Sunday, April 24, 2011

Spirits in the Divine Service

Spirits in the Divine Service

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Easter Day, April 24, 2011

Matthew 28:1-7

Hebrews 1:1-4, 14

Are not all angels spirits in the divine service?NRSV

You may remember the name Vaclav Havel, a playwright and the first president of the post-Soviet Czech Republic, who, after spending 10 years helping his country move beyond the burdens of communist repression, returned to writing plays. He has become one of those quotable historic figures from our times. I recalled one of his often-quoted comments as I read again the gospel story of the resurrection. In 1986, 3 years before becoming president of the Czech Republic, he was asked “Do you see a grain of hope anywhere in the 1980s?” He replied,

Hope is an orientation of the spirit, a reorientation of the heart... It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something will make sense, regardless how it turns out.

He could well have been describing that situation of the disciples after Easter, with the dawning recognition from their own observations, and the stories of others, that Friday had not been the end of Jesus. Death by crucifixion did not finish his work. Rather, the one who healed the sick, forgave the guilty, and raised the dead would move beyond the confines of an individual life. God’s power embodied in Jesus was – and is – still on the move in the world.

That’s a pretty good working definition of hope: not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something will make sense, regardless how it turns out. The idea that hope means things should turn out well assumes a sort of finality that doesn’t exist in the real world, doesn’t it? – a point at which everything stops and draws to a fine conclusion: “...and they lived happily ever after.” But we all know from our own existence in the world, that life is not like that: it goes on. And on and on, with or without us. Some things turn out well, but that is not the end, because what turned out well at one point may turn out badly later. And vice versa. We work hard, buy a new car with our hard-earned dollars. Hurray! A good outcome. But wait. It turns out that car has a major defect that causes an accident resulting in major injury or death. Bad outcome! But wait. Through the experience of hospitalization following the accident we discover the love and support of our family, which we had not known before. Good outcome! But wait...

This is what I mean.

Time moves forward with unstoppable force. So, hope rests more in the sense we can make of events than in some artificial endpoints we place on them. Imagine, for instance, how different things might have been between Palestinians and Jewish people if Hitler had never come along. Would things be better? Worse? Whatever we think, chances are good they would not be the same. Making sense of the events of history in our present living, that is a task for resurrection people, which today of all days we remember is what we are.

The execution of an innocent man who was a compassionate healer and good-news teller is not a good outcome. But when all was said and done, the events surrounding his suffering and death began to make sense to his followers in ways they could never have imagined before the events themselves. And in the end, Jesus’ followers became his new body, living and moving in the world. We are part of that body as we gather today.

I once read about a church in Europe[1] where the baptismal font rested in the arms of a carved, wooden angel that was normally suspended above the chancel of the church. On one day when families were presenting children for baptism, an assistant went behind a screen to lower the angel to the floor. However, the rope holding the angel aloft was apparently stuck, having slipped off its pulley. He yanked on the rope this way and that, but the angel refused to descend. Finally, a woman from the committee responsible for the upkeep of the sanctuary came in with a step ladder, climbed up, and retrieved the bowl for the baptisms. Once she got down, the angel promptly crashed to the floor. One pastor reflected that until it fell, that angel was a good illustration of our modern experience of angels, whose function appears to have once been to bring news of God’s grace down to people, but who generally now remain suspended beyond our experience.

The author of Hebrews wrote that angels – whatever else we may believe them to be – are spirits in the service of God, and their purpose, so far as we are likely to know, is to help human beings make sense of the world into which Christ came to bring life. It could be that more often in ancient times than in modern, God used angels to carry messages to people like Mary and Joseph before their wedding day[2], Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem[3], and Peter snoozing in Joppa through dreams of unclean animals on the hoof[4]; but “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son...” The point isn’t whether angels exist – I suppose they could exist when God needs them to exist and don’t when God no longer requires their service – the point is that God moves within the events of our world, and in the midst of that turbulent history there has come a Son, Jesus, bringing the news that while our own day may not have a happy outcome – indeed, our own lives may lack a happy outcome – there is, in the end, a way in which the living of our lives in this God-provided world makes sense.

According to our reading from Hebrews, the sense we can make of Jesus is that...

· He came, not as an angel to proclaim the love of God; Jesus is the love of God made alive in human form;

· He doesn’t merely announce God’s power and announce God’s wisdom; “he is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”[5]

· He is not a mirror reflecting the light of God in the world; Jesus is God’s light, which no darkness can overcome, and in whose face we find ourselves gazing upon the very glory of the very God.[6]

· He isn’t a string around the finger or a sticky note reminding us that God is a God who provides; Jesus is the very providence of God who “sustains all things by his powerful word.”[7]

Because of Easter we know that God’s grace is not a concept or a doctrine or a formulation or a blind affirmation. God’s grace is a person. The word about the risen Christ is not a notion, a proposition that without our acquiescence might fail. Jesus didn’t come to the world in order to increase our options but to reconcile the world to God. And the word from the tomb became an unequivocal word: “mission accomplished.”

We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster this September. 9/11 arrives this year on a Sunday, as it turns out. I like to start planning some months ahead for worship, and running across that fact reminded me of a story I heard at the time of that disaster about a fire fighter named Vinnie, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.[8] Those whose lives are touched by senseless tragedy know all too well the feelings that Vinnie’s family knew. Vinnie’s father delivered a eulogy at his church in Queens at a service with no body present, and as he went on he discovered he was unable to stop. Apparently he was searching his own words for a final explanation, a way out of the crushing feeling that nothing makes sense, and he could not stop speaking, because to stop would be finally to admit that Vinnie was gone, disappeared from the face of the earth with little evidence that he ever existed. When our lives are visited by tragedy, we know the feeling.

Two months after that memorial service, Vinnie’s remains were found. And everything at the World Trade Center site went silent. Hats came off, and a reverent cessation of activity overcame the grounds as Vinnie was carried out. The next worship service at his church a few days later, on Good Friday, was filled to overflowing, and when the congregation sang a hymn with the words, “Lord, let at last thine angels come,” everyone knew that in these latter days the Lord had spoken to them. And while the angels might have been summoned to carry their beloved brother in Christ to heaven, suspended above the experience of the world we now know, here on earth we live within the community of the very body of Christ as we gather this day to say:


The Lord is risen!

He is risen indeed!

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


[1] “Where Have All the Angels Gone?” by Dale Bringman, Best Sermons 3, Harper & Row, 1990, p.141.

[2] Luke 1:26-38, Matthew 1:1-25 NRSV.

[3] Matthew 2:12 NRSV.

[4] Acts 10:9-16 NRSV.

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:24 NRSV.

[6] Thanks to John B. Rogers for images of the nature of Jesus in Interpretation, “Between Text and Sermon,” p. 291 ff.

[7] Hebrews 1:3 NRSV.

[8] Thanks to Stephen Bouman for this account in his sermon “Jacob’s Ladder,” in Christian Century, 9/20/03, p. 19.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Campaign of Whispers

Campaign of Whispers

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Psalm 31:9-16

Passion/Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011

For I hear the whispering of many. NRSV

I remember in the early 1960s, when Gene Pitney was a heartthrob singer, the chorus of one of his hit songs “It Hurts to Be in Love” repeated the lines

And so I cry a little bit (it hurts to be in love)

Ah, I die a little bit (it hurts to be in love)

Day and night, night and day, it hurts to be in love this way.

One of the irrefutable facts of life in the world – as we have been thinking on it over the last few weeks – is that everyone born into this world will one day leave it through death. Day and night, night and day, we die a little bit. That’s not a stunning revelation for anyone, I’m sure, but it is pretty clear that a lot of us remain in denial about it most of our lives, and all of us are in denial about it at least some of our lives. It is probably not the most popular subject for sermons, but because the fact of death has been addressed by the good news of the resurrection of Christ, there is reason to find hope in the consideration of what is for all of us, inevitable.

Researchers tell us that most people are not so much afraid of the fact of death, but rather fear the process of death. Will there be much pain? Will it be prolonged? Will my loved ones have to suffer right along with me through months of decline as we wait for the inevitable? We are anxious not so much about the fact of death as we are about its means, the sorts of things that might kill us.

As we review the words of Psalm 31, I think we discover a fairly universal list of obvious causes of death, as well as some we might not have considered to be death-related, though the psalmist seems to believe they are.

Gene Pitney sang of unrequited love which “day and night” caused him to “die a little bit.” The psalmist speaks of eyes wasting from grief, failing strength, dissolving bones, and, perhaps as much feared as any by those who wake up one day all alone in care facilities, he writes “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead...”

And then this line, among those lines about things which bring on death, which has intrigued me all week: “For I hear the whispering of many ... as they plot to take my life.”NRSV Not the sharpening of swords or the assembling of gallows, but a whispered destruction of name and reputation, another kind of death.

Have you ever been going through a rough patch in your life, and entered a room in which some of your acquaintances were talking with each other, and as you came in, in ones and twos they saw you and everything went silent? “They have been talking about me,” you realize with a rising sense of uneasiness. Probably all of us have come through life circumstances at some time when we have learned all too directly what it means to hear first, second, or third hand about the whispered gossip of people we had thought were our friends, so that sometimes coming into a room full of chatting people turns into a pretty big challenge. And who among us has not taken our own place among others in our whisperings about someone? What is our first reaction on realizing we have been the subject of gossip? I don’t know about you, but mine is “I wonder, is that an exit over there...?” It takes something out of a person to discover they have been the subject of gossip.

There is a stunning scene depicting this in William Thackeray’s classic novel, Vanity Fair, highlighting the pretensions and cruelties of stratified British Society in the early 19th century. An excellent film adaptation of the book was released a few years ago[1], with Reese Witherspoon playing the part of Becky Sharp, a bright, beautiful, but penniless young woman, who nevertheless aspired to reach the higher levels of British society. (By the way, and I always like to point this out, Ms. Witherspoon is a direct descendent of John Witherspoon, a Scots-born Presbyterian and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence). When at last Becky Sharp is invited to a soirĂ©e among the ladies of the upper crust, the camera observes the social scene from an elevated distance. The room goes almost dead silent as she enters, with every appraising eye on this pretender to the class of society which everyone else in the room occupies. As Becky approaches each gathering of ladies, they disperse at her advance, like amoebae under a microscope reacting to the introduction of a foreign and dangerous substance into their liquid world.

Why do people behave in this way? I have always thought that gossip, campaigns of whispers, are retreats into pre-adult behavior, which is not to say adults aren’t plenty involved in it. It is playground behavior, it is, as I once heard a high school senior describe it, “So Junior High!” Exactly, and I mean no offense to junior high kids in our midst by comparing them to adults. Generally those most anxious to create and spread gossip about others are people who feel vulnerable, and to mask that vulnerability they seek to deflect negative attention on others. A group of three or four middle school girls gang up on another girl with malicious gossip, because they themselves feel vulnerable, and if the rest of their world is busy talking about someone else, they are safe, at least for the moment. And it certainly doesn’t stop in middle school, the behavior only gets more subtle and more skilled. It is, as one Bible study friend said to me once, a behavior immortalized in the Christmas song where all of the other reindeer “wouldn’t let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.”

Well, gossip in the world is a given. And whispered campaigns of gossip, and other means of dealing death a little bit day by day, are among other “givens” of life in the world. But the question is not so much whether such things happen as it is whether God walks through these times with us. In just such situations as we may find ourselves – and such situations in the life and ministry of Jesus which we will recall during the services on Thursday and Friday nights this week – the psalmist declares his faith in the utter dependability of God. “I trust in you, O Lord,” the psalmist says, “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”

Sometimes, in our living and in our dying, all we can do is resolve, with God’s help, to endure. As some folks say, half of life is just showing up. One shoe in front of the other, round side up, flat side down, and don’t let anyone step on the round side. One pastor said, “Persistence is the marriage of discipline and patience.” It takes something like that.

In this week that kids relate to fetching Easter eggs, I thought I’d share an egg story in the sermon. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor once taught at Columbia Presbyterian Theological Seminary near Atlanta, and lived in the country on a farm, from which she sometimes drew lessons of faith. She once reported that they had a guinea hen who was such a wretched mother, after she laid her first clutch of eggs, she wandered from her outdoor nest, leaving it open to critters who were all too willing to steal her eggs. So the next time she laid eggs, they took them and placed them in an incubator. Nine chicks hatched out, but the last chick...

“... had such a hard time leaving the shell that a piece of it dried to her head, trapping her half in and half out. The cardinal rule of being a [human] Bird Mother is that you cannot help, because the fight to escape the shell somehow kick starts all of a keet’s systems. Those that cannot manage by themselves may die anyway, but if you help them then you wreck their odds...

In what had to be one of the most agonizing tests a pastor can undergo, I sat there in my imaginary straitjacket watching the chick struggle while her shell hardened around her. Her labors grew weaker as the time between them increased. Finally she laid her head down on the plastic shelf of the incubator and did not try any more. Figuring she was a goner, Ed lifted the keet, shell and all, and placed her in the straw-lined wooden box with her siblings. Huddled under a 60-watt light bulb, they were in constant motion, all climbing on top of one another as they each tried to crawl closest to the light.

When the trapped keet heard them cheeping, she cheeped too and the heads of the others swiveled in her direction. Then they called to her (“Lazarus, come out!”) and the sound galvanized her. She lifted her head off of the straw, shuddered all over and heaved free. On orange rubber legs, she staggered over to the pile of warm feathers and dove underneath them, leaving her old shell behind her like a shroud.

The other babies welcomed her by treading on her. This looked harsh, but turned out to be just what she needed. With nine pairs of keet feet, they dried and revived her better than any Swedish masseur could have done...

Within an hour, the keets were all eating... One by one, they walked over to the red plastic water trough and sipped from it as if they had studied instructions on its use in the shell. None of them asked for a chaplain. They did not even need a mother. My job, as it turned out, was not to crack shells, extract keets, dry feathers or pour mash into mouths. My job was simply to make a safe place, keep the predators away, and let the community do what it knew how to do. I hope I can remember that the next time I feel the urge to rescue someone from being born.”[2]

Or from being born again. Paul wrote, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”[3] But of course, as we contemplate our dying, even our dying by inches, no matter how we may die it is not for this life only, but for life eternal which we hope, through Jesus Christ, who is the very face of God shining on us, saving us in God’s steadfast love.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1. Vanity Fair, 2004, directed by Mira Nair.

2. “Birth Pangs,” by Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century, December 13, 2003, p. 43.

3. I Corinthians 15:19 NRSV.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Making Our Days Count

Making Our Days Count

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Lent, April 3, 2011

Psalm 90

So teach us to count our days

that we may gain a wise heart.

I sometimes think that there is no more difficult job in the world than that of translators. Verse 12 of this psalm provides a small case in point. Listen to the ways it is variously translated;

King James Version:

So teach us to number our days,

that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

Revised Standard Version:

So teach us to number our days

that we may get a heart of wisdom.

New English Bible:

Teach us to order our days rightly,

that we may enter the gate of wisdom.

Good News Bible:

Teach us how short our life is,

so that we may become wise.

New International Version:

Teach us to number our days aright,

that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Contemporary English Version:

Teach us to use wisely all the time we have.

New Revised Standard Version:

So teach us to count our days

that we may gain a wise heart.

At least, for the most part, all the translators seem to agree that teaching us something about our days relates to wisdom. Is it that to be wise involves an appropriate sense of the meaning of time? I think that is the sense of the psalm, especially given the early focus on the command to mortals to turn back to dust. For God, a thousand years is like the passing of a summer night, since God does not turn back to dust, but for us, each summer, winter, autumn or spring night is one less night we will pass, one less day to be swept away until all our days are spent. The psalmist is reflecting on something we all contemplate, the eternity of God and the transience of human life.

We all can remember childhoods in which we lived with the impression that if our days were numbered, the number was so large as to be of little concern to us. At age 8 or 10, a life of 70 or 80 years seemed to stretch to a virtually endless number. But, the psalmist and all his translators are insistent about this point: our days are numbered, and they disappear insistently, one after another. A life of 75 years, the span both of my parents reached, runs to 27,393 days, including the extra days in the leap years. By the time I reached age 61 on my last birthday, I had used up 22,280 days. If my goal were 75 years, I am past the 4/5 point. It’s little worse than that, actually. Since my birthday last July, the sun has risen and set an additional 266 times, as of today I have been on the earth for 22,546 days, give or take.

Those who would like to be high-tech about this business of numbering our days can check out the Death Clock at, billed as “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away.” By typing in a few personal details like birth date, gender, and whether or not you are a smoker, the computer will generate a prediction of your date of death. It turns out the computer declares mine to be April 23, 2022. We’ll see about that. At least I’d be around to observe my brother’s birthday on April 19th that year. But wait, he’s older than I am, and he used to smoke, so... My plan, of course, is to stay as healthy as possible and beat the “Death Clock” prediction. Still, life remains a terminal condition for us all whether we beat predictions or not.

So this is getting serious! Time’s a-wasting! “Life is short...” I have often said, seeking God’s blessing at the conclusion of worship. Any sunny day not spent doing something enjoyable, like playing a round of golf, or reading on the back deck, really begins to cause sober reflection! I join the psalmist in his prayer that I might be taught to number my days so as to make my heart wiser than it currently is about the ways of God.

William Willimon, preaching to graduating seniors prior to their commencement at Duke University, once said, “Time and its passage. That’s a subject much on your mothers’ minds whether or not it is on yours. These good women who bore you, birthed you, and now bore you, know full-well what this weekend means. Life is rushing on. Only yesterday they were pushing you out the door toward Kindergarten. Now they are pushing you out the door to life. At least, when they pushed you out that first time you had the good sense to cry.”*

Before the psalmist asks God to teach us to measure/count/number our days in verse 12, he reflects that all our days march along before God’s view and then conclude, as “our years come to an end like a sigh.” For all the worry and thrashing about that we do in our days here, in the end, there is but a sigh. Acknowledging that we cannot hope to live in this life forever, at the end of the psalm there is that wistful prayer, “prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” If we will die, as we must, perhaps our work, perhaps some impact we have had on the world will outlive us and cause us to be remembered...

I recall watching the movie titled Troy a couple of years back. I didn’t think it was all that good, despite its all-star cast. It took itself way too seriously, I think, and it was far too long. So this isn’t a recommendation to run out and rent it, it was, in my mind, kind of a time waster. It was one of those epic films that comes out of Hollywood from time to time, which in recent years feature computer-generated hosts of soldiers spread in overwhelming numbers on every vista. Brad Pitt played Achilles, who blabs on and on throughout the movie to anyone who will listen about the certainty that he will be immortalized as a great warrior. I have to confess, I had all but forgotten about the great warrior status of Achilles. I acknowledge I should have paid better attention in courses in ancient history and literature, but I mainly recalled instead that a pesky tendon behind my heel that often needs stretching was named after him. As we may recollect from whatever we may have learned of Greek mythology, he suffered a wound between his ankle and foot that led to his demise, resulting in the proverbial use of “Achilles heel” as a nickname for some little personal weakness that does a person in. I suppose if this was his version of attaining immortality, then he is welcome to it. For my part, I find myself reflecting on the fact that I spent over 2 1/2 of the approximately 96,000 precious hours that potentially remain of my life watching that mediocre film. I think it underscores the psalmist’s wisdom that our days “are soon gone, and we fly away,” and his prayer that God might prosper the work of our hands that, if we are to be remembered at all, it might be for some good thing we managed to do, something better, perhaps, than dying in battle from a wound in the ankle, or watching a movie about such a death.

One of the earliest writers of hymns as we know them today was Isaac Watts, and one of his best known hymns is “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” 5 verses of which appear in our hymnal. It is a meditation on Psalm 90, and is often requested for funeral and memorial services. It is not as well known that most of Watts’ hymns went on for many more verses than we have in our hymnals. I am aware of nine verses for that hymn, there may well be more, from a time when time spent worshiping was not so carefully measured. Some of those verses remind us of the wisdom of measuring our days as we seek the wisdom of God:

Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,

“Return, ye sons of men:”

All nations rose from earth at first,

and turn to earth again.

A thousand ages in Thy sight

are like an evening gone;

Short as the watch that ends the night

before the rising sun.

Time, like an every-rolling stream,

bears all its sons away;

They fly, forgotten, as a dream

dies at the opening day.

Why read this in Lent? Why read it at all? Isn’t all this depressing stuff about the inevitability of our mortality the reason we like to avoid sad books like Tuesdays with Morrie and Proverbs and especially Ecclesiastes? It’s Sunday, the Lord’s day, why do we have to think about all this? Well, two reasons, really, the first is because the preacher’s task, among others, is to speak the truth as plainly as we can. And this is something undeniably true about all of us, no matter how we may wish to avoid it. We all die, sooner or later, but unavoidably. But we are also supposed to help our congregations find God’s meaning in what is true. We bring this subject up because this is also true about the world: Because of something astounding that happened in the life of one man, who lived – as we live – died – as we all must die – yet who was God. Jesus – who, it seems to me, made his days count more than any other person who ever lived – also died, as we must die, but was not gone, did not “fly away forgotten as a dream.” Though his years walking among us as a man came to an end as ours must, they did not come to an end like a sigh, but rather, as the guards at his tomb said, like an earthquake, after which his disciples saw that he lives everywhere and calls us to life in him.

It is said that John Calvin’s lifelong motto was “Seize the day before the face of God.” The image often associated with Calvin, founder of the Reformation movement to which Presbyterians trace their roots, depicts hands holding a heart up toward God, with Latin words that say “I offer my heart to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.” We could say that this is a good illustration of the heart of wisdom that the psalmist seeks. A heart held up to God now, while we can, a vulnerable, aging, human heart, which God accepts within the folds of God’s own loving, immortal and eternal heart in Jesus Christ, the first, the last, and the ever-living one.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


* William Willimon, “The Time of Our Lives,” preached at the Duke University Chapel, May, 1999.