Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sermon: Holy Belonging, Holy Witness

John 17:20-26

 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,* so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

On Sunday evenings, a number of people come from a variety of places and directions, and at 7pm, they gather together in Freeman Chapel. Some are long-time members of this congregation. They have seen this church take risks, act creatively, and put visions of inclusion into practice over the course of decades. Some are people who served as part of the Sunday Night Dream Team, a ministry team of discernment that met together for seven months last year and acted on a deep sense of call that this congregation was commissioned to form a new worshiping community centered around a Sunday Evening Service. Some are people whose names were once unknown to us, but who are now a core group of people who are present every week, people who have made this little family of worshipers their church. And some are first-time guests, people who have wandered on foot into our worship service from Colorado Boulevard after seeing a quirky sign outside, wondering with their own curiosity what a phrase like "spiritually hungry, but institutionally suspicious" could possibly mean.

And every Sunday evening, a miracle takes place. Every Sunday evening, all of these people, spanning a variety of ages, backgrounds, and personal needs become a community. Every week, this happens. It happens in worship. It happens around cafe tables of coffee and snacks after the service. By the grace of God, these people who are individuals with a variety of life-stories are becoming a community.

          And no one on our ministry team ever said, "Hey, let’s make sure that we use the word 'community' all the time in this service," but week in and week out, we do. And no one on our ministry team ever said, "Let's make sure that every single week we say, 'We are a community of prayer,'" but week in and week out, at least one worship leader manages to say that aloud.

        As the Evening Worship Community miraculously becomes just that, a community, and as we are becoming a community of prayer, I’ll tell you that every single Sunday evening, a beautiful moment happens when we’re praying.

          We celebrate communion every time we are together, and during the communion prayer, we always leave a holy space. In this holy space, we invite people to voice the names of individuals aloud. Suddenly everyone is leading the prayer, naming aloud the people who are on our minds and hearts. "Jim. . . Cathy. . . Miguel. . . Grant. . . Heather. . ." The names swirl around the room as we pray for them.

          It is a reminder that the church is always larger than the worshipers in a room. And human love is always larger than a few individuals gathered in together prayer. Others are always present through the love of God. This is a miracle too.

          This is Holy Belonging. And when we live into it, when we act upon it, when we put it on display, this is our Holy Witness.

          Another moment in the life of our church:

          On Tuesday night, the Elders of our congregation met for our monthly Session meeting. We didn't spend a lot of our time on committee reports. Instead, we spent time reflecting and discerning what it would mean for PPC to become a stronger mentoring environment for young adults. We were all invited to bring a photo of a person who has served as an important spiritual mentor in our lives, and we broke into groups to talk about the significance of these individuals.

          In my group, we were each introduced to a father, two uncles, and an influential campus minister. We laughed as we told stories. And as we discussed each person one by one, we all seemed to mention that we had learned something significant about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be human, just by watching these individuals live – just by watching how they loved us and others. And when we had all finished that conversation, we sat back and reminded ourselves that when we are gathered together as a church, especially in worship, there are always more people present than the ones we can see. These influential people are so embedded in our lives, that we are constantly presenting them to each other.

This is Holy Belonging. And when we live into it, when we act upon it, when we put it on display, this is our Holy Witness as a church. This is our Holy Witness to the world.

Jesus led a community of prayer. Jesus was a spiritual mentor, and of course, even more to his disciples. In our scripture text this morning, Jesus is praying with his disciples in a holy, significant moment, and he does something miraculous too.  He prays for the other people embedded in that room – for the ‘beyond people’ – people like you and me, people who were not physically present in that prayer and yet, people who are deeply connected to the disciples sitting in front of him because we are the people who will believe in Jesus through their word. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” Jesus prays. He miraculously makes present the entire Church present – that is, Church with a capital C – and he prays for all of us together, recognizing that there are disciples beyond that room of disciples, disciples who are centuries in the making, and yet, disciples who have names. Jesus prays for us.

And for what does he pray? He prays that we would be one. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” And how do we see and understand this oneness? It starts with the life and love of God. Jesus prays, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. . . I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

“. . .that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.” Jesus desires to be embedded in our lives.  Jesus has embedded us into his own life.  He’s done it with grace before we could even know that we needed it, and we are all present in the love that he shares with God. Within the love of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – within the love of God, near to us like a tender Mother, we are found. It is as if our very lives are being swept up into this love, caught up into the very life of God for a life of love and freedom. Friends, this is Holy Belonging. And when we live into it, when we act upon it, when we put it on display, this is our Holy Witness to the world. It is our Holy Witness to the ‘beyond people’ – disciples in the making who will believe in Jesus through our word. It is our life – the Life of Jesus embedded within us; life that came to us through other lives before we were born, life to be lived in love, belonging, and witness.

Jesus calls us to be one. Jesus prays that we would live out that love in unity. And here is a miraculous gift for the world too: Unity is not uniformity. Unity is not uniformity. People with names who span a variety of ages, backgrounds, and personal needs are entering holy belonging here. They’re doing it in the unity of the love of God, not in the uniformity of what some tell them they should be. People with names who come to us from the many nations of this world – Mexico, Korea, Guatemala, China, Iran, Japan, El Salvador, Haiti, Thailand, and other places – we are entering holy belonging here. We’re on Holy Ground. We’re doing it in the unity of the love of God, not in the uniformity of what some tell us we should be.

This is a church where people can be themselves – a miracle of community where people can live as their transformed selves! When we come as we are and allow ourselves to be swept up into the life of God’s love, when Jesus becomes embedded into the very fabric of our lives, when we are placed in a community of other lives, when we live as transformed people who have been redeemed and commissioned into service – when we do it together, as one unified, miraculous community of disciples – we are belonging to God and one another in a holy way, and we are proclaiming a particular witness in a holy way. This is our Holy Belonging. This is our Holy Witness.

“I in you and you in me,” Jesus prays. “One disciple in the life of another disciple, one community being formed over time.” It is a miracle of God. We are a miracle of God. Let’s belong and gives witness in holy ways. Amen.

-Pastor Renée Roederer and the Community at Pasadena Presbyterian Church


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sermon: The Epilogue Community

2 Corinthians 5:15-21

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. . .

John 21:1-19, 24-25

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

I love the final stories of the Gospel according to John.

I really do. I love how this Gospel ends. It’s intriguing, giving us interesting images and conversations with Jesus on the beach -- one who is known to us and recognizable, and yet, one who is also mysterious, beyond us, unrecognizable – one who calls us to follow him and venture into unchartered waters of discipleship.

I love that this passage closes in a rather open ended way. We don’t know what will happen next, and yet, the Gospel closes with us knowing exactly what will happen ultimately, though we can’t even come close to summing it up: Jesus is going to keep meeting us, feeding us, walking with us, and calling us to follow. Jesus is going to do more things in and through the lives of countless disciples – Peter, John, the disciple whom Jesus loves; disciples all around the world, us too – healing, shepherding, teaching, reconciling. . . I suppose if we could write down all the things that Jesus has done and is about to do among us, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written. But the stories are still being written all the time. Jesus’ story with us is an ongoing, unfolding narrative. The Risen Christ is shepherding us into shepherding others with love and care, with redemptive stories that are still being written. You and me and countless others. . . we are narratives of reconciliation that are still being written. . .

For all of these reasons, I love how this Gospel ends. These final stories are interesting, and they’ve intrigued scholars for a long time too. The Bible wasn’t written with ready-made chapters and verses. The church added those many years after all these books were written. But this final chapter of this Gospel, chapter 21, has been especially puzzling for students and scholars of the Bible over the centuries. And one of the main reasons for this is that we don’t know who wrote it!

As you know, authors have specific writing styles. For instance, it’s not hard to tell the difference between. . . William Shakespeare and Michael Crichton. If we sat down and read their works, we wouldn’t even have to know who authored them in order to tell that Romeo and Juliet is not quite the same. . . as Jurassic Park (though there is a certain level of tragedy to them both). We wouldn’t even have to know who wrote them to say, “Yep. There are different authors here!”

Something similar is going on with chapter 21, the last chapter of this Gospel. For the first twenty chapters, we get a particular writing style, and then. . . William Shakespeare becomes Michael Crichton! Well, okay, okay. . . it’s not that dramatic and different. But the style of writing in the original language suddenly changes, and scholars feel confident that a different author or set of authors has taken the reins in this storytelling adventure. Chapter 21 with its concluding stories of resurrection, fish, and conversation is an epilogue. The chapter is a holy epilogue, a conclusion to what has come before it and an opening toward ways of imagining what might come next. That’s what epilogues do, and that’s part of what’s happening here.

Now the metaphor between William Shakespeare and Michael Crichton eventually breaks down because we certainly don’t have a situation of dinosaurs pairing themselves into warring factions of Capulets and Montagues. Shakespeare and Crichton don’t only have two different writing styles. In their case, we’re talking about two completely different stories!

This holy epilogue is not like that. There might be a difference in the authorship and writing style, but the story is a deliberate continuation of what has come before it. In fact, I find myself amazed at the ways that this concluding chapter circles back to include images and allusions to the beginning of Jesus’ narrative with his disciples. I’m amazed at how beautifully it weaves themes and symbols together from many stories that unfolded among the first community of people who followed Jesus.

There are many stories within this epilogue that are connected to other stories, and each one of them could be the focus for a sermon. (Don’t worry, I won’t preach them all! But let’s touch upon them).

After experiencing the emotional whiplash of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and sudden resurrection into new life, the disciples were in the midst of figuring it all out. It’s hard to imagine what that must have felt like. So Peter decides to go back to the basics. He and many of first disciples were common fishermen before they started following Jesus. So they get back to the basics and go fishing. They can’t catch a single fish until the mysterious Jesus on the beach tells them to cast their nets differently.

Do you remember another time that Jesus did that? Do you remember that when Jesus first called Peter, James, and John as disciples, they were in a boat, fishing? They couldn’t catch a single fish until Jesus told them to try one more time in deeper water, and then their nets could hardly pull in all the fish. In that first encounter with Jesus, Peter, for once in his life, was speechless. And Jesus said some words that work mark the course of his life, “Follow me. From now on you will be catching people.” Do you remember that?

Peter wanted to get back to the basics of fishing, but instead, he got an opportunity get back to the basics of his life-calling. After they caught all that fish, another disciple recognized the mysterious stranger on the beach as Jesus, and I love what happens next. I think it’s hilarious. The story says that Peter “put on clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea!” What a funny image! Peter is so stunned at it all that he puts his clothes on only to plunge overboard and get them all wet.

Funny. But beyond humorous images, several foundational stories weave their way through this epilogue. Jesus feeds them the fish and bread on the beach. . . remember how he once took a simple meal of fish and bread and multiplied it to feed 5000 people?  Remember how he took bread and cup among his disciples and said, “Eat and drink. This is my body and my life-blood given for you?” Remember that?

And then, there’s a connection to a heavy story. Do you remember how Peter betrayed Jesus by denying him three times, right when Jesus was on the verge of condemnation and death? Do you remember how gut-wrenching that denial was? I wonder if Peter feared that he had ruined that relationship with Jesus. I wonder if he feared that he may have marred his own call to the point that it was no longer available for him.

After the miraculous catch and a holy meal on the beach, Jesus does what he so often does. Jesus engages in a ministry of reconciliation. Peter denied Jesus three times, and now, three times Jesus restores Peter with a foundational question. “Peter, do you love me? Do you love me, Peter? Peter, do you love me?” “Then follow feed my lambs.” Jesus reconciles Peter for a life of reconciliation, for a life of shepherding people through Jesus’ love.

So this is our epilogue, our holy epilogue with stories of the past, retold again in new ways to launch us into the future.

I've told you many times in this sermon that I love this epilogue. I do. But do you know what I might love the most about it? Most scholars believe that this epilogue was written by a person or a set or people who represented a community - a community that had immersed itself in the stories and theological language of the Gospel of John. And the words of this community close the Gospel of John by telling us that the story is still being told, and that if we could possibly write down all the stories of Jesus' presence and ministry among us, the whole world could not contain the volumes that would exist! That’s probably what I love most. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” “Then feed my lambs.” “Get out there and love with a Love that rewrites the world’s story! Be my story! Be a ministry of reconciliation in this world.”

Friends, do you know that we’re an epilogue community too? Do you know that Jesus is still writing stories of ministry and reconciliation among us? Jesus’ story with us is just one of those volumes, but we’re really in that library! I’ve seen it. I’ve heard it. And I’ve only scratched the surface of the depth that is this epilogue community called Pasadena Presbyterian Church! You have personal stories of being reconciled to God in amazing ways. You have personal stories of ministry, reconciling toward others and saying, “This is a place where love will find you and will change the direction of your life story!”

This is a place where God writes our story and says, “I call all nations, ethnicities, languages, and cultures to myself. I will put that on display right here in this holy epilogue that is PPC.” This is a place where God says, “Come, bring your story. Tell us of the great love and great pains you’ve experienced in your life. Come and experience healing and love here right here, and be in ministry with us.”

All of these stories are a part of God’s narrative for us.

And there are unchartered waters for us too, stories that are still being written in our uncompleted volume. There is a neighborhood beyond these doors that is in pain. I see some of the faces of this neighborhood on Sunday nights in the new Evening Worship Community. The people there have dealt with some difficult experiences, and they’re exploring faith in light of big questions that they bring. It’s healing and a beautiful thing to witness. We invite you into this new chapter in the life of our church.

Let's give great praise to the author and finisher of our faith. Jesus is the author of all the stories that the world cannot contain. Let's live that praise as a reconciling, story-filled church.

Thanks be to God.


-Pastor Renee Roederer and the Community of Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sermon: Offensive Love

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32b
He did a very, very offensive thing. . . The younger son in our scripture lesson today certainly offended all the customs and conventions of his day. He stepped outside of the norms, crossed over the lines, and acted in ways that were shocking and shameful – shocking and shameful to himself, his family, and his neighbors.

 Perhaps he had considered his plans for a while. Maybe he practiced how he might ask the question, how he might make the demand. “How should I word this exactly. . .?” he may have asked. Or perhaps his plans were simply made on the spur of the moment. Maybe the desire for immediate gratification overcame him, and he didn’t really consider how his words might hurt or wound those around him.

 “Father, give me the share of the land that will belong to me.” That wasn’t really a question at all. It seemed to be a demand, an expectation, and entitlement. And did you catch that? That word ‘will?’ “Father, give me the share of the land that will belong to me.” He’s asking to translate ‘will’ into now.

He did a very, very offensive thing. . . Because under all conventional standards of the day, the younger son would not have gained this inheritance now. The ‘will’ of it all – “Father, give me the share of the land that will belong to me” – hinged on one thing: the death of his father. In other words, as we translate this demand into the cultural language of the day, the younger son is in effect saying, “Father, be dead to me. I can’t wait around for your death. I want my share of the inheritance now.” That was a very, very offensive request to make.

And he receives that inheritance. But he doesn’t use it to care for himself or his father. Instead, he runs off to a distant country and squanders the entire inheritance on dissolute living. He asked for his father to be dead to himself. And then he became dead to himself – dead to the person he was called to be.

And yet, thank God, there is grace. Thank God that grace can come even in the rock bottom moment. A famine comes, and though the younger son may have assumed that his inheritance was abundant enough to last forever, like all things that are perishable, his monetary inheritance hit rock bottom. And so did he. He was so poor and so in need, that he did something else that would have seemed wildly offensive to anyone he grew up with back at home. He hired himself out to be a swineherd, to tend to pigs which were unclean under Jewish law. And his rock bottom moment comes when he is so hungry that he envies those pigs. They have sustenance even in that slop, and that’s more than he can say for himself. The scripture says that there was grace even in this filthy moment of needy destitution. The text says that, “He came to himself.”

Isn’t that an interesting phrase? He came to himself? His monetary inheritance had run out, but he was on the verge of discovering there's an inheritance that isn’t perishable, an inheritance that cannot be squandered under any circumstances, an inheritance that has to do with identity through love.

There was grace in a glimmer of understanding. And yet, he underestimated it for what it really was. He began to dream of return, but he underestimated it. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” He set off to return, to be less than the one he was called to be.

He did a very, very offensive thing. . . He stepped outside the norms, crossed over lines, and acted in ways that were culturally shocking and shameful. The father did a very offensive thing, culturally speaking. Though shamed by his son and treated as though he were dead, the father continually sought after his son. He did not avert his eyes, constantly looking in love, dreaming for the wellbeing of his treasured son. He broke every standard, every expectation, and looked like a fool to his neighbors. In love, perhaps beyond what we can imagine, he did an offensive thing. . . Like a fool, he ran with open arms to greet the one who had disowned him and wronged him. He kissed his son. He did not let his son finish this speech, this tainted version of who he was in his father’s eyes. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” There would be no talk of acting as a hired hand. This was his beloved child, and he had returned. He had come to live as the one he is. “Bring the robe – the best one! Bring the best sandals and a ring to place on his finger. My child! My child! My child has come home! My child! We will eat and celebrate, for this child of mine was dead and is alive again! He was lost, and he was found!”

The younger son may have treated his father as though he were dead. But there is nothing he could do – no distance that he could travel – that could render his father’s love dead. This love was alive, and for that reason, he named his son as the one he had always been, who he would always be - his fully alive, beloved child. The father welcomed him in love and threw a lavish party to celebrate that deep, rich, love – love which was wildly offensive in the world’s eyes – deep, rich, unconditional love toward this child who had returned.

And. . . he too, did a very, very offensive thing. . . The older brother was hurt by this lavishness. Perhaps he felt as though this feast – this abundance – was being squandered too. His younger brother had not only shamed himself. He had shamed everyone! He had left more work, more labor for his older brother, because he was not here to do it himself. He had literally demanded his share of the land, and then he squandered the proceeds it provided him. And because his father was still alive – and thank God he was still alive! (He didn’t want his father dead like somebody else. . .) – the older brother had to take care of his father with a smaller pool of resources than they had before. His younger brother had tarnished his family’s name, and for what? For a lavish party! Since when had his father done anything like this for him? He had stayed here. He had toiled. He had been faithful. Where was his party? Where was his feast? And he did an offensive thing. He refused to enter the party. He chose to be alone. Self-righteous, yes, but also alone. Somehow, self-righteousness can make hermits out of us. . . And he stood there, scowling, sulking, he himself distant from his father.

And again, unconditional love can look so downright foolish. It’s offensive really. The father’s deep, rich, unconditional love was offensive in the way that it was willing to enter even the most offensive of places. Again, the father stepped outside the norms, crossed the lines, and acted in ways that were culturally shocking and shameful. He did what no host would do it his culture: He left his guests, and he went out to meet his older son. The older son made his complaints. He expressed his frustrations. It’s easy to empathize with him, but it’s also easy to forget the same thing the older son had forgotten about himself. His father listens, but he also lavishes his son with abundant love, “Son, you are always with me. You cannot truly be distant from my love for you. All that is mine, is yours.” And then the challenge: “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life. He was lost and has been found.” Yes, the challenge. “He is mine. Will you let him be yours? Will you come in, where my love is big enough for the both of you?”

What a story. . . How offensive. How challenging. How profound.

Do you know who you are? Do you know it? Do you know Whose you are? Do you know who and Whose you were created to be?

The first epistle of John says it so well: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Beautiful words. True words. And then, these words which are true and rich with challenge, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. . . if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

Hear the good news of God’s love for you: You are included in God’s love. Wake up to that on Daylight Savings Sunday! Live like it’s actually real and true! Let it seep into every living cell inside yourself. And hear the good news of God’s love for the world: The world is included in God’s love. God’s love for you is so big, that it can include the world – those you love, those known unto you, those unknown to you, those you can’t stand. . . – without ever diminishing God’s deep, rich, unconditional for you. God’s love for the world is so big that it can really and truly include you – yes, even you! - without diminishing any of that love for the world. This love is endless and boundless.

So what are you waiting for? Won’t you go into that party and celebrate?

You may feel as though you have wandered so far away from God, that God has stopped waiting for your return. You may feel as though God would never run after you with open arms. It may seem as though you’ve squandered it all, and you might as well indulge in pig slop. Well, the good news for you today is that you are not pig slop, and you were never made for pig slop! God is looking. God is watching. God is loving with open arms. There is nothing you can do to nullify that love. You can’t un-beloved child yourself! And because that’s true, here’s the challenge. If you don’t know that love, or you’re not living as if that love is real, you are missing something. Turn around. Come to yourself – your true self, your true beloved self. Leave that distant country – whatever it is; addiction, rage, pettiness, pride, self-loathing, isolation, greed, hoarding, competition, gossip; whatever it is – and come home. Come home. There is a Love so deep that it’s offensively running after you. It’s on the offensive! Run in the direction toward the One who runs after you.

Or you may feel as though you’re standing outside these days. Perhaps you’re resentful. Perhaps there are people you’d rather God not love. Perhaps you define them as outsiders, and yet, you are the one refusing to enter God’s deep love. Or perhaps you feel ostracized yourself. Remember that God’s love for them cannot nullify God’s love for you. And God’s love for you cannot nullify God’s love for them. If all that is God’s is lovingly yours, your neighbors and your enemies are yours to love. Embrace them. Run after them as God runs after them. Or allow yourself to be loved by them. Enter that lavish party. You are included. There is a Love so deep that it’s offensively coming into your isolation.

All the love in the world is right here for us.  
All the love in the world is right here for us.

Won’t you come inside?

-Pastor Renée Roederer and the Community at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

We invite our congregation, friends, and neighbors to join us Wednesday, February 13th at Pasadena Presbyterian Church for our Ash Wednesday Service.

A light meal of bread, cheese, and fruit will be held at 6pm before worship in the Fellowship Hall, and worship will begin at 7pm. Our English/Korean service will be held in the sanctuary. Our Spanish service will be held in Freeman Chapel.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a 40 day contemplative period before Easter. On Ash Wednesday, we turn in repentance and consider God's love toward us, even as we recognize our own fragility and mortality. We invite you to enter deeply into spirituality and community during this season.

Our service on Wednesday will be a Taize Service, a style of worship that includes contemplative singing and meditative prayer. We will also have the imposition of ashes.

Please join us. All are invited.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sermon: Follow Jesus Down the Mountain

Luke 9:28-43

I wonder what the life of the church would be like if the Christian story ended with the story of the Transfiguration. . . Let’s imagine that for a moment: What if we only had one Gospel – say, the Gospel according to Luke - and what if it ended with this story of Jesus, his disciples, and Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop? What if it ended right there, nothing more?  And what if this was the final story about Jesus? What do you think the life of the church be like?

Perhaps this Sunday would be the high holy day of the Christian calendar. We would invite our friends and relatives to join us in worship, and then we would go home for the annual Transfiguration dinner. Grandma would probably make her cheesy potatoes, and we would dress in our Transfiguration best. Our churches would likely be filled to the brim with guests - filled people who come to worship with us twice a year, you know, at Christmas and Transfiguration.

Pastors and church leaders would be simultaneously filled with energy and exhausted as they worked every day of the week to build up to this story of Jesus and the disciples on the mountaintop. We would all tell the story successively over several days: On one day, we would celebrate Jesus and his disciples climbing the mountain. On another day, we would commemorate that moment when they began to pray. Throughout the course of a week, we would build up to this special Sunday, the day where we would celebrate Jesus being transformed before our very eyes – his face changed and his clothes dazzling. If the Gospel of Luke were our only Gospel, and if it ended here, we would certainly worship Jesus in a triumphant way.  That would make sense.

And if it ended right here, and if this were the only Jesus we knew, Christian life might be primarily concerned with personal triumph.  Mountains would be depicted in our stained-glass windows and on our bulletins. We would wear mountain shaped pennants on necklaces. The mountain would be our primary religious symbol.  And we might become concerned with building ourselves into mountains too as we practiced the triumphant meaning of that symbol.  Maybe we would build our own churches that way, and like Peter on that mountaintop, we might construct them into holy, ever-lasting dwellings to hold and commemorate all that is triumphant.

Triumph could become our primary aim, in fact, and we could spend all kinds of money, energy, and resources to ensure that we stay on top of the mountain.  Like the mountains on our necklaces, we might create an institutional church based on that symbol, determined always to be solid, to stay on the mountaintop, triumphant no matter what.  We might be concerned with our image – after all, we’re mountaintop people -- and we might use all sorts of techniques and marketing to tell our culture that we, the Church, are indeed a mountain and that others can also have a mountaintop experience if they would just climb into our pews and join us.  Who knows?  Even their money and time and talents might ensure that we stay solid and on top.  We might invite people to join the church to ensure that we stay safe, secure, and triumphant.  We could be a mountaintop church with a mountaintop Jesus.

Maybe that’s who we would be if the Christian story ended here, if we had only one Gospel that ends with chapter 9 verse 36.

            But that’s not where it ends.  Jesus is triumphant in this story.  That’s true.  Jesus is triumphant in a story that is strange to us in some ways because it’s filled with symbols and images that were important to a culture and time period so distant from our own.  Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah, two men who were prophets in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, people who symbolized the Jewish law and the prophetic writings.  To include Jesus in their company was to convey that Jesus is connected to these figures and to the law and the prophetic writings themselves. To have Moses and Elijah conversing with him about his departure – or as the original language puts it, his upcoming exodus - was to communicate that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and prophets.  His face shone and his clothes became dazzling.  He was glorified.

And in a moment of awe and wonder, Peter just doesn’t know what to say or do.  Awkward words come pouring from his mouth.  They’re actually kind of funny if you imagine him fumbling about: “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He doesn’t know what he’s asking for, really.  And in response, the voice of God declares who Jesus is, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  The disciples are so awestruck by the entire experience that they don’t say anything to anyone about it.  How could they even put it into words?

Whatever it was, they probably wanted to stay longer.  They wanted to build the experience into a structure and dwell in it until the end of time. 

But that’s not the end of Jesus’ story.  And that’s not the end of our story either. 
We value mountains, and our city is surrounded by them. But we don’t have a mountain hanging in front of our stained-glass window.  Instead, we have a cross.  Jesus may be triumphant, but not without cost.  Because in great, unfathomable love, Jesus shows us over and over again in the Gospel stories that he is determined to be with us – determined to be with us where we’re vulnerable and in need, to be with us where life is messy, and to transform us there.  Jesus doesn’t stay enshrined on a mountaintop.  He does the opposite.  Jesus comes down the mountain and leads his disciples in doing the same. 

In this story, Jesus leads his disciples down the mountain, and at the foot of it, they all encounter a man and his son, two people who are suffering greatly. There was nothing neat and clean about this experience.  It involved sickness, pain, injury and uncertainty, and the disciples had no idea how to heal the boy or this difficult situation.  Jesus enters the situation and is troubled himself.  But it is from that place that he heals the boy and restores him to his father.

And the story continues.  Jesus will walk with us, and Jesus will demonstrate such radical love that the powers that be will feel threatened.  Jesus will risk that love even if it leads to a cross.  And a love like that transforms the world.

Jesus will be with us, no matter the cost.  Even when it is messy.  Especially when it is messy. When the diagnosis comes. . . when the loved one dies. . . when we can’t seem to put the bottle down. . . when human beings are reduced to skin color. . . when depression seems to have taken over. . .and when we don’t know where our next meal is coming from.

This is a Jesus who willfully comes down the mountain.  He will love us at great risk.  His love transforms everything.

And is church not also called to follow Jesus down the mountain, to go straight into all those places where life is messy and there is suffering?  Is that not our call?  To go there and to love there?

Michael Jinkins is a mentor of mine.  And he wrote a book that has a provocative title.  It’s called The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology for a Post-Modern Context.  In the pages of his book, Michael Jinkins proclaims that the church is called to love so greatly that it risks its own death.  And in fact, he would say that the church is only alive when it lets go of its need for safety and institutional survival, when it loves and serves first -- not to gain or to grow but to follow Jesus. That is a church alive, one that will follow Jesus down the mountain and be with others in love.  It changes everything.

Sometimes, the Church does get caught up with mountains and a desire to stay solid.  The church gets caught up in great anxiety to ensure its own survival.  We want to be around for generations.  We want our legacy to continue.  We know it’s easy to get caught up in that frame of mind, but when we do, and when the anxiety takes over, we get sidetracked from what really matters.

David Johnson, a seminary professor of mine, caught my attention last week with a Facebook status of all things.  He writes great ones.  I want to share this one with you:  “In an increasingly secular age (I suppose, although I suspect it is merely increasingly idolatrous) the church's task is not to be palatable. The church's task is to be real. Dressing the body of Christ in clown pants will not save it. Putting it in work clothes just might.”

It’s true.

We’re about to enter the season of Lent, where we journey to and through the cross with Jesus, contemplating God’s mission among us and our call in this city and world.  I wonder what our work clothes ought to be. . . Will they dazzle?  Maybe.  But not like clown pants. Perhaps our work clothes will transform us when we allow ourselves to get messy alongside the needs of this world.  I wonder what our work clothes should be. . . could it involve the immigration conversation that will happen right after worship?  Could it involve renewed energy into our congregation’s food ministry?  Could it involve caring for that coworker?  Could it involve reconciling with that lost friend?  Could it involve mentoring children?

Whatever our work clothing we be, I hope we will follow Jesus down the mountain.  I hope Pasadena Presbyterian Church will risk its own institutional survival to do ministry in this place.  After all, we know that the story of Jesus doesn’t end on a mountaintop.  It continues on to a cross.  And it doesn’t even end there!  Even death is transformed by Christ’s love. 

May God’s great risk to us call forth our own risk, and may God’s great resurrection call forth our own resurrection.  May it be. Amen.
-Pastor Renee Roederer and the Community at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Monday, January 7, 2013


Isaiah 43:1-21

". . . Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"
So I've been thinking about the word ‘new.’  It's a really simple word, one that we use all the time. And of course, seven days ago, we celebrated a new year so we've been hearing that word even more lately.

In one sense, it's a really basic word.  We use it all the time.  But in another sense, I'm realizing that the word itself can be hard to describe. When something is new, and we want to describe it in that way, there aren't a lot of alternative adjectives that we use. 

There are a lot of alternative ways to describe 'happy' or 'sad' or 'hot' or 'cold' - other basic experiences that we have.  But there aren't a lot of alternative ways to describe something as ‘new.' We just say it’s new.  I know this, because I went to a thesaurus, and virtually all of the synonyms for ‘new’ tend to be bigger words that only capture one aspect of what 'new' means - words like ‘inexperienced,’ ‘uncontaminated,’ or ‘modernistic.’ Those are words we understand, but they're not good, catch-all,stand-ins for the word ‘new’ and what it means to us.

Even the dictionary gives awkward sounding definitions of the word! Here are some examples from They were awkward enough to make me laugh a little:

1. of recent origin, production, purchase, etc.; having but lately come or been brought into being
Awkward sounding!

2. of a kind now existing or appearing for the first time; novel

Also awkward!

3. having but lately or but now come into knowledge

The most awkward sounding!

How is it that we use the word ‘new’ so often because it's so basic to us, and yet, it's so hard to describe when we need to define it precisely?

Well, so far we're just talking about a word – a simple adjective. So what happens when we start to talk about something more complex and vibrant and hope filled – something like new life?

Well, here’s the interesting thing: It does get more complex. We need more words to do that.  But I actually think it actually gets easier. We might not have a wealth of words to use when we describe something as new. But we have experienced it. We have lived it.  And we have ways of hoping for it, longing for newness when that experience is hard to find.

We don't define new life as something out of a dictionary. We do it with stories - our stories and the stories of others and the stories of faith communities who existed long before we were born. In this community, we can say that new life is born when God's story (which is so much bigger than us) sweeps us up and really includes us. New life is when God's story enters our story and utterly transforms it so that we become full persons and we all become a full community.

New life can't be captured on a page or in a dictionary's definition. It has flesh and bone and love and service and belonging. New life is something tangible. It involves God in us. It involves God in you. It involves God in this world.

 Now of course, the other simple way to define 'new' is to say it’s 'not old.'  It stands in contrast to something that preceded it.

In the Scripture story at the top of this post, a prophet is speaking new and powerful words to a community that needs a different reality. The Kingdom of Judah was the southern portion of the land Israel, and in 586 BC the world was turned upside down for the people who were living there.  Babylon was the ruling power of the day, and the Babylonians invaded Judah and Jerusalem and took the people captive.  The people were forced out of their land and became exiles in the land of Babylon, living in a new land away from everything they had known and loved.  But God had not forgotten them.  In this passage, we hear that God is going to make all things new and bring them back home into a better reality. 
God was making something new out of something old – a 70 year period of exile.
So as this new year begins, our hope and prayer for our community and for all people is that God will make something new out of the old, that God’s story will enter our story, and that we will begin to define ‘new’-ness, not from a Dictionary, but from how we live our lives.  We are part of that definition!  We get to embody newness!
May it be.  Welcome, 2013.

--Pastor Renee Roederer and the Evening Worship Community at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sermon: Praise for the Unfolding Story

Praise for the Unfolding Story
Luke 1:57-80
It's been nine months since Zechariah has made a sound. No words. No singing. No liturgical chanting of the Torah in the Temple. No talking in his sleep in the middle of the night. And no advice (which was probably convenient for his wife Elizabeth, since his silence lined up precisely with her entire pregnancy.)

Nothing. No sound at all for nine months.

And then, at a circumcision naming ceremony, these holy and miraculous words just pour out. They suddenly burst forth in the presence of the people, like they've been stored inside Zechariah, like they've been forming inside him with cells and sinews and life of their own.

This song of praise is suddenly born among the people in Zechariah and Elizabeth's own living room. And everything large, cosmic, and magnificent about God breaks into this particular moment. This song of praise at once large and expansive, and at the same time, particular and specific to these people, this party, and this child who is indeed to be named John.

It's a song of great praise.

And, you know, that's a big deal because up until this point, Luke, the author, has pretty much depicted Zechariah as an Old Grump! Yep, a really Old Grump.*

But Zechariah also had a few reasons to be in that place. Zechariah and Elizabeth had known great pain. They longed to be parents, but for many years, their hopes led to nothing but disappointment. And as their pains are told in Luke's story, Elizabeth even says that she has endured disgrace among her people simply because she remains childless. But suddenly, all of that is about to change when Zechariah receives an unexpected visitor. Zechariah was a priest, and when he was serving in the sanctuary, a messenger from God appeared to him. That messenger's name was Gabriel, and he said, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. . . Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God."

Incredible news, right? But like us, Zechariah was not quick to believe everything he hears, especially something that would be so miraculous, especially something that would speak to his disappointment. Sometimes, we prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.** How could he possibly trust this incredible announcement? Zechariah said to Gabriel, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years." An Old Grump. But I think we can understand his reservations.

And he was about to have reason to become grumpier. Gabriel replied, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur." And there you have it. Grumpyville for nine months. Maybe this wouldn't be so great for Elizabeth after all…

Who knows what happened during those nine months? What we do know is that Elizabeth did conceive a child who would be named John, a child in fact, who would grow up to become famous as John the Baptist, issuing cries for repentance along the River Jordan, teaching that the Kingdom of God is about to come near, and preparing the way of the Lord Jesus. This child was with Elizabeth for nine months, and as he remained silent, words of praise were forming inside Zechariah too.

So they were all in the living room. Simple enough. Maybe Elizabeth and Zechariah had argued as they were in a rush to get their place ready for a party. (In that case, the silence would be helpful for Elizabeth). They were tired, new parents at an old age. And to bring some modern sensibilities into the moment, maybe party favors were strewn all over the place. And friends were gathered alongside that really annoying uncle who regularly embarrasses himself.

In such a simple and mundane moment, Zechariah was about to be freed. When he wrote down the name of his newborn son - JOHN - his tongue was freed and he began to sing words of great praise – words about God's large, unfolding story with the people of Israel and ways that this large story was sweeping into the present moment in the life of this child.

A new child was before them with great promise, and Zechariah was newly born too.

I love moments like these. I love the moments when God's large story of love, commitment, and new life, breaks into the present moment, and we are restored and sent forward as new people. I love those moments because they happen all the time!  And perhaps what I love most of all, is that every single moment - no matter how mundane - is ripe with the possibility of significance. Martin Luther trekked off to his bathroom of all places and read the Book of Romans there (I'm not making this up) and in the process, he has a Life Aha big enough to ignite a church reformation. A woman gets on a bus on a mundane Thursday, but this time, Rosa Parks won't sit in the back. In another living room 13 years ago, a question is raised that will eventually change our life and witness as a church: "What are we going to do to become a multicultural congregation?" Our lives are filled with moments like these - moments pregnant with possibility, and in this season of Advent, we remind one another to wait and watch for them. That is what we do together.

So here we are in our living room, the place where we gather weekly, and whether we've been expecting much or whether we're fixated on distractions this morning, God is in this place among us. God's large story breaks into this sanctuary every Sunday, and we are new people because of it.  Now sometimes we’re like Zechariah and Elizabeth’s friends.  “You can’t name him John!  You need to choose a family name!  We’ve always done it that way. . .”  Sometimes we’re like that. But at other times, we are made free by God’s Spirit, and we are able to praise God for all the amazing gifts of our lives.  We are able to praise God for all the amazing gifts of this congregation.

So let’s have a time of praise this morning in our own living room.  This can become a pep rally moment, and even God’s Presbyterian Frozen Chosen might join in with an Amen or two.  Amen?

For a church filled to capacity last night with guests who have so much to teach us, and for the resounding music of hope and praise that happened here, Amen?

For children who are singing with spirit and. . . sunglasses. . . who teach what it means to be a person of trust and joy in this world, Amen?

For a vibrant Spanish Language Ministry that is growing and unfolding with strength in the midst shared meals, empowerment, and a new tradition of posadas that will happen here next Saturday night, Amen?

For doors of a Chapel that are flung wide open to our city in a new Sunday Evening Worship service, where bread is broken every week and the “Spiritually Hungry but Institutionally Suspicious” are invited into community and love, Amen?

For people who struggle through this season because memories and losses are difficult, but who know in their gut, that when they come here, they are loved to their core and provided with deep purpose, Amen?

For a congregation that is growing with strength as God’s Spirit gets inside our bones invites us to take risks and live our lives on behalf of this neighborhood and this world, Amen?

For God’s story sweeping up our own story, Amen!  Amen!  Amen!
-Associate Pastor Renee Roederer and the Community at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

*   I owe Robin Gallaher Branch for this observation and description which I found in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C Volume 1.
** This powerful phrase and observation comes from The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychologist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing by Dr. Bruce Perry.