Trust Your Questions

Isaiah 58:6-12; Hebrews 11:1-3
Presented November 11, 2012, by Joel Kline
The 24th Sunday after Pentecost

Several years ago, here at Highland Avenue Church, we created a series of postcards to be shared with the larger community, aimed at highlighting the key qualities or characteristics of our congregation, providing brief vignettes of our beliefs and values and faith perspective. One of the postcards, labeled “Welcoming questions big and small,” carried the message, “At Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren we are not afraid of questions or doubts. Join us as we consider how to live faithfully in the midst of life’s uncertainty…”

I have heard Jim Wallis, leader of the Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C., recall his upbringing in a small evangelical congregation in Detroit in the 1960s. It was the civil rights era, as well as the turbulent days of the rising peace and anti-Vietnam War movement. As a teenager, Jim Wallis began to hear of another world beyond the safe and secure walls of his white, middle-class congregation, and he found himself asking a number of critical questions. How is it that he could grow up singing, Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in sight, yet have so little connection with persons of differing colors and backgrounds and life experiences? Why were many of the members of his small evangelical congregation so critical of a minister gaining increasing notoriety in those days for leadership in the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King, Jr.? And didn’t Jesus have something to say about peace—and if so, why was Jim not hearing that message in the preaching and teaching of the congregation in which he had grown up?

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The Pause That Refreshes

Isaiah 55:1-13 NRSV; Matthew 11:28-30 The Message
Presented November 4, 2012, by Kim Ebersole
The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Last month, the residents of Los Angeles had a unique opportunity. They had the privilege of watching the space shuttle Endeavour make its final tour. Not in space, orbiting around our globe at its usual speed of an astounding 17,500 miles per hour, but right on the streets where they live. Thousands of people lined the route, waiting for hours in eager anticipation for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as Endeavour made its way to its new home at the California Science Center.

I would have loved to have been there to watch the big, white shuttle slowly crawl through the city’s neighborhoods at a leisurely 2 miles per hour. As it was, I had to experience it vicariously. But it was still fun to watch video of the crowds gathered along the streets break into cheers as the shuttle finally came into view.

For a moment, people in LA stopped their busy lives and stood still. They understood that this was an event worth stopping everything they were doing to experience. They came—waiting, watching, and listening for a sign that Endeavour would soon be passing by—heeding  the invitation to come and taste the excitement of seeing such a wondrous sight.

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Mercies That Never End

Psalm 34:4-14; Mark 10:46-52
Presented October 28, 2012, by Joel Kline
The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost/Commitment Sunday

One of the gifts this congregation presented to me several months ago, when celebrating the tenth anniversary of my service as pastor, is the seven-volume set of The Saint John’s Bible. Its creation represents a remarkable feat in a day such as ours that has grown accustomed to instant communication. Why would artists and monks and calligraphers choose to embark upon the nearly decade-long task of transcribing by hand the Scriptures, a task that had not been undertaken in some five and a half centuries, since the invention of the printing press? In the preface to Christopher Calderhead’s book Illuminating the Word: The Making of the St. John’s Bible, librarian Christopher de Hamel suggests that “the whole project was either utter madness or magnificent good fortune.” Continues de Hamel, “It may be madness or imagination or simply faith that has driven the project, or a combination.”

Utter insanity or simple faith? Absolute madness or an act of daring imagination? I found myself pondering such alternatives when considering earlier this week today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, chapter ten. It’s the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting by the roadside as Jesus and the disciples, along with a sizeable crowd, are leaving Jericho and heading toward Jerusalem. Is it utter madness that compels Bartimaeus to interrupt Jesus, to cry out repeatedly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47)? Or does Bartimaeus recognize this moment as glorious opportunity? Does Bartimaeus dare to imagine his life taking on a new shape, a new direction, a new purpose, as he anticipates the touch of Jesus?

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How Big Is Our Faith?

Mark 10:17-31; Hebrews 4:12-16
Presented October 14, 2012, by Joel Kline
The 20th Sunday after Pentecost

You may be familiar with Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen, the story of two Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s. One of the boys, Danny, is the son of a Hasidic rabbi, an ultra-conservative sect; the other, Reuven, is the son of an Orthodox professor who teaches Torah at a leading Jewish school in New York City. The boys first encounter one another on a baseball field, as the teams from their two schools compete against each other. Tension, even hostility, between the two groups fills the air, with the Hasidic team dismissing the Orthodox as unfaithful, certain that they have watered down the faith, and the Orthodox rejecting Hasidism as legalistic and extreme.

Danny comes up to bat against Reuven, and drills the ball directly at the pitcher’s mound. Reuven has little time to guard himself, with the ball slamming into his face, shattering his glasses. A shard of glass lodges in Reuven’s eye, and he needs to have emergency surgery. Some days later, when Reuven returns home, everything looks different to him. Those things Reuven had long taken for granted now seem to possess a luminous and a newly-alive quality, and Reuven later notes of that time, “Somehow everything had changed. I had spent five days in a hospital and the world around me seemed sharpened now and pulsing with life…. I felt I had crossed into another world.”

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A Holy Partnership

Luke 14:25-33; Hebrews 3:1-6
Presented September 23, 2012, by Joel Kline
The 17th Sunday after Pentecost

Quite a few years ago I attended a Church Leaders Conference where the featured speaker was Mary Cosby, one of the founding members of the Church of Our Savior in Washington, D.C. She told a story that has stayed with me through the years, the story of a gifted man who had come to the point of Christian commitment well past seventy years of age, following many years of struggle and questioning and resistance. It was a transforming commitment for that elderly man, as he found a new hope and purpose for his living, a new spirit of compassion and mercy, grace and peace. Sometime after making that commitment, the fellow confided to Mary Cosby that there was one time when he was keenly disappointed with the Church of Our Savior, a congregation that works very intentionally at ensuring that each of its members personally hears a call to mission and ministry. When Mary inquired about his time of disenchantment, he shared that it happened as he was joining the church. His answer shocked Mary, and she countered, “But it was such a celebration. We were so excited, as we wrapped arms around you!”

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A Measure of Abundance

Psalm 145:1-13; Luke 12:13-21
Presented September 16, 2012, by Joel Kline
The 16th Sunday after Pentecost

In a workshop with the Brethren Ministers Association earlier this summer, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann suggested that the Psalms of old provide a counter-cultural script for our living. In an anxious world ever concerned about things running out, the Psalms point instead to a world replete with God’s abundance, God’s lavish care for all creation. In a greedy world in which those who have continue to get more while the plight of those without only seems to worsen, the Psalms encourage an alternative stance of generosity, a commitment to a lifestyle of sharing and serving. In a world which extols self-sufficiency, assuming we can—and should—make it on our own in life, the writer of the Psalms urges us instead to recognize our dependence upon our Creator God, the Giver of all good gifts. Were we to take these claims of the psalmist seriously, we would indeed find ourselves living counter-culturally, taking hold of a life perspective, a set of values and priorities for our living, that runs counter to the perspective of the society in which we dwell.

The 145th psalm, for example, makes the assertion that the fundamental reality in life has precious little to do with any of humanity’s efforts at plotting and scheming and maneuvering to get ahead; much to the contrary, the essential basis of life, according to the poet, is the gracious, compassionate, and faithful love of our God. Though many psalms include the element of praise, Psalm 145 is the only one that carries as its superscription the single word praise. The Jewish Talmud claims that any who repeat the 145th psalm three times a day are ensured to be children of the world to come, for it is a psalm that in a host of ways propels us to embrace this alternative message of our need for relationship with the generous and gracious God of all creation.

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Finding Meaning in Traditional Words of Faith (“Repentance” and “Grace”): Hating Our Sin

Romans 7:14-25; Ephesians 2: 1-10
Presented September 2, 2012, by Jeanne Davies
The 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Repentance and grace are words that are dear to my heart. Not only are they words that are central and unique to the Christian faith but they are concepts that I have pondered long and deeply. You see… I grew up German. And being a German-American child, I necessarily carried a lot of guilt and shame. I understand for those who are Brethren, there is an added layer of guilt. As a child I worried a lot about being good and whether or not I did the right thing. I would lie awake at night, reliving things that had happened during the day — poring over them and searching for what I might have possibly done wrong.

I don’t think these feelings of guilt and remorse are unique to Germans or to Brethren, though to be sure we are well-schooled in them. In my years of pastoral counseling, I would say the overwhelming need of people who talk with me is the need for words of absolution. Most people are very hard on themselves and are wondering whether they are ok, hoping that they are loved, wanting to be at peace with themselves, with others, and with God. Sometimes I feel myself just wanting to repeat, “Grace. Grace. Grace.”

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Finding Meaning in Traditional Words of Faith: The Scandal of God’s Foolishness

Mark 8:31-38; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Presented August 19, 2012, by Joel Kline
The 12th Sunday after Pentecost

Back in my college days I was far from a morning person. I remember one particular morning, having risen at the last possible moment and scurrying to an 8:00 class—with no time to spare—being approached on campus by a young man who asked if I could provide directions. Trying not to show my impatience, I asked how I could help, and soon heard the young man asking, “Do you know the way to heaven?” The faculty at a nearby School of the Bible apparently had determined that Elizabethtown College, where I attended, was far from sufficiently grounded in matters of faith, and so sent some of their students to help us “wayward” folk find the right course in life. I recall not being particularly responsive to the young man; I think I may have mumbled something about being late to class, then hustled off across campus.

Periodically I think about that encounter, and one thing is clear to me: neither the young man’s question nor my answer was adequate. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience, feeling accosted by someone inquiring about the status of your relationship with God, asking, “Are you saved?” My intent this morning is not to make light of such questions, but to the contrary, to invite us to think more deeply about the biblical notion of salvation, a word that appears, along with the related words, saved, saving, and savior, nearly 500 times in Scripture. It is a word rich with meaning, yet a word all too narrowly understood, in many Christian traditions, as a purely future promise, as assurance of eternal destiny in heaven. I’m certainly appreciative of the promise of a glorious afterlife, but it is imperative to note that again and again in Scripture salvation speaks of a new quality of living we embrace and begin to live out, here and now, in the present tense. Salvation involves a movement from darkness to light, from fear to trust, from despair to hope, from blindness to vision, from grief to joy, from anxiety to courage, from injustice to justice, from violence to peace. Salvation includes healing, wholeness, shalom. Salvation speaks of transformation, of hearts and minds being made new.

The Brethren Encyclopedia includes an essay on “the doctrine of salvation,” with the writer reminding us that in our tradition, salvation has long been viewed, not as a once-and-done experience, but rather as “a process including past, present, and future aspects.” Salvation, continues the writer, “is thus an accomplished fact, a continuing walk, and a future hope…. Salvation is God’s gracious gift, but human response to the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit is demanded to make this gift effective in human lives.”

“The uniqueness of the Brethren view of Christ’s redemptive work,” continues the writer, “lies in [our] giving as much importance to Christ’s life as to Christ’s death. Christ’s life and teachings are held to exhibit the highest qualities of the godly life to which his disciples are called: obedience, love, self-sacrifice, humility, service.”

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Finding Meaning in Traditional Words of Faith: Plotting Goodness

John 1:29-35; Romans 8:1-6
Presented August 12, 2012, by Joel Kline
The 11th Sunday after Pentecost

My two-and-a-half year old grandson, Paul, has developed a recent habit of finger pointing. When our family was together last week and Paul wanted to make it clear to whom he was talking, he would point directly at the family member to whom he was speaking. It was rather cute, and by the end of the week, we found ourselves jokingly pointing at one another in the midst of our conversations.

But there’s a very different form of finger pointing, isn’t there? It’s the kind of finger pointing that communicates accusation and blame, the kind of finger pointing that is likely to set us at odds against one another. Sadly, many persons—both those within the church and those outside of the church—carry a negative image of the church’s preaching, assuming that they will be the object of the church’s critical and accusatory finger pointing. Some years ago someone who was not a fan of television preachers suggested that listeners turn off the sound and observe the facial expressions of those preachers. The predominant expression observed was anger. Though the preachers may have given voice to a message about the love of God, their facial expressions betrayed an alternative message—the story of an angry God, even a vengeful God, far more interested in accusing people of living in the throes of sin than in extending good news of mercy, forgiveness, hope, and new life.

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Finding Meaning in Traditional Words of Faith: The Blood of the Covenant

Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-14
Presented July 29, 2012, by Jeanne Davies
The 9th Sunday after Pentecost

The Life is in the Blood

Pastor Joel and I are preaching a sermon series on finding meaning in traditional words of faith. This is the second sermon in the series. Pastor Joel started last week with a sermon on God and we will continue the series through Sunday, September 9. This morning the traditional word of faith we are exploring is “blood.” I was joking with others that this was my first sermon at Highland Avenue as associate pastor, it’s summer, and I’m preaching on blood – I wondered how many would make it here this morning. I’m glad you are all here.

Blood is powerful. Blood is deep. And I preach on it this morning with some trepidation and much humility. I welcome your thoughts following worship today. We can continue the conversation. I’m sure I have more to learn.

Blood is necessary for life. Blood carries the life, the breath, the spirit, the pneuma, throughout our bodies. It circulates the oxygen from the breath to enliven us. If any part of our bodies is cut off from the life-giving circulation of blood, it dies. Blood is the tangible and material bearer of life. It is a gift from God. Blood’s connection to life means it connects us to God who gave us life. God, our creator. The blood contains the life-breath of God.

Blood is also disturbing, repellant, repulsive. It makes us squeamish. It can even make us nauseated. It makes some people faint. When children get a cut or a scrape, they want a band-aid to cover it up, to keep the blood inside where it should be. We do not want to see blood. It should stay in our bodies where it belongs.

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