May 2015

ANGELS OF DISGUST: HOW GOD TRIES TO SAVE US FROM OURSELVES I picked up the phrase angels of disgust from John Updike, a prolific novelist born in Reading PA who passed in 2009. Many of Updike’s characters are not very pleasant or admirable: they are adults that never outgrow their high school days as if afraid to grow up. They are cheats; they are completely self-absorbed; they don’t contribute to the community and often lack civility. They are cowardly, often pushing the limits of some substance abuse (usually alcohol) and they are sexually promiscuous. It is not a happy crowd to be around! But as Updike explores these unsavory characters he uncovers certain moments when even they experience moral shock and recognition: there is some sight, some memory or some vision that awakens them from the spell they are under just in time to prevent them from going any further down the road of destruction. In talking about these moments in the life of his characters Updike uses the phrase “angels of disgust” and he has this intriguing piece of wisdom for the journey: “The angel of disgust protects the seeds of life” In the present series of sermons and in the study group that meets before worship on Sunday morning we are exploring the appearance of these angels of disgust in Scripture. All angels are messengers, the effective presence of God in a certain time and place. They are awesome creatures whose standard opening line has to be “fear not!” Angels usually come to help people to go forward; they advocate for the next faithful step in God’s providence. Think Sara near the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18). Think young Mary in Nazareth (Luke 1). Think Peter in prison (Acts 12). Angels encourage people to get up and get going so they might realize God’s   purposes. But sometimes God sends angels to get in the way, to block the path we are on or the path we are meandering toward. In the Bible these angels may come in open glory such as the cherubim with the blazing sword who prevents Adam and Even from returning to the garden of Eden from which they have been expelled (Gen 3:22-24). Or they may come incognito as the angel who appears to Balaam’s donkey (but not to Balaam) to block Balaam’s planned escape (Numbers 22: 15-38). And sometimes they are manifest as the firm voice of course correction: “no, not that way; this is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30:20-21). And one more thing about them: these angels of disgust can appear to believers and non-believers alike. Many today say they are spiritual but not religious, by which they mean they are turned off by institutional religion. But if they are spiritual enough to experience angels of light and healing (as many of them claim), they also should expect to experience visitations by angels of disgust. And in fact, the encounter with an angel of disgust could be the beginning of a person’s coming to faith. John Wesley talked about a “preventing grace” (we call it prevenient today) as the first step in the way of salvation. He often described it as a sudden reawakening of conscience after a long slumber. I invite you to join us in the worship and in our Rest of the Story study group that...

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March 2015

WHAT LANGUAGE SHALL I BORROW In one of the most remarkable lines of any passion hymn, the 17th Century Lutheran pastor and hymn writer Paul Gerhardt asks a question that endures through the ages. What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end? There is a deep challenge in that question that occurs in the first line of verse three of the hymn, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. We are invited to “raid the inarticulate” (T. S. Eliot), to bring sense and meaning to the terrible act of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth “under Pontius Pilate” on April 7th, 30 CE (Common Era) on a hill just outside Jerusalem. I am pretty sure Paul Gerhardt saw himself as one among many faced in the same direction (some Lutheran, some Reformed, some Roman Catholic) and trying to fathom the death of Christ as the mysterious foundation of their common Atonement, of their being made right with the God from whom they had become separated by sin. This large group of insiders shared major chunks of theological language and a common view of the world. They really could get past a lot “that goes without saying” and onto the meat of the passion that they believed took place not only on Golgotha but also in the heart of God. I do not see myself where Paul Gerhardt saw himself. I still have a group of believers who share my world view and language game, but it is a much smaller group. The larger group of persons is alternately amused, confused, or even irritated at the season of Lent. They do not know what to make of the ashes of Ash Wednesday, the bread and cup of Holy Thursday, the procession of the cross on a day confusingly named Good Friday. The question “what language shall I borrow?” feels more apologetic then worshipful, more urgent than meditative today. How do we make sense of the crucifixion of Jesus in a post-Christian world? We must struggle for the words to share faith with people for whom Christianity is a strange language or a native tongue left behind in the new homeland of secularism. We need to borrow whatever language can find to say: (1) something in us and in our world is broken and left to ourselves we do not have the power to fix it; (2) God is active, trying to create new hearts, healthy communities, peace among nations, and a new creation; (3) the life and fate of the man Jesus the Messiah takes us to the heart of our brokenness and God’s counter moves; and (4) the hours between Thursday evening and Sunday morning 30 CE are the most important hours for the fate of the human race. Pastor Lew...

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