Weekly Words of Wisdom 11-25-20

Sermon 11-22-20 Rev Jen Van Zandt

Ex 10:21-29, Ps 11

21 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. 23 People could not see one another, and for three days they could not move from where they were; but all the Israelites had light where they lived. 24 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses, and said, “Go, worship the Lord. Only your flocks and your herds shall remain behind. Even your children may go with you.” 25 But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings to sacrifice to the Lord our God. 26 Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must choose some of them for the worship of the Lord our God, and we will not know what to use to worship the Lord until we arrive there.” 27 But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them go. 28 Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” 29 Moses said, “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.”

When I think back on this Sunday a year ago, our worries were significantly different; we were scrambling to determine who was and was not coming for thanksgiving, how large of a turkey to get, how and when to travel to/fro, frantically trying to find the beloved-but now missing-recipe for grandma’s favorite dish, excitement and/or dread of those we would see at thanksgiving, the joy of family all huddled in the kitchen on Wednesday eve for making the pies and the prep, watching the Macy’s day parade in person or on the TV, football games and post turkey coma on the couch, the Friday shopping plans or dragging out the Christmas decorations from the attic or basement, and a lovely day off from work.

Now, here we are with little of those things possible, unclear not only about Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas but also an unclear future of when wellness and our lives will be restored.

It seems to me that we too are experiencing the darkness like the Egyptians. As Terrence Fretheim says, “[The plague] darkness was far more than ordinary darkness, but a darkness that was palpable; which could be touched and felt; where all human movement could be described as ‘groping’. Like a winter whiteout where all you can do is stay indoors for the duration of the storm. This blackout had no light whatsoever.”

Darkness in this text signifies chaos; a reversal of all light a reversal of the 1stact of creation in Genesis 1. This Egyptians must have been terrified!

The Israelites? Less so. They had light and ‘normal day/night rhythms, but just when Pharaoh gave them permission to go and worship Yahweh, it also came with conditions. They were not allowed to take their livestock, which they needed in order to make pleasing sacrifices to God. Here we are again. We too and all the faithful in every faith tradition are also unable to offer their praises, prayers and offerings in the way God intends because of the darkness we are in.

BUT…for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear and open hearts, this time of chaos and darkness can lead us to a deeper understanding of God’s activity. The liberation of Israel (and us) is the primary focus of divine activity. God’s deepest desire is: deliverance from bondage and suffering. The story of Israel doesn’t end in being prevented from worshipping, living in captivity enslaved by a tyrant. Don’t forget in the ensuing chapters Israel was drivenout of Egypt, the first Passover was instituted (because of Yahweh’s protection) and they were able to escape because God parted the waters of the Red Sea. Again, Fretheim says “the deliverance of Israel is not only for Israel, for all of creation, so that God’s name is know throughout the entire earth.”

So, what do we do while we are waiting for deliverance? How do we find our way through the dark, while being captives to all that is? Take refuge in God. The call to us in Psalm 11 is to STAND FIRM. The call is to live and act as righteous believers remembering that God is in charge. Allow God to gaze upon your hearts, your thoughts, your fears, your prayers. Psalms Scholar James Mays entitles Psalm 11 “Flight or Faith?” He writes: When the righteous are threatened by the power of the wicked [or any evil] what course will our conduct take?” Ps 11 is a song of trust that answers that question.

We have the gift of free will to decide how to conduct ourselves. In this time of darkness, we can shut down, become fearful and bitter or we can decide to be a people of Shalom(peace) and light. Darkness and light have a helpful balance, each offering blessings. It’s only in darkness that we can see the stars and the moon. It’s only in darkness that we can hear the wisdom of the owl. Only in darkness can we get good sleep, best enjoy the flames of a fire in a fireplace or candlelight. Imagine coming to our Christmas eve service during the day-the luminaries that light our sidewalks and stairs can only be glorious at night!

Psychologists have been offering up ways to help us be uplifted through this time of darkness. They suggest a variety of things including putting up your Christmas lights early and/or add extra lights and candles. Make a fire in your fireplace or pit. Get up earlier to watch the sunrise and take time to watch the sunset (as early as it is). I think these are all good ideas.

Most importantly though is to stay connected to God and one another through scripture. I want to read to you portions of Nan Merrill’s translation of Psalm 11:

‘In the Beloved do I make my retreat. How can you say to me ’flee like a bird to the mountain; [where] the unloving bend the bow, fitting their arrow to the string; they aim to destroy what s god. The Beloved dwells in the Holy Temple and within the sacred altar within our hearts. God offers the opportunity to grow and become whole…Those who walk in the ego’s illusions will live in fear and doubt; ignorance will be their guide…Those who walk in the light will behold the Beloved’s face in everyone they meet.” 

May you make the effort to seek the light. May you create light for others who have lost their way. May we all trust in the light that seeks to dispel all fear and descend upon us as we begin Advent. 

Wisdom Wednesday 11-18-20

Sermon 11-15-20                                            The Rev Jen Van Zandt                          

Isaiah 43:1-4a

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia[a] and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,

Jeremiah 31:8-12

8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,

among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. 9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations[a] I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel,

    and Ephraim is my firstborn. 10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” 11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

It’s wonderful to see you all here this morning, those of you who could make it.  Kim and I were joking a few minutes ago… it’s a little weird to see more people in the sanctuary than just the two or three of us. But I also hope for those of you who chose to stay home, that you feel affirmed in your choice and that you are as connected here as the people who are in this sanctuary today.  This is a special day, not only because it’s the first Sunday that we could re-enter the sanctuary, but it’s also the celebration of the Skinner’s who have been serving as Parish Associates for 5 years!  So, for however many Sundays we will be able to be together, I’m so glad that we can worship and celebrate. 

I’ve actually shaped this service based on these two joyful events and chose the hymns and the texts, which are among Sherm and Lorrie’s favorites.  Interestingly, both of these texts are texts of hope; future hope, while in the midst of exile.  Those of you who are at home and may not be able to return for a while, I hope these texts are helpful. I also hope these texts are helpful for all of us here, because we know that half of our congregation is unable to be here. Still, while we’re here, we have to wear these masks, we have to stay six feet apart at least, we can’t shake hands, we can’t put our hands on the back of someone in front of us, or hug, we can’t sing, we won’t be able to socialize at a coffee hour down the hall… Let’s face it, we may have to make  additional sacrifices and continue to flex, and be creative; especially if things get even worse than they are now, before we are all restored in body and community.

But this text in Jeremiah paints a glorious picture of a foreshadowing of what’s to come.  It says there will be a great festival where we can sing songs to the height of Zion (and at the top of Church and Birch) so that all can hear our praise.  We’ll have radiance on our faces over the bounty of grain and overflowing vats of wine and oil.  We’ll have healthy young flocks and herds.  Life will be overflowing with stability and freedom, and well-being. It will be a restored creation, a restored community, and routed solely in God’s power.

There is one verse I decided to leave out.  It’s verse 14.  It says “And I will give the priests their fill of fatness”.

Looks that one is already come to pass.  (I gotta get back on that covid diet one of these days).  But metaphorically speaking 6 years ago when the Skinner’s first arrived, for those of us who were here then, we were in a time of challenge.  Let’s just say… we were having our own exile and going through some growing pains.  John Molacek who was our seminarian of three years, was actually about to leave, and while that was necessary for his growth, sharing leadership is one of the blessings of ministry and I found myself in a bit of an exile. James Newsome who talks about this text says, “exiles are those of us who live in resignation, believing no newness is possible, the kind of hopelessness that is not explained merely in modern psychology terms but rather it is a theological crisis. Yet, it is the ground for healing and newness; a healing and newness that can only come from God.”

I would say, and I am saying, that the Skinners were life savers.  But not at first.  Not at first…  Because… when they first came here, they were church shopping, and I did not know that.  But week after week they would come through the line and they’d introduce themselves. They never said who they were or what they did, they just said “we enjoyed your service so much today”, “we enjoyed your sermon”. After about the third week I said to John Molacek our seminarian, “go down to coffee hour and find out who these people are!”  And John did.  About 45 minutes later, John came up to my office with quite a swagger.  He says “they’re both retired, Presbyterian ministers.”  They were gone for a couple of weeks and then they came back and they said “Hi, we’re Sherm and Lorrie, do you remember us?” and I said, “Do I remember you? I know who you are! The secret’s out!”

With their arrival, there was a newness, a new beginning that I could see start to blossom. After I finished my respite leave, and the Skinner’s who had covering the church, they approached us and said “we’d like to become Parish Associates”.  In that newness and in those new beginnings, promises were being enacted, reminding us that there is new Mission and Ministry to be had; a relief from over work and suffering, and new life began.  And so it did five years ago when they became, formally, Parish Associates and an active part of the new life that has blossomed since then.  And they’ve added tremendously to the life, the mission and the ministry of this church, and to me as a friend, and colleague; especially regular participation in worship and the creation of many, many worship services.  But six years later, here we are together in another exile.

James Newsome goes on to say that “worship is actually an act against exile”. Whether together or independently apart, we are choosing an act against exile.  The whole of chapter 31 actually addresses a community in exile (Jeremiah doesn’t name the Babylonians by name) but that’s who he’s talking about.  God is inviting Jerusalem (and us) into a new reality that we don’t quite trust just yet, except that it’s rooted not in our resolve, but in God’s resolve. God is the one who interferes and intervenes always to liberate us even when it hurts, when it’s hard and when it’s long-suffering. 

When new life begins, sometimes it’s not always what we expected, but always something utterly new.  In a playful way, as we expect more cases to continue to surge and the heartache that the numbers are just growing exponentially, there’s also been, as you know, a tremendous shortage of yeast and flour because people are learning how to bake.  Who would have thought that being forced to stay home would teach us how to bake bread and break bread with one another, which we’ve been doing now separately apart for 8 months. Yahweh is here to tell us that he is going to bring us in and through. He is going to gather us. He will lead us. He will let us walk and worship again, together. 

It is a pilgrimage that we are on, my friends, but we will be headed home.  That includes all of us who can’t worship together because it’s safer to be at home.  Yahweh’s deep resolve to be a shepherd, to help us in, and through.  Not only enduring Covid but all the other things we are enduring on top of Covid.

This passage describes a new life, that we can trust, because we’re not in charge of it, God is. God will overcome everything, including the power of fear and death, which will be shattered and broken so we can live together as not only a people of faith, but a people of trust. God is not asleep! God is active in our lives and we will be better for it.  Thanks be to God Amen.

Weekly Words of Wisdom 11-11-20

Sermon 11-8-20    The Rev. Rev Van Zandt

Matt 5: 1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

It has been a LONG, INTENSE four days… and while it appears that we have a president, I’m not entirely convinced that there won’t be more upheaval, protests, clashes and unrest, that have sadly become the marks of this country in this time/place.

It has also been a long eight months and while we’re ‘enjoying’ some new-found freedoms, we may have to give them up again, temporarily, to get this virus under control.

I don’t think I’m alone in seeking words of hope and encouragement in the midst of past, present and future challenges. In full transparency, I was initially planning on preaching this text last week but I just saw so many riches in Psalm 34 alone, so I decided to stay with that, AND…I also knew that the Beatitudes might be a helpful text to revisit after the election, AND right before we re-enter the sanctuary next Sunday.

Unfortunately, only some of us will be able to return in person (and it may be even harder on those who need to stay away), so I want to remind us all, that the Beatitudes offer words of encouragement and reassurance that, although you/we cannot all be together, right now, each of you are noticed and singled out by God. ALL of you are blessed NOW with gifts of mercy, hope and peace.

You may not see yourself in these Beatitudes, but God does. You may be the PEACEMAKER in your family, in your neighborhood or your job. You may be PURE IN HEART, seeking to see the best in everyone and staying out of the mud-slinging. You may be MOURNING a loved-one or mourning the loss of a marriage, relationship or friendship, or a child or grand-child who has lost their way. You might be doing acts of MERCY and being merciful over and above the way you are being treated. You may be working towards, or doing acts of JUSTICE for the name-less, imprisoned, addicted or lost.

If you don’t see yourself in any of the Beatitudes in Matthew, you’re not looking hard enough. I see them in you, we see them in each other. God sees these Beatitudes (at least one), in ALL of us. This is in spite of: our brokenness, frustration, impatient and egotistical ways that are all part of our humanity.

So friends, while we seek to keep our community connected, while we seek to keep and sustain our mission and ministry, while social distancing, these beatitudes are the perfect reminder on the blessings that God has bestowed on each of us. These beatitudes are the perfect reminder of the direction of God’s future blessings.

I know I am not alone in imagining the day when we can all worship and sing and praise God together, safely. I imagine all of your faces sparkling with joy as tears run down our cheeks, or secretly pump in our chests. What a day that will be!  In the meanwhile, seek out these Beatitudes as marks of your faith and the marks of this community of faith-ALWAYS.  

Scholar Charles Cousar speaks of the beatitudes not as “a sermon of wise advice and counsel of an ordinary prophet [like a preacher] given to assist people coping with life, but instead a sermon/description to DISCIPLES whom God cares for and how life is to be lived now and the in the coming kingdom”.

Thanks be to God,

Amen. 

Weekly Words of Wisdom 11-4-20

Sermon 10-25-20; The Rev. Jen Van Zandt 

Psalm 34: 1-10

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;  let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

This Psalm, which Spencer and I enjoyed sharing together, is always helpful, but especially today; one of those Sundays when we love and appreciate being together as we remember those we’ve lost in the past year…. and those we’ve lost and still miss terribly, even if they’ve been gone for many years. Additionally, we remember those saints who have gone before us, who are on the Memorial crosses who are the great cloud of witnesses to this faith community. 

It’s also another Sunday when it’s hard to be apart, as again, we break bread separately together. It’s another Sunday where it would be so niceto gather after worship, head into the library for a hot cup of coffee or tea, connect with new faces and old and compare…”how many trick or treaters did you have last night?” 

It could have been a Sunday where some of you might share more deeply one-to-one of your struggles; worries about your own health or someone else’s in your family or circle and just maybe even share how you saw God’s activity in your life, in the last week. Or maybe, (as the Psalmist says) you might share relief and praise for deliverance from trouble. That’s actually what the Psalm subtext is.  

I’ve heard you so often share these stories with me and one another in coffee hour, in the pews before and after worship, in the hallways, before and after committee meetings, (certainly in the parking lot), and the rich devotions given by officers at Session and Deacon meetings. 

But because of the many troubles we are facing into, and have been enduring, those stories, those “sharings”, have dried up a bit.  Our worries, our fears, our complaints, (genuine and otherwise), have dwarfed the hopefulness, trust, calm and peace, that are the marks of people of faith. Further, we have likely fallen out of the habit of praising God because of our struggles. As the voice in verse 10 poetically says: “ the young lions suffer want and hunger”. I don’t want that to be me, but am afraid I do ‘resemble that remark’. I’m not by any means dismissing the amount of struggle, grief and concern about the future because all of that is real. But as Psalms scholar Pat Miller, who also went to the heavenly banquet this year, says, “the righteous, (meaning believers), while not exempt from trouble, know God’s nearness and God’s salvation.” He doesn’t say the righteous wonderabout God’s nearness and salvation, or forgetabout God’s nearness and salvation, or even not really trustGod’s nearness and salvation. NO-the righteous KNOW God’s nearness and salvation. Just let that sink in.

Perhaps it can sink in enough to just to dwarf our fears and concerns, even for a moment. But maybe on some days, that’s just too high a bar. So, I want to go back to verses 1 & 2 of the psalm: I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
Here again, Pat Miller says that these two verses tell of “the Psalmist practice of praising God.” WOW! The practice of praising God!  You know that old adage, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, Practice, Practice”. 

Many of us may have learned in Sunday School along the way, the form of prayer called the ACTS prayer.  A stands for Adoration, C for Confession, T for Thanksgiving, S for Supplication. Of all four of those, the easiest ones are the confession, the thanksgiving and the supplication, (which means “God, please supply this for me”). But most everyone in every age category has a really hard timewith the adoration part. But here it is again, because we need practice:  I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lordlet the humble hear and be glad. 

Recently I was with some very dear friends who have a 17-month-old grandson. And they thought it was time to get him a bike. He might be a little young for that, but I thought Okay, I’ll go along. 

Many of you who are grandparents may already know this, they don’t make entry level bikes with pedals. It’s just the seat, the handlebars with two wheels. They’re called striders.  The idea is the kids learn how to balance on a bike first and then incorporate pedaling.  (That probably would have saved a lot of skinned knees in our generation had we had the strider back then). So, we bring out the strider and put him on and it fits perfectly. His hands were on the handle bars and his bum was on the seat and he was trying to figure out how to do it, but once I let go of him, he got off the seat, and moved forward so his hands could be on the handlebars and still drive/push the bike. I tried to move back to the seat/handlebar position. No luck. I said to his grandfather “why is this not working?”, He said, you know when he sits on the seat, he ‘can’t quite reach the handlebars’.

Friends, sometimes, praising God, using these verses may feel like too much of a reach for us, but the only way this little boy is going to learn how to use the strider is both practice and growth and trust. And so it is for us as well.

This text could not be more truly important (and it is the lectionary text for all saints day), but we are also about to face into the election, and the results, which will likely be more contentious and ugly than the campaigns leading up to it. If we go back to verse 10, and I didn’t read the whole verse initially, there’s an important reminder10 The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord, lack no good thing.


May it be so. Amen

Pray

Dear Saints,

Here we are at yet another extremely difficult moment in the country and in our own lives. We all deal with stress and anxiety differently but many of us are nearing a tipping point with all that we are handling, over and above Covid’s past, present and dastardly future.

Sometimes sharing our concerns and fears with others is helpful. Sometimes we don’t get the support or listening ear that we need and/or we get even more triggered by other’s comments and responses.

As we await both election results and wonder what violence may erupt as a result while also worrying about the next Covid wave, it is hard to know what to do.

There are many articles swirling about on-line and in print of “to dos” to reduce anxiety over Covid and the election (among other agitators). Certainly self-care, getting enough rest, exercise and eating right are mentioned in most every article as well as limiting our time on the internet, news outlets and the like. But suggested activities for our hearts and souls are less prevalent.

As believers the first thing to do is pray. Not only pithy prayers of thanksgiving and supplication but intentional, active prayers that have the power to reshape our thoughts and emotions.

The Psalms are always a wonderful place to go and they are timeless and speak to every human emotion. There are also fresh, modern prayers written by gifted people who can speak to this very time and place. As we wait and wonder what to do, how to fill our time and our hearts I hope this prayer by Sarah Are, a young Presbyterian Minister and Founding Creative Partner of “A Sanctified Art “will be a help.

May we pray this often in the hours and days to come:

Holy God, We come to you today in prayer, full of emotions. Election seasons always seem to bring that out in us— Worry and hope, fear and frustration. The list could go on. So today we bow our heads and ask for guidance. Open our ears to hear the groans of creation.

Open our eyes to see the needs of others. Open our hearts to make room for empathy. Give us the wisdom to navigate challenging conversations. Give us the compassion to make decisions for the greater good.

And when all else fails, bring us back to love. Bring our hearts and our hands, Our dreams and our hopes, Our anger and our frustration, Our hurt and our fear, All back to love.

 With hope we pray, With hope we are sustained. Amen.

Praying with you,

Rev Jen