Archive for February, 2007

Visions of Jesus for Our Time (II): Tried and True

February 26, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
25 February 2007
Text: Luke 4:1-13

It has been a great pleasure over the past weeks to rehearse the Verdi Requiem with our choir, in anticipation of today’s presentation of it, with the combined Fairmount, First Baptist and Plymouth church choirs and orchestra under the direction of renowned conductor Robert Page. For an amateur like me, the Requiem is an extremely difficult work, and has demanded careful practice, and lots of it. Rehearsals with Robert Page keep you on full alert as he works with fierce passion to correct flaws, bring out the very best within us, and produce glorious music. It struck me that the season of Lent can function similarly for Christians. These forty days can be a concentrated time of “facing the music”—of learning more about who we are and who God is. We consciously put ourselves under the direction of the divine maestro. We “practice” the tasks to which we are called as Christians: loving, forgiving, serving—not easy things. And we learn how following the master will bring forth the very best within us, to make this world ring with the harmonies of justice, reconciliation, and peace.

The sermon series for Lent invites our consideration of the Maestro. In Visions of Jesus for Our Time, we will think about who is conducting the music of our lives, individually and as a church. What do we mean when we call Jesus “our Lord and Savior”? What is his central message? In what ways does he judge us—and to what effect? How do we distinguish between the Jesus of scripture and the Jesus espoused by those who hijack his message for their own social or political agenda? Each of these questions has been prompted by conversations I’ve had over the past months with members and friends who take faith seriously, yet have questions, particularly about Jesus and his role in that faith.

We begin today in the wilderness of temptation. After Jesus’ baptism, but before his preaching ministry begins, he spends time alone in the desert, praying and fasting. As his sense that the carpenter shop was not his destiny grew, perhaps he wanted discernment on how to proceed. It was the first, but certainly not the last, time that Jesus sought the clarifying quiet of the wilderness—and the devil an opportune time to come knocking. Listen for God’s Word to you in the reading from the gospel of Luke, in the fourth chapter at the first verse. [LUKE 4:1-13]

When was the last time you had an encounter with the Tempter? I’ve asked myself that question a hundred times this past week, and come up with a short, fairly benign list consisting mainly of desserts made of chocolate. Nothing at all approaching the drama of Jesus being confronted by the devil in the wilderness. With Jesus facing down the devil’s offerings of power, fame, and popularity, you get the feeling there’s more at stake than …cheesecake.

For better or worse, the temptations of the greatest consequence you and I face seem not to be presented as clearly as the ones Jesus resisted in our text. Instead, they sneak in, hovering at the edges, moving closer, undetected because of the pace and volume of our lives. Hardly ever except in hindsight can we identify a moment, one particular decision that took us over to the dark side. More often than not, we wake up one morning and wonder how things got like this….when did life get so crazy?….how did this happen? ….who noticed the signs until it all fell apart?

Maybe we don’t experience the clarity of Jesus’ experience because it only presents itself that way to persons who are spiritually attuned, those who are not unfamiliar with the rugged terrain of their own soul and the awareness of God’s presence in it. The Buddhist tradition calls it “living mindfully”—being aware of the rich possibilities in every moment, every step, every intaken breath. We don’t cultivate “wilderness” in contemporary life very much. Deprivation is unknown to us in a super-sized culture which relies instead on cultivating appetite and providing things to fulfill it. When one of you suggested that the period of silence following the prayer of confession be extended, I made a joke—oh, because you have so much to confess?? She responded with a smile but with utter seriousness, no, because I don’t have time even to think of what I need to confess in those few seconds. Christian author Tony Campolo expressed a similar need when he commented, “Instead of praying ‘if I should die before I wake,’ we should pray ‘Lord, wake me up before I die.’”

The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where the temptations he faced awakened him to his true destiny. Notice how the temptations were not inherently wrong or evil. It’s good to seek food when hungry. It’s good to have the power to bring about change. It’s good to be protected from threat and danger. But the Tempter doesn’t always use EVIL to thwart God’s intent; often we find ourselves tempted by something GOOD used in the service of evil.

In Nikos Kazantzakis book, The Last Temptation of Christ and Martin Scorsese’s film based on it, Jesus has a vision of what his life could be if he is not crucified. He could live a “normal” life—marry, raise children, and grow old in the comfort of a family. Though obviously a work of fiction, the struggle of Jesus to discover who he was and to choose his true vocation, made it more compelling than the Jesus of our text, calmly countering each challenge with a Bible verse and what appears to be absolute unwavering faith.

Kazantzaki’s imaginative portrayal helped me see that there really is no divide between Jesus’ temptation and ours. Our first, last, and greatest temptation is to be something other than who we are so wonderfully created to be. Beloved children of God, created in God’s own image, called to love and serve. Yet we are always being distracted from that sacred identity and holy purpose. We are always, well, tempted like Jesus, to give up primary allegiance to God. Our need for bread, for power, for protection is secondary to our need for trust in God alone, who provides them all.

In the wilderness, Jesus resisted the temptation to worship another god. In the wilderness, Jesus became aware in new and clearer ways what God was calling him to do and become. Is it surprising then, that Jesus goes out from the wilderness, the Bible tells us, “filled with the power of the Spirit,” focused and passionate?

I can think of no greater need for us right now than to be led into the wilderness of testing. We are good people, but we’re exhausted; our energies have been spent in pursuit of the good life, the best life, but we seem to come up short; we never feel caught up. We can’t seem to make some of the most important things fit into our lives: worship, prayer, play; I read not long ago that many couples are too tired even to make love! We’re overdue, friends, for a spiritual tune-up, or even a complete overhaul.

And Jesus can be our wilderness guide, leading us in so that we may gain clarity and insight; remaining with us through every one of life’s challenges, and giving us courage and stamina to resist the all-to-easy slide into self-absorption and idolatry. But he will only be a compelling guide if we understand that he was like us, he was one of us. Jesus experienced doubt, desire, anger. He was not removed from humanity; he was fully part of it. However, he allowed the divine reality in him to forgive, heal, and redirect the human bent toward self-preoccupation. While exercising human freedom, he disciplined his mind and heart to follow the wisdom of his inner Spirit. He became the way, the truth and the life for others because people found in him the pattern of integration needed for their own wholeness.

In The Last Temptation of Christ Kazantzakis has Jesus wrestling with his identity and mission right up to the moment of his death. Standing down the temptation means staying up on the cross. Choosing to do results in a moment of utter clarity and finally, fulfillment.

A wild, indomitable joy took possession of him.
No, no, he was not a coward, a deserter, a traitor. No, he was still nailed to the cross. He had stood his ground to the very end; he had kept his word. All the other images were illusions sent by the Devil. His disciples were alive and thriving. They had gone over land and sea and were proclaiming the Good News. Everything had turned out as it should, glory be to God! He uttered a triumphant cry: It is accomplished!
And it was as though he had said: Everything has begun.

[Kazantzakis, p. 496]

Friends, the accomplishment of Jesus’ mission is the beginning of ours—yours and mine. Because like Jesus, we will always be tempted, so we do well to stick close to him. As the writer of Hebrews notes with some relief, we don’t have an intercessor who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Let us choose Jesus as the one we will follow and serve. Not because we accept some theological tenet about him, but because in him we have discovered true life and a good way to go.

NOW TO THE ONE WHO BY THE POWER AT WORK WITHIN US IS ABLE TO DO FAR MORE ABUNDANTLY THAN ALL WE CAN ASK OR IMAGINE, TO GOD BE GLORY IN THE CHURCH AND IN CHRIST JESUS TO ALL GENERATIONS, FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN.

Visions of Jesus for Our Time (1): The Way of the Spirit

February 26, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
18 February 2007
Text: Luke 9:28-43

Karl Barth ranks among the most prominent 20th century Reformed theologians. His comprehensive, multi-volume systematic theology fills a 5-foot bookshelf. At the end of his life, Barth was interviewed by a reporter who asked him to identify the single most important truth he affirmed after all his research, study and reflection. The wise old man replied,

Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.

When all is said and done, this is the bedrock of Christian faith. Of course affirming that holds consequences for the way we live our lives, the choices we make, and the actions we take. But who is this Jesus, what authority does he have over us, and why do we claim that he constitutes the heart of Christianity?

Here at Fairmount, we appreciate a thinking faith—one that questions, probes, explores, wonders. All of us—from your pastor and leaders to the confirmation class members—have doubts, and struggle with what it means to be Christian and to seek the way of Christ. I’ve had long-standing members, inquirers, and church officers express uncertainty about the single theological affirmation one is asked to make to become a member of a Presbyterian Church: to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.

These questions—and the quest for understanding—have prompted this year’s Lenten sermon series. For the next 7 weeks, we will explore the biblical witness about Jesus—his earthly life and ministry and his death and resurrection—with a view toward glimpsing its meaning for our lives and faith. What kind of person was Jesus? Is he a role model for both men and women? What is the content of his preaching? In what sense does he judge us? What does it mean to call him “God’s Son?” How does Jesus “save” us? How is he alive today—and what does he expect from us? The sermon series is entitled Visions of Jesus for Our Time because we will look through each biblical picture of Jesus as a window on our contemporary context.

Now technically, Lent doesn’t begin until Wednesday, but I wanted to start our exploration today because the gospel reading offers a stunning vision of Jesus as Divine Guide. Here Jesus is the light that literally and figuratively awakens sleepy disciples to new insight and clearer purpose. It doesn’t happen all at once, and you have the feeling they didn’t “get it” immediately. It’s also described in supernatural terms that might make us envy biblical people who seemed to have far more direct engagement with God than we do. But don’t let the details of their heavenly vision override the deeper truth: Jesus invites us all on a spiritual journey to help us see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day. Listen for God’s Word to you in the reading from the gospel according to Luke, in the ninth chapter at the 28th verse (LUKE 9:28-43a)

Maybe it was all those years spent in the Motor City, but I am fascinated by American’s love affair with the automobile. The lure of the open road, the thrill of speed, the freedom of mobility: these are forever linked in my mind to the car (I know, I know, so are carbon dioxide emissions and global warming; that’s a topic for another day!) Say what you want about the power of marketing, but these associations work because at a basic level, life is a highway, a road continually stretching before us, taking us…who knows where. And most of us want to travel that highway as drivers, rather than passengers. We want to have some say in which route to choose and how fast to go.

Though automobile travel is a twentieth-century phenomenon, the idea of life as a journey is ancient. Our own faith tradition very much reflects this theme—the presence and saving activity of a God who leads the people out of slavery, back home from exile, on a preaching and healing mission, all the way to a “dead-end” at the cross; and then, miraculously, mysteriously, the road re-appears, heading out of an empty tomb. The destination? The Kingdom of God…not so much heaven-and-the-afterlife, but a state of being: of personal relationship, communion with God, with others, and with one’s most authentic self….of God’s rule reflected in the wider community, a rule of justice and peace and wholeness. Life is a highway, friends….to our heart’s true home and the welcoming arms of the God to whom we all belong, body and soul, in life and in death.

Fairmount has expressed this image in our mission statement which calls us to seek “the way” of Christ. That suggests a process, a journey, an intentional choice of looking for a sacred path, a road leading to God.

Chartes Labyrinth

One tool to assist us is a labyrinth. The labyrinth is a medieval invention consciously applying the journey motif as a means of spiritual insight and growth. Look at the labyrinth on your bulletin cover and you will see that it is literally a walk along a circuitous path into a central area and then back out along the same path. Note that it is different from a maze, which has dead-ends and puzzling options. A labyrinth is an ingenious pattern offering a single path that leads you in and leads you out. First created on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France in the late 12th century, the labyrinth was a kind of surrogate pilgrimage for those who could not make the long and dangerous trek to the Holy Land. As its use developed, the labyrinth became a metaphor for human life as a journey into the heart of God.

Today, labyrinth walking is a spiritual practice that has been incorporated into a variety of contexts, both sacred and secular. Santa Fe, New Mexico has built a number of labyrinths in its public elementary schools as a way to encourage creativity and as a tool for stress reduction and anger management. A doctor who advocated for installing a labyrinth at the hospital where he is on staff explained how it offered visual evidence to all who entered the hospital that they would do more than just treat the body—they were treating whole persons. Patients walking the labyrinth with their IV poles, family members, caregivers, and hospital staff have found a private space to walk, pray, release anxiety, gain strength. [examples from an article in Horizons magazine, A Closer Walk with God, by Amy Starr Redwine, May/June 2004] Our church will incorporate it into a “Soul Center” ministry in which a wide variety of practices, small group experiences, and Bible study will be offered for spiritual nourishment.

If you’re skeptical, that’s okay! There’s nothing magical about it—a labyrinth is a tool. It almost perfectly mirrors the three movements of our Scripture text: Jesus’ invitation to the disciples to go up into the mountains, the dazzling light of illumination at the summit, and then the descent that will take them back into the real world. One enters the labyrinth as an intentional act of spiritual seeking, a kind of “prayer walk” in which one listens for the voice of God within. It is a highway not driven by machine, but by one’s own soul. Like life, the journey does not follow a straight line. The labyrinth winds around, bringing us close to the center at times, but then suddenly moving us out to the edge. On the one hand, you can relax in the order of the labyrinth pattern. If you persevere, you will arrive at the center of illumination! And yet, there is freedom within the experience to find your particular way to walk it. Both the rational self and the creative, imaginative self are engaged, a gracious reminder that we are created with bodies and minds as well as souls. Spiritual hunger is satisfied as those parts are harmoniously integrated.

Elder Susan Bookshar will tell you about our new labyrinth ministry shortly, and will invite you to try it out today in Andersen Hall. But for the moment, imagine yourself on a labyrinth walk. Consider your life right now and ask yourself what concerns you might bring along. Perhaps you are experiencing a personal transition—the end of something, the beginning of something else, or that blurry, in-between time that is neither here nor there. Maybe you crave healing…for an inner hurt; for guilt or regret; for a situation that seems insoluble. Maybe you long to be reconciled to someone from whom you are estranged. Maybe the life you experience day to day is lived at such breakneck speed and jam-packed with activity, that you would simply like some time to slow down, to be quiet, to see if you can sort out priorities and recall what is truly important to you. Maybe the greatest need you have today is a recovery of hope, of having dreams re-animated and a burnt-out spirit ignited. The journey to God is one toward wholeness. We can, without fear or hesitation, enter the labyrinth just as we are. We can make our way even with heavy baggage, onward to the center….where we discover that God has been seeking us all along, and invites us to let go of the burdens that weigh us down.

Suddenly…like a bolt of lightening. Or gradually….like the dawn of morning, we see light. We “get it.” At the center of the labyrinth we find illumination. Or rather, we receive it as a gift from God. A word, a vision, an insight, the peace that passes our human understanding. This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him! Your life is not hidden from God; your concerns are not brushed aside as if they (and you) didn’t matter. In fact, this God gives power to those whose own has given out, and wings to those who were bogged down. Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength…they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The last part of the labyrinth walk takes us from the center of illumination back out. It is so consistently true of Christian faith that it propels the believer back out into the world. As deeply personal as the journey is, it will always, always, connect us –not only to God, but to one another. It’s not simply about having a spiritual experience, but of being nourished for service. Peter tried to preserve the moment; to hold on to it as if it were a thing to be grasped. But Jesus won’t sit still for any of that. He led them—and he leads us– back down the mountain, to encounter a hurting world and touch it with healing.

In a labyrinth walk, it looks at first as if the path out is the same as the path in, only in reverse. But what’s different is…you. The really amazing thing about the God we seek is that the relationship causes us to re-decide about our own future. We get healed, transfigured, changed…and somehow the “same old, same old” takes on a whole new look.

Is the labyrinth one of those spirituality fads that make waves for a while until the next new, new thing comes along? We Presbyterians are not fond of gimmicks and highly suspicious of anything that even whispers “new age.” Certainly there are many, many other ways to seek God’s guidance for the living of our complex days. But, friends, life IS a highway, and if you want to drive it, this is one good way to re-fuel and find refreshment, to take a look at the map, and then move on, back out of this safe space, into a world that needs the light of Christ more than anything else.

TO JESUS CHRIST WHO LOVES US, WHO FREED US THROUGH HIS CROSS, AND MADE US TO BE A KINGDOM, TO HIM BE GLORY AND POWER FOREVER. AMEN.

Like a Tree Planted by Water

February 13, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
11 February 2007
Text: Jeremiah 17:5-10

In the side yard of the church facing Fairmount Boulevard stands a massive oak tree. Tall and majestic, Karl Bruch (who also fits that description) told me it is even older than he, probably two hundred years old. Imagine what that old oak has witnessed in two centuries: the generations of people who have come and gone, the development and transformation of a neighborhood—the home that is now the manse was built only one year after the church’s founding. By then the tree was already a centenarian. When we gaze at this magnificent tree, we are, of course seeing about half the total organism. Onehalf is hidden below ground—its strong and intricate root system. Whatever threats to its survival—from automobile exhaust and the laying of underground cables and water systems, to pests and various building programs—all these have been weathered. Through every storm, every season it has stood, gifting us with sheltering shade in summer, a breathtaking vision of fire in Fall, and a filigreed sentinel (not to mention a football goal line) in winter.

The poet claimed only God could make a tree, and surely this tree is a silent sign of God’s grace to us! We have words to describe this gift in Scripture, both in the Psalms and in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. In each instance, trees are used as a metaphor for the life of faith, sustained by roots extended towards a stream, drawing up the life-giving water needed to thrive. As we hear the reading, let your mind’s eye see it… as we consider the roots that ground and nourish our faith and life in the world. A reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Jeremiah, in the seventeenth chapter at the 5th verse; listen for God’s Word. [Jeremiah 17:5-10]

There is almost no vacation I like better than a good road trip. Maybe it was all those family vacations, crammed into whatever Buick we owned at the time, setting off for the Grand Canyon or Washington DC. Now there are two distinct philosophies about road trips, and in my family both were represented. One – championed by my father – was to pick the most direct route and get to one’s destination as quickly as possible. The other – endorsed by my mother – was to make the trip itself part of the vacation. That means you take your time; get off the interstate to visit that little museum; stop for a picnic lunch at a park; and by all means read and comment on every historical marker you encounter along the way. My siblings and I would always speculate as to which parent’s perspective would prevail, and may explain why to this day my very favorite bumper-sticker asks that all-important question: Are we having fun yet?

In my adult life, I might have adopted my father’s philosophy had it not been for many trips driven between Iowa City and Denver with child in car seat. You just can’t explain “driving straight through” to a 4-year old! As far as scenery goes, the 438 miles of Nebraska from Interstate 80 have never made my top-10 list. In fact, at the risk of offending any cornhuskers present, Nebraska has always seemed interminably dull—mile after mile after mile of unvaryingly rolling plain. Until one trip when in sheer desperation, I stopped to let Paul stretch his legs at a roadside historical marker. And there it was: information about the Ogalala Aquifer, the largest body of water in the northern hemisphere – larger than any of the Great Lakes – underneath boring old Nebraska. The Ogalala Aquifer provides an almost unlimited supply of water for the entire Midwest, nourishing crops and vegetation, as far away as….the colorful, scenic state of Colorado! Lying complete underground, Ogalala Aquifer is an unseen but transforming presence in an otherwise unpromising landscape.

I wonder if many of us travel our life’s journey on the surface of Nebraska, without ever connecting to the abundant, lifegiving Source, hidden but more real than all that meets the eye. Jeremiah suggests that we have a choice between what we can see and what we can’t see; between trust in human enterprise, or trust in God; between the kingdom of the world, and God’s kingdom; between death or life. It’s the difference between a desert shrub, parched and gasping to survive, and a tree planted by water, sending out roots by the stream, unafraid when heat comes or drought threatens, continuing to bear fruit.

Jeremiah knew from personal experience what he was talking about it. He struggled with his call to proclaim God’s Word in a particularly difficult time in Israel’s history, and in fact, never really witnessed the vindication of his life’s work. But he dug in and his roots went deep and deeper, and in the times of drought, when he was persecuted and beset by controversy, his leaves remained green. Jeremiah persisted for the long haul. And he was able to do so because he planted his spiritual roots where they would find renewal and refreshment, near to God. [for this summary of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, I am indebted to my colleague in ministry, the Rev. J. Stuart Taylor]

Consider our own lives. We have all known seasons of drought, or what activist Dorothy Day called the “long loneliness.” It might come through the loss of employment, or the loss of health. It might be triggered by turmoil in marriage or strains in family and friendships. It might simply result from weariness in trying to keep up with the pace of life. Global conditions—war, poverty, terrorism, disease, environmental threats—seem overwhelming and resistant to real change. We become thirsty and restless, anxious and unfocused. We try many ways and means to slake this thirst and calm our restlessness. There are all the usual suspects: alcohol, drugs, material things, work, work, and work. Some of these may even keep us going for awhile.

When everything is sailing along smoothly, we can make it through Nebraska, surviving on the illusion of our autonomy and self-sufficiency. But when the drought comes, in the form of a crisis or just the gradual erosion of illusion, we will stall; we will fall; we will miss the beauty and joy of lives rooted in the streams of water from God.

The one who trusts in the Lord is like a tree planted by water. Jeremiah presents this wisdom as a vivid contrast between two ways of life. Blessed are those who choose a life of trust in God. Yes. But Jeremiah also describes a life oriented inward upon the self as accursed; not unlike toasting life with a glass of salt-saturated water. We heard a similar contrast in the gospel reading, in which Jesus pronounces blessing upon those who entrust themselves to the providential care of God – and woe to those who stake their lives on themselves, their power, their fortune, their material goods. Friends, the question of what is central, of who or what lies at the center of our lives seems to be THE essential question. How we answer it determines our choices and the way we will journey. There is much we don’t have control over; time and tide will bring us 10,000 joys and as many sorrows. But on this matter we do have a choice. We can decide whether to root ourselves in ourselves, or in something larger than ourselves. Jeremiah and Jesus more than suggest that the purpose of life is greater than self-fulfillment, and offer an alternative. Go deeper than the surface and superficial things, seek out the everflowing streams of water that will grow life in us.

This past week, elder Susan Bookshar and I participated in a spirituality conference that explored faith practices to nourish this unseen side of life. We were reminded that the life of faith is one life. Faith is formed in us both through worship and ministry; personally and together, as a congregation. Some members will draw closer to God primarily through prayer or personal meditation; others will strengthen their sense of God’s presence and power through the experience of music – whether the transcendent sounds of classical organ and choir, or the rockin’ rhythms of drums and guitar at New Vision; some will find their leafy branches renewed through outreach and service. These different ministries are not in competition with each other; they are varied parts of a single mission, the high calling of God to be Christ’s body in this place and time. The church must root all its ministries – worship and education and fellowship and outreach – in something deeper than itself, in the love of God we know through Jesus Christ. How can we deepen our taproot?

The African-American theologian Howard Thurman tells about a time when he was a student in Rochester, New York. Late one night he was returning to campus by way of Main Street, the central artery of traffic in the city. The streets were practically deserted, and as he walked along, he became aware of what seemed to be the sound of rushing water. He realized he’d been hearing this rumbling for quite some times but had only that moment become aware of it. The next day he was talking with one of his professors who told him that under part of the main street lay a section of the old Erie Canal. This was the sound of water he had heard. The sound itself was continuous, but the normal daytime traffic drowned it out. Only when the surface noises stopped did the sound become audible. This experience became a living metaphor for what Thurman called “centering down,” a necessary condition for the cultivation of strong roots that will help us thrive, individually and as the body of Christ known as Fairmount Presbyterian Church.

Ah, but there it is again: the surface noise; the Nebraska landscape; our full calendars and busy, important lives. I believe a variety of spiritual practices can help us tap into divine power and wisdom for living mindfully, soulfully, joyfully. We all need to make time for Bible study, for rooting the story of our lives in the sacred story of God’s people. Prayer and meditation, yoga and silence, sharing our faith journeys, taking time for conversation and communion with others, will also nurture our spirits. Next Sunday we will introduce a new yet ancient way of discovering God’s presence and guidance in our lives through walking a labyrinth. For almost all of us, we have to begin by slowing down. Taking some deep breaths, and stopping our ceaseless activity, the feeling we have to do more, be more. We must center down. Be still and know that I am God.

I was surprised to learn that the word religion has the same root as the word ligament; both derived from a base meaning “connection.” The invisible but powerful bonds between us and God – and among us as a community – hold us together, and help us live and move grace-fully. Like a tree, planted by water, roots deep and intertwined, sustained through every season.

TO THE GOD OF ALL GRACE, WHO CALLS US TO SHARE GOD’S ETERNAL GLORY IN UNION WITH CHRIST, BE THE POWER
FOREVER. AMEN.

The Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor

Growing Faith For Growth

February 13, 2007

A Sermon by Richard Clewell
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
4 February 2007
Text: Isaiah 6: 1-8, Luke 5: 1-11

We come together as a community of faith to worship God each Sunday morning or evening. In the music, the prayers, the liturgy, the sermon, the communion the living Lord is to be encountered. Yet, I really wonder often what we take away from worship and talk about following the services. How many of us talk about God? I’ve heard comments about how uplifting the music was, about the wonderful or obscure hymns we’ve sung (who picks them out anyway?), how interesting or boring the delivery or content of the sermon, and who was missing this week. I am genuinely intrigued by the seeming lack of excitement about any on-going meetings with the living Christ. Are such encounters not occurring or are we just reluctant to talk about God, Jesus and the Spirit’s relationship in our lives?

Kyle Childress, a pastor in Texas, tells of a friend who said he was thinking of coming to Kyle’s church and asked, “Do you talk about Jesus and Christ and God and all that?” Kyle responded laughingly, “Well, yes we try to talk about Jesus as often as possible” and then added more seriously, “You know, he is central to everything we’re about.” The friend hasn’t shown up yet. A question which we all must examine is, “How real is God in my life?”

Our scripture texts from today’s lectionary have much in common. Isaiah meets God face to face in the temple, recognizes his own unworthiness, is cleansed, and answers God’s call to difficult service as his prophet. In the epistle text from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul recounts the resurrected Christ appearing to him as “one untimely born, for I am the least of the apostles.” And in Luke, Simon Peter encounters Jesus as follows: (Read Luke 5: 1-11).

This account is not a healing, exorcism, or miracle but is an experience of God’s calling in the ordinary context of living. The call did not come in a holy place but in the midst of daily life and work. Simon, James and John had done nothing to warrant or earn Jesus’ call to them. God’s encounter is as unpredictable as it is unmerited. When Jesus directs Simon to put the boat out in deep water and let down his trammel nets, Simon the expert fisherman initially protests that they had done that all night without success. But in Jesus’ words, Simon experiences something unique and responds, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” Of course, the results are overwhelmingly convincing and in Jesus’ presence, Simon recognizes his willfulness and sin which opens him to God’s grace and call. Jesus does not have to say “follow me” but commissions him to a new kind of fishing. In encountering God in Christ, they experience forgiveness, acceptance and have no question about following the direction offered. The call of the kingdom reversed their priorities and reordered their commitments – “they left everything and followed him.” This doesn’t mean that they never failed again or always understood the way of God’s kingdom revealed in Jesus. But they were on a new journey of faith which had more engagements with the glory and grace of God and they, in turn brought God’s grace, acceptance, and calling to many as they and their followers turned the world system on its head. They were known for their love for one another and their concern about others even in the midst of a fearful world system of empire.

Christianity is about a way of life, a path – Jesus being “the way, the truth, the life” and we, as Christians are the people of that way. Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, states, “Being Christian involves not just “talk,” but the transformation of our lives.” This transformation takes place in the presence of God. I believe God encounters us in many ways in our journey of faith – sometimes dramatically in visions, less dramatically in some of our dreams, often in internal prodding or leadings, through people, through worship, scripture, prayer and devotional practices.” The author, Frederick Buechner writes about the way God speaks to us in the events of our lives: “Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you because it is through what happens to you that God speaks – – – it’s a language which is not always easy to decipher, but it’s there powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.”

The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it’s about acknowledging God’s love and acceptance and developing our faith and life in that on-going relationship. The way of God’s kingdom is that its citizens want to learn a new way of life and are willing to commit themselves to the full cost of that choice. The kingdom way has a purpose which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Brian McLaren in speaking of such purpose declares, “Martin Luther King Jr. learned what happens when you preach an inclusive message of reconciliation. Bishop Romero learned what happens when you call people to gather rather than scatter. Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela learned what happens when you try to expand the borders of who is considered “in” and worthy of dignity and respect. On the other hand, if you start expanding the borders and working for a God centered, inclusive and reconciling network of relationships, you will quickly find that there are plenty of people willing to insult you, imprison you, torture you, and kill you. They prefer the rigid boundaries and impermeable wall of their narrow domains and constricted turf, not God’s purposefully inclusive kingdom that calls the least “the greatest” and welcomes the outcast.”

Isaiah’s call was to a very difficult task of pronouncing judgment on the nation of Judea for their failure to live their faith in accordance with the way of their Lord. Because the prophet experienced God’s glory and gracious cleansing, he feels for his people and asks “How long?” in a prayer of intercession for mercy. The response is that there is still hope of renewal even in the face of almost total destruction of all that nation held dear. There are times priests need to take the prophetic role and also the prophet needs to continue the priestly pastoral function. Sometimes you will find your pastors in the roles of comforters and caregivers. Sometime you’ll experience us as teachers and instructors in the way of the kingdom of God. And sometimes you will be challenged by issues raised which you may not want but need to hear. Hopefully, in all these ways God will encounter us and you.

As we look forward to our life together in this community of faith called Fairmount Presbyterian Church, a growing faith is indispensable to our calling to be God’s people in this world. Jesus declared the “coming of the kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, “look, here it is” or “there!” for the kingdom of God is “within you” (Lk. 17:20,21). As our faith grows in our burgeoning relationship to God in worship, prayer, and gracious acts of mercy and compassion in our calling, others will be drawn to experience God in their journey, and they too will respond to a renewed and transforming life which is informed and directed by the Spirit of the Living Christ.

In a recent Christian Century article, the story was related about an ornery civil rights attorney who made his state’s county sheriffs sweat with fear but heard the name of a local pastor raised in conversation and said, “That preacher and his church scare me.” When asked, “Scared? You? Why?”, he replied, “Because they remind me of God.” About three or four years later he promised his dying father that he would return to church, and he hasn’t missed a Sunday since, sitting with his wife in the second row. One day, while eating lunch with a group of attorneys, he said something uncommonly gentle to an overworked waitress. One of the attorneys remarked, “What’s gotten into
you
?” “I’m a Christian now.”

So, how do we represent God in our outlook and behaviors? It involves seeing who God is and who we are; recognizing this through confession and a conscience informed in the way; and being committed to a change of heart and a new way of life. This is how the kingdom of God grows and becomes a reality as the Spirit leads us. “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So may it be as we go forward. Amen

The Rev. Richard D. Clewell, D.Min., Pastor

Don’t Talk of Love

February 11, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
28 January 2007
Text: I Corinthians 13

Imagine a world where nations cooperate together for the good of all. Peace reigns and justice flourishes. Imagine communities and work places where neighbors and colleagues value each other and share both responsibility for and the benefits of their labor. Imagine families in which husband and wife cherish each other and participate together in raising children who respect themselves and others. Imagine a place where no one feels alone or unworthy. Imagine a world of love.

The imagination is hard-pressed to see such a world, so at variance with the one we inhabit. Yet Christian faith has always affirmed that only love can create such a world; only love can transform the way people think and talk and act. The morning epistle lesson is often called “a hymn to love” because it is the apostle Paul at his most poetic, expressing in simple, soaring language the beauty of love. Without a doubt, it is the most requested scripture reading at weddings which forever links it in some people’s mind to romantic love, the love that makes the world go round and men and women slightly crazy. But the apostle wasn’t vying for a job as an American Greetings card writer. He was writing to a community of Christian people, who knew well the realities of conflict and support, friendship and fighting. In fact, this text follows immediately the one we examined last week, in which Paul celebrated the differences in people as evidence of God’s grace. He concluded that section by reminding the people of the many gifts they possessed, but that he would show them “a still more excellent way.” Listen for God’s Word to us in the reading from the first letter to the Corinthian churches, in the thirteenth chapter, at the first verse. [I CORINTHIANS 13]

No one knows how the young man fell off the Manhattan subway platform onto the tracks, just as a train was speeding into the station. Several of the gathered crowd waiting for the train called out to the boy, to warn him of the approaching danger and to get out of the way. Before anyone knew it, a man had jumped onto the tracks himself and had grabbed the young man, but the train was nearly upon them. Thinking quickly, he pushed the boy down in the space between the tracks, lying over him as the train rolled safely above them. The rescue was heroic in any case; all the more so when it came out that the man had no relationship with the young man. “I just knew he was in trouble and had to try and help,” he explained. Social scientists have long considered what motivates people to act on behalf of another, at risk to themselves. Case professor Steven Post has written extensively about this and correlated acts of altruism with emotional health and well-being. Self-giving love, it seems, may be hardwired into the human psyche. At the very least, there is evidence that the human instinct towards self preservation enlarges to include others as well.

Only a very few of us, thank God, will ever be faced with such dramatic decisions. But every single one of us is faced every day with the choice to love or not. And some days, it requires almost heroic will to love the persons we encounter across the breakfast table, at the water cooler, in the pew:
Love is patient and kind …even toward people who are clearly misguided, ignorant, or just plain wrong???!!
Love is not boastful, arrogant or rude….but what about those people who only ‘get it’ when you get in their face???!!
Love isn’t irritable….Paul didn’t have kids, did he???
Love doesn’t insist on its own way….Paul didn’t have parents did he?
Love isn’t resentful….but what about the times I’m taken for granted, without so much as a thank you, thank you very much??!!
Love doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing …except when they had it coming to them!!
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…too good to be true!

The trouble with this text is not that we don’t understand its meaning! The trouble with this text is that it seems impossible to put into practice. Paul has described idealized qualities of love, suitable for framing, but so heavenly-minded they’re of little earthly use. And yet the force of his words reminds us that love is essential; without love, no spirituality, no sacrificial giving, no inspired sermon matter at all. It is love that makes these gifts meaningful and transformative. It is loving relationships that demonstrate the goodness of high-minded theology, extravagant gestures of generosity, and profound truth. Without love, there are only empty words and actions, devoid of transforming power.

But to be essential, Paul writes, requires also that love be practical and active. Love does some things and resists doing other things. It is the subject of all the verbs in this passage. Don’t talk of love, Paul would have sung along with Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady: Don’t talk of love… show me! True love shows itself in real life contexts, where it refuses to retaliate, practices patience, shuns competitiveness, throws away a scorecard, remains hopeful. Christian love is not a theory, but a way of living. It is not even a mutual agreement we make with one another: I’ll try to love you; you try to love me. It is the Christian’s calling no matter what; no matter how it is received; no matter whether it is reciprocated.

…which suggests that Christian love is not a feeling; not the outcome of a certain resonance with another human being. Love is a decision; a choice we make about how we will dwell as an individual in a world of others. To love another means to consider that person’s needs and well-being as well as one’s own. And I think the last part of the text offers a clue as to how we might go about making a choice for this kind of love. It’s alluded to in the contrast between the thinking of a child and that of an adult; the difference between the distorted reflection in a mirror and a face-to-face encounter. We know so little about each other! We understand others primarily only as they appear to us—by the game face they put on to go to work, to school, even to church. We know many, many more “others” only as statistics, a blurred snapshot that does as much to obscure the particularity of individual lives as it does
to reveal it.

When we are commanded by God through the voices of the prophets and by Jesus to love, we are actually invited to receive the divine gift that will free us from our fears and prejudices and allow us to know another. To see them as they truly are is to understand that they are equally beloved as children of God as we ourselves are. In a way, learning to love another is learning to love the self unconditionally; regardless of vulnerability, loneliness, fear or anything that distorts them – and every one of us.

One of the pleasures of my job is to work with couples who are preparing to marry. They are “in love” and when you’re in love, everything is different. Take the winter sky last week—how would you describe it? Would “grey” work? But when I spoke with a couple who are in love they said, “Oh but there are ten shades of grey, and they’re beautiful!” Oh right, I meant to say that. But I kept thinking about their words, and I realized that they had opened themselves up to seeing a January sky in Cleveland as something worth loving, rather than approaching it with dread, or only contrasting it with blue skies radiating glorious sunlight.

Could this be something that helps us love persons who may seem cold, petty, unpleasant, unbearable? To love the ten shades of grey—the person who, like each of us, is a beloved child of God. Because – and this is central – Christian love not only improves the lives of the loved. Loving is a liberating act that allows us to live free of fear, with open hearts and hands that are able to reach across all that divides us. Love is essential for living well.

In some ways I guess to love like that would be impossible, had it not been demonstrated to us by God in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus was no pushover; yet he continually pushed over the dividing walls we humans seem hell-bent on putting up, in order to bring us closer to one another and to God.

Of course you remember what happened when Jesus loved a little too well; when he’d finally let in too many outsiders, eaten with too many sinners and erased the boundaries once too often. He was executed for love, hung on a cross to die… and even then, did not insist on his own way: Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

But love like this is not destroyed. Love like this never ends. God raised Jesus from death, so that we might know that God loves and God forgives. Despite everything God is patient and kind toward us, not irritable or resentful. God does not mock our weakness, but rejoices over the truth that we are all God’s beloved. For each of us and for all of us, God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And that my friends, is why we are able to remove the walls that divide us. Why we are able to connect on a deeper level with people who are different from us. Why we are able to work for the wellbeing of a stranger, or even, amazingly the “enemy.” Why we are able to welcome and care for one another in ways that will bring us wholeness. That is why, in fact, we are able to say at all: We love…because God first loved us!

This past week a number of Fairmounters and I attended what was billed as a community conversation sponsored by Heights Community Congress about race and diversity. Over 400 neighbors were there, and following the panel presentations, one by one individuals came to the microphone to ask questions, make statements, air grievances. Strong feelings were expressed; though the tone was always respectful. The evening came to an end long before the line of speakers did.

We were given an assignment to complete during the two weeks before the next conversation February 7th: gather a group of at least four individuals who are different from yourself. Just that. Spend time talking and listening, getting beyond the assumptions and presumptions, going below the surface to hear the pain, the hope, the fear, the faith that is not so unlike your own. Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face….now I know only in part, then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Sounds like love to me. I wonder if we could practice too, with a co-worker, a family member, a neighbor, someone whose different perspective challenges or threatens us. Seek them out; get to know them; see if you discover that the things you hold in common are much greater than those that divide you. And even more, that we will come to recognize each other as we truly are: beloved children of God, lovable and capable of loving. Imagine….

NOW TO THE ONE WHO BY THE POWER AT WORK WITHIN US IS ABLE TO ACCOMPLISH ABUNDANTLY FAR MORE THAN ALL WE ASK OR IMAGINE, TO GOD BE GLORY IN THE CHURCH TO ALL GENERATIONS. AMEN.

The Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor

A Framework for Growth

February 7, 2007

A Sermon by Louise F. Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
21 January 2007
Text: I Corinthians 12:12-27

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at Time magazine’s choice for 2006 Person of the Year: You. Yes, you. The issue cover’s Mylar computer screen reflected the reader’s own image. You are worthy of the annual honor, Time claims, because you “control the Information Age” and spend a lot of time watching You-Tube and blogging, surfing the worldwide web without leaving the comfort of your home. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Frank Rich suggests that Time’s choice points to the mindless escapism in which Americans beleagured by depressing real-world information have found refuge [New York Times, December 24, 2006].

I’m no Luddite, and I do appreciate the potential good of the Information Age with its creative and flexible communication options. In fact, thanks to the volunteer efforts of some savvy church members, our worship services are now podcast! You can listen anytime, anywhere. You can also blog about sermons, share your perspective or offer your advice, all from your computer terminal. We believe these options help us strengthen our connection to members, broaden our contact with others, and widen our welcome beyond these walls. One of you even gave me a Wall Street Journal article about pastors who preach sermons they found on websites such as creativepastor and sermoncentral.com (I haven’t tried it, because I’m afraid you would think it was the best sermon I’d ever preached!)

Nevertheless, it’s ironic that the technology that brings the world to our private gaze, that “flattens” it, eliminating borders and barriers, also isolates us from it. Even if you don’t agree with Rich’s diagnosis, you know that computers remove us from personal contact, from face-to-face interaction and actual encounters with living, breathing, hurting, happy people, using conversation that can’t be deleted or terminated at the hit of a button. There are many windows on the web, someone has noted, but not many doors. Yes, you are the person of the
year. You, me, but not “us.”

Christian faith is nothing if not communal. In the Biblical story of creation, God fashions one individual and immediately realizes that creation is not complete: it is not good that the man should be alone… (simpler, maybe, but not better!) Somewhere back there at the very dawning of human life, the idea of “community” was born. Couples, then families, tribes and kinship groups developed to meet various needs. But you don’t need a history book to tell you what happened next. Adam and Eve started in right away: “The woman you gave me, she made me eat the forbidden fruit!” “That Adam! Always blaming ME for his bad choices!” And so it has been, from that time forward. Where two or three are gathered together, God is there, as Scripture says, but so are disagreement, conflict, and struggle.

Sound like Church? It’s not surprising. We are connected to each other by virtue of our connection to one God, one Lord Jesus Christ. But we’re different people, with a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, needs, expectations. We see things differently. How can we develop a single vision that will inspire effective ministry? How can we possibly grow a community of caring, one that offers a potent alternative to the world’s “high tech/low touch” culture?

The morning epistle lesson addresses these questions headon. Corinth – a cosmopolitan city of education and culture – was full of diverse and opinionated people who brought these qualities to their new church life. Their disputes prompted them to seek counsel from the missionary apostle who had established many churches throughout the Mediterranean world. Paul responded by describing the Church as a body. But not just any body: Christ’s body—a reality which suggests ways and means to be a loving and growing faith community of vision and service. Listen for God’s word to us in the reading from the first letter to the Corinthian churches, in the twelfth chapter at the twelfth verse. [I Corinthians 12:12-27]

South African archbishop and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Desmond Tutu tells a story of the scene in heaven after the risen Christ returns from his earthly sojourn. All the angels and archangels are really happy and singing alleluias in celebration. And this one frowning angel goes up to Jesus and says, “Jesus, Jesus, you’ve done everything the Father wanted you to do down there. Whom did you leave to carry on your work?”
And Jesus replies, “Why my disciples of course.”
The angel is shocked. “You don’t mean Peter who denied you?!”
“Hmmm. I mean Peter.”
“And Thomas who doubted you?”
“Yes, Thomas too.”
“Surely you don’t mean the others who ran away?”
“Yep. The ones who ran away.”
“But what if they fail…what if they fail, Jesus?”
Comes the answer: “If they fail, I have failed.”

Well Jesus didn’t fail and those disciples didn’t fail. We are all proof positive of that. But the story reflects the Church’s amazing legacy – that we are called to do Christ’s work – and the gracious truth that every one of those heirs is unique and magnificent…. and flawed. The church would be perfect….except for the people! Yet from those imperfect individuals the grace of God creates the body identified as the real, physical presence of Christ in the world. Let that sink in for a moment. You are body of Christ. You – and you – and you – and me – and many more out there. Together, we are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

The “body” metaphor reveals both how the church is to treat its members, and how the individual members relate to the whole. For example, no fewer than three times does the text declare that God arranged it so that all members would not have the same gifts, but that within the one body there would be variety. Diversity then is not simply a condition to be accepted, but is an integral part of God’s gift to the church. Something to be pursued, not unlike working out in order to develop toned abs and fit cardio functioning. In our differences we find beauty and power and maximum health.

Every part is indispensable. Let me say that again. Every member of the church is indispensable. No one can replace you; no one else can duplicate your gifts. If Christ alone is head of the body, then beyond that there’s no hierarchy of value. The little toe is as important as the eye, the appendix is as cherished as the lungs, the nose is as beautiful as the lips. Sometimes we may forget that and focus attention solely on the parts that are most obvious, the leaders who are in the pulpit or sit on the councils and chair the committees. But if you’ve ever broken your toe then you know how hard it is to walk! The suffering of one part of the body affects the whole body. Each individual member of the body is to be cared for, loved, and appreciated, because each part is indispensable.

God needs you. This church needs you. We need each other. On the other hand, the body metaphor provides a strong counterpoint to the individualism so prevalent today. The parts must be connected to the body in order to function! We join ourselves with one another in a spirit of interdependence to keep the body whole and healthy. The work Christ calls us to do doesn’t seem like an impossible mission when we are together, contributing what we have and who we are. If the individual members of the body minister to one another, the body thrives and is capable of doing whatever God requires of it: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, teaching the sixth grade Sunday school class, preparing meals for Guild luncheons, singing in the choir, building a community youth club – well, you get the picture.

So what about the body of Christ known as Fairmount Presbyterian Church? How does this 90-year-old body grow? The leadership team of this church has spent the better part of two years prayerfully and actively considering a vision to shape our ministry and mission in ways that will energize our members, attract others, and connect us with one another in ways that will help us continue Christ’s work. Last October I asked you to participate in a visioning process by naming the things about Fairmount you most cherish and want to preserve and to identify needed reforms. Those responses were summarized in the January newsletter. A bulletin insert today lists the specific suggestions you made—let’s look at them together, front and back. Your ideas have been organized into four categories that reflect our organizational structure. As you can clearly see, there are many suggestions. We have many members with lots of ideas and a multitude of perspectives. Yet we are part of one congregation, led by one Lord, filled with one Spirit, guided by a single vision. Will you help us prioritize our tasks by placing a check mark by the ten items on this list you believe should be given the highest priority in the near term. If you do not see an item you believe should be on the list, feel free to add it in the ‘comment’ section. Then place your completed form in the offering plates when they are passed, or turn it in to the Main Office later. We’ll be mailing every member the same insert and your responses will help us refine and shape our growth plans. It will be a great pleasure to invite you to a potluck supper and program to introduce the specific ministry initiatives on Saturday, March 3.

Finally, let me offer one example of how the body ministers to its members, and the individual members minister to one another. Yesterday we said farewell to a long-time member, Stu Merz who died suddenly last week. Stu had completed the visioning exercise last October and signed his name so I had opportunity to ask him about his suggestion which was to “offer more visible encouragement to members to volunteer in the work of this church.” Stu explained that while he had attended worship regularly for years, he had never really gotten involved until Dick Clewell “persuaded” him to come to the Men’s Breakfast Forum. With some hesitation he did and was surprised to see a whole new side of church. Friendships developed as conversation was shared over coffee and bagels. Members of the group supported each other through challenges of job loss and transition, illness and grief. When the men learned of some particular needs of the church, they responded. Stu was one who volunteered and along with Walt Stuart and Bob and Betty Olson, joined the team who come in every Monday morning to count and record the previous day’s offering. He enjoyed the work and companionship, and told me that he would never have known what he was missing had it not been for the personal encouragement of the men.

Friends, let us give ourselves to the body of Christ with faithfulness and zest, and then trust God to bring forth growth and complete the good work begun. Amen.

The Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor

Spiritual Gifts and Miracles

February 7, 2007

A Sermon by Rev. Martha (Missy) Shiverick
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
January 14, 2007
I Corinthians 12: 1-11
John 2:1-11

The passage from Corinthians is one we all have heard. Paul is writing out of a division that has taken place within the Christian community in Corinth over whose Spiritual gifts are more valuable. Did speaking in tongues make you a more valuable member of the community than those who taught Christ’s doctrines? If you could preach should you be the leader over someone who performed miracles? Paul’s answer, of course, is that all are gifts of the Spirit and are equally valuable. The person who has leadership skills is as valuable as the person who has teaching skills and all skills come from God. As I read it aloud, think about what gifts God has given you. I know it is so much easier to think about what gifts we do not possess but I challenge you to think about what possible gift or gifts you have been given. Listen to God’s word.

(Read 1Corinthians 12: 1-11)
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Jesus had Spiritual gifts. As the Son of God, he had every spiritual gift that Paul lists. The account of his first miracle is this morning’s Gospel lesson. Miracles were on Paul’s list of spiritual gifts. This miracle is the one where water is turned into wine at the wedding party. Although there are many explanations as to why this would be Jesus first miracle, I think what is more important is that he possessed the spiritual gift of miracles and that he was well pleased with the institution of marriage. In fact the reason we are able to say that Jesus blesses marriage as a part of our wedding ceremony is because of this miracle. Jesus found pleasure in it. Jesus gave a miracle as his gift while attending the wedding, the gift of the celebration. Listen again to the word of God. Also, as I read the passage, listen to the last verse. It tells why miracles were performed. Jesus turned the water into wine so that His glory, God’s glory might be manifested and that his disciples would believe in him. They were done for God’s purpose as we should use all the Spiritual gifts we are given. Listen now for the word of the Lord.

(Read John 2:1-11)
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

When I was in seminary, I asked Hank Andersen, who was then the Senior Pastor at Fairmount, what were his spiritual practices. He told me that he tried to start every day in his office by reading the Bible and praying and meditating on the message. I do not know how often he actually got to do this, but I occasionally try and follow his practice myself. So…this past Monday morning I came into my office and read again the Scripture passages assigned today so that I could begin to think about how to preach from them, how they might relate to Martin Luther King Sunday, and how to bring the passages alive and relevant to us today. After all that is really the assignment of the preacher on Sunday. To make God’s word come alive and be meaningful in our day as it was when it was written. I read the passage from Corinthians, and knew it was one that is very familiar to many, and thought about what new insight I could bring to it. I thought how this was the scripture passage I used to use while leading New Member classes when I was first ordained. I would begin the classes with a Bible Study on this passage so that I could get the new members from the very beginning thinking about their unique gifts and interests. Although it is important to join a church thinking what you can gain from it, when joining, we should also think how our membership adds to the ministry of the church. We all have been given gifts. They are all different. Jesus might have possessed them all, but each of us brings something to God’s ministry as well.

The rest of the 12th chapter of Corinthians uses the imagery of the body to explain why it is important for Christian communities to have individuals in them that possess different spiritual gifts and how each different gift is important to the whole. You do not want more elbows on your body than you need, but thank God we can bend our arms and reach our mouths to eat. Elbows might not at first seem important, but imagine life without them. If Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the post-industrial world, he would have used the imagery of a machine to explain this. Machines have many different parts and their interconnectedness all work for the greater purpose of the machine. Every bolt and every nut has a purpose.

After a few minutes of meditating on this, I went to my Monday morning task of answering emails that have come in through out the weekend. Within the emails was one from a member which could not have illustrated this passage from Corinthians into modern terms any clearer. The sender was describing the podcasts he has been working on of our worship services. Yes, you now can go to itunes and download sermons from Fairmount Church and listen to them on your computer or ipod. The sender of the email wrote with enthusiastic descriptions things that I had no conception of. Intro blurbs, megabytes, external archiving, deletion, and increasing storage space. This is not, and I mean NOT, my area. We are moving into this cyber tech world and I personally thank God, that members of our community have been given the spiritual techno-gifts to get us there. Clearly God has given this man the spiritual gift of computer technology, a gift that not all of us have and a gift which will benefit God’s community here at Fairmount.

Paul describes the many spiritual gifts that he experienced. Uttering knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, and discernment of spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, and of course interpreting the speaking of tongues. What was important, Paul said, was not what the spiritual gift was but that even though there are varieties of spiritual gifts, they all come from the same place. They come from God who inspires and gives them all. Spiritual gifts come from God, are used for God’s purpose, and it is God who decides who gets what gift. But the important message in both the Epistle lesson this morning and in the Gospel account of Jesus’ miracle is that these gifts are given as God wills and are to be used to and for God’s purpose.

Which brings us to this celebration this weekend: Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I must admit it is a very intimidating day to preach. I see the purpose of the holiday in several ways for us the Christian Community. One is to hold up and remember a saint of our history. The second is to teach that Dr King’s message was the Judeo-Christian message of justice and love. Dr. King preached our Gospel and taught God’s vision of shalom. There is a reason to learn of his teachings in both the secular and religious world. The third is to remind ourselves that this vision based on God’s call, is our calling and our work as well. Dr. King preached about God’s kingdom, but it is every Christian’s calling to help bring it to earth. As we prayed the Lord’s Prayer this morning, we became partners with each other in the sacred calling of bringing God’s rule on earth as it is in heaven. And that was The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s message to each of us.

So if you are like me, you then turn within your self and say, well what does this have to do with me. I see God’s vision. I hear the call that Dr King did, but I am not him. And that is where this morning’s scripture texts come in. Of course we are not Dr King. But God has given each of us spiritual gifts to do God’s work and bring God’s realm on earth. Perhaps it took someone with Dr. King’s spiritual gifts to start the movement we must now finish.

Pastor’s secretary Donna Evans came to work this week and told me of a sign that was on the Catholic Church on Lake Shore Blvd. in Euclid this week. She drove by it each morning on her way to Fairmount. It said, “Laundry is the only thing that should be separated by color.” This simple sign must have been quoted by hundreds of people who drove by the church all week. No, it wasn’t as eloquent as a speech by Dr King and it won’t be used in a speech in Washington DC at a march that millions of people attend, but it might get a lot of people thinking about what unites us being a lot stronger than what divides us. Given the issues that the City of Euclid has been working on, I thank God for the Spiritual gifts given to whomever makes that sign each week. They have done much to promote God’s vision of justice.

And what about the article in the Plain Dealer yesterday which questioned whether Jewish jokes were anti-Semitic? Haven’t we all been in the position of someone telling a joke in a group of friends which is off color. It is based on prejudices and puts down either women, gays, ethnicities, or a particular race. If it is allowed to go unchecked, it promotes institutional bigotry and racism is not visioned in a world where God’s unconditional love is for all. It takes the spiritual gifts of courage and love to confront and stand up and say that jokes like these are not funny. So I thank God for the person who wrote the article that caused me and perhaps others to wrestle with our role in God’s call to justice through correct humor.

Not everyone has the same Spiritual gift and I have not yet met anyone who possesses Jesus’ gift of miracles that can change water into wine. However God has given each of us gifts and it is our role, our quest to find what they are. We need to look at God’s vision of Love, of Justice, of Shalom and claim it as ours as well. Then with the faith that God has equipped us to serve, we will go forward and do God’s work and be God’s own. Amen.

The Rev. Missy Shiverick, M.D.V., M.S.