed, and they’re not. So why do we make those judgments? A lot of it has to do with false American beliefs about the evils of institutions. We are in a period where people distrust institutions, believing anything that isn’t institutional is good, and anything that is institutional is inherently bad. And since denominational churches like the Presbyterian Church (USA) are considered to be institutions, many people outside of us consider us to be bad,… without ever learning much about us.

            I can offer lots of explanations for the misconceptions, but instead let me share the experience of one of our former members. A number of years ago, she moved away from here, and now lives in another part of Pittsburgh. She became very involved in a nondenominational church and loved it. She loved the music, the energy, the size, and all the opportunities it offered. So she decided to join the church. It was during the membership classes that she began to see another side of the church.

            During one membership class, the participants were given church literature that listed all the board members of the church. She asked the teacher why the leaders were all men with no women? The teacher tried to answer, saying something about how women weren’t qualified to be leaders over men, but that just irritated her more (she had grown up in a Presbyterian tradition where men and women were seen as equals). As she asked more questions, she was told she had to talk to the pastor.

            So she made an appointment to speak with him, and he answered her questions by pointing out passages in the Bible saying that women shouldn’t speak in church, that women should not be in leadership positions over men, and that women should be subservient to their husbands, which then extends to women being subservient to men in churches. She asked him what women were qualified to do. He told her that they were qualified to teach (as long as they were supervised by men), cook, serve, and other duties like that. Also, women could teach women.

            This put our former member in a quandary. She was in a church that, on the outside, looked very open, creative, and progressive, but turned out to be more rigid than she had thought. She struggled. Does this mean that God was calling her to join the local Presbyterian Church, or to just keep her mouth shut and join this nondenominational church?

            One day, while walking through the town, she was struggling and praying about it: “God, if you want me to join the Presbyterian Church and not this one, you have to make it clear and let me know.” As she was praying she saw a friend of hers up ahead talking to a man she didn’t know. She walked up to her friend and said “hi.” Her friend then said, “Let me introduce you to Steve. He’s the pastor of the Presbyterian Church up the street.” Our former member ended up joining the Presbyterian Church. I had a conversation with Steve a year ago. He said that she had become a leader in the church, and was a great addition. What you see on the surface may not necessarily reflect what you discover beneath the surface.

            One of the things most of us don’t realize, which is a significant difference between most nondenominational churches and Presbyterian churches, is that many of their pastors have been trained in marketing and publicity. We Presbyterian pastors get no training in that, but we do get significantly more training in Bible, theology, and history. That may be why how we look like from the outside obscures what we are on the inside, but also why many nondenominational churches look like one thing on the outside, and are another on the inside.

            The fact that we are in an institutional church makes it look like we are all the same, when in fact most Presbyterian churches are very different. Meanwhile, the fact that nondenominational churches aren’t part of institutions would give the impression that they are very different, but most of them are extremely similar because they follow the same models, whether they are the Willow Creek or Saddleback models (those are two huge churches that have written the book on creating a megachurch).

            If you went to Orchard Hill, Northway, Grace (in Cranberry), or Victory churches, you would find churches that are really similar in worship and belief. Their styles are extremely similar because they are all following similar models. Meanwhile, if you went down the street to Park Presbyterian Church, which is part of our denomination, you would find a very different church, with very different worship and beliefs, from us. They are good church filled with good people, led by a very good pastor, Paul Merrill. Their worship and perspectives are different from us, being much more conservative, yet they are part of the same denomination. How can that be?

            In fact, if you were to take a tour of Presbyterian churches in the region, you would find a tremendous amount of diversity of theology and worship. Go to Cranberry to Fountain Park Church, one of our churches, and you will find a church whose worship looks much like a coffee house. Go further down route 19 to Wexford Community Presbyterian Church, you will find a church that is much more contemporary like the nondenominational churches. Go further into Pittsburgh to Shadyside Presbyterian Church and you will find a huge, traditional, slightly conservative church filled with marble and columns, and with a massive organ that plays mostly classical music. Then, go about ½ mile away to East Liberty Presbyterian Church, where you’ll find a massive cathedral that holds very progressive beliefs, and that plays both classical and world-style music.

            Despite our differences we are all part of the same denomination. How can that be? Should we all believe the same things and be the same way, especially if we are all part of a supposedly evil institution that binds our thinking?

            What is it that really makes us Presbyterian if we are all so different? At its most basic level, it’s all in our name: “Presbyterian.” What makes us Presbyterian? It’s the fact that we are led by presbyters. You have to dig into our name to understand what I mean, although you already sort of understand it. For example, do you need reading glasses to read this sermon? If so, then you have presbyopia, which means “old eyes.” To be a Presbyterian doesn’t mean we are old, but it does mean that we are led by elders. The name, “Presbyterian,” refers simply to how we structure ourselves. We do not have bishops (those are “episcopal” churches, from the Greek word episkopos, or “bishop”). And we are not congregational. To be Presbyterian simply means that we raise up people of wisdom, whom we call “elders,” to lead us in seeking and doing God’s will. We aren’t necessarily bound by a rigid set of beliefs. We are bound by how we structure our churches. We raise up elders to lead us, and the word “elder” simply refers to people of wisdom.

            We are rooted in our passage, as Paul tells Titus to raise up elders to lead the churches in Crete. The Presbyterian movement was an attempt, as part of the larger Reformed movement, to get the 16th Century church back to the structure of the early church. It was an attempt to move away from the Roman Catholic structure that lifted up priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes as the main leaders, and to get back to a structure where you had lay elders leading the church. Our tradition is one that does not invest all power in the pastor (or what we call “teaching elders”), but seeks a balance of pastors and elders (what we call “ruling elders”) so that together we can discern God’s will. The idea was to create a church that balances leadership between laity and clergy, between young and old, and now between male and female. It is a system both of checks and balances, of shared leadership, grounded in the wise attempt to seek what God is calling us to be and do.

            This is different from how many of the nondenominational churches are structured. Let me give you an example of what I mean. We had a discussion on our session several weeks ago, and in the discussion one of our elders brought up a conversation she had had with a friend of hers. The friend was part of a smaller, non-denominational church that wanted to grow more quickly. They had engaged with Victory Family Church, a large, non-denominational church that is part of the semi-denominational Victory Association. Victory, according to this friend, has a mission where they will help four churches a year grow more numerically. But there are a number of stipulations. One of the main stipulations is that the church has to agree to dissolve it’s board immediately and change it’s structure to a more corporate one, with the senior pastor as equivalent to the CEO, and other staff as the equivalent to the presidents and vice-presidents.

            The truth is that creates a much more efficient structure. If Calvin Presbyterian Church had that structure, we might even be much larger while I ruled by like the CEO of Calvin, Inc. The model for this structure is not the Bible, but American business. This model arises out the marketing and business fields. I don’t share this with you to criticize Victory. They do a lot of great things, and do a great job of reaching out to people whose lives are a mess. They help many people and families rebuild their lives. At the same time, we Presbyterians believe in shared lay/clergy leadership, where clergy are accountable to other elders, and elders are accountable to clergy. It is a biblical model.

            I get the appeal of a business model for church. I had an opportunity to create a church much more like Victory before I came to Calvin Church. I worked for a while on creating a new church development in the North Hills, and walked away from it when too many Presbyterian pastors became worried that the new church would siphon members from their church. Before I walked away from it, I had a number of people suggest to me that I just walk away from the Presbyterian Church and start my own non-denominational church. It certainly would have made church easier, and I could have grown it much faster. But it would also be MY church, not Christ’s church. It would have been about numerical growth, not spiritual growth. And it would have been a temple for me, not God. I believe in elder leadership. I believe in the communal pursuit of God’s will with others of wisdom. I don’t believe in just creating a monument to me.

            So,… ultimately to be a Presbyterian means simply to be part of a tradition that raises up people of wisdom (elders), who seek God’s will together and lead others to follow in that direction. We may not always do it well, or efficiently, but it is what binds us. It’s not about believing the right things, acting the right way, and worshiping the right way. It’s simply about seeking the wise way TOGETHER


Genesis Wisdom: the Three in One God

Genesis 18:1-16
August 31, 2014

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way.

            Have you ever taken a Rorschach test? You’ve seen them before. It’s the inkblot test where you look at an inkblot, and tell the psychologist what you see. What you see becomes a window into your deeper ways of thinking. For example, if you see violent shapes, it indicates that you may have pathological tendencies. If you see sexual images, that may reveal something else. If you see bunnies, it may mean that you love Bugs Bunny. What you see reveals something about you.

            In a lot of ways, our passage for today is like a biblical Rorschach test. When people read this passage, they tend to read into it what they believe makes the most sense, despite the fact that it doesn’t quite make sense. It’s the fact that it doesn’t quite make sense that I love the most about the passage. The passage is a perfect example of how the Bible was really written, rather than how we try to make it have been written.

            Read the first part of the passage again and see if you can find anything odd about it: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.”

            What did you notice odd about it? You may not have noticed much because you fixed it while reading it. We often fix the creation stories. We want so badly for there to be one consistent creation story, so we merge chapter one of Genesis with chapters two and three. But they can’t quite be merged. There so much that can’t be merged, but I’ll give you just one example. In chapter one, God creates the human last. It says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” Humans (with no number of humans given, by the way—might have been two or a thousand) are created after plants, animals, and everything else.

            Go to the Garden of Eden version in chapter two. God creates the garden, but apparently it has no plants. God then creates the first human—just one—and places that human in the garden. Afterwards God creates the plants for food and to be tended to by the human. Then God creates the animals as companions to the first human. It is only after they fail to be adequate companions that God puts the human into a deep sleep, takes out a rib, and creates another human—making the two male and female. These two stories are NOT the same stories. But we don’t like the discrepancy because we want the creation story to be one historical story. So we fix the stories and merge them together, making it seem like they are one story. We try to fix the Bible, even when it doesn’t try to fix itself. Those who put the book of Genesis together were clearly aware that there were two stories, but they believed that it was okay to have two stories because each one revealed something different about God, about the nature of life, and about humans. The Bible didn’t try to fix itself, but we do.

            Much of the Bible is like that. We get different versions of the same stories, not because the Bible doesn’t have truth. It’s because the Bible is trying to reveal deeper truths than just history, and it knows that sometimes sharing different perspectives reveals deeper truths.

            Our passage is about Abraham meeting God, but God doesn’t quite look like what we expect God to look like. Read the beginning of our passage again: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him.” Don’t try to fix the story and answer this question: what does God look like?

            Some fix it to suggest that Abraham meets God and two angels. If you saw the recent Bible miniseries, that’s what they did. They showed a vague God along with an Asian angel and an African-American (African-Celestial?) angel. Others fix the story by ignoring the fact that Abraham sees three men, and they just focus on the fact that Abraham addresses God as one person. So they picture it as Abraham just talking with one man—God. But that’s fixing the story, too.

            The way the story is written in the Bible is intentionally mysterious. Read it again. It shows God as a Trinity. Clearly there are three men, but Abraham addresses them as one man. Abraham knows that God is one, but also three.

            I believe that this story is the first revelation about one of the most essential beliefs of Christianity, and one that makes the least sense both to Christians and non-Christians. But it’s also what I love about this story: it doesn’t quite make sense, but it also reveals something of the mysterious nature of God. It’s this mystery that is behind the whole idea of the Trinity. The Trinity is meant to help us form a full relationship with God as God is, rather than as we want God to be.

            The Trinity is a spiritual and theological belief that is mean to help us lift back the veil of God’s mystery, and to help us experience God in different ways that give us a fuller relationship with God. But It’s also a difficult concept about God to explain. In our passage it isn’t explained. God just appears to Abraham as three men, but somehow Abraham recognizes those three as one God.

            So my task, for the rest of this sermon, is to help you get a clearer understanding of the Trinity, not so that you can become a theological whiz, but so that you can form a deeper relationship with God. And I’m going to explain the Trinity through three scripture passages. The Trinity isn’t a belief about God as being three gods. It is a belief about God whom we experience and form a relationship with in three different ways—three different persons of God. God is manifested in these three ways, but God never loses the reality of being one God.

            The first is a passage from the first chapter of Genesis: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 

            This passage clearly refers to the God we tend to know best—God as Father or Creator. This is the God we think of as being in heaven, but also God who we believe created everything. We have a sense that this is God who is beyond us, who transcends time and space, and who resides in heaven, but who also created the universe.

            By the way, I need to point out that there is a bit of a poor translation in this passage. Where you see it written that, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” the word “wind” is mistranslated. The original Hebrew word is “nephesh,” and while it does mean “wind,” the more accurate translation is that is also means “spirit.” It should read, “a Spirit from God swept over the face of the waters.” At any rate, this passage reminds us that we can have a relationship with God who is beyond us, created us, and loves us like a parent.

            The second passage comes from Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” It’s an amazing passage from Colossian 1:15-7. Paul is moving way beyond our typical debates about Jesus—about whether he was just a man, a prophet, or God.

            Paul is saying that Jesus wasn’t just the man from 2000 years ago, but Jesus is the incarnation of God in the world. He says that in Jesus “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible.” He is saying that Jesus is the power of God in creation. This has amazing implications. It says that we can have a relationship with the Jesus of the Bible, but that we can also experience and connect with Christ who is in each other, who is within us, who is in all of creation. We experience something of Jesus in sunsets, on mountaintops, at the beach, when contemplating a leaf, when planting and tending a garden, and anytime we connect with God through God’s creation. This is way beyond our normal understanding of Jesus, and it changes the nature of our debates about Jesus. It says that we can connect with God, and form a relationship with God as God is present in everything. This is the Christ who is in us and in each other and in life.

            Let me share one final passage from John 20:21-23. John tells us, “When [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus is breathing onto the disciples his own Spirit, the Spirit of God. This is the Spirit that swept over the waters in the opening of the Bible. This is the Spirit that surrounds us, fills us, and is everywhere. This is the omnipresent God who is involved in our lives making amazing things happen. We can have a relationship with God as Holy Spirit, who isn’t just beyond and within us, but who is in everything.

            What you see in the whole belief about the Trinity is that we are meant to have a deep relationship with God as God is in everything. The Trinity isn’t meant to be a theological concept we just agree to because we are good Christians. The Trinity is a relationship with God who is “above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).

            Who Abraham met under the oaks of Mamre was God who is beyond anything we can understand, but who wants to be involved in all of live. This is God who loves us completely, who wants a deep relationship with us, but who also transcends our ability to understand.

            I don’t know the extent to which we need to understand the intricacies of the Trinity. But do know that when we accept the idea of the Trinity, it allows us to form a deep relationship with God based on God as God is rather than who we want God to be.


Genesis Wisdom; From Prison to Palace, Rev. Connie Frierson

Genesis 41:9-16

       Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream. As he interpreted to us, so it turned out; I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.”

       Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”

Genesis Wisdom; From Prison to Palace
         For the next three weeks we will be studying the trials and tribulations of Joseph. There are so many ups and downs in this life that it reminds me of the penny dreadful, “The Perils of Pauline.” You don’t have to be a bible scholar to know about Joseph. If you have ever seen Joseph and His Technicolor Dream Coat, by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, you know this story. This is Joseph, the dreamer, the favorite son of Jacob. This is Joseph of the coat of many colors. This is Joseph who was thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, who was a successful overseer in Potiphar’s household. This is Joseph, who was wrongly accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown into jail. This is Joseph who interprets dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and Pharaoh’s baker in jail. And as we come to today’s text this is Joseph who has been languishing in jail waiting for more two years for Pharaoh’s butler to remember he owes Joseph a favor.  This is Joseph who interprets the dreams of Pharaoh and is wildly successful as Pharaoh’s administrator.  This is Joseph who needs to both forgive and save his brothers.

            About 14 chapters, and a quarter of all the stories, in Genesis are all about Joseph. So the Joseph story is like a novella tucked inside Genesis.  Why is so much space allotted to Joseph?  His long life incorporates so many of the experiences in our own lives.  Joseph seems so supernatural in his grand abilities and dark suffering. But in some ways Joseph is really a regular Joe.  Our lives incorporate all the highs and lows that Joseph experienced. We know ups and we know downs. We know how it feels to be a brash ‘know it all’ teenager. We know about families that don’t understand us and or that betraying us. We know about working hard and having some success. We know about hard time in pits of grief and loss. We know about prisons that keep us stuck.  I can almost hear God calling to us, saying, “Pay attention!  There is a wisdom in this life that can teach you how to live your lives.”

            Today we are going to start right in the middle of this long story. The middle is an odd place to start. Let me explain. Right in the middle of this story is a HINGE. At the start of our passage Joseph is in jail in Egypt. So he is not only a slave. He is a slave in jail. For all his dreaming, Joseph doesn’t know what will happen next. He is still in jail, still waiting, still faithful, but still profoundly uncertain. But something is about to happen. The MIDDLE is where we are starting because the middle is right where lots of us are. Every one of us is in the middle of something; The Middle of School, The Middle of Life, The Middle of a Project, The Middle of Recovery, The Middle of Family Strife, The Middle of Sickness, The Middle of Learning.  Unless you were born this very morning or are 100% certain you are dying this very night, you are in the middle. Every one of us has a history and every one of us has a future. So we are all in the middle.  The middle is just another word for right now, another word for the present moment. God wants to be with us right in this moment, right in the middle. 

            So what can Joseph teach us about the middle?

First if you are in the middle of suffering. Don’t waste it.  You will be tempted to waste it. You will be tempted to lay on your bed and turn your face to the wall. You will want to waste your suffering because you are wasting away. Don’t do it! When Peter was cast into jail in Acts 12, what did he do?  He prayed.  When Paul and Silas were cast into jail in Acts 16, what did they do? They sang. When Joseph was stuck in jail what did he do?   He talked to his fellow jailbirds. He interpreted the dreams of the baker and the cupbearer. He let God use that place of suffering. There will never be a moment in the future or the past that will motivate us more to search and to find God as the moment of suffering.  That is why Peter prayed as though he had a doctoral degree in divine petitions. This is why Paul and Silas sang with all their heart and soul. This is why Joseph was keen to hear and sense God in the midst of the dreams of others. Suffering hurts. But suffering helps us to focus all our heart and soul on our deep needs. It is in suffering that we stretch and reach out and reach up. Suffering that you don’t learn from is just suffering. Such suffering is pure waste. Let the suffering grow your faith. The point of the cross was that Christ suffered.  But through that suffering new possibilities were born. Suffering was transcended. The cross led to the resurrection. It was that way for Jesus and it can be that way for us.

            This reminds me of a story. A farmer had a dream in which God told her to push against a gigantic rock in the back 40 of her farm.  The farmer understood that this dream really was from God. So day in and day out, after her other chores, she would go out to the rock in her field and push and push against this rock. Every night she returned to her farmhouse worn out and sore and then goes back out again the next day. After years of this the woman became tired and started to doubt.  So she did the wisest thing she knew. She brought her doubts to God in prayer.  And in prayer God answered her saying, “I asked you to push the rock, to be obedient and faithful. I never told you the rock would move. But look at you now. Your arms and legs are muscled and strong. You have a strength now you never had before.”  Never waste suffering. If you are pushing against a rock, let that make you stronger.

            Second, prepare for next opportunity. Joseph learned important lessons in humility in his time in slavery and imprisonment. He went from a brash, thoughtless 17-year-old to a 30 year old with wisdom.  His experience prepared him to rule and to forgive. Joseph prepared for the opportunity in any basic way he could.  If you remember in our scripture, it says Joseph washed and shaved before he went before Pharaoh.  Don’t you think that is weird? Why would such a thing be recorded in the biblical record? But this funny little detail is telling us about Joseph’ willingness to reach out to his captors and enemies. In the Hebrew culture beards were a mark of veneration and manliness. But hair on your head or your face wasn’t cool for Egyptians, especially Egyptians at court.  So with a simple act, Joseph appeared in a way that was polite and acceptable to Egyptians.  Joseph prepared himself so that Pharaoh could hear him.  We can do the same things. Do we insist on things that may us comfortable in worship or in dress or in culture, just because it is what makes us happy. Do we ignore the sensibilities of other in the culture? Do we insist that other bow to our whims and not we to theirs?  Understanding what is essential and what is merely cultural claptrap is one way to prepare for the next opportunity.

            Preparing for the next opportunity comes in many forms. Nelson Mandela prepared for a free South Africa years before it came into existance. For 27 years Nelson Mandela was in jail. Yet at the end of his time in prison, he became the single most powerful man in South Africa.  To an outsider it might look like nothing, but for 25 years, Nelson Mandela broke rocks. Outside the cells of the prisoners in a barren courtyard would be placed a pile of rocks.  Some prisoners would daily sit at there rocks and burn with rage. Some would sit in self-pity and despair at the cruelty of it all.  Nelson Mandela, broke rocks and thought about how to unite a country, how to forgive each other, how to end apartheid.  Third, be God focused. At this hinge of Joseph’s life, Joseph has learned wisdom and humility. In his interactions with Pharaoh, Joseph again and again points to what God will do. Not what Joseph will do.  God will interpret the dream. God has sent the message to Pharaoh.  God has revealed this to future. This was not how Joseph was when he blabbed his glory dream to his brothers and his dad at seventeen. This was not how Joseph was just two years ago.  When Joseph interpreted the Cupbearers dream, he quickly recounted his own story and asked for a favor.  Here Joseph focuses on what God is revealing to Pharaoh.  He allows his own problem to be secondary. He doesn’t use this time to promote his own justice. He doesn’t listen to Pharaohs dream and then immediately jump in with his own cool dreams.  The focus on what God is doing overshadows his own story.  By focusing on what God is doing, God invites Joseph to be part of this saving of all Joseph’s family.

            This is a crucial vision test, if we are to do God’s will, to be God empowered, we need to have our eyes on the right goal.  With everything we do in our person life or in our church life, we need to start the discussion with “What is God calling us to do?”  This is a radical departure from our myopic selves. We too often focus on what we like, what makes us comfortable, what we have done before. 

            Joseph has an amazing story. He has youthful flaws, bad luck and ultimately a chance to serve and to save. He went from a pit to a prison to a palace.  What we lose sight of is that each of us have an amazing story.  God wants to work in and around the beginning and middle and end of our lives in the same way God works with Joseph.  Perhaps our lives have slightly less Broadway appeal, but the most important ways God can wants to be invited to live with us at all these learning moments. 

            Our churches have Joseph stories too.  Hopeful brash beginnings, some difficult and painful middles and lots of work to be done so that our churches become places that restore families, promote forgiveness and feed hungry souls and mouths. So our task as a church is the same as our task as individuals.  1- If we are in tough times then don’t waste them.  Figure out how mistakes and disasters can help us grow up. Don’t waste the suffering. 2 - Prepare our church for the next opportunity.  Are there ways we need to clean up to prepare for what’s ahead? Or can we pray and discern together while we are pounding those rocks. Finally, number 3 - Be God focused. Let’s get the focus off ourselves.  God’s focus often brings blessings of growth, but seldom for growths sake.   As a church the focus is on where God is leading, helping, saving, growing.  We join in God’s work, not hijack the process for ourselves.  The Joseph story has one really great surprise.  It wasn’t about Joseph at all.  It was about what God does – delivers, redeems, frees, forgives, feeds.  I think that is a great place for a church to be.  Amen.