Archive for the ‘Rev. Richard Clewell’ Category

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

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“Smoke and Mirrors”

November 14, 2006

“SMOKE AND MIRRORS”
A Sermon by Richard Clewell
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
12 November 2006
TEXT: Mark 12: 38-44

A friend of mine made the observation that the glamour and glitz of our media age often make it hard to figure out what is genuine or real. Everything comes wrapped in spin to make it sell. In our present culture we have become so accustomed to and enamored with the unreality of TV, movies, and advertising that such facades and phoniness have carried over into business, politics, and religion. Our election process has become largely determined by personality, polls, PACS, and patronage rather than by the best qualified and committed to responsibility and accountability to the electorate. The gift of service has been sacrificed to a self-serving attitude of “What’s in it for me?” Even the church, called to be God’s servant people, often gets caught up in status, power, and appearances that produce a self-serving counterfeit of faith practice which fools no one except ourselves.
Of course, this is not a new phenomenon – it’s a human characteristic in all ages. We have a clear propensity to take for ourselves much more readily than we give of ourselves to God and especially to others. This deceitful desire to play God and to have control, power and authority has continued to tear apart human relationships, communities, and nations. It is what makes the way of divine grace, forgiveness, and love continually crucial in the renewal of life and relationships as demonstrated in Jesus Christ’s way of life, sacrificial death, and renewal to life and hope through resurrection.
In our Gospel text this morning, Jesus is teaching and also observing in the Temple in Jerusalem. (Read Mark 12: 38-44) The contrast demonstrated in this passage is the difference between pretense, image, “smoke and mirrors” if you will, and an uncomplicated genuine life of faith.
I must admit to you that I had some very uncomfortable moments in preparing this sermon because the application is just as potent in our day. I stand before you as a present-day parallel of the “teacher of the Law” – in my flowing robe describing a status, with a doctoral degree, standing high in this pulpit – all trappings that say nothing about my intentions and faith actions. How easy it can be to deceive oneself and misuse or abuse a divine calling. For this very reason I will try to be fair to the scribes as they really are not any different than you or me.
In this particular sequence Jesus has finished a discussion with one of the scribes about the first and second commandments. The first is: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (v.29-31) The scribe agrees that these behaviors are much more important than the whole ritual system through which these values of forgiveness and relationship were represented.
Jesus continues in another discourse about the Messiah, the hope of Israel, (v.35-37) with his disciples and followers. They are all common people, not sophisticated in terms of education or theology. They like him because he talks “straight” to them from observable everyday life. In this instance, he gives his followers a warning about religious appearance and contrasting faith process. He describes how our own needs of self-image and esteem can get in the way of our faith perspective. Using some scribes as examples, he focuses on outward appearances of importance and piety, yet in their role as the Jerusalem Housing Authority increasing their wealth and importance, taking advantage of solitary widow’s hospitality and legacies under the guise of charity. They receive the greater condemnation because they use the name of God to mask what they are doing.
William Sloane Coffin described this well when he wrote, “I think disguise is the essence of evil. Doing an evil thing doesn’t make a person evil. But calling the evil good, believing the disguise – that’s when real trouble begins. And if the disguise is the essence of evil, there is surely no better disguise than the cloak of religious piety. Never do people do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
The issue raised here for both clergy and everyone as members of the community of faith and the priesthood of believers is crucial in our life together.. Jesus warns us to be careful about our desire for prominence and control, of seeing our leadership role or ministry as a right rather than as an opportunity to serve God and neighbor.
The story is told of a monk, a very holy man, who was sent to take up office as an abbot in a monastery. He looked so humble a person that when he arrived, he was sent to work in the kitchen as a scullion, because no one recognized him. Without a word of protest and with no attempt to take his position, he went and washed dishes and did the most menial tasks. It was only when the bishop arrived some time later that the mistake was discovered and the humble monk took up his true position.
Jesus also advises against the use of religious connection for self-gain or self-advancement. Theologian William Barclay puts it simply: “Christ’s words stand as a warning to all who are in the church for what they can get out of it and not for what they can put into it.”
In stark contrast, Jesus shares his observation of what uncomplicated genuine faith is. He sits and watches as people place their voluntary offerings in the receptacles where monetary offerings are deposited for the daily sacrifices and the operating expenses of the Temple. Many well-to-do people put in large sums, some with great flourish.. In the midst of all these offerings, he spots a poor widow putting in two small copper coins called leptons – “thin ones” – the smallest of all coins. He calls his disciples over and highlights for them the differences in the way people respond to divine love.
You will notice, first of all, that there is no denunciation of gifts that come out of surplus or abundance. Maybe some gave to impress others around them, but certainly not all. We too give for many different reasons: out of a degree of gratitude, or to recognize God as the most important factor in our lives, or to get a tax write-off because we would rather give it to the work of the church than to the IRS, or perhaps for all these reasons.
But Jesus highlights this poor widow’s offering as an example of giving her all in response to her God. It was more important than eating because it was her daily food ration to survive. In the way of God’s kingdom, it is the world’s mightiest financial transaction, where genuine giving based on love is measured in relation to what is left, not on the amount. Her love for her God has lifted her offering from the routine to the sacrificial. You know she could have rationalized and justified withholding these small coins. She could have said to herself:
• “What difference could a penny make? It’s so small, it will not count.”
• “Let those give who can afford it – I really haven’t got a penny to spare.”
• “No one will notice whether I drop anything in or not.”
• “Those rabbis never pay any attention to me, and I don’t care for things that are happening in the Temple.”
We all know these and other responses. Jesus’ recognition of her gift destroys any such excuses. In effect, what he affirms is to God no gift of love is too small to count, nor can any life be excused from the grace and responsibility of sharing. Truly “man looks upon the outward appearance, but God looks upon the heart.” Her gift reflects the sacrificial love that Christ would soon demonstrate in giving his life that she and his followers, and you and I, might have new life based on his redeeming and transforming love.
This text so often is used as a call for faithful stewardship and that is certainly one dimension. But this passage means so much more. It speaks to the Christian follower’s entire life of faith. This widow’s connection with God’s love was through her worship in the Temple, the teaching and ministries which impacted her faith, and the relationships she had established which gave life meaning. She well may have experienced disappointment in the way different rabbis conducted worship or cared for the temple congregation. Perhaps she perceived hypocrisy in their words not matching their actions. She could have stopped going to worship because the leadership was far from perfect. Yet, it’s in the congregation that she is connected with God and she chooses to follow the divine way which makes her life fuller and richer despite her poverty. She demonstrates “Loving the Lord her God with all her heart, her soul, her mind, and strength” and “to love her neighbor as she loved herself.” She had no need to judge the scribes or the others who gave their offerings. She knew God’s forgiveness and transforming hope. God’s faithfulness was all she needed.
Would that we could have the same growing faith in response to God’s faithfulness to us. Surely, if God has forgiven us, how can we not forgive one another; if God loves us, how can we not love one another despite our differences and failures as the sinners we are; if God has reconciled us in Christ, how can we not be reconciled with one another; if God has given sacrificially to us, how can we not give of ourselves to others?
In the recent incident where five Amish school girls were killed in Pennsylvania, people were amazed by the forgiveness expressed by the Amish community toward the deranged killer and his family – they attended his funeral as well as their own children’s. They set up a fund to support that man’s family. In an open letter to the Amish community, Marie Roberts, the widow of Charles Roberts, states, “Your love for our family has helped provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.” The Amish community is not perfect by any means but they practice forgiveness. I would say this to any gathered here including myself, Has someone been cruel to you? Has someone hurt you deeply? Maybe you think there’s no way you could ever forgive that person. On your own strength you probably can’t. But you can ask Christ to give you his forgiveness. You can ask for his help. Let the power of his forgiveness flow through you. Let his gracious spirit be your spirit. That’s how our faith works. We recognize our need for forgiveness, we accept God’s gracious gift of forgiveness, and then we pass it on. We pass the forgiveness to others.
The widow in this account needed no pretense no “smoke and mirrors” to impress others. She was simply transparent and her faith in God sustained her and made her rich in spirit as she worshipped in the Temple congregation. The Scripture’s praise of life together under the word is “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for sisters and brothers to dwell together in unity.” We dwell together through Christ who alone is our unity. Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another. May God make this a reality in each of our lives in this community of faith called Fairmount.
Amen

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