Archive for the ‘Rev. Louise Westfall’ Category

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.



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.


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.


The Rev. Louise F. Westfall, 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….


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 (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

Star Power

January 17, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
7 January 2007
Text: Matthew 2:1-12

The confirmation class of a church (certainly not in Cleveland) was being quizzed about their biblical knowledge. The teacher asked, “Where was Jesus born?” A kid in the back waved his hand, “I know, I know: Pittsburgh!” When the teacher gently corrected him with “No, it’s Bethlehem” he grumbled, “Well, I knew it was somewhere in Pennsylvania.”

While we Ohioans might never confuse the hometown of our savior with our rival city to the east, I wonder whether we too miss the place. Do we see that the God of highest heaven has come to earth, appeared in our town, and set the night on fire, ablaze with God’s grace and glory.

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.

I don’t know how the custom of wishing on a star developed but maybe it’s because since the very beginning, humans have used the night sky for navigation, to find their way in the darkness. It’s not surprising then that almost every culture and religion use physical light as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. A star…a single candle held aloft…a light bulb over the head….all suggest revelation, an epiphany, an “aha” moment when what was previously clouded or shrouded in darkness is brought to light. The biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth in the gospel of Matthew entwines these two themes. The wisemen, ancient Persian astrologers, interpreted the appearance of a particular star as a sign that pointed to the fulfillment of a wish they had long desired. And then the star literally guided them to that place where they knelt in humble worship and offered gifts before an infant who they understood to be a king— in fact, the king. We celebrate epiphany today as the revealing of God’s presence and power in a human being, Jesus of Nazareth.

But let me ask you: have you had an epiphany lately? Does Christ’s appearance on earth so long ago shed light on the complexities of contemporary life? I appreciate the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking’s observation that within the next decade, science will be able to determine how the universe came into being. But science, he adds, will never be able to determine why it came into being. Can we yet look to a star for the answer? Bring to the reading of the familiar story your unfulfilled wishes, whatever hopes and fears you have today; whatever shadows obscure the light for you; the persistent questions or constraints in your own life that defy resolution. Hear God’s Word to you in the reading from the gospel according to Matthew, in the second chapter at the first verse. [MATTHEW 2:1-12]

One of my new year’s resolutions was to exercise every day. I strode out of my house on Wednesday morning batting a thousand for the two-day-old new year. My friend Carol and I headed up Scarborough at a lively pace. Before we had gone two blocks, we encountered a boy, maybe nine years old, not anyone we knew, standing on a corner. As we approached, he called out to us, “Did you see the moon this morning?!” What??! The question caught me completely off guard. “Did you see the moon this morning?” he asked again. “It was so big and bright and looked really cool.” And with that announcement, he turned back to his waiting. The thing is, I hadn’t seen the moon that morning. I got up, took the dog out, made coffee, flipped open the newspaper and waited for Carol to show up. I felt a quick and surprising pang of loss, for missing a view that would have blessed the day ~ and for my lack of mindfulness to divine grace right in front of me. Yet I also felt gratitude for the wise boy who called me out of myself and reminded me to look, to see, to be amazed and glad.

The wise men (and their kin, including children and little old ladies) can be our teachers. No one knows how many years they’d been pouring over star charts, scanning the night sky, trying to tease out meaning from the patterned movement of the universe. No one knows how many other astrologers seeing the same star scoffed at them for journeying far simply on the basis of their hope that the star’s prophecy would be fulfilled. How many started the journey, but failed to persevere? How many got discouraged by the length of the journey, the dull and dreary conditions of the trek? How many settled for lesser visions? How many were so set on their owngoals that they missed the full moon right in front of them?

The wise men remind us first of all that illumination is a gift coming to us; it is not something we somehow have to self-generate or cause to appear. It’s not something we can produce or manufacture. It is not something we must earn, or a reward bestowed upon us for good behavior. It’s really less about making resolutions than about receiving revelation. The light appears to us as a free gift from the One who is light.

But something IS required of us. We have to LOOK. We have to wake up. We have to search beyond our little lives and peer into the heart of the world. The places of pain and suffering. The night sky of shadows and longing. Look and see. See what God is doing. Find the places where God is at work. Discover the people and experiences where God is restoring and saving and making new. You and I can be mirrors reflecting that light, and together be a beacon which draws others to the light. Not because we see it all, but because we’re looking for it, scanning the far horizon as well as the faces of our near and dear. The light of the world has come, and we have only to open our eyes and receive its warmth and illumination. In the Buddhist tradition it’s called mindfulness, an intention to be fully aware. The Christian faith has prophets who warn us of the danger of falling asleep too soon. Arise, shine; for your light has come. O taste and see that the Lord is good!

So we begin this new year at the spiritual equivalent of the eye doctor’s: the Lord’s table, to eat and drink in the light, to have our vision checked and corrections made. At this table we are reminded that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. We are given light that will illumine the deepest night, that will reveal God’s grace at the heart of reality, even when it is obscured. We are called to become light-bearers, wise men and women in whose actions and by whose love others can find their way. I don’t think it’s coincidental that there were several wise men. Epiphanies seem to happen most often where there is communion; where there is a shared commitment to journey together toward the place where wishes are fulfilled, dreams become reality, where the Word becomes flesh. As the people of God known as Fairmount Presbyterian Church, let us look for the star, set our course by it, and move forward together.

As the ushers bring an offering of stars to you, I invite you to take one from the plates, and let its word illumine your life in 2007. Consider what God may be calling you to do or to become through the light of this star. Put your star in a place where you will see it daily. You might want to come back to the question a few weeks or even months from now. Try jotting down some reflections about how you see your life or faith affected by this exercise. Some of you have told me about your experiences in doing this last year, and I’d love to hear those stories and the places in your lives you’ve found transformed. Your insights can become a witness to the light of Christ for the rest of us. Friends, in the biblical story, the wise men were guided to return home “another way ;” they weren’t the same at the journey’s end that they were at its beginning. This is an enterprise of faith. You and I can only imagine the ways we’ll be changed because we tried to walk in the light of the Lord, in the power of the star of Bethlehem.

Friends, go out from here to where God is calling us. Go out with courage, perhaps not knowing exactly where to go, but confident that God’s hand is leading us and God’s love supporting us, through Jesus Christ the light of the World.

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

All We Want for Christmas

January 9, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Christmas Eve 2006

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…..

The silence of this night provides a dramatic counterpoint to the cranked-up volume of the rest of our lives, the surround-sound that accompanies our lives 24/7. The noise of commerce, the roar of transportation, the jangle of electronic gadgetry, even the fierce wild beating of our anxious hearts fade into the background, and we rest in the gentle grace of Christmas carol, music of harp and bell and stately organ, familiar texts of promise and hope spoken with hushed reverence. Tonight all human words recede, to make room for the Word, God’s Word, made flesh among us.

It is the Word, my friends, that makes this silent, holy night so special, so magical, so different from the constant thrum of ordinary days. But how quickly we let it die on our lips, extinguished as quickly as our candles, tucking it safely away until another whole year of ordinary days pass away. Our expectations for Christmas are so high: we pray for peace, we want a Word that will bring us light and life, but somehow come up short. Conventional wisdom reminds us that the “real meaning of Christmas” lies not in the decorations, the wonderfully wrapped packages, the parties and the presents, but in the intangibles: giving and love and family and home. We know this, yet too often commodify these spiritual values as things to be created and consumed rather than to be received with thankful hearts for their Divine Creator. Not just at Christmas but all year long we put our money on the window-dressing and miss the real deal. It’s not insignificant that the Association of American Linguists’ choice for “word of the year” is “truthiness”—the belief that truth is defined by what we feel is true, what we want to be true. Truthiness—for all its clever bravado on the humor circuit– is an ultimately unsatisfying substitute for Truth, a disappointing runner-up in the quest for authenticity, a foundation upon which to build a purposive and joyful life.

On this silent night, when we are especially attentive to hearing the Word, let us listen for it. We have to listen hard, because it is spoken softly, in the tender, tiny cries of a baby born to rule the universe. What’s up with that?

Best-selling author and Presbyterian pastor Fred Buechner tells about a Christmas pageant, a typical Sunday School re-enactment of the Nativity. The manger was down in front of the chancel steps where it always is, a baby doll wrapped in a blanket as the little Lord Jesus. Mary was there in a blue shawl seated next to Joseph. The wisemen bore gifts, the shepherds wore bathrobes, and the littlest children looked adorable in sheep’s clothing. The narrators narrated and the congregation sang carols and everything went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host, more children robed in white. At the right moment they were supposed to gather around the manger saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to all,” and that is just what they did except there were so many of them that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a girl about nine years old who was smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoe could she see what was going on. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to all,” they all sang on cue, and then in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Let Jesus show!” [Frederick Buechner, “Bidding Farewell” article in the Christian Century, April 4, 2006, p. 28]

Friends, how well we hide Jesus, from one another, from the world, from ourselves. So many competing voices that drown out the Word. So much truthiness masquerading as truth. So much fool’s gold that fills our pockets, leaving little room for the pure stuff. Let Jesus show! Let the mystery and miracle of God’s gift of love be revealed tomorrow and next week, in the way we work as well as our worship, in the cold complexities of daily decision-making the same as in the warmth and clarity of candlelight. Let Jesus show! –in the recognition that we are beloved children of God—every one of us, and by the way we treat those beloved children. This baby is God’s Word that humanity is hallowed by the presence of the Divine. God-is-with-us. Not in some far-off heaven; not on Sundays in church; not for those odd moments when we want a little religion. But here. In the middle of our lives, the buying and selling, and trying and crying, and laughing and loving and failing and fearing and hoping against hope. In a world at war. In a city crippled by poverty. Let Jesus show.

Among the stories in Michael Lindvall’s wonderful book, The Good News from Northhaven is one about a time when Jesus showed himself clearly at the Presbyterian Church. One Thanksgiving weekend, they had a baptism, the grandson of a prominent elder. In this church whenever a baptism occurred, the minister would ask the congregation “Who stands with this child?” Then the grandparents and siblings and perhaps an assortment of relatives, would join the parents presenting their infant for baptism. After this particular baptism, one woman held back after the rest of the congregation had gone, to speak with the pastor. He noticed her “Salvation Army” style clothing and that she seemed very hesitant to speak. He asked pleasantly if she needed help. Fumbling for words, she blurted out, “Tina has had a baby and well, the baby ought to be baptized, shouldn’t it?”

The pastor suggested that Tina and her husband should make an appointment to see him to discuss the possibility of baptism, preferably after Christmas. The woman looked up at the man of God and said, “Tina has no husband. She’s a good girl, but she got involved with this older boy. And then she got pregnant. She’s only 18.” The minister mumbled awkwardly that he would bring the request before the Session. When the pastor presented the request to baptize Tina’s baby before the Session there was some questioning. Was she a member? No. How could they be sure that Tina would be faithful to the promises she was making in the baptism? How could they be sure about anybody’s promise? So, after some decent and orderly debate, the baptism was approved for the fourth Sunday of Advent. When the day came, the church was filled as it always is at Christmas. The time came for the baptism, and the elder stood and read off his script, “Tina Corey presents her son, James, for baptism.” Tina got up from where she was seated and came down to the front, holding two-month-old James in her arms. The scene was just as awkward as the pastor and the elders knew it would be. Tina seemed so young, so alone. As she stood there, they could not help but think of another young woman long ago. Another unwed mother, in similarly difficult circumstances.

The pastor came to the appointed part of the service when he asked, “And who stands with this child?” He looked out at the mother of Tina and nodded toward her. Tentatively she walked to the front toward her daughter and grandson. The minister’s eyes went back to his service book to proceed when he became aware of movement within the congregation. A couple of elders were standing up. Slowly the sixth-grade Sunday school teacher got to her feet. Next a new young couple in the church stood up. And then, before the pastor’s astonished eyes, the whole church was standing, moving forward, clustering around the baby and the Madonna, as if they were all family. [Michael Lindvall, The Good News from Northhaven, referenced by William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, Vol.34, no. 4, pp. 54-55]

On this silent night, listen for the one Word that births love, animates hope and connects us with our family. Friends, all we want for Christmas may be found in the gift lying in the manger. Unto us a child is born. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Let it show, tonight and tomorrow, in all we say and do, in all we dream and dare.


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

Great Expectations

January 9, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
17 December 2006
Text: Luke 3:7-18

Call it a Freudian slip, or a laughable irony, or even subconscious messaging. My colleagues delighted in pointing out to me last week’s bulletin notice: Next Sunday there will be a congregational meeting to vote on the pastor’s annual compensation. And right below that: Worship: Louise Westfall preaching, “Great Expectations.” Well. Never let it be said that the sermons from this pulpit aren’t relevant! This is a sermon about expectation, and how that dynamic can shape our lives, our values, and our choices. It will suggest that most of our expectations are actually set too low; little more, for example, than what we hope to get paid for the work we do.

The season of Advent invites us to raise our sights, to break free from captivity to the way things are, so that we may envision the way things might become. The great expectation of the gospel is God’s coming to earth; the transformation of this sweet and terrible old world into a place of peace, in which all people enjoy abundance and blessing.

Frankly it’s hard to imagine, let alone expect. We know how it is. Perhaps that’s why the Advent gospel lessons are so in your face. God has to get our attention. There is good news here, but it begins with bad news. Things have got to change. Much of the time we don’t even realize our true condition, so spiritually out of touch and out of tune we are. There will be champagne and chocolate, but first, for our health, comes the spinach and oat bran.

With all the clarity that we can muster, let us scan the far horizon. Across the wilderness of war, beyond the valley of the shadow of death, in the face of mountainous odds and in the middle of rough places, let us look hard, let us listen with full attention for the strident voice of one speaking a word from the Lord. [LUKE 3:7-18]

I’m underwhelmed by what Time magazine has christened “the new atheism.” Spokesmen such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris decry religion and its outlandish hopes and inexplicable beliefs, in favor of sheer rationality. What you can see. What you can measure. What you can create and control. While I deeply appreciate the importance of intellectual thought and the wellspring of knowledge flowing from scientific research, the mind has its limits. To make reason the bottom line, the sole foundation of reality in my view leaves one in a diminished state. It is to settle for less than who we are, to miss the essential part of our humanity which includes a transcendent soul, a spark of the Divine. Pascal, the philosopher- mathematician was right, “the heart has reasons, that reason knows nothing of.”

And yet I wonder if we have not, at some level, settled for a rational faith. One we can manage. One that we control. One that makes the unknowable reasonable, the incomprehensible a little less mystery and a little more sensible. I wonder if we’ve down-shifted our hopes and aspirations because we simply can’t imagine how the fantastic promises of Christian faith could possibly come true. Peace on earth, goodwill to all. The lion and the lamb, lying down together. A healed and restored universe, interdependent and whole. Oh really???!

It’s enough to make you think it’s the Christians who need a reality check. Rejoice? Rejoice? Have you read the newspaper? Have you watched the news? Do you have any idea what’s going on?!

Here’s the deal, friends. Christian faith is vitally interested in the news. But it hears that news and thinks about the way things are through another lens, the reflection of God’s intent to redeem the whole creation. Not just part of it; all of it. Not just the “right” people, or the ones who go along with the party line; all the people. For God so loved the world….

Announcing this good news is John the Baptist, but it doesn’t sound like good news at first. There he is, annoying and persistent, disrupting and disturbing our efforts to be comforted, calm, and in control. He does not announce the coming of a soothing deity or a “don’t worry-be happy” Jesus. He proclaims an ax-wielding, fire-kindling God, a powerful judge who will thresh the wheat from the chaff. One of the biblical commentaries I frequently use in study has a special section relating the text to children. For this Luke text, the preacher is urged not to place emphasis on John’s call to repentance… and I agree with that point FOR CHILDREN. But we are not children. We adults are not served by a watered-down spirituality that softens the hard edges of the gospel in an attempt to make us feel better. Friends, the One who is coming will judge our lives according to the standard of God’s Kingdom. Have we done justice? Have we loved kindness? Have we shown mercy? Have we loved well, even our enemies? Have we shared the abundance entrusted to us? Have we been honest in labor and compassionate in our treatment of others?

Advent calls us first to an honest assessment of our lives, individually, and as a church. Have we lived according to God’s way? It’s the spiritual version of “Are you ready for Christmas?” –and we know in our hearts we’re not. But did you notice the text calls John’s severe message the proclamation of “good” news? They were filled with expectation that he might be Messiah, the one coming to save them. No, he quickly responds, but I’m here to help you get ready. The judgment of God is not for our damnation; but for our salvation. If we think we’ve got it made, then what we have is all we’ll ever get….a paltry serving when God has spread a feast.

For joy and peace that will last not for one day or one season only, but for always, John invites us to prepare. It’s time to make changes; time to turn or return our lives toward God, to re-orient our living in preparation for the presence and rule of God on earth as it is in heaven.

What stuns me about those preparations is how….practical they are. Share what you have with the poor. Stop exploiting others by taking more than is just. End the violence which intimidates the weak and vulnerable and hurts everyone. Repentance is not so much theological affirmation as it is concrete behavior modification. We prepare for Christ’s coming by living as if Christ were here. For so Christ is!

That’s why the Church does what it does every day. Why we devote time and energy and our financial resources on programs that help people in need. It’s why our youth will spend this afternoon shopping for toys and gifts for children who might not otherwise receive any. They’re called “Jesus Gifts” by the way, because Jesus said when you give to the “least of these my brothers and sisters, you do so to me.” It’s why we publish a prayer list of persons who are ill or who have lost a loved one; why we take meals to members in times of recovery or challenge. The soft prayer shawls lovingly knit by a group of women in our church and given to house-bound or ill or grieving persons provide comfort and joy as a foretaste of the glory that is yet to come. Christ’s presence with earth’s residents is the motivation behind opening our church building to 12-step groups, Meals on Wheels, the Open Doors after-school program, and hospitality to homeless guests through the Interfaith Hospitality Network. A vision of God’s Kingdom on earth animates the efforts to establish Heights Youth Club as a safe and positive place for young people to go after school. And it is why, my friends, your church bothers to wrestle with issues such as predatory lending or the minimum wage. It’s not because we want to promote a particular political agenda—it’s because we want to prepare together for the coming rule of God in which everyone will live in peace and enjoy the fruits of labor, with a grateful, joyous heart.

A church I read about has inscribed on its doors: A vision without a task is but a dream, a task without a vision is drudgery, but a vision with a task is the hope of the world.
God has given us a vision beyond imagination: a world that is just and peaceful. God sent Jesus to show us how to bring that vision to reality; even now he calls us to participate in the tasks of transformation.

So don’t have yourselves a merry little Christmas! The promises of God are huge. Don’t settle for a little, when God offers so much. Let us set about doing the tasks to which we are called—our work and worship—guided by great expectations and the unshakeable conviction that God has come to us; God is here with us. God is not finished with the church. God is not finished with the world. God will bring to completion all that has begun. Joy to the world!


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

See How He Loved Them

November 11, 2006

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Commemoration of the Faithful Departed
November 5, 2006
Text: John 11:32-44

My father died in the Fall. The first time I told that to my son he thought his grandfather had tripped on a shoe lace or lost his balance on a ladder. No, I gently said, he had a heart attack in November. I remember the trees were nearly bare, the clouds flat gray; rain beat against the window pane of the hospital waiting room like desperate tears. My siblings and I flew in from many points, to join our mother in the two week vigil from “incident” to death. You never knew my father. I can tell you he was noble and petty and goofy and wise; slightly bawdy and given to exaggeration. He had an annoying habit of trying to prove a point by saying “I knew this guy who…” He called me “Weegie” in front of my friends. He loved baseball and Lincoln and my mother and God. I sometimes hear his voice in a turn of phrase when I preach; I sometimes feel his blistering disapproval when I say or write or do something with which I know he would disagree.

Grief is at once universal and particular. The reality of death connects us to all humanity. Yet it can never be entirely collapsed into a generalization: this one death affects me as that one death affects you, in specific ways based on our unique relationship. I miss my father, just as I know that every person here is missing some beloved one who has died.

Our morning text begins with the loss of death. Jesus has been called to the bedside of his gravely-ill friend, Lazarus, whose sisters Mary and Martha are also among Jesus’ friends. By the time he arrives, Lazarus has already died and been buried. Friends have gathered to pay their respects, and the household is in deep mourning. Listen for God’s word to you in the reading from the gospel according to John, in the eleventh chapter at the 32nd verse [p. 105, chapel/pew Bible].
[ John 11:32-44]
During my unforgettable visit to Ethiopia with Dan and Jane Reynolds, we visited in the home of a pastor whose wife had recently died. The Reynolds explained that it is the custom for the whole neighborhood to come and sit with the family members for several days. We arrived and the living room was already packed with relatives and friends, but even so we were warmly welcomed and seats were found for us. Food and drink were offered, quiet conversation was held, and a prayer was spoken, but most of the time the room was still, as members of the community simply sat, silently supporting the grieving with their presence.

Grief is a process that is ignored at our emotional and psychological peril. The rituals we practice around death—visitation, funeral or memorial service followed by a reception—even the time-honored tradition of taking a meal to the bereaved family—are meant to acknowledge the loss that is real, and to assist in the grieving process. Experts in this area warn not to short-circuit grief by trying to hold it in, or too quickly returning to “normal” life. Take time, they say, to feel: the sorrow and sense of loss particular to this person’s death.

How gracious it is then, that we have an example of this in Jesus! The One who came to bring life to the world did not blink back his tears at the grave of his friend. Jesus wept, for his friend who had died, for his friends who remained, for his own loss. He was “deeply moved”—and his weeping prompted others to recognize the love he had for Lazarus. In our own times of grief, draw spiritual strength from faith in a God who weeps with us. This God is not invulnerable to the limitations of mortality and does not abandon us in them. This is a God whose own heart breaks at the death of any of God’s beloved children, whose divine impulse is to comfort, to extend grace, to hold us closely in our sorrow. The God we worship is not a deity remote and high, secure in heaven’s glory, but One who comes to us in that glorious, imperfect mixture of dust and light that is humanity.

Viewed one way, this story is troubling to contemplate when grief is fresh, because it ends so miraculously, as the dead man walks out of the grave at Jesus’ command. We can’t help echoing Mary’s and Martha’s reproach, “Why didn’t you heal my brother/father/child?” And yet, I don’t think Lazarus’ dramatic resuscitation is the main point. After all, he would die again, sooner or later. The gospel writer has another purpose in telling this story, which is to say that the power of resurrection is exercised not through perfect, invulnerable strength, but in tears, in our very humanity, when words fails, when the illusion of our self-sufficiency falls away. The life that Jesus came to give doesn’t deny the death that is our certain destiny; it overcomes its finality.

…Which is why the central symbol of Christian faith is a cross. We confess a crucified God, One who did not flinch from embracing the full measure of humanity, including death. But that is not the end of it. Death does not get the last word. Jesus came that we might have life. True life: the part that involves our beating heart and intaken breath that comes to an end, and the part that involves our soul unendingly alive with God. The cross is empty: as if to look death straight in the eye until death looks away, its fearsome power broken once and for all.

I was struck last Sunday as we baptized two babies, how very similar the blessings we extend to these little ones at the beginning of their lives are to the ones extended at the end of life. We give thanks and praise. We pray that they will know that they belong to God. And we promise as a church to nurture faith that will withstand the fiercest storm, the darkest night, the deepest loss. From life’s edge to life’s edge, from this world into the next, we are anchored by the eternal love of God known in Jesus Christ.

So we are able to release our loved ones into other arms, to let them go in the knowledge that they are held, as are we all, closely and forever by their Creator and Savior. Today we remember with gratitude these precious lives, and so many others we have loved. We may weep, even as Jesus wept at the grave of his friend. But let us also take comfort and courage in the promise of God:
See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the former things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new. . . .I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. [Revelation 21:3,4] Amen.

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