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


Good News for Those Dreading the Holiday Season

December 4, 2006

A Sermon by Missy (Martha) Shiverick
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
December 3, 2006
Text: Psalm 25: 1-10
Jeremiah 33: 14-16

It is confession time. This wonderful season of advent often finds me brooding and blue. I mean, no sooner had the upsetting ads for the elections gone off the air, than the ads enticing you to shop for Christmas appeared. You know the ones for Zale’s jewelers, where if you are really loved, you should get diamonds for Christmas while sitting around a beautiful Christmas tree with a blazing fireplace in the background. Or the ad for the sporty cars that all really attractive young people should receive as Christmas gifts, and then there are the toys for the good little girls and boys: the tumbling Elmo that is already sold out, the new generation of play stations, and what I would describe from the commercials as violent video games children will be asking Santa Claus to put under their tree on Christmas morning. It is everywhere you go! The first Christmas catalogue arrived at my house at the same time the “back to school” specials were still going on. My neighborhood CVS had the Christmas decorations and toys out this fall at the same time the Halloween decorations were still being sold. Am I the only person who is frantic? They are trying to make this magical, wonderful time of the year, last for two or three months, and the thought of it makes me crazy. This is not a real time. This is not what Christmas is supposed to be. We have let a retail industry reshape a religious season and now they are trying to make it last one fourth of the year. The pressure it puts on us in tremendous. I feel like Charlie Brown in the Charlie Brown Christmas special where he tells Lionus that there must be something the matter with him. It is the Christmas season and everyone is supposed to be happy and he isn’t. Well, Charlie Brown, you are not alone.

Another confession I must make here is that sometimes the Christmas songs also make me sad. One soft rock radio station has started playing them non stop since Thanksgiving Day. They speak of peace on earth, this magical time of love filled with gaiety and frivolity and at the same time we read in the news papers last week of a bombing the day after Thanksgiving that killed 110 in Iraq. This peace and giddy happiness seems illusive; something we can read about but can not achieve. And then when you think of all the men and women in our armed forces stationed over in Iraq and Afghanistan spending Christmas without their families in such very foreign lands and you have to wonder if songs like “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” bring tears to their eyes. Of coarse it does.

And what about the families who are under stress. What about holiday dinners with families where mom and dad do not speak to each other and you can cut the tension in the dining room with a knife? Or how about the single parent trying to make ends meet on a salary which puts the family below the poverty line who is also trying to make Christmas magic for children? ‘Yes, some children get many toys from Santa because they want them, but you get new boots because you need them.’ And think of the families who suffered the loss of a loved one this past year and are dreading how they are to get through this holiday season. In the book “A Prayer for Owen Meany”, John Irving discusses this in his description that the holidays are the time when we feel so acutely who is not at the table. Who was there last year and is now gone. Who was alive last Christmas, but now is dead.

I hope I haven’t totally popped any of the balloons of you Pollyannas, but the fact is that, if not you, then that person sitting next to you in the pew this week most likely is entering the holiday season with some emotional baggage and is wondering how they are going to put their feelings aside for the next few weeks and enjoy the mistletoe. This season of lights and gaiety also appear to be a dark, dark time!

And then comes the prophesy from Jeremiah. He too lived in a dark time. Jeremiah’s oracles are set in the very moment of the destruction of Jerusalem. Things were bleak indeed. And still, Jeremiah saw something hopeful about the future. Jeremiah was sustained by his conviction that God was in control. Jeremiah believed that the out come of human history was in the hands of God who could be trusted to make the city a place of safety. Jeremiah faced a dark time knowing that God would was still with him. The hope and comfort that is prophesized in this part of the book of Jeremiah is that God will not abandon. Jerusalem might be lost temporarily but leadership will be restored, and a time of security and well being, justice and righteousness will be placed in the world by God.

Listen now for God’s word as it is written in the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 33: 14-16.
The days are surely coming says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
The word of the Lord… Thanks be to God.

We have a tree in our backyard that is illuminated with lights. We put them up last week and I have been enjoying the twinkling lights beginning at 5pm for a week. It just gets dark so early that it is nice to look out my window and see the lights. I was walking my dogs late in the night this past week in the freaky warm weather. Several people in the village where I live have also put up lights and as I walked I thought what comfort the lights were in this limited sunlit time of year. They bring joy and hope. This came home to me again when I read an article by Joanne Adams, pastor of Morningside Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, in the Christian Century Magazine. She said that she was really looking forward to the first Sunday of Advent this year as she felt that when we light that first candle in the Advent Wreath, it will not be a moment too soon. She has been feeling the urgent need for the light that comes from God in a world that has been at war too long; in a world where voices of division are too loud, and in a world clouded by anxiety over our future.

And into this world Jeremiah’s message is a balm. God intends to make the world right again. “The days are coming when I will fulfill the promise I made.” Apparently with God, a promise made is a promise kept. Jeremiah looked at the bleak world and saw hope. Jeremiah was sustained by his conviction that things were in the hands of God who can be trusted to provide safety and salvation to us all. And this is our good news in our times of darkness as well. It is the good news for those of us dreading the holiday season. In the scripture passage read by the liturgist this morning, the Psalmist prayed in a time distress and we too can look to God and expect God to show us the way. God will guide us in our dark times and will lead us. We can live with the assuredness that God does not abandon God’s children.

So we can approach the holidays with security and hope. We can be assured that we will not be alone and that God is and will be in control. And as we approach Christmas I also offer three other suggestions on ways to approach the holidays this year. First, have realistic expectations for them. Not every year is magical and some of them are far from it. Nothing is sadder or more pathetic than the adult who is still looking for that pony under the tree. Realistic expectations allow us to acknowledge that some holidays are not the ones “memories are made of”. If some of you think that walking through these holidays would be easier with another person, please call a me or one of the Stephen Leaders and we will get a Stephen Minister to be there and listen during these stressful days. The second suggestion is to look to God this holiday. We can not escape the cultural celebration this time of year has become, but we can put it in perspective if we remember that it is God’s great gift of hope and love in Jesus Christ that we truly celebrate. Come to church, read the Bible verses assigned each day of advent, and allow yourself to feel God’s presence and promise. The third suggestion is to be God’s light to someone else. This year is hard on most people. Your darkness will be lifted as you show others the light of God through your caring actions. Your love and care might just be the present someone in this church or community needs this holiday season.

Presents sometimes are unexpected gestures which have great meaning.
James Howell, a Methodist pastor and author, wrote that an elderly member of his church gave him an old pocket knife from his pocket as a gift one year. The man handed it to him and said that when ever he was having a bad day, he should feel it and remember that someone loved him. At the time he thought it was an odd gift. There were a lot of things he would have wanted more than a used pocket knife and he had never carried one before. It wasn’t what he wanted, but over the years, it has become something of great value to him. He said countless times, he has received the comfort he needed knowing the knife was in his pocket and that it represented he was a loved person. The gift wasn’t what he thought he wanted when it was given, wasn’t what he craved, but it has turned out to be the perfect gift. And the same can be said for God. We do not always get what we want. We can pray each year for something and never get it. Howell writes that it doesn’t take a gift like the pocket knife for us to see that God isn’t so ineffectual as to give us merely what we crave, but that God gives us something infinitely richer. God gives us love, God gives us hope, and as Jeremiah teaches us, God keeps promises and does not abandon us in our times of need. Advent is the time where we experience that promise and begin to live with that hope again each year.

The last Hymn we will sing this morning is O Come O Come Emanuel. It is the perfect hymn to go forth into advent. It reminds us of God’s promise of hope and light to an exiled people. We too are this exiled people. We too are waiting in darkness anticipating the light of Christmas which is promised to each of us. And with God, you can be sure just as Jeremiah was that God will keep God’s promise. We will not be abandoned. There is indeed good news for those of us dreading the holiday season. Amen.

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

“Smoke and Mirrors”

November 14, 2006

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.

The Rev. Richard Clewell, 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

The Old Man in the Heavens

October 19, 2006

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
23 July 2006
Texts: Psalm 46, I John 4:7-12,16b

It may be that a “Show and Tell” experience when I was in first grade foreshadowed my call into ministry. When it was my turn to speak I stood before my classmates and announced that there was no Santa Claus. My teacher, Miss Roberts, in what I’m sure was an attempt to calm down the outcries, asked through tight lips, “And what makes you say that?” I responded with cheerful confidence, “Because my dad said so, and he knows everything.” I guess it’s not terribly surprising for a five year old to attribute divine omniscience to her parent (though, come to think of it, I don’t recall my son ever attributing that to me). Developmental psychologists have noted that a child’s first concept of God is derived from his or her parental relationships—those primary persons providing care and nurture and one’s sense of place in the universe.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child. But when I became an adult, I put away childish things. And childish concepts of the Ruler of the Universe. To be replaced by….what? Today’s sermon request took me by surprise. Talk about God. How do you envision God? I know you don’t believe in the old man in the heavens, but what do you believe? I guess I was surprised because on the one hand talking about God is something I do all the time. Have you been listening?—I wanted to say to the questioner. But the more I thought about it, I realized there is a huge difference between talking about God from a theological perspective, trying to interpret God’s Word in scripture, seeking God’s will and way for our church—–and talking about God from the standpoint of personal faith. I think the church member was inviting me to share from my own heart and soul and mind who it is I talk with when I pray, and what I believe that Being does in my life and in the wider world.

Right away this poses a problem. Human language limits the illimitable. Words cannot define the Word who was before all things. When the rebellious Israelites sent Moses to ask the Divine to self-identify, this is the answer he received: I AM. Hebrew scholars love to point out that the literal translation is “I will be what I will be”—a marvelously ambiguous description of an independent deity who eludes every human attempt to capture and contain Him.

Him???! Another example of language limitations. God is no more male than female, but the God revealed in Scripture is personal, and expressed in personal terms. Pronouns denote gender, and the language we choose shapes our understanding of the reality behind it. So if I refer exclusively to God as “he,” I will (unconsciously perhaps) think of God as male. My understanding will be narrowed significantly; my God may be reduced to simply the very best human male I can imagine. God is so much more than a divine Superman. God is an eternal Mystery; the Mystery, it turns out, upon which the answers depend.

So how do we talk about God? We acknowledge the limitation of language, even while employing it. We’ll recognize that all human words ultimately fail to “name” God. We’ll seek a variety of words and biblical images to understand different aspects and attributes of God. [at 8:30, ask the congregation to name some of these] Did you know, for example, that God in Scripture is portrayed as a mother, a midwife, a Rock, the unseen wind that blows, and the breath that animates life? God in Scripture is named the Holy One, the Almighty, Ruler of Creation, the Most High, Abba, which is a familiar reference to father—not unlike “Daddy,” as well as Heavenly Father. Since my own father’s death, I find that I am comforted by images of God as a heavenly Father, protectively hovering over his children, at times questioning their judgment, pushing them to become their very best selves, and providing a strong shoulder to cry on and resources to support them when they fail. That’s one way I see God, but it’s not the only one. Anticipating this sermon, a Fairmount member told of a friend who had God explained to her as “a Big Daddy” up in the sky, someone she went to when things got bad, to climb up on his lap for comfort. The friend was repelled by this image, because she wanted an adult relationship with God—not the one of a pre-school child. [I’m indebted to Dick Schreck for sharing this story from Carol Harris-Shapiro’s book, Messianic Judaism].

We find in Scripture the richest source of knowledge about God. The ancient Israelites interpreted the history of their nation through the lens of God’s covenant relationship with them. They explained motives, drew out meaning, and made decisions based on their understanding of Yahweh, the Holy One. To our contemporary ears, the “God of the Old Testament” sometimes seems like a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity who commands the people to conquer and kill. This God may even appear to contradict the God of mercy and redeeming love revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But Reformed biblical theology won’t allow us to make that separation. God is one, and apparent contradictions serve to remind us again that every human description of God is fallible and at best, incomplete. I’ve come to see that the diversity of voices in Scripture and in life offers a broader, infinitely richer picture of God than any one of us, or any group of us, could produce alone.

The Bible reveals a God who is both transcendent – “out there,” different from us, greater than us, a Being beyond our human comprehension—and immanent—“in here,” close at hand, nearer to us than our breath or beating heart, a Being who seeks relationship with us. The Psalm that is our first Scripture reading expresses this tension by painting a picture of a global God, exalted in all the earth, and one who is intimately present to the people as a strength and shelter.
Listen for God’s word to the church in the reading from Psalm 46. [PSALM 46]

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. When I got confirmed we were supposed to memorize the Apostle’s Creed. Several of my confirmation classmates and I protested against this requirement (it was the sixties after all—the very, very, late sixties!), arguing that reciting it from memory didn’t make us Christians. Though I very much appreciate our church’s confirmation emphasis on assisting each student to create his or her own statement of faith, I also now see the wisdom of learning by heart how the Church down through the ages has understood God. — Not that we will necessarily agree, or accept each statement as true, but because it locates us within a tradition; we belong to a faith family that spans generations and cultures, and every time and place. Our spirituality thus becomes not an individual, private matter, to be invented or designed entirely on our own. We are not able to create in our own image a God who is worthy of worshiping or serving. We need church to help us see God, and to see the divine within each of us. My faith has been nurtured by the congregations of which I’ve been part, including this one. You have helped me understand God better, by the way you reflect God’s image in your actions– and I’m glad and grateful for it all.

It makes sense, then that perhaps no biblical text is more determinative for my personal understanding of God than one in the first letter of John which witnesses both to the nature of God and how we have come to know that love. Listen again for God’s word to you in the reading from the first letter of John, in the fourth chapter, at the seventh verse: [READ John 4:7-12, 16b]

Against the backdrop of Scripture, out of the marvelous mixture of the church’s tradition and teaching, mediated through living persons, interpreted through my experience, I offer my personal statement of faith: who I believe God is, and what God means in my life. Let me say right away that this is my understanding, my weaving of these elements in a way that helps me glimpse what remains a Mystery. You may find yourself puzzled by, or disagreeing with this construction, and that’s fine. In fact, I commend to each of you the process of writing your own statement of faith as an exercise sure to stretch your spirit. (If you need help, ask one of the young people who have been through our confirmation classes!)

One other thing: I have used the word “trust” instead of “believe” to represent my relationship with this deity. “Believe” can sometimes simply mean intellectual assent to some theological propositions, but this statement is instead a response to a God with my whole self, including my questions and doubts. So here goes:

I trust in God….who is pure light. . . .the power of the universe, the source of life. This Being of light illumines every part of creation, so we can see the truth of its goodness as well as the reality of its sickness; so we can see it whole, even in its shattered brokenness. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it. I don’t believe Gold is the author of human suffering; I don’t think God’s plan calls for the deaths of children, cancer, warfare, the violence of poverty, and a whole lot of other things that visit misery upon the earth. Some of that, of course, is evidence of human sin, and some of it seems random and cruel. I can’t explain the origin of evil, or why bad things happen to good people. What I trust is that God enters the darkness and makes it light. The Light shines forth as a beacon, showing the way, a path that leads to our heart’s true home.

I trust in God….who is joy. . . .who delights in humanity and desires abundant good for everyone. I think it was Teilhard de Chardin who described joy as “the one infallible expression of the presence of God.” Now joy is not synonymous with happiness, nor is the one dependent upon the other. Yesterday at the memorial service for Ken Horth, we sang as the final hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of Love” as requested by his family. Though there were tears and sorrow for the loss of this compassionate, gentle man, we could sing for joy because God was there too. Death and grief do not get the last word; even at an open grave ours is a triumph song of life. In my personal experiences of lost relationships through death and divorce, I have found a more profound reality: God’s grace that transforms and redeems, and counters fear with joy.

I trust in God….who is love….who loves the world, and you and you and every one, and… me. It’s almost embarrassing to speak of the Creator and Ruler of the Universe as a Being who persists in reaching out to finite and faithless folk. It seems so…undignified—like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, so… elemental—like a mother who will not abandon her nursing child. But there it is. Up close and personal. It was Jesus who most clearly showed us the heart of God to be one of unmerited grace and unconditional love. Not just for the good people, the ones who acknowledge God and worship God, but for everyone. “I don’t believe in God,” says the atheist. Responds the disciple, “Oh, that’s okay. God believes in you.” And will stop at nothing to get you to see it, receive it, relish in it. And return it.

I trust in God…who is love, and whose love prompts our own.
Love calls us to love. Jesus showed us how: working for the good of others with the same devotion that we work for our own. Voila! Life takes shape and is brimming with purpose and meaning. Grace abounds. Thanks be to God!


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

You Asked for It: Politics from the Pulpit

October 19, 2006

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
16 July 2006
Text: Luke 4:14-30

On the first day at work in the first church I served as pastor, a terrible truth struck me: I had to write a sermon for delivery six days later. And that would be true every Monday morning for the rest of my….career! Twenty-six years later I’m still at it, and though you develop a rhythm for these things, the weekly sermon preparation and proclamation is never far from mind. Except for these summer requests, my sermons are drawn from the lectionary, a three-year cycle of Sunday readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, Gospels, Epistles, and Psalms. I believe this discipline allows for the whole Bible to speak to our lives, rather than letting the preacher search for biblical texts that support the point she’s trying to make.

For my first sermon, I thought I would follow in the footsteps of Jesus and use the text he did for his inaugural address. We’ve got it all right there in the gospel according to Luke, immediately following Jesus’ baptism, and his time of wilderness testing. In your mind’s eye, picture the young Jewish man, a local boy—Joseph the carpenter’s son– whom everybody knew; his fresh face and bright eyes such a contrast to the lined faces and world-weary eyes of the religious leaders and teachers. See him walking to the front of the synagogue and choosing the Torah portion to read; hear his resonant voice ring out with the words of the prophet. You can easily imagine the approving nods. Then Jesus takes the “seat of teaching”—the place designated for the interpretation of the reading. The congregation listens forward, expectantly…. Listen for God’s word to the Church in the reading from the gospel according to Luke, in the fourth chapter at the 14th verse (page 61 in the chapel/pew Bibles if you wish to follow along). [READ Luke 4:14- 22]

Yes, that young teacher has success written all over him! Except….one of the most important principles of biblical interpretation is to read a text in its context. Often that means reading the verses immediately before and following it. Jesus’ sermon did not end at the point we’ve stopped reading. If only Jesus would have quit while he was ahead! But no, the text continues, [READ Luke 4:23-30]

I learned the very first week on the job that preaching holds inherent risks! And never more so than when God’s Word is applied to the social and political realms of human life. As long as Jesus stuck to the reading and proclaimed its immediate fulfillment, he was applauded and praised. But as soon as he “got political” (in this case, lifting up citizens of pagan nations as role models of faith), they were ready to kill him.

Religion and politics—the two topics famously forbidden at dinner parties and family gatherings. Yet the two are firmly joined at the hip, even in our democratic society in which church and state are, by constitutional authority, kept separate. The separation of Church and State is essential as an organizational principle, but that separation is not meant to divide Christian citizens from politics. On the contrary, Reformed theology calls the Church to bring the biblical vision of justice and peace to bear on political and social realities. There is no separating the various spheres of human life—as if we can preserve a circle over here for our family life, and one over here for job and career, and one here for our spiritual life. God rules over every part of life—the world, and all the people who live in it! Our Presbyterian Constitution includes in its list of the “Great Ends” of the Church “….the promotion of social righteousness,” including ministries to the poor, the sick, the lonely and the powerless; engagement in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger and injustice; sharing with Christ in the establishment of his just, peaceable and loving rule in the world.” [Form of Government G-3.0300c.(3)] Did you note how the spiritual and material worlds are merged in that calling? Politics from the pulpit???! We can’t avoid it, without falling short of God’s good intentions for the whole creation. It is part of our sacred calling and holy purpose.

But here’s where it gets dangerous, and why I suspect this subject was the single most requested one this summer. While the political dimensions of preaching have always been a matter of debate, seldom has the dialog occurred in a more polarized atmosphere than today. The bitter partisanship of the last national election produced the red state/blue state divide, and created a battleground for claims and counter-claims based on religious values. The Fairmount members who requested various versions of this topic were especially troubled by the divisive tone of the debate, and what they view as the imposition of one particular expression of Christianity upon the government of a pluralistic nation or state. One person mentioned that her reluctance to mix religion and politics had been overcome after she received an unsolicited glossy magazine in the mail emblazoned with the provocative title, “America, Return to God.” The essays in the magazine used a literal interpretation of Scripture to promote a conservative Christian social agenda, and characterized the opposition as godless and immoral. This member describes herself as “Republican,” and she was offended by the implication that one party’s politics were exclusively Christian, and the other’s were not.

I think this is an important point to make. Politics from the pulpit means that we acknowledge the crucial role of faith in guiding our values and beliefs. Politics from the pulpit means considering how those religious values shape our perspective on government policies and practices, and yes, how they influence the way we vote. But politics from the pulpit should never be wielded as a club to impugn the integrity or faithfulness of others with whom we disagree. The word “Christian” belongs to neither political party. We see far too much evidence of Jonathan Swift’s observation that “we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Seems to me a little less self-righteous arrogance, and a lot more humility on all sides would be beneficial. A bumpersticker I saw recently says it well: I’m for the separation of Church and Hate. Friends, if our religion incites us to hate, then it contradicts the one whose most fundamental commandments are to love God and to love one another.

The Reformed theological tradition in which the Presbyterian Church is steeped offers two foundational principles. One is the freedom of the pulpit; a congregation cannot restrict its preachers in how they interpret God’s Word. Obviously, there’s an extreme in which the preacher abuses that privilege and turns the pulpit into a platform for his or her personal viewpoint. But it’s worth that risk, I believe, in order to let the Word of God be heard even—especially!– when it challenges our assumptions and lifestyles.

The second principle is that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Even the strongest statements from the pulpit from the preacher who is faithfully seeking to declare God’s Word, may be rejected by the thoughtful member. There is no social or political litmus test in a Presbyterian Church. Sometimes the charge has been leveled against us that we don’t have firm convictions, that because we don’t dictate to people what to believe or what to do, we reflect a kind of religious “fuzziness” or moral ambiguity. But Presbyterians value a thinking faith, one which questions and probes and holds complex realities in dynamic tension. Neither the General Assembly, the presbytery, nor your ministers are the final authority for faith and practice. God is, as you grapple with what God is calling you to do and to become. Your church stands ready to assist you, but God alone is to be Lord of your conscience. That means you can disagree with the preacher and share your differing perspective as part of an ongoing process to discern God’s will.

Fairmount is amazingly and wonderfully diverse on social and political issues, which means on the one hand that no matter what stance the preacher takes, someone in the congregation is bound to be offended. On the other hand, perhaps we have this gift to contribute to the debate: a mutual search for the common good does not depend upon unanimity of viewpoint. The late, great prophet and preacher William Sloan Coffin, in his “Message to U.S. Churches” argues for the mixing of religion and politics but makes a distinction between their purpose: It is one thing to say with the prophet, “Let justice roll down like mighty waters,” and quite another to work out the irrigation system. The former is a religious concern, the latter a political task. [Coffin, A Passion for the Possible, Westminster/ John Knox Press, rev. ed. 2003, p. 35] We may disagree on methods and particular initiatives to address the problem of poverty, for example, while affirming on the basis of our faith the absolute necessity to do so. Then the discussion and debate around particular actions may be passionate but respectful. Openness that listens to and learns from a wide range of perspectives can yield greater understanding and new possibilities for problem-solving. We may not resolve our differences, but embrace each other as sisters and brothers, seeking together God’s will and God’s way.

Finally, friends, there is no division between the social and spiritual realms: God rules over all. Often God’s Word addressing human realities seems harsh, judgmental, uncompromising. But to muffle that Word for the sake of peace and quiet, from fear of upsetting church members or creating conflict, is wrong, and unworthy of our calling to represent God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. No stranger to either politics or pulpit, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke an unsettling truth, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

So, by God’s grace and with God’s help, we will not be silent about things that matter. Your Session has recently approved a policy statement, giving guidance on how we can pursue social justice goals in the public arena, and do so respectfully and faithfully. Copies of the policy statement are available on information tables at chapel and sanctuary entrances. A copy will be mailed with the August Flyer as well. We owe a debt of gratitude to Elders Dick Obermanns and Tom Allen for their thoughtful work on this statement.

And we pray first, last, and always to be led in preaching and in practice by the Holy Spirit of God. Fact is, no government, no political party, no human system has exclusive claim to God’s vision and will. All human kingdoms are contingent; only God’s is eternal. May God give us grace and courage to live in this world, reflecting the love and justice and peace of that other one.


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