Sermon: “Swing Forward: Growing Pains”

Rev. Jenny Smith Walz preached on September 2, 2018 in the sermon series “Swing Forward”, on the topic ‘Growing Pains’.

Her message is based on the Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith in Mark 7:24-30.

She begins by asking some challenging questions – Who is the church for? Who is PUMC for? For whom will we exist in 20, 50, 80, 100 years? She concluded there was not just one answer.

To hear the sermon live, go to the Princeton United Methodist Church Facebook page here

Also the sermon will be podcast soon on this webpage under the category “worship.”

Of the four gospels, Mark portrays Jesus as the most human. This allows us to see how Jesus might develop and grow. It’s still surprising to us to hear Jesus calling the woman a ‘dog’, but knowing Jesus is fully human could lessen that surprise a bit. Jesus is open to compassion and love and heals her daughter. Here we see the Kingdom of inclusion, which though not new in theory remains new to us in practice. The disciples were more offended that Jesus healed the woman’s daughter than he called her a dog. While we are offended that Jesus called her a dog, we are not so quick to notice the “dogs” of the world or to offer them healing.

Rev. Smith Walz made reference to Kaylin Haught and Karoline Lewis.

Learn also how Karoline Lewis gets Jesus to change his mind.

Rev. Smith Walz’s message is that church is for everyone. She encouraged everyone to come to church:
the children, who are not saying they left church but that their church left them behind;
– the young adults, the majority of whom feel lonely and disconnected;
those dealing with homelessness;
those who have experienced spiritual trauma, for whom we need to envision a healing center.

We need to share God’s love with them, share the fullness of life that we’ve found. Together with them, we need to discover more of who God is, living more fully in God’s kingdom.

Rev. Smith Waltz feels sadness when people call wondering whether they are welcome at church for all kinds of reasons, notably that they are different or they have nothing to give. She feels sadness also that people don’t call or won’t come to church for many reasons, not least that they don’t actually experience God at church or that their spiritual hunger isn’t being satisfied.

The good news is that Jesus knows our struggles and has compassion for us, but above all God invites us to the Table to serve us a feast, even as we are “unworthy of the crumbs’. Jesus came to save people not to exclude them.

Finally, the church is there to pass on the tradition from one generation to another.

— Isabella Dougan

New Year’s Day Service – January 1st 2017

Rev. Jana Purkis-Brash:  ‘Jesus’ Birth Gives us a Mission’ – Matthew 2:13-23

On New Year’s Day, Rev. Jana preached on the difficult passage from Matthew. Here are some notes from her message:

 Jesus didn’t come into the world to bring a feast of celebration and contentment, to offer respite from the world. Jesus came to save the world. We Christians have a role to play in that salvation.

The “Massacre of the Innocents” passage in Matthew reminds us that we need, not only to keep Christ in Christmas, but to keep Herod in Christmas. Herod was capable of executing his wife and sons. He was capable of dispatching soldiers to kill infants, and this tragic action is commemorated in The Coventry Carol.

Why do we read this part of the story? It helps us remember the mission that Jesus calls us to. Herod plays the role of evil incarnate, to help us remember what kind of world we live in, and why the world needs a savior.

May we be people who are the hands, feet, heart, and light of Christ in the world. Jesus gives us our mission.  May we work to carry out the mission in the New Year.

Written by Isabella Dougan



Rev. Catherine E. Williams: The Unopened Gift

Sunday, December 20, 2015

unopened gift

Today concludes the 4-part Advent sermon series exploring the theme of gifts. Hopefully, it has helped us think about gift giving as we plan for the approach of Christmas Day, arguably the biggest gift-giving day on the calendar. This morning I have here an unopened gift. I asked a few people over the past couple of weeks why they would not open a gift given to them; the answers I got were interesting. The first was – If I know what’s in there I won’t bother, especially if I don’t really care for it. Another answer was, If I don’t like the giver, I won’t be interested in anything that comes from them; it would be easy to set that gift aside…maybe even forget about it altogether. It was this third answer that hooked me, as I searched for a connection to Advent – this person ventured – well if the wrapping isn’t too promising and the occasion isn’t that a big of a deal, I really wouldn’t feel any need to open it.
Gift wrapping is an essential part of gift-giving they tell me. (Which is why I personally resort to bags; any talent I have for wrapping gifts remains undiscovered.) But the purpose of going through the trouble to wrap a gift is to create some kind of appeal, I would think. The wrapping, when done expertly, is itself an invitation. It invites the recipient to extend both hands and take the gift, it signals that there’s something important inside that will satisfy the receiver. So then what are we to make of the wrapping God chose for God’s most precious gift to humanity?
A seed of life sown into the body of a poor, insignificant teenager who wasn’t even married. A family lineage in an insignificant town of maybe 500 people. A birth announcement made out in fields, where the only people to hear it, were shepherds – those smelly, dirty, animal keepers at the bottom of the social heap. If wrappings are supposed to invite, then what do we make of this? There are enough unpleasant details about the records of Jesus birth that are neither pretty nor shiny. What is so appealing about an exhausted fully pregnant woman being refused basic hospitality? What’s so romantic about giving birth outdoors, in a stall surrounded by animals? And as much as we venerate the manger in pageantry and song, I, as a first-time mother, would not be flattered in the least by having to put my newborn to sleep in an animal feeding trough. And the unpleasantness continues, there is nothing tender about scores of children being murdered by a tyrant king who is hunting down one particular child, or about this child and his parents having to flee for their safety in the middle of the night to take refugee status in a foreign country. Would we call this wrapping inviting?
Then this Jesus, God’s most precious gift, grows up and the wrapping doesn’t improve much. What some see at face value is a rabbi whose ministry was heralded by the town prophet/baptizer who wore weird clothes, ate strange food, and said the most provocative things. Some see a teacher whose family thought he had mental health issues. This gift, while he lived a most remarkable life, still the majority of his endorsement and following came from the masses, particularly the outcasts and scum of society – what did they know anyway? Those who were in the know (the religious authorities) were baffled by this gift, unsettled by this gift, infuriated by this gift. They said of him who does he think he is, we know him since he was in diapers; we know the family he comes from. Where does he get off talking with such authority?
He came to his own people, writes John, and his own people did not accept him. (John 1:11) They were looking for a Messiah, a heroic figure, wise and powerful, who would rally them in retaliation against their oppressors, vindicate their status as the chosen people of God, and lead them into a future of peace and prosperity. What Messiah comes riding into the city on a donkey? What Messiah gets put on trial and refuses to open his mouth in defense. Tell me, what Messiah gets killed like a common criminal? Of course not…the wrapping alone would indicate the package is meaningless!
Which brings us to the holy wisdom of the apostle who warns the Corinthian believers against being deceived by wrappings. The Corinthians were not much different than us when it comes to judging people. They were impressed by certain standards of significance, wisdom and power being right up there at the top. But God, the apostle reminds them, chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor. 1:27-29.) Look past the surface, he says. God’s gifts to us, and to the world, almost always come in wrappings that are uninviting or unappealing.
For many people, this gift of God remains unopened because they think they know what’s inside and don’t care much for him. For many others, they simply don’t trust the giver. What they know about God doesn’t square up with what’s going on in the world, so why should they trust this Jesus? For others the wrapping is too much of a deterrent; it’s hard to get past the birth story and many of the improbabilities of his life and death. Two Saturdays ago at Pete Brower’s memorial service, his son Todd, reminisced about that time when as a teenager he was ready to chuck his faith because he just couldn’t wrap his mind around the miracles and other parts of Jesus’ life story. Todd spoke of that defining moment when his wise father Pete, rather than scold him for his unbelief, said to him that the most important thing lay past all those details, it was the message. For Todd – and for his daughter with whom he had almost the same conversation years later – that was the turning point of faith – getting past the wrappings, and getting to the heart of the message.
For those of us who venture past the wrappings and open God’s precious holy gift, we find we have opened ourselves up to a Trinitarian God, revealed to us as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We open ourselves to a God who created in the beginning, but who continues to create so that we are not really hemmed in by our circumstances, our creator God continues to make something out of nothing, make a way out of no way. O Lord, my God, we sing, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands hath made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder; thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul…How great thou art! (“How Great Thou Art” v.1 UMH #77)
We open ourselves to God our Redeemer. The angel said to Joseph, You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins. Again, this redeeming and saving nature of God points to an action God has done in the past, AND that God continues to do in the present. So that when we sin, when we fall short daily, when we drop the ball, when we mess up and over reach, when we transgress the law of love, whatever our wrongs, there is a Redeemer. So we can sing, Redeemer, come, with us abide; our hearts to thee we open wide; let us thy inner presence feel, thy grace and love in us reveal. (“Lift Up Your Heads” v.3, UMH #213)) He has not only saved, he continues to save his people from their sins.
We say Hallelujah for the gift of a creating and redeeming God! Hallelujah also for the gift of a Sustaining God. Where would we be without God’s Spirit, the manifest, abiding presence of God in our lives and in this world, the agency of God that imparts daily wisdom and strength? Our world needs this breath of God that blows through troubling circumstances bringing healing, wholeness, peace. We pray in the poetry of Yale professor Tom Troeger, Wind who makes all winds that blow, gusts that bend the sapling low, gales that heave the sea in waves, stirrings in the mind’s deep caves: aim your breath with steady power on your Church this day, this hour. Raise, renew the life we’ve lost, Spirit of God of Pentecost. (“Wind, Who Makes All Winds That Blow” v. 1, UMH #538)
Some of us refuse to open ourselves up to the gift of God because dreadful things happened to us. Some of us refuse to believe in the gift of God because of the hopelessness we feel as we read and watch the news. And yet the gift of God to us this morning is the promise, manifest in Jesus, that God does love this world, that God will never leave us, no matter what condition we find ourselves in. The same God who makes a road in the wilderness and streams in the desert continues to say to us today, when you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you, when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’ (Isaiah 43 and 41 – excerpts)
What would happen, I wonder, if we, and all who name the name of Christ, were to unwrap and open this gift of God to us in Jesus. What would happen if we were to fully open ourselves up to the creating, redeeming, and sustaining work and presence of God in our lives and in the world? What might redemption look like for refugees? What might God’s creating and sustaining presence mean in our approach to climate concerns? What might our openness to the powerful energy of God’s love do for our attitude to strangers?
What difference might it make if we believed that the wrapping was part of the gift? – That this gift reaches both the high and the lowly; that this gift satisfies both rich and poor, this gift that is foolishly wise and impotently powerful. The range and scope of this gift blow our human minds: Jesus – the Son of God’s love in who we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins. The one who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. The one by whom all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through him, and for him. The one who is before all things and in whom all things consist. The one who is the head of the body, the Church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead. The one who said of himself I am. Before Abraham was I am. I am the way, I am the truth, I am the Resurrection and the Life. I am the Bread of Life. I am the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. I am the Alpha, the Omega, the first and the last the beginning and the end, the one who was, and who is, and who is to come! Jesus – God’s unspeakable, inexpressible, indescribable gift! ( excerpts from Colossians 1, John 6, 8, 10, 11, 14, Revelation 1)
I pray for me and for you, and for all God’s people at this time of frenetic gift giving. May God grant us the capacity to open and be open to this gift, the capacity to receive and believe this gift; the holy capacity to share this gift with others, especially at Christmas time. Amen.

Written by Isabella Dougan

Rev. Catherine E. Williams: Beyond Death

Jebutterfly (1)sus said: I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. We honor the lives of those who have died in the context of Christian faith and hope, says Rev. Catherine Williams, believing that the resurrection is central to our faith, and it is ultimately the words of Jesus Christ that sustain this hope of eternal life beyond death.

Beyond Death was the topic of Rev. Catherine Williams’ sermon commemorating  All Saints Sunday, November 1, 2015. Among her references: Psalm 16:11, Romans 8, 1 , 1 Peter 1 and the Book of Revelation. Her thoughts, she said, turned out to be more of an extended reflection than a sermon.  She began with an anecdote. 

I had barely begun here as an intern in the fall of 2008; I was standing in the Sanford Davis room after the first service, scanning the room at my eye level when I felt a tug at my robe. I looked down into the sad eyes of a 4th-grader who without any introduction or small talk asked me pointedly, “Where is Mrs. Fullman now?” I scrambled through my mental Rolodex and came up with a Mrs. Fullman who had recently passed away, and who had given outstanding, compassionate leadership to this congregation. I stooped down. My eyes came to the level of those misty pools of brown in that chubby face. “Mrs. Fullman is in heaven now; she is with God,” I said. “Where is heaven?” she shot back. “Well, I said, “some people say it’s up there or out there. We don’t really know where it is, but we know that wherever it is that’s God’s home.” Slight pause…then,“Is that where my dog is too?” There was no escaping the tinge of hope in her voice. I had no dog in my Rolodex, and to be honest, had never given much thought to a theology of animals. In times like these there are two voices in my ears – the rational theologian on my left shoulder and the compassionate pastor on my right. Sometimes they both help me respond well to unexpected questions, but this time my theologian was quiet for a little too long, so following the pastor’s voice I said, “Oh yes, God made the animals and wants them to be with him after they die too.” My inquirer gave me a brief, satisfied smile and disappeared as quickly as she had appeared, leaving me to marvel at the sacredness of that encounter.

When it comes to the subject of life after death we all have thoughts and questions, even if we entertain them only briefly. But like this child, we grapple with these questions mostly in the context of personal loss. When we are about to lose or have lost a loved one, or when we are confronted with our own mortality, it is natural for us to begin thinking about what happens after we die. People have asked questions such as, What do we do in heaven? It sounds boring! Do we spend eternity with those we love or is it one endless cocktail party with millions of souls? Do we have a form in heaven or are we just spirits? What age will I be in heaven? If my mother is there will I recognize her? How good do I have to be to get to heaven?

I remember being with of one of our members the day after the doctors had told her that her body would only continue functioning for another day or so. As I settled in a chair by her bedside she looked me in the eyes and matter-of-factly informed me that she was going to die. How do you feel about that? I asked. She shrugged, “I’m okay.” Pause. Then, ‘how will it happen?’ she wanted to know. The theologian on my left shoulder began her spiel about how no-one really knows, and I had to put her on mute so I could better hear the compassionate pastor on my right shoulder. “It will be beautiful,” I assured her. “Jesus is waiting to welcome you home with open arms.” She nodded and smiled. I’m not sure whether she was humoring me or my answer really resonated with her, but right then in that room I could sense the unmistakable presence of God. I have to tell you that one of the reasons lately I have come to believe heaven is beyond death is because I have sensed the presence of God at so many end of life horizons – anytime I’ve had the opportunity to be with someone just before, at the moment of, or just after their passing, I have witnessed God’s reassuring presence in ways that are humanly difficult to describe. As one of our favorite Affirmations of Faith ends – in life, in death, in life beyond death we are not alone.

Today we commemorate All Saints Sunday. We honor the lives of those who have died, and we do so in the context of Christian hope. Hope has always been vital to the people of God. Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah is filled with it. Thousands of years before Christ, God’s people learned how to hold on to hope in the midst of a pain-filled existence. Life on earth forced them to look for relief. One such relief was in their hope of a future day where God would vindicate them, deliver them permanently from their national enemies, and be their host around a rich feast of the finest bread and wine. Days of scarcity would be over as God’s abundance would overflow generously. The poetry speaks of God removing the shroud and sheet of death that had been cast over the people. A fitting image for many of our international neighbors today, particularly in the war-ravaged Middle East. The Old Testament Middle Easterners believed God would triumph over death, they declared God would feed them, wipe away all tears from their eyes, and bring them to a place of peace and wholeness in God’s presence. Hope has always been a cherished commodity of our faith.

And it is the writings of Scripture that have not only given birth to our hope down through the ages, Scripture has also fed and sustained this hope. In Psalm 16 the Psalmist sings that in the presence of God there is the fullness of joy. Romans 8 reminds us that it is not only humans who yearn for God’s ultimate salvation but the entire creation groans and waits to be liberated from its bondage to decay. In 1 Corinthians 15 there is a beautiful treatise on death that argues for the resurrection of our glorified bodies. In 1 Peter 1 the apostle fairly sings about this living hope of an ultimate salvation where there is even an inheritance kept in heaven for us. And the writer to the Hebrews puts another spin on this hope by reminding us that as we run this earthly race we are surrounded and encouraged by a heavenly cloud of witnesses that includes people who have died in faith centuries ago.

Then there’s the sublime poetry and prose in the book of Revelation. There the writer has a vision of the Holy City beautifully adorned. But even more than the splendor of the city – even more than streets of gold, walls of jasper, and gates of pearl, the most magnificent aspect of this vision is that it is the place where God dwells among mortals. And the place where mortals call home. When someone asks for my elevator response to the question where is heaven, I say, it is where God is, and where God welcomes the people of God who transition from this life to the next.

We really don’t have adequate language to describe eternal realities. But that doesn’t stop us from using the language we have – to dream, to sing, to reflect on an eternity with a God who loves, deeply, generously, and in whose presence we are forever moving towards wholeness and fulfillment. I prepared for this reflection with my Bible and my hymnal both open. It is no secret that the songs we sing from the base of our operational theology. When it comes to life beyond death we turn to such songs as Abide with Me, with its witness of God’s tenacious grasp on our lives, no matter what the circumstances of our death. We sing songs like When We All Get To Heaven, with its flat-footed assurance that heaven will be worth whatever it takes to get there. We lean on the Spirituals for their earthy yearning for that time when we can steal away to Jesus or be caught up in the heaven-bound chariot that’s swinging low. We might even turn to Natalie Sleeth’s Hymn of Promise that frames our hope in the cycles of death and life found within nature. Hymn of Promise is a hymn that identifies us as people of the resurrection when we sing “In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity, in our doubt there is believing, in our life eternity. In our death, a resurrection, at the last a victory unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” Yes! we are people of hope because we are people of the resurrection.

The theologian in my left ear and the pastor in my right are unified that this belief in the resurrection is central to our faith, and to our hope. And it is ultimately the words of Jesus, the Christ, the one whose followers we are, it is those words that sustain this hope of eternal life beyond death. When Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he had not yet been crucified. His raising of Lazarus from the dead was a precursor for what he was soon to demonstrate that life and death are a divine cycle where one yields to the other. Yes, there is much about this cycle that remains a mystery. Science has proved and keeps probing, making discoveries at a painfully slow rate. But what if the eternal realities are such that there are no instruments to measure them? We look through a glass dimly as we peer into eternity. Our finite human eyes don’t have the capacity to see into infinity. But our faith – our faith, given to us by God – our faith gives us the capacity to receive the words of Jesus who says, “do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many dwelling places, and I am going there to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me that where I am you will be there also.” Our God-given faith gives us the capacity to believe the witness of the biblical accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus who claimed I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. He asks us today as he asked Martha, Do you believe this?

May God grant us the faith of eternal proportions, faith to trust in a God who, in Jesus Christ, lived in death even as he died in life; faith to believe that in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, and we are not alone. Amen.

Written by Isabella Dougan