Sunday, May 31, 2009


copyright © 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009
Acts 2:1-21

How can we know if ours is a Spirit-filled church? If we are Spirit-filled people? The very first two verses of the second chapter of Acts give us a significant clue: Here the evidence of the presence and power of the Spirit of God is both as audible as a mighty wind and as visible as flames of fire. The work of the Spirit is heard – as in mighty winds and in the brave proclamation of the message of the apostles to an unbelieving world, and seen – as in the tongues of fire distributed to every believer and in the lives of incredible compassion and risk which the the believers undertook from that Pentecost Day onward.

Whatever else we may know when we read this particular passage, we may be assured that where we neither hear nor see evidence of the Holy Spirit, we can be reasonably certain that the Spirit of Christ has not yet successfully invaded that person or gathering. By the same token, where we hear and see Spirit-empowered ministries of proclamation and care taking place, we may be assured that the Spirit of Christ has graced that person or gathering.

Isn’t it somehow surprising – given a natural tendency to human activism – that instead of concocting a plan of attack and inflicting themselves on the world by sheer human effort, the church began instead by withdrawing to wait and pray to see what God had in store and to ask that God live up to God’s promises? “The next move was up to God, and the church recognized the wisdom of waiting for God’s time to act.”[1] When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we are simply praying that God will be true to God’s promises: “Thy kingdom come...thy will be done.” What could appear to be a swaggering or even a manipulative prayer for kingdom and power is in reality a deeply humble prayer, recognizing as it does that only God can give the church what it most desperately needs. All our human maneuvering is pointless unless it is empowered by the Spirit of God.

One preacher said, “[God] is never nearer than when [God] excavates a sense of emptiness in us.”[2] Whenever we gather for the Lord’s Supper, for example, our invitation includes these words: “And so our Savior invites us to come and feed the hunger which bread alone can never fill.”

Filled as they were with the gift of Jesus’ companionship for three years of ministry, the grief of the crucifixion, the exaltation of the resurrection, one thing was lacking in the hearts of the disciples, an emptiness remained. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, those who were disciples and apostles were empowered to become the one thing they had not been: witnesses. And what is witnessing, really, but the audible and visible willingness to say what we believe to be true, and to try to live by the guidance of that Word?

As if to give special emphasis to that dramatic empowerment, unlikely Peter – the one who, when Jesus was arrested, could not find within himself the boldness to own up to his discipleship to a serving girl in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house – suddenly Peter, of all people, found within himself the courage to witness to thousands in the middle of Jerusalem on one Spring morning.  Whatever else we may not be sure about, there is little question that the Holy Spirit empowers us to be what we had not had the strength within ourselves to be before.

Finding ourselves at a gathering where the good name (or even the questionable name) of someone else is being trashed, being a faithful witness to Christ might mean no more than turning away and refusing to participate in hurtful gossip, but it might also mean speaking up. Only each of us knows the call to which the Spirit is leading us. But we can rest in this assurance: No matter how bad the consequences of faithfulness in the face of opposition might seem, the Spirit continually gathers the church around us, the Spirit will never forsake us.

            How can we comprehend this presence of the Holy Spirit?

Right there in the Bible it talks about it like a sort of liquid presence, “I will pour out my Spirit on everyone.” In our neat, family-kitchen-thinking we may imagine this to be a pouring like pouring a glass of milk from a pitcher. But I think that mental image is much too tidy for us to use as a mark of the work of the Holy Spirit. I think there are much better ways to conceive God’s Spirit being poured over God’s people. Think of other ways we generally use the word “pour”:


[1] When we have been estranged from one another, our emotions all bottled up, when we have suffered the emotionally constipating effects of a heart filled with sorrow and anxiety combined with a mind and mouth that refuses to allow us to share what consumes us from the inside, when after that the dam has finally broken and in tears we have been able to tell another human being about the fears and emotions that have been eating us alive, have let go a torrent of hurt and heartache, we call that pouring your heart out.


[2] When our team is ahead of the other team 65 to 7 and there is only one minute left in the final period, and we score yet another touchdown, and the coach sends in the play from the sideline telling his team to go for 2 extra points instead of 1, the fans turn to each other and say, “Wow, they’re really pouring it on!


[3] When the sky turns not grey but black, the lightning creases the thunderheads, the thunder cracks like a volley of canon fire, we run for cover, saying to each other, “We’d better hurry; any minute it will be pouring down rain.”


Pouring, as it is used in the second chapter of Acts, has nothing to do with pouring into a glass from a pitcher. It is more like pouring into the glass from Niagra Falls. Either way the glass gets filled, but by the second method there can never be any doubt about whether there will be enough.


Pouring out his Spirit, God gives to people the power of God’s love not in sufficiency, but in superabundance. There is enough, there is more than enough of God’s Spirit to empower the work of the church. It is not a zero sum game. God’s Spirit is available in such plenty that to be touched by it can mean being overwhelmed by it and changed completely and absolutely.


The late Clinton Marsh served for years as president of Johnson C. Smith Theolgical Seminary in Atlanta, and was once moderator of our Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly. Jokingly, he characterized himself as one half Presbyterian, and one half African American. About 35 years ago at the meeting of the General Assembly I heard Dr. Marsh say to the assembly that he hoped the Spirit would change us so that, if we could not be one half Presbyterian and one half African American, some of us could at least develop a little better suntan. The Spirit, poured over the people, drenches us, changes us, so that we are not the same people we once were.


Dr. Martin Marty has served for decades as a contributing editor of Christian Century magazine, a journal highly respected among clergy and lay leaders. He also once taught second grade Church School – one wonders which is the greater honor! He tells a story that shows the pouring-out of the Spirit can even come upon 8 year-olds, demonstrating that the Spirit is alive and working in places we might never expect. His story is about an 8 year-old boy who once attended his classes. Stephen was a special child, and by the time he had reached second grade, his progressive mental disability had become obvious to his friends. Dr. Marty said that one of his greatest concerns in teaching Stephen’s class was whether the other eight students could hold on to their love for Stephen as they came increasingly to realize he was different. In April of that year, he asked his students to bring to class a small object they could hide inside one of those plastic egg-shaped containers that some products are packaged in, something that represented the gift of new life. But because he was afraid Stephen might not have understood, he placed all the unmarked containers in the center of the table, and asked Stephen to open them, one at a time.


The first one held a crocus, and one of the students erupted with the pride of possession, saying, “I brought that one!” Next came a rock which Dr. Marty thought would surely be Stephen’s, since rocks don’t symbolize new life. But one of the other students shouted, “That’s mine! The rock has moss on it, and it has just turned green again!” A butterfly flew from the third container, and another student beamed that her choice had been the best so far.


But the fourth container was empty. Dr. Marty thought it had to be Stephen’s and was going to move quickly to the next egg, but Stephen objected and said, “Don’t skip mine!” You know how second graders can be; they all shouted with one voice, “But it’s empty!” “That’s right,” Stephen said. “The tomb was empty. New life for everyone!” Stephen knew.


That Summer, Stephen died. At the grave, mourners found eight small egg containers. All of them empty. The story is true. So is the mystery, and Stephen knew.


What Stephen knew was that when God’s Spirit is poured out, there is no controlling it. The black, the white, the blind, the lame, the healthy, the sick, the disabled, the frail, the husky, every one can be drenched in the Spirit. It was poured out on all believers without discrimination. There’s more than enough. There’s no limit to the power of God’s Spirit to reach us and make us understand, even by means we might never have anticipated.


The disciples were drenched in the Spirit that first Pentecost day. Not dribbled, not sprinkled, aerosolled, misted, dampened, daubed or dipped, but drenched. They were overcome with the power of God’s Spirit, poured out upon them. May God drench our fellowship with his Spirit in our own day, in our own times.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Acts, by William Willimon, John Knox, 1988, p. 27.
[2] Drumbeat of Love, by Lloyd Ogilvie, Word Books, 1976, p. 23.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Springtime In God’s Garden: 
Time for Wounding

Copyright © 2009, Robert J. Elder
Seventh Sunday in Easter: May 24, 2009

John 15:1-8

He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. 
Every branch that bears fruit he prunes 
to make it bear more fruit. 

Right away I need to confess I am not much of a gardener, though I am grateful for my sweet wife, who is. At our house, she – blessed with a love for growing beautiful things – takes responsibility for the front yard mostly, which is on full view to our passing neighbors. Meanwhile, I am in charge of the back, which runs down a steep hill and which virtually no one can see unless they are very determined. It’s a perfect division of responsibility. We do have some large bushes and other plants down there. And standing out on our deck, looking straight down, it is annoying even to me to have to see large amounts of unwanted growth having its way between the shrubs. I am easily frustrated by weeds, of which there is an abundance in and around my area of yard care responsibility.

Another of my chief faults as a gardener – and a reason I am not the principle tender of the front yard – is that I am a very reluctant pruner. After all, I grew up in the dry stretches of Oklahoma, where having a flower garden – or any kind of garden – required not only constant attention, but a nurturing of each little sign of growth. The idea of cutting back that which had labored so hard to come forth still seems anathema to me. I remember a friend of mine in Amarillo, Texas – who had the same sort of spindly little sticks for trees in his yard that I had in mine, the sort that are held up by stakes and ropes against the gale force prairie winds that always blow there – who said he used to go into his yard every morning to check on his pathetic, struggling little trees and ask, “What can I do for you today?” He swore they only survived the harsh climate because of intensive irrigation and chemotherapy.

When you have lived under such circumstances, the idea of pruning, of cutting a plant back, comes with almost as much difficulty as renouncing your faith. So with my yard today, I continue to live as though growing things must be allowed to grow willy nilly, so precious is any sign of growth. The problem is, I live in Oregon, where it often appears that a good gardener’s chief duty is hacking things back. So some spindly little ground cover that a landscaper once told me would spill over a retaining wall for some nice green softening of all that concrete actually took over in five years time and had to be dug out. It was on the move, threatening to overtake the woods, smother the dogs in their kennel, and open the back door to come inside for a look around. Even so, I have reluctant shears. What if I cut it back and end up cutting it back too much, and I lose all the nice growth that has come along over those five years? It was the same with a Japanese maple tree, which began to look like a young elephant grazing on the front lawn. Meantime, I had some bulbs that had been busy naturalizing from the initial handful I planted when the house was new, so that before long I thought I might have to part their foliage to see out the front window.

Yet still I am a reluctant pruner. Though I do know better. I do know that healthy, attractive, well-kept yards in western Oregon require pruning, and lots of it. I am just a poor candidate for the job, I suppose. So it is unsettling to me to realize that one of the ways Jesus describes God is as a master pruner, pruning even the branches that bear much fruit so they will bear more. It sounds harsh, it sounds like discipline, and I am not much a fan of discipline. Few in what a friend of mine called “our five-second-attention span, non-stick, Teflon coated, don’t tie me down, I’m outta here if everything and everyone doesn’t cater to me culture”[1] are.

What if God prunes from me the things I love most? What if my attachments to life’s pleasures, to comfort, to security, to family or friends, what if these were to be the very things God was planning to prune from me so I could be a more productive branch, a better disciple? I know as I look back on my life that I have been pruned here and there, and I see now that those times were valuable, made me a more productive servant for God, but at the time I can tell you I saw no reason to be thankful, any more than the pinched-off branches of my backyard shrubs will thank me for their vegetable version of pruning pain. One preacher, commenting on this passage by actively mixing metaphors, said, “I once heard the bit about ‘bearing more fruit’ as a demand that I get cracking and strain hard to bear much fruit if I wanted Christ to abide with me. Then I was taught that I was justified by grace and needed no works, so I forgot about the fruits. Now I begin to hear it as a simple promise: trust yourself to the water and let the current take you where you need to go.”[2]

Thinking on these things, I discovered there is some good news in this passage for me, for all of us especially. Jesus said, “I am the true vine...Abide in me as I abide in you.” That “you” is not what I spent most of my life thinking it was, a word addressed to me, Rob Elder, by Jesus. I thought it could mean I was to get with it, be in Jesus, think only on Jesus, set the rest of the world’s clamor aside, because that’s what Jesus demanded of me, Rob Elder. It’s amazing what a seminary education can provide, and for Presbyterian preachers at least, it provides a requirement to acquire a muddling ability with New Testament Greek. So studying this passage I discovered that when Jesus says, “as I abide in you,” he uses the plural form of “you,” a finer point which cannot be rendered in English with our all-purpose singular or plural word “you.” Still, I spent many years living in the South, so I understand this plural concept very well. The southern plural for you, “you-all,” is well understood there, much more elegantly than the more abrupt and thoroughly sexist, “you guys.”

So Jesus said something like, “ I abide in you all.” All of you. The body of Christ, the people of God, the community of the faithful, the saints gathered in his name.

While we may be preoccupied by the nature of the garden metaphors in John 15, it would be good if we would recognize that the passage, for all its threat and promise, for all of Jesus’ talk of pruning and burning and fruitfulness, the passage is mostly interested in having us see in yet another way what it means to abide in Jesus. An old-fashioned word, abide is used over and over again in John’s gospel. Early on, when they met him for the first time, the new disciples asked Jesus where he was abiding. Our English translations use a variety of words such as dwell, stay, remain, but the Greek word is insistently the same: “abide.”

We don’t use it much in conversation: “One hit, one error, and two left abiding on base.” Doesn’t sound right, does it? But John uses this word always in a double-meaning sort of way. There is the plain sense of it, the “he was staying at the house” sort of sense. But there is always the deeper sense, the “even when he was gone I could feel his presence” sort of sense, as in an abiding assurance.

So where do we go to do this abiding in Jesus? Mountaintops? Desert retreats? Missionary work overseas? Visit Jerusalem to “walk where Jesus walked”? Well, yes, we can go all of these places – or none of them. The key has to do with abiding in Christ’s body, and Christ’s body is not a place, Christ’s body is a people, the body is the community. Our presence, when open to the presence of Jesus among us, is an abiding presence. It is relationship with each other and with him.

Whenever we receive new members into the life of a congregation, there are four membership questions they answer, as all of us have in one form or another. The fourth question goes this way: “Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, giving of yourself in every way, and will you seek the fellowship of the church wherever you may be?” This is a serious question, because it requires us to reflect on our attachment to Christ – the true vine – as it involves an attachment through him to one another.

We live in a world where most attachments are lightly made and easily broken. Friends come and go. Legal contracts seem always to contain an escape clause when needed. Commitment to Christ, and to a particular church, are paper thin, especially when such commitments test us or begin to require anything of us. I once received an anonymous “encouragement card” saying how annoyed the writer was when the church focused for several weeks each year on stewardship and the financial needs of our congregation. Snip snip, the sheers are coming close. Here is an attitude that is ripe for the pruner’s clippers. “giving of yourself in every way...seeking the fellowship of the church wherever you may be.” These are ways of abiding, shouldering a share of the common task, gladly taking up the burden that belongs to all. Standing to one side focusing on what is mine is a way of turning away from the community in which Christ calls us to abide, and it is in need of pruning if the vine is to thrive.

Our scripture lesson takes us back 2000 years to a night when Jesus was at the table with the disciples on the eve of his crucifixion and death for their sakes – for our sakes. As they surrounded him at the table they all pledged their undying loyalty. Yet within the space of a day, all had failed to abide with him. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus said, yet we all try to go our own way, value our own opinions and actions more highly than we should, fail adequately to take into account the needs of the whole community as we focus on our own needs and wants. Snip, snip, the pruner’s sheers are needed.

Steven Covey tells of riding on a subway one Sunday morning when the otherwise peaceful and quiet car was invaded by a man and his large brood of children who proceeded to race up and down the aisles, making noise, bumping into passengers. The father sat, staring down, doing nothing. Covey, a bit indignant, finally decided to say something: “Sir, don’t you think maybe it would be wise for you to say something to your children – settle them down – the passengers are getting annoyed.” The father looked up and said, “Oh! I suppose so. I just didn’t notice. We just left the hospital. Their mother died an hour ago. And I don’t know what to do – how to respond – And I suppose they don’t know how to react either.”[3] Snip, snip, the superior attitude that presumes to know the motivations behind people’s actions are pruned away and community – an opportunity to abide in Jesus as we abide in each other, opens up.

To abide in Jesus requires a strength, a strength not our own, in the end. It is the vine that sustains the branches.

The old hymn text – so often sung at funeral services – prays to God:

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide; 
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide! 
When other helpers fail and comforts flee, 
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.  

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; 
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies: 
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; 
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

[1] “Hang In There,” a sermon by Paul Debenport, First Presbyterian Church, Albuquerque, NM, May 4, 1997. 
[2] “Abiding, even under the knife,” by Walter Wink, Christian Century, April 20, 1994, p. 413. 
[3] Steven Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Jonah, Whom God Loves

© 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2009

Jonah 3:10, 4:1-11

God’s mind changed about the calamity
that God had said would be brought upon [Nineveh];
and God did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah,
and he became angry.

If we were challenged to do so, it would be difficult to conjure up a people that Israel hated any more than they hated the people of Nineveh. Theirs was the empire that in 721 B.C. had conquered ten of the twelve tribes of Israel and driven them into exile, from which they were never to return, referred to ever after as the “ten lost tribes.” The remaining two tribes in the south, in Judah, knew the Ninevites — we might recognize them more readily as Assyrians — to be despicable, murderous, rapacious conquerors.

After Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire, was destroyed by Babylon, the next empire on the scene in the Middle East, in 609 B.C., Nahum, one of the seldom-read prophets of the Old Testament, devoted the entirety of his brief prophecy to bitter denunciations of the hundred year dominance of that cruel empire over Israel:

Your shepherds are asleep, O king of Assyria;
your nobles slumber.
Your people are scattered on the mountains
with no one to gather them.
There is no assuaging your hurt,
your wound is mortal.
All who hear the news about you
clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?1

Saying all this still doesn’t make it seem very real, though, does it? Unless you happen to have a singular fascination with ancient history, it is all a sort of long ago, far away set of distant historical facts, not very much connected to our own times and lives. So it is difficult to see, much less to feel, the sort of rage that the character of Jonah represented on behalf of Israel in the story we have looked at on the four Sundays we have devoted to this little book. But imagine the way we might feel if Germany had won World War II and we had just recently been freed from 60 years of Nazi domination of our country. Think of words the supressed and oppressed masses in Somalia or Zambia would have for those who this very day seek their extinction.

Who are the Ninevites today, both on the global and personal scale, in our international news and in our own neighborhoods? I know you are kind people, but if you can imagine the rage you might feel at people who had captured your neighbors, killed your family, and sought for years to do the same to you, what would you like to do to them? What sort of judgment from God do you believe they would deserve for their crimes against you?

Then, if you can, imagine that God called you to go to these very people and utter a word of God’s judgment, when you knew all the while that — since the Bible teaches that God’s character is merciful, always ready to forgive those who repent, and abounding in steadfast love — your bitterest enemies might experience the same forgiving love that God offers to you and me. Does the character of Jonah seem all that far away from the very sort of attitude we would be likely to have in the face of the possibility of forgiveness for our enemies? In hindsight, the Marshall recovery plan for Europe following World War II was a godsend to millions of people living amid the social and physical wreckage of war, yet accounts of that time record how difficult it was to convince a wounded nation that rebuilding our former enemies was in our own best interest. There was strong opposition in Congress at the time, some of whose members favored a return to isolationism and the sorts of policies to punish and impoverish former enemies that had followed World War I, the very policies which sowed the seeds of hopelessness that led to Germany’s turn to fascism and the second world war. Revenge can be a strong motivator, even if a suicidal one. If called on to announce a word which might lead to forgiveness and blessing, might we not have hopped the first freighter in the opposite direction had God asked us to go and prophesy to Pol Pot, or Idi Amin, or Saddam Hussein, or Adolf Hitler?

The recitation of the story of Jonah is an essential part of the annual Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur. It is known as the Jewish day of atonement, a day when all Israel attempts to follow the stipulations of Leviticus 16, seeking to be cleansed before God. Reading or chanting the book of Jonah has been a part of the observation of Yom Kippur since the 2nd century. “On this sacred day, Israel lifts up as the model of repentance not itself, who is like the Hebrew Jonah resisting God, but the outsider: pagan sailors and especially penitent Ninevites. From the transformative deeds of these outsiders Israel learns accountability and responsibility. From the divine compassion that spares them, Israel finds reassurance about itself in relationship to God and learns compassion in relationship to others.”2

As Eugene Peterson once declared, “Jonah thought he had come to Nineveh to do a religious job, to administer a religious program. God had brought Jonah to Nineveh to give him an experience of amazing grace. The tables are turned: it is no longer Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh, but the people of Nineveh preaching to Jonah — inviting him into a vocation far beyond anything he had supposed.”3

So in this last chapter of the little story of Jonah, we have the prophet sulking outside the forgiven city. He had announced the punishment which he and every other Jew knew to be Nineveh’s deserved fate, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” But God had a desire to exercise the very nature of God’s character in Nineveh, the forgiving character of God that Israel had come to depend on: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city?” God’s purpose and plan, as always, far exceeded not only the prophet’s words, but his imagination. Just when our enemies have done something that so completely places them beyond our capacity to forgive, that is when God takes the extra step, walks the extra mile, offers the cloak as well as the coat, offers his body, broken for us, his blood, shed for the forgiveness of sin, hands over the last dime when there are no other dimes left.

Some preachers and other moralists among us stand in our pulpits, or before the cameras of our nationally syndicated religious talk shows, and wag an index finger at our listeners as we tell them to tidy up their morals, or pray more piously, or read more of the Bible in order to become more worthy of a God who is demanding and severe with those who fail to attend to God’s commands. Meanwhile, the God we meet in the book of Jonah is beckoning to us with both hands, welcoming the lost, the least of these, the one we knew to be our enemy, the dissolute and the drunken, beckoning them all to grace and mercy and salvation.

Why does God act this way? Why is the mercy of God at the same time the very welcome characteristic that saves us when we had presumed ourselves lost, and yet the unwelcome characteristic when we find our enemies included under the umbrella of that same mercy?

Jonah is a maddening story really, for those of us who keep little adding machines inside our heads, toting up the goods that others receive, always comparing them to our own supply, which never seems to be enough. For after all the chuckles and tut-tutting we have had at Jonah’s expense, all our consideration of his willful disobedience as well as his unrelenting hatred of the enemies of Israel whom God sought to save, when we turn around to the mirror, we see that Jonah is us, smelling like the fish that swallowed us, still with that bit of seaweed dried onto our foreheads. We are the ones who struggle to find an umbrella large enough to keep God’s rain from falling equally on the just and the unjust.

“Even when we know that the blessings that come to us have been delivered to the wrong address, there are not many of us who will send them back. We thank God quickly and carry them inside. But when we look out the window and see the delivery man carrying an identical package next door, to those really unpleasant people who sit on their porch drinking beer after beer,” playing their music too loudly until the wee hours, and whose children stray into our yard only to deposit debris which we have to clean up, that is something we tend to resent. We believe undeserved blessings are only supposed to go to the deserving, apparently.

In Jonah, we learn God does not give us what we deserve. And thank goodness for that. God gives not what we deserve but what we need. Grace is not fair, doesn’t know the word “fair,” that’s a human word, not a divine one.

How does the Jonah story end? We really don’t know. It has that enigmatic finish that you heard earlier:

And should I not be concerned about Nineveh,
that great city,

in which there are more
than a hundred and twenty thousand persons

who do not know their right hand from their left,
and also many animals?

Well, Jonah? Should I or should I not? Lots of people. And animals too. What do you say, is my concern, my mercy appropriate? Well, is it?

But we don’t know how Jonah responds. We can guess, but we don’t know. Why do you suppose that is?

I think we don’t know because, for a religious people, Jonah’s story is our story, and our own stories are not yet finished. Did Jonah turn back toward the loving mercy of God which had birthed and sustained Jonah and his people and which God now sought to extend to the world? Or did Jonah remain a prophet of petulance and pouting? Jonah cannot answer now, but we can. How will it be?

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 Nahum 3:18-19.
2 Phyllis Trible, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII, Abingdon, 1996, p. 528.
3 From the 1990 commencement message at Princeton Theological Seminary, “A Pastor’s Quarrel with God.” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, New Series, 1990, pp. 27-275.
4 From “Ninevites and Ne’er-Do-Wells,” Gospel Medicine, by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley, 1995, pp. 91-95.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Jesus’ Prayer

© 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2009
Mothers’ Day

John 17:6-19

Holy Father,
protect them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, as we are one.

A friend of mine sent me a poem by Wendell Berry the other day, and since I can barely resist poems, and inasmuch as it is a poem entitled To My Mother,1 today, Mother’s Day, seemed like a good day to read it out loud for you.
I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.
So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,
prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,
and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it
already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,
where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.1
Not too many months ago another friend of mine — a good poet in his own right, and a fellow pastor — recommended to me a recording of a poetry reading by Billy Collins. Collins is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. I wondered how interesting a recorded poetry reading could be, but I was ashamed to have asked even myself that question after I listened to the CD the first time. I have listened to it several times since.

Anyway, Collins read one poem which, as I prepared for today, I decided seemed almost custom-made for this passage about the protecting, mothering care of God through the gift of the name of Christ in the prayer that Jesus uttered in John 17. The title of the poem is The Lanyard2. In it, Collins remembers a craft project at summer camp years ago:
The other day ...
... I found myself in the “L” section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie, nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past —
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one if that’s what you did with them.
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift — not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
“And now we are even.” How often has that phrase passed human lips over time? Is being “made even” even a possibility in the world of human relationships? There is blessing in recognizing the reality that the deepest truth of our lives is not about being made even. It is about lives given to loving others with self-yielding and sacrificial love. It is about receiving the love of God that is high as the stars and deep as the oceans, a love that is as impossible to repay as it is to repay our great-grandparents for having had the wisdom to have given birth to folks who would one day be the parents who gave birth to our parents. It is a deep truth about loving others and not waiting for a payback. It’s not “Deal or No Deal,” a love like this. It is simply given. That is all. It’s not tit-for-tat, even steven, compromise, or even mutual indulgence. No, it is a love that gives, and finds all the blessing it needs hidden in the giving.

In his prayer in the 17th chapter of John, Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them [meaning the disciples, or all those who call on Jesus’ name, or, by extension, us!] into the world.” As disciples, we are not saddled with a need to manufacture our own calling. This is an assuring word. The very nature of our faith is to carry it to others, and that faith is a gift given whether we actually perform as good disciples, ambassadors for Christ, or sit in our rooms and do nothing. The gift to us from Christ cannot be returned to him by anything we have to give. Our only options are to pass the gift along, or to do nothing. In either case, there is no payback, the gift is ours anyway, no strings attached.

Some of you — I suspect very few of you — may know that the church I served in Salem was chosen by the media people at the General Assembly offices in Louisville to host the videotaping of our Christmas Eve service, which was broadcast nationally at 11:30 PM on Christmas Eve back in 2003 to an audience of a few million people. It was quite an experience for me and for the congregation, but that’s not the point of sharing this story. The next summer, in 2004, I was at a meeting of our denomination’s General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia. That meeting was the last week of my service on the Council of the General Assembly, and I more or less lurked about during the week, bumping into a few old friends, looking in vain for ways to make my lame-duck self useful. Late in the week, I was standing in the rear of the assembly hall as the delegates worked their way through their business.

A young man walked by me and glanced at my name tag. He stopped, looked more intently at the tag, then at me, as though he disbelieved what the tag said. I even worried for an instant whether I had inadvertently picked up someone else’s tag by mistake. Then he looked me in the eye and asked, “You are Rob Elder, the Rob Elder?” as if I were someone of some significance, and not just another in a long line of lame duck council members, waiting another 24 hours before I could catch a flight home. He grabbed me by the hand and said, “Yours is the church that hosted the Christmas Eve service for CBS television last year, isn’t it?” I nodded, said that yes, that was me, er… us, whatever.

He proceeded to thank me profusely for the gift that service was to his church and to him personally. And he appreciated the theme of gifts that characterized the service. Then he said, “I especially appreciated the story about your father and the golf clubs he left behind when he died, the unexpected blessing they turned out to be for you.” I recall thinking, “Always remember to be careful what you say, you never know what people will hear!” He went on, “You know, my father died not too long ago, and I’ll never forget the last time we played golf together. He taught me how to play and I vividly remember carrying his clubs from the clubhouse for the very last time...”

And we went out of the hall to sit, and we shared a brief conversation about our fathers and what really is the meaning of gifts.

Michael Lindvall, a pastor friend, once wrote, “Life together stretches us, pulls us, strains us, but in it we are nourished by the struggle itself. It is the best chance Providence gives most of us to grow out of ourselves and into something more like what we were meant to be. Life together is the welcome tether that kindly but relentlessly binds our ravenous egos. … The only thing harder than getting along with other people is getting along without them…”3

God gave us Jesus Christ to save us. Jesus gave himself. We can’t thrust the gift back; as with my father’s golf clubs, there is no “back” where we can send it. It is just there for us to deal with. We can look at it, use it, study it, maybe even try to make a lanyard or two to hang somewhere, but nothing we do will make us even, nothing will fully repay Jesus for his gift of himself to us, to the world. Our only option, if we are moved by a need to give back, to be even steven, is, as a friend of mine told me once, to avoid trying to “give back,” and instead “give forward.” It’s what stewardship, support of mission, support of ministries for children and young people in the church are about. It’s what we’re always yammering about in the church, drumming up enthusiasm for things we are often reluctant to do, especially if they involve giving away our money or our time or both.

Well, it’s no news to any of you that today is Mothers’ Day. This is always a difficult day for preachers, not because we don’t or didn’t have mothers or because we have something against them. It’s just that it’s a Hallmark holiday, not a liturgical one. Standing up to praise mothers on a given day is not difficult, we all know how important mothers are in the shaping of their children. But we have, parading through the back of our minds on a day like this, words of the gospels such as these from Matthew:
“While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”4
We recognize from this, not a sudden desire on the part of Jesus to disdain his mother, rather, we see a new idea of what it means to be family emerging in the very beginnings of the Christian church. It is because of this and other sayings of Jesus that early Christians referred to others who were not blood relations as “brother,” and “sister.” The familial nature of the church was meant to be understood as a sort of bond as strong, even, as any bonds we may have known in our own families.

Jesus’ prayer in our reading from John speaks to this very thought:

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, as we are one.

This suggests what it means to be part of a family of faith. It means, both figuratively and literally, to be part of the family of God, and it is a big family, not confined to one household, to one church, to one congregation, but part of the whole household of the family of faith wherever it gathers, and under whatever denominational name. To be one with this family is to be part of a big house, an immense family tree, an enterprise that is so much larger than we are, yet which so intimately values each one of us. That is the point of Jesus prayer for unity. It is the point of our gathering together any time, on any given day.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserve

1 “To My Mother” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, by Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, Copyright © 1998.
2 From Billy Collins Live, Random House Audio,
3 Quoted by Lindvall from his own book in a sermon, “Can’t Live With ‘Em; Can’t Live Without ‘Em,” preached at the Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City, May 8, 2005.
4 Matthew 12:46-50.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Jonah: Concise Prophet
Third in a Series of Four Sermons on Jonah

© 2006, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Cottage Grove, Oregon
Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2009

Jonah 3:1-10, 4:1

Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk.
And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

This is certainly not the portion of Jonah that we think about most often. Where is the boat trip that Jonah took to get away from the call of God? Where is the big fish that swallowed him up when the sailors tossed him overboard? Is something fishy going on here? Well, no, those parts of the story occur in the first two chapters. Today’s lesson gives us a start on the rest of the story.

This portion of the story gives us the entire prophecy that Jonah delivered to the Ninevites in 8 words. It has to be the shortest prophecy in all of scripture. He didn’t even bother to start with “Thus saith the Lord...” His prophecy marks him as the most concise prophet in the history of prophecy. And they were words totally lacking in any hint of hope or help:

Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!

The reason there is no hint of help or hope is that Jonah did not want to offer them either one. So he gave them only the bad news side of God’s judgment. He likely hoped and prayed for all he was worth that it would simply come to pass, that Nineveh would be destroyed, along with everyone in it.

But then came the shocking response. Based on no more than eight words from the reluctant, angry prophet, the entire city, described several times as great and big, everyone, from the king down to the livestock, sincerely repented of all their evil. It was the possibility that Jonah dreaded, knowing God to be merciful. It was this result he knew to be possible but hoped would never come to pass:

When God saw what they did,
how they turned from their evil ways,

God changed his mind about the calamity
that he had said he would bring upon them;

and he did not do it.

God changed his mind? What does it mean for the creator of all the worlds there are to “change his mind”? This can be a disquieting thought for us. What does it mean to confess belief in a God who would do that? There are two things about this divine change of mind that intrigue me. One is that God’s mind changed at all. How is it that that happens? The other is Jonah’s response to the change that comes over God.


First, to the issue of God’s changing mind. Does God’s mind change? Do you believe this to be true? Does the very idea sound comforting or threatening? Apart from the question whether the idea that God has a mind which is any way similar to our minds might be just too anthropomorphic, what would it mean to us that God’s mind could change? One thing we know, this idea of the changing mind of God is not unique to the story of Jonah. In Exodus, God peered down from the mountain where he and Moses were huddled around the tablets of the law, and noticed the newly freed Israelites dancing around the golden idol they had made. His anger burned against them, and he declared that they would be destroyed on the spot. But Moses pleaded with God, saying,
“‘Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people’ ... And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”1
Jeremiah, that Old Testament prophet who was so close to the spirit of the New Testament, was the authority who spoke most frequently to a disbelieving people about the hope that still resided even in their damaged relationship with God:
“But if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it ... but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.”2
The Psalms also are laden with laments that suggest petitions may be addressed to God without regard to the way things appear. The Psalms are filled with examples of prayers for relief from a God who the psalmist obviously hopes will change his mind.

How do we account for the fact that so many Bible passages suggest that yes, God’s mind does change? Is this idea a comfort to us or not? The only way I know to account for it — and this does suggest that the changeability of God could be a comforting thought — is by reflecting on God’s constant desire to be in relationship with people. If we know anything about relationships, we know that healthy ones are those in which both parties to the relationship take each other’s participation in the relationship seriously. It appears that Jonah and the psalmist and Jeremiah all believe that is what God does. God takes us seriously, even when we don’t appear to deserve it. If we refuse God, God is refused, if we acquiesce, God is obeyed, and God apparently allows that. But apparently God is willing to make some adjustments for our reluctancies.

God changed his mind? This might be a frightening thought if we take it out of context. So, as one preacher said,3 “Don’t take it out of context. Here it simply means that God can be moved.” As the Ninevites turned to God, God turned to them. God desires relationship, and will move toward it, taking our part in it seriously.


This makes Jonah’s part in the whole little drama all the more amazing. While we may always have thought that God never changed, that God was immutable, immovable, and — like preachers on our off days — incomprehensible, we probably also thought that people are likely to change with every alteration in wind direction. Not so Jonah. In this story, the human protagonist demands the right to keep his opinion intact no matter what. Clearly, knowing God’s steadfast love as he obviously did, Jonah knew he was likely to be merciful with the Ninevites, and he wanted no part in it. Never mind that God desired their rescue, their transformation, the very idea that God could love these people judged Jonah’s firm opinion that they were not worth saving. So he demanded the right not to change his mind, no matter what the desires of God might have been in the matter.

And it strikes me that oftentimes we are Jonah. Most of us carry around inside our heads whole lists of people whom we believe in our secret moments to be quite beyond the rescuing love of God. It frustrates us to learn that God loves these others as unequivocally, as fully as he loves us. And that is because if we really believe in this all-encompassing love of God, we might find it necessary to change our own minds about others we may have judged unfit for fellowship in the kingdom. Better to go off to sea, better to be swallowed by a big fish and die than to have to be in community with those whom God cherishes but whom we despise.

The unchanging mind in this story, as we’ll reflect on it more next week, is not God’s as we might have thought, but Jonah’s. And, if we are often honest with ourselves, the unchanging mind can also be ours. In the end, God will have spent more time working to redeem Jonah from the prison of his own rigid hatred than he did rescuing the Ninevites. How ironic, that the prophet of the very people chosen to be a light to the nations should spend so much time trying to extinguish that light!

Jonah wanted nothing to do with relationship, not with those people!


Now might be the point in this sermon when the preacher is expected to bash the congregation with a list of folks that we often overlook, that we judge, and do not welcome. But why do this? We all know who they are. And chances are good that they are a bit different for each of us. One of the underlying currents in many church quarrels has to do with differing ideas about who is and is not an appropriate candidate for membership in the kingdom. Years ago, I remember phoning a person about another church member whom he had once seemed to like but later abandoned as a friend. The former friend was crushed. I called the man to encourage him to go to his old acquaintance and rekindle friendship. The response was, “He is such a pain. Who needs him?”

That sounds to me a lot like Jonah’s angry response to God’s mercy for the Ninevites. The fear that lay at the base of his reluctance wasn’t in announcing the words God had given him, but in the knowledge that those words would inevitably be just the prelude to relationship. And Jonah wasn’t about to engage in relationship with those people. I recall someone once declared that when Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” it made all the sense in the world. What sense would it make to say, “Love your friends”? It would be like saying, “Breathe the air” — who could help it?

God changes toward us because he so desperately desires to work a transformation in us. It can happen. We ought to be glad that it can happen. That way, some day when we find we must don sackcloth and ashes, perhaps we will be able to say with the king of Ninevah, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” It is hope worth nurturing anyway.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Exodus 32:12-14, italics mine, of course.
2 Jeremiah 18: 8-10, (see also 26:3, 26:13, 26:19), again, italics mine.
3 Craig Barnes, in his sermon, “Changing God’s Mind,” preached at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 2-6-05.