This is the category for thoughts and reflections from the Pastor

A Pastoral Note After the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

This past Saturday, during Shabbat services at the Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven people were murdered by a man fueled by anti-Semitic hatred, the kind that has terrorized our Jewish sisters and brothers for millennia. Our first response is to grieve, and so we mourn with the Jewish community the loss of precious lives cut short as they grapple with this act of hate.

As we have been reading through the books of Acts, you perhaps have noticed that the theme of conflict between the Jewish and Gentile communities figures prominently in the story of the early church. These and other New Testament Scriptures have been used by Christians to fuel anti-Semitism through false interpretations, seeking to divide Jews from Christians using the person of Jesus, the Jewish rabbi who we call the Messiah.

Although we ourselves may not have promoted anti-Jewish theologies, we nonetheless confess, before God and our Jewish sisters and brothers, the ways in which the Christian church has promoted hate through fear, false narratives, and poor interpretation. Although it may not be our fault, it is our responsibility to set the record straight in proclaiming that the God of Jesus Christ, who we worship, is also the God of Israel, and that our hope is in the reconciliation, not the division, of all peoples.

Simply put, this vision of reconciliation is woven into the fabric of scripture. It begins with the “tree of life in the middle of the garden,” (Gen 2:9) and culminates in the “the tree of life with… the leaves of the tree [that are] for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22)

Don’t be afraid to reach out to a Jewish friend, co-worker, or neighbor, and let them know that you care, and that you reject the hateful ideology that has led to this past week’s tragedy. As we continue our journey through Acts we must interpret scripture through the greatest commandment: To love God and love neighbor. There can be no valid Christian interpretation outside of this. This congregation seeks to provide these interpretive tools through worship, education, and in conversation with pastors and one another.

Peace,
Pastors Camille, Rachel, and Chris

GOAL: 100+ new participants

Friends,
 
This morning at the town hall meeting, Rev. Murray unveiled our congregational goal: to add 100 new participants to the life of the church by September 2016.  This will include new members and their children, but also others who have not joined, but who have made a commitment to participate in the life of GPC.
 
This is an ambitious goal, and one worthy of our church and especially our God. GPC is a sanctuary in the city. We are a vibrant congregation with a unique vision and mission in our nation’s capitol, but not everyone knows it. We want to build on the growth of the last few years and extend a warm welcome to others.
 
We are forming a task force to work with the pastoral staff on this initiative, but to succeed, this will take every one of us. We need your ideas–nothing is too crazy or too mundane. You can’t miss the 100+ Ideas Box in the narthex, and we welcome your input. 
 
Here’s to a new year at GPC.
 
-Revs. Camille, Rachel and Chris

Dog Days of Summer #5 – Stephen

This blog post is featured in a chronological series “The Dog Days of Summer – Biblical Figures Feel the Heat.”  Blogs are intended to offer an outlet for reflection beyond Sunday morning.

July 12, 2015

Delivered by Rev. Rachel Landers Vaagenes

Texts: 1 John 4:11-21; Acts 6:1-8; 7:54-60

Stephen became a member of the community of the faithful during those first heady days of the church. The Holy Spirit had come in tongues of fire to land on the apostles, and they were filled with power and told many about Jesus. Though Stephen’s life spans only 2 chapters in the Book of Acts, he is distinguished for two reasons:

 

Firstly, he is traditionally known as the first deacon. The term deacon in the Greek refers to a “servant, a minister, or an administrator; one who executes the demands of another.” [1]

 

His duties soon went beyond waiting on tables however, and Stephen is later described as “full of grace and power,” doing “great signs and wonders among the people.” These signs and wonders soon caused him to run afoul of the religious establishment, who arrested him on trumped up charges and brought him before the religious council. After his testimony, the council is unable to refute his words, but they cannot bear them any longer. We read that they “covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” It is here that he receives his second distinction: the first deacon is also known as the first Christian martyr.

 

The term martyr, though it eventually became synonymous with dying for the faith, is derived from the Greek word to “witness.” Stephen’s witness was not just in his death, but in his life of service and in his testimony to his Lord. Both his words and his actions pointed to the power of God.

 

Killed for his faith, the depiction of the life and death of Stephen parallels Christ’s in many significant ways. Like Jesus, he is brought before the council on trumped up charges; like Jesus he is taunted in order to provoke him to blasphemy. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus declares that “From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” In Acts, Stephen witnesses “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” In Luke, Jesus cries out from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In Acts, Stephen declares, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Finally, just before Jesus dies he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” So Stephen prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

 

Here we can see a parallel, but also a progression. Jesus calls on God the Father, while Stephen cries out to Jesus himself. Jesus declares that the Son will be seated at the right hand, while Stephen declares that he sees the Son standing at the right hand. Jesus asks the Father to forgive; Stephen asks the Son.

 

These are powerful and deliberate parallels drawn by the author who wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, and a preliminary reading might bring us to the conclusion that we as the community of faithful are simply called to be imitators of Christ, called to copy and continue the work that he did during his time on earth. Such a conclusion would not be incorrect, but it would be incomplete.

 

What does it mean for us to proclaim Jesus? Here is what it is not:

 

Witness is not following Jesus into death to earn God’s love. Witness is not imitating Christ, being a martyr in order that others might be saved. Salvation has happened already and for eternity through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We by our actions cannot make God’s work more or less effective. But that does not mean we have no task.

 

Christian life moves toward a goal: life as citizens in the Kingdom of God. This does not mean that we are waiting to be whisked away out of this life of toil however. Our goal is a goal of vocation rather than vacation. “Christians live by the promise of God and thus in creative hope. There is work to be done, a message to be proclaimed, forgiveness to be offered and practiced, service to be rendered, hostility to be overcome, injustice to be rectified.” [2]

 

If we believe that God is at work in the world, our task as a church is to make that work known. Witness is the very life of the church. Our task can be summed up in Paul’s words that I like to use as a benediction: “Keep Alert! Be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” This is the work of the community of the faithful.

 

Amen.

 

Daily Reflection exercise:

 

Stephen had a profound sense of the presence of God. He paid attention. This comes with practice:

 

Make an effort to remember the presence of God in your daily life. Brother Lawrence, a 16th century monk, endeavored to devote himself continually to prayer, and when he had to take on any other business (he was the Abbey cook), he prayed: “O my God, Thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me with Thy assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.”

 

 

[1] Strong’s Greek Concordance

[2] Migliore, Daniel; Faith Seeking Understanding; p. 247.

Dog Days of Summer #2 – Nehemiah: It’s Who You Know

This blog post is featured in a chronological series “The Dog Days of Summer – Biblical Figures Feel the Heat.”  Blogs are intended to offer an outlet for reflection beyond Sunday morning.

June 21st, 2015

Nehemiah: It’s Who You Know

Delivered by Rev. Christopher Chatelaine-Samsen

(Nehemiah 2:1-8)

It’s often said that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s true. Whoever and wherever you are, relationships with others matter. And it’s what you do with connections and influence makes all the difference.

Nehemiah was well-connected. In the Persian Empire, Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king, a man with royal influence. Nehemiah was also a Jew, so when Nehemiah heard that the city of his people was in ruins, he was heartbroken, so he turned to God in prayer. And in his prayers, it came to him what he had to do.

He knew he had to use his position of influence and go to the king and ask him for help. But asking for help was risky, and could have been seen as an act of treason against the empire. Nonetheless, he prayed and then asked.

Nehemiah had a good life in a religiously tolerant empire, far away from Jerusalem. He had no reason to speak up for the inhabitants of Jerusalem – it offered him no benefit – but he did it anyway. What caused him to put everything on the line for people far away? Perhaps there’s something about hearing God’s call that makes a person reckon with their own privilege. Nehemiah realized that he was in a unique position to do something, and that his gifts were for the benefit not of himself, but for people who need those resources but had no access.

Although the word “privilege” is often used with a negative connotation, it doesn’t have to be. Nehemiah’s story shows us that it’s what you do with privilege that counts. He could have ignored the people in Jerusalem and served himself. Instead, he chose to face the heat and act. He believed that it was unjust that he should live in wealth in the capital city and others should fear for their lives in a city without protection when he could do something.

We find out from Nehemiah’s story that privilege comes with responsibility and consequences. Both our privilege and responsibility are magnified in light of the act of terrorism committed at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC on June 17th, 2015.

Members of Mother Emanuel are grieving the loss of their sisters, brothers, and their pastor to the violence of hatred, exhausted, and heartbroken. Too often, White churches have responded with silence to violence against Black Americans. We could choose to stay silent, but we have the responsibility to say “no more.” No more should Black women and men live in fear, and no more can White churches pretend like it’s not our problem. Nehemiah, with a trembling voice, opened his mouth to speak on behalf of those who lived in fear, and so must we. We can not be silent when there are still those who perpetrate crimes of racial hatred, for we are members of the One Church of Jesus Christ, and this very week a gaping wound has been opened on our own body.

Perhaps it’s risky to speak and advocate on behalf of another, but thank God that Jesus chose to advocate for us. Thank God that Jesus risked everything for us, even unto death, so we too can take step out and use what God has given us, that we may speak with boldness and be our sister’s and our brother’s keeper.

Amen.

Reflection:

-What types of privilege have you experienced in your own life?
-When is an instance when you’ve spoken up for somebody else? Do you have an opportunity to do so now?
-What sorts of consequences might you face for speaking up?

Dog Days of Summer #1 Moses

Today, we begin our sermon series titled, The Dog Days of Summer – Biblical Figures Feel the Heat.  Over eight Sundays, we will see men and women of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures facing challenges, where their faith and character are tested.  Hopefully, their responses will give us insight in what to do and not to do when we find ourselves in heated situations.  

Camille Cook Murray                                                 June 14th, 2015
Dog Days of Summer Sermon Series                      Exodus 32:1-14
Biblical Figures Feel the Heat #1                             Moses – How the Mighty Fall

We begin with Moses, who has recently led the people out of slavery through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God.  Moses climbs Mount Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. For forty days and forty nights, Moses makes the mountain his home.   But at the base camp everything is going adrift.  The people thought Moses was taking too long on the mountain, so they told Aaron, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

When God saw what the people were doing God was furious.  God said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

The lesson comes in what happens next: after God declares his anger and threatens to destroy the people, Moses begins to talk to God in an open and candid way.  This is a very early example of intercessory prayer.  Moses is talking to God, pleading with God, reasoning with God not to rain down destruction on the Israelites but to show mercy to them.

Recently I completed my doctoral work on the subject of prayer as a leadership tool. I have been converted over the years to believe that prayer is one of the most important skills we can cultivate, personally but also professionally.  Prayer is like a muscle: it needs to be developed. What is clear in the golden calf story is that Moses had a well-developed muscle for prayer.   Moses had much practice talking to God and so prayer came to him as the obvious and immediate reaction to the crisis at hand.

For many of us, prayer comes more like a last ditch effort, a Hail Mary pass when nothing else we have tried has worked.  We do not even think to pray until hours, days, or weeks into our own crisis situations.  Maybe our muscles are just out of shape or underdeveloped.

The person in my own life who had the strongest practice of prayer was my Catholic grandmother.  She went to mass every day of her life until she was physically no longer able to do so.  When she said she was going to pray for you it was never a throw away line.  It meant her ninety-pound frame would be on her knees clutching her rosary beads with you on her heart.  Prayer was always her first resort when there was need.  But as a child, I just thought that was because she was too old to do anything else.  I thought prayer was for people who had too much time on their hands.  I thought prayer was for people who did not have the ability to accomplish much else.  I was wrong.

Martin Luther, when asked of his plans for the coming week, mentioned that he spent two hours a day in prayer, but the coming week was extra busy.  Therefore, he said, “Work, work from early till late.  In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

Prayer was not an extra thing on his to-do list but something, which made the long list of tasks achievable.  This is the kind of reversal we need – to see prayer as a first resort rather than the last.  Prayer opens us up to receive God’s graces for the day and wisdom for the situations at hand.  The gift of God’s grace makes us feel gratitude, and gratitude gives us a desire to give back.  It is hard not to feel compelled towards action when you are filled with gratitude.  The more open we are to God in prayer the more we become dependent on God we become, the more we are inspired to love and serve our God.  Our dependency breeds energy and fortitude for the tasks at hand.  Prayer is not what we do at the end of the day as our energy wanes and we drift off to sleep.  Prayer is how we begin the day in order to drive us forward in love and action to our God.

Moses knew how to commune with his Creator. King knew how to commune with his Creator.  My grandmother knew how to commune with her Creator.  Whether we are world leaders or someone’s grandma, all of us find ourselves, or those we love, in hot water from time to time.  And when we do, our first, our very first reaction should be that of communicating with our Creator.  A loved one being deployed -prayer.  Bad news on the television set – prayer.  An argument with a friend – prayer.  A difficult conversation at work – prayer.  A concern for a child – prayer.  A hope for the future – prayer.

Moses gave us an example for how to talk to God first and then respond to the situations at hand.  In times of joy, sorrow, anxiety, confusion, and need – God stands ready to hear our prayers.  If only we will remember that prayer is a Christian’s secret weapon.

 

Reflection:

-What are your usual “first resorts”? Who do you call? A friend? A parent?
-How would your day be different if it started in prayer? Could you challenge yourself to start every Monday in prayer for the Summer?
-Read/sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and reflect on prayer as a joyful gift rather than an extra obligation.

New Associate Pastor for Mission

GPC’s new Associate Pastor for Mission is Christopher Michael Chatelaine-Samsen of Washington, DC. His first Sunday with us will be June 22. To find out more about him and what his work will involve at GPC, click here. During the week, he will be in the office on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Mark your calendars: Chris’ ordination service will be on Saturday, September 13 at 2 p.m. We welcome Chris and his wife Katie to the GPC family!